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A new collection of often harrowing, sometimes very funny stories by Josip Novakovich

I think that Croatian-Canadian author Josip Novakovich (1956-) is the greatest living writer of short stories. He has also published powerful collections of essays and what I consider The Great Croatian Novel, April Fool’s Day.


This high esteem does not mean that I like everything he writes. Indeed, I hated the last story in his 2017 collection Heritage of Smoke, “In the Same Boat,” the only one not set in Europe or North America (but on the Pacific Ocean south of the US/Mexico border). And I didn’t much like the penultimate story, ‘Remote Love,” which centers on inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), who was born in a Serbian village in what is now Croatia (but then was part of the Hapsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire), attended high school in German in Karlovac, which is also now in Croatia, moved on to Vienna, Prague, and, eventually New York, where Novakovich’s story is set.

Enough about stories I disliked. I think that “Acorns” is a great work, centering on a UN translator who is disgusted by the complicity with Serbian genocide of the UN “peacekeepers,” has very harrowing adventures as a prisoner of a Serbian unit, and after finding her husband who has come searching for, spends months in a Bosnian unit. Living in the aftermath of rape is one important aspect of the story—not just for Ana.

The title story, which centers on an unexpected inheritance is the funniest story in the collection. The humor is not entirely dark, as, for instance that in “White Mustache” is. It recalls brothers who were swept up (drafted) by opposing forces during WWII, the fascist Utashas who outdid the Nazis in atrocities, and the anti-fascist partisans (chetniks). Both militias forced young men into their ranks (as later, in El Salvador). Let’s say that the narrator learns why his elderly relatives believe in ghosts…

“Be Patient” in which a child is overdosed with experimental (American) measles vaccine and gets her wish to adopt a dog only posthumously. “Dutch Treat” is an example of the maxim “No good deed goes unpunished,” when a Dutchman named Martin who had been among the UN “peacekeepers” unknowingly aided Serbians (Army of Srpska) to massacre Croatians at Srebrinca in 1995. In New York City he meets a man who remembers him from there and then. His aid gets him in very serious trouble in NYC.

“When the Saints Come” is more typical American short story fare about the dissolution of a marriage, though set mostly in Jerusalem. “Eclipse Near Golgotha” goes back the crucifixion of Christ, focusing on the unrepentant thief crucified beside Jesus. “The Wanderer” grew up in East Jerusalem and passes through Croatia.

“Strings” is a mock-heroic tale of multi-ethnic (Russian, Swiss-French, Croatian) students exterminating a rat. Soccer hooliganism provides a background for some more very dark humor in Ideal Goalie” and the sardonic, surprising “Crossbar,” which also involved grizzly bears given the Zagreb zoo by (Clinton-era) America.

There is a lot of displacement, a lot of wariness, more than a little violence in Novakovich’s stories. Though disdaining any objective history, the characters (OK, especially the Serbian ones) nourish ancient grudges against “Turks,” which they take out on Bosnian Muslims. (Bosnians converted to Islam during Ottoman times, but were not Turks.) This has continued with Albanian Kosovars (the vast majority of the people in Kosovo, though Serbs used to dominating everyone else within the Yugoslavia they claim to perpetuate as one region after another breaks loose).

Though I recommend stopping at page 182, there are alternately horrifying and moving stories before that point. In particular, I think that “Acorns” should have a very wide readership, by no means limited to those interested in what happened in Bosnia, since similar things continue to happen in “civil wars” in various places.

(BTW, after many years teaching in the US, the author of Shopping for a Better Country  moved on to Concordia University in Montréal in 2009.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


Trying to get an illegal abortion in hyper-pronatalist communist Romania

The only two Romanian films I’ve seen are both long and slow, drably shot in documentary style. In “The Death of Mister Lazarescu” (2005) a dying man is getting quite a lot of medical establishment attention, though not any help. In “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2008) young woman takes it upon herself to get her friend out of” trouble” of the unwanted pregnancy kind. In neither movie is he Romanians seeking medical help very sympathetic.

