World War I was the deadliest conflict in Western history, but contemporary portrayals of war in literature and cinema primarily focus on examples of combat from the past fifty or sixty years. At a time when the Great War is receding into the annals of distant history, this elegiac and edifying novel has been released--a small, slim but powerful story of a young soldier, Josef Vinich, who hails from a disenfranchised and impoverished family in rural Austria-Hungary.
Josef was born in the rural mining town of Pueblo, Colorado, in 1899, to immigrant parents from Austria-Hungary who dreamed of a better life in the United States. The opening eleven-page prologue, a stunning and deeply felt family tragedy, is subsequently followed by a move back to the Empire, to his father's village in rural Austria-Hungary. Josef's father then marries a cruel woman with two young sons. They live the hardscrabble existence of shepherds, barely able to put food on the table, in the cold and brutal climate of the region. Josef and his father live for part of the year in a cabin in the Carpathian Mountains and ply their trade of husbandry in order to survive.
At the age of ten, Josef is introduced to his father's Krag rifle, and is instructed in the art of hiding, and hunting their prey. A distant cousin, Marian Pes--nicknamed Zlee--who was one year older than Josef, is sent to live with them. Zlee has an instinct for shepherding, and together they form a brotherly bond of love and respect. Josef's sleep is haunted by dreams of loss and he gradually becomes distant from his father.
In 1916, when Zlee turns eighteen, both boys go to the conscription office to join up. Josef alters the age on his identity card so that he can go, too. During artillery training, they are recognized for their skill of aiming and shooting, and are sent to train as snipers, or "sharpshooters," which in German is called Scharfschützen. What follows is a coming of age story set in the harsh climate and geography in the trenches of war--to Austria to train as Scharfschützen, and eventually to the sub-zero temperature of the Italian Alps.
Krivak writes with the precision and beauty of a finely cut gem and with the meticulous pace and purpose of a classical conductor. Every word is necessary and neatly positioned. His prose is evocative, poetic, and distilled. There is a place between the breath of the living and the faces of the dead, and that is where Josef's soul resides. When the author takes the reader to the abyss of loss and the ghosts of Time, it is riveting. However, the emotional resonance was primarily potent in the prologue and only periodically in the body of the story, and was otherwise low-timbred and somewhat distancing. The narrative is so deliberately controlled that at times it felt antiseptic and dispassionate.
Krivak's first novel is highly recommended as an addition to a library of World War I literature. This is an admirable debut, and it is evident from the prologue that Krivak is capable of crafting an emotionally satisfying story.
This review is based on an ARC received from the publisher.