As a writer of fiction, Mark Helprin always has concerned himself with the complexities of the human heart and with the intricate network of relationships that engage the individual human being. He is a writer whose vision is supremely humane. Tested by grand varieties of pain and loss, Helprin’s characters consistently discover the redemptive capabilities buried within their own natures. They learn specifically of the explosive potential of love, of the heart and the soul willed into action.
This same humane vision shapes the moral center of Helprin’s novel, A Soldier of the Great War, wherein the potency of love is relentlessly tested by the obscenities of war. Helprin’s protagonist, Alessandro Giuliani, moves through the violence of World War I on a furious wave of circumstance and event; death weaves its way around Giuliani, never claiming him directly, but wounding him horribly in its claims on those around him.
The telling of Giuliani’s story comes through an extended flashback (nearly 650 pages’ worth) contained within a narrative frame. The novel opens in August, 1964, the 74-year-old Alessandro Giuliani now nearly beatific as he limps along the streets of Rome, his white hair tossing “like the white water in the curl of a wave,” his hands the gentle resting place of doves. Giuliani is a retired professor of aesthetics, a student of beauty burdened by memories that seem to defy aesthetic definition. In the course of a journey (Giuliani is nothing if not a pilgrim) meant to take him to his granddaughter, Giuliani befriends and subsequently shares his travel with a naïve, illiterate factory worker named Nicoló Sambucca. Time on the road passes and Giuliani, taken somewhat cantankerously by Nicoló’s innocent imagination and surprised by the vitality of the landscape, unlocks a personal history long kept secret, hidden:
Alessandro felt the world take fire. His heart repaired to the past and he barely touched the ground as he walked between trees that now were shimmering in the dawn. No matter that distant thunder is muted and slow, it comes through the air more clearly. After half a century and more, he was going to take one last look. He no longer cared what it might do to him. He just wanted to go back. And he did.
Giuliani’s retreat into that past, his description of what he sees in that “last look,” becomes the substance of Helprin’s novel.
The story Giuliani tells begins with a childhood memory, one that early on defines several of the major thematic relationships in the novel. At the age of nine, Alessandro becomes infatuated with a young member of the Austrian royal family. After performing a small act of heroism, he finds himself innocently in bed with her. They are discovered, and Alessandro faces the dangerous wrath of the Austrian guard; he is saved by his father, Signore Giuliani, who purposely, protectively slaps his son in the face—an act done only twice in Alessandro’s life, and an act motivated by love, in this case the love of parent for child.
This particular paternal love is one of the driving forces in Helprin’s novel and in Helprin’s cosmos; it is the source of the greatest joy and of the greatest sorrow, a paradox of emotion. For Alessandro, the father-son connection is somehow holy and sanctified, an inviolable relationship; yet the sadly human tendency is, indeed, toward violation. We live our lives, says Helprin, in that awful tension between love and the failures of love.
In A Soldier of the Great War, no better example of the soaring fidelity of such love is to be found than in the figure of Guariglia, a large, lovingly ugly man who becomes Giuliani’s closest comrade during the war. Guariglia is a man hopelessly in love with his children, a man redeemed (as Giuliani recognizes) by the intensity and purity of his spirit. To Guariglia, children are physical proofs of the ineffable, and he lectures Giuliani, the aesthetician, on their beauty: “They are all that is good and holy. I didn’t know God until I saw them. It’s funny, as soon as you lose faith, you have children, and life reawakens.” Guarigila so loves his children that later in the novel, having already served heroically on the line in the Italian army, Guariglia expertly saws off his own leg beneath the knee in order to avoid further service and to insure his staying home with his children. When that attempt fails, and he is imprisoned and sentenced to be shot, Guariglia stands before the firing squad, tranquil at last, and speaks his last words: “God keep my children.”
Indeed, one of the several lessons learned by Giuliani (and taught to Nicoló) is that protection, guardianship, and safekeeping are matters ultimately of chance, that the jurisdiction of parental love is woefully limited. Too often, accident intervenes. After the war, Alessandro Giuliani can keep his promise to Guariglia and provide for his children, but he finds himself unable to shield his own son, Paolo, from the discovery of death in World War II.
That death is doubly tragic, for not only does it take from Alessandro his only child, but it drives home the irony of Alessandro’s own survival. Throughout the war, Giuliani manages to elude death, even when he seems to wear death’s fearsome mark. In the Alto Adige, he is one of the few survivors of an Austrian attack; as a member of a special unit formed to hunt down and capture...
(The entire section is 2228 words.)