Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Centurions by Jean Lartéguy translated by Xan Fielding

How many times has the story recounted in this classic novel about war been writ in the history of mankind? Ask our soldiers to find a way to save the nation and they do, only to be blamed for their actions in the end. The thing about violence is that it destroys the actor and the acted-upon. There is no safe place.

Penguin Classics has just reissued this title with a Foreword by Robert D. Kaplan, revised from a 2007 article in The Atlantic called "Rereading Vietnam." In his Foreword, Kaplan brings Lartéguy's work up-to-date, relating it to Iraq: "In...extreme and difficult situations like Iraq, cynics may actually serve a purpose... Lartéguy immortalizes such soldiers." The longest and most lavishly described section of the novel focuses on Vietnam and a group of French paratroopers imprisoned there after the battle of Dien Bien Phu. We learn what makes up their natures just as they do, undergoing the hardships, failed escape attempts, sickness, and final release back to France.

We chart their crisscrossing and overlapping lives as they try to put themselves back together on home soil and lament with them the changes to their character that forbid surrender to their old pleasures. Called once again to perform in Algiers, the men reassemble and rely upon one another to build an unusual type of flattened, anti-hierarchical and discrete fighting structure that relies on adopting the guerrilla tactics of the enemy, things they'd learned in Vietnam watching their captors. Knowing each other so intimately allows each to play to their strengths, but every man is damaged in the course of their work.

In the end, the French paratroopers’ closeness with ordinary Algerians is both their strength and a sword that cuts them. Their very integration into a society rebelling against French rule gives them access to information but also requires recognizing the humanity of those they strive to overcome. Later, their tactics are deniable by higher ups in the French military, leaving the soldiers to bear the brunt of saving Algiers Kasbah.
”Let Rome beware the anger of the legions.”
Soldiers everywhere must relate to descriptions of the ways men can be torn from their moorings, to the bond between men harboring together in unbearable conditions, to the uncertainty and fear and the unexpected heroism. All soldiers returning to the home country must also experience the confusion and alienation, the regret for what they’d left behind, the familiarity with a country that had long imprisoned them. And they must feel also the loss of the constraints of discipline and danger.

A friend has remarked that a "key weakness [in the novel] is its understanding of women." It is true that Lartéguy does not develop the female characters—they are something "other." But I did not think it distracted from the reading, nor the verisimilitude of the novel. Men absorbed as they are in war and with fellow officers often do not see women as the whole people they undoubtedly are. Women are apart. Many times the reverse is also true. Men who return from war are something apart. Neither side can comprehend the other: the gulf is too wide. Lartéguy’s work therefore is a fair reflection of what is in these men’s minds. Their primary loyalty is with other men, whom they see with exceptional clarity and sympathy.

It is easy to see why this book is the classic it has become. It has a vivid relevance and feel even now. Initially published in 1960 in French, the English translation by Xan Fielding, himself a Special Operations executive for the British Army in Crete, France and the Far East, was published in Great Britain in 1961. Immediately it was hailed as a classic, a true example of the immediacy of classic status when a book carries with it such a groundbreaking honesty--grand and intimate at the same time--and a sense of history in the making.

There was a film produced in 1965, released in 1967, called 'The Battle for Algiers'. It is a harrowing and almost unbearably lifelike reenactment of the scene when the paratroopers described in this book arrive in Algiers. There was palpable excitement in the NYTimes review of the premier of the film at the opening of the New York Film Festival at the Philharmonic in the fall of 1967. The docudrama won awards in Venice, London, and Alcapulco immediately on release and even today is described as electrifying and eerily resonant. Zbigniew Brzezinski was quoted as saying "If you want to understand what’s happening right now in Iraq, I recommend 'The Battle of Algiers'."

A word or two about Lartéguy’s style: he is graceful and immersive. I loved the French-ness of the book, which did not at all distract from the universality of its message. This book is one of a trilogy, consisting of The Mercenaries (1954), The Centurions (1960), and The Praetorians (1961). Lartéguy died in 2011.


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