Four Soldiers is the touching story of ordinary folk drawn into the maelstrom of war, it’s a subtle tale that leaves most of the brutality off page, concentrating on the tight relationship that develops between young men thrown together by circumstance. They share each other’s food and develop their own little enclave amidst the mayhem. Mingarelli has written one of those little tales that is rarely heard but is a microcosm of the wider war. The down time, scavenging for food, building shelter and living through a harsh winter as well as fighting. There is a profound sense of dislocation in this story, the titular four have no real understanding of why they are where they are, it’s more survival than cause. They are simple men, boys growing up really, they have no education between them, they have no real idea of where they are, how the war is going or when/if they will see home again. They have the resilience of youth and the ability to be blasé about the violence but inevitably the war they are running from catches up with them. Can this little group, part of a rag tail army, survive? A novel of camaraderie.
Four Soldiers was written some years before Mingarelli’s prize-winning novel, A Meal in Winter, but has only now been translated into English. So when I read the concept of this novel – a small group of Russian soldiers caught up in the retreat of the Red Army at the beginning of the Russian Civil War – I wondered if this novel might be a dry run for that more morally complex tale of German soldiers on the hunt for a Jewish man in a Polish wood (A Meal in Winter). The similarity is only in the desire of Mingarelli to explore his themes within the tight framework of a small isolated group of men. This novel more than holds it own.
Just recently the judges of the Booker Prize complained about overlong novels. Occasionally you want a novel to go on and on but I admire a brief tale like this so much more. Beautifully crafted, uncomplicated, unpretentious, yet elegant prose and encapsulated in 155 pages. A perfectly formed spare tale, not a wasted word.
The Russian Civil War, 1919. The unnamed narrator of this tale is a young man from Dorovitsa in the province of Vyatka, who moved to Kalyazin to work for a lumber mill transporting tree trunks from the river to the saw mill. He leaves for the Red Army on the Romanian front, joining Dudorov’s regiment. The army is on the retreat from the Romanians from the start, as they flee he strikes up a conversation with Pavel, they share tea and slip to the back of the column. Panic, tiredness and fear get to everyone. The lieutenant is waving his pistol, shouting at the men, “I know you’re tired, but don’t make me do it. I swear by Saint Sophia, don’t make me. Keep going! Don’t slow down!” When one of the soldiers complains he shoots the man’s mule. He and Pavel run away and from a field they watch the column and keep pace, just a few hundred yards from the madness. Pavel says, “We’ll join them on the road tomorrow.” The army flees to Galicia on trucks where our two meet Kyabine, a giant Uzbek. After a battle the army is expelled from a village by Polish troops and find themselves on the run again. The new orders are to retreat to the forest to sit out the winter, it takes weeks of marching to arrive there, three more days to reach the spot where they clear the land to build their shelter. Realising they need a fourth man they recruit Sifra Nedafchin for their hut, they become a band of brothers. As time goes on, the winter ends, they adopt a boy into their little cabal and return to the fight.
The unnamed narrator puts us directly into the tale of four young men from very different backgrounds thrown together by war. Their relationship is complex, they tolerate each other, they fight, gamble, micky-take, and share their fear. There are a number of memorable scenes; Yassor hands, the pond, the horse, Sergeant Ermanov, the watch, Pavel’s dream – the delight is in the telling so I will leave it there. Superbly translated by Sam Taylor, this haunting little novel will stay with you.
Paul Burke 5/5
Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli
Portobello Books Ltd 9781846276507 hbk Oct 2018