My name is Gérard Duval, and I am dead.
I know I am dead, though the enemy who killed me is still trying to help, still trying to staunch the bleeding and, if I can understand his language correctly, telling me that it will be all right. I can tell he doesn’t really believe it, and he’s right; I don’t believe it either.
I can’t see the enemy – I can no longer really see anything – just a silhouette against the night sky, picked out against the background of searchlights and the reflections of exploding shells. Or is it still night? I’m not sure. It could be broad daylight already, and I might be no longer able to tell light from dark.
All I can feel is the struggle to breathe, dragging each gulp of air down into my lungs, and the cold. Even the pain has ebbed, giving way to the cold spreading over my body, from my midsection where the enemy stabbed me.
I still don’t remember exactly how that happened. I can remember the patrol across no man’s land, the sudden shelling, the desperate retreat. I heard a shell coming over, and threw myself down into the nearest shell hole for cover. I saw a shadow, moving, felt a hard blow in my gut, and then I was lying with my face in the mud and a silhouette of a helmeted enemy scrambling away from me on the other side of the hole.
Just this morning, I’d seen the outline of a helmet like that against the dawn sky, the flattened top and the flared skirts to the sides, peeking over the parapet of a trench; and I’d squeezed my trigger and the helmet had disappeared. I wonder if it had been this particular one of the enemy I’d shot at, and, if only I’d killed him, I might not now be dead.
It’s pointless thinking about that. There are thousands upon thousands of the enemy, and if it wasn’t this one, it might have been another. I’ve killed many of them, and one man couldn’t possibly kill them all.
One man shouldn’t even have to try.
I can feel wetness under me. I can’t tell any longer if it’s blood or just water, if it’s hot or cold. Does it matter? I’m dead anyway.
The enemy holds something to my mouth; water seeps over my tongue. He’s saying something again, explaining, apologising. He sounds young. Maybe he’d be the same age as my brother Jean would have been if only he’d lived to grow up. And if Jean had lived to grow up, he’d probably end in a shell hole, gasping his life out, just like me.
The enemy has unbuttoned my uniform and is trying to bandage me. His hands move lightly over my breast, pressing, trying to undo the damage his knife has done. I can understand enough of his language that, if I could talk, I’d tell him that it doesn’t matter, it’s done, over with. I wish I could see his face, just once.
I wish I could see his face.
I have no hard feelings towards this young man, this part of the enemy. He’s as much to blame for killing me as an earthquake would be, or the cancer, or the cholera which wracks the trenches. It wasn’t he who plucked me from my village, put me in my blue uniform, stuck a rifle in my hand and sent me out to kill. It wasn’t I who took him from his school and put him in his grey uniform, stuck a rifle in his hand and sent him out to kill. I don’t even know if there was any person who was responsible for this; wars, it seems to me, are as inevitable as the tide, and as inexorably sweeps away those of us who are unlucky enough to be in its path.
Right now, in the trenches over on my side, Marcel will be looking anxiously across the wire for me. I can imagine his face, the brow furrowed in dismay, the drooping ginger moustache which he sucks when he’s got a good hand at cards, without even knowing he’s doing it. Marcel is a good man, a good comrade, and he’ll mourn for me, even though he’s seen a hundred others of us go where I’m going now.
It strikes me that Marcel might be dead, that he might have been blown apart by one of the shells during the bombardment. It’s a startling thought; I’d never imagined I’d survive Marcel. He seems to be one of those who endures forever.
Then, suddenly, it feels a bit better. I’m standing on a hillside. It’s night, but I can recognise this hillside, it’s the one above the old village, and down below me I can see the familiar lights, the flickering lamps in the windows. I can even see my own house, up above the butcher’s. Marie will be getting dinner ready by now, and fretting that I’m so late coming back from the printing works. But it couldn’t be helped, there was the rush order, and I’ve spent all day on it and will be spending all of tomorrow too. I hope I can get home in time to talk to Sophie before she goes to sleep. A daughter needs to catch sight of her father once in a while at least. Next week is her birthday, I remember suddenly. I must get something for her.
I work too hard, Marie keeps saying. But then at least my work is good, honest work, I tell her, work a man shouldn’t be ashamed of doing. A typesetter at a printing works has never harmed anybody.
“Don’t go to sleep yet, Sophie,” I say, walking briskly down the path. It’s a cold night, and I feel myself shivering, and then I’m not shivering anymore.
And now it’s springtime and the sun is shining, and I’m sitting with Marie in the park, and Sophie is dancing on the grass before us, and I see a young man walk up from the river. I know him, I know him well, even though I’ve never seen his face. I get up to welcome him, and he runs to me, and we hug, we hug each other tight, as though we’ll never let each other go.
The sun is shining and we’re comrades, and there’s never been a war, there’s never been a knife in a shellhole and death in the muddy water and a young voice beseeching, apologising. That was a bad dream, and it’s over now, or maybe it never was there at all.
I am Gérard Duval, and I am dead.
Note to reader: A few days ago, I’d written a review of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, in which I’d expressed my admiration of the book. A day or two ago I suddenly thought of a project on the sidelines of my usual writing – a graphic novel of All Quiet, where each page would comprise a painting showing a scene from the book, with narration boxes above and below the image.
Yes, I said painting. Not cartoons/comic strip drawing. That’s not what I intended at all.
Obviously, this would be a major project, which would be fairly pointless unless I could get a publisher to commit to the idea; and I am far from certain it would work even then. However, I am also convinced that it’s a project thoroughly worth doing.
Accordingly, I’ve decided to paint some of my favourite scenes from the book or the next few weeks, as a demo to show what could be done. In these paintings I’ve set some rules for myself, which I intend to adhere to strictly:
1.The paintings will be acrylic and/or gouache on paper only. No other material will be used.
2. The paintings will be brushwork only. I’m not even going to use pencil outlines. There will absolutely be no use of any kind of image manipulation software under any circumstances.
3. I am not going to look for realism but to show (my interpretation of) the what I might call emotion of the scene. It will probably take me out of my comfort zone, but that’s part of what makes it worthwhile.
Accordingly, here’s my painting of the famous scene (from Chapter Nine of All Quiet if I remember right) of Paul Bäumer and the French printer-turned soldier, Gérard Duval, he killed. It’s one of the most powerful bits of anti-war writing ever, and drenched in anger and sorrow.
A thought – if today’s “warriors” had to fight hand to hand, and see the faces of the men they killed, and stay by their sides during their last hours, (instead of, you know, blowing apart video screen images from air conditioned bunkers on the other side of the planet) would the warmongers of the world have such an easy time with their imperialist invasions?
Even if the plan for the graphic novel doesn’t work out, I can get some stories out of it, like the one above. Those who have been reading me for a while will be aware of my love of chronicling the side actors of history; the story of the anonymous refugee, the clerk, the kamikaze, the guard at the concentration camp, the child in a world turned bitter and hostile. And, of course, painting is one of the few ways of reducing stress and depression that I have available to me.
Wish me luck.
Title: Slayer and Slain
[I have chosen this title because, as anyone who’s read All Quiet will be aware, the French soldier wasn’t the only one who died in the shellhole; arguably, something vital in Paul Bäumer died along with him. In fact one might wonder who it was who actually ended up better off afterwards. And accordingly I tried to give them the same expressions of agony and horror.]
Material: Acrylic on Paper.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016