By Jean Echenoz
With the delicacy of a miniaturist and with an underestimation that's either witty and clear-eyed, Echenoz deals us an intimate epic: within the landscape of a transparent blue sky, a bi-plane spirals unexpectedly into the floor; a section of shrapnel shears the pinnacle off a man’s head as though it have been a soft-boiled egg; we dawdle dreamily in a spring-scented clearing with a lonely shell-shocked soldier walking innocently towards a firing squad able to shoot him for desertion.
Ultimately, the grace notes of humanity in 1914 upward push above the terrors of warfare during this superbly crafted story that Echenoz tells with discretion, precision, and love.
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I know, agreed Anthime, but it isn’t a question of style, it’s because my wrist hurts. Indeed, said Charles condescendingly, and it doesn’t bother you when you shake someone’s hand. I shake so few hands, observed Anthime, and as I told you, it’s for those pains I get in my right wrist, it relieves them. The ring’s a bit heavy but it seems to work. It’s a magnetic thing, if you like. Magnetic, repeated Charles with a trace of a smile, puffing a trace of a humph out his nose, shaking his head while shrugging one shoulder and looking away—and completing these five actions in a single second, leaving Anthime feeling once again humiliated.
Charles had of course wangled himself a spot in the front line of the procession; Anthime was in the middle of the regiment, grouped with Bossis, still ill at ease in his trousers, along with Arcenel, complaining constantly about his rear end, and Padioleau, whose mother had had time to take in the greatcoat at the shoulders and shorten the sleeves. As Anthime marched along trading muttered jokes with his pals, trying all the while to keep stepping out smartly, he thought he noticed Blanche on the left sidewalk of the avenue.
Of that, Anthime ventured to remark, I’m not so sure. Well, said Charles, tomorrow we’ll see. 2 AND THE NEXT MORNING, they all found themselves at the barracks. Anthime had arrived there quite early, having joined his fishing and café comrades along the way: Padioleau, Bossis, and Arcenel, that last mumbling complaints about celebrating the occasion too long into the wee hours the night before, stirring up hemorrhoids and a hangover. Padioleau, slightly built, a touch timid, thin-faced with a waxy complexion, had nothing of the sturdy presence of a butcher’s boy even though that was, in fact, his profession, whereas Bossis, not content with possessing the physique of a knacker, actually was one.