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.