Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (translated from French by Sam Taylor)

‘I am from Dorovitsa in the province of Vyatka.’

Set somewhere near the Romanian border in the winter of 1919, while the Russian Civil War is in its second year.  During a lull in the fighting, four soldiers set up camp in a forest.  They become close, these four men, Benia (our narrator), Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra, awaiting their orders.   The rest of their battalion is close by.  They smoke, they talk, they requisition animals and foodstuff from local peasants.  They have their rituals as well, including a watch they pass between them which contains a photograph of a woman.  The watch no longer works, but the photograph of the unknown woman connects each of them to humanity.

They find a pond and try to keep it to themselves.  Moments of tranquillity, fragments of happiness snatched from the horror of war.  They smoke, they talk, they wait.  Spring will arrive soon; they will move on to fight. Benia feels affection for Pavel but is conflicted.  Kyabine, a giant from Uzbek, is frequently the source of amusement.  They are afraid of what might come but take comfort from being together.

And then they are joined by a fifth soldier.  Kouza Evdokim is a young peasant recruit from Vsevolozhsk, near St Petersburg.  Nicknamed the ‘Evodkim kid’, he is frequently observed writing.  The others, illiterate, are suspicious of him (of what is he writing, and why) but come to realise that the Evodkim kid’s writing may be the only way to create a record of this period before the fighting resumes.  Each of the soldiers, particularly Benia, wants the Evodkim kid to make a careful record. Writing will make this experience real, whatever the future may hold.

I finished this novel (novella?) profoundly moved.  In fewer than two hundred pages, Mr Mingarelli slows down time to portray a break in the fighting, where soldiers are briefly (just) men trying to exist the best way they can.  There is a twist which makes this even more poignant.

My thanks to Lisa Hill , whose review of  ‘A Meal in Winter’ led me to this author.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith