Milovan Djilas and his Land Without Justice

Milovan Djilas (1911-1997) was a very brave man, who was the first and for a long time the foremost dissident from within a communist system. A committed communist from the eighth grade onward and the #2 official in Yugoslavia as it broke from subservience to the Soviet Union (but not from a local form of Stalinism), Djilas not only spoke truth to power, but spoke the most devastating of truths: that far from communism leading to the withering away of the state and an end of social inequalities it led to state apparatus monitoring and attempting to control every facet of life in communist countries and enriched a “new class” of party bureaucrats.


Djilas hoped that communism would bring a better, juster society. This was a hope that stimulated many to join communist parties. But I can’t think of anyone else who rose to high and proclaimed that the revolution and the communist party in power failed to deliver what he and they had hoped for.

It was certainly not that Djilas failed to understand that power was necessary to accomplish change. Nonetheless, when he was about to become president of Yugoslavia, he published a series of articles critical of how communism was developing in Yugoslavia. He dared to say that power had become an end in-itself (that is, that Stalin, Tito, et al. were more concerned about maintaining their power than in doing anything about the programs they espoused). He was removed from all his official posts. After publishing The New Class abroad (the book in which he examined the privileges of party members and managers who neither owned the means of production or labored) and speaking in support of the revolt against Soviet domination of Hungary in 1956, Djilas was charged with “slandering and writing opinions hostile to the people and the state of Yugoslavia.” He wrote the memoir of his youth in Montenegro, Land Without Justice before a nine-year imprisonment.

That was not his first imprisonment. He has been imprisoned for being a communist 1933-36. Nor was it his last. He was imprisoned again for publishing Conversations with Stalin in 1961 (another four years).

Djilas outlived his former comrade, dictator Josip Tito, and outlived the second Yugoslavia. Already in 1989, Djilas observed:

“Milosevich’s authoritarianism in Serbia is provoking real separation. Remember what Hegel said, that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce. What I mean to say is that when Yugoslavia disintegrates this time around, the outside world will not intervene as it did in 1914… Yugoslavia is the laboratory of all Communism. Its disintegration will foretell the disintegration in the Soviet Union. We are farther along than the Soviets.”

Djilas’s “autobiography of my youth”


I read Land Without Justice not out of respect for Djilas as a prophet, nor even out of interest in how someone who knew about the ruthlessness of communist dictators (including direct observation of Stalin) could dare to say that the new communist emperors had not clothes, but as part of my recent attempts to understand the savagery during the breakup of Yugoslavia. (Montenegro was the last to split off from Serbia, which still called itself “Yugoslavia,” that is, the union of southern Slavs. In language and religion and stubbornness, Montenegrians are Serbian.)

The first third of the book details the inter-ethnic (and inter-clan) violence in Montenegro at the time of Djilas’s birth. The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 in which the Kingdom of Montenegro expanded, expelling Ottoman rulers and slaughtering Muslims,. were followed by World War I in which Montenegro, allied with Serbia was decisively defeated by the (Austro-Hungarian) Hapsburg army in 1916. Djilas describes the often grisly murders of Muslims before and after the First World War, and the picking off and dismemberment of stragglers from the Austrian retreat in 1918.

Djilas was only five when the Austrian army passed through triumphant and only seven when it retreated, and much of what Djilas describes he could not have understood at the time, I frequently told myself. Yet, there are very clear memories of what he himself saw, too. And there is a continuity in the savagery that continued with guerrilla rebels against the postwar Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and, after the Croatian leader was assassinated in Parliament, the Serbian dictatorship that called itself the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Djilas himself was a leader of partisan forces in Montenegro opposed to the fascist puppet Montenegro during the Second World War, which is beyond what is covered in the memoir of his youth. He wrote about his WWII experience and his rise and fall as a comrade of Tito in other books, as well as his analyses of the new class.

Djilas was a great storyteller, and Land Without Justice is filled with the stories of others, including his violent family members, teachers, fellow students. The book is not impersonal — it does include accounts of what the young Djilas felt — but the first two parts seem more ethnographic (an observant participant) than autobiographical. The young Djilas is more an agent in the final third, after he has left his native village to board in town and go to school.

