A debut novel with a captivating narrator
April 17, 2011
The Sojourn is a literary work of astonishing power and breadth in just under 200 pages. It spans continents (America to the Hapsburg Empire) and centuries (1899 to 1972) and engaged me with its careful and formal narrative voice that speaks with a longing to comprehend past love and loss.
This primarily is a war story but also a coming of age novel. Jozef Vinich is looking back at his life, from 1972 to a beginning in 1899 when his mother tragically died in a Colorado mining town. His father, Ondrej, in 1901 brings his American-born Jozef back to the old country, where he tends sheep in Austria-Hungary’s Carpathian mountains. There Ondrej raises and educates not only his son Jozef but also the son of a distant cousin, using the disciplined, empowering ways of living and surviving outdoors.
When the boys — close as brothers — join the Austro-Hungarian army in 1916, they are among the elite sharpshooters, chosen not only for their excellent marksmanship but also for their ability to endure hardship. Trained to be invisible and silent, they work together on the southern front, the mountain borderland with Italy. The descriptions of their war missions are thoughtful and precise, but as I tried to visualize their long hikes and Alpine journeys, I wished for a map of Europe during the war for better understanding. The story is too good to be adversely affected by this hiccup, which I remedied with Web searches and also turning to Russell Freedman’s The War to End All Wars on my bookshelf.
The Sojourn is Krivak’s first novel but his second book. In 2008, he published a memoir about his eight years pursuing and then leaving the Jesuit priesthood. It bears mentioning not simply as literary biography for the author, but because Jozef Vinich sees and hears with eyes and ears uniquely attuned to spiritual presence. It is a subtle touch in this impressive novel that inserts itself in moments of thought or dialogue with authorial wisdom and insight. Such as in the moment when Jozef reflects: “Why, then, as I watched with a kind of reverence my brother’s becoming, could I not see the arc of my father’s fall?”
Jozef finds his way home after the war via a prisoner of war camp in Sardinia. He arrives at his Carpathian village only as a byway to America, “the country in which I was born but had never belonged.” The book’s conclusion is one of hope for Jozef, who has journeyed from darkness and fear into his life’s greater meaning and purpose. A sparkling clarity washed over me as I said good-bye to this captivating narrator, and I recognized his redemption.