A World War I sniper's dreams of glory collide with the terrible reality of combat.
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In "The Sojourn,"The Sojourn, war can be beautiful on the page, but hell in contemplation. As a writer, Krivak approaches combat with the placid nature of a Zen master – calmly, patiently knocking down the marble statues erected to glorify battles. His Jozef is on an odyssey from gung-ho Soldat to steel-hearted sniper to conscience-stricken prey-on-the-run to bedraggled prisoner-of-war. It’s no accident "The Sojourn"'s epigraph comes from "The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth’s 1932 masterpiece about disillusionment amid the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.Skip to next paragraph
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But if it sounds like the The Sojourn leaves one confronting a pessimistic, glass-half-empty view of life, Krivak's greatest feat is to steer the reader in the opposite direction. By the end of the novel, with all that Jozef has gone through – coming of age on a battlefield, a laborious trek across the Alps, starvation in a post-war landscape – the glass is half full with grace and redemption. The final paragraph finds Jozef on a steamer bound for America as it pulls away from the port in Hamburg:
"The ship slipped her lines and a tug nudged her into mid-river, where she stalled briefly, waiting to see that everything that lay before her on the course below was clear. Then Hamburg, and Europe, and all her empires, all I had ever known – the only ground that up until then had fed me, the only well from which I had drunk – receded in slow swaths of wash and sky as we surrendered to the outgoing tide on the Elbe."
One of "The Sojourn"'s most telling points about warfare is made by a fellow prisoner where Jozef is being held after capture by Italian soldiers:
"….he believed that nothing proved truer in the course of one’s life than a man’s incessant need to fight – even when convinced that he wants nothing more than peace – against someone, something, some other, so that he doesn’t go to his grave having lived to no purpose.
'I have had enough of my purpose,' I said.
'Well then, welcome to death,' he said, and smiled, so that his aged teeth looked like slabs of white marble, and I did indeed feel vanquished."
Those tombstone teeth might be putting too fine a point on it, but on the whole Krivak has written an anti-war novel with all the heat of a just-fired artillery gun. And for many readers it is likely to burn away any notion of the romance of combat.
David Abrams is a book critic for The Barnes & Noble Review.