Both movies, especially the second one, were highly praised by critics, despite it being a very long, very drab movie without charismatic stars and with mostly unpleasant characters. I will grant — and get back to — the redeeming social value of the movie, but I thought that the movie did not just drag but ground to a standstill at a birthday dinner for the boyfriend of the most sympathetic character in the movie, its pragmatic protagonist Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca).


How Otilia manages a bad situation is the primary interest of the movie, and I have nothing but praise for Anamaria Marinca’s performance, even though I think the scenes including her at the start in a student dorm and the long sequence of her potentially future mother-in-law go on far too long. (Marinca did not edit the movie!)

The movie is about the difficulties of getting an abortion in a time and place (1987 Romania) were performing or having an abortion are crimes. The movie’s title already communicates that the pregnant woman is midway through the second trimester of pregnancy. I find it hard to take plot-spoiling seriously, but issue a pro forma

Plot spoiler alert

Otila’s roommate Gabriela “Gabita” Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) is the pregnant one, who does not have enough money to pay for an illegal abortion. Otilia takes charge, borrowing money from her boyfriend (the son of a physician) Adi (Alexandru Protocean). Adi’s mother is expecting Otilia at her birthday party and making a meringue especially for Otilia.

Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the abortionist whom Gabita contacted laid down two preconditions: that she rent a room in one of two hotels and that she meet him so that he can decide whether he trusts her. She violates both preconditions, not making a reservation at a designated hotel and sending Gabita to the rendez-vous. Plus not having enough money. Plus not telling Otilia how far advanced her pregnancy was…

Let’s say that Otilia makes multiple sacrifices to get the procedure done, and that Gabita evidences no gratitude. And it appears that it was not that she was thinking about what to do about her pregnancy for four months and three weeks, but was still in denial

Wandering off into some personalfeelings…

Do I sound unsympathetic to Gabita? I am (yes, I realize she is a fictional character and I do not think I have to like her or her decision-making process). I feel that Otilia goes far beyond what the best of friends might be called upon to do, and though I think she is a bit hard on her boyfriend, think he could write it off to the stress her taking responsibility for Gabita’s follies (by which I don’t mean getting pregnant, knowing nothing about how that came about; I mean the danger to self and others her belated abortion constitutes).

I am well aware that others would condemn Gabita and the “plumber” who induces the miscarriage and Otilia as an accomplice. The movie is totally not about Gabita’s decision not to carry the baby to term, and I am sure that this is reason enough for many to condemn the movie.

My mother considered it the most cardinal of sins to bring an unwanted baby into the world. She might be called “pro-abortion,” though certainly considered abortion a serious matter and not something to use as birth control (as it was in the USSR and the DDR). I am pro-choice, albeit a bit less “pro-abortion.” I certainly do not think that Gabita would be a fit mother and also know something about the horrors of orphanages in Ceausescu’s Romania. So I approve to Otilia getting things done.

End plot-spoiler alert

Not that my views on what the characters in the movie should do matter. Whatever one’s views on that and on abortion in general, the movie provides a reminder that women (sometimes aided by their inseminators) will find ways to terminate unwanted pregnancies, legal or not. This is also a fact made clear in such other non- (un-?) American films as “Vera Drake” and “Story of Women.” Criminalization does not work, though I am only too well aware that reality is anathema to faith-based law-making.

As a reminder of the realities of the provision of pregnancy terminations that considerably increase the rate of fatalities where and when abortion is illegal, I think these films are valuable. The entrepreneurs in these three films are not nearly as crass and unfeeling as they could be.

But as a film, I find “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” 20-40 minutes too long: not just too slow, but drained of momentum as of color. I realize that the birthday dinner is torture to Otilia, who is concerned about what might be happening back at the hotel, but don’t think the audience needs all the table talk of the condescending professionals.

