Most novels that I have read set during major armed conflict are dramatic. They show the lives of those involved in the conflict, its consequences and its dilemmas often in very realistic ways. Pierre Lemaitre has a very different project. The novel is based on some historical facts: yes, we see the horror of life in the trenches of the Great War and the horrendous effects of the war on so many young men as well as the difficulties encountered by the civilian population, but we also see how some men try to take advantage of the situation to make more money. In particular, what Lemaitre refers to is the scandals arising form the mismanagement of soldiers’ burials in national military cemeteries: misidentification of bodies, burial of coffins filled only with dirt, coffins containing incomplete bodies, coffins containing leftover body parts buried as “unknown soldier”.
Since this book is a novel, there is also some imagination at work in depicting how these activities were carried out, but some other events are purely the product of Lemaitre’s imagination, such as a country-wide commemorative monument swindle.
The feeling that I get from reading the book is not one of outrage at how heartless individuals could defraud the public and the government in such hard time. Rather, Lemaitre takes an ironic point of view in telling this story and mining it for the comic content it can possibly have. In fact, some of its central actors are quite unwittingly drawn into committing the crimes that they are guilty of. The crimes are, in come cases, crimes of opportunity with no intent to be criminal.
There are a number of rather providential coincidences in this book, more than random probability would allow, but they are used to such good effect that we can forgive the author for forging such clever turns of events. Some characters are also quite improbable, but they are so memorable… A villain you will love to hate, a big-hearted loser, a dreamer who has lost so much he only has his dreams to sustain him, the bourgeois who suddenly sees that fortune and power have no meaning…
And all is told with great humor, with a flawless rhythm that relentlessly charges forward. This book was impossible to put down from the minute I started it. It is not yet available in English translation, but will be in 2015.
If you think that cemetery mix-ups are a thing of the past, given our current information technology, think again. Even Arlington Cemetery, near Washington, D.C., has suffered its own woes with misidentified graves, as recently as 2010.