A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot

Translated by Linda Coverdale

Farrar Straus Giroux 1993 327 pp. 23.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

 

The art of the mystery lies in constructing a plot that repeatedly foils our expectations until the end, when we ruefully recognize the fateful inevitably of a solution that we could have guessed, had we only been as wise as the detective. Some mysteries, however, transcend the strictures of such a mechanical narrative technique to hint at the real mystery: the pattern underlying the seemingly random meanderings of our lives. Such has been the career ambition of French author Sébastien Japrisot, whose latest novel, A Very Long Engagement , examines the mystery of personal identity in the context of wartime love.

It's January, 1917 in France. The brutal, pointless, destructive trench war against the Germans drags on. In despair, scores of French soldiers shoot themselves in the hand, hoping that the mutilation will render them unfit for service, and guarantee them a return ticket to their villages and families.

The French military command had other ideas. Faced with several dozen men missing fingers and hands, they decided to give their troops a lesson. Five wounded men would be marched to Bingo Crépuscule, a front near the Bouchavesnes sector, and forced to climb from the French trenches into the no-man's-land separating the French from the Germans, there to face certain death, if not from the Germans, then from the combination of their wounds and the harsh winter.

A Very Long Engagement traces the fates of these men, but in an unexpected way. Word of the callous act travels back to Mathilde, a young woman in Capbreton. The lover of Manech, one of the victims, she is consumed with a relentless determination to discover the fate of her beloved. Even though everyone tells her he was killed by the Germans and buried where he fell, she is convinced he has remained alive.

There's only one problem hindering her in her search: she has been wheelchair-bound since childhood, unable to get around without the help of others. Hence, much of her search is conducted through letters, and by having the soldiers who witnessed the event come to her.

Her quest lasts for seven years. The climax of the book follows her visit to Bingo Crépuscule, and the disinternment of the fallen soldiers. Later, outside a small village, in a field of yellow flowers, Mathilde confronts the truth of Manech's fate, one that is at once startling, yet true to the contours of love, not romantic, but maternal.

Sébastien Japrisot has enjoyed a long and successful career as a writer. The Sleeping Car Murders introduced American readers to his brand of complex plots, and the film of his One Deadly Summer launched the international career of the lovely Isabelle Adjani. A Very Long Engagement shows what can be done when a writer with a knowledge of the human heart shapes his vision to the contours of the mystery story.