I recognize the desire to praise making something of value with very little money, but question this movie winning the Palme d’or at Cannes and the European Film Awards for both best film and best director (Cristian Mungiu, whose screenplay was also nominated, but lost to Fatih Akin’s for “The Edge of Heaven,” as at Cannes). I think the movie has merits (especially Anamaria Marinca’s performance), but that the low budget and/or subject matter led to their being exaggerated by European and North American critics.

©210, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Black [Panthers] Against Empire

Sociologist Joshua Bloom and historian Waldo E. Martin Jr. wrote a long (55-page) analytic history of the rapid rise (1967-70) and almost as rapid fall (1970-71) of the Black Panthers as advocates of black self-defense and as part of a global resistance to US hegemony. They are more willing than I to accept the frame of alliance with very repressive authoritarian regimes (North Korea, North Vietnam, the PRC during the “cultural revolution,” Cuba, and Algeria) as “anti-imperialist.” They ignore the move from the vanguard of world liberation from colonialism of Algeria, which long-harbored Eldridge Cleaner) to increasingly Islamism.


The Panthers also enjoyed the admiration and measures of fiscal support from Old and New Leftists in the United States, mot (in)famously Leonard Bernstein’s “radical chic” fund-raiser.

Bloom and Martin contend that white allies were placated by policies of Richard Nixon, including ending military conscription (the draft), along with the election of black officials, and affirmative action. The latter phrase was coined by John Kennedy 1961 and expanded by a 1965 executive order signed by his successor, Lyndon Johnson. The first black mayor of a major US city was Carl Stokes in 1967, before the rise to national prominence of the Panthers. And the growth of a black middle class primarily occurred after the decline of the Panthers.

The Panthers imploded (with Huey Newton on the ground in the US realizing armed insurrection was not feasible, while Eldridge Cleaver advocated it from the safety of Algiers) in 1970. The ending of the draft could not have been a factor in either the internal or the external loss of influence of the Panthers, since it continued through the end of 1972. And the anti-war movement, far from backing off was radicalizing. The revelation of secret bombing in Cambodia led to a nationwide college student strike in May 1970 (ineffectual as it was in ending US military action in Southeast Asia). There was a subsequent break between armed revolutionary wannabes (the Weather Underground) and the nonviolent anti-war activists. But the anti-war movement was most definitely growing, not contracting in 1970.

(Algeria, which had broken diplomatic relations with the US following the 1967 Arab-Israel war, re-established them in 1974, while Richard Nixon was still president and after the Panthers had returned to being a community organization in Oakland, California. Nixon went to the PRC in 1972, though diplomatic relations were not established until 1978. There are still not diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea. None of these changes in US foreign relations was in time to marginalize the Panthers with black or white allies.)


Bloom and Walsh establish that repression is not a sufficient explanation for the devolution of the Black Panthers and the loss of white New Left allies.  (They stress that the peak of police and FBI repression and outright murder was the time of most robust growth in membership and external support.) But chronology of what the authors consider the all-important “political context” does not fit with the loss of white support. Insofar as this was “radical chic,” fashion’s constant fluctuation probably has some explanatory power in moving on. The Black Panther personalities, especially clashing egos, of the leaders of factions also seems to me to matter, though as a sociologist I well understand the wish to look elsewhere for explanations (we are suspicious of “great man” history, more inclined to look at “social forces,” or on a more micro-level, patterns of group dynamics).

