The Sojourn

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Overview

The Sojourn, finalist for the National Book Award and winner of both the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and inaugural Chautauqua Prize, is the story of Jozef Vinich, who was uprooted from a 19th-century mining town in Colorado by a family tragedy and returns with his father to an impoverished shepherd’s life in rural Austria-Hungary. When World War One comes, Jozef joins his adopted brother as a sharpshooter in the Kaiser’s army, surviving a perilous trek across the frozen Italian ...

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Overview

The Sojourn, finalist for the National Book Award and winner of both the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and inaugural Chautauqua Prize, is the story of Jozef Vinich, who was uprooted from a 19th-century mining town in Colorado by a family tragedy and returns with his father to an impoverished shepherd’s life in rural Austria-Hungary. When World War One comes, Jozef joins his adopted brother as a sharpshooter in the Kaiser’s army, surviving a perilous trek across the frozen Italian Alps and capture by a victorious enemy.

A stirring tale of brotherhood, coming-of-age, and survival, that was inspired by the author’s own family history, this novel evokes a time when Czechs, Slovaks, Austrians, and Germans fought on the same side while divided by language, ethnicity, and social class in the most brutal war to date. It is also a poignant tale of fathers and sons, addressing the great immigration to America and the desire to live the American dream amidst the unfolding tragedy in Europe.

The Sojourn is Andrew Krivak's first novel. Krivak is also the author of A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, a memoir about his eight years in the Jesuit Order, and editor of The Letters of William Carlos Williams to Edgar Irving Williams, 1902-1912, which received the Louis L. Martz Prize. The grandson of Slovak immigrants, Krivak grew up in Pennsylvania, has lived in London, and now lives with his wife and three children in Massachusetts where he teaches in the Honors Program at Boston College.

Finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction
Winner of the 2012 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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With unforced elegance, this novel renders the life of an Austrian immigrant who abandons his impoverished life in Colorado for the World War I killing fields of Europe.

*****

"That's how things were back then," Ondrej Vinich liked to say when he'd been drinking. Back then, he maintained, as the 1800s slipped into the 1900s, when Slavs moved to America they simply exchanged one poor village for another. But like so many others, the promise of a future without hardship and poverty draw him and his wife, Anna, and their young son, Jozef, to a small mining town in Colorado. Though their lives are limned by a harsh geography and uncertain weather, they manage to settle into a place that is, if not what they'd dreamed of, still better than what they had left. For a brief moment, they find some kind of promise and hope in this new country until an unexpected and horrifying tragedy occurs and Vinich has no choice but to return with his son to the grueling shepherd's life in Austria-Hungary. As Jozef grows older, day after uneventful day passes until 1914 when all talk in the village turns to the festering world conflict. By 1916, with his country engulfed in the Great War, he joins the army, where he is quickly chosen to train as a sharpshooter — a sniper — not only for his marksmanship skills but also for his ability to endure hardship to an extent that other men cannot bear. Surviving brutal trench warfare, paralyzing cold, and dangerous mountain journeys, Jozef is captured, then held prisoner by a victorious enemy as he battles a compromised past and struggles to find honor and purpose in a life of his own.

Publishers Weekly
Krivak follows his revelatory memoir (A Long Retreat) with this lush, accomplished novel. After Jozef Vinich's mother dies while saving his life as an infant, Jozef and his widowed father relocate from a small Colorado mining town back to their Austrian homeland. Though Jozef's boyhood is marred by lingering feelings of abandonment, resentment, ingrained sadness, and two bullying stepbrothers, his life is enhanced by frequent dreams of his mother and a close friendship with troubled distant cousin Zlee. Both boys revel in the family hunting trips, which hone their sharpshooting abilities, expertise put to use when both go off to fight in WWI as marksmen, over Jozef's father's objections. Krivak dexterously exposes the stark, brutal realities of trench warfare, the horror of a POW camp, and the months of violent bloodshed that stole the boys' innocence. Once home from war, the author's depiction of Jozef's arduous return to life, love, and family is charged with emotion and longing, revealing this lean, resonant debut as an undeniably powerful accomplishment. (May)
From the Publisher
DAYTON LITERARY PEACE PRIZE WINNER
CHAUTAUQUA PRIZE WINNER
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
WASHINGTON POST Notable Book of the Year
NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO Top 5 Book Club Pick

