Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Officers' Ward (A Review)

I knew nothing of the Great War. I knew nothing of the muddy trenches, the dampness that seeps into the bones, the big black rats in their winter fur dodging among the mounds of refuse, the stench a mixture of cheap tobacco and half-buried excrement, and over everything, the unvaried metal-grey sky that unleashes a torrent of rain at regular intervals, as if God can never refrain from hounding the ordinary soldier.

Marc Dugain was born in 1957 in Senegal to French parents. He returned to France at age seven and often accompanied his grandfather to La maison des Gueules cassées (the Castle of the Broken Faces) in Moussy-le-Vieux. Established in 1925 by the newly-formed L'Union des Blessés de la Face et de la Tête (rough translation: Union of the Injured in the Face and Head), the castle was one of two institutions set aside where disfigured veterans of World War I and later wars could recuperate and congregate, and bring their families for events and children's summer camps. Although Dugain would later become CEO of an airline, the story of his grandfather and his friends remained with him, prompting him to write La Chambre des officiers (The Officers' Ward, translated by Howard Curtis) in 1998. It was an immediate commercial and critical success, going on to win some twenty literary prizes including the Prix de Libraires, the Prix des Deus Magots, and the Prix Roger Nimier. A movie directed by François Dupeyron was released in 2001. Since then, Dugain has left his corporate job to write three more novels: Campagne anglaise (The English Campaign), La malédiction d'Edgar (The Curse of Edgar, about J. Edgar Hoover), and Une exécution ordinaire (A Regular Execution).

Main character Adrien Fournier, based on Dugain's grandfather, is a dashing lieutenant at the very dawn of the Great War. As in every American account I have read of this era (in addition to the original All Quiet on the Western Front film, based on the German novel), the coming catastrophe is currently being painted as a patriotic struggle against the [insert enemy name here], who must be stopped at all costs or else puppies will be eaten and unicorns will go extinct. The evening before he leaves for the front, Fournier meets the lovely Clémence, has a one-night stand, and falls in love. Forty-eight hours later, the very first day of the war, Fournier and his squad are ambushed by German mortars. Everyone is killed except Fournier, whose face is torn half off by shrapnel.

After a painful and hallucinatory ambulance ride, Fournier is taken to the officers' wing of the maxillofacial ward of the Val-de-Grâce hospital in Paris. He is its very first patients, although the staff earnestly promises that he won't be lonely for long. Three other gueules cassées soon arrive: Pierre Weil, jovial Jewish pilot with severe burns and a missing nose; Henri de Pananster, a Breton aristocrat and devout Catholic who lost half his chin; and a third, anonymous man buried under gauze who never wakes up. All mirrors have been removed, but a glimpse of his reflection in a window nearly drives Fournier to suicide: there is "tunnel" where the middle of his face used to be. It is as though his nose and upper jaw have been sucked into a black hole. The loss of his palate means that eating and talking are now impossible and he will have to re-learn these basic skills while undergoing extensive (and revolutionary) reconstructive surgery.

Fournier will spend the remainder of the war (five years) in the officers' ward, where he will form an intense bond with Weil and Pananster and his fellow patients. Though simply told and never sentimental, the novel is an unpretentious toast to the human spirit and its astonishing will to overcome tragedy. Historical detail is richly subtle and often surprising. For example, a new admittee who apparently survived a suicide attempt (the bullet passed through his chin and out his forehead) immediately becomes an outcast for trying to do to himself what the Germans had attempted to do to all of them and failed. Meanwhile, the character of Marguerite - a formerly beautiful nurse whom Fournier now describes as a row of roses in which one has been forcefully ripped out - brings to the forefront simmering questions of sexism and the relationship of society to the disabled and disfigured. The ending follows the Fournier and his friends through their marriages (except Marguerite, who remains single) and right up to the very end of World War II, during which they hid Weil and his family from the occupying Nazis in a barn on Pananster's property. The Officers' Ward closes at a funeral, where disfigured veterans of World War II are encountered and Fournier promises to teach them how to live again.

Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain the movie La Chambre des officiers in a lawful manner and was forced into a life of crime. Specifically: I had to install µTorrent and download it illegally! I didn't think it was that big a deal but then I downloaded Silent Hill and realized I was on a slippery slope. (From now on, it is the lesser evil of streaming TV and movies via So anyway, this is Eric Caravaca as Adrien Fournier. (To take screenshots from VLC Player on a PC, you must hit ctrl-alt-s, not the Printscreen key! The image will be automatically saved to My Pictures.) I got really annoyed Google Image searching for a picture of Fournier's new face and not finding anything, so I decided to include this one from the end of the movie. Doesn't look anything as severe as the book described, though.

Also: I found this French page about the history of the
gueules cassées. Problem is, you go there and are immediately assaulted by all these really graphic clinical photographs. Do not want!


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