THE OFFICERS' WARD
Marc Dugain, , trans. from the French by Howard Curtis. . Soho, $21 (144pp) ISBN 978-1-56947-265-1
This elegant debut maintains a remarkably calm mood as it tells the story of a soldier's horrific disfigurement in World War I. Shortly after a romantic tryst with a stranger in Paris in 1914, Adrien, a French military officer, is sent on a mission with two other soldiers. Almost immediately, his comrades are killed in a sudden bombing attack, and the lower half of Adrien's face is blown off. Adrien spends more than four years in the officers' ward of a hospital. This book tracks his convalescence among a small group of people with facial injuries. Although he undergoes 16 operations, his face never regains its original shape. Adrien's hospital companions cope with their condition with varying degrees of success. Some are driven to suicide, while the more stoic ones are spiritually strengthened by their suffering. The novel, although its content is tragic, does not end unhappily. The stranger he met before the war remains out of reach, but Adrien eventually gets married and achieves contentment. The book is also not without its moments of dark humor, as when Adrien sticks his tongue out at a nurse through his nose or when one of the victims is given a doll's nose to replace his own. Dugain's blend of spare but telling description and excellent pacing keeps the tale engaging and serves as an excellent metaphor for the alteration of national identity in wartime. Based upon the life of Dugain's grandfather, this brave first novel has all the maturity of the work of a seasoned novelist.
Reviewed on: 09/24/2001