I think that one could substitute the name of other Balkan peoples in their own areas in Djilas’s lament that “everywhere on the roads wherever we went, there was sorrow—tombstones and graces, murder and misfortune, one after another. The murder of enemies was forgotten, but our own Montenegrin losses, especially if caused by a brother’s hand, remained fresh i memory. One no sooner passed a mound or put it out of mind than another waited around the bend. Every stopping place had a grave.” The Ottoman victory at the Battle of Kosovo required regarding all Muslims (however Slavic their ancestry) as “Turks,” killing them and dispossessing them, though much of the violence as between those not only of the same language and same faith, but same name.

“So it has always been here,” Djilas wrote.

“One fights to achieve sacred dreams and plunders and lays waste along the way — to live in misery, in pain and death…. The naked and hungry mountaineers could not keep from looting their neighbors, while yearning and dying for ancient glories. Here, war was survival, a way of life, and death in battle the loveliest dream and highest duty….. This land was never one to reward virtue, but it has always been strong on taking revenge and punishing evil. revenge is its greatest delight and glory…. Vengeance is a breath of life one shared from the cradle with one’s fellow clansmen, in both good fortune and bad, vengeance from eternity. Vengeance was the debt we paid for the love and sacrifice our forebears and fellow clansmen bore for us. It was the defense of our honor and good name, and the guarantee of our maidens. It was our pride before others.”

Individual and family honor had to be maintained by spilling of fresh blood — including that of many Djilas’s relatives, including his father (veteran of the Balkan Wars).

Zla_Kolata. by Pavoukjpeg.jpeg

(Zla Kolata, Montenegro’s highest peak photographed  by Pavoukjpeg)

The first part of the book chronicles many of those. I was struck in the last part that almost everyone Djilas mentioned — his teachers and classmates — had been killed during World War II or its immediate aftermath, and hardly any of them by foreigners (a substantial number killed by communist partisans and some “disappeared” for opposing Tito’s break from subservience to Stalin).

Early on, Djilas also describes how looting was irresistible, even to those who tried to dissuade others. In the mid-1950s, Djilas was not writing to explain the atrocities of the 1990s in Bosnia (and elsewhere in what had been Yugoslavia). Djilas considered himself a Yugoslavian, though he foresaw that after Tito (and, especially, with Milosovich’s dictatorship) violent fission would occur. Djilas was writing about days of Montenegrian independence and the first Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, though reading his memoir now, it seems that what he was writing relates only too well to the 1990s.

For me (someone more interested in the culture and history of the Balkans than most North Americans not of Slavic descent), Djilas’s memoir is too long with too many stories of too many individuals (particularly in the second part of the book). I’d have liked more about him. And I’d have liked some explication of what “communism” meant to him as a child and youth, especially since he describes a rural society without industry, and, therefore without a proletariat. One of the paradoxes of 20th-century history is that communist revolutions succeeded (that is, seized state power) only in societies that were predominantly peasant, not those with numerous industrial workers. And Montenegro was a clan-based peasant backwater even in comparison to other places where communists took power…

Also, I found some of the generalizations with which he closed each chapter rather too oracular. For instance, I am not sure what he meant when he wrote “Awareness and perseverance are not enough to help one resist and survive if the times in which one lives are contrary to those that are ahead. A man can fight anything except his own times.” Aside from its Hegelian cast, it seems to me that Djilas fought his own times (though not winning, I guess).

©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray



Stories set in Croatia and the US by Josip Novakovich

I began reading Croatian-American writer Josip Novakovich (1956-) with nonfiction, before visiting Croatia. Plum Brandy provided me much about his background amidst reports of his visits to Croatia during the bloody struggle for Croatian independence (or, depending upon one’s perspective, for the preservation of Yugoslavia). Two of the short stories in Novakovich’s superb 2005 collection Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust are written in a first-person perspective of Slavic immigrant to the US that is very close to that of Plum Brandy.


