Jean Echenoz's 14 is a concise title for a concise book. The fourteen relates to the year World War I began, and the devastation of that war to end wars is the subject of the war itself, plus (to some extent) its aftermath.
The book begins with the main character Anthime walking in the countryside and hearing the tocsin summoning the inhabitants of his small town to join the war. He doesn't hesitate, along with his fishing and drinking friends Bossis, Arcenel and Padioleau, and his elder brother Charles. Charles is the assistant director of the local shoe factory and the lover of the owner's daughter Blanche, and Anthime is the accountant for the business.
They are part of the 93rd infantry, a reference to Victor Hugo's final novel Quatrevingt-treize (published 1874), whose background is the Terror of revolutionary France (1793). Anthime drops this book in the opening pages of 14, which falls open at Hugo's chapter 'Aures habet, et non audiet' ('His ears are open, but he doesn't listen').
Inevitably, this book contains some horrific passages, although it is not without humour, such as the newly enlisted men's concerns about ludicrously ill-fitting military clothing. Some of the descriptions of the battle scenes (perhaps particularly of the man sawn in half vertically) are gruesome and make for an anti-war book, although this is far from the author's only interest: at one point, the narrator recognises that the gore of war has been well covered by writers, and may well come across as (boring) opera.
There is a romantic interest: Blanche has been having a relationship with Charles, and steers him away from the front into aviation, although he is early on killed in a plane crash, never to see his daughter Juliette. And he's not the only one of the five mates who will die, as Bossis is killed on the front and Arcenel innocently wanders off from the camp one day and as a result is caught by the police, tried before a military court and executed by firing squad.
There's also a big criticism of the manufacturers who profit from war, such as Blanche's father's business exploiting the troops by selling the government substandard products.
Anthime loses his right arm (cue for Echenoz to make many digressions on right- and left-handedness and phantom arms) and Padioleau loses his sight (cue for Echenoz to digress about blind people's abilities and disabilities), and surely (OK, I'm a great one for spoilers) the fact that Blanche gives birth to her and Anthime's child (named Charles), born at the time of the final battle of World War I (Mons) is significant of, er... Another great novel by Jean Echenoz.
My other Jean Echenoz posts:
Jean Echenoz: Lac | Chopin's Move
Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Off | I'm Gone
Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Off | I'm Gone (revisited)
Jean Echenoz: Ravel
Jean Echenoz: Courir | Running
Jean Echenoz: Jérôme Lindon