Wes O'Dell's Reviews > A Soldier of the Great War

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
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Aug 26, 09

Read in July, 2008

** spoiler alert ** Helprin's "A Soldier of the Great War" is a stunning epic rife with descriptive beauty, wit, and strife. The protagonist, an old Italian telling his life story on the way to his death, is both human and likable, and the tragedies and small triumphs of his decades center upon that great, rending tragedy of western civilization, the First World War. Caught up in the political maneuverings of empire, the bright young Alessandro becomes a hardscrabble soldier struggling to survive amidst the carnage and madness around him. His struggle for love and the objects of his affection parallels his military combat.

Beyond being another retelling of the soldier-in-love-and-tragedy, the book's humor and allegory, particularly as revealed in the mad peon-cum-Augustus Orfeo, takes it to a higher level of storytelling and innovation. Never have hilarity and morbid truth been combined as effectively in the character of Orfeo, whose machinations drive the war in a way that draws favorable comparison to the critique of capatalism and war embodied in Catch-22's Milo Minderbinder and in the bureaucracy of ex-PFC Wintergreen, another powerful peon.

As with most Helprin books, the narrative can drag here and there as the story takes excessive pauses to drink in the surroundings. Nonetheless, "Great War" is a largely a quick and enjoyable read.

Helprin's "Great War" is a sweeping tale of drama, humor, loss, and resilience that ranks among the best of the genre.

--WBO 8/26/09
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