The rest are set in various parts of what was Yugoslavia from perspectives other than that of a middle-aged male emigré. The most daring—and to me convincing—choice of perspectives are those of women (Ribs, Spleen). “The Stamp” is a memoir ostensibly written by Nedjeljko Carbrinovich, one of the Serbian nationalists who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering World War I. I found it fascinating and it fits with the historical record (that I checked after reading the story).

Other accomplished stories focus on Serbians long resident in Croatia who were treated with suspicion (and violent disdain) by “brother Serbs” (The Bridge Under the Danube) or by Croats (Neighbors). There is also a Croatian boy who falls in with Serbian invaders surrounding his town and fulfilling a fantasy of many boys (Snow Powder) and a very black comedy about other perfidious and thought-to-be-perfidious Croatians (Hail). Even memories of particularly notorious ethnic cleansing comes into a grotesque amorous adventure in “Ribs” (the comedy is in the amour, not the slaughter of civilians, BTW).

A tale of a ballet-obsessed daughter judged too young to be admitted to “Swan Lake” in St. Petersburg is out-and-out sweet—though I’m with her brother in preferring Prokofiev.

When I was reading them, I was somewhat disappointed by the endings of “Hail” and “Ribs,” but in retrospect have changed my mind and decided they end appropriately (unlike so many stories in the New Yorker that seem to me to stop rather than end). None of the eleven stories is a dud, though I have a favorite: the absurdist Croatian “Hail” and the absurdist American heartland “Night Guests.” And I especially admire “The Stamp” and “Ribs” for making the subjectivities characters quite unlike the author convincing.

Many of the characters evidence gallows humor (Slavic pessimism?) and there are many ironies of lust as well as of terror and the carnage and opportunism of “ethnic cleansings.”

The most famous Yugoslavian writer, Ivo Andric[h], was of Croatian stock but wrote more about Muslims and Serbs (in the Cyrillic script of the Serbs rather than the Roman one of Croatians). Writing in English (he is now a professor at Concordia University in Montréal), Novakovich, who left what was still Yugoslavian Croatia and who attended college in an almost entirely Serbian city (Novi Sad), seems Andric’s heir in encompassing multitudes, though not attempting to match the temporal scope (multiple centuries) of Bridge on the Drina.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray



The Great Croatian Novel: simultaneousoly slapstick and tragedy

Josip Novakovich’s novel April Fool’s Day does for the violent breakup of Yugoslavia what The Tin Drum and Catch-22 did for the Second World War and The Good Soldier Schweik for the first one — that is, show some of the absurdities of catacylsmic carnage — and duplicitous officialdom. Novakovich’s protagonist Ivan Dolinar was born on the first of April 1948 to a Croatian family in Nizograd, Yugoslavia at the time of Tito’s break from control from Stalinism (which, decidedly, did not mean a break from a Stalinist system that sought to crush civil society in any guise, including nationalism and religion).


Not having made it to America (as Novakovich did at the age of 20), Ivan could not avoid being drafted into the (Serbian-controlled) Yugoslav Federal army as communism was being swept away and ethnic mobilizations were producing something akin to the US war against secession (in the Serbian view) and a series of wars of independence (with vastly more rape and murder of civilians than the US one). Ivan has the misfortune to be dragooned not only into the remnants of the pan-national Yugoslav army, but, successively, into Croatian and Serbian militias. He is nearly shot by Croats and by Serbs. In this he recapitulates his father’s experience with the shifting tides of WWII (his father ”changed armies several times and joined the winning side too late,” and returned home with an arm and a leg in a potato sack… and proceeded to drink himself to death in the grand Slavic manner).

Attending medical school in Novi Sad, Serbia (as Novakovich did), he gets into serious trouble as a result of a joke by his (Bosnian Muslim) room-mate. Rather than being executed for sedition, they are sent to a labor camp. There, Ivan has a hallucinatory encounter not only with Marshall Tito (who gives him a cigar) by with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who gives him a fan). This section, in which what happens is no more or less absurd than at other times in Ivan’s life of potentially lethal misunderstandings, is my favorite, though I guess that the aborted execution as a traitor by the Croatians is even more absurd. And the death march is even more sinister. And… Job never had it so hard!

