Jean-Christophe Rufin; Trans. Adriana Hunter

The Red Collar by Jean-Christophe Rufin, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, is a novella with a straightforward plot and few characters.

The year is 1919 in a small town in France. A young man is in a military prison for committing an unspecified crime after the end of the war. His mangy, battle-scarred dog is outside, barking incessantly for his master. Along comes a military lawyer who is tasked with investigating the man’s crime and determining his fate. Added to the mix is the young man’s former lover and the father of his young child.

In the sweltering heat, the lawyer questions the prisoner and slowly unravels the story of his participation in the different campaigns during the war. We learn of the prisoner’s increasing disenchantment with the war, of the incompetence of military commanders, of the sheer drudgery and apparent futility of troop movements, and of the nascent stirrings of communism within the ranks. We learn the dog never leaves his master’s side and witnesses and/or actively participates in the some of the campaigns. He is loyal to his master and singularly focused on saving his life.

As the narrative unravels, we learn about the prisoner’s commendation as a hero of the war. We learn of the role the dog played in a crucial campaign. And, finally, we learn of the “crime” for which the prisoner faces the death sentence. The plot is simple, simply told, and with few characters. But what emerges from this simple narrative is a moving illustration of the meaning of love, loyalty, integrity, and sacrifice in times of crisis.

Rufin, a founder of the humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, and winner of the 1997 Goncourt Prize for a debut novel, has constructed a poignant novella based on a true-life anecdote revealed to him by a former colleague. He turns his lens away from the trenches of World War I to the women, children, and animals who suffer during a war. He reminds us of the indiscriminate impact of war. It is not just the men, women, and animals serving on the battle lines who are indelibly scarred by war. War also scars those who are left behind to pick up the pieces and who struggle with whatever semblance of normalcy they can salvage after the devastating loss of loved ones.

Highly recommended for the simplicity and subtlety with which it conveys the enduring aftermath of war.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review