1914 : a novel

2014 is the beginning of the First World War Centenary. Many fine novels, short stories and poems have been written about the Great War and Jean Echenoz’s 1914: a novel joins the list.  The novel has a relatively simple plot with five young men leaving their French village to join the war and one young woman left behind. The novel opens with a cinematic description of the lovely countryside as seen, from an elevated area, by young Anthime who has taken a bicycle ride on a sunny, calm August day. Without warning a strong wind whips up out of nowhere, followed by the ringing of numerous church bells signaling mobilization for war.  What was to last only a few weeks went on for over four years.

It is a novel told in a documentary format about war as experienced by the people who fight it and those left behind. There are villages and towns inhabited only with old men, boys and women--the young men are gone.  For one new soldier, the first experience on the battlefield is seeing but not believing what he sees as he continues to advance with the troops and puts the experience together,". . . only later, when it was explained to him, for at the time he hadn’t understood a thing, which was par for the course.”  With detachment Echenoz portrays the reality of war in the cold categorization of animals that soldiers in the field consider good eating when scavenging becomes a necessity. Survival depends on the necessity of adaptability and for soldiers to accept as normal what was not.

In a short 109 pages this unusual, beautifully compelling book captures the capriciousness, irrationality and inevitability of war.  It is not didactic or protesting but there is an implicit anger because Echenoz does not glorify or exalt, but simply reports what happened to five young men which was resignation and loss.