Job never endured either medical school or graduate school in philosophy, either. Ivan was almost through medical school when his studies were interrupted. After his incarceration, he was not allowed to re-enroll in medical school. He was only fit for philosophy (before becoming cannon fodder). And about how he came to marry Selma, the woman he loved in graduate school, don’t ask! You have to read it for yourself.

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(Vukovar, Croatia, author’s 2017 photo)

The very harrowing trajectory through the “ethnic cleansings” is rendered in exquisitely rendered English evocations of sights and sounds and smells. Ivan ends up a living ghost after being buried alive. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of discovering how that comes about, but the physician who pronounced him dead and promptly bedded the widow is a part of the remarkable novel that does not involve emerging or collapsing nation states. In temporal range (though not in number of pages!), April Fool’s Day is more like The Tin Drum than like the company my first paragraph put it in (or recognized that it belonged, as you prefer).

Novakovich is an astonishing writer (and not just in writing so powerfully in non-native English). In the essays collected in Plum Brandy he frequently wrote of searching for material. He found plenty in the internecine nationalist conflicts of the 1990s in the country of his birth, and put them into a harrowingly dark farce of survival against very long odds. What happens is sometimes slapstick and sometimes tragedy—often at the same time—and the voice of the dismayed narrator sustains the comparison to The Tin Drum I’ve made. His tale grabbed me and did not let me go — even after I’d read the last page.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


An Expat Croatian Looking Back

Having first read two books by Slavenka Drakulic[h], the second author on my journey of exploration of contemporary authors from the former Yugoslavia is Josip Novakovich (born in Daruvar in 1956). The reading list we received recommended his novel April Fool’s Day, but I started with his collection of essays Plum Brandy: Croatian Journeys (2003).


Novakovich emigrated from what was then the Croatian part of Yugoslavia to the United States at the age of twenty. He had studied medicine in Novi Sad (on the Danube in northern Serbia, its second largest Serbian city), studied theology at Yale and literature at the University of Texas. He started writing stories out of nostalgia for his homeland, and made regular visits there through the paroxysms of the breakup of Yugoslavia and independence that was less than utopian, thought about repatriating, and (as elaborated in some of the essays in Plum Brandy) concluded that just as he was a Croatian in America, despite being a native speaker of Croatian (which used to be distinct from Serbian primarily in orthography, but is diverging), he is regarded as an alien (in particular a rich American) in Croatia. (He feels that he cannot go home again to the communist, Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in which he grew up.)

The book only has 165 pages of text, split among three main parts. After an insightful introduction, “On Visiting Your Homeland,’ and a Prologue (about the owner of a Cleveland bookstore selling Croatian, Hungarian, and Slovenian books in a neighborhood in which the audience for such books was dying off, while their children dispersed to the suburbs and beyond), and before an Epilogue (on his son’s interest in the World Trade Center before and after 9/11), there are three main parts.

The first, titled “Sawdust Memories” contains six essays recounting and analyzing memories of his youth in Daruvar. The sawdust is salient, because his father made wooden clogs. Sawdust was a ubiquitous byproduct. There is also a meditation on wood, an exploration of the fascination of chess-playing in a place where politics was dangerous (so that fascination with strategy with sublimated) and a squib on bread. For me, the two outstanding essays from this section are “Grandmother’s Tongue” and “Our Secret Places.” Both relate vividly described particulars of his experience to more general insights into the Yugoslavia of his youth.

Novakovich’s family was Baptist, which not only made him stand out as suspect to the official atheism but as different (which for children always means “deviant”) from most Croatians (who are Roman Catholics). Like Slavenka Drakulic, Novakovich recalls finding a lack of privacy particularly onerous:

“Our ideologues regarded privacy as a bourgeois disease; everything was public…. Privacy was a disease (for Socialists) and sin and illusion (for Baptists)…. Precisely because both groups exerted or attempted to exert such total control over me, I desperately wanted some place to hide. But before I could worry about space, I had to worry about time.”

