Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Beautiful Hell of War: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

My review of Andrew Krivak's debut novel, The Sojourn, appears at The Barnes and Noble Review today.  It begins:     
      On the day I finished reading The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak's riveting novel about World War I, the last surviving male veteran of that "war to end all wars" died. Claude Choules was 110 when he passed away at a nursing home in Perth, Australia, and I wonder what he would have thought of Krivak's story about a sniper who undergoes the standard hells of war literature before arriving at uneasy peace with himself on the last page. Though Choules was a seaman with the British Royal Navy, I suspect he shared the same kind of scarred psyche as Jozef Vinich, the Austrian sharpshooter in The Sojourn who comes marching home full of "grief and desolation." Mr. Choules was, after all, a pacifist.
      And isn't that the resonant effect of most war literature--to turn readers' hearts and minds against militarized conflict? There is, of course, a strand of fiction which celebrates and glorifies the act of man killing man, but the most serious and enduring works of literature provoke us to reconsider the ends in light of the means. Think of All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, even Catch-22, and it's the horrors of battle scenes which stick in our memory and pour cold water on delusions of war's grandeur (though nations seem little able to remember the lesson).
      The Sojourn is no exception and, in terms of the power of its prose, deserves to be placed on the same shelf as Remarque, Hemingway and Heller (though you won't find a trace of humor in this sobering novel). Krivak's style is simple, direct, and sedate, but when violence appears, it comes in unforgettable detail.
Click here to read the full review

As always, in the constraints of a review, I'm unable to quote long passages which moved me.  The Sojourn is no exception.  In fact, the margins of my little paperback from Bellevue Literary Press are dark with scribbled stars and arrows.  Here's just one outstanding chunk of Krivak's compelling narrative about Jozef Vinich and his cousin Zlee, both snipers in the Austrian army who come up against entrenched Italian soldiers:     
      At first light on the twelfth of May, we had just come off a week's rest and were sitting in a good hide forward of our main trench, from which we had seen an artillery team in range. We wondered why they had exposed themselves so foolishly, but we never thought to question our luck. The officer was easy to identify as his gunners loaded and aimed their cannon. I reckoned him at 550 yards, a long shot, but Zlee never second-guessed himself, or me. Windage was light and the morning air dry, and Zlee just brushed the trigger and I watched that man's head snap back and body crumble as though it had been relieved of its bones.
      And hell followed: Three thousand guns--long-range, medium-, trench mortars, everything--opened fire on us and every other Austrian position from Plava to the Adriatic for two days straight, so that no one or no thing could run, move, or even breathe, a hell in which I prayed to some lost God that I might die so that the banishment toward it would end as quickly as it had begun.
      They say the earth is a soldier's mother when the shells begin to fall, and she is, at first, your instinct not to run, but to dig and hold and hug as much of that earth as you possibly can, down, down, down into the dirt, with your fingertips, hands, arms, chest, thighs, and feet, until you are like a child clinging with his entire body to comfort after a nightmare.
      But minutes of this, then hours, and days, and you wonder, How many days? Because the earth herself can't stop shaking and disintegrating as the shrieks and howls rain in like otherworldly miscreations on wing who know--know--where you are hiding and want not just to kill but to annihilate you, their hissing and infuriate ruts as they approach the last sound you'll ever hear.
For the next few hours, you can enter to win a copy of The Sojourn here at The Quivering Pen.  But hurry, because the Friday Freebie giveaway ends tonight at midnight.  Click HERE for more details.

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