“Splendid . . . a novel for anyone who has a sharp eye and ear for life.” —NPR All Things Considered

“[A] powerful, assured first novel . . . Packed with violence and death, yet wonderfully serene in its tone, Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn—shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award—reminds us that one never knows from where the blow will fall and that, always, in the midst of life we are in death. . . . If the early pages of The Sojourn sometimes recall Cormac McCarthy (especially The Crossing), the heart of the book is a harrowing portrait of men at war, as powerful as Ernst Junger’s classic Storm of Steel and Isaac Babel’s brutally poetic Red Cavalry stories.” —Washington Post

”Surging in pace and momentum, The Sojourn is a deeply affecting narrative conjured by the rhythms of Krivak’s superb and sinuous prose. Intimate and keenly observed, it is a war story, love story, and coming of age novel all rolled into one. I thought of Lermontov and Stendhal, Joseph Roth, and Cormac McCarthy as I read. But make no mistake. Krivak’s voice and sense of drama are entirely his own.” —Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe

“Novels set during World War I (think of The English Patient or A Long Long Way) possess a desolation, violence and a desperate longing to go back, to return to life as it was lived before the war. . . . [The Sojourn] is an ever-hopeful series of fresh starts and dashed hopes, a beautiful tale of persistence and dogged survival, set in the mountains, villages and battlefields of a Europe that exists only in memories and stories.” —Los Angeles Times

“A captivating, thoughtful narrative . . . and poignant reminder of how humanity was so greatly affected by what was once called the war to end all wars.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[The Sojourn] can be read as a classic of war. It is beautifully plotted, as rapt and understated as a hymn. . . . [Krivak] writes hunting scenes as evocative as those in The Deer Hunter. Then he outstrips that film in rending the harrowing and seductive elements of war.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer

“[The Sojourn] deserves to be placed on the same shelf as Remarque, Hemingway and Heller . . . Krivak has written an anti-war novel with all the heat of a just-fired artillery gun.” —Barnes and Noble Review/ Christian Science Monitor

“Hope for the future, the conversion of tragedy into meaning—lurks throughout The Sojourn’s lush and lyrical prose.” —IMAGE: Art, Faith, Mystery

“An engrossing narrative that goes beyond a war novel into a character study of loss and redemption.” —Rain Taxi Review of Books

“Krivak writes of war with the skill of a mature novelist/observer. Death, dysentery, starvation, chaos, amputation, prison. All are here in elegant prose—plus touches of rare beauty and tenderness as Jozef comes full circle with is past, his father, his country—even the idea of his father’s reverse migration. All of this in less than two hundred pages.” —CounterPunch

“Unsentimental yet elegant . . . with ease, [The Sojourn] joins the ranks of other significant works of fiction portraying World War I—Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“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.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Deftly wrought, quietly told . . . Krivak studied all the Great War novels before writing, and the result is a debut novel at home amongst those classics. Highly recommended.” —Historical Novels Review (Editor’s Choice)

“Rendered in spare, elegant prose, yet rich in authentic detail, The Sojourn . . . stands with the most memorable stories about World War I. Krivak’s tale has an archetypal quality; it is a retelling of the hero’s inner and outer journey through impossibly rugged landscapes, toward survival and wholeness.” —ForeWord Reviews

“Inspired by oral histories of the “ol’ kawntree” passed on by his Slovakian grandmother, Krivak, who once dreamed of a career in music and spent eight years in a Jesuit order, has crafted a novel of uncommon lyricism and moral ambiguity that balances the spare with the expansive. He juxtaposes the brutality of Jozef’s environment, both natural and human, during his childhood in the Carpathians and his military service on the Italian front and after with the beauty of mountain vistas and moments of love, sacrifice, and compassion between his finely drawn characters.” —The Chautauqua Prize committee

The Sojourn is a work of uncommon strength by a writer of rare and powerful elegance about a war, now lost to living memory, that echoes in headlines of international strife to this day.” —Mary Doria Russell, author of Doc and The Sparrow

The Sojourn is a fiercely wrought novel, populated by characters who lead harsh, even brutal lives, which Krivak renders with impressive restraint, devoid of embellishment or sentimentality. And yet—almost despite such a stoic prose style—his sentences accrue and swell and ultimately break over a reader like water: they are that supple and bracing and shining.” —Leah Hager Cohen, author of House Lights

