NYRB Classics May 20, 2014
A copy was provided in exchange for an honest review
1915: Jean Dartemont heads off to the Great War, an eager conscript. The only thing he fears is missing the action. Soon, however, the vaunted “war to end all wars” seems like a war that will never end: whether mired in the trenches or going over the top, Jean finds himself caught in the midst of an unimaginable, unceasing slaughter. After he is wounded, he returns from the front to discover a world where no one knows or wants to know any of this. Both the public and the authorities go on talking about heroes—and sending more men to their graves. But Jean refuses to keep silent. He will speak the forbidden word. He will tell them about fear.
‘We are lying in the ditch, flat as corpses, squeezed together to make ourselves smaller, welded into a single strange reptile of three hundred shuddering bodies and pounding chests. The experience of shelling is always the same: a crushing, relentless savagery, hunting us down.”
Chevallier’s brutal literary tour de force is more than powerful. The Great War is depicted in such suffering and horrific accounts it renders the reader helpless. Imagining the chaos and severity troops faced is formidable. His anti-war voice echoes forcing one to revisit the savageness and depth of why. A stunningly ugly journey of a young soldier in the trenches, injured, returns to the front until armistice is reached. Vividly brought before the perusers eyes in bold technicolor including the carnage and destruction battle brings. The narrative switches from the eerie silence before the cacophony of instruments of death, to the sweat dripping from a soldiers brow, to crimson flowing from a mortal wound. A disgustingly beautiful salient piece of literature with arresting prose leaving a lasting impact.