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8 december 2013

14, or Quatorze, as in the phrase still used in France, "la guerre de quatorze-dix-huit": the fourteen-eighteen war, the most destructive of all wars ever visited on that country.

The novel opens at once with a scene of young men leaving for the front, a scene that author Jean Echenoz compares to Albert Herter's mural Départ des poilus in the Gare de l'Est in Paris. The comparison underlines one of Echenoz's key techniques in 14, prolepsis: the narrator knows what's going to happen to his characters, and indeed to an entire century of European history. And of course the characters do not.

Two men leave for war; a woman stays behind, pregnant by one of them. "Tout cela ayant été décrit mille fois," says Echenoz's narrator ([That's all been told a thousand times], 79). Going innocently off to the First World War is Herter's subject; it's the territory of Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues, of Sébastien Japrisot's Long dimanche de fiançailles; of one season of Downton Abbey, for that matter. One episode echoes Paths of Glory. A novelist could not be on more familiar ground with this material. His originality must come in details of language, tone, incident, and subsidiary themes.

Echenoz works here by elaborating sections of what might seem a paint-by-numbers exercise. He gives us the horrors of trench life for a page or two (prompting the quoted comment about how this has been done before). He gives us primitive aerial combat. But he also gives us several pages on the role of shoe factories in the war effort (for both good and bad). He talks eloquently about the various classes of animals caught up in warfare. He compares war to opera (both are "assez ennuyeux [boring enough]," he concludes, 79).

In the process, he tells us damn little about his characters. We learn more about protagonist Anthime's phantom pains in a missing arm than what's going on in Anthime's still very-present mind. We barely learn the crucial relations among several characters till halfway through the 118-page novel, or later. Such obliqueness is a feature of Echenoz's biographical novels, particularly Des éclairs. It's carried to extremes here, and 14 is all the better for being oblique.

Echenoz, Jean. 14. Paris: Minuit, 2012.