Having caught up with the most recent collection of short stories by the Croatian-American-Canadian master Josip Novakovich (1956), Heritage of Smoke, I realized I had missed a collection of his essays, the provocatively titled Shopping for a Better Country. The country in which he was born, Yugoslavia, no longer exists. His hometown Daruvar, was significantly damaged by Serbian/Slavonian military/paramilitary forces during the early 1990s. Novakovich had been going to college in the Serbian city of Novi Stad before going (legally at both ends) to the US in 1976, gradually choosing English… and raising American kids.
He traveled back to Croatia, as well as teaching in Moscow and Berlin. He took up a position at Concordia University, an Anglophone university in Montréal in 2009. He does not write about Canada or the decision to move there in Shopping, nor much about his third of a century in the US.
The book includes pieces on Vukovar, North Africa, Hungary, Berlin, Russian customs (which refused to allow his son’s cello—or either of the bows for it—back out of the country), and writers’ tombs (in Prague and Paris. There is a very moving, lengthy essay about his mother (Ruth) and her death, a more abstract (and shorter) one on fathers. Having grown up a Baptist in a communist country, and as someone with mixed ancestry (in the most Czech town in Croatia) Novakovich is keenly aware of the tyranny of the majority and attuned to the censorious of small town ethnocentrism in which people seek ways to isolate and ostracize anyone who is different from the majority.
(Vukovar water tower, Oct. 2017 photo by SM)
I found “Why I Can’t Write Erotica” especially insightful about the straitjacket heterosexual male writers now try to write in. “Two Croatias” also communicates much about how Croatians are (mis)perceived. Being a fellow lover of trains, I am saddened by the demise of the Balkan Express (and the Orient Express). And I have seen the still raw damages of Vukovar a decade after the visit about which Novakovich wrote herein. I don’t agree with him about “friendship addiction,” though he has much of interest to say about male competitiveness in his essay on the subject. And the memoir of childhood coughing was unsettling, especially since I was coughing while reading it (though I doubt from tuberculosis).
The book does not proceed in chronological order through the author’s life, or, indeed, in any particular order I can detect. I guess that means the whole is less than the sum of the parts, but many of the parts are masterful and there is much (fairly dark) humor throughout the volume along with recordings of pain, particularly ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia — not exculpating the Croatian fascists’ treatment of Serbs during the Second World War or either Croatian or Serbian war criminals in the wars for independence of Croatia and Bosnia. Kosovo (and Macedonia) don’t figure here, not that there is any lack of atrocities in earlier conflicts!
©2017, Stephen O. Murray