Henri Troyat: Nothing grand, nothing noble, in the universal slaughter
From Amélie (1955)
Translated by Mary V. Dodge
The phrase war of attrition often appeared in the daily papers and in the conversations of her clients. Peace was a long way off. She would have to keep her hopes more modest – to have Pierre in Paris for a week. She didn’t want to think of what would come after. The thought of the far-distant future made her dizzy, as if by forming plans that would take a long time to mature, she was exceeding her rights and allowing some evil power to take hold of her. M. Lubin, the new tenant, who was now eating supper every night in the cafe, asserted that the munitions makers of the entire world had agreed to prolong the massacre as long as possible as long as it was profitable to their industry.
Marthe’s look was cold, blue, and glittering, like enamel.
“It is odd,” she said after a short silence. “I think that if somebody had said to me when the war began, ‘Your husband must die so that your country can emerge victorious,’ I would have answered, ‘Take him and save France!'”
Amelie had to hold herself rigid to conceal the annoyance this admirable widow was causing her. Was it because they came from different backgrounds that their opinions were so unlike? It was as if they were speaking of two entirely different wars. Amelie had the chance to meet soldiers and hear them talk, and for her the idea of military operations evoked only hideous or pitiable scenes. Although she realized that it was necessary, at any cost, to defend the country against aggression, she found nothing grand, nothing noble, in the universal slaughter. Wishing for victory did not seem to her incompatible with feeling horror at the means required to achieve it. Marthe, on the other hand, seemed to draw her exaltation from the very fighting in which so many men were risking their lives. The war, to her, was gilded, full of plumes and bugles. No filth, no lice, no fear, no suffering, marred her vision of it. There were regiments of brave soldiers with ardent hearts, led to the assault by officers who were clean shaven and handsome as the archangels. Suddenly, Amelie felt an intense desire to cry out, “Marthe! It isn’t true! They aren’t the way you imagine them!”
He was in the war up to his neck, and his view was limited by the movements of his own company. He was not at ease, either, when someone asked him to tell stories of life in the trenches. There again it seemed to him that anything he could say would sound false to them. The audience, thirsty for heroic or comic stories, prevented him from expressing himself sincerely. A trench separated him from the people who had come to listen. For them the war was a matter of words. They thought about a few of its horrors each day, and the rest of the time devoted themselves to peaceable and practical affairs. Hardly a third of their existence was involved. But he was plunged into it completely.
His elbows on the bar, M. Florent tragically enumerated the deaths in the neighborhood. Pierre listened absent-mindedly. He had had so many comrades killed in the Artois that it was difficult for him to be moved by the names the carpenter was listing for him. Death also had different meanings, depending on whether you were at the front or in the rear. At the front there was no poetry about a corpse. The important thing was to get rid of it as quickly as possible because of the smell. Even a dead friend became an irritating carcass. Here everything was embellished. Flowers and tears were thrown over the putrefaction. He remembered the death of little Poulletin, his stomach ripped open on the barbed wire. All night they had heard him moan, without being able to go after him: he had fallen too near the enemy lines. At dawn he had become quiet. A rag, hung on the iron threads. A scarecrow to the sparrows.