Book Review: Andrew Krivak's The Sojourn
In Andrew Krivak’s debut novel, a teenaged sniper witnesses the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
Set in a world that has faded from living memory, The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak is a searing coming-of-age story about a sharpshooter in the Austrian Army on the Italian front in the First World War. A finalist for the 2011 National Book Award, this taut, densely packed novel ranges across rugged physical and emotional terrain, bringing the horrors of war into crystal-clear focus in the crosshairs of a sniper’s sight.
Inspired by the experiences of Krivak’s Slovak grandparents, The Sojourn tells the tale of Jozef Vinich, who by the age of 19 has already traversed continents and oceans. Born to immigrants in a Colorado mining town at the tail end of the 19th century, the infant Jozef loses his mother in a shocking accident recounted in the novel’s prologue that he himself survives almost as if rescued by fate.
Shadowed by this tragedy and further misfortunes, Jozef’s father takes his young son back to his native village in the Carpathian Mountains in a remote corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To give Jozef a mother, he marries a widow with two brutish sons. But this marriage of convenience is disastrous, and Jozef’s father soon retreats to the mountains to herd sheep, leaving his young son behind to be neglected and abused by his stepfamily.
When Jozef is old enough, his father takes him with him to the mountains. Later, they are joined by a cousin, a tough boy called Zlee, who forms a tight fraternal bond with Jozef. Jozef’s father teaches the boys to live at one with nature, to hunt and to speak and read English. In their shepherd’s hut they pore over tattered copies of Walden, Moby-Dick, Whitman’s poems and the memoirs of General Ulysses S. Grant.
Both boys become excellent shots, but to be a good hunter requires more than the ability to hit a target. Jozef’s father teaches the boys how to track prey without being detected, and instills in them the patience to wait for the right moment to strike. They learn to observe and evaluate every element of the hunt: "Which way was the wind blowing? Where was the sun? What was my target? How big or how far away? Was it moving or stationary? Distracted or attentive? At work or rest? Could it see, hear, or smell me? Could I have slipped away from where I hid as easily as if I’d stayed, unknown, unnoticed, and unafraid?"
In 1916, Jozef and Zlee, now teenagers, are conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army. Given their skills as marksmen, they become snipers, trained not simply to kill, but to hunt other men. They are taught to look for indicators of rank on their human quarry, such as field glasses or an old-school scarf, and then to aim for the teeth. Their instructor advises them: "Find in yourselves the will to remain calm, silent and alert. Then kill as though it were your only chance to live."
Jozef and Zlee are sent to Mount Santo on the Italian front, where "men barely seemed to touch the ground as they entered battle and died in one seamless move, so thickly strewn with bodies were these hills." The battlefield scenes are harrowing. Krivak describes the gore and arbitrariness of the slaughter at close range, but he avoids any hint of sensationalism. There is no glory on these killing fields, only dread, uncertainty, and a disquieting awareness of the randomness of life and death.
Equally riveting is Jozef and Zlee’s torturous winter trek on skis and snowshoes through the Carinthian Alps and the Dolomites to the Austrian encampment at Lake Garda. Led by a band of hardened mountaineers, their journey becomes a battle to survive. Not all do.
At the lake, the cousins meet their match in a tense face-off with a sniper who has been picking off Austrian scouts with preternatural efficiency. This battle of wits and weapons is as suspenseful as any contemporary thriller.
Until this point, Krivak ably sustains both the tension of the story and his masterful command of language. But in The Sojourn’s final section, covering Jozef’s capture and imprisonment by Italian troops and his long walk home to the Carpathians, he falters.
There are too many chance encounters with benevolent enemies and kind-hearted prison guards, and a whirlwind romance of sorts with a pregnant Roma girl suggesting redemption through love is a bit too neat. So too is the ending, with its vision of America as the land of hope and new beginnings.
The Sojourn is generously larded with references to some of Western literature’s greatest classics of war and wandering, but it is Virgil’s Aeneid, itself a conscious emulation of both The Illiad and The Odyssey, that resonates most strongly. Aeneas, who like Jozef was "exiled by fate and came to Italy", embodies altruistic duty – to the gods, to his homeland, to his men and to his family – and especially to his father. Krivak seems to have something similar in mind for Jozef, but it doesn’t quite add up.
Moreover, Krivak stumbles badly when he puts the Aeneid’s immortal first line – Arma virumque cano (I sing of arms and a man) – into the mouth of a wraithlike old man called Banquo, himself a heavy-handed reference to MacBeth. It is altogether too portentous and overwrought.
Although Jozef occasionally raises questions about the point of war ("Where is God in all this, Father?"), they are never meaningfully explored. Surprisingly, Jozef seems to give little thought to the consequences of taking human life, even killing deserters from his own side unquestioningly:
"I never once wondered who those men might be, if they were in love with anyone or if they had families. They were the enemy, and they would stand and fight and try to kill as many men as I might pass in the night to or from the trenches that separated us not just in battle but – we were told – by the will of God, and so I killed as I had been instructed and believed that death and death alone would save me."
This declaration, coming from someone steeped in the writings of Whitman and Thoreau who was raised by a man who has lost his faith, rings false. Jozef’s father did not teach him to be blindly obedient but to think for himself, so Jozef’s actions don’t fully square with his character. Wouldn’t such a man be likely to experience self-doubt, or even internal torment, about his work as a sniper? The men Jozef killed were not dehumanized strangers, but individuals whose movements he tracked and whose faces he studied through his rifle sight. Yet a scene in which he is briefly plagued by dreams of the dead seems altogether too pat.
Still, Krivak has packed an absorbing story of loss and survival into less than 200 pages.
He writes with economy and restraint in prose that is lyrical yet unsentimental. Although the powerful writing, pacing and tension that Krivak displays in the early sections of the novel are not sustained, The Sojourn is an admirable debut.
by Andrew Krivak
Bellevue Literary Press (2011)