For the first time, the author introduces us to the heroes of the novel on the eve of how they, as part of the French troops fighting against the fascist conquerors in Flanders, retreat, find themselves captured and sent to a concentration camp for prisoners of war in Germany.

The main characters of the story are a young man named Georges, Captain de Reishak, his distant relative and commander, as well as their colleagues Blum and Iglesia, former de Reishak's jockey, and now his orderly. The plot of the novel has no linear composition. It is built on the memories, assumptions of the characters, as well as on their attempt to compare the events taking place before their eyes or captured in their memory with the events of a century and a half ago.

Mother Georges, Sabina, belongs to the sideline of the old noble family of de Reishak, which is incredibly proud of. Her family lives in the inherited family castle. Among other relics and documents collected by Sabina, the castle contains a portrait of one of her ancestors, who, according to legend, because of his wife's infidelity, committed suicide with a pistol shot and was found in the bedroom by a servant who came running to the sound of the shot completely naked. As a child, Georges looked at this portrait in a gilded frame with vague anxiety and fear, because on the forehead of the ancestor depicted on it there was a red hole from which blood flowed in a stream. In the endless stories Sabina told him about the de Reishaks, he saw the image of the whole family. So Georges did not even need to meet with de Reishak himself, who remained completely alone from the whole family, and four years before the events described in the novel, he married under a scandalous whisper to Corinne, a young girl of very dubious reputation. She forced him to retire from military service, to buy a huge black car for joint trips, and to her - a racing car and a racehorse. Following the acquisition of the horse, she began close communication with the jockey Iglesia, a man of very unattractive appearance, which aroused burning jealousy in de Reishak. Soon de Reishak was drafted into the army and, despite his suspicions, arranged for the jockey to be his orderly, that is, he would still remain subordinate to him.

Georges, once in the army, falls under the command of de Reishak, who receives a letter from Sabina, Georges' mother, asking him to take care of her son. Her letter enrages Georges. He does not have time to take part in the battles, since his squad is forced to retreat under the onslaught of the enemy. At first, this takes place under the leadership of de Reishak. However, he increasingly loses any desire to fulfill his command duties. According to Georges, all his behavior, his fatalism and serenity in the face of danger testify to his desire to end his existence, since only death seems to him a way out of the situation in which he put himself, having married four years ago to Corinne.

The cavalry detachment of de Reishak moves across Flanders, observing the traces left by the war on all its roads. The roadsides are littered with the corpses of people, animals, things that their owners left on the roads, being unable to drag them further.

In one village, where the detachment stops for a halt awaiting orders from the command, Georges and his friends observe a clash between two men over a young woman whose husband is at war. The husband's brother with a gun is trying to ward off the insolent boyfriend from his daughter-in-law and to protect the honor of the family. Georges, it seems to him, manages to notice her milky-pale silhouette in the hour before dawn, and another time - the fluttering of the curtain behind which she? allegedly recently stood, and this is enough for him to remember this girl in the most difficult moments of life full of hardships and imagine that he is not alone and will be warmed by the warmth of her love.

Order from the command of de Reishak cannot wait, and he decides to move with his squad in search of the surviving units of the French army. On the way to one of the villages, they see a funeral procession. All its members take the detachment with hostility, and only one woman, taking pity on the cavalrymen, shows them the way free of the enemy. Soon, from behind the fence, he begins to scribble a machine gun. Reishak, sitting on a horse, only manages to bare his saber, but the bullets overtake him and he dies. The cavalrymen scatter, and Georges continues on his way with only one Iglesia. They make their way into what they think is empty house and want to look for some civilian clothes in it. A lonely old man finds himself in the house, who only after threats agrees to give it to Georges and Iglesia. Together with them, he gets to the nearest inn, where all three, drunk from juniper vodka, spend the night.

The next morning, Georges and Iglesia, sensing the approach of the enemy, try to hide in the woods. But they do not succeed in escaping, they are grabbed and thrown into a carriage full of captured Frenchmen for transporting cattle. Anyone who gets into this car, incredibly slow moving towards Germany, it seems that he will not be able to breathe its fetid, stale air for more than a few seconds. Without food or drink, Georges and Iglesia will have to spend many days here. After a while, Blum, Georges' comrade in the detachment, gets into the same carriage. Georges shares with him the last crust of bread.

All three soon find themselves in a concentration camp, where Georges and Iglesia (Blum dies after a while) will have to spend five years. In the camp, life flows according to its own laws. The prisoners are used in excavation work, paying them pitiful camp pennies. For faults and negligence in their work, they are punished in a sophisticated way. Once, taking advantage of the inattention of the sentry, Georges tries to escape, but the hunters find him sleeping in the forest and send him back.

Wanting at least to occupy time with something, Georges and Blum are trying to pull from Iglesia new details of his relationship with Corinne de Reishak. Blum draws parallels between the fate of Captain de Reishak and his ancestor, depicted in the portrait in the house of Georges, for Georges told him about him in detail. Blum invents more and more new circumstances of his life and death, trying through one de Reishak to understand the other, to understand their generic features.

After his release, Georges lives in his parents' house and works on the land. One day he meets with Corinna, whose thoughts supported him in moments of difficult trials. According to her behavior, as well as the behavior of Iglesia, it is difficult to assert that everything the jockey said about his relationship with Corinna is true.