I enjoyed this battlefield story (which I typically do not like) more and more as I read. It’s set in an unspecified desert during an unspecified time and war. Our first-person narrator is a newbie soldier, a conscript who feels all this messy guarding outposts in the desert stuff is a little beneath him (he packs lots of books so he won’t be bored in the desert equivalent of the boondocks). Minor-Leftenant Hillel is the only Regular Army in the platoon, and he’s fresh out of the Academy. As they head for their destination, first by rail then on foot, the narrator abandons some of his books, regretfully, as he can’t lug them any more. Finally he loses all of them except one, a centuries-old novel set back when his country was being formed, which is a lovely little tale in itself and figures into the resolution. Of course, adding books and an old novel into a story like this gives it great appeal to someone like me, since I’m not likely to enjoy a straight war story. The platoon finally reaches the outpost they are to guard from partisans. We never are sure who the partisans are. Some, perhaps, ride with the train, but we never see any partisans attacking or doing any violence at all: “They rode alongside us and then, only as they passed, did I wonder at the Minor-Leftenant’s description of them as “children”. They were indeed young, but as I looked around at my platoon, I realized that we were younger.”
It’s a tale loaded with ironies like that, partisans who might be there and might not, soldiers killed by friendly fire in chaos, mysterious beasts and ghosts that (like the partisans) may or may not exist. As I read, I thought it was pretty clear that the partisans did not exist, and were used as an “evil empire” to keep the country in line, or perhaps they had existed at one time and now had to be kept going to allow the power structure to retain its control. The author’s Q&A at One Story makes me doubt this (it started as a sort of bedside tale told the comfort a sick friend), but I actually prefer it to his own vision for “what happens next”, so I’ll stick with it.