A Very Long Engagement

“A Very Long Engagement” by Sebastien Japrisot.

“A Very Long Engagement” by Sebastien Japrisot, translated from French by Linda Coverdale, is a wonderful little book, a best-seller and heart-wrenching tear-jerker in the best sense (and there is a good sense of those terms). A girl’s fiance’ is reported dead in World War One, but she has reason to doubt the report. She tracks down leads for years, with the sort of perseverance only such a motivation brings. In the process she encounters help and hindrance, lies and truth, wisdom and incompetence, enough so that those who detest suspense can value this book while pretending to ignore it.

Only after more than half of the story has been told are we given a glimpse of our heroine’s pre-war happiness. The following scene could stand alone, but is unbearably beautiful when read in its place:

“Mathilde is ten and a half years old. As for Manech, he has just turned thirteen on June 4. He’s on his way home from school, wearing short pants and a jersey, with his book bag slung over his shoulder. He stops in front of the iron fence surrounding the Villa Poema. He sees Mathilde for the first time, sitting in her wheelchair across the garden.

“Why he decided to pass by the villa on that particular afternoon, well, that’s a mystery. He lives beyond Lake Hossegor, he has no reason to go home this way. In any case, he’s there, he watches Mathilde through the bars, and then he says, ‘You can’t walk?’

“Mathilde shakes her head. Unable to think of anything to say, Manech goes away. A minute later, he comes back. Something seems to be bothering him. ‘Have you got any friends?’ he asks. Mathilde shakes her head. He says, without looking at her, clearly ill at ease, ‘If it’s all right with you, I’ll be your friend.’ Mathilde shakes her head. He throws a hand up in the air, shouting ‘Fine, shit!’ And off he goes once more.

“This time, she doesn’t see him again for a least three minutes. When he reappears on the other side of the bars, God knows what he has done with his book bag, he’s got his hands in his pockets, and he’s putting on a relaxed, superior air.

“‘I’m pretty strong,’ he says. ‘I could cart you around on my back all day long. Hey, I could even teach you to swim.’

“‘Tisn’t true,’ she replies haughtily. ‘How could you do that?’

“‘I know how – with floats to keep your feet up.’

“She shakes her head. He puffs out his cheeks and whistles soundlessly. ‘I go fishing with my father on Sundays. I can bring you back a hake big as this!’ He spreads his arms to show a fish about the size of a whale. ‘You like hake?’

“She shakes her head.

“‘Bass?’

“Same response.

“‘Crab claws? We get a lot of them, in the nets.’

“She turns her chair around and pushes the wheels along – now she’s the one who goes away.

“‘Snobby Parisienne!’ he yells after her. ‘And to think I almost fell for you! I smell too fishy, is that it?’

“She shrugs, ignoring him, heading for the house as fast as she can go. She hears Sylvain, off somewhere in the garden, shouting. ‘Hey, kid, you looking for a kick in the pants or something?’

“That night, in bed, Mathilde dreams that her little fisherman walks her along the road by the lake, through the forest and the streets of Capbreton, and the ladies in their doorways say, ‘Don’t they make a charming couple, the two of them, just look at that infectiose friendship!’

“When she learns that ‘infectiose’ is not a real word, she’ll imagine the ladies saying, ‘Just look at that infectible friendship,’ and, later on, ‘that infected love.’

“He returns the following afternoon, at the same time. She’s waiting for him. This time he sits on top of the low wall outside the fence. He doesn’t look at her right away.

“‘I’ve got loads of friends in Soorts,’ he announces. ‘I don’t know why I bother with you.’

“‘Could you really teach me to swim?’ she asks.”

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