“It is the most touching, the cruelest story of the war that I tell, a story of the purest and most brutal symbolism.” In these words, written in the 1930s, the French journalist Paul Bringuier revealed to his readers the tale of a “living unknown soldier,” the man they called “Anthelme Mangin.” But in his excellent book, Jean-Yves Le Naour shows how much more touching and cruel this man’s real story was, and how impure its symbolism became. Le Naour has achieved the most piercing account I have ever read of the ghosts who crowd the landscape after a modern war.

They found him, so Bringuier related, in a railroad station at Lyon. It was early morning on February 1, 1918. A hospital train bringing exchanged prisoners of war from Germany had arrived at Lyon-Brotteaux a few hours before, but its occupants had long since been welcomed by their families and taken away. Only one man remained, wandering along the silent platforms.

They asked him who he was, but he could only mumble. He was wearing the remains of a French uniform, but the unit tags were all missing. In his pockets, there was no money and no identity papers, nothing but a cigarette lighter made out of an old cartridge case. He was young, perhaps in his late twenties, and had a dark mustache. The railroad staff saw that he was sick, scarcely aware of his surroundings.

They summoned army medics. Equally baffled, the military doctors sent the stranger to a mental hospital at Bron, on the Lyon outskirts. At one point, when asked who he was, he muttered a reply. It was very indistinct, but sounded roughly like “Anthelme Mangin.” So Anthelme Mangin he became.

He was to remain confined in France’s grim empire of psychiatric hospitals for twenty-four years, until his death in 1942. Most of his time was spent in an asylum at Rodez, in the hills of the Aveyron, whose director was Dr. Fenayrou, an exceptionally humane and patient physician. Given the storms of emotion and publicity which were to break over him, Mangin was lucky to have such a protector.

For Anthelme Mangin was about to become a celebrity. The mystery of his identity converged with the grief and guilt of a nation trying to overcome the trauma of the war, the delusions of bereaved families unable to accept their losses, and the fascination of intellectuals who were to construct a small genre of literature around “the only truly free man, as he was without past, without memory, without hatred….” Jean Anouilh wrote a play about him, Traveler Without Luggage, staged in 1937. The Mangin case also became political, as the extreme nationalist right and the liberal left took up the causes of rival claimants to family relations with him. It became a legal legend, as French courts wrangled for years over what should be done with him. And it became a feast for the French press. New “revelations” about him, almost all…

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