Monday, December 27, 2010

Something Worth Fighting For

Almost a year ago, I was at a party with some friends, Dave and Brooke, and we were talking about great books that we had read recently.  They could not stop talking about one, so I asked them to write down the name, so that I wouldn't forget it.  Dave handed me a note later that said:

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Everything Mark Helprin has ever written

 So, I put Soldier on my TBR list, and figured that I would eventually get to it.  That time has come.

A Soldier of the Great War  is the story of an Italian man, Alessandro Giuliani, and his struggle to survive World War I, with his self respect intact.  The story begins with Alessandro as a dignified old man helping a young man, who is a stranger to him.  The two wind up going on a long walk together, during which Alessandro tells the young man, Nicolo, the story of his life, and challenges and expands Nicolo's view of the world. 

Alessandro's profession is the study of beauty, and that he is able to make a living in this field is an amazement to all.  According to Alessandro, La Tempesta by Giorgione is the reason for war and the reason for peace. The painting, which is at the top of this post, depicts a soldier going off to war, and leaving a naked woman and a nursing child behind.  The message being that the only thing worth leaving a wife and child behind for is to fight for their continued way of life, and a better future for the child.  Although he joined the war as a single man, Alessandro carries this image with him, and it helps him through difficult times. 

One interesting detail that I noticed in Soldier is that although the author is American, the United States is not mentioned at all during the story of the war - no mention of American soldiers, prisoners of war, or even participation. America is only mentioned toward the end of the book as a place to visit or move to after the war is over.

From the beginning, there was something about Soldier that reminded me of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  There are many similarities before one even opens either book.  Follett and Helprin were born within 2 years of each other (1949 and 1947, respectively), the books Pillars and Soldier were published within 2 years of each other (1989 and 1991, respectively), and both books are massive, with Pillars having 1008 pages, and Soldier having 792 pages.  Both novels are set in Europe, and another strange similarity is that they are the only novels that I have ever read with scenes in a rock quarry.  But more than that, the stories feel similar in the tone and voice of the main character.  However, the plots themselves are completely different.  Pillars takes place over several decades in the 1600s, and the story is the struggle to build a great cathedral.  Soldier takes place between 1915 and 1919 in the flashback, and for 2 days in the 1960s.  I guess my point is that if you liked Pillars, you will like Soldier too.

Next up:  Enemies of the People by Kati Marton

Still Listening to:  Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

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