Jean Echenoz’s “1914” is a short novel about World War I. It is a narrative that juxtaposes one of the most gruesome of human wars with dispassionate detail of military and civilian life in France during the war. Anthime, the principal character, is Chaplanesque. He moves through life without objection. The travails of life never imperil him even when he suffers severe bodily harm. He is literate, but part of the uneducated working class that enters the war without heroics. He remains connected to three soldiers from his town throughout most of the war. They have common soldier complaints specific to that War, but emotions when expressed are so muted that the characters are almost emotionless. Their personalities are intentionally not well drawn; the prose rendering them fatalistic. A times the book seems as if it is a children’s guide to WWI. The vicious consequences of war are factually rendered in detail, but not to arouse fear or loathing. Anthime’s loss of his right arm to shrapnel becomes secondary to the celebration of fellow soldiers for earning a “good wound” that will send him home. Anthime has some discomfort, but no remorse. Mr. Echenoz uses Anthime’s sense of a phantom arm to reinforce an anti-war, anti-class sentiment toward the end of the book. Following the French Army mutinies of 1917 after massive deaths at Chemin Des Dames and the Russian Revolution, Anthime witnesses bands of soldiers in Paris signing “The Internationale”. “Anthime stood perfectly still and his face showed no expression as he raised his right fist in solidarity, but no one else saw him do it.”
An interesting aspect of the novel is its focus on the mundane during war. The beautiful countryside on a Spring day once out of the field of action. The food chain affecting soldiers and animals during war: from ticks and lice, to animals of transport and animals for food. The latter becomes more expansive for those who are hungry, and the hunted that survive are more unbounded to hunt. Even during war life continues, although the scales are balanced differently.
The end of the book signifies a return to some normalcy. Anthime exhibits both direction and desire as he advances on his romantic interest with acquiescence. It is both a rebirth and an equalization of class, that sometimes war catalyzes.
This novel is not a great read, but stylistically it is interesting in approach. Mr. Echenoz was the recipient of the Prix Goncourt for “I’m Gone”. These novels are published by The New Press, which is a non-profit publisher that aims to advance intellectual work that highlights social issues and lends a voice to those underrepresented. Many of its publications are non-fiction. https://www.thenewpress.com.
I was not asked to review this work and have no affiliation with The New Press. As I mentioned previously, I will be trying to provide an additional audience for small presses and their authors.