Acclaimed as a masterpiece and a turning point in literature, the novel is loosely based on the author's own experiences during the First World War, in French colonial Africa, in the USA and later, ...(more)
After a whole day spent dragging ourselves up hill and down glade, through carrots and clover, we'd finally stop so the general could get to sleep somewhere. We'd find him a quiet, sheltered village, where no troops had been billeted yet, or if they had been, they'd have to move on in a hurry, we'd throw them out even if they'd already stacked their rifles, and they'd just have to spend the night in the open. The village was reserved for the general staff, its horses, its mess, its luggage, and not least for that stinking major. The bastard's name was Pin?on, Major Pin?on. I hope they've killed him off by now (and not pleasantly).
But at the time I'm talking about Pin?on was disgustingly alive. Every evening he'd send for us liaison men and give us a good chewing-out, to keep us on our toes and fire us with enthusiasm. Then he'd send us all over the place, after we'd run errands for the General all day. Dismount! Mount! Dismount again! And more of the same, carrying his orders in all directions. They might just as well have drowned us. It would have been more convenient for everybody.
"Dismissed!" he'd yell. "Get back to your regiments! And on the double!" "Where is the regiment, sir?" we'd ask.
Over there, where he pointed, there'd be nothing but darkness, same as everywhere else, an enormous darkness that swallowed up the road two steps ahead of us, only a little sliver of road about the size of your tongue was spared by the darkness. This Barbagny of his was at the end of the world. Try and find it! To find his Barbagny you'd have had to sacrifice at least a whole squadron! A squadron of brave men, what's more! And I wasn't brave at all, I couldn't see any reason to be brave, so obviously I had less desire than anyone else to find his Barbagny, the situation of which, incidentally, was pure guesswork as far as he was concerned. Maybe they thought they could make me go and commit suicide if they yelled loud enough. But either you have it in you or you don't. I knew only one thing about that blackness, which was so dense you had the impression that if you stretched out your arm a little way from your shoulder you'd never see it again, but of that one thing I was absolutely certain, namely, that it was full of homicidal impulses.
As soon as night fell, that big-mouth major couldn't wait to send us to our deaths; it was something that came over him at sundown. We'd try a bit of passive resistance, we'd pretend not to understand, we'd try to take root in that cosy little billet, but when we finally couldn't see the trees, we had to resign ourselves to going away and dying a little; the General's dinner was ready. From then on, it was all a matter of luck. Sometimes we'd find Barbagny and the regiment and sometimes we wouldn't. When we found it, it was mostly by mistake, because the squadron sentries would start shooting at us. So naturally we'd advance and be recognized, and usually spend the night doing all sorts of details, carrying numberless bales of oats and buckets of water, and getting chewed out till our heads reeled, in addition to dropping with sleep. In the morning, our liaison team, all five of us, would report back to General des Entrayes and get on with the war. But most of the time we didn't find the regiment and we'd circle around villages on unknown trails, keeping away from evacuated hamlets and treacherous thickets - as much as possible we avoided those kinds of things because of German patrols. We had to be somewhere though while waiting, somewhere in the darkness. Some things couldn't be avoided. Ever since then I've known how wild rabbits must feel. Pity comes in funny ways.
If we'd told Major Pin?on that he was nothing but a cowardly stinking murderer, we'd only have given him pleasure, the pleasure of having us shot without delay by the MP captain, who was always following him around and who lived for nothing else. It wasn't the Germans that MP captain had it in for. So for night after idiotic night we crept from ambush to ambush, sustained only by the decreasingly plausible hope of coming out alive, that and no other, and if we did come out alive one thing was sure: that we'd never, absolutely never, forget that we had discovered on earth a man shaped like you and me, but a thousand times more ferocious than the crocodiles and sharks with wide-open jaws that circle just below the surface around the shiploads of garbage and rotten meat that get chucked overboard in the Havana roadstead.
The biggest defeat in every department of life is to forget, especially the things that have done you in, and to die without realizing how far people can go in the way of crumminess. When the grave lies open before us, let's not try to be witty, but on the other hand, let's not forget, but make it our business to record the worst of the human viciousness we've seen without changing one word. When that's done, we can curl up our toes and sink into the pit. That's work enough for a lifetime.
I'd gladly have fed Major Pin?on to the sharks and his MP with him, to teach them how to live; my horse too while I was at it, so he wouldn't have to suffer any more; the poor fellow didn't have any back left it was so sore, only two plaques of raw flesh under the saddle, as big as my two hands, oozing rivers of pus that ran from the edges of his blanket down to his hocks. I had to ride him all the same, trot-trot... That trot-trot made him wriggle and writhe. But horses are even more patient than people. His trot was an undulation. I had to leave him out in the open. In a barn the smell of his open wounds would have been asphyxiating. When I mounted him, his back hurt him so badly that he arched it, oh, very politely, and his belly hung down to his knees. It felt like mounting a donkey. It was easier that way, I have to admit. We were tired enough ourselves with all the steel we had to carry on our heads and shoulders. General des Entrayes was waiting for his dinner in his specially requisitioned house. The table had been set, the lamp was in its place.
"Beat it, Christ Almighty, the whole lot of you!" Pin?on yelled at us one more time, shaking his lantern under our noses. "We're sitting down to table! I'm telling you for the last time! Are those swine ever going to go!" he screamed. The passion of sending us to our death put a little colour into his diaphanous cheeks.
Sometimes the General's cook would slip us a bite before we left. The General had too much to eat, seeing the regulations allowed him forty rations all for himself! He wasn't a young man any more. In fact he must have been close to retirement age. His knees buckled when he walked and I'm pretty sure he dyed his moustache. The veins in his temples, we could see in the lamplight as we were leaving, described meanders like the Seine on its way out of Paris. He had grown-up daughters, so it was said, unmarried and, like himself, not rich. Maybe those were the thoughts that made him so crotchety and cranky, like an old dog disturbed in his habits, who goes looking for his quilted basket whenever anyone opens the door for him. He loved beautiful gardens and rosebushes. Wherever we went, he never passed up a rose garden. When it comes to loving roses, generals haven't their equal. It's a known fact.
Anyway, we finally set out. It was hard to get the plugs started. They were afraid to move because of their wounds, but in addition they were afraid of us and the darkness, afraid of everything, to tell the truth. So were we! A dozen times we went back to ask the major for directions! A dozen times he cursed us as cowards and filthy laggards. Finally, with the help of our spurs, we'd pass the last outpost, give the sentries the password, and plunge into our murky adventure, into the darkness of this no man's land. After wandering a while from side to side of the darkness, we finally got part of our bearings, or so at least we thought... Whenever one cloud seemed lighter than another, we were convinced that we'd seen something... But up ahead of us there was nothing we could be sure of but the echo that came and went, the echo of our horses' hoof beats, a horrendous sound you wanted so bad not to hear that it stopped your breath. Those horses seemed to be trotting to high heaven, to be calling everybody on earth to come and massacre us. And they could have done it with one hand, just steady a rifle against a tree and wait for us. I kept thinking that the first light we'd see would be the flash of the shot that would end it all. In the four weeks the war had been going on, we'd grown so tired, so miserable, that tiredness had taken away some of my fear. In the end the torture of being harassed night and day by those monsters, the non-coms, especially the low-ranking ones, who were even stupider, pettier and more hateful than usual, made even the most obstinate among us doubt the advisability of going on living.