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Sunday, November 26, 2006

The exquisite use of language and enthralling storytelling in this book left me slightly stunned. In describing the experiences of a young Italian soldier, Helprin includes uncanny details and provides a very close encounter with the sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of his character’s world. Alessandro’s matter-of-fact courage and his yearning for his family are very moving.

Alessandro is Italian, in his mid-twenties when he enters the armed forces during World War I. His four-year tenure is astounding, partly because he is at once an ordinary and a very gifted person. Alessandro takes improbable risks, and while he is not able to avoid misfortune, he does escape death. The book follows him from his duty as a part of an elite guard unit, then as a deserter, a death-row inmate, then again a fighter, and later a prisoner of war. The scope and depth of knowledge displayed is remarkable: mountaineering, rock-climbing, horse-riding, weaponry, geography and topography, painting, music, and military procedures.

This book is about war, and so there is a lot of blood and a lot of death, often in cruelty. There were moments when my heart seemed to stop with the significance of an event. But there were also times when I found myself laughing out loud at Alessandro's gutsy impudence. Alessandro's faithfulness to beauty and his hope of reunion with his loved ones allow him (and the reader) to surface through the horror. Though the war seems to him meaningless, he suffers without relinquishing his joy in family, God, art, humor, and the beauty of nature. An amazing book.

Title:A Soldier of the Great War
Author:Mark Helprin
Date published:1991
Number of pages:792


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