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A quiet novella about the effects of The Great War on a French town
on January 10, 2014
The latest novel by Echenoz opens in the Vendée region of France, as a lazy and quiet Saturday afternoon in August 1914 is interrupted by the insistent pealing of church bells throughout the region, which signals a call for mobilization for the impending war against Germany. The novel focuses on five ordinary men in one village, and a young woman who loves one man and is fond of another. The men and their commanding officers are convinced that the combat will last no longer than a few weeks, and that all will return home safely. However, as weeks turn into months and months into years, and as the soldiers see their companions felled in action, they are transformed into dispirited men who rely on alcohol to dull their senses. Echenoz writes poignantly about their seemingly hopeless circumstances:
'Well, you don't get out of this war like that. It's simple: you're trapped. The enemy is in front of you, the rats and lice are with you, and behind you are the gendarmes. Since the only solution is to become an invalid, you're reduced to waiting for that "good wound", the one you wind up longing for, your guaranteed ticket home, but there's a problem: it doesn't depend on you. So that wonder-working wound, some men tried to acquire it on their own without attracting too much attention by shooting themselves in the hand, for example, but they usually failed and were confronted with their misdeed, tried, and shot for treason. Mowed down by your own side rather than asphyxiated, burned to a crisp, or shredded by gas, flamethrowers, or shells--that could be a choice. But there was also blowing your own head off, with a toe on the trigger and the rifle barrel in your mouth, a way of getting out like any other--that could be a choice too.'
The lives of the five men are all irrevocably altered by the war, in different ways. However, Echenoz shows us that the trauma of war is not limited to those who have experienced combat, or have had their homes or livelihoods taken away from them. Many seem to lose their basic sense of humanity by taking advantage of their countrymen in battle, overcharging them for food or drink as they march through villages, or supplying them with overpriced, shoddily made equipment.
"1914" is a quiet and elegantly written novella about the effects of The Great War on a group of ordinary men and citizens of a small French town, whose power comes not from grisly descriptions of combat, but in the benumbed despair that afflicts everyone in its midst. The book is greatly enhanced by notes from the book's translator, Linda Coverdale. Although this book doesn't match my favorite ones by Echenoz, it was still a very enjoyable read.