It’s the summer of 1919 in a small town in France, and a mangy dog sits outside a makeshift military prison, wailing “methodically, more or less once every three seconds, making a deep sound that was enough to drive you mad.”
His master, war hero Jacques Morlac, is held inside and after following him through the bloody killing fields of World War I, on boats, trains, and on foot, the dog will certainly not abandoned him now.
But Jean-Christophe Rufin’s masterpiece “The Red Collar,” recently translated from the French and made available in the States through Europa editions, is about more than an animal’s devotion. It’s a clean, heartbreaking examination of the utter complications of loyalty, particularly in times of war: how being loyal can turn a soldier both into a man and an animal.
“He had become a soldier to serve mankind. Which was a misunderstanding, of course.”
There is a small cast of characters: the imprisoned Morlac; the sympathetic judge who interviews him; Morlac’s country lover whose beautiful eyes shine with defiance; and, of course, the dog who holds the key to each character’s future, as well as their past transgressions.
Simply stated, this is a novel not to be missed. The details of Morlac’s crime are carefully doled out as finely placed breadcrumbs, resulting in a fast paced novel that is made up solely of conversations, memories and observations. There is little live action in “The Red Collar,” but combined with Rufin’s heartbreakingly clean sentences and poignant reflections on the battles waged both mentally and physically by soldiers, “The Red Collar” is a story so haunting and powerful that it hits as hard and true as a blast from a shell.
We don’t often consider loyalty in our day to day lives: its importance, its many forms. Rufin gently nudges us in the direction of reflection and, if we have the good sense, we’ll follow — like a faithful dog.