Desert Isle Keeper
A Very Long Engagement
Sébastien Japrisot, French author and screenwriter, was the anagrammatic pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Rossi, a writer from Marseille. His work is very well known in France, and A Very Long Engagement was a huge hit when it was published there over a decade ago. I, of course, had to find this out via Google as I hail from the Midwest and had never heard of him before I picked up this book. But what a treat I found: an intricately woven mystery-cum-historical-novel full of period flavor and examination of war and its aftereffects.
On January 6, 1917, five soldiers condemned for self-mutilation were marched to the French front and tossed into No Man’s Land with their hands tied behind their backs. It was night, it was cold, the Germans were huddling with their machine guns just across the way, and some highly placed French officials – no doubt drinking wine with dinner in their warm quarters far, far from any front – wanted these men to disappear into the crevasse of war without their having to waste any bullets on them. Manech, a boy old enough to go to war but too young to marry, was one of these five. His fiancée, Mathilde Donnay, received word of his death several months later, but refused to believe it. She continued to hope that he was alive somewhere, hope that she would find him again, hope without reason to hope…until one day another soldier sends for her and gives her the end of a torn and tattered thread of information that leads back to a trench called Bingo Crépuscule and what really happened there one snowy, miserable evening.
A Very Long Engagement begins with the sad fate of Manech and his four compatriots, but it is really the story of Mathilde’s search for truth. Sergeant Daniel Esperanza, who is dying and no longer has anything to lose, gives her his version of the events of that night and some letters he has from the condemned men. Reading through the letters, Mathilde finally has the basis to start asking questions and she will not quit until she has the answers, no matter who she has to track down to find them.
This novel is an interesting blend of dark and light. War as subject matter is quite bleak indeed, both for the soldiers and for the families they left behind. Japrisot doesn’t spend any ink on patriotic sentiment, either. The enemy – the Germans – is portrayed realistically, as those caught up in something horrible that is bigger and more powerful than they are. Most of the French soldiers have abandoned trying to understand the war and would be happy to just go home if people in charge could just see reason. The condemned men are pitied. Their punishment is barbaric; no one wastes breathe calling them traitors. Survivors of the war rarely come back whole. Both limbs and minds are lost in the violence.
Yet Japrisot narrates his tale in such a dry, wry, ironic way that the reader can’t help but be entertained at the same time. He plays with language in clever ways. Many of his characters view the world through a sort of satirical lens that allows for comic, sometimes even bawdy, observation, which lightens the tone of the novel considerably.
Mathilde is an interesting heroine, not at all in the romance novel mold. She’s rather crotchety, in fact, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Physically hampered from a fall as a young child, she mounts her quest to find Manech from a wheelchair, but utterly discounts her disability. She is paralyzed, but this fact is of no interest and almost no impediment to her. Everyone around her – family, friends, mere acquaintances – either caves or caters to her singular will. She is organized, methodical, and relentless. And she catches any tiny discrepancy of information with her piercing eye. She is devoted to Manech, but otherwise utterly unsentimental. Here are her thoughts during one family dinner:
She is seated at one end of the large table, facing her father, whom she loves with all her heart. To her left, Mama, whom she loves dearly. To her right, her brother Paul, who is rarely in her thoughts but whom she finds tolerable, and her frumpy sister-in-law, Clémence, whom she finds intolerable. The two monsters, Ludovic and Bastien, eight and six years’ worth of nastiness, have long since gone off to wet their beds.
Within the course of the novel many secondary characters flit on and off stage, and most of these seem far more colorful and dimensional than the main characters in any number of novels I could mention. They come from all walks of life and serve to flesh out the historical period nicely. Notable are Célestin Poux, “The Terror of the Armies,” who procured anything and everything for the men in his regiment, and Tina Lombardi, a woman who would do anything for the love of a wastrel soldier. Many stories of love, war, and heartbreak are interwoven into Mathilde’s quest as she hunts for clues by nosing around into the remnants of other people’s lives.
However well-plotted and interesting A Very Long Engagement is, it must be said that it’s a book that requires something of a commitment. The reader must pay attention while reading. Clues are imbedded everywhere. Japrisot pushes the story forward by means of these clues and Mathilde’s interpretation of them, but he relies on the reader to keep up. Rarely does he reiterate a clue or highlight an important past conversation to aid the reader. Also all of the characters names are French, and most of them are rather foreign-sounding to the American ear. Many of the characters have nicknames as well or are referred to by profession or hometown, such as “that peasant from the Dordogne.” It’s a little tough to keep everyone and their stories straight. Even on my second reading, I was tempted to use post-it notes to refer back to as the mystery unfolded.
Readers who like mysteries, different eras, unique characters, bossy heroines, or love stories will find a great deal to enjoy in A Very Long Engagement. This is a rich and challenging novel that entertains, philosophizes, and evokes strong emotion all at the same time.