A World War I sniper's dreams of glory collide with the terrible reality of combat.
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"The Sojourn" is told in three parts and Krivak paces his cadence to the beat of a three-act play, beginning with a prologue set in 1899 in a Colorado mining town where Jozef’s father, a Slovak immigrant, oversees the smelter. The opening section ends with a shocking scene in which Jozef’s mother is killed on a train trestle, as she tosses the infant into the river below to save him. As the main part of the book starts, we find Jozef and his father have eventually moved back to the “ol’ kawntree,” to a small village “in the northeast corner of the Hungarian Empire.” The elder Vinich retreats to the pastoral life of a shepherd. He raises his son to be a hunter who can become invisible against the earth – a trait that will later serve him well as a sniper.Skip to next paragraph
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As a restless youth tending sheep on the hillside, Jozef filled himself with “the imagined valor of heroic battles, and the thought that death would be a thing I doled out to others who dared resist.” He’s determined to leave home as soon as he can so he can forge a better path in life than his father, the failed miner-cum-shepherd. “I wanted to become what he was not.” As he sets out on that path early in the book, Krivak makes a point of telling us how Jozef’s head swims with the glory of war:
"When we went back down to Pastvina for the winter in 1914, all we heard was talk of the war. Boys a few years older than I wore their cadet uniforms daily, and men from our village marched off to the conscription office in Eperjes to join the fight against the Russians on the eastern front. There was a fever rising, and not just for battle. Young men, as always, sensed a chance to leave the boredom of their villages and see to the borders of the empire and beyond, but this time their departure was imminent, and so they lived and worked and moved in a tension between excitement and rage. Or maybe I’m just remembering what the thoughts of war began to evoke in me."
There’s little doubt, even at this point, that Krivak is setting the stage for the character’s metamorphosis from starry-eyed recruit to hollow-eyed veteran. Jozef is barely in uniform before he’s filled with “a hard and intractable anger.” The transformation is predictable, but thanks to the author’s surefootedness as a stylist, it’s never obvious or overbearing. "The Sojourn" is a short, dense novel, but it’s also one which pulls us in and never lets us go. The narrative is cropped of frills and Krivak packs each sentence with as much information as he can. For instance, just look at the range of detail and movement of emotion in this one sentence in which Jozef describes his role as a sniper:
"We were hunters who already knew how to stalk game in the mountains and forests we had lived in before the war, and who were now being taught to hunt men, observing their numbers, their movements, their skills or the lack of them, their habits, and ultimately their faces – front or back – through the crosshairs of a rifle scope, all so that we might kill them, one at a time, with a silence that terrified them more than anything because it held nothing of the glory they imagined they’d find in battle."
A few pages later, there’s this horribly precise description of the sniper's work:
"We were trained to make head shots and aimed for the teeth, which seems ludicrous until, on a cold morning, across the distance of a valley through refracted light, you can suddenly see a man’s breath, see that he’s speaking to a comrade, or perhaps only to himself, having a smoke, singing a song he loves, or maybe giving voice to some prayer, words that will be his last."