Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, is a small-scale homosocial drama set during the Russian Civil War in 1919. What could be a savage war novel turns into a rather gentle depiction of soldiers having a moment of respite. As the first chapter ends, the present-day narrator reminisces about a day during the war when they built a hut for rest: “We walked all around [the hut], congratulating one another, and then all four of us went inside and I thought to myself: That’s it, I’m not alone in the world any more. And I was right.”
I like this premise, and I’m much more keen to read a war novel that deals with the human relationships rather than one focusing on the brutality of war. A slight tangent, but I find myself zoning out whenever there are scenes of shooting, chasing, dueling or whatever in movies, so in that respect I was in safe hands with Mingarelli’s short novel.
But in terms of characters, it feels to me that Mingarelli is relying a little too heavily on stereotypes. The Uzbeki soldier is obviously the strongest of the four, and of course there has to be an annoying yet confused young officer who shoots a mule right in the beginning: “He was a young sub-lieutenant and he looked on the verge of tears.” The problem here is that I automatically visualize it all in terms of some big-budget movie I would rather not watch.
In total, I find Four Soldiers a little lacking in substance and nuance, and I’m afraid I won’t remember it for long. I enjoyed the reading process for the most part, but there wasn’t much to take away in the end.
These brief thoughts on the book, along with other Man Booker International 2019 related posts, originally appeared on Goodreads.