The temptation with this gripping novel is to rush through it because you simply have to know how it is resolved. The problem with that approach is that such a rich and complex novel of ideas and exquisite writing, deserves more attention. This is a perfect book for book groups to explore, and an even better one to read and re-read, taking time to ponder the moral ambiguities that underlie the tale.
A Soldier’s Tale by M.K.Joseph (1914-1981) was first published in 1976 but has been recently reissued to great acclaim. It’s the story of a soldier caught up in a moral dilemma not initially of his making. It’s set in Normandy in 1944, when the Germans were in retreat and the Allies were making their way through rural France towards Paris, liberating villages and towns as they did so. During a lull in the fighting two young British soldiers go for a stroll, looking for some loot or a ‘nice bit of crumpet’. They come across a young girl alone in an isolated cottage and Saul has begun his pick-up routine when suddenly the girl freezes in terror. Three men from the French Resistance have arrived to deal with her. She is a collaborator, they say, and not just one who slept with the enemy. They are going to kill her.
Saul, who’s a bit of a lad and has only a rudimentary sort of moral code, reacts in a matter-of-fact kind of way. These three are amateurs, as far as he’s concerned and he’s a battle-hardened killer who knows what he’s doing with a gun or a knife. It doesn’t take him long to show them that they are in no position to challenge him, but they know that he has to move on with the rest of his company. The protection he offers her is temporary at best unless he can find some other sanctuary for her. So the tension in the novel comes from the resolution of this stand-off. That is why you have to keep reading long into the night when you ought not to because there is work in the morning and that hateful alarm at six a.m.
But there is much more to it than that. Saul’s mercy is tempered by opportunism and betrayal stalks the novel. In the Foreword by Janet Hughes, she notes that Joseph, a former soldier and academic, as well as one of New Zealand’s finest poets and novelists, was interested in the moral sphere:
For the most part he is more concerned with the ethics of individual conduct than with warfare itself – with the way war sharpens dilemmas, intensifies pressures, and magnifies consequences, rather than with its physical or political violence.
The relationship that develops between Belle and her protector is complex and ambiguous. They both have assumptions about each other that erupt into conflict. He thinks he has entitlements; she is willing to please him but she wants to choose it, not to owe him. A man not in the habit of reflecting on his motives and behaviour, Saul isn’t very good at expressing himself either and their communication is hampered still further by her lapses into French when her English fails her. There are moments which will make most readers angry with both characters; there are also scenes so poignant you may weep.
© Lisa Hill
Title: A Soldier’s Tale
Publisher: Harper Collins (New Zealand) 2010
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $22.68
Fishpond: A Soldier’s Tale