Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that is the way of the world. (p 3)
Eskimo, Six-Sous, That Man, Common Law, Cornflower. Five French soldiers, court-martialled for cowardice for self-inflicted wounds intended to send them home. Normally, they would face the firing squad. Instead, they are marched on an exhausting and aimless journey through the trenches as an example to others, then forced into no man’s land under cover of night. They are officially listed as casualties of the following day’s battle.
Exploitation, corruption and the atrocities of war are not reserved for the enemy.
Two years later, Mathilde Donney, the fiancée of one of the five soldiers, is told fragments of the real story by one of the escorts. He tells her that one or more of the five may have survived. Thus starts her quest to find Manech (Cornflower) and the truth. Her search for an implausible outcome lasts for years, but she never gives up.
Mathilde’s pursuits are not easy. A childhood injury confines her to a wheelchair. Her disability is eased by material assistance made possible by well-to-do parents. She relies on professionals and solicits letters to advance her detective work.
The novel is purposely confusing and requires attentive reading. Details are all important, but are not always true. Everyone has names and nicknames (sometimes three or four). Letters might be written in code. Each person Mathilde encounters can tell only their part of the story. The accounts do not always mesh. Several pieces are missing, having gone to the grave with witnesses who were killed shortly after the events. Others have reason to hide or obscure the facts. Even well-intended informants can lead one down the wrong path.
Time makes memories murky. “Fayolle actually spoke to him, saying a few unforgettable words he can’t recall at the moment.” (p 254) (What a wonderful, funny line! “… a few unforgettable words he can’t recall at the moment.”)
Even butchered understandings get in the way … a trench named Bingo Crépuscule is from a sign painting of Lieutenant Général Byng au crépuscule (translation: Byng at twilight).
In war, truth is the first casualty. (Aeschylus) In the end, we question whether we know the whole truth, and discover that it is best to perpetuate certain lies.
Author Sébastien Japrisot mixes mystery, romance and war story together into a tale of how the fallout of war spreads and lives on well after the fighting ends. “As the government often tells us (to avoid explaining things they cannot understand), that’s the way of the world.” (p 318)
This war will never end, the Boches are being massacred and so are we. You don’t know what courage is until you see the English fight, but their courage is not enough, nor is ours, nor is the enemy’s. We are drowning in mud. It will never end. (p 171)
A Very Long Engagement is the English translation of Un long dimanche de fiançailles. Linda Coverdale’s translation of Japrisot’s novel is lovely, so I felt no need to read both. The English title has a fitting double meaning not present (or possible) in the French. A knowledge of French helps to understand the significance of some names and phrases, but is not essential to appreciate the story. In my perusal of the original, one point was more nuanced: a young Manesh carves MMM into a tree … in the English version, Manesh marries Mathilde. The original is more clever: Manesh aime (sounds like M) Mathilde.