Library Journal
When a family tragedy strikes in a Colorado mining town, young Jozef Vinich and his father return to pre-World War I Austria. Together they live in poverty, working as shepherds and hunting to support themselves. When Jozef's cousin Zlee joins them, a strong bond grows between the two young men. Despite the pastoral setting, Jozef grows increasingly discontent with his rural lifestyle. Eventually Jozef and Zlee join other Austrian men on the Italian front. They not only confront the horrors of combat but also contribute to those horrors through their skill as expert marksmen. This is Krivak's first novel; his earlier work, A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, is a memoir about his experience in a Jesuit formation program. VERDICT An unsentimental yet elegant look at a character's coming-of-age as well as his survival of the Great War's brutality. With ease, it joins the ranks of other significant works of fiction portraying World War I—Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front or Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.—Faye A. Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis
Kirkus Reviews
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.
Michael Dirda
…this powerful, assured first novel [is]…Packed with violence and death, yet wonderfully serene in its tone…If the early pages of The Sojourn sometimes recall Cormac McCarthy (especially The Crossing), the heart of the book is a harrowing portrait of men at war, as powerful as Ernst Junger's classic Storm of Steel and Isaac Babel's brutally poetic Red Cavalry stories…rightly marketed as a literary novel, it should also appeal to fans of Stephen Hunter's sniper novels and David Morrell's early thrillers…
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review

On the day I finished reading The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak's riveting novel about World War I, the last surviving male veteran of that "war to end all wars" died. Claude Choules was 110 when he passed away at a nursing home in Perth, Australia, and I wonder what he would have thought of Krivak's story about a sniper who undergoes the standard hells of war literature before arriving at uneasy peace with himself on the last page. Though Choules was a seaman with the British Royal Navy, I suspect he shared the same kind of scarred psyche as Jozef Vinich, the Austrian sharpshooter in The Sojourn who comes marching home full of "grief and desolation." Mr. Choules was, after all, a pacifist.

And isn't that the resonant effect of most war literature--to turn readers' hearts and minds against militarized conflict? There is, of course, a strand of fiction which celebrates and glorifies the act of man killing man, but the most serious and enduring works of literature provoke us to reconsider the ends in light of the means. Think of All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, even Catch-22, and it's the horrors of battle scenes which stick in our memory and pour cold water on delusions of war's grandeur (though nations seem little able to remember the lesson).

The Sojourn is no exception and, in terms of the power of its prose, deserves to be placed on the same shelf as Remarque, Hemingway and Heller (though you won't find a trace of humor in this sobering novel). Krivak's style is simple, direct, and sedate, but when violence appears, it comes in unforgettable detail:

Miro was killed in a wave of shelling by the Russians, blown in half, this man who fought in their company said, but taking some time to die as his legless trunk of a body lay against the stump of a fallen tree and he clawed at the sky, pleading for someone to help him.

The Sojourn is told in three parts, and Krivak paces his cadence to the beat of a three-act play, beginning with a prologue set in 1899 in a Colorado mining town where Jozef's father, a Slovak immigrant, oversees the smelter. The opening section ends with a shocking scene in which Jozef's mother is killed on a train trestle-- she tosses the infant into the river below to save him. As the main part of the book starts, we find Jozef and his father have eventually moved back to the "ol' kawntree," to a small village "in the northeast corner of the Hungarian Empire." The elder Vinich retreats to the pastoral life of a shepherd. He raises his son to be a hunter who can become invisible against the earth--a trait that will later serve him well as a sniper.

As a restless youth tending sheep on the hillside, Jozef fills himself with "the imagined valor of heroic battles, and the thought that death would be a thing I doled out to others who dared resist." He's determined to leave home as soon as he can so he can forge a better path in life than his father, the failed miner-cum-shepherd. "I wanted to become what he was not." As the boy sets out on that path early in the book, Krivak makes it clear that Jozef's head swims with the glory of war:

When we went back down to Pastvina for the winter in 1914, all we heard was talk of the war. Boys a few years older than I wore their cadet uniforms daily, and men from our village marched off to the conscription office in Eperjes to join the fight against the Russians on the eastern front. There was a fever rising, and not just for battle. 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. Or maybe I'm just remembering what the thoughts of war began to evoke in me.

