The Sojourn – National Book Award Finalist

When someone is miraculously saved from disaster, speculation often centers around why he survived, and how his life will affect others and the world.  In his National Book Award finalist story The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak  focuses on Jozef Vinich’s life, after his mother throws her baby son off a trestle and into the river to save him from an oncoming train.

Jozef’s sojourn begins and ends in America in this coming of age tale that follows his young life through the hills of Austria-Hungary, World War I, prison camp, and back again.  Jozef’s father leaves the Colorado mining town where his wife died, and returns with baby Jozef to his hometown in rural Hungary.  As he grows into a boy, Jozef follows his father to become a shepherd, and acquires the hunting and shooting skills of killing animals that he eventually uses as a sharpshooter when he enlists in World War I.

As the images shift to the brutal and raw horrors of war, Krivak’s descriptions vividly reveal how the war changes the boy.

“Soldiers rarely get to glimpse the maps of the high command and they maneuver out of discipline and duty to those positions where they are ordered, pawns needed to stand and hold until the enemy is drawn out and exposed, at the expense of the pawns.”

Rivalling Cormac McCarthy in his harsh yet simple descriptions, Krivak contrasts the savagery of battle against the intense single-minded purpose of its participants.  At times, the killings and maulings are hard to read, but the language held me to the page.

“One morning as I looked down at the river flowing below through a valley already turning into a tapestry of greens, yellows, and whites as far as the blue of the Adriatic, and back to the still snowcapped and windblown mountain range behind, rising all at once far into the Alps, I realized that I had no desire and no drive to fight anymore, no rage at having been wronged somehow, no belief in the right and purpose of kings.  I longed only to turn back and climb and begin life all over again in a place where I might find the peace I’d once known in mountains of another time and another place, and I wondered – if I could slip out of camp unobserved – whether I just might be ale to stay hidden and uncaptured until this war came to end.  But in the same moment this will to live overtook me, we were ordered to fall in, and so we shouldered our packs and rifles and set out like thin sheep kept in line with the promise of food and sleep, too numb to expect our slaughter.”

Jozef somehow survives the hellfire of battle, only to be taken prisoner.  When, finally, he is released and sent to walk across the border to home, he confronts yet another challenge – a young pregnant gypsy girl being attacked by soldiers.  The imagery shifts again – with another baby boy looking for survival.  But, to tell you how it all works out would spoil the ending.  It’s enough to know that Jozef’s father rescues him in the end, as he makes his way back to where he came from – his sojourn ended – his life yet to begin.

Krivak’s book is deceivingly simple looking – a small paperback that can easily fit into a pocket.  But the story is strong and breath-taking with images that will stay with you.