It seems to me that the counter-intelligence operations spearheaded by J. Edgar Hoover, who fits the category “white supremacist” and had long-running campaigns against black leaders (not just black nationalists, but, infamously, Martin Luther King, Jr.), had special hatred of Stokely Carmichael, and claimed the Panthers were the greatest domestic danger to the US, had some slow-poison effects, too. (Hoover died on 2 May 1972, btw, his work of disruption of black power advocates and the Black Panther appeal to white liberals and radicals largely accomplished, along with discrediting Stokely Carmichael, who had been an early influence and, for a time, Panther member., and then decamped to Guinea, serving another very repressive dictator, Sékou Touré)

I find the chronology of political context unconvincing, and the authors eschew consideration of any sociological theories of social movements other than a passing mention of “political process” (more commonly known as “political opportunity theory”). The phrase “resource mobilization (the name of the dominant sociological theory about social movements) does not occur in the detailed index, nor, I am pretty sure, in the text. Where the authors think the case they exhaustively detail fits in theorizing sociopolitical movements is avoided

(At a One City, One Book event at the San Francisco Public Library, I tried to ask about the chronology of events they associate with the decline of the Panthers, but the moderator, “Davey D” Cook, more given to making speeches than moderating, insisted on collecting another question so that mine was forgotten. Nonetheless, Professor Bloom had interesting things to say about the roots of the draft resistance movement in SNCC/Carmichael… and Muhammed Ali—before David Harris and Noam Chomsky pressed and organized it for white students.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray



A fallen human world amidst natural beauty

John Steinbeck (1902-68) was a major American writer back in the days when writers mattered in America. His writings, especially The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, are still being censored and are anathema to California agribusiness. Although he grew up in a small city, he revered family farms and wrote compellingly about some ambitious California farmers, especially in his ambitious late novel East of Eden and in the interconnected stories of The Pastures of Heaven.


First published in 1932, The Pastures of Heaven is the work in which Steinbeck found his voice — or, more correctly, voices, since there was the wry, mock-heroic Mark Twain-like Steinbeck as well as the naturalistic chronicler of doom and degradation in the Zola tradition. Doomed semi-retarded characters pop up very often. The most famous is Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but in The Pastures of Heaven there is the artistic (idiot savant) Tularecito, Hilda Van Deventer, Alice Wicks, and Manfred Munroe, plus an epileptic, and many delusional characters, although the line between ill-founded dreams and psychopathological belief is fuzzy in Steinbeck’s stories (and in real life, I think). Pat Humbert is animated into redecorating the house he has inherited by a plan to propose marriage once he has the house perfected. The possibility may have been remote and any opportunity was lost by the delay of his project, but I’d classify this as illusion rather than delusion.

The Whiteside desire to establish a dynasty based on a dynastic castle of a house is not insane, but strains against the low fertility of an exhausted bloodline (degeneracy is the prime naturalist trope) and the more than remote possibility that the next generation will have different dreams. Molly sacrifices the life and happiness she has been building up for a fear that is not paranoid, but still seems exaggerated. I guess that the Lopez sisters are delusional in not seeing what they do as prostitution, but the ignorance of what other people (local polite society) thinks is a boon to Juntius and Robbie Maltby — as long as they are able to maintain their self-image as philosophers living happily off the land. The imaginary world (and riches) of “Shark” Wicks blocks doing what he would have needed to do to attain the image of himself he entertained and promulgated to the neighbors.


Although most of those living in the pastures of heaven are (circa the early 20th century) only second-generation residents, and more than a few move away over the course of the book, it is a new family, the Munroes, who settle in what is believed to be a haunted house and cursed farm in the center of the valley, who — mostly inadvertently — disturb the tenuous psychological balance of other characters. These outsiders are catalysts (another good naturalist notion) for other residents to attain their disasters and to recognize the unreality or failure of their dreams. Friendly, eager to help, and totally conventional, the Munroes set off disillusionment and tragedy (Tularecito being locked up in an asylum, Hilda Van Deventer’s death, the burning of the Whiteside home that was built to stand 500 years, the Maltbys leaving their pastoral idyll to make money in San Francisco, John Whiteside to go into business in Monterey, etc.)

