Review: Un longue dimanche de fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement)

“If you see the Bleuet alive, had he lost his memories of the bad days, don’t remind him of them. Have new memories with him, like I with Mariette. A name, I can tell you, represents nothing. They gave me my name by accident. I take, by accident that of another.”
(Si vous devez voir le Bleuet vivant, qu’il ait perdu les souvenirs des mauvais jours, ne les lui rappelez pas. Ayez de nouveaux souvenirs avec lui, comme moi avec Mariette. Un nom, je peux vous le dire, ne représente rien. On m’a donné le mien au hasard. J’ai repris, par hasard, celui d’un autre)

Rating: 3.5/ 5
Author: Sébastien Japrisot

A few years back, I watched the novel’s film adaptation starring Gaspard Uliel and Audrey Tautou and was delighted when I had learned that it is based on a French novel. Set in the aftermath of World War I, the story centers around the search of Mathilde Donnay for the truth over her fiancé’s supposed death at the Western Front in 1917 after learning from a dying officer, Daniel Esperanza, that he and four others, were instead condemned to death for self-mutilation rather than killed at the “hand of the enemy”.

Honestly, I must say I was disappointed with the novel’s early chapters which I found dragging. Entire chapters are dedicated to varying third-degree accounts of what happened in Bingo Crépuscule  the trench where Manech, Mathilde’s fiancé was supposedly killed, an event where many early observers were not actually present in and repeating the observation that Manech at that point was no longer in his right state of mind. The accounts of the families and friends of the other four condemned were a very welcome side-plot and I must admit that many times, I was more taken with their story than Mathilde’s own. That of Elodie Gordes’, a parisienne who had an affair with her husband’s best friend in order to conceive a child that will stop her husband from returning to the front is very interesting and unconventional and the side-plot of Tina Lombardi, the lover of the “Angel of hell” who assasinated those responsible for the death of her beloved was, for lack of a better term, bad-ass. I honestly found the plots outside Bingo Crépuscule much more engaging than the one in it that drove the story.

I did not find myself engaged in Mathilde’s story until the flashback to her and Manech’s shared childhood in Landes. Lame and having the family circle as the extent of her social network, Manech was her first friend and they would spend summers with him teaching her how to swim or romping around Landes on a donkey. She accidentally kisses him on the mouth at fourteen and before he leaves for the front two year later, they make love for the first time and become engaged. Cute as it is, however, it is nothing out of the ordinary and I found it hard to sympathize with her initially in wasting away her vast wealth and bothering what seems to be the entirety of France, in search of someone who is assumed by all to be dead, as admirable as I found her determination. Ultimately, everyone, plus me are proven wrong when, alas! we learn that two of the condemned, Benoit Notre-Dame alias Cet Homme and Manech himself, now an amnesiac and living under the identity of Jean Desrochelles (funny enough, Manech is only a sobriquet for Jean Etchevery). Mathilde ultimately sees him again and reminiscent of their first conversation, he asks her whether she cannot walk. Her, and his last appearance is of her watching him (who does not remember her) paint something that he tells her will show her but not until it is finished. Mathilde then decides that life is still long and life will put more burdens on her shoulders. It thus ends openly and sadly not stating whether Mathilde and Manech will reconcile or part as strangers.

This is perhaps the most touching part of the entire story, yet as I had stated earlier, it is nothing out of the ordinary. The later chapters, decidedly more interesting than the early ones, redeem the flaws of the novel, yet, I must admit that nice as it is, and interesting as the story is, it lacks the absolutely heartbreaking and emphatic quality and most of all that absolute sense of irreplaceable loss and tragedy of humanity that other Great War novels have.

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A 21 years old Filipina who loves books, games, languages, and most especially, food. Secretly wishes to be an astronaut so she can explore the stars. Has a love-hate relationship with Philippine politics. To get in her good graces, offer her Foie Gras, Or shrimp. Or a JRPG. A YA sci-fi book works, too. You can follow her on twitter here: @kawaiileena

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