A translation award wouldn’t be a translation award without at least one European war story on the longlist. This year the British based Independent Foreign Fiction Prize had a number of World War stories including the winner, Jenny Erpenbeck’s “The End Of Days”. Having read thirteen on the twenty five longlisted titles from this year’s USA based Best Translated Book Award, Jean Echenoz’s “1914” is the first European world war story I have come across!!!
As the title gives away our story is dedicated to World War One and with a French author, it is not that complicated, it is the story of the French!!!
Our short tale opes with Anthime taking a cycling break on a windy afternoon, strapped to his bicycle is a large book. Whilst out, the bells toll to herald the beginning of the Great War but due to the howling wind it takes Anthime sometime to hear them. Rushing back to the village, unbeknown to Anthime, his book falls aside, open on Chapter 2, Book 4 of Victor Hugo’s “Ninety-Three”, “they have ears but they hear not”. Arriving at the town square he meets another of our characters, Charles, who informs him “it won’t last longer than two weeks at most.”
And the next morning, they all found themselves at the barracks. Anthime had arrived there quite early, having joined his fishing and café comrades along the way: Padioleau, Bossis, and Arcenel, that last mumbling complaints about celebrating the occasion too long into the wee hours the night before, stirring up haemorrhoids and a hangover. Padioleau, slightly built, a touch timid, thin-faced with a waxy complexion, had nothing of the sturdy presence of a butcher’s boy, even though that was, in fact, his profession, whereas Bossis, not content with possessing the physique of a knacker, actually was one. As for Arcenel, he was a saddler, a craft that presupposes no particular habitus. In any case, each in his own way, these three took a great interest in animals, had seen lots of them, and were going to encounter a great many more.
And so our story introduces the fellow volunteers. Our other main character is Blanche, for whose heart both Charles and Anthime compete.
This is a story with shallow explanations, leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination, short anecdotes covering complex situations, such as Blanche going to meet the local doctor:
To the general practitioner she explained her situation, showing him her figure under her clothing, and the exam did not take long. Palpation, two questions, diagnosis: definitely, declared Monteil, you are.
As our inner sleeve explains this is not simply the story of six characters, it is the story of the war itself, with villages abandoned by the young men, the harsh living conditions, the trenches and the fear all deftly sketched to recreate an event of one-hundred years ago.
This slog lasted all autumn and became so routine that by the end they’d practically forgotten they were marching. Which wasn’t that bad, after all, one kept busy that way: the body mechanically set in motion left one free to think about something else or more often plain nothing, but the procession had to halt when the war seized up in the winter. What with all this advancing against one another until both sides found themselves unable to extend their positions, it had to happen: everything froze in a standoff during a serious cold snap, as if troop movements had suddenly congealed all along the great line from Switzerland to the North Sea. It was somewhere along this line that Anthime and the others found themselves paralyzed, bogged down in a vast network of line trenches tied together by communication trenches. This whole system, in principle had been initially dug out by the army engineers, but also and above all by the soldiers, since the spades and picks they bore on their backs weren’t there just for show. And as time passed, by trying every day to kill the maximum possible of those across the way plus crawl forward the minimum number of yards the high command required, that’s where they plowed themselves under.
Without giving too much of the story away, we do have the usual injuries, deaths, executions after a court martial and of course the rats and lice. This work has a distant observation of the action, almost clinical in observing the effects of the war on our cast, there is no room for sentimentality and a mood of detachment pervades throughout. A short work, this addresses the events of 100 years prior in a way we not often see in historical fiction, not a family saga, nor presenting the political views of the protagonists, this is a welcome addition to the European world war genre.
Personally I was a little surprised that this didn’t make the shortlist of the Best Translated Book Award, as there are a couple of other works on that shortlist which I feel is slightly inferior. Maybe the impact of the size (only 109 pages) or the war theme distracted the judges, however a work I would recommend to any reader who enjoys the historical novel and especially European war fiction.