Steinbeck (especially in Tortilla Flat and Sweet Thursday) sometimes seems to me to have condescended to his “simple people” characters. His bemused tale of the Lopez sisters comes close to this, but is not discernible in the story of Tularecito and the gnomes. There is also often a misogynist panic in Steinbeck (especially in the stories in The Long Valley) when writing about women as anything other than madonnas or prostitutes. This makes the story of the teacher Molly Morgan exceptional in the Steinbeck oeuvre: a sympathetic, rounded female character who is neither a mother nor a prostitute. It is also the most technically complex of the stories in The Pastures of Heaven.

Other than the faux-jaunty prologue about a Spanish corporal discovering the valley chasing escaped Indians from the concentration camp that was the Carmel Mission, there are no weak stories in this collection.


The second half ot the introduction to the Penguin addition by James Nagel (who also supplied notes I consider superfluous) should have been an afterword, but I think that he is right that in this story cycle, inspired in part by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and by Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories, Steinbeck “discovered the central subject of his greatest work, the simple people of the Salinas Valley, struggling against the odds, against economic deprivation and the legacy of a past that threatens to overwhelm them [as in Faulkner’s fiction]…. Many of the themes of Pastures—the destructive potential of conformity, the dangers of self-delusion and false social values—he continued to explore throughout his career.” Steinbeck’s style, subject, and fundamental themes first became visible in The Pastures of Heaven.

Although his books were once burned in Salinas, and the self-annointed newspaper of record in America published in what was then his home chose to publish a dismissal of his work on the day he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Steinbeck’s work has endured with little encouragement from academia. All of his books of fiction are in print and his sometimes sentimental, sometimes brutal lyricism continues to draw “voluntary readers” (that is, those not assigned to read “classics” for courses). For anyone unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s themes and style, or anyone who finds his big books (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden) strained, The Pastures of Heaven is an excellent point of entry, better even than the short stories collected in The Long Valley (though the latter volume contains my favorite, “Leader of the People”).

This was part of an epinions writeoff for the Steinbeck centenary.

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Sisterhood with no sibling rivalries


Though running 128 minutes Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2015 adaptation of a manga as海街diary (Umimachi Diary, or Seaside-town diary”), released in English as “Our Little Sister” seems slight to me. Many find it “heart-warming,” I find it sentimental in a Kinoshita tradition. Three sisters: 29-year-old Sachi (Ayase Haruka), 22-year-old Yoshino a (Nagasawa Masami) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho) live in a large house in Kamakura (southeast of Tokyo). News comes that their father, whom they have not seen in 15 years, has died. They go to the funeral, where their father’s third wife claims to have nursed their father through his final illness.


They intuit that the serious-looking 14-year-old Asano Suzu (Hirose Suzu) was the one who cared for their father. Sachi invites Suzu to come and live with them rather than stay with her/their stepmother. Suzu was the offspring of the woman with whom their father decamped, his second wife.

Suzu is keenly aware that she is a very visible reminder of their common father abandoning his first wife and their three daughters. She is especially aware of her negative connections for the mother of the three older females, who also abandoned her three daughters and drops in. Sachi, who was left to raise her younger two sisters, is very antagonistic to her mother, though the immature woman tries to make Suzu comfortable in her presence.


Though the sisters experience frustration in their own love lives, there is no antagonism or even tension between any of them, and they all dote on Suzu. Suzu makes the coeducational soccer team and hangs out with one of the male players and is dutiful and grateful at her new home. Tensions are mostly between generations not between siblings (and the novel half-sibling who is something of a pet, but also arguably more mature than Chika).