There's little doubt, even at this point, that Krivak is setting the stage for the character's metamorphosis from starry-eyed recruit to hollow-eyed veteran. Jozef is barely in uniform before he's filled with "a hard and intractable anger." The transformation is predictable, but thanks to the author's surefootedness as a stylist, it's never obvious or overbearing. The Sojourn is a short, dense novel, but it's also one which pulls us in and never lets us go. The narrative is cropped of frills and Krivak packs each sentence with as much information as he can. For instance, just look at the range of detail and movement of emotion in this one sentence in which Jozef describes his role as a sniper:

We were hunters who already knew how to stalk game in the mountains and forests we had lived in before the war, and who were now being taught to hunt men, observing their numbers, their movements, their skills or the lack of them, their habits, and ultimately their faces--front or back--through the crosshairs of a rifle scope, all so that we might kill them, one at a time, with a silence that terrified them more than anything because it held nothing of the glory they imagined they'd find in battle.

A few pages later, there's this horribly precise description of the sniper's work:

We were trained to make head shots and aimed for the teeth, which seems ludicrous until, on a cold morning, across the distance of a valley through refracted light, you can suddenly see a man's breath, see that he's speaking to a comrade, or perhaps only to himself, having a smoke, singing a song he loves, or maybe giving voice to some prayer, words that will be his last.

In The Sojourn, war can be beautiful on the page, but hell in contemplation. As a writer, Krivak approaches combat with the placid nature of a Zen master--calmly, patiently knocking down the marble statues erected to glorify battles. His Jozef is on an odyssey from gung-ho Soldat to steel-hearted sniper to conscience-stricken prey-on-the-run to bedraggled prisoner-of-war. It's no accident The Sojourn's epigraph comes from The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth's 1932 masterpiece about disillusionment amid the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But if it sounds like the The Sojourn leaves one confronting a pessimistic, glass-half-empty view of life, Krivak's greatest feat is to steer the reader in the opposite direction. By the end of the novel, with all that Jozef has gone through--coming of age on a battlefield, a laborious trek across the Alps, starvation in a post-war landscape--the glass is half full with grace and redemption. The final paragraph finds Jozef on a steamer bound for America as it pulls away from the port in Hamburg:

The ship slipped her lines and a tug nudged her into mid-river, where she stalled briefly, waiting to see that everything that lay before her on the course below was clear. Then Hamburg, and Europe, and all her empires, all I had ever known--the only ground that up until then had fed me, the only well from which I had drunk--receded in slow swaths of wash and sky as we surrendered to the outgoing tide on the Elbe.

One of The Sojourn's most telling points about warfare is made by a fellow prisoner with whom Jozef is being held after capture by Italian soldiers:

...he believed that nothing proved truer in the course of one's life than a man's incessant need to fight--even when convinced that he wants nothing more than peace--against someone, something, some other, so that he doesn't go to his grave having lived to no purpose.

"I have had enough of my purpose," I said.

"Well then, welcome to death," he said, and smiled, so that his aged teeth looked like slabs of white marble, and I did indeed feel vanquished.

Those tombstone teeth might be putting too fine a point on it, but on the whole Krivak has written an anti-war novel with all the heat of a just-fired artillery gun. And for many readers it is likely to burn away any notion of the romance of combat

--David Abrams

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781934137345
  • Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press
  • Publication date: 4/19/2011
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 214,667
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.62 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Krivak

The Sojourn, winner of the Chautauqua Prize and finalist for the National Book Award, is Andrew Krivak’s first novel. Krivak is also the author of A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, a memoir about his eight years in the Jesuit Order, and editor of The Letters of William Carlos Williams to Edgar Irving Williams, 1902-1912, which received the Louis L. Martz Prize. The grandson of Slovak immigrants, Krivak grew up in Pennsylvania, has lived in London, and now lives with his wife and three children in Massachusetts where he teaches in the Honors Program at Boston College.

