This evocative novel of memory opens with a wrenching scene of tragic loss when an infant, securely held at his mother’s breast in one moment, is dropped into a cold muddied river the next: “…and so she removes the child from around her in one graced motion, cinches up the bundle, presses her lips to his face, and whispers, L’úbim t’a, then lets him roll from her arms out over the trestle and into the water as the braking train screeches and strikes.”
More than seventy years later, that infant, Jozef Vinich, looks back to his boyhood, assembling shard by shard, to narrate The Sojourn. The loss of one parent leads to the gradual ruin of the other—from grief and drink and hopelessness—as his father is forced to leave America and return to the old country. There, father teaches son to hunt with great precision, a gift that saves Jozef’s life. “…my father’s skills as a hunter were qualities I took for granted in the mountains, like hearing to a musician or sight to a painter, and what he taught me of marksmanship became, in the end, my only grasp on life, until I, too, laid down my weapon and went home.”
At sixteen, Jozef alters his identity card to join the Austro-Hungarian army, and is sent to a school for sharpshooters to learn sniping skills for the Eastern front. “[W]e wore the identifying lanyard on the outside of our uniforms, carried a rifle with an optical sight and a barrel longer than the average soldier’s carbine, and always traveled in twos. If these weren’t enough to tip off whichever captain wanted to know why we were separated from our unit, we simply replied, “Scharfschützen, Herr Hauptmann.”
Scenes from the front bristle with horror, where the appearance of Death can be as sudden as a stray thought. “The next day, we stood to with bayonets fixed, and Holub said to me in the trench, as though a veteran of battle, ‘Stay right beside me,’ and we went over the top into a wall of Italian machine-gun and rifle fire, the enfilade so close that we were pinned down instantly, and I felt the heat of the rounds, wondered how it was I hadn’t been hit and killed, turned to Holub for direction, and saw his body lying next to me, eyes wide open as he stared at the sky, his chest and belly torn apart.” Combat at close range was marked by abrupt and unexpected twists of fate.
The Great War began the way that all wars begin—with a rush of idealism and hope for a better world. And it ended the way all wars end—in despair and disillusionment for the utter futility of the suffering. Wars lead not to a better world, but to a different world, and, eventually, to still another war. No war will end all wars. Only one side can win, and the memory of the vanquished can fester for generations. World War I surpassed all previous conflicts for the number of countries and continents involved—it was waged in Europe, Asia and Africa—and the number of soldiers mobilized, wounded and killed. By the time it was over, the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had ceased to exist, and the map of Europe was redrawn.
This war inspired many novels. Among the best are Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, both of which explore the emotional devastation on combatants. Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, like The Sojourn, depicts soldiers serving the Austrian Emperor, but with incomparable sarcasm, irony and absurdity. Jozef Švejk, unlike Jozef Vinich, never reaches the front.
The motherless infant occupies the heart of this novel. Even into his seventies, the loss of Jozef’s mother appears to transcend everything else, including the war. He continues to reaches out to her, even though all he could ever claim throughout his life was a face in a daguerreotype—every curve and shadow of which he memorizes—yearning for her in dreams: “…and I begged her to come back, but she kept walking, with her back to me, until she dissipated like a mist.” At the end of his life we can almost hear the smother of a cry rising from his throat.
Images from the field of battle are rendered in maternal terms. “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, down, down, down into the dirt, with your fingertips, hands, arms, chest, thighs, and feet, until you are like a child clinging with his entire body to comfort after a nightmare.”
When Jozef finally walks back home at the end of the war, his stepmother greets him with the poisonous sting of a Steyr Mannlicher rifle: “Why aren’t you dead like the rest of them?”