Jean Michelin’s Those Who Stay is a powerful and deeply human novel about the impact of war on soldiers fighting in distant countries, and what these men are like when they return. Wearing a mask of silence to avoid the expression of strong feelings for fear of losing control comes at a high cost. The story centres around a private investigation done by four soldiers when one of their unit is reported missing. Their adherence to the military doctrine based on mutual trust between leaders and those they lead is unshakeable, even when back home on civvy street. Those Who Stay also shows the detrimental effect of their arrivals and departures on the families, girlfriends and wives who stay behind; and the children growing up alone with their mother.
November, north-east France. Perennially-reliable Corporal Guyader a.k.a. Lulu has been missing for three days. He left home one night, wordlessly, without his mobile phone and taking half the drawings from his marital savings account. Aurélie is used to his absences, the empty bed, the solitary daily grind of being a military wife. She copes, but senses that this time something is amiss. Lulu’s brothers-in-arms think the same thing and go in search of him before he can be declared a deserter. Has he gone AWOL? Is he suffering from PTSD? The four soldiers do the rounds of family and friends, and alert the cops, just in case . . .
Meet Lulu’s brothers-in-arms:
Stéphane Humbert has just quit the army after twenty years of active service and got a job as a warehouse guard. He’s had enough of nightmares and insomnia when he’s back home on leave. Mathilde, his wife of fifteen years says: “Each time, my husband comes home a little lonelier, a little angrier, a little sadder. We know it’s not easy for you, but no one asks how it is for us. We don’t get a medal at the end of it all, we manage, but it’s tough for us too. Especially when there are children.”
Marouane a.k.a. Gerrouj has dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes, deep forehead wrinkles and a southern accent despite his fifteen years in the 106th Infantry Division. He originally signed up secretly on his eighteenth birthday to escape his father’s beatings and his mother’s terrified tears, only to be greeted by racism in the barracks until Stéphane Humbert took him under his wing. Mood swings, aggressiveness and anger block his promotion. He enjoys flirting with women. Is seduced by Nadia, a staff sergeant who works in the infirmary of the regiment. At a BBQ when he argues with Lulu, Aurélie calls him a “dirty towelhead” – yet they nearly have a fling later, but he pulls back in the nick of time.
Romain d’Entraygues a.k.a. Trègue. His father, grandfather, uncles, cousins and two older brothers all served under the French flag. Despite his young age he’s already embittered and dreams of leading a very different life.
Maxime Charlier is a blue-eyed, baby-face with silky skin; awkward, timid and very observant. He joined the army out of curiosity and lack of prospects. His fiancée, Elise, works in events in Paris and refuses to live with him despite their being together for three years since she’s had enough of the way in which the army dictates his every move.
From Afghanistan to Guyana . . .
Moving back and forth between past and present, the reader gleans all manner of insights, especially the fact that the soldiers dread firing at an elusive enemy mingling with the civilian population. They return home with the sound of bombs exploding in their ears and are haunted by the image of little girls on the way to school getting acid sprayed on to their faces.
An ambush in Afghanistan had gone wrong, costing the life of Junior, a young sergeant. Was Lulu to blame? Aurélie gives the brothers-in-arms a shoebox containing around twenty notebooks in which her husband wrote observations and reflections during his long career of military operations: Bosnia in 1998. Chad, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, the Lebanon, Guyana, New Caledonia, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Mali. His true states of mind behind the obligatory mask of silence are revealed, along with his guilt over Junior’s death.
The men go on to pay a visit to Junior’s parents in a small village in Brittany where they find a decisive clue: a love letter in Lulu’s handwriting tucked inside Junior’s fatigues jacket, dated February when they were in Guyana.
“I’m so sad, but we’ve got to stop this, now. Or else it’ll be too late. I can’t destroy my life like this. It’s not your fault. You’d tell me to not give a fuck and you’d be right, but it’s what I’ve decided.
I’ll never forget, I’ll never regret – anything. And I know for sure that the smell of the rainforest will remind me of the smell of your skin tomorrow and every day, for always.
I hope you can forgive me.”
The men end up returning to the Guyanese jungle to find Lulu. The novel ends in suspense, similar in atmosphere to the ending of the war-drama film, The Deerhunter.
Those Who Stay delves into the reality of combat, giving it a human dimension, immersing us in an ongoing distant allegedly post-colonial war which most of us would rather not see. It is unusual to read a novel written by a former soldier which provides a true perspective on the realities of warfare, and addresses a subject that is rarely written about. Formerly a lieutenant-colonel in the French army, Jean Michelin saw action in Kosovo, Guyana, Afghanistan and Mali. A first novel, Those Who Stay, is underpinned by true-to-life, lived experience, and the author speaks English. Sadly, it is unlikely that this engrossing novel will be translated – be it by myself, or another enthusiastic translator, or by two of us working in collaboration. Never be afraid to dare – if only publishers would since they so easily could!
Éditions Heloïse d’Ormesson 240 pages | Published 18-08-2022 ISBN : 978-2350877891
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