In the opening pages of this powerful, assured first novel, a desperate mother throws her baby into a river. An act of madness? Quite the contrary. It is the only possible way to save the child’s life. Packed with violence and death, yet wonderfully serene in its tone, Andrew Krivak’s “The Sojourn” — shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award — reminds us that one never knows from where the blow will fall and that, always, in the midst of life we are in death:
“His foot slipped from the poor hold he had chosen on the next step and he pitched forward and began to slide and spin sideways down the hill, letting go of the rifle, which picked up its own speed and outstripped him as it dropped straight and slammed into a rock not twenty yards from my father and went off, shooting the man through the heart. He was dead before he came to rest.”
Although “The Sojourn” starts in Colorado at the very end of the 19th century, most of its action takes place in Central Europe in the years before, during and after World War I. In the wake of three sudden deaths, Ondrej Vinich abandons his plans for a new life in America and takes his young son back home with him to the “ol’ kawntree,” that is, to the Slovakia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So that the boy will have a home, he marries a widow who — in good fairy-tale fashion — spends all the household money on food for her own two sons while starving little Jozef. In a rage, Ondrej, now working as a shepherd, takes Jozef along with him into the mountains. There, year after year, father and son speak only in English, read American books such as the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, and grow in their love for each other. Unexpectedly, this family of two becomes three when a cousin of Ondrej asks him to care for her illegitimate child. Zlee is just a bit older than Jozef, and the two grow up as virtual brothers.
They also grow up as expert marksmen. In one tense and dramatic episode, the two teenage boys hunt a big cat — a lion or puma — that has been ravaging their livestock. Nonetheless, Jozef, who narrates the novel, is slightly in awe of Zlee. His foster brother looked, he tells us, “like some Russian wolfhound, a gaze of regal and indifferent contentment on his face until he pounced, usually to avenge someone weaker who had no means of defending himself, but often enough simply to fight anyone who wore his strength like meanness on a sleeve, and then there was no way of escaping Zlee’s lupine determination to stand and strike, until someone dropped and stayed down.”
When World War I breaks out, the two young men enlist and soon find themselves part of an elite corps of snipers, taught by a wounded veteran named Sgt. Maj. Bucher:
“The sharpshooter should consider himself above rank and disregard it, as it is rank that ought to be hunted first, killing from the top down in order to leave an army leaderless and demoralized. Search for whom and what seems out of the ordinary, he instructed us. The nonuniform, the affectation. Field glasses around the neck out in the open. A scarf of school colors catching the wind. A knitted pullover. An umbrella.”
“ ‘To desire rank is to desire death,’ he intoned aphoristically. ‘You must find the soldier of rank, and find in yourselves the will to remain calm, silent, and alert. Then kill as though it were your only chance to live.’ ”
If the early pages of “The Sojourn” sometimes recall Cormac McCarthy (especially “The Crossing”), the heart of the book is a harrowing portrait of men at war, as powerful as Ernst Junger’s classic “Storm of Steel” and Isaac Babel’s brutally poetic Red Cavalry stories. In one episode worthy of old thriller writers such as John Buchan and Geoffrey Household, Zlee and Josef must hunt down their opposite number, a phantom-like enemy sharpshooter who almost never misses.
Although “The Sojourn” is rightly marketed as a literary novel, it should also appeal to fans of Stephen Hunter’s sniper novels and David Morrell’s early thrillers, and I really shouldn’t say any more about its plot, certainly not about the sudden deaths on the snowy mountain pass or the raped Gypsy girl or the bags of gold hidden in a cave. Yet throughout, Krivak returns, again and again, to the love between a father and his son, to the burden of tragic memories, and to the fraught nature of national or ethnic identity. As Jozef says at one point: “What was a Czecho-Slovak to me, though, a boy raised among Carpathian peasants in a Magyar culture, professing loyalty in a poor school to a Hapsburg, and speaking a language in secret they spoke in a land called America?”
Let me end with a good word for the judges of this year’s National Book Award. In nominating “The Sojourn” for the NBA shortlist, the judges obviously passed over books published with more hoopla by bigger trade houses. Yet what better use is there for a literary prize than to draw attention to fine work that might otherwise be missed? So, this time, at least, the system has worked. We should be grateful all around — to Andrew Krivak for writing such a good book, to Bellevue Literary Press for publishing and promoting it, and to the National Book Award’s fiction jury for recognizing and honoring its excellence.
By Andrew Krivak
Bellevue Literary Press. 191 pp. Paperback, $14.95