I have just read a wonderful novel by the late French writer, Sebastian Japrisot, known more for his mysteries than for straight novels.
The book, A Very Long Engagement, published by Strauss and Giroux, New York in 1993, deals with a horrendous incident during the First World War, when five French soldiers, convicted of having mutilated themselves, were dragged up to the front line trenches, then shoved over into no-man’s-land on the assumption that the Germans would kill them, and they would die a dishonorable death.
That was the incident, but the book is more about the efforts of various women associated with the five men to discover exactly what happened to them. Essentially it is a disquisition on love, and the meaning of love. The central character is a woman known as Mathilde Donnay who has been crippled since suffering an accident at the age of three. As a teenager, she became the lover of a young man, Jean Etchevery, a fisherman, before he was hauled off in the last days of that hopeless, misguided war, to serve his country. The evidence was that although he hated the war, and wanted to escape from it, he did not deliberately mutilate himself, but suffered an accident that maimed him and resulted in his hand being amputated. His plea that he was innocent, however, was not heard by commanding officers bent of finding scapegoats, and he was forced into a group of 28 convicted men, from which 15, and finally five, were picked for this particularly gruesome end.
Mathilde is reluctant to believe her fiancé is actually dead. So she sets herself to discover the identities of the other four men, and of those who have survived them. Her first success comes when a man approaches her with his story of having been part of the detail assigned to take the men to the frontlines. This man has personally written down letters dictated by the men, which he shares with her. This provides her with addresses that she approaches independently. She discovers she is not the only one on this quest. One woman, in fact, wife of a former convict, has identified the men who made the decision to persecute these five, and has already murdered two of them without giving it a second thought.
So the tale opens out throughout the book, giving rise to graphic descriptions of the horrors inflicted on soldiers during this most terrible of wars. Her researches even take her into contact with members of the German enemy forces, the testimony of the last days of these men building and building inexorably throughout the tale.
Eventually, she learns that not all five of the men were killed: the question becomes, which of them survived. The denouement of the book is dramatic in the extreme.
This is a brilliant anti-war novel, marvelously written, and gripping as much as any mystery novel that Japrisot, the penname of a writer called Jean-Baptiste Rossi, ever wrote. I once read one of Japrisot’s mysteries, intriguingly called The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun, and I have always numbered it among my favorite mysteries. Mr. Japrisot has proven in this book to be a writer of magical strength and maturity, to whom the comparisons made with Flaubert by some reviewers are not out of place.