Since his father died when Josip was eleven, he doesn’t remember what his father sounded like. He describes his mother’s language as Sloveno-Croatian and regrets not listening more closely to his grandmother (now that as an adult writer, he is looking for stories to tell) or to his mother (who wanted to tell him about her experiences during the Second World War).

Given that both in the US and at “home,” males die younger than females, he concludes that language transmission is matrilineal, and is skeptical of any “pure” Croatian language:

I don’t even know what Croatian is, since it’s been changing under political pressures. It was always politicized: first it had to conform to Germanization and Magyrization, then to Yugoslavization (with Serb syntax and vocabulary), and now under the new nationalist government it’s been ‘ethnically cleansed’ to some archaic form (an invented “tradition”).

For me (and not, I think, just because I am looking ahead to embarking on a journey to the Croatian coast), the second set of essays, grouped as “Croatian Journal” are the most interesting and accomplished of the three parts (with the last being the least). The five essays are chronological (with dates of composition included—as they should be for the essays in the other two parts, too), but in no sense a continuous journal. They reflect on a series of visits during the attempt (greenlighted by the first Bush administration, and its Secretary of State, James Baker) by the Serb-dominant Yugoslavia to force the rebellious parts to be kept together. (Of course, I realize that the US fought a bloody war to prevent secession, not that I think it was a good idea…)

There are vignettes about casualties of the war (which, at least psychologically, everyone in the former Yugoslavia is, though the “ethnic cleansing” and most other atrocities were primarily Serbian—according to Novakovich’s accounts). Like Drakulic, Novakovich writes with personal pain about the inability of friendships between Serbs and Croats to survive the nationalist demand for loyalty to “blood” (ethnic ancestry).

I don’t know why “Letter from Croatia” (ca. 2000) is not in the middle section. It is the most sustained attempt to portray what post-civil war, post-Tudjman Croatia was like for someone used to living in America (who shared the local mother tongue).


A New York Times travel section piece on Hvar (pictured by me above) seems superficial in ways that focusing on specifics (like sawdust and bread are not). A two-page essay on why Croatians are not fat manages to say some things. I guess the story of not catching a train does, too, and appreciate the points of the story of finding the grave of a grandmother in Cleveland more in retrospect than I did while reading them.

I think there are some weak (low in insight) pieces and some repetitions, but overall, I found Plum Brandy not only interesting in showing me some Croatian and Croatian-American experiences, but in the general question of the gains and losses of migration and traditions in the world of many diasporas (that some call “globalized”), analogous to Richard Teleky’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Oscar-winning absurdist movie set in the Bosnian war

Filmed in Slovenia by Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic, “No Man’s Land” (Ničija zemlja, 2001) is set in Bosnia of 1993. A ragtag band of half a dozen Bosnian soldiers is lost in the fog with a guide who has never before tried to lead anyone to the Bosnian position at night. They decide to stop and wait for the dawn. The sun rises behind the Serbian (Yugoslavian) position. The Bosnians recognize the flag about the same time as Serbian guns open fire, seemingly killing all of them except for Ciki (Branko Djuric), whose uniform shirt is raffishly unbuttoned over a t-shirt with the Rolling Stones tongue.


Ciki dives into a deserted trench (the “no man’s land” between the Bosnian and Serbian lines). With the sun still low on the horizon behind them (and, therefore, blinding the main Bosnian force), a pair of Serbs — one experienced, one so new that no one yet knows his name — are sent out to check on the corpses. The veteran is soon a corpse himself, though not before booby-trapping the corpse of Ciki’s friend Cera (Branko Djuric). Nino (Rene Bitorajac), the novice Serbian soldier is captured by Ciki and Ciki is enraged that Nino does not know how to defuse the bomb that will be detonated by lifting Cera’s body – which, it turns out, is not lifeless after all. Cera was only stunned and now cannot move without blowing up himself and anyone nearby.

The situation of these three men provides plenty of absurdist humor of the Samuel Beckett kind. Enemy soldiers thrown together in Hollywood movies discover each other’s humanity or at least learn to co-operate (Hell in the Pacific, Enemy Mine), but this is not what happens in the former Yugoslavia (maybe it would have if Cera and Nino were on a roughly equal footing…)

Commanders from both sides can’t figure out what is going on out in no man’s land and call upon UNPROFOR, the U.N.’s military force, locally called Smurfs” because of their toy-like white armored vehicles and blue helmets (and their unwillingness to dirty their hands by doing anything). If Godot is at all like UNPROFOR, it is just as well the wait for him does not end in “Waiting for Godot.”


