World War I continues to inspire many a novelist, partly because both the social and political structures of Europe died in the trenches of that war, ushering in the modern era, the 20th century, the most barbaric recorded in human history. Daniel Mason’s “The Winter Soldier” is a superb addition to such literature. Reading either fiction or nonfiction about the period between roughly 1880 and 1919, it’s best to look at a couple of maps, to see the vast amount of lands from Vienna East into parts of Russia to understand the territories in question. World War I ended The Ottoman Empire, The Austria-Hungary/Hapsburg Empire, and also was the end of Russia under various Tsars and Tsarinas and the beginning of The Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Mason’s narrator, Lucius, comes from a noble Polish family, during a period in history when Poland had virtually ceased to exist. His aristocratic parents symbolize the ancient regime, a world of interlocking, intermarried aristocracies throughout Europe, Eastern and Western. Lucius, uncomfortable in said world, goes to medical school (his friendship with a Jewish student there precedes the horrors of the anti-Semitism which was soon to rear its ugly virus throughout Europe, more so in the Eastern parts). War having broken out, although just a medical student, Lucius is assigned as a doctor to a small hospital in the Carpathian Mountains (see a map for location); he’s replacing another doctor, and seeing patients brought in from various Eastern villages, who speak many languages, who either need amputations, other surgeries, and/or arrive “shell-shocked”, a concept invented during World War I, and which we now call PTSD. The only other “medical” staff member assisting him, in a small Catholic Church riddled with lice and rats, is a nun who’s learned a great deal from Lucius’s predecessor.
A great deal of Mason’s sensitive and beautifully written novel takes place in this church, where Lucius and his nurse/nun care for all sorts of medical problems, with sensitivity, toughness, and love, and it becomes clear that these two people are falling in love: that this novel is partly a love story is one of its great strengths. So many soldiers from so many cultures–this is the end of the reign of Emperor Franz Josef, after which countries such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia will come into existence. Mason’s at his best in describing the travails of soldiers in the winter in the novel; winter was the great enemy , earlier, of Napoleon, and later, of Hitler. Mason shows us the constant wanderings of random peasant families, with little but the clothes on their backs and a few “valuables”, traipsing in and out of mountain towns and villages seeking food and safety, as well as bands of roaming soldiers seeking more or less the same things. (As in Tolsoy’s “War and Peace”, many soldiers have begun to run away; that odd pact between general and soldiers can snap at any time).
Lucius and the others from the church get separated ; Lucius returns to Vienna for a couple of years to practice medicine and resume his medical studies, during which time his ambitious mother finds him a wife–but this shrewd aristocratic mom understands that the future of Europe isn’t with the aristocracy, but with the new capitalists: these are critical observations on Mason’s part, as those with new industrial capital still run the world to this day. Financial power replaced social power during, and immediately following, World War I. And, of course, Lucius will spend years trying to refind his great love, the nurse/nun from the church. And he does, and the denouement between these two is one of the greatest moments in recent fiction; there’s both climax and anti-climax, without being a spoiler here.
And the writing in this novel is superb; the winter landscapes in which everything happens are as sensitively rendered as any I’ve read in recent times in contemporary fiction. The pointlessness of war, is, as is increasingly common, a subtext of the novel, and Mason presents various soldiers of various nationalities as both unusually sensitive to one another and unusually brutal. Lucius’ wanderings through Eastern Europe looking for his nurse are breathtakingly beautifully described. “The Winter Soldier” is a surprise best novel of the year, and I was intrigued, too, to discover that Daniel Mason “is a clinical assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, where he teaches courses in the humanities and medicine” (book flap). Mason is, in other words, an interdisciplinary thinker/writer, which has become rare indeed in our wildly overspecialized culture. Mason looks at humans from their best and worst sides in “The Winter Soldier”, and reading it was both a great pleasure and often an epiphany.