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The literature of World War I summons the tragedy of brutish trench warfare. Andrew Krivak’s trenchant novel, “The Sojourn”, digs into WW I’s Southern (Italian) front, but through the free roaming scope of a sniper.

The title of the book is an interesting choice. It is principally a war novel that draws landscape and characters equally well. Although war is temporally short for those who survive, the emotional remnant of the visit to hell may last a lifetime. In retrospect, a youth that loses this emotional carnage with age, may come to view this misspent youth as a sojourn. Death can be life-sustaining. History is replete with many such sojourns.

Jozef, the principal character, is an American born young Slovak who is a survivor from birth. After his immigrant father’s dream of a life in America is defeated they both return to his father’s unwelcoming village of Postvina, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His father’s skill with a rifle enables him to find work as a guardian of herds in the mountains and he trains Jozef and his adopted brother, Marian (aka Zlee) in the craft. They become accomplished in survival and in the sensibility of anticipating the movement of game. The brothers swap game for humans when they enlist in the war.

The literature of snipers are similar in characterization: professionally cold; withdrawn; psychologically and mechanically practiced with calculated precision. Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” and Steven Galloway’s “The Cellist of Saravejo” each tread the same ground. It is not a toll less path.

” And so I thought of the men on the Soča, the Tonlmin, and in Plava. I thought of the first man I killed, and the man who lifted his head to shout and warn the others of me. I thought of the deserters we killed, and the sergeant and the captain I hated, and any man I passed in wave after wave of shelling whose eyes seemed to say, I’m waiting. I thought of the men on lookout across our lines in Kobarid, sometimes five a day Zlee and I killed, as simply as spotting pigeons. I thought of the father and son were roped to in the Dolomiten and the bed of ice in which they now lay, the brothers at Cherle, Lieutenant Holub, the gunners and the boy who fought and died beside me on Papadopoli Island. And I never stopping thinking about Zlee, so that when I awoke in the early morning and rose covered in the sweat of my nightmares, I sensed his presence there at the foot of my bed, as though my own will had summoned him. And I addressed his ghost and said, ‘ Is it better where your are? Have they forgiven you for all of these?’ And the ghost shook his head, and the movement of that spirit seemed to make him disappear altogether.”

The novel captures the prejudices of class and of culture and religion that exist between Germans, Austrians, Italians, Slavs and Rom. There are sentimental moments in the book, but they are never mawkish, as the author errs on the side of cold reality. Above all Mr. Krivak is a storyteller. The prose is capable, but not distracting nor defining. The novel does not preach, but is life affirming.

“… ‘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. Not the whole sweeping vale of tears that Rome and her priests want us to sacrifice ourselves to daily so that she lives in splendor, but one single moment in which we die so that someone else lives. That’s it, and it is fearful because it cannot be seen, planned, or even known. It is simply lived. If there be purpose, it happens of a moment within us, and lasts a lifetime without us, like water opening and closing in a wake. Perhaps your brother Marian knows this.'”

“The Sojourn” was Mr. Krivak’s debut novel and it was a National Book Award finalist and the recipient of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the inaugural Chautauqua Prize. It was published by Bellevue Literary Press (blpbooks.org) a small press that also published Melissa Pritchard’s “Odditorium” which I very favorably previously reviewed. She has published new works since and will have a book of essays entitled “A Solemn Pleasure” that Bellevue Literary Press will publish in May 2015. She also seems to have a new website that showcases her earlier, current and future writings. http://www.melissapritchard.com. Mr. Krivak’s website is http://andrewkrivak.com/. He does not seem to have any more recent works, but the website explains the family history behind “The Sojourn”.

I would definitely recommend that you read “The Sojourn”. I would also recommend that you read more works from small presses.  Bellevue Literary Press is one of many to start with.  It published Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning novels “Tinkers” and “Enon”. It is part of my New Year’s resolutions to read more works from small presses and to try to provide an additional audience for the many accomplished writers who are unfortunately bypassed by the commercial market.