The UNPROFOR British commander (Simon Callow) wants nothing to do with the situation, but a French sergeant named Marchand (Georges Siatidis) close to the scene is tired of doing nothing and co-operates with a reporter for a CNN-like Global Television Network, Jane Livingstone (Katrin Carlidge), to attempt to rescue the three soldiers. One has to pay attention to realize the fullness of the catastrophe that results (since it is not shown).

The “locals” are far from reasonable, but they are babes in the woods in comparison to the profoundly cynical officers from NATO countries preoccupied with public relations. Livingstone (and Marchand) are after more than a story, but soon a herd of press jackals has assembled (echoing the media circus in Billy Wilder’s darkest film, “Ace in the Hole”). Ciki and Nino are united at least in contempt for the questions the reporters ask them.

I don’t want to reveal the insidious twists and turns of the confrontations of Ciki and Nino or how the outsiders’ presence plays out, beyond saying that no good deed goes unpunished.

Although it’s not my favorite foreign-language film of 2001 (“The Adventures of Felix” is that), this is the one that won the foreign-language film Oscar. (At least a quarter of it is in English, the lingua franca for communication to and among the UN forces.)

I think the swarming press is something of a cliché, but the rest of the film is brilliant black (very black) comedy. Tanovic notices natural beauty, but those familiar with the canon of films about trench warfare will remember what happens when the hero of “All Quite on the Western Front” reaches for a flower; that long-ago film was upbeat in comparison to this one.


©2002, 2017, Stephen O Murray

The great Yugoslavian movie

“Otac na sluzbenom putu” (When Father Was Away on Business, 1985, directed by Emir Kusturica) is the most-honored film to come out of Yugoslavia (“WR: Mysteries of the Orgasm” is the most notorious). “Otac” won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at Cannes unanimously, and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe as best foreign-language film (losing to “The Official Story” from Argentina in both cases).


“Otac na sluzbenom putu” is a quite (excessively!) long — 136-minute — story of a family having marital and political troubles when Malik Zolj (Moreno De Bartolli) was a six-year-old, living in Sarajevo (, Bosnia). Although the film is primarily told from the viewpoint of Malik, it opens with his father, Mesha Zolj (Miki Manojlovic), and his mistress, Ankica (Mira Furlan), on a train headed back to Sarajevo. She is impatient for him to divorce his wife, Senija (Mirjana Karanovich), and marry her. It is soon obvious to the viewer that he has no intention of leaving his two sons.

On the train he derides a cartoon of Karl Marx writing at a desk with a picture of Josef Stalin on the wall. The time is 1950, two years after Josip Tito had broken from the Soviet Empire (though certainly not from Stalinist organization of the economy and surveillance of citizens and Yugoslavia had been expelled from the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform). Those who had embraced Soviet leadership and failed to turn on the dime to deriding Comrade Stalin were labeled “Cominformists” and were rooted out.

The father of Malik’s best friend, “Fatso,” has been disappeared. Malik’s mother’s brother, Zijo (Mustafa Nadarevic), is the local head of the State Security apparatus… and has taken up Ankica, who has told him of some of Mesha’s comments about the ridiculousness of the sudden shift form deification to demonization of Comrade Stalin. Zijo allows Mesha to attend the party for his son’s genital mutilation (AKA circumcision—this is the first, and pretty much only, indication that the family is of Muslim background, though Mesha is a long-term communist and atheist).

Rather than just disappearing in the night, Mesha is allowed to give the appearance of leaving on a business trip — hence the title. In fact, he is consigned to mines and later to a “resocialization” position building a hydroelectric plant on the Drina River.

