An assured, meditative novel that turns on a forgotten theater in a largely forgotten war.
Born in America, Jozef Vinich has a frontiersman’s way with a rifle. Wrenched from his home after his father’s defeated return to the old country—“ ‘the ol’ kawntree,’ though it is no country for which I long or somehow miss in my old age,” as the Jozef of the distant future will say—the young man is plunked down on the far edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there to be instructed in the evils of the Russians across the way. When war breaks out, though, Jozef is caught up in the great conscription and spat out on the front lines of the Tyrol, where Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians, Serbs and Germans are busily dying, as are the Italians on the opposite line. Recognized for his skills, Jozef is put to work as a sniper, grimly felling any Italians who fall into his sights. Naturally, such demi-divine power cannot go unpunished, and Krivak, in his first novel, puts Jozef through his paces, including still more tragedy, imprisonment and an endless exodus to return to an unwanted home when peace finally comes. The ghost of Hemingway informs some of Krivak’s notes from the front lines, while several other literary influences seem to be evident in his slender book, including the Italian novelist and memoirist Primo Levi, himself the veteran of a very long walk through Europe, and, for obvious reasons, the Charles Frazier of Cold Mountain. Yet Krivak has his own voice, given to lyrical observations on the nature of human existence and its many absurdities: “Young men, as always, sensed a chance to leave the boredom of their villages and see to the borders of the empire and beyond, but this time their departure was imminent, and so they lived and worked and moved in a tension between excitement and rage.”
A late but very effective addition to the literature of World War I, and an auspicious debut.