Four young soldiers find comfort and a sense of belonging with each other that at least one of them has never experienced before.
French novelist Mingarelli (A Meal in Winter, 2016, etc.) focuses tightly on a winter in 1919 when the Red Army is encamped near a forest while awaiting the spring that will surely bring the battalion’s movement and the resumption of violence within the Russian civil war. The first-person narrator is named Benia, though the reader doesn’t learn this until almost a third of the way through the novel, within the dialogue he recounts. The first chapter shows how quickly, coincidentally, and almost accidentally he bonded first with another young soldier, then another, and then with a fourth they recruited. “I thought to myself: That’s it, I’m not alone in the world any more,” he says. “And I was right.” The reader learns little about Benia, perhaps because Benia doesn’t think there is much worth knowing. He's an orphan who had little sense of connection or purpose before joining the army and being sent to the Romanian front. There, he meets Pavel, another young soldier, who changes Benia's life when he says, “Let’s stay together.” The narrator intuits that Pavel is smarter, more experienced, and more of a leader, a contrast underlined when Pavel subsequently befriends the larger and more impulsive Kyabine, who will do the heavy lifting for the group, and the more compassionate and intuitive Sifra, who says little and reveals less of himself than the others. Though the winter is harsh, its interlude is almost idyllic, at least in terms of what the four men know is coming—the endless march toward violence. They find a pond that they keep secret from the others. They pass around a watch that has a woman’s face, which they consider lucky. They play dice games, gamble with cigarettes, share meager rations. They are joined by another, whose intrusion changes the dynamic. And then they are ordered to move, and Pavel insists, “Where we’re going there won’t be any good moments, because all that is behind us now.” And he is right, as the foursome’s bond cannot survive.
Spare, matter-of-fact and masterfully controlled, this is a novel as noteworthy for what it leaves out—politics, purpose for fighting, anything that reflects on the world at large—as for what it includes.