A brutal tale of the exploits of French commandos on the Great War's Bulgarian front
First published in 1934, Roger Vercel's novel Captain Conan was awarded the Prix Goncourt for its unflinching assessment of the toll fierce combat had taken on the youth of France. Largely autobiographical and told from the perspective of a young lieutenant, the book follows the exploits of a French commando unit attacking Bulgarian outposts along the Romanian border. The unit is led by the twenty-three-year-old Captain Conan, a haberdasher's son who finds his calling as a fearless killer ready to crawl through barbed wire and slit the throats of his enemies on midnight raids. Based on Vercel's comrade to whom the book is dedicated, Conan is loyal only to his men, as all notions of patriotism are lost in place of the fraternity and brutality needed for survival and success in this close, bloody combat.
News of the Armistice is slow to reach the Bulgarian front, and when it comes, it changes little. Conan and his men are redeployed to Bucharest to maintain the peace, but they do more harm than good. For them the city is just another battlefield to be conquered. Conan's soldiers have become murderers, thieves, and rapists, and Conan himself is charged with injuring his lover's husband, a Romanian major. But the major withdraws the charges, and Conan leaves Bucharest when the French are called to combat Lenin and Trotsky's guerrilla forces along the Ukrainian border. Conan and his men, now facing their former Russian allies, have lost all ideals of honorable battle and are reduced to serving as mindless weapons to be moved about on the field. Conan becomes the hero of his final fight, but Vercel shows us that there is no happy homecoming for a trained killer—only isolation, loneliness, and nostalgia for battles Conan never fully understood.
Ted Morgan's introduction to this new edition maps the public reception of Vercel's novel and places the book in the larger context of World War I combat literature.
The French novelist Roger Vercel (1894–1957) wrote numerous books, including the maritime tales In Sight of Eden and Tides of Mont St.-Michel.
Ted Morgan is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and the author of biographies of Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, William S. Burroughs, and others. His biography Maugham was a 1982 finalist for the National Book Award.