April 2016 A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot
blog by Cindy Bushey
Had the windows been open, anyone walking past Zion U.C.C. last Thursday evening would have been pardoned for thinking there was a demonstration taking place or a rebellion being plotted within its walls! The Book Club’s discussion of its April selection, A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot, might just have set the bar for the most boisterous yet amicable dissection of a literary work since we started reading together. Readers strove to be heard over one another, and the novel’s World War I references would have added to a passerby’s perception of brewing insurrection.
The story concerns the fates of five French soldiers supposedly killed in battle, one of whom, Manech, was the fiancé of Mathilde Donnay. After the war, a letter from a dying solder raises doubts about Manech’s demise, and Mathilde sets out to discover the truth about what happened. The novel is translated from the original French, and this plus the lengthy cast of characters who were known by multiple names presented a challenge to Zion’s readers. One likened it to a mystery road trip mash-up and another to a jigsaw puzzle. Many found that keeping notes was the only way to approach the book, while others felt absorbing enough to get the gist while not being bogged down in names was the better tactic.
Mathilde’s character was another part of the challenge. The weight of the book rests on her shoulders, but she oscillates from a sympathetic, plucky survivor of a childhood accident which left her unable to walk to a spoiled young woman who expects everyone to follow her orders and demands. Like her or not, our readers had to admire her pursuit of the real version of the hellish events that happened at the front in the middle of a war that was a gigantic mistake from start to finish. While brilliantly depicting the French mindset and showing a resilient people rebuilding their lives, the author does not hesitate to name vanity, egotism, hypocrisy, and lack of communication as the causes of World War I and, by inference, successive wars.
The mud, dirt, cold, and fear that pervaded the trenches in France also pervade this novel. Readers can understand why these five soldiers thought shooting themselves in the hand might be their ticket out of the madness only to find it opened the door for more. As Mathilde traces their stories, the court martial, and meets their families and friends, she shows us what one reader calls “the fog of war” that endures afterward where recollections and memory from the midst of cataclysm are not totally trustworthy. The descriptions of battlefield horrors are graphic, and Zion’s readers learned that World War I greatly advanced the study of the psychological effects on soldiers in battle. Hysteria grew into shell shock which eventually became today’s post traumatic stress disorder. An interesting note: Dr. Joseph Pilates created his integrated system of exercise during and after World War I, benefiting many recovering soldiers. The war also produced great advances in plastic surgery as doctors tried to correct or minimize damages to the faces and bodies of returning veterans. For those readers with an historical bent, it was astounding to see the carnage and damage in 1920’s Europe – France, England, and Germany essentially lost a generation of young men. Yet, twenty years later these same places went through the experience again on a larger scale.
While the title might seem to apply to the length of Mathilde and Manech’s engagement, at least one reader felt it also applied to the length of time in which Mathilde was engaged in following clues and tracking down those characters who could help her in her search. A few characters stood out like Tina, a prostitute with a laser focus on vengeance, and Celestine and his motorcycle provided the pivot to jumpstart the action. There were lighter passages throughout the book where the author let his sense of humor shine. When Mathilde described her mother’s trash talking while playing cards, readers recognized how some things never change and chuckled. A homespun philosophy shared in the pages has applications now: “A glass of wine taken with dinner makes doctor’s purse a little thinner.”
The novel was made into a movie which a couple readers watched (one admittedly instead of reading the book!). The movie addressed Mathilde’s inability to walk as well as some other points that were left hanging in the novel and generally made her character more likable. Some readers had personal connections through family to World War I experiences and graciously shared them. For many of Zion’s readers, the discussion was more entertaining than the book (as we tend to loudly follow tangents down winding roads until we reconnect with the characters again) – they found Mathilde’s self-interest annoying and grew disinterested. They viewed reading the novel as an endurance test with a pass/fail grade, finishing it simply to say they were done. A few wished they could have withdrawn from the class! Others went for the A+ and found the novel compelling, and viewed the weaving of different backgrounds, stories, and clues into the solution to a perplexing mystery as a very satisfying and even educational piece of literature. They grew closer to the characters and rooted for Mathilde as she neared the conclusion of her quest. These readers found irony in the deaths of people who should have lived and the survival of those who should have died, a commonplace during war. They also found hope – hope for Mathilde and Manech and, by extension, hope for the survivors of all conflicts. A poll showed 7 of our readers gave the book one thumb down, 2 were neutral, and 3 gave it one thumb up. We meet again in May to discuss The Devil In Pew #7.