2011 National Book Award fiction nominee: Andrew Krivak, The Sojourn
October 27, 2011 § 2 Comments
But even as my father sought, for his own reasons, to give some life to that lifeless past on an early summer evening in June 1916, while dusk settled, too, upon the whole of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it came too late for me to understand or even forgive him, spent and weakened and alone that he was in the light of the candle flame around which we sat in our village hut while he talked and drank plum brandy and told me of what he had done and wanted to do in those last few months of life in America, before he took me to the old country. Over the years of my youth and young manhood there, he had decreased while I struggled to increase, bent that I was on the promise of a journey to the edge of the culture and land in which I had been raised and believed was my own (although I was, in truth, a stranger), with the imagined valor of heroic battles, and the thought that death would be a thing I doled out to others who dared resist. For, by the time I had heard the story of my birth, and my father’s leaving the land of my birth, war was imminent, and I was hungry to call myself Infanterist, Frontkämpfer, Soldat. Anything. Anything but the son of the shepherd, because shepherd was all that my father – once he returned to Pastvina – wanted to be, and I wanted to become what he was not (pp. 27-28)
Earlier this year, the final remaining surviving veterans of World War I died, nearly 97 years after the beginning of that four year-long mass military/socio-cultural conflagration that left tens of millions dead, spawned an even bloodier sequel a generation later, and whose legacy still haunts even today. More so than most any other event of the past five centuries, there is a sharp and distinct “before” and “after.” Even in the literature on the Great War testifies to its brutal sundering of past and future. Whether one reads Robert Graves’ memoir Goodbye to All That or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, one cannot help but notice that there is a substantial break with past associations, beliefs, and dreams that occur with the war’s traumas and its disorienting aftermath. Therefore, it was with some curiosity to see how Andrew Krivak would fare with his debut novel, The Sojourn, which stretches from fin-de-siécle America back to the Slovak pastoral regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 1900s and 1910s to the War and beyond. For the most part, Krivak creates a work that fits in with those works of the 1920s and 1930s that helped define the literature of World War I and those times just before and after.
The Sojourn is written from the first-person point of view of young Jozef Vinich, who was born during the last years of the 19th century in Colorado to a Slovak immigrant couple, but whose early life is marked by his mother sacrificing her life to save him during a terrible accident when he was a toddler. His father, devastated, arranges for a marriage back home in his native Pastvina to a widow who has two young sons of her own to raise. Jozef and his father emigrate to a pastoral world where his father strives to forget his past while Jozef struggles to make sense of a world in which his father encourages him to be both a shepherd and a literate polyglot.
In passages such as the one quoted above, when Jozef decides to lie about his age so he can enlist with his year-older cousin in the Austrian army, Krivak strives to reveal through the tortured self-reflections of Jozef the turmoil that had underlain Central European societies in the decades prior to the war. We see Jozef, who spoke first English and then Slovak before learning bits and pieces of German, Czech, Russyn, and Hungarian, try to deal with what he is and what he is becoming. The War and Jozef’s training to become a sniper operating on the Italian Front is told in elegant, almost clinical prose. We experience through Jozef how the fighting affects him and the doubts he harbors about the world in which he lives. It is simultaneously intimate and remote, as if Krivak, through Jozef’s PoV, aims to capture change and psychological stress.
For some readers, this almost clinical approach toward storytelling may be off-putting; some do like to be able to invest more emotional energy in the characters they are encountering. However, I found Krivak’s narrative approach to be quite suitable for the story being told. We experience in short, sharp bursts his emotional traumas, his changing assessment of his father and their shared but silent past in America. There is discord that looms under the surface before bobbing up on occasion before sinking back down into the background. Krivak handles this quite adroitly, creating a narrative that serves both as a fictional up-close examination of a character developing during the most tumultuous decade of the twentieth century and as a more distant social commentary on those times and how they hint at the world that has come to be in the near-century since the war’s end.
The Sojourn is not as immediately captivating as Salvage the Bones, The Buddha in the Attic, or even The Tiger’s Wife, yet it contains a subdued power that lingers with the reader well after the final page is read. Over a week after finishing this novel, I still find myself thinking about it and what it had to say about self and national identity and the changes we desire and the changes forced upon us. The Sojourn is an outstanding novel, easily the peer of the three other novels mentioned above. With only Edith Pearlman’s story collection Binocular Vision to review, it is safe to say that the 2011 National Book Award shortlist for fiction is one of the stronger shortlists in recent years.