1914 by Jean Echenoz
Translated by Linda Coverdale
Publisher: The New Press
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
I first came to understand World War I as the tragedy it was rather than as a series of history book facts (Archduke Ferdinand, secret treaties, trench warfare) thanks to an old song, Butchers’ Tale (Western Front 1914), by the Zombies. Perhaps it was the simple harmonium or possibly the plaintive refrain of “I want to go home/Please let me go home” that got to me. It was around that time that I read Dalton Trumbo’s great anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun. I found myself slightly obsessed – what kind of collective insanity could lead to such a war?
Over the years I’ve read number of excellent books on World War I, each one adding to my sense of horror. On the fiction side are the German classic All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and the more recent Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker. For nonfiction there was Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan about the behind the scenes machinations negotiating the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, and To End All Wars, Adam Hochschild’s exploration of conscientious objectors of the day – their motivations and how they were treated.
So when I ran across the recent French novel 1914 by Jean Echenoz, published in English one hundred years after the start of the war, I of course picked it up. Its story is a simple one: France is attacked by Germany, and five young men go off to war to defend their nation. A girl is left behind. A tragedy ensues. Most of them die, and, as most people did in World War I, they do so needlessly.
This book touches on many of the well-known horrors of this particular war through brief stories about these six individuals: the introduction of airplanes into war, the hell that was trench warfare, the treatment of deserters, and war profiteering. At one point, after describing the stink and the filth of the battlefield, and how sappers might hang their greatcoats on the arms of dead bodies in no-man’s-land as they worked, he brings the chapter to conclusion with this:
“All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid, stinking opera. And perhaps there’s not much point either in comparing the war to an opera, especially since no one cares a lot about opera, even if war is operatically grandiose, exaggerated, excessive, full of longueurs, makes a great deal of noise and is often, in the end, rather boring.”
Echenoz draws out his story in deceptively simple sketches. The French sense of “plot” can be very different from the American, which I would argue is a reason to read more French literature. Story lines are less driving, less clearly moving in a single direction. This can be frustrating for Americans who are accustomed to story lines and character traits delivered by a two-by-four. Echenoz is considered one of the great French writers of his generation, and the writing in this book is delicate and graceful. He moves back and forth easily between wide-ranging reflections on war like the one above, to a minute, detailed realism. In a single paragraph, for example, Echenoz lays out a list of the regulation gear to be found in every soldier’s Ace of Diamonds model knapsack – all forty items. As it comes to the close this thin volume feels like a light read, even as it has hit on so many of the key elements that made the Great War the tragedy it was. It is, in the end, a bit like that song by the Zombies, haunting in its simplicity.
I wonder if this book can be fully appreciated by people who did not grow up with a more detailed history and personal family stories of World War I. Echenoz uses the names of places and battles along with jargon of the era as shorthand that I suspect is better understood by French readers. Even the title of the original French edition is simply 14. The English edition of the book includes a very helpful set of translator’s notes that aren’t about translation per se but fill in some of the missing details many people outside of France are unlikely to know. These notes are so informative they are worth reading even if you already know your Verdun from your Somme.
If you’re not familiar with World War I, 1914 can be an easy-to-read introduction to its insanity. But don’t stop there. Any of the other books I’ve mentioned here – plus many more I haven’t yet read – will take you deeper into this terrible time when humans lost their humanity.
Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.
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