A Very Long Engagement (thoughts)
My trip around the world began in France. And I must have gotten there by steamboat, because when I landed in Sebastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement, it was the early twentieth century! The book centers around Mathilde, a well-off and spunky young girl whose fiancee, Manech, was reported ‘Killed in action’ during World War One. However, several things about the circumstances don’t seem to make sense, and in her heart Mathilde is convinced Manech is still alive. So when a dying soldier summons her to a hospital to reveal to her that her fiancee was actually executed by the French for cowardice, she sets off to discover everything that happened on that day.
From the beginning, the reader knows a bit more than Mathilde: the first chapter is a description of five French soldiers being led through a trench to their executions. This chapter is pitch-perfect, from its opening sentence (“Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that’s the way of the world.”) through the introduction of all five soldiers and Mathilde, and in creating a precise sense of what that trench was like. I wouldn’t change a thing about it, and I’d type the whole thing out to share with you here if it were at all practical!
Unfortunately, somehow the rest of the novel didn’t live up to that first chapter. It’s a pastiche of letters and stories that Mathilde collects on her search, Mathilde’s memories of her childhood, and descriptions of Mathilde’s current life. While I’ve enjoyed other books written in this style, here the result was a bit disjointed, and something about the narrative tone kept me from really connecting with Mathilde. While the stories of many of the other characters moved me deeply, I honestly didn’t care whether Marech was alive and whether Mathilde ever found him. This took the sparkle away from the story. (In the interests of full disclosure, I saw the movie a few years ago and absolutely loved it. So I already knew the ending, which may have also made the plot seem less interesting. And Audrey Tatou brought an adorableness to Mathilde that isn’t really there in the book. Personally, I’d recommend seeing the movie over reading the book, and I never say that.)
There’s the bad. The good was how powerfully the novel portrayed the senseless, futility, the staggering loss that was World War One. It seems like the second world war tends to get more attention, so this is an important novel. France really came alive as well: Japrisot had a talent for setting that I appreciated. And then there were parts where the luminosity of the first chapter suddenly flared out again, and they made the in-between bits worth it.
That about sums up my feelings, but I plan on trying more Japrisot in the future. Perhaps my expectations were too high going in, so I’d like to approach a book of his with a bit more of a blank slate! For anyone else who’s read this one, I’d love to know your opinions! (Especially if you read it before seeing the movie) As for me, my next stop is Egypt, in the late 60s and 70s. Looks like I’ll get to fly this time!
He was afraid of the war and of death, like almost everyone, but he was also afraid of the wind, that harbinger of gas attacks, afraid of a flare tearing through the night, afraid of himself, for he never knew what me mmight do when he was afraid, afraid of his own side’s artillery, afraid of his own fun, afraid of the whine of aerial torpedoes, afraid of mines that explode and engulf a whole sectino of infantry, afraid of the flooding that drowns you in the dugout, afraid of the earth that buries you alive, afraid of the stray blackbird that casts a sudden shadow before your eyes, afraid of the nightmares in which you always wind up gutted at the bottom of a shell hole, afraid of the sergeant who dreams of blowing your brains out bceause he’s fed up with carping at you, afraid of the rats that come for a little foretaste, sniffing you as you sleep, afraid of the lice and the crotchcravs and the memories that suck your blood, afraid of everything. Before the butchery began, he hadn’t been like that. Precisely the opposite, climbing trees, clambering up the church steeple, braving the ocean on his father’s boat, fighting forest fires, bringing sailboats scattered in a storm safely into port, so intrepid, so generous with his youth that his friends and family all thought him a daredevil. Even at the front, in the beginning, he’d behaved fearlessly. And then there had been an aerial torpedo, one too many, on a summer morning in front of Buscourt, only a few short kilometers from the trench where he was now plodding through the mire. The explosion hadn’t touched him, merely blown him off his feet, but when he’d gotten up again, he’d been drenched in another man’s blood, completely covered in gore and unrecognizable bits of flesh, he’d even had some in his mouth, he’s spat out the horror and shrieked his head off. Yes, he stood there sreaming on the battlefield before Buscourt, in Picardy, weeping and tearing off his clothes. They had brought him in naked.
Today, under a big umbrella, sitting in her wheelchair, Mathilde gazes down at Manech. The rosette on the cross is a bit discolored; Sylvain tidies up the rest. Jean Etchevery, nineteen years old. She is now older than her lover. She has brought him, from the shore of Lake Hossegor, a spring of mimosa, which doesn’t look too perky when she unwraps it from the piece of paper she has been carring in her handbag, but as Sylvain says, “It’s the thought that counts.” Mathilde replies, “I’d like you to tuck the thought into the earth, just in front of the cross.” His big hands dig a small hole over the grave of the boy who once called him “that redhead,” and he lays the mimosa, tenderly, in the bottom of the hole. Before he fills it with dirt, Mathilde gives him a pack of gold-tipped cigarettes, telling him, “Put these in, too, it’ll make his mother happy. You never know. Wherever he is, even if he doesn’t smoke, he can always make some new friends.”
“I can wait. I’ll keep waiting, for as long as it takes, for this war to be seen in everyone’s eyes for what it always was, the most filthy, savage, useless obscenity that ever there was. I’ll wait until the flags stop flying in November in front of the monuments to the dead, I’ll wait until the Poor Bastards at the Front stop gathering, wearing their damned berets and missing an arm or a leg, to celebrate what?”