A Soldiers Tale Essay

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.

It’s unforgettable.

© Lisa Hill

Author: M.K.Joseph
Title: A Soldier’s Tale
Publisher: Harper Collins (New Zealand) 2010
ISBN: 9781869508555
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $22.68

Fishpond: A Soldier’s Tale

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Posted in 20th century, FICTION - NEW ZEALAND, France (settings), Harper Collins (NZ), JOSEPH M K, Male authors, New Zealand, NZ 1976, Read in 2012, REVIEWS | Tags: #BookReview, A Soldier's Tale, M.K.Joseph, New Zealand Literature

  1. Listen Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale

    Oct 14, 2009


  • Steven Epp: Former Artistic Director of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Stephen Epp has starred in the acclaimed productions of The Miser, Carmen, Fishtank, Don Juan Giovanni, The Deception and Maria de Buenos Aires. An actor, writer and director, Mr. Epp will be presented by the Southern Theater in the world premiere of a new solo work "The House Can't Stand." It's a story of a lonely mother in search of a future and opens later this month.
  • Stephanie Arado: Assistant Concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra since 1991, Stephanie Arado has been a frequent soloist with the orchestra, most recently in Mendelssohn's Concerto for Violin and Piano with Lydia Artymiw in 2006. Ms. Arado has appeared as soloist with the St. Louis Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Grand Rapids Symphony, Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and for more than ten years she has been a member of the Bakken Trio. Arado received a 2004-05 McKnight Fellowship.

Igor Stravinsky wrote "L'Histoire du Soldat" -- The Soldier's Tale -- in 1918, right in the middle of World War I.

He said the work was meant "to be read, played, and danced." The words are modern, and based on Russian folklore, but the story appears in other cultures, including in Germany with Goethe's Faust.

It's pretty simple - a man sells his soul for the world's riches. In this case, the young soldier trades his violin for a book that tells of the future, but he soon regrets his decision.

Steven Epp, formerly of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, has rewritten the libretto to allow for one actor to tell the tale. He plays the soldier, the devil, the narrator and a mute princess.

The musical ensemble is small - just seven instruments - due to the hardships of the day in securing the finances for large orchestral works. But the intimacy of a small troupe also reflects the tastes of the time. They sound more like a pick-up jazz group in a Cabaret than a classical ensemble in white-tie-and-tails.

Stephanie Arado is Assistant Concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra and a member of the Bakken Trio. She plays the role of the "soldier's soul" -- a very virtuosic and expressive lead part in the ensemble.

Both artists agree that the story is surprisingly universal with a moral that everyone can understand. This is why they have given performances of "L'Histoire" for school children including kindergartners who seem to understand the story too.

The music itself is also remarkably gripping. Off-beat and disruptive, Stravinsky writes in his neo-classic style with clean and straight-forward lines, but shifts the bar-line leaving the listener off-center and adding drama to the story-line.

The ensemble gives their public performances this Sunday to open the Bakken Trio's season. It's at the trio's new home-base, the MacPhail Center for Music. Stephanie and Steve stopped by to talk about the piece and their particular roles with me.

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