The reader of A Very Long Engagement needs to stay alert. Japrisot is a master at veiling the truth at the same time he half-reveals it. He readily drops physical clues such as a pair of German boots, a button from a British uniform, a unique postage stamp, or a red glove. He offers hints and offhand remarks that only reveal their significance later in the story; he creates subtle differences in the way various people relate the story about the events of that fateful weekend on the Western Front. Also, like any good mystery writer, Japrisot plants red herrings, like the hints that the men who survived, if anyone survived, might have been Common Law or the Eskimo. And he piles up the evidence that Manech really is dead, fooling the reader all the time (but not Mathilde) and only revealing the truth at the end.
But perhaps what remains most vividly in the reader's mind is not the skillfully plotted mystery, or the moving love affair between Manech and Mathilde, but the devastation of war. This is a mystery and a detective story set against the background of "the war to end all wars," as World War I was known at the time.
A Very Long Engagement presents World War I as it was for the soldier at the front. In this aspect of the novel too, Japrisot uses his skills as a mystery writer. At various points in the novel, characters express disbelief that the French army could really have done something so callous as to toss their own men over the trenches to serve as shooting practice for the enemy. The reader wonders whether Japrisot invented the incident for the sake of telling a good story. This is, after all, a work of fiction. But near the end of the novel, the author very deliberately inserts a passage from the memoirs of General (later Field Marshall) Fayolle, a World War I commander. The memoirs were published in 1965 and include a record of a meeting of French generals in January 1915, during which General Pétain, later to become the French hero of Verdun, ordered that twenty-five French soldiers who had shot themselves in the hand should be bound and thrown over the trenches closest to the enemy. It is clear from Fayolle's comment about Pétain that he disagreed with the decision: "Character, energy! Where does character end and ferocious savagery begin!"
This insertion of a passage from a nonfiction memoir is almost as incongruous in a novel as a footnote might be; like a scholar documenting his sources, Japrisot provides the title, author, publisher, date of publication, and page number of his quoted material. Incongruous or not, the information hits home with the force of a barrage of artillery. The truth, unfortunately, is that acts of self-mutilation in order to avoid or terminate war service were not uncommon during World War I. Soldiers were exposed to a kind of warfare more hideous and terrifying in its squalor, deprivation, and danger than (many would agree) any country has a right to ask its young men to endure. And those who took drastic measures to avoid such horrifying conditions were punished.
In the British army, many soldiers hoped they would be wounded in battle, since this would be the equivalent of receiving a ticket to be sent home. Some soldiers took the logic of this further and inflicted wounds on themselves. This was an offense punishable by death. A total of 3,894 men in the British army were convicted of self-inflicted wounds. None were in fact executed, but all served periods in prison.
Other frontline soldiers committed suicide rather than endure the hell of the trenches. They would place the muzzle of their rifle to their head and squeeze the trigger with their big toe. There were also recorded instances when men driven beyond endurance would put their heads above the parapet and wait until they were shot by an enemy sniper. This is a variation of what Manech does in the novel, when he holds up his right hand above the parapet, clutching a lighted cigarette to guide the German sniper to the target. Manech hopes this will get him out of the trenches and sent home as an invalid.
Executions in the British army were carried out, if not for self-inflicted wounds then for other offenses, including desertion, being asleep or drunk on post, striking a superior officer, abandoning a position, and cowardice. There were 304 such executions in the British army during World War I; the vast majority were for offenses committed in the trenches at the Western Front. The executions were carried out by firing squads. It is clear from later statements of the soldiers who were ordered to shoot their own comrades that the executions aroused as much dislike and distaste as is shown by some of the French soldiers in the novel...
(The entire section is 1925 words.)