On his last long walk, septuagenarian war hero, deserter, and professor Alessandro Giuliani shares his past with an illiterate young factory worker--spinning a remarkable and deeply absorbing tale of heart-stopping escapes, loves unrequited and won, madmen, dwarfs, and mafiosi. But overshadowing all is the miraculous and terrible Great War--an almost surreal parade of horrors that devastated and defined Alessandro, yet enabled him to experience fully the magic and beauty of life.
Alessandro Giuliani is the son of a well-to lawyer who is enthralled by beauty--not just the classical beauty of art, but also of music and nature, of life itself. He is exuberant, living life as he finds it, and reveling in the beauty that is everywhere around him. His family is a close one, and Alessandro loves them passionately. He races locomotives on his horse Enrico, he rows, he climbs mountains. He lives, utterly.
But in 1914, war engulfs Europe and Alessandro is drawn into the conflict. For four years, Alessandro is a soldier of the line, fighting in the trenches under unspeakable conditions, a hero, a prisoner, and finally a deserter. He falls deeply in love--only to lose his beloved to the war as he has lost everyone else he has loved to the war in one way or another. But Alessandro never loses his exaltation in beauty even in the midst of unimaginable horror, his quest for a God in which he alternates belief and disbelief with utter serenity, and his realized hope of redemption and resurrection.
As far as I’m concerned, there is no way to summarize this book adequately in a review, because I personally can not find a way to describe the dazzling richness of the prose, the always off-center viewpoint of Alessandro who is both deeply affected by the war and yet unscathed at his core, the lyrical descriptions especially of the mountains the sheer exaltation of the prose. In hands less skilled, Alessandro would be a caricature, a joke. Instead, for 860 pages, Alessandro burns as brilliantly as any of the stars over the Alto Adige, totally believable, completely real, in a world gone mad.
The other characters in the story, both major and minor, are utterly real and unforgettable as well: his gentle father, his fried Rafi, his wartime comrades in his regiment, the brief, searing acquaintances with other Italian soldiers whose names he doesn’t ever know but whose memories stay with him, his beloved Ariane, and most especially, because he epitomizes the insanity of war, the dwarf Orfeo. All are etched with prose that is as lucid as it is extravagant, no mean feat.
The last chapter is so heartbreaking that it is painful to read.
I have never read a work of fiction that so deeply moved me, both when I read when it was published in 1991, and now, in a much different time, in 2009. It is magnificent, a tour de force, both an epic saga and a paean to love of family. Written by an American, it is also very Italian, and captures that skeptical attitude that Italians bring to war in particular. Its descriptions of the war are searing. The people in it are unforgettable. It is a masterpiece.
Perhaps because he had been without his family, solitary for so long, the deer in deer preserves and even in the wild sometimes allowed him to stroke their cloud-spotted flanks and touch their faces. And on the hot terra cotta floors of roof gardens and in other, less likely places, though it may have been accidental, doves had flown into his hands. Most of the time they held in place and stared at him with their round gray eyes until they sailed away with a feminine flutter of wings that he found beautiful not only for its delicacy and grace, but because the sound echoed through what then became an exquisite silence.
That's from page one, and had me muttering ‘oh fuck off…’ under my breath already. As well as being overwritten it is also just clunky (that long, commaless string of words that begins the third sentence is especially unwieldy), and although what follows is usually perfectly readable, this paragraph does get to the heart of the book's core problem, which is that it takes itself far too seriously while not taking its subject seriously enough.
Although Helprin is pitching this as a grown-up literary treatment of war, it has almost nothing in common with the works of writers who were actually in the First World War and who are talked up on the book's back cover. It reminded me more of historical romances like The Three Musketeers than of anything by Hemingway or Remarque; Helprin's hero is just not living a plausible experience of the conflict. He is whisked away from certain death so many times and in such unlikely ways (seconds before his execution by firing squad, for instance) that it is hard not to start finding it comic as he saunters through yet another cliff-hanger untouched while the poor mortals around him drop like malnourished flies.
Alessandro is, indeed, a kind of virile superman. Again, we are supposed to take this seriously but I found it mostly laughable. He is always the biggest, bravest, most commanding presence in every scene. He cannot walk ten feet away from his division without women falling at his feet: on one occasion he sleeps with a woman sitting next to him on an overnight train, while on another he arranges a sexual liaison with someone seconds after meeting them while jogging across a city square. He refuses to have sex with an adoring prostitute, however, because he is also a paragon of moral fibre. In reality, of course, sexual desperation among soldiers was almost pathological, most of them were not very good at speaking to real women, and queues for the run-down brothels went literally around the block. A braver and better book might have attempted that story, but instead we are treated to some kind of weird heroic wish-fulfilment figure.
Alessandro's exemplary traits might have been more bearable had he at least been forced to change or develop them in adversity, but he doesn't. He begins the book with an unerring sense of the truth of the world, and his losses and hardships do nothing but confirm him in his convictions. Indeed, he seems to treat the pain and misery of war as something like the ritual mortification undergone by a Christian saint. This is not inappropriate given the religious nature of Alessandro's worldview. Helprin would like his hero to come across as a kind of Herman Hesse-style magus figure, and there are many wistful and high-minded passages in here about God's beauty and consolation and how the light and truth of the world can be apprehended by those with an eye for it. These sections sound wise and sensible, but if you look at them for a second, they turn out to say nothing much at all except that you just have to have faith. In the context of the First World War, I found this a bizarre, offensive, and ultimately very conservative kind of snake-oil for an author to be pushing.
Still, there are some lovely descriptions of Rome along the way.
Alas, that was not to be. While he leads what seems to be a charmed life, the war in all its cruelty and fatality whirling around him in various venues and battles.
The story is enclosed in the simple adventure of an old man walking to a distant village with a young man, to whom he tells the history of his war and also much more. Helprin uses the character's love of beauty as permission for vivid and often beautiful descriptions of even ugly and terrifying events, but does not forget to show how Alessandro learns, hardens, and finds meaning in life in spite of, or because of, the war.
There are funny scenes as well as tragic ones, some of them just short of magical realism; some villains get their comeuppance promptly, some long after it does any good, some not at all. Many good people die, some almost by accident, some quite deliberately. Ultimately, Alessandro is left with the idea of beauty as that with which God comforts his broken children, and the idea of life as the balance of risk and hope.
I do have to say...I was certainly a bit disappointed at how the the author chose to end the book...it jumped around too quickly toward the end...I wanted more I suppose...but the journey was magnificent!:)
Though some plot lines felt odd (risking Enrico's life to leap the speared fences was a disquieting lack of good sense), the only wholly improbable ones come toward the end > Alessandro's masochistic defiance of Klodgwig, hearing Ariane's heartbeat, and his family dream.
The final ending left an awful and totally defenseless image of a hunter's brutal killing of sparrows.
If this was a metaphor, it was overkill.