In one of the more dramatic scenes of the film, Senija goes to her brother seeking information about what has happened to Mesha. He advises her to mind her own business — as if the extended absence of her children’s father is not her business. She wants to send a package of warm clothes to Mesha. After Zijo says that this is not possible, she snaps at him that it was possible when Mesha was imprisoned during the war by the Utashe (the Croatian fascists allied with Hitler who rules Bosnia as part of “the Independent State of Croatia”). That Zijo had been a fascist police official before becoming an upholder of communist/Titoist orthodoxy is a point likely to be missed by those not familiar with Balkan peninsula history (or not paying close attention).

Senija and Mesha are understandably bitter at the failure of Zijo to protect his brother-in-law, and, indeed, for reporting forbidden attitudes. Senija is also understandably angry that it was while philandering with another woman that Mesha was politically indiscreet.

Malik understands little of this, though he cannot fail to notice that his maternal uncle stops coming around at the same time his father has gone away. The family is reunited at what is dubbed “Wetland,” where Mesha is some kind of supervisor on the hydroelectric project. Malik falls in love with Mesha’s Russian physician friend’s sickly daughter.

The young actor is not replaced, so that it seems the whole trajectory of the exile and rehabilitation of his father occurs in a matter of months, when surely it took years. Moreno De Bartolli is good, but isn’t so good that the part of Malik could not have been split with an older boy (IMO). He is not, for instance, as compelling as Dimitrie Vojnov in the more satiric Yugoslavian film about the Tito cult and one family (and another plump child) in “Tito i ja” (Tito and Me, 1982, directed by Goran Markovich) set in 1954 Belgrade.

The film is not without humor, which includes aspects of Malik’s romance, his sleepwalking (which I don’t find convincing), and his sabotages of his father’s sex life (marital as well as extramarital) and Malik’s paternal grandfather who lives with them.


I don’t think the film needed to exceed two hours in length. The easiest cut to make would be the opening song. Not that I dislike the song (in Spanish), but the character who is introduced has not part in what follows. Many other scenes unfold at a pace that may have seemed leisurely in 1985 but that seem dragged-out in 2007.

The film has special interest to me for its portrayal of politics and its portrayal of interethnic comity in Sarajevo (Fatso’s family is Serbian, but this can only be inferred from a funeral for Fatso’s father). The child perplexed by what is upsetting the adults is, I think, easily grasped by anyone, even someone completely ignorant of the political dynamics of Bosnia in the 1940s and 50s.

The video transferred looks very 1970s. Definitely, it was not remastered. The DVD includes a dozen trailers for other Koch-Lorber releases, and an eighteen-minute and IMO not very informative or lively interview with director Emir Kusturica.

BTW, Kusturica was born in 1954 in Sarajevo to a Moslem Bosnian family, but his father disavowed religion to become a Yugoslavian Communist. And “Otac na sluzbenom putu” is very much a Yugoslavian film rather than a Bosnian one (in the same way that the Nobel Prize-winning The Bridge on the River Drina is Yugoslavian.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray



The curing of a young true believer

I saw and enjoyed “Tito i ja” (Tito and Me, written and directed by Goran Markovic) at the 1993 San Francisco International Film Festival. Having returned from my second visit to Croatia (and Serbia where I visited Tito’s Belgrade mausoleum/shrine) and seen the more famous Yugoslavian movie about growing up in the early years of the Tito dictatorship and attempt to forge unity on the Southern Slavs (Yugo-slavs), “When Father Was Away on ‘Business,”, wanted to see it again. The DVD has no bonus features providing context, but all that a viewer really needs to know is that there was definitely a cult of Tito (as Josip Broz he who was born in 1892 in Croatia with a Slovenien mother and a Croatian father, but led a predominantly Serbian Stalinist guerrilla war against the Nazis and their Croatian puppets and favored them in the union of southern Slava) and that his birthday was a national holiday, though ostensibly it was a Day of Youth being celebrated rather than Tito. However, he was officially enchanted with children, and delegations of young communists visiting him for photo opportunities was a central part of the holiday.


