by Hubert Mingarelli
The New Press
Originally published as Quatre soldats
Genre: Literary fiction
The second book I read for the Man Booker International 2019 longlist was translated from the French. I’m ashamed I had never even heard of its author, even though Mingarelli wrote over twenty novels, won major awards, such as Le Prix Médicis, and one of his other novels was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
The short novel is written in the first person by Benia, a member of the Red Army. It’s winter 1919, so his battalion located in a forest near the Romanian front does not have much to do, except finding ways to survive the brutal cold and near starvation, as well as killing time through simple activities, such as talking, smoking, visiting a nearby pond and male bonding, especially between four soldiers. And waiting.
The writing style is extremely simple and sober. The horrors of the war are mostly glimpsed at through details, such as having to eat their mules and horses, or a few dramatic scenes when the soldiers go and steal food from local farms in order to survive. Even tea is a luxury item, and the soldiers have to resort to boiled water.
The soldiers are isolated and they know nothing about the global picture of the war. That may explain why the author decided to provide almost no background information on the situation. Still, it felt frustrating for me as a reader.
This element is part of my issue with several recent French novels, which are at the border in between different genres.
In this case, is it a historical novel? The main topic would seem to point in that direction. But if you read it as such, you are going to be very disappointed by the absence of historical data.
Is it literary fiction? Yes, it could be, but you may wonder then why the author chose such a sober and even simplistic style for its narrative.
One aspect I think the author did succeed in is the dimension of doom. Indeed, you know with the characters that this quiet time in the forest can only be a temporary parenthesis. With them, you feel the boredom of the moment, you try to enjoy the little joys of the present time as long as you have them, you want this dreadful winter to end, and yet you know the coming Spring and the last chapters of the novel will inescapably bring horrors. What will happen then to the comradeship built between these soldiers?
Should it be on the MB12019 shortlist?
Maybe, though I do hope I can find 6 better books in the rest of the longlist.
VERDICT: Atmospheric short novel in between historical and literary fiction. About male bonding before the horrors of war resume.
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
Any other good book by Mingarelli I should read?
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