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Read an Excerpt

ZLEE AND I WERE LUCKY TO HAVE JOINED UP TOGETHER. Basic training, with its weeks of constant drilling from dawn well into the night, seemed a thing requiring no effort. We were used to a life of early mornings and physical labor outside all day. It knocked us down a few pegs, got us used to hearing obscenities for marching sloppily or wearing scuffed boots, or maybe it was just to remind us that there was someone whose job it was to tell us what to do every waking hour of those days, and I began to miss the leisure of books and conversation, but I confronted these obstacles as a simple rite of passage. And Zlee, Zlee had this way?maddening to our corporal, who had never seen battle, and would likely have turned tail if he had?of conforming to the least detail with obsessive perfection, all the while making it clear by his indifferent, canine stride and aloof, unanimated face that these least details (which he would see to their completion) meant nothing to him. Zlee was as indomitable as he was bereft of guile.
But it wasn't until the final weeks, when we began to practice on the rifle range, that our fate, you might say, was sealed, when the training officer discovered that we really could shoot.
Conditions on those firing ranges were ideal?no reflecting sun, no tree branches, no animals bolting when you got a bead on them. The only thing we weren't used to were the Steyr Mannlicher rifles we fired, standard infantry issue in the army of the empire. They were thin top-bolt rifles with a five-clip magazine, one of the first of their kind. They had a strong kick and could jam easily when exposed to dirt, but we didn't have to worry about any of this yet. It took the two of us a few rounds to sight them, and after that, on the twenty-five-yard range, Zlee and I hit ten out of ten bull's-eyes, dead center, some of the rounds piled up on top of one another. The other conscripts barely raised dirt around those targets.
At first, we were assigned, along with all the others who mustered in Eperjes, to General Kray's command. Kray was a Napoleonic Hungarian who led a brigade made up of Slovak march batallions, which meant that we'd be fighting with men who shared not only a common language but the experience of daily life, ritual, and labor. Kray's soldiers were known for being good fighters because they worked the land and weren't soft, and I had a deep sense of having done the right thing, feeling as though I had been called somehow to take leave of my father and Pastvina and to prove myself in the world.
Then, at the end of our basic training, Zlee and I were pulled from the ranks without explanation and led into a tent where a captain sat behind a desk made up of two trunks with a board laid across the top. He was Austrian, which was evident by his uniform, and spoke to us in a bookish-sounding Hungarian. He wore black boots that had a soft, worn gloss to them, and he fiddled with a riding crop.
"So, you are from one of Kray's regiments," he said, and began to pace behind his station and question us about our village, our parents, how it was we had learned to shoot so well. He seemed intrigued by Zlee's insistence that he was an orphan adopted by my father and that we were brothers not of blood but of labor and the land.
"Labor," he said. "You sound like a Communist. Don't all mothers labor to bear their sons in blood?"
Zlee said that he had never met a Communist and so couldn't say what one sounded like. What he meant was that he and I were as close as brothers because of the life my father had given us both. "Sir, I have seen him work on the land, and so I know what this Soldat will do in battle," Zlee said, staring straight ahead as he spoke of me as a Soldat, which I was, all the while maintaining the soldier's respect for his superior and never once making eye contact with that captain, who cursed and spat and said, "You know nothing of battle."
Then he turned to me. "Und Sie," he said. "Was haben Sie u?ber diese Bruderschaft zu sagen?"
I don't know why he switched to his native language then, but I knew enough German to understand that he wanted to know what I thought of this brotherhood Zlee spoke of. The summer before I signed up, I had studied the standard commands of the army so that I wouldn't be turned away if they questioned me, and the language came easily. Could he have known this? Could he have known, too, that Zlee's German didn't go beyond twenty or so words because he had no head for anything that required study, from a book, that is? No, this captain was testing my loyalty?it was plain to me?wanting to see how I would respond if I was given a chance to speak privately. And so, thinking not in German but in a foreign language I knew fluently, I replied in English, "Sir, there is nothing my father taught me that he didn't teach him also."
The captain looked surprised, smiled, and asked Zlee, "How is your English, Private Pes?"
Zlee, still staring doggedly at some point on the wall, said, "Herr Hauptmann, better than you might expect."
A few days later, just before the entire battalion was supposed to move out, we were released from our regiment, given lance corporal stars to attach to our uniform collars, and boarded a train with a company of other soldiers going in the same direction, but not the same place.
That night, we arrived at a camp on the Danube outside of Pozsony. A sergeant barked orders at us there in the dark, where we stood at attention for what seemed like hours, until two officers showed up, and the sergeant snapped to attention himself and then receded. One, another Austrian captain, did all the talking, while the other, whose uniform was German but whose overcoat looked more like some Bavarian hunter's, stood by, listening and surveying us there in the harsh light.
Nineteen sixteen was the year the Austrians started sending sharpshooters to learn sniping skills for the front. Most of these schools recruited men from the Tirolean region of the Southern Alps, on the border with Italy, and were run by German officers. Scharfschu?tzen, they called them. The Italians called them cecchini and (we were to learn in time) feared them more than anything else in those mountains. Under that veil of mock secrecy, it emerged that we were being sent to a place in Austria called Klagenfurt to be trained as Scharfschu?tzen for the empire's defense of its culture and threatened borders on the southern front. We had been chosen, the captain told us, not only for our marksmanship but for our character and ability to endure hardship in conditions under which most men would buckle, although I'm sure he knew or cared nothing about my character. The emperor himself understood who we were and how important our mission was, he said to us, and from there on out we were ordered never to speak unless spoken to by a superior officer, and any soldier showing the least amount of weakness or lack of discipline and restraint would be sent straight back to his regiment and a trench on the eastern front.
