Four young Frenchmen confront the grim reality of trench warfare in a spare, elliptical novel from Goncourt-winner Echenoz (Lightning, 2011, etc.).
We see just what they are leaving behind in the idyllic scene that opens the book, as Anthime bicycles in the hills of the Vendée region, pausing to view a panorama of pastures and villages under the August sun. Then the church bells begin ringing, and he returns to the town square to learn that war has been declared. “It won’t last longer than two weeks,” says his intimidating brother Charles, but of course, readers know better. We follow Anthime and his pals Padioleau, Bossis and Arcenel to the barracks (where arrogant Charles commandeers the best-fitting uniform) and on parade past cheering citizens. They include Blanche, whose family runs the factory where Anthime and Charles work; both brothers are in love with her, but she prefers Charles. It’s a nasty twist of fate that Blanche’s successful attempt to get Charles transferred away from danger in the infantry results in his death in a plane crash, leaving her to bear his child alone and unmarried in January. Bogged down in the trench line that “had suddenly congealed…from Switzerland to the North Sea,” Anthime is congratulated by his comrades on losing his arm to a piece of shrapnel; it’s a “good wound” that will extricate him from the senseless bloodshed Echenoz matter-of-factly describes. His companions fare less well: Bossis is gruesomely killed, Arcenel shot for desertion and Padioleau is blinded by gas. As the author himself remarks, “[a]ll this has been described a thousand times,” and Echenoz doesn’t offer anything new in the way of character or insight to justify his retelling, though his restrained, elegant prose (nicely translated by Coverdale) remains a pleasure.
A readable fictional introduction to the Great War for those who know nothing about it but inessential for anyone who’s read Ernest Hemingway or John Roderigo Dos Passos.