‘1914’ by Jean Echenoz (2012) – 109 pages Translated by Linda Coverdale
French novelist Jean Echenoz writes historical fiction the way I like it to be written. His novels are not long epics. ’1914′ consists of short concise snapshots of what the war was like. It is a pure distillation of what World War I meant for the French soldiers who fought in the war.
World War II was the worst war ever for civilians, but for the fighting soldiers themselves no war was more terrible than World War I, ‘that sordid stinking opera’. All the gruesome particulars are in this short novel. Here Echenoz, in two sentences describes in vivid detail what a direct hit of a troop unit was like:
“That’s when the first three shells that had flown too far exploding uselessly behind the lines, were followed by a fourth and more carefully aimed 105-millimeter percussion fuse that produced better results in the trench: after blowing the captain’s orderly into six pieces, it spun off a mess of shrapnel that decapitated a liaison officer pinned Bossis through his solar plexus to a tunnel prop, hacked up various soldiers from various angles and bisected the body of an infantry scout lengthwise. Stationed not far from the man, Anthime was for an instant able to see all the scout’s organs – sliced in two from his brain to his pelvis, as in an anatomical drawing – before hunkering down automatically and half off balance to protect himself, deafened by the god awful din, blinded by the torrent of rocks and dirt, the clouds of ash and debris, vomiting from fear and revulsion all over his lower legs and onto his feet, sunk up to the ankles in mud.”
The sentences in this short novel are not short themselves, but instead powerfully convey the precise effects of what is happening
As in most wars, at the beginning of World War I the soldiers go off to the battleground expecting that they will be gone only for a few weeks after which they will resume their places in society. Here we follow a group of five soldiers. A few are the lucky ones. They get a ‘good wound’, the loss of an arm or a leg which means they can no longer fight and thus get sent home. Most of the rest are not so lucky. They either get killed or severely wounded by enemy fire or they run away and get shot for treason by French gendarmes.
“Mowed down by your own side rather than asphyxiated, burned to a crisp, or shredded by gas, flamethrowers, or shells – that could be a choice.”
‘1914’ is up there with the best novels I have read about this awful World War I. Other excellent World War I writings I have read are ‘The Wars’ by Canadian writer Timothy Findley, ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ by Czech writer Juroslav Hasek, ‘In Parenthesis’ by English poet David Jones, and the memoir ‘Goodbye to All That’ by English writer Robert Graves. Do you have a favorite World War I novel?
This is the second novel I have read by Jean Echenoz, the first being ‘Lightning’ which is a mostly non-fiction biography of Nikola Tesla, the man who out-smarted Thomas Edison. Echenoz is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. He gives to historical people and situations the delicious qualities of fiction. Very soon I will be reading more of his novels.