There will, unfortunately, always be a need for books about war, and this need takes many forms. In The Sojourn (Bellevue Literary Press, 191 pages), Andrew Krivak successfully defends the parish of the novel. Although the harsh imperatives of history require much sifting of facts, places and victims—synthesis and hindsight are essential, as part of our troubled species’ perverse CV—the novel, with its relentless subjectivity and its bloody-minded insistence on the plight of individuals, brings its own kind of necessary testimony.
The Sojourn tells the story of Jozef Vinich, a sharpshooter in the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War. Although his parents had emigrated to America and Jozef was born in Colorado, their life to the U.S. is a short-term, disastrous experiment, as his mother dies in a freakish accident, and his father, Ondrej, has troubles of his own. Soon Jozef and his father return to Europe, where Jozef grows up in a remote corner of the northwestern Carpathians, an unforgiving place of poverty, ignorance and dour peasants, where the urge to kill someone with a pitchfork is, in the local context, quite understandable.
Krivak’s descriptive powers are evident from the outset, though the novel’s early episodes seemed to me somewhat desultory, moving from depictions of brutal villagers to pastoral moments in a mountain shepherd’s life to a quasi-mythical anecdote about a mountain lion. The descriptions of Ondrej’s insistence on speaking English in the wilderness of his home country and reading Walden and Moby-Dick aloud to young Jozef struck me as implausible, as did the timely dream-sequences involving Jozef’s mother. Fortunately, these devices don’t trouble the story as a whole.
The novel takes off with the arrival of Jozef’s adoptive brother Zlee, who is “as indomitable as he was bereft of guile.” He is a memorable character who “moves easily and without disturbance from blithe to fearsome when the time comes to act.” When war breaks out and the brothers are called up to serve the empire, they are a pair of Slovaks in a company of Czechs and Bosnians, as well as Tiroleans who despise them. Because of their prowess as sharpshooters, the brothers are spared the certain death of an assignment to the trenches, and manage for a time to find a comparatively safer niche. Krivak’s descriptions of war do not seek a stripped-down, rat-a-tat-tat realism; instead, his style relies on sinuous syntax and accretion. Consider this passage:
The whole of summer, battle raged, the bloody stalemate of attack and counterattack proving ineffective for all but the winnowing of souls, so that I came to believe that our stand there on the Soča could not survive, and I wondered more darkly in the back of my mind if we—our empire, our army, the land on which my father had taught me, too, how to survive—had been abandoned by the emperor’s God for some sin long forgotten or even unknown to those of us sent to atone for it, an atonement Zlee and I were yet kept from by the simple fact that we were a more useful tool kept alive, though all it would take was for one of us to be hit by a shell, or brought down by something as simple as dysentery, and the other would be useless and so sacrificed.
One sentence—containing not only the long battle but the faltering sense of national identity, religious sanction and filial purpose. Krivak is a writer preoccupied with the muchness of existence, the elusiveness of answers, and the human capacity for contradiction. Jozef is a good sharpshooter and he unquestioningly kills Italians without the slightest qualm. Only later does he wonder about them as individuals. He can regret his contempt for his father but there is no doubt of its sincerity at the time. The Sojourn follows his adventures as his side is routed, he survives by luck, and he is taken as a prisoner of war to Sardinia. Later, on the long trek home, he takes up with pregnant Roma girl and witnesses other atrocities.
At their best, these anecdotes attain a quality that is both brooding and visceral, reminiscent of Isaac Babel. Krivak shows the vulnerability of individual soldiers like Jozef as well as the brutality of the mass and, in the process, successfully dramatizes a terrible mystery. The Sojourn doesn’t presume to say what the war meant; but it does a good job of communicating how, for one man, it might have felt.
—Charles Holdefer, author of Back in the Game, 2012