Yesterday was this blog’s fourth anniversary, but more importantly, it was Remembrance Day. This is a day that unites my birth country and my adoptive country through shared history, and it always reminds me of a passage in Sebastian Faulks‘ Birdsong, which I find incredibly powerful and evocative of the slaughter that the First World War was. I thought I’d share it with you and have a go at translating it, which I really enjoyed. The main character, Elizabeth, is a British woman who goes to the North of France looking for the battlefield where her grandfather died. As she drives across empty fields, she notices a great arch in a field and decides to go and have a closer look at it.
As she came up to the arch, Elizabeth saw with a start that it was written on. She went closer. She peered at the stone. There were names on it. Every grain of the surface had been carved with British names; their chiselled capitals rose from the level of her ankles to the height of the great arch itself; on every surface of every column as as far as her eye could see there were names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundred of yards, over furlongs of stone.
She moved through the space beneath the arch where the man was sweeping. She found the other pillars identically marked, their faces obliterated on all sides by the names that were carved on them.
"Who are those, these…?" She gestured with her hand.
"These?" The man with the brush sounded surprised. "The lost."
"Men who died in this battle?"
"No. The lost, the ones they did not find. The others are in the cemeteries.
"These are just the… unfound?"
She looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as though the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes.
When she could speak again, she said, "From the whole war?"
The man shook his head. "Just these fields." He gestured with his arm.
Elizabeth went and sat on the steps on the other side of the monument. Beneath her was a formal garden with some rows of white headstones, each with a tended plant or flower at its base, each cleaned and beautiful in the weak winter sunlight.
"Nobody told me." She ran her fingers with their red-painted nails back through her thick dark hair. "My God, nobody told me."