There we were, forty of us, men from the ranks?although there were only four other Slavs, two Bosnians, and two Czechs?brought together because we had a common skill that was about to be pressed into service. I didn't understand what it meant then to have what the captain referred to as a gift. There were plenty of Frontk?mpfer, he said, the frontline infantry, who wore the marksman's badge and would line up in the trenches next to machine gunners when the enemy attacked. We weren't riflemen, though. Weweren't Frontk?mpfer. We were hunters who already knew how to stalk game in the mountains and forests we had lived in before the war, and who were now being taught to hunt men, observing their numbers, their movements, their skills or the lack of them, their habits, and ultimately their faces?front or back?through the crosshairs of a rifle scope, all so that we might kill them, one at a time, with a silence that terrified them more than anything because it held nothing of the glory they imagined they'd find in battle.
In Klagenfurt, we trained and practiced?not just drilled but practiced?as though virtuosi who would one day be given their concert hall solos in some great symphonic concerto, conducted by our maestro, Sergeant Major Bu?cher, who had been fighting on the western front since August 1914, until he lost a leg to a long-range French shell that had caught him leaving the line at Verdun. He limped well enough with the prosthetic limb a puppet maker in Leipzig had carved for him, but the Germans were one sharpshooter down at the front as a result. So he offered his services as an instructor and would always say, as we stood at attention at dawn on snow-packed and frozen ground while he paced before us, that the sharpshooter should consider himself above rank and disregard it, as it is rank that ought to be hunted first, killing from the top down in order to leave an army leaderless and demoralized. Search for whom and what seems out of the ordinary, he instructed us. The nonuniform, the affectation. Field glasses around the neck out in the open. A scarf of school colors catching the wind. A knitted pullover. An umbrella.
"To desire rank is to desire death," he intoned aphoristically. "You must find the soldier of rank, and find in yourselves the will to remain calm, silent, and alert. Then kill as though it were your only chance to live."
For the first week, we never fired a shot. We cleaned our rifles six times a day and became familiar with the meticulous care of optical sights. We learned to read maps and draw maps and study maps taken from prisoners, so that we could see our ground from their perspective. We dressed in white cover to blend in with the snow during those late-winter months and practiced Nordic techniques until we could ski fifteen miles with a thirtypound pack on our backs and not fall. We learned how to range, judge distances, take into account variations of topography, spot and report small troop movement, and how to move instinctively?against the instincts of the average man? toward higher ground there in the Alps, while we sought out a good hide, and a good means of escape. That was, Bu?cher said, if we knew and could employ well the full quiver of our skills, the most important weapon we could find, a safe place to hide, and this exercise made up the second week of our training.
Each day, we disappeared into the woods, wanting to see and not be seen. Most of us they had chosen in twos, and so we worked in twos, Zlee and I seemingly inseparable now as spotter and shooter. After we were dismissed into the forests in teams, the remaining men fanned out to find us, just as my father and I had done in the mountains years ago, hunter and hunted making notes on details of an occupied position, until the hunter ultimately revealed his target. If the hunted?watching from the hide?had more information on the hunter, the teams switched roles. The one with better notes got the kill. Sometimes it was as insignificant as the fold in a man's cap.
Zlee and I started out against a pair of Tiroleans from the Landesschu?tzen, severe and insular men of the Alpine regions who had remained loyal to the Habsburgs. They kept to themselves and seemed especially derisive of the standard Austrian officers. They hated Slavs, too. It didn't matter that we were fighting for the same king.
We found them easily enough because they whispered to each other in their mountain dialect as they hid in the socket of two large boulders, which created a kind of sounding board. They must have thought we couldn't hear them if we couldn't understand them, and so they cursed us when Zlee inched his head over the top of the rock, looked down, and said in a whisper, "Boom." I had a page of notes on them, even jotting down a word I transliterated from their Austrian, which Bu?cher knew I could not have known, and he called them "useless joker," and sent them back to their regiment. Once Zlee and I were given the chance to disappear, no one found us, not even Bu?cher, who had his own perch with a telescope, from which he made notes?good ones, too.
It was just as well that we couldn't be found, because, but for the sergeant major's attention, we were ignored. The men we trained with were mostly Austrians, and the training we got was unique to the man sent to instruct us. In spite of Bu?cher's insistence that the best weapon the empire had were the men who lived and survived in her mountains, captains who did the recruiting chose as sharpshooters young Austrian men who knew the luxury of sport hunting and who arrived in Klagenfurt with their own rifles, like gentlemen showing up at school with their own horses. That's where I saw my first Schoenauer, a beautiful and powerful rifle with the precision of a surgical instrument. I saw the Norwegian model of the Krag, German Mausers and Gewehr 98s sent down from the western front, and a few other strange-looking cannons that looked as though they should have been left in the nineteenth century. But the weapon didn't make the shot, and in the end more than a few of those gentlemen were sent home with their rifles, where they'd live to hunt game-park deer, not Italian soldiers.
Twenty-five of us remained by the third week, and that's when we took to the range again, this time firing a long-barrel Mannlicher 95 with a double-set trigger and fitted with an optical sight, the physical effect of which was still something new for Zlee and me, despite the fact that we had been carrying them around and caring for them for weeks. We were trained to make head shots and aimed for the teeth, which seems ludicrous until, on a cold morning, across the distance of a valley through refracted light, you can suddenly see a man's breath, see that he's speaking to a comrade, or perhaps only to himself, having a smoke, singing a song he loves, or maybe giving voice to some prayer, words that will be his last. It was hand-to-hand combat, except that the enemy never saw your hand, and lifted his to no effect.
As a team with rifle, rounds, field glasses, and maps, Zlee and I were a rarity, spotter and shooter equally good at both. Bu?cher called us die Zwillinge, "the twins." And then, almost as quickly as it began, just shy of a month of training in that mountain forest by the lake and on ground soft and thawing in the sun, we were pronounced ready, given gold-colored sharpshooter cords for our uniforms, told to keep silent and alert, and sent off to the front, unaware of what kind of war awaited us there
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2012

