Othello talked of the “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!” but such ceremony and splendor is in short supply in this tale of conflict by French novelist Hubert Mingarelli. Like his last novel to appear in English, “A Meal in Winter,” “Four Soldiers” centers upon the exploits of a group of young men thrown together during war. This time it is the Russian civil war, and his band of brothers are four members of the Red Army. With elegance and precision, Mingarelli dramatizes the steady blossoming of friendships and the abrupt end of innocence.
The book’s narrator, Benia, describes his bonding with fellow comrade Pavel while retreating from the Romanian front in 1919. They vow to stick together through thick and thin and travel on with their regiment into a Galician forest. There they team up with big Uzbek Kyabine and quiet and gentle Sifra to build a hut to survive the winter. “That’s it,” remarks Benia, surveying his new shelter and friends, “I’m not alone in the world anymore.”
Not everyone makes it through the winter. These four do, and when spring arrives they grow closer to one another. They break the daily monotony of camp life by gambling, swimming, fishing, racing and above all, joking and bantering. There are dark episodes — Pavel suffers regular nightmares; on food-requisitioning expeditions “Something bad always happened” — but on the whole their days are sunny and their relations rosy.
But eventually, and inevitably, the general staff calls time on the lull and announces the resumption of hostilities. At first the four friends are worried that their superiors will mix up the companies and separate them. Then, as machine guns rattle and shells explode, their concerns are not so much sticking together as staying alive.
“Four Soldiers” is no hectic and chaotic war novel. It unfolds in short, tightly focused chapters, and in spare, crystalline prose (beautifully translated by Sam Taylor). Most of the “action” is fleeing, not fighting, or sitting tight and talking. At times there isn’t even talking: Instead of open dialogue we get Benia’s relayed thoughts, personal observations and unarticulated emotions.
But what we initially dismiss as underwhelming we come to accept as understated. Mingarelli proceeds with great subtlety, eschewing blood and gore for smaller but no less profound shocks: reports of soldiers hunting for food and getting lost and freezing to death; the image of a crazed officer on horseback hastening on tired troops with a revolver and the words “Don’t make me do it.”
The last electrifying pages resemble one of the more violent stories from Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry.” To say more would be to spoil all. Suffice to say that Mingarelli manages to salvage tenderness from tragedy, leaving us with a poignant twist and a lasting impression — not to mention an acute reminder that these are not valiant, worldly men marching into battle but petrified, inexperienced boys.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor.
Publisher: The New Press, 155 pages, $19.99.