A Soldier of the Great War
is a 1991 historical fiction novel by American writer and commentator Mark Helprin. The book is told from the perspective of an aged veteran of World War I as he remembers his experiences during the conflict, from the traumatic to the enlightening.
The lead character and chief storyteller is a 74-year-old Italian man who hails from Rome. His name is Alessandro Guiliani, and while he fought on behalf of Italy during World War I, he is by nature a pacifist. He tells the story to a secondary character named Nicolo Sambuca who accompanies Guiliani on an epic
journey over the Alps that will end in Guiliani's hometown of Rome. Unlike Guiliani, who is an actual and self-professed intellectual, Sambuca is cut from simpler cloth. He is a common laborer who works at a propeller factory, as opposed to a member of the national intelligentsia. At first, Guiliani is hesitant to tell his story which involves getting attacked by gunfire and becoming a prisoner of war before being ultimately released. But ultimately he relents to Sambuca who is naturally curious.
After the first chapter, "Rome, August," in which the characters are introduced and in which Guiliani describes Italy in 1915 prior to it being overcome by fascism, the second chapter is called "Race to the Sea." In it, Guiliani recalls his teenage years and a day in which he learns that his father, an attorney, has sold the plot of land he owns to help support his wife and child. It's a very humbling moment for Guiliani.
The third chapter is called "His Portrait When He Was Young." In it, Guiliani is a college student, but the university is closed because of the war. He visits his parents and learns that his father is very sick. Guiliani also meets a fiery, redheaded Irish woman named Janet McCafrey after the two share the last compartment on a train headed to Munich. Guiliani takes the trip because he wants to see the famous Italian artist Raphael's masterpiece, “Bindo Altovini.”
The fourth chapter is called "The 19th River Guard." In it, Guiliani joins the army to fight on behalf of Italy in World War I. It's not long before Guiliani is captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp. There, he manages to escape with two of his fellow prisoners who he has befriended: Euridice and Guariglia. They manage to make their way to a tower staffed by an Italian regiment, the 19th River Guard. Because the area is full of Italian soldiers, they feel relatively safe. At the same time, they are right on the bordering river to Austria which is enemy territory. They make the ill-advised and overly brash decision to take a midnight swim in the river. While they aren't recaptured, a phosphorous shell explodes above them and a battle breaks out.
In the fifth chapter, "The Moon and the Bonfires," Guiliani is reunited with his unit. However, the soldier life doesn't suit him, nor does it satisfy his wanderlust and his lust for great art. And so after his commanding officer refuses his request to visit Venice, Guiliani steals an officer's cap, poses as an officer and makes his way to Venice on his own. While there, he meets a beautiful Italian woman and engages in fiery debates about art with locals. While visiting the Venice home of his friend Rafi's parents, they give him a letter revealing that Guiliani's father has died.
Chapter Six is called "Stella Maris." In it, Guiliani is still AWOL from the military. As a deserter, he has to watch his step. He thinks he is safe when he joins up with some soldiers who are headed to Rome, where Guiliani's grieving mother still lives. They discuss the importance of business versus country and reveal that they know Guiliani is a deserter. Because of this, Guiliani ends up working in a quarry with other deserters of the Italian army.
Chapter Seven is called "A Soldier on the Line." After backbreaking work in the quarry, Guiliani returns on a train to Rome where he seeks out Orfeo, the commanding officer who sent him to the quarry as punishment. He feels like killing Orfeo and even goes so far as the Ministry of War bathroom to do the deed. But in the end, Guiliani decides not to kill Orfeo.
In Chapter Eight, "The Winter Palace," Guiliani ends up back on the frontlines, and before long, he's captured by Bulgarian soldiers fighting on behalf of Austria. The Bulgarians are good fighters but terrible farmers, hunters, and fishers, and so everyone, prisoner and guard alike at the camp, are starving. A weak Guiliani passes out while away from the camp, then wakes up at 6 PM, panicked because any prisoner who returns to the camp after dark is shot. He doesn't have time to make it back to the camp by dusk on foot. Fortunately, some Bulgarians on horseback stop nearby him and offer him a ride back to camp.
Chapter Nine is called "La Tempesta." In it, the war has ended and Guiliani is in a depressing, rundown hotel. He himself is also very depressed and hopes that a stroke will take his life silently and nonviolently.
The tenth and last chapter is called "La Rondine." It takes place back in the present when Guiliani and Sambuca are arguing about the existence of God. Guiliani says this, quoting a letter from his beloved: "As long as you have life and breath, believe. Believe for those who cannot. Believe even if you have stopped believing. Believe for the sake of the dead, for love, to keep your heart beating, believe."