First-novelist Dugain’s return to WWI, winner of the Prix des Libraires, offers quietly extended moments of seeming authenticity, then ends not in ashes but in soap.
In 1914, Adrian Fournier is 24, a civil engineer—and an officer. In his first day at the front, before the fighting has really even begun, he’s told to scout for locations along the Meuse where bridges can be built—but he doesn’t get far. Just as he’s gotten off his horse, the two men with him are killed and he himself is wounded hideously, never having even seen the enemy. His injury is “maxillofacial,” a wound to the face—or, more exactly, the loss of the whole center part of his face. He becomes the first patient in the wing of the Val de Grâce military hospital set aside for officers with this dreadful type of wound. There he’ll stay for the duration, in fact until April of 1919, undergoing a total of 16 operations (though his face “still did not look human”) and pondering how to go on with life afterward. As the ward fills, he becomes a kind of respected senior figure along with two others—Weil and Penanster—who remain patients as long as he does and with whom he becomes lifelong friends. There’s a woman in the picture also—Fournier met her only once, the night before he went to the front. Will she remember him? Will his appalling wound make love impossible? Weil counsels that sexual love is over for men with wounds like theirs—but could he be wrong? The love melodrama, though, poses fewer troubles for the reader than does the inexplicable good cheer of these ruined men, fêted by the state apparatus that even now still hasn’t embittered them (“It was a great day, and I came away convinced that this had indeed been the war to end all wars”).
Curiously light, an herbal teacup of the grim horrors drunk by the gallon by predecessors long ago.