Four Soldiers

Hubert Mingarelli’s first appearance in English was his 2012 novel, A Meal in Winter, translated by Sam Taylor, which was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014. Four Soldiers is an earlier novel which won the Prix Medici in 2003 and is now also translated by Taylor. In many ways it is a remarkably similar book. Anyone who has read A Meal in Winter will recall it is about three German soldiers, a Jew and a Polish soldier (in other words, four soldiers) inhabiting an abandoned cottage, temporarily isolated from the war. In Four Soldiers the war and the nationality of the soldiers are different – it is 1919, the Russian Civil War, and the soldiers are Russian – but the complex, even delicate, web of relationships Mingarelli weaves is just as affecting.

In the novel’s opening pages we learn how the four soldiers come to be together. First the narrator meets Pavel and we see the bond they share when an officer shoots a mule in the head. The soldier who was leading the mule takes out his knife and the two comrades decide to make themselves scarce, the first of many scenes in which they will attempt to temporarily remove themselves from the war:

“So Pavel and I both ran towards the ditch, hurtling down into it and coming out the other side, and then into a field to get away from the road.”

“We’ll join them on the road tomorrow,” Pavel suggests, “no one will notice we were ever gone.” Next they are joined by an Uzbek, Kyabine:

“He was built like a lumberjack and sometimes he seemed a bit slow.”

Kyabine’s strength is frequently put to good use, for example when he carries the roll of polythene they find in an abandoned factory, or when they come to build a hut to shelter in throughout the winter:

“While the three of us paused for breath, Kyabine valiantly kept going.”

The fourth soldier, Sifra, is invited to build the hut with them:

“He was very young and a good shot, and he owned cavalry boots. We’d never heard of him having any trouble with anyone about anything.”

The comradeship of the four soldiers is what makes the hardships of the winter bearable: as the narrator thinks to himself when the hut is completed, “That’s it, I’m not alone in the world anymore.” They are united not only by their roles (if Kyabine is the strong one, Pavel is the clever one, designing the hut so that they stay warm all winter) but by the routines of their friendships. Some are humorous, such as Kyabine begging for tobacco when he has gambled away his own; others reflect both the stress the soldiers are under and the depth of the affection for each other, such as when Pavel wakes the narrator every night after a nightmare (in which Sifra cuts his throat) and they go outside together until Pavel is calm again. Another routine which unites them is a watch which they took from the body of a cavalry officer which has a picture of a woman inside. They take turns to sleep with the watch, neither entirely believing nor disbelieving the idea that it brings them luck.

Just as in A Meal in Winter, a fifth figure is introduced, an new recruit, Kouzma Evdokim, whom the soldiers call the Evdokim kid. That he is not initially trusted is seen when the soldiers at first stop going to the pond, an idyllic location which only the four of them know about:

“Pavel said it was risky, showing it to the kid, because Sergeant Ermakov might change his mind and put him in a different tent.”

The kid carries a notebook with him and soon the other soldiers are making humorous suggestions of what he should write down (“You should write that Kyobine is a cheat”). They begin to see him as an observer, the narrator wondering at one point:

“Seriously, what could the Evdokim kid be thinking about all of this?”

When Sifra puts his rifle back together without looking, it is the kid’s reaction which interests the other soldiers:

“Kyabine removed his hands from Sifra’s eyes and he looked at the astonished expression on the Evdokim kid’s face.”

The kid’s notebook becomes steadily more important to the soldiers as they recognise he is creating the only record of their time together, and in this we see a defence of writing itself. This particularly applies when they discover they are, once again, going to move on and return to the fighting:

“…say that we’re all sad because we had some good moments here, some really great moments, and we know that we won’t have any more, and where we’re going there won’t be any good moments, because all that is behind us now. You understand? That’s what you should write.”

If you are assuming that the book we are reading transpires to be the kid’s work, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Like A Meal in Winter, Four Soldiers is a short novel, written in a deceptively simple style, but the story it tells is undeniably powerful.


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8 Responses to “Four Soldiers”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Sounds very similar to his other book Grant although I did enjoy that one a lot

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I thought very highly of A Meal in Winter when I read it for the IFFP themed project, so more of the same sounds pretty good to me. I guess it’s what Mingarelli does well – short, tight stories that pack a potent punch.

  3. Emma Says:

    Incidentally, I’ve just heard about this book at a conference about nature in French fiction.

  4. Man Booker International Prize 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (France), translated from French by Sam Taylor (Granta) […]

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