Liz Nutting's Reviews > The Sojourn

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak
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Mar 18, 12

really liked it
bookshelves: literary-fiction, kindle
Read from March 10 to 17, 2012

Years ago I taught a college-level religion course called "Death and Dying." On the first day of the course, I would start by asking each student to share why they were taking the class, which, after all, was not required by any department, although it was always, always full to overflowing. One year, a young man--tall, dark and very handsome and a tad bit older than the typical 18-21 year old college students--started to share his story. After high school, he had joined the Marines, where he was trained as a sniper and sent to the conflict in Somalia (recall "Blackhawk Down"). There he was taught to de-humanize the enemy, to "reduce the target" rather than kill a man. One day, he and his commanding officer were hunting from the cover of an abandoned building when he heard a pop and watched as an enemy sniper's bullet exploded his companion's head. Now, he said, he was furious with the military for what they'd made him do, for what they'd turned him into. He was taking this class in the hope of coming to terms with his experience of death and of recovering some of the humanity that had been trained out of him.

I thought of this young man (it saddens me that I can no longer remember his name) while I read Andrew Krivak's debut novel, The Sojourn. For the core of the story is one not too dissimilar from my student's. Krivak's protagonist, Jozef Vinich, was born in 1899 in a Colorado mining town, the son of Slavic immigrants. When his mother is killed in a tragic accident, Jozef's father takes his son back to the Old Country. As Jozef grows he learns to herd sheep in the Carpathian mountains and to shoot his father's rifle, along side another abandoned youth his father raises as a brother to Jozef. As World War I engulfs even his small town, he lies about his age and enlists with his brother, and their shooting skill destines them both to be snipers for the Austrian-Hungarian army. Working as a pair, they are very, very good snipers--until they meet up with better ones from the other side.

The Sojourn is a short book. It has been described as lyrical and has been compared to Hemingway and other great war literature. Some of the "lyricism" seemed, at times, too self-conscious, with paragraph-long sentences and flowing descriptions that I admit skimming over. But there were no wasted scenes and the events in Jozef's life move briskly to their climax, without ever seeming rushed.

We are, it seems to me, in something of a resurgence of attention to World War I, with some new histories and other bits of pop culture. I'll venture that not many of us in Gens X, Y or Wired know anything of substance about this war. It has long been overshadowed by its more heroic mid-century cousin. After all, Hitler was much more charismatic than the Kaiser.

Perhaps it's because we're nearing the centennial of the conflict that it has come up for re-examination. But I suspect it has more to do with the way this war resonates with our own war-weary psyches. World War I, after all, gave us the very notion of "shell-shock" (now so clinically and dispassionately described as post-traumatic stress syndrome). It ushered in new technologies of war, from airplanes to long-range artillery to poison gas, which required new strategies that were slow in coming from hide-bound, traditionalist generals schooled in a different sort of battle. It tore back the curtain of honor and glory in battle to reveal the brutality and psychic and spiritual toll it exacts.

The Sojourn captures this spirit in vivid descriptions of the brutal trench warfare. And in Jozef, we see first hand the toll taken by the dehumanization of both friend and foe. The enemy isn't the only target that Jozef "reduces"; he is called upon to shoot deserters from among his own ranks, and he does so willingly and unfeelingly. The ghosts of his dead haunt him nightly in his dreams and in his numbness, he longs to be with them. But as an old Italian prisoner tells him, he can only banish the ghosts by accepting the burden of living.

"Ghosts are not the dead. They are our fear of death. Tell yourself, Jozef, not to be afraid."
After a time, I asked, "What is left to be afraid of?"
And he said, "The possibility that a life itself may prove to be the most worthy struggle."


I don't know if my student was ever able to banish his ghosts. I'd like to think he has, and that my class played some small part in that for him. But as we wind up (I hope) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are many, many more young men who now need to sojourn from death to life. I pray they can make the journey.


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03/12/2012
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