The protagonist of the movie is a fervent 10-year-old Tito fan, a pudgy boy named Zoran (Dimitrie Vojnov), who maintains a scrapbook of photos of Tito (something that was not in short supply in 1954 Belgrade!). In a way it is a bit surprising that he does not eat the glue and/or the pictures of the Great Hero, ’cause his ravenous appetite includes nibbling on the wallpaper (and glue and bits of the wall that are attached). He is even plumper than the protagonist of “When Father Was Away on Business” and his friend—whatever that may mean.

Zoran is not an ace student, being rather dreamy (dreaming of food, dreaming of Tito), but when there is a national essay contest on “Do you love Marshall Tito and, if so, why?”, Zoran writes a passionate poem in which he proclaims that he loves Tito more than he loves his parents. His parents are state-supported artists, so do nothing to discourage Zoran’s fervor, though the aunt and uncle who live in the same apartment (along with their daughter and a grandmother whose husband drops by for noon meals every day) are appalled.

Having produced the most extreme essay of anyone in his school, Zoran has the honor of going on a pilgrimage to Tito’s birthplace. On the train from Belgrade to Zagreb, he is loaded down with food, which he begins consuming even before the train pulls out of the Belgrade station.


The patriotic youth are going to hike from Zagreb to the birthplace in Kumrovec and the fat boy has trouble keeping up. With no intent to subvert the plans of the adult leader, Comrade Raja (Lazar Ristovski), Zoran manages repeatedly to undermine not only Comrade Raja’s authority but any legitimacy the little dictator has. Raja’s attempts to scapegoat Zoran for his own stupidities mostly backfire.

Zoran has periodic visions of Tito urging him on, but the misrule of the youth troupe by Comrade Raja weans Zoran from his Tito fervor and Zoran makes a speech at Tito’s birthplace recanting his essay, saying his loves his parents and even neighbors more than he loves Tito. This gets Comrade Raja in deep trouble (though Zoran does not understand the repressiveness of the Yugoslav state…)

Despite this, Zoran receives an invitation to join the youth going to greet Tito on Youth Day, so that Tito does not appear only in Zoran’s visions and newsreel footage.

The satire of the Tito cult could not have been made while Tito was alive (he was president-for-live). That it was made during the bloody fission of the union of southern Slavs is almost as remarkable as it would have been for it to have been made during the Tito era, however.

The plump Dimitrie Vojnov is very entertaining in his single-mindedness and in frustrating Comrade Raja as much (if not as knowingly) as the roadrunner frustrates the coyote in cartoons. Lazar Ristovski seems to me to have been channeling Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau in his disaster-prone over-the-top smugness and pomposity. The two totally fail to understand each other.

Zoran is in love with a tall and slender orphan named Jasna (Milena Vukosav) who is also along on the pilgrimage and breaks up with him at least three times (she is much more Comrade Raja’s idea of a proper Young Communist).

The bickering in the crowded apartment and Zoran’s adventures in prominent Tito cult activities are quite funny and the ending is satisfying, though not very surprising. There is nothing particularly notable in the cinematography or music, but Dimitrie Vojnov and those playing his squabbling family members are quite good.

(It is perhaps a sign of aging, that I now have some sympathy for Comrade Raja, though he still seems a fool and would-be toady in my view.)

BTW, I saw not a single example of anything from the Tito cult while I was in Croatia (I did see red-star and swastika memorabilia.) The Tito cult has vanished from view in Croatia as completely as the Stalin cult has in Russia (also see “Goodbye, Lenin” and the collection of Chiang Kaishek statues in Taoyuan, Taiwan). Tito’s mausoleum, the House of Flowers, above Belgrade (i.e., in Serbia) remains a place of pilgrimage, however, almost as big as the Ataturk monument/shrine in Ankara.

Tito & me.jpg

(Tito and me at the House of Flowers, Belgrtade)


In 1981, a year after Tito’s death, Milovan Djilas wrote: “Our system was built only for Tito to manage. Now that Tito is gone and our economic situation becomes critical, there will be a natural tendency for greater centralization of power. But this centralization will not succeed because it will run up against the ethnic-political power bases in the republics. This is not classical nationalism but a more dangerous, bureaucratic nationalism built on economic self-interest. This is how the Yugoslav system will begin to collapse.” Boy, did it!

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray