The intense existential doubt precipitated by moments of life and death struggle, catastrophic moral choice, and, yes, the peace that passeth understanding meld in this frighteningly clear and poignant tale. It is 1944, the Italian campaign, and three men are tasked, along with an elderly Italian guide, to scout up a low mountain in order to ascertain what forces of retreating Germans lie ahead. Go up a mountain and come back down. If that isn’t the basis of an archetypical narrative arc, I don’t know what is. Simple. But that stripped down symbolism and its corollaries reverberates throughout this haunting story.
Of course the three GIs are carrying far more than their packs. Bausch masterfully flashes back to their time before the landing, and in the case of one, Corporal Robert Marson, to his life in a suburb of Washington D.C. It is more than fear for their lives though that burdens them. An incident has occurred shortly before they are ordered out on this reconnaissance. That incident and their deliberation as to how to respond to it sets the moral choice before them. As if that weren’t enough, they find themselves encountering, from a distance, the slaughter of Jews by the retreating German forces, and on their return journey, the very real threat of death dealt by an unseen sniper.
Bausch’s writing here is so taut, so fully under control, so pitch perfect, that you will find your pace through the story to be almost breathless. This is fine writing indeed. And though it is a short novel, it feels replete. Highly recommended.