Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Man Booker International Prize 2019) ~ As near to perfect a book as I have ever read.

I was alone in the world and in the evening I watched the river as I ate.

This sentence, on the very first page, pierces me with its loneliness. But when our narrator, Benia, joins the Red Army to fight on the Romanian front, he finds he is not alone anymore.

He met Pavel when he was hidden from the road, behind a wall, heating up water to make some tea. They met Kyabine, who was built like a lumberjack and seemed a bit slow, when he watched them playing dice in the middle of the street. They invited Sifra, who never had any trouble with anyone, to help them build a hut in the pine forest where they could endure the winter, and the group became four.

They discover a pond, which they keep to themselves, and Pavel and Kyabine splash in it like children. They play dice and gamble tobacco, or roll it into cigarettes. They take turns sleeping with a watch, taken off of a fallen soldier, that has a picture of a woman inside it. When Pavel gets up in the darkness, he gently wakes Benia to accompany him; Benia is his comfort from the terrible nightmares that come in the night.

Their friendship charms me.

The tenderness of their youth charms me.

There is an innocence and joy about the comrades, about the four soldiers, that charms me.

And, there is a sorrow lying underneath the joy that is almost unbearable.

Once, while trying to capture a horse, they became separated.

So I spoke in my head to my parents: Don’t believe what you see. I told them: There’s Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra somewhere in the field, so don’t worry.

I sat down in the grass.

I watched the sun sink beteeen the grass stalls, and after a while I lowered my head and began to sob. But believe me, it wasn’t out of sadness…

And now I held them both in my arms and I sobbed as I pressed them against me and I swear it wasn’t out of sadness.

You know they have to leave the pond, burning the huts they have built because they don’t need them anymore. They are ordered to advance on the enemy.

A kid they have met, who sleeps in their tent and writes in a notebook with a pencil tied to a string, records their precious days together. They tell him all that they want him to write, reminding him to skip no detail.

When Benia takes the notebook after the kid has fallen, there are only letters. Nothing that could form a word. It does not take away the time they shared as four comrades, but it does point to the impermanence of their lives.

I am as impressed by this book as I ever have been. It caught me by surprise because I don’t like books about war, and I didn’t particularly like Mingarelli’s earlier book, A Meal in Winter.

But, The Four Soldiers? I will never forget it. Reading it caused a worthy sadness.

(The Four Soldiers is also published by New Press.)

12 thoughts on “Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Man Booker International Prize 2019) ~ As near to perfect a book as I have ever read.

  1. I’ve picked this book up dozens of times in bookshops but something always holds me back when it comes to buying it. Next time I see it I’ll make the purchase thanks to your review. It sounds like a wonderful read.

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    • Oh Kim, I was so frustrated last night when I published my thoughts because I cannot write about the (few) books that I love adequately. My language is not that of a writer; I am a reader. And most books are fine, fine, fine; good, but nothing special. This one just might be my choice for the prize, but I haven’t read them all yet. However, that happened with The Detour by Bakker which won the IFFP one year. After I read that, and before I read the whole list, I knew it was the best.

      And then…”the best” opens up a whole new set of thoughts. How do we define the best? For me, it is what is perfectly told and pulls my heart with infinite truths.

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  2. Oh my, I have to buy this treasure of a book in my French language. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts.
    Well put, some of us a mostly readers, others mostly writers, and yes it is so frustrating when so many emotions surface as we read yet unable to translate them onto words.

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    • Exactly, Sylvie! You understood exactly what I meant. I hope you will find a copy in it’s original French; what a wonder that would be to read it as Hubert Mingarelli intended. It is so so beautiful in translation, I can only imagine how you will experience it first hand. Do come back and tell me.

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  3. M, what a beautiful post. I absolutely loved it. Your feelings for this book shine through – “Reading it caused a worthy sadness.”. Oh my. That is my favorite sentence. I need this book – thank you. xx

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  4. What a wonderful first line. It says so much. It seems the rest of the book kept up the quality of the first phrase. Thank you for a post that can inspire to read a book about wars. Like you, I don’t really like to read about wars, although there are some excellent ones. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks for example.

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    • I’m intrigued that the first line I quoted caught you, as it did me. I was hooked from the moment I read that on the very first page, and you’re right: the author kept that quality throughout the novel. I just connected so deeply with the characters, with Benia and Pavel especially, that I am deeply moved by their story. Of course I cannot tell all, that would spoil the experience. I already feel that I told too much revealing the notebook. But, I highly recommend this book, something I cannot do very often.

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  5. Pingback: Winding up the Week #62 – Book Jotter

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