This is a very unusual book – both as regards the theme and the style. Two WWI soldiers experience the horrors of war, slaughtering mercilessly and seeing their comrades slaughtered. Each one finds himself alone in the most devastating conditions on a mountainside in the Romanian Carpathians, after all of his respective companions have died – accidentally, by suicide or in the relentless gunfire while attempting to push a cannon up the hillside. Neither of them has any real hope or wish to survive. They are starving, bitterly cold, lost among the snow-covered boulders.
By chance, their paths cross. They save each other’s life and an old hermit, living in a cave, helps them survive a blizzard. After they discover he has been ravaged by a pack of wolves, they separate.
The story – including Sergei’s deep reflections on the pointlessness of the war and his wild fantasies when hallucinating – is told through the pages of a journal he writes for his sweetheart Anja, the memory of whom, and his desperate longing to see her again, is all that keeps him going.
Hans loses a leg and is redeployed as a guard in a prisoner-of-war camp in East Germany. Sergei is captured by the Germans and transferred to the same camp. We relive their overlapping war experiences when Hans finds Sergei’s half-burnt journal and invites him for a secret dinner on Christmas eve. On the last page he discovered that Sergei intends to attempt to escape at dawn next day.
The storyline is enthralling and well presented. We are drawn into the agonised hearts of two men killing countless enemies, witnessing their friends being mowed down, and themselves facing death day by day. We share in the utter futility and atrocity of such a war. However, the book would need further revision to clear up unnatural turns of phrase, POV-violation and a number of SPAG errors.