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).

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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).

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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

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