    More life than war

    While it is a war novel, the main character's experience is more about life than killing or death. His duties as a sniper provide a platform to build from in examining life, how we live it, how we are when it is time to end, how we value it (or not) and how it doesn't change as much as it changes us. Part morality play, part biography and part fable, it is a book that will - to some degree or another, depending on your view of life - make you stop and examine many things about how you live yours.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 26, 2012

    The Best Novel I Have Read in a Long, Long Time...

    I was thoroughly impressed with this book. Krivak's writing style was sparse, yet elegant, and covered a topic--Austro-Hungarian soldiers on the Italian front in WWI--that is seldom mentioned in overviews of that conflict. I am recommending this to everyone I know!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2011

    Not bad for a novella.

    I was disappointed in the brevity of the book. The character development was adequate but insufficient in depth. The story ended before the protagonist could accomplish anything of significance. This would not be a book for a book club discussion.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 6, 2012

    A beautifully written book that I would have guessed could only

    A beautifully written book that I would have guessed could only be written by a much older man. I will remember this tale about family love, war and forgiveness for a long time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2012

    A rarity-sparse yet profoundly rich prose!

    Rarley are writers able to convey the horrors of war and the examination of self on such concise, evocative language.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2013

    Great book--makes you feel that you are there in WW1

    I really enjoyed the book -wish a map of the area had been included in the book. I kept trying to figure out where they were as they traveled.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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