Picks and Pans Review: A Soldier of the Great War
With the fantasy of Alice in Wonderland and grim wit of Catch-22, this magnificent novel celebrates both the immutable power of death and the defiant strength of the human spirit.
Helprin, author of such books as Winter's Tale, tells the story of aesthetics professor Alessandro Giuliani in flashback, as the 74-year-old man trudges on a 43-mile hike he knows may well be his last act. But his whole life, from a youth of reckless mountaineering to service in the Italian Army in World War I, has been spent testing the integrity of life by hurling it against the possibility of death.
And while he never fears dying, his pleasure in surviving is heightened by his enjoyment of life: "Color, miracle, and song were beautifully intertwined, strong enough, always, to ride out the sins of politics and war."
Helprin keeps Alessandro in constant crises during the war—from a firing squad to an attack on an Alpine peak. Yet these unlikely, violent sequences are overlaid with a suggestion that if the universe is arbitrary, it is arbitrarily funny as well as arbitrarily cruel.
Captured a second time, for instance, Alessandro becomes a secretary to an Austrian field marshal who is spending the war leading his cavalry unit cross-country at a furious pace—away from the fighting. Then he sends detailed after-action reports to Vienna, reporting on his troops' heroism.
Alessandro asks, "How, in good conscience, can you ride across the countryside in perfect safety, as if you were on holiday, stopping mainly to swim and eat oysters, while men are crushed and pulverized in the filth of the trenches?"
Answers the marshal: "The object of war is peace, and I have merely thrown out the middle. If everyone did the same, no one would be crushed and pulverized in the filth of the trenches."
Among the other characters Alessandro recalls are Ariane, the nurse with whom he fell madly in love, Guarilia, a harness maker who deserted because he could no longer bear to be away from his children, and a fellow prisoner who liked working in the Austrian stables so he could pursue his amorous feelings for horses.
World War I's surreal brutality gives Helprin (a veteran of Israel's armed forces) an ideal counterpoint to his hero's stubborn life force—which, if not optimism, is an elegant kind of determination. And making Alessandro an Italian lets Helprin speculate on the value of being beyond the fray: "I'm perfectly content to watch the celebrants from here in the dark," Alessandro says of one procession. "Let them go by. We'll lose nothing. To the contrary, and may God forgive us, as they go past and we remain, we'll take from them everything they have."
Helprin waxes sentimental at times. But this is that rare 700-page book in which every syllable is well spent. And it is that rare work that is inspiring yet remains the very model of dignity and intelligence. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $24.95)