I was wandering around in Joseph Beth Booksellers a few weeks ago, and a caption by English novelist Hillary Mantel, whose books on King Henry VIII and Cromwell have fascinated me, to date, and saw this quote on a book cover : “A small miracle of a book, perfectly imagined and perfectly achieved”. That novel is “Four Soldiers”, by Hubert Mingaerelli, which I bought because of Mantel’s quote. The book is both a miracle, indeed, and is magnificently written.
Four young men, presumed to be around l8 years old, meet accidentally because they’ve been drafted into one of those endless-seeming wars surrounding/part of/antecedent to World War I; Romanians are fighting Russians (our soldiers here are Russians) over what I presume to be Bessarabia and/or Moldava, whose borders, like many in Eastern Europe in particular, fluctuated back and forth in the early part of the twentieth century. The first soldier, who’s really the protagonist of this novel, had left his family and village to take a job in a different village, and the author’s description of his isolation when he’s not working is the capstone of the book. When this first of the four soldiers joins the Army, he meets three other young men, one, Pavel, who becomes this little group’s leader, and two others, one of whom we would then have called “slow”, mentally, a hulking giant of a man, an Uzbeki. We readers are aware of each of these men’s shyness, hesitancy, in the light of having been forced into the Army. A fifth much younger runaway young man is assigned to bunk with them, and he’s supposedly the group archivist, writing in his journal every night, documenting their lives during the winter of an army campaign, when our troops are hiding/surviving the winter in a forest somewhere near Russia or the environs of this war. They build first a hut, and later , a tent in which to live for the winter; each of the four (or five) men brings certain skills to bear, and we the readers watch as these shy men, unused to having friends or talking with other men, begin to form a family, in which the strengths of each are manifest (and occasionally their weaknesses). They are bunkered near a pond (we live with them, if you will, during two long encampments). This pond is their secret, as is a watch that somehow came into their possession, in which is a photograph of a woman none of them knows, but each sleeps with this watch on a rotating basis at night). These four men are probably, too, all virgins.
Basically, that’s the plot, but the beauty of the interactions amongst these four less lonely men, and how they learn to live together in small, cramped quarters, and to enjoy very small things which occur daily–catching a fish in the pond; watching birds fly; agreeing to allow the runaway teenage soldier to live with them; certain secrets which occur in the night: these are made important, as Mingarelli is determined to show the nurturing sides of men in battle (actually, many of the skills men at war develop were once considered “feminine”). These men learn to care about each other intensely (one of the most moving recurring scenes includes the nightmares of Pavel, the group leader, who needs Benia, our narrator, to leave the tent with him in the middle of the night every night for his comfort: should Benia give Pavel a hug, to show his affection?). These men create their own small family utopia for just one winter, in the middle of a forest in the middle of nowhere: I cannot remember such scenes in a novel surrounded by war that’s been as beautifully crafted, as gorgeously written, as astute as “Four Soldiers” is. The author writes in very broad strokes, the way that Patti Smith does, and Elizabeth Strout does, so the writing is utterly “simple”, without frills, and is so emotionally laden and fraught that, when the camp is broken up, finally, and the war resumes, the build up to the upcoming battles, in which the reader knows that all these men cannot (and won’t) survive, is that much more powerful. The ways in which Mingarelli builds emotion and feelings are astonishing; in spite of some occasional small disagreements, these men find, for the first time in their lives , other friends, who become family, and the reader is brought into this family circle. Leo Tolstoy, in “War and Peace”, which I reviewed last month, also spent a lot of writing time about how men look after each other in the throws of battle and when they’re at rest, too, but I’ve rarely read a better or more beautiful version of what became known in the l980s as “male bonding” as is offered in “Four Soldiers”, prose poetry of such beauty and seeming simplicity that I urge readers to get this small, short novel, as it is the masterpiece that Hillary Mantel implies in her quote on the cover.