Andrew Krivak's first novel is a riveting first-person account of an old man recalling his remarkable life, from infancy in Colorado in 1899, to growing up in what is now the Czech Republic -- at the time, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- to fighting the Italians and their allies in the horrific trench warfare of World War I.
Death comes frequently and easily throughout "The Sojourn." The boy, christened Jozef Vinich, never really knew his mother, who died in a spectacular accident in which he miraculously survived. Soon afterward, he traveled with his father, Ondrej, to Pennsylvania to stay with relatives. There Ondrej's beloved Krag rifle -- the first of many rifle references in this slender novel -- contributed to a hunting partner's accidental death, which forced Ondrej's sudden return to Slovakia with his infant son.
Jozef came of age in rural Austria-Hungary, where he was raised in a household with a stingy stepmother and mean stepbrothers, but also with a loving father. Ondrej returned to shepherding, spending half the year in the mountains (he "seemed content and almost grateful to have to take up what was the loneliest existence a man could live in that part of the old country"); eventually he brought Jozef with him and taught him marksmanship and other outdoor survival skills. Soon they were joined by a slightly older boy, Zlee, who "was as indomitable as he was bereft of guile," and quickly Jozef and Zlee became as close as brothers.
Their world shifted dramatically when Zlee turned 18 in 1916 and entered the military, with underage Jozef, in camaraderie, joining as well with forged documents. With superior shooting skills, they were paired as a crack sniper team, one a spotter, the other a shooter. Their job was to kill enemy machine gunners, cannon operators and, occasionally, snipers; and they also were ordered to kill deserters from their own ranks.
Krivak's account of the war is terrifying and brutal: After the snipers fired, a barrage of enemy artillery bombardment often followed, sometimes for days at a time ("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").
Andrew Krivak has created a captivating, thoughtful narrative based on stories learned from his grandfather, who was the model for Jozef; many of the incredible events told here actually happened to him. "The Sojourn" is a painful and poignant reminder of how humanity was so greatly affected by what was once called the war to end all wars, which sadly turned out not to be the case.
Jim Carmin reviews fiction for the Star Tribune and the Oregonian, and poetry for Cerise Press, Oregon Humanities and Solar Mirage. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.