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A Strange Country
Author: Muriel Barbery


   There was a time when a great war, the grandest strategic game ever played, consumed two fraternal worlds.


   I would like to tell you the story in the proper way, because it cannot be written in one single book. In fact, mankind and the elves would be more at peace with one another if they knew the four Books.


   The four Books came from the four Sources, but they are customarily united in two motifs: murder, on the one hand; and poetry, on the other.


   Book I—Those who have never prayed at night shall be denied the understanding of the price of desire—

   Book II—Those who mistake force for courage shall be denied the privilege of striding through the realm of fear in peace—

   Book III—Those whose eyes have never been burned by beauty shall be denied the right to die in the sun—

   Book IV—But those who set conditions on love shall be granted the right to know the boundlessness of misfortune—


   Who has time to think about the great Books when war is raging and the living are dying? And yet, their pages blend with the song of the earth and the sky, and can be heard in the very heart of battle.




   In these tragic times, a company of elves and humans could hear the winds of dreams and believe in the rebirth of the four Books.


   Among them were two young women, a priest, a painter, and a most remarkable elf, although the memory of centuries would not have retained his name—given his minor ancestry—had he not, during this long war, been the constant catalyst of encounters.


   What follows is the story of the last alliance between humans and elves.




   However, before we begin, let it be known: we who live under the land of Spain are only responsible for the tale of the West. I know that in the East our people do not reside in the depths of the earth, but on the crest of a mountain, in the North on the shores of a frozen sea, and in the South on a plain inhabited by wild animals.


   Who can hear us? We have neither heralds, nor tribunes, nor a face, and we listen to the dead telling us the story we murmur into the ears of the living.








   At the beginning of this tale, the human world had been at war for six years.


   The war was started by a coalition, the Confederation, led by the Italy of Raffaele Santangelo, and which also included, in particular, France and Germany. The rumors of war that had been circulating for several months were swept aside by a large-scale invasion, which flooded the members of the League: Spain, Great Britain, and the countries of northern Europe.


   Spain was an unusual case: the king was the League’s natural ally, but part of his army, which had long been preparing this betrayal, broke away and allied themselves with the Confedera­tion. At the beginning of the war, the regular Spanish troops loyal to the Crown and the League found themselves surrounded by the renegade generals, and Spain was cut off from her allies.


   A remarkable event occurred in 1932, during the first year of the conflict, when an independent civilian resistance was organized in the countries belonging to the Confederation.


   Santangelo’s intentions were clear right from the start. In reaction to the League’s refusal to renegotiate the treaties from the previous war, he set out to redraw Europe’s borders by force. In the name of Italian pride and racial purity, he implemented a policy of mass displacement of the peninsula’s inhabitants. In 1932, he passed laws on ethnic exclusion that would soon be enshrined in the Italian constitution; by 1938, there were camps all over the Europe of the Confederation.




   Alejandro de Yepes was born in the land he was now defending in the snow. Others were fighting for the outcome of the war, but General de Yepes waged war for the tombs and acres of his ancestors, and hardly cared whether the League eventually triumphed or not. He was the native son of a region so poor that its noblemen looked flea-ridden to the rest of Spain; and indeed his father, in his lifetime, had been both thoroughly noble and thoroughly poor. People were starving as, from the promontory of the castillo, they admired the most sublime view in all Extremadura and Castile and León combined, because the fortress was situated on the border between the two provinces and with a single gesture one could release one’s eagles toward Salamanca and Cáceres. Good fortune saw to it that Alejandro would return there after six years of fighting far from home, at a time when Extremadura was becoming pivotal to the major offensive which, it was hoped, would bring an end to the war. What’s more, that same good fortune had enabled the young general to come home a hero, for he had displayed a strategic acumen that defied the understanding of his superiors.


   Superiors who were very worthy. These men knew how to lead and how to fight and they found it easy to hate an enemy who was even more abject than the ones they had fought in the past. They claimed to serve the League as much as they served Spain, divided as she was by treachery, and they had waged both battles at the same time with the bravery that comes with the conviction of the heart. Surprisingly, most of the officers hailed from rural parts of the country, while the cities had sided primarily with the enemy. It was an army made of men accustomed to handling rifles since childhood, and the harshness of their land had made them rugged and wily in action. They chose to side with the League because they shared an allegiance with their ancestors and with the king, and had no qualms about fighting their turncoat brothers. The fact that they were outnumbered ten to one did not worry them; as such, temerity had been their first mistake: a sense of panache inherited from their fathers had compelled the officers to fight in the front line, until voices—including Alejandro’s—insisted they could not send soldiers into battle without leaders. And since those leaders had amply demonstrated their courage, they did without the serenade of honor from then on. No one doubted, anyway, that true honor consists in paying respects to the earth and sky, and that to honor one’s dead, one must live.

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