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September 2, 2014

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Fourteen shades of grim

By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald
Here’s a lean novel indeed. In scope, however, it opens its arms wide. While the title, 14, alludes to the year World War I started, the author, Frenchman Jean Echenoz, might well have named it 14-18. He aims to put the reader through much of the experience of French foot soldiers over the whole of World War I.

And not just the rifle-and-bayonet wretches. Echenoz throws in a taste of the war in the air, as well. (Ignore the fact that the illustration chosen for the cover is of neither of these, but of the artillery). In any case, Echenoz succeeds. His book conveys the feel of the Great War in a lot of its bizarre and quickly dashed expectations, its mire and its horror.

How does Echenoz manage to put all that into a short narrative? With three strategic decisions. One is to follow six main characters — four men in the trenches and another in the newfangled aerial corps, plus one woman back home — and to assign a different fate to each of the five soldiers.

Second, he doesn’t even attempt to give an overall outline of the war, much less of its causes and effects. If he mentions the battle of Mons and says it was the last in the war, the reader who vaguely remembers that there was a battle of Mons at its beginning will have to look elsewhere to differentiate between the two. The author concentrates on what his six characters are exposed to.

Third, he doesn’t cover all of the material in the same detail. Sometimes he moves ahead fast; a couple of times he obtains a good effect by even jumping to the present day. Then he goes into some particular passages more closely, even down to minutiae. For example, when he expounds on the animals — from cattle to lice — that played a part in the war.

For one other example, few things about the aerial combat episode will better evoke what it was like to fight in those open flying contraptions than one detail about the airmen’s handguns: they were enveloped in netting — so that, if they came to be used because the combat was at extremely short range, the expelled cartridge cases wouldn’t fly into the propeller. (It only mattered once the aircraft designers had finally worked all the kinks out of their devices for coordinating the forward-firing machineguns with the propeller’s spin, so that the bullets would whizz accurately between the rotating blades instead of shattering them.)

All in all, readers shouldn’t come to this volume in the hope of seeing new ground covered — a hardly reasonable expectation given the veritable mountain ranges of books, and films and so on, that have been there before. Nor is it the place to seek something like Erich Maria Remarque’s powerful butterfly symbolism in All Quiet on the Western Front.

Maybe Echenoz’s 14 will work best for two groups of readers. Firstly, those who haven’t previously read or seen much about that megawar. Secondly, those who have but would like something like a memory or feelings prompter, during this centennial year. For both groups, 14 offers a compact, efficient package, written in a tone so matter-of-fact that, if anything, it mutes the grimness of the subject matter, in tune with the numbness that besets its participants (or is it fatalism, or were they just very stolid to begin with? Hard to tell.)

The straightforwardness encompasses not only the tone but also the plotting of the narrative. One of the few exceptions is provided by some time jumps that may be initially confusing — a succession of days is talked about, then a sentence starts with “On Sunday, (...)” but it isn’t, as is to be expected, the following Sunday. It’s any Sunday, only that the author (or translator) didn’t say “On a Sunday,” to make that clear.

(The way things are written, it’s also hard to tell whether it’s on purpose, by oversight or by misjudgement that one doesn’t initially understand that the characters Anthime and Charles are brothers.)

Another exception to the ostensibly forthright writing comes when Anthime, suddenly drawn to the war, drops a book and it lands open on the biblical quotation (given in Latin), “They have ears, but cannot hear.” Some commentators have loved that effect, but in a book that’s mostly drafted on a plain pattern, it may strike other readers as too contrived.

The translation is unhelpful when it writes something like the annoyingly repetitive En días sucesivos, las cosas sucedieron... The title should have been El 14, because that’s how the year is referred to in Spanish, using an article, not as in French (or English). Whether the anacoluthon (a skid in syntactical logic) “Of medium build, (...) Anthime decided to approach (...) Charles” comes from the original or the translation, I am unable to say.

Ditto for some off-putting swings, from the forthright to the prissy quasi-clinical, in the vocabulary for bodily functions and sex.

Still, these are details. A review mustn’t gloss them over — yet must emphasize that overall, Echenoz has condensed four-and-a quarter monstrous years well and with insight.

14, by Jean Echenoz (Anagrama); 98 pages, 139 pesos.

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