Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli review: Solace in wartime
A troubling and compelling tale of memory and fragility among Red Army fighters
Hubert Mingarelli: a master of lyrical restraint
Hubert Mingarelli Translated by Sam Taylor
It’s 1919. Somewhere near the Romanian border. The Russian civil war is dragging its mortal tail through eastern Europe. Four Red Army soldiers emerging from a winter in the forest build a temporary hut near a pond waiting for orders to move on. In this bracketed moment they experience a sense of contentment and shared joy that always lies in the shadow of extinction.
The French writer Hubert Mingarelli, known in English for A Meal in Winter, which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014, is a master of lyrical restraint. A Meal in Winter told the tale of three not four soldiers, German not Russian, who set out on a bitingly cold day into the Polish countryside to hunt for local Jews. The microdrama that played out in Mingarelli’s sparse prose was remarkable for its concise capture of the stand-off between fear and compassion.
Similarly, in Four Soldiers, Mingarelli prefers to hint at rather than explain the daily miracle of peace in wartime and the small, shared pleasures that are always at the mercy of circumstance. But this is no Parable of the Pure. The relationships between Benia, Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra are complicated and rivalrous. For the narrator, Benia, his increasingly strong affections for Pavel are a source both of solace and confusion, and the Uzbek giant Kyabine is frequently the butt of a prankish schoolboy cynicism.
Mingarelli is extraordinarily adept at assembling whole worlds out of carefully assorted details
Though they may in all likelihood lay down their lives for the cause of communism, these soldiers do not engage in choreographed cameos of comradely contest. They know poverty but are strangers to polemic. When they requisition animals or foodstuffs from local peasants, a nervous humour barely disguises a deep unease at the uncertain lines between oppressors and liberators in a time of war and revolution. The four soldiers set abound building their fragile shelter against a future that promises to be a bad memory.
Benia, the most articulate, is wary of absolutes but he does want their provisional happiness to endure as if the unexpected gift of companionship was a glimpse of something more meaningful than the exhausted rituals of military obedience. Mingarelli is extraordinarily adept at assembling whole worlds out of carefully assorted details. He has a dramatist’s sense of unities of time and place – the brief spring by the pond – conspiring to delay the delivery of the brutal diktat of tragedy.
The title is, of course, misleading. There are five not four soldiers in this novel, which is more novella than novel. The fifth soldier is Kouzma Evdokim, a young peasant recruit from Vsevolozhsk, near St Petersburg. He is nicknamed the “Evdokim kid” by the narrator. He intrigues Benia and his comrades because he is frequently observed writing. For these illiterate soldiers the kid’s writing initially invites suspicion and ridicule before they gradually come to realise that the only way not to disappear without a trace is to leave a (written) trace. The sole means of reassuring themselves that their brief parenthesis of happiness is not a deranged fantasy is to have the Evdokim kid commit their pond idyll to paper.
The four soldiers are desperate that the fifth get it right. As if reality itself were at the mercy of words. Benia not only chooses his words carefully but wants the young peasant boy to choose them carefully: “ ‘So listen,’ I said, carefully choosing my words. ‘When you’ve finished with the pond, there’s something else I would like you to write.’ I paused, to plan even more carefully what I had to say. ‘Listen, what I’d like you to write about … well, it’s Pavel. I’d like you to write that Pavel and me … that we were really lucky to find each other. It was lucky for Kyabine and Siafra, of course, but with Pavel, shit, you understand, don’t you. It was even luckier, you know?’ ”
The soldiers are not so lucky, as it turns out with their memoirist. The intuition remains, however, that the testimony of peace is as important as the record of war. Mingarelli can, however, count himself lucky in having Sam Taylor as his translator in English. One of the more dispiriting paradoxes of translation is that it is often the simplest of sentences that are the hardest to translate. The risk is that classical economy in one language comes across as lumpy banality in another. Taylor has once again brought to an English-speaking readership a troubling and compelling tale of memory and fragility from a matchless stylist.
Michael Cronin is 1776 professor of French in Trinity College Dublin and director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation