Lessons from a Trench Rat
This chapter examines the instinct of self-preservation at the heart of Le Système D (resourceful improvisation). The recourse during the First World War to analogies between soldiers and animals signals not only an attempt on the part of writers to initiate readers into the debased world of the trench, but also a valorization on their part of forms of survival based on instinct. Pierre Chaine’s 1917 novel Les Mémoires d’un rat grapples with questions of patriotism and propaganda through a radically new approach to soldier characterization. The novel takes the form of an autobiography of the trench rat Ferdinand and recounts Ferdinand’s adventures with his master, the poilu Juvenet. Chaine’s novel builds upon the uniquely French twist that was put on the picaresque tradition by Alain-René Lesage (Gil Blas) in the eighteenth century. Chaine’s narrator Ferdinand uses a light and playful tone for talking about the most serious of topics, and the portrait he presents of his master Juvenet’s resistance to brutalization and dehumanization suggests the possibility of a reassuring return to some sort of moral and emotional equilibrium even amid the horrors of war.
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