A Very Long Engagement | Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of A Very Long Engagement.
This section contains 942 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

SOURCE: "Seeking Fiancé's Fate, and Finding Bigger Issues," in The New York Times, September 21, 1993, p. C17.

In the following review, Kakutani praises the clear language and philosophical themes of Japrisot's historical wartime thriller A Very Long Engagement.

The event is horrific: in World War I, five wounded French soldiers, their arms tied behind their backs, are marched by their own troops through the trenches to the edge of no man's land. There they are abandoned in the snow to die in the crossfire with German troops. All five have been court-martialed and condemned to death for self-inflicted wounds.

This chilling story, which forms the core of Sébastien Japrisot's riveting new novel, is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 1957 movie Paths of Glory (in which three French soldiers are tried and executed for cowardice in the line of duty), and A Very Long Engagement shares that film's concern with the brutalities of military justice. Mr. Japrisot, however, uses a wider-angle lens than Mr. Kubrick did. His view of people is ultimately more optimistic, more forgiving than the film maker's, and his novel consequently leaves the reader with not only an understanding of the horrors of war but also an appreciation of the kindness and bravery possible amid all the death and pain.

Regarded as a master of psychological suspense in his native France, Mr. Japrisot, whose real name is Jean Baptiste Rossi, has written several crime novels, and A Very Long Engagement attests to his easy command of the suspense form. In fact the novel is structured like a kind of detective story: the detective, in this case, is a young woman named Mathilde, who was engaged to one of the condemned men; her search is not for the killers of her beloved Manech but for the truth of what happened to him and his confreres that cold winter day in 1917 on the front near Picardy.

Manech, we learn, was a young, innocent soldier of 19, who had been genuinely fearless until he saw another soldier blown to bits in front of his eyes. Since then, Manech has been afraid of everything: "afraid of his own side's artillery, afraid of his own gun, afraid of the whine of aerial torpedoes, afraid of mines that explode and engulf a whole section of infantry, afraid of the flooding that drowns you in the dugout, afraid of the earth that buries you alive." Many of his fellow soldiers are convinced that Manech has lost his mind.

After days of being berated by his sergeant, after days of rain in a filthy trench near the front, Manech lights a cigarette—he does not smoke—and holds it over the parapet until a German soldier fires and hits his hand. Instead of being sent home wounded, he is court-martialed and sentenced to die. He is to be made an example, a warning to other soldiers of the perils of cowardice and fear.

The other four "examples" who have been court-martialed with Manech are a decidedly motley lot: a former carpenter nicknamed the Eskimo, who has wounded himself accidentally; a robust corporal called Six Sous, who is proud of his Socialist politics and proud of having deliberately shot himself in the hand; a onetime farmer known only as That Man, who has earned a reputation for his taciturn ways; and lastly, Common Law, an ex-convict who has worked as a pimp in Marseilles.

Mathilde has reason to believe that at least one of these men survived the ordeal in no man's land, and she vows to ferret out the truth, hoping against hope that Manech is still alive. A former sergeant in the territorial army, who is tortured by his memories of that night on the front lines, has given her a broad outline of what happened to Manech and the others, and she decides to try to fill in the details of that outline by interviewing other survivors of the war.

Although a childhood accident has left Mathilde confined to a wheelchair—one of the few details in this novel that feels forced and gratuitously sentimental—she soon proves that she is a relentless and highly efficient detective. By placing ads in newspapers and employing a private investigator, she is eventually able to track down other witnesses, as well as the wives and girlfriends of the other condemned men. All these people offer her and the reader highly subjective accounts of what they know. Not surprisingly, their accounts are filled with lies, elisions and misunderstandings; and when Mathilde tries to put them together, like a jigsaw puzzle, all sorts of contradictions and incongruities emerge.

Were orders lifting the death sentence on the five men really received by the officers at the front, and if so, why weren't they obeyed? Was one of the five men misidentified when he was buried in a local cemetery or is this merely a rumor seized upon by one of the men's widows as a sign of hope? Do the letters written by the condemned men to their families contain coded messages that might reveal their fates?

As Mathilde works to unravel these tangled clues, the reader becomes immersed in her search, a search that soon becomes much more than a search for Manech, a search that evolves into a kind of existential quest for a truth that might transcend the myopia of individual memory and reconcile the distortions of time.

Writing in clean, occasionally lyrical language, Mr. Japrisot does a beautiful job of orchestrating Mathilde's detective work, building suspense even as he multiplies the ambiguities of his story. He has written a fierce, elliptical novel that's both a gripping philosophical thriller and a highly moving meditation on the emotional consequences of war.

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This section contains 942 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani