Category Archives: Balkans

A flippant Minnesotan in Romania

I thought that Minneapolis juggler and travel writer (Lonely Planets) Leif Pettersen’s style was too jaunty and too sarcastic in Backpacking with Dracula. Pettersen details the military successes of Vlad III/Vlad Dracula, “the Impaler,” who was voivode (ruling prince) of Wallachia three times between 1448 and his death in January of 1477. Vlad III in resisted (and scared) Ottoman, Transylvanian Saxon, and Hungarian invaders. Vlad III remains a national hero in Romania (which encompasses Wallachia) and Pettersen writes about surviving sites, most notably Poeianari Castle.



)Poenari Castle ruins, photographed by Nicubunu)

Bram Stoker, who never traveled to Romania, borrowed (from German polemics) a horrorshow view of a vampire he named Dracula in his 1897 novel that I don’t think has ever been out of print in English—or in print in Romania.

Pettersen also writes jauntily of the rebellion that led to the shooting of the Ceausescus 1989 for genocide and destroying the Romanian economy. The communist dictator was also from Wallachia (between the Danube and the Carpathian mountains).

Between reporting history that is gratingly insensitive to the suffering inflicted by Wallachian rulers and others in the 15th and 20th centuries, Pettersen includes travel-guide accounts of various places.

There is no evidence that he backpacked during any of his Lonely Planet assignments of researching Romania. His travel seems to have been entirely by rental car, and the first work of the title seems to me false advertising, though the subtitle “On the Trail of Vlad the Impaler and the Vampire He Inspired” is quite accurate.

The book is probably somewhat useful to travelers to Romania (though I’m pretty sure that it is less so than the Lonely Planet guidebooks to which he contributed) and is entertaining for those with a Monty Pythonish sense of humor extending to breeziness about torture and starvation. Not that Pettersen condones the conduct of Vlad Dracula, writing that “even in an era when human life was unbelievably cheap, onein which witnessing death was a regular occurrence for most people, these gory, slow-motion spectacles must have been appalling.”


©2017, Stephen O. Murray


The print is very large (18 point, I think) which makes it easy to read even with dim light and stretches the book to 265 pages.


Breaking a prelate (Cardinal József Mindszenty)

Unlike Peter Glenville’s later (and greatest) movie “Becket” (1964), another movie about subordinating Church to State, “The Prisoner” (1955, adapted by Bridget Boland from her own play about Hungarian cardinal József Mindszenty), did not retain the names of the historical-character antagonists: just the cardinal and the interrogator in an unnamed Eastern European country the regime (actually, I don’t think “communist” is mentioned either) of which cannot tolerate any organization or assemblage not under its overt or convert control. (This is a phenomenon in the Leninist crony capitalism that is the Chinese Communist Party ruling the world’s most populous country of the present, btw, as well as North Korea and postcommunist Russia.)


The cardinal (played by Alec Guiness) was a hero of the resistance to Nazi occupation and had not been broken by the physical torture of the Gestapo. The interrogator (played by Jack Hawkins [Land of the Pharaohs, Bridge on the River Kwai]) was a less prominent player in the resistance, was never captured, and has never failed to convince a prisoner to confess whatever absurdities have been prepared for trial of an enemy of the state.

The very British-sounding antagonists have a very British-sounding class dynamic at play, the interrogator a child of the elite, the cardinal having been raised by a single mother who worked in the fish market and was of “easy virtue” (that is, bedded many different men). It seems to me that the self-confidence based on class plays too large a part in the eventual success of the unfailingly polite and sometimes positively genial interrogator. (In that the play and movie are a reflection on the confessions after long imprisonment and torture of Cardinal Mindszenty, the only question is how this was brought about, so I don’t think that it is a plot-spoiler to telegraph the eventual public confession of the self-loathing prelate.

It takes a long time for the interrogator to figure out what the cardinal’s mental weakness is… and little time to exploit it, once found. Good as Hawkins is at underplaying (and while I can recall roles in which he was unconvincing, these were never the result of overplaying), I am not convinced at the interrogator’s disgust. It seems to me to be there mostly to make him less than a total villain to the audience. (On the other hand, I do believe that to succeed, he has to know his quarries better than they know themselves.)

Alec Guiness, repeating a role he had performed under Glenville’s direction on the London stage, was a very great actor in a wide variety of roles (of widely varying ethnicity) and had a very, very showy role as the irony-noting arrogant captive, the captive being driven crazy by the book, and as the willing condemner of himself. The cardinal is steadfast in his embrace of abjection, so there is a continuity between first and last (as there is in Peter O’Toole’s penance at the end of “Becket”).

Both the actors, and the hammy Wilfred Lawson as the jailer, are very good. There is a ridiculous peripheral love story between a prison guard (Ronald Lewis) and a Catholic young woman (Jeanette Sterke) whose husband has fled the country, and the exteriors look good (if not central European). The problem for me is that I don’t believe the flaw the interrogator exploits. I can believe there is the weakness in the cardinal, but not that it could be so easily used once discovered. Also, I am not convinced that either the cardinal or the interrogator believes in the Truth as their opposing sides believe themselves to have a monopoly of. (There is no philosophical discussion between them, not even any about how the church should be used by the state… or what should not be rendered unto the communist Caesar…)


The DVD includes no bonus features, only some trailers to better known, award-winning movies in which Hawkins and/or Guiness appeared (Ben Hur, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia).

BTW, both the Venice and Cannes film festivals refused to show the movie for fear of offending cultural officials of Eastern bloc states. And after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, Cardinal Mindszenty spent many years in the US Embassy in Budapest and refused to give up his position as prelate of Hungary even after he was relocated to Vienna.

I am one of the relatively few who liked/admired Glenville’s last movie, the 1966 adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Comedians (with Guiness and Peter Ustinov et al. as supporting characters to Taylor/Burton). Before that, he made a leaden comedy with Guiness, “Hotel Paradiso” (1966). In addition to “The Prisoner” and “Becket,” Glenville directed “Me and the Colonel” (1958), “Term of Trial” (1962) and “Summer and Smoke”(1961), all primarily conflicts between two characters. I wish he’d had Greene adapt “The Prisoner.” I suspect that would have increased the plausibility of the characters.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Provincial Hungarian life ca. 1899

In his introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Skylark, a 1924 novel by Dezso Kosztolanyi, Peter Esterhazy praises Kosztolanyi (1885-1936) as a master of rhyme and for modernizing (simplifying) the Hungarian sentence. Neither strikes me as a particularly good reason to read the book in English translation. Not that it’s a bad book!


Kosztolanyi portrays life in a remote Hungarian town, Szabdaka ca. 1899. The decaying Hapsburg (Austro-Hungarian) Empire here is different from the feverish Vienna of Musil and Schnitzler (and Freud). There are no murders or suicides or erotomaniacs.

The focus of the novel is on a retired and seemingly retiring retired man, Ákos Vajkay, and his wife, Antónia, who live with their only child, a very homely woman now past marriageable age, Skylark. Skylark foes off to visit relatives for a week. In her absence, her parents bloom, going to restaurants, swilling schnapps. Ákos is welcomed back into a drinking club, the Panthers.

Though Skylark attempts to minimize her footprint on the lives of others, it becomes apparent that the isolation à trois of the Vakjay household is mostly due to her and to her humiliating (to her parents and to her) unmarketability (on the marriage market). The parents are liberated in a way similar to that of many widows after the death of a demanding, constraining husband.

Kosztolanyi arouses sympathy for the very unhappy superannuated good girl, but the joie de vivre is the return to local society of her parents in her absence. I guess that I was left feeling sorry for all when her dispiriting vacation and her parents’ delight-filled vacation from her oppressive presence (“aggressive goodness” as Esterhazy aptly puts it).

Like Chekhov, Kosztolanyi shows without judging the painful banality of everyday life in the provinces (albeit of a different doddering empire). I often look askance at blurbs, and think that there is too much scene-describing in Skylark for the book to be perfect, but beyond that, it seems to me that Deborah Eisenberg provided the case for the book with great economy: “This short, perfect novel seems to encapsulate all the world’s pain in a soap bubble. Its surface is as smooth as a fable, its setting and characters are unremarkable, its tone is blithe, and its effect is shattering.” Well, maybe it reveals painful fissures. The withdrawn Vajkay seems set to return to the quiet despair of Skylark with parents having glimpsed what a burden their dutiful daughter is on their savoring life. OK, convivial gossiping and drinking and an occasional theatrical production are all Szabdaka has to offer, but having rediscovered these pleasures, the parents are likely going to be more resentful of the constraints of being locked up with their ugly daughter.

I fled small-town life at my first opportunity (college) and would find the Panthers and lack of cultural stimulants of Szabdaka tiresome, but can see that they provide some pleasure that the Vajkay parents gave up and that Skylark has not and could not enjoy.

I seem to have written myself into a greater appreciation of the novel than I felt while reading it. I’d have cut more, but an excess of descriptions of the settings is the only fault I can point to in this sad social comedy. I don’t regret having read it, though don’t consider it indispensable Central European fiction such as The Radetzky March, The Trial, or Young Törless.

Explorations by a third-generation Hungarian-American

It is routinely the second generation that is embarrassed by the parents’ ethnicity and seeks to efface any traces of it. Then, the rootless (feeling) third generation goes in search of roots and values what the grandparents have largely forgotten (if they are living; the quest for roots sometimes commences only after the first generation has died off.)


Richard Teleky (born in 1946) is a novelist and longtime professor at York University on the north side of Toronto (so by now counts as “Hungarian-Canadian”). His Hungarian immigrant grandparents settled in Cleveland, where he grew up. Teleky knows there is something stereotypical in his third-generation fumbling for the key to his family. The opening chapter in his collection of essays on Hungarian and Hungarian/North American topics concerns adult language learning, both his own, undertaken seemingly in his late 40’s, and that of Edmund Wilson at age 65 (chronicled in Upstate). A language, Teleky asserts, is “a place to live in,” but although he can interest a press in a collection of essays about his approach to things Hungarian, he does not pretend that he lives in the Hungarian language.

After taking the plunge into learning his ancestral language and exploring Hungarian and Hungarian émigré art and literature, he was 47 years old before trying to visit “the old country”: Budapest and his grandmother’s village. The nostalgia for what he’d never experienced was for what his grandparents left and what André Kertész’s early photographs illustrate, Hungary as part of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire. He went knowing that it could not be found, but was still disappointed that it wasn’t there. What he reports from his 1993 sojourn is less disappointment at the loss of the multiethnic Hapsburg empire than disappointment at the economic stagnation that seems to have worsened in the countryside after the demise of a later multiethnic empire, the Soviet (“Warsaw Pact”) one.

I was in Budapest when Soviet control had loosened but before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR. The dynamism and optimism of that time seems to have dissipated; expectations were disappointed. Although his own disappointments are probably mixed in with those of the relatives he met in rural Hungary and their neighbors, what Teleky found was that “the promise of freedom of the last few years has congealed into high inflation and unemployment” (and continued oppression of ethnic Hungarians consigned after the First World War to Romania.)

Teleky is typically third-generation in decrying the invisibility of his people and the stereotyping of them when they are visible at all. His “Short Dictionary of Hungarian Stereotypes” is mordant and his criticism of the movie “The Music Box,” made by one of the few Hollywood potentates of Hungarian origin, Joe Eszterhas, is trenchant. (By contrast, in the early days of Hollywood the studios Fox and Paramount were headed by Hungarian-Americans.)

Teleky comes close to “losing his cool,” lapsing from the irony that may be bitter but must not veer into outright denunciation that university professors (even Edward Said most of the time) maintain. Teleky’s survey of Hungarians in North American fiction does not lapse from ironic disdain for most of the representations he considers, except to laud the more nuanced portrayals in the fiction of John O’Hara.

However, I am perplexed at Teleky wondering why the “title character” of The English Patient is Hungarian rather than Polish. First off, Teleky lives across town from Ondatjee and could presumably have asked him. In the novel, the Indian sapper Kip exclaims that he doesn’t care about distinctions between English, Americans, and French. I’d hazard the guess that Ondatjee is more aware of complexities of European history than his character Kip was, and it seems fairly obvious to me that if Ondatjee’s character Count Almásy had been made Polish, he would have been collaborating with the enemy: the Nazis invaded Poland, but were allied with anti-Semitic Hungarian fascists. The character “joined the wrong side,” just as Hungary did. The parallel of character and country works for Hungary and would not have for Poland. Why the Czech resistance idealist in “Casablanca” has the Hungarian name “Laszlo” is a better question, not least, as Teleky reminds the reader in that the director Michael Curtiz (né Mihaly Kertész) was Hungarian born. (Also,t here really was a Hungarian Laszlo E. de Almásy, who wrote a (spare) 97-page monograph entitled Recentes explorations dans le Desert Libyque (1932-1936).

I have to admit that I could not muster interest in poet Margaret Avison, but was already interested in the Hungarian-born, doubly exiled (first Paris, then New York) photographer André Kertész, and I found Teleky’s explanation of the move to abstraction (by Moholy-Nagy as well as Kertész) convincing.

His account of the Hungarian émigré church (St. Elizabeth’s) in Cleveland is insightful about language and population shift (the church is now in a mostly Baptist African American area now, as the second generation moved to suburbs and the third is even more dispersed from where there once was a lively Hungarian-American community in Cleveland.) The final chapter of the book again stresses the Herderian view that language doesn’t just carry but is the uniqueness of a people (“the genius” in the original romantic nationalist formulation Teleky eschews.) He quotes with approval sociologist John de Vries’s contention that language maintenance is a necessary but not sufficient condition for maintenance of ethnicity. Maintenance of the Hungarian language in Canada and the US seems doomed to Teleky and to me.

Given the general sadness about losing culture, language, distinctiveness, roots, etc.; the chapter I found most compelling was an account of a course on Central European literature in English translation that Teleky taught. The students, despite their near-complete ignorance of the history of Central Europe (and of history generally, I don’t doubt) found their way into literature(s) they barely knew existed and achieved insights into suffering they had not previously considered. (Only one of the students in the class was looking at her own roots.) The writer they seemed unable to “get” was Kafka, which surprised me, since many members of my (and Teleky’s) generation found our own way to Kafka rather than being taught his works. Reading this chapter made me want to take the course and to read about subsequent offerings.

Matthias church.jpg

(Matthias church, Buda, author’s photo)

Interested in attempts at multiculturalism, in language maintenance, ethnic identification, and alienation, there was much I found stimulating in Hungarian Rhapsodies. Without demanding a symphonic structure integrating all the variations on Hungarian alienation, I’d have liked more development, a bit less journalistic miscellany. I think some help might have been available had Teleky treated the work of Susan Gal, which is centrally concerned with language and ethnicity in Hungary. If I have read some of Gal without having any special interest in Hungary, it’s hard to understand why Teleky, who does have one, has not.


©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


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 and Apricots from Chrnobyl 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.”

Novakovich’s 1995 collection of stories, Yolk, contains more interesting stories. The one most memorably set against Serbian aggression is “Honey in the Carcase,” in which a lot of Croatian suffering has a measure of revenge. I also especially recommend his piece “Rings and Crucifixes” from Apricots from Chrnobyl. I won’t spoil the revelation of the title, but will mention the heretofore mild-mannered Serb who became a sniper, shooting Croatians while they were receiving dialysis.

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.

Vukovar shelled.jpg

(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