Ayase Haruka, who strikes me as the most beautiful of the women in the cast, is self-sacrificing in the manner of Takamine Hideko in 1950s family dramas made by Ozu and Kinoshita. The offspring are old enough to make money in contrast to the young children huddling together in Koreeda’s 2004 “Nobody Knows,” which lessens the drama and the poignancy. Suzu not only can go to school, but fits in readily. Still, the actresses (including three of the older generation) are very good in what seems like a very gentle, muted, episodic sitcom that mostly takes place in the family house‑though when it does go out, things are beautifully photographed by Mikya Takimoto, who also shot “Like Father, Like Son” for Koreeda.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Medoruma Shun’s Akutagawa Prize-winning novella “Droplets”

Medoruma Shun won the Akutagawa Prize in 1997 for Suiteki (水滴 A Drop Of Water, translated by Michael Molasky as “Droplets“). Owing perhaps a little to Kafkza’s “Metamorphosis,” it is a work of Okinawan “magical realism.” Fifty years after the epic carnage of the Battle of Okinawa, a veteran named Tokushô wakes up one morning unable to move or speak with his right shin grotesquely bloated, resembling a gourd melon (tôgan). His hard-working wife Ushi is frustrated that she will have to do all the work in the fields. Convinced that villagers are experimented on in university hospitals, she refuses to allow their physician to have Tokushô admitted to one.


The liquid that drips out between the big toe and its neighbor is analyzed as ordinary water. Every night ghosts (I use the word since they can go through walls, they are not labeled anything in the English translation) who were left to die in a cave by Tokushô and other wounded but ambulatory soldiers come and drink the droplets from his foot. His generalized survivor guilt it concentrated on Ishimine, a comrade from the same area of Okinawa to whom Tokushô promised to bring water, but didn’t. Ishimine’s ghost does not speak, but Tokushô feels forgiven before the swelling subsides and he is able to move and speak again.


POW on Okinawa, 1945 (in public domain)

Tokushô’s cousin, Seiyû, who strikes me as a sort of minor league Milo Minderbender, discovers that the drippings can stimulate the growth of hair and also cure impotency and, unbeknownst to Tokushô or Ushi, makes a small fortune selling bottles of the drippings. The effects prove to be only temporary and the hustler is set upon by those who bought “miracle water” from him.


In common with Medoruma’s masterful novel In the Woods of Memory (first published in Japanese in 2009, just published in English), “Droplets” shows the agonies of 1945 still festering half a century later and also shows rural Okinawans as being far from noble or innocent (though those in “Droplets” do not behave as badly as the bullies and serial rapists of Woods). I find the characters less developed (though taking up equivalent space on pages) in “Droplets,” and the novella more interesting as phenomenon than as literature. I did not find it “engaging,” as Akutagawa jude Kôno Taeko did.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

War-enforced separation and diffidence providing obstacles to cross-class amour

According to André Aciman’s introduction to the New York Review publication, the first in English, of Journey Into the Past, its author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was translated into more languages than any of his contemporaries (Freud? Mann?). A part of the novella to which Aciman (Out of Egypt) provides way-too-long an introduction-in fact a complete retelling-was published in German in 1929. A manuscript was found and published in German during the 1970s, but in English only last November.

The novella reminds me of “Brief Encounter,” though that script by Noël Coward (expanding his play “Still Life”) for David Lean’s 1945 tearjerker movies takes place entirely in a British railway station and involves a middle-class woman (Celia Johnson) and a physician (Trevor Howard) of roughly the same age, both of them married. One resemblance is that the man is going off to another continent.

Zweig’s pair differ in age (the woman is older) and their status difference is the opposite (the woman’s is much higher). They spend no time in train stations, though the flashbacks occur while they are in a train between Frankfurt and Heidelberg. The POV is that of the man, Ludwig, a chemist from a very poor family who became the in-house assistant to an unwell industrialist. The wife is very sensitive to the young man’s pride, and they fall in love, though he did not become fully aware of that until the eve of his departure to Mexico to oversee supply of some unspecified metal vital to the company.

There is not hint that the industrialist sent away a rival or had any awareness of their mutual attraction. As the job in Mexico is successfully accomplished, Europe plunges into war (WWI) and Ludwig not only cannot return, but cannot even communicate by letter with his beloved.
journey past.jpeg
I don’t want to emulate Aciman in plot-spoiling, but there are obstacles other than the class ones (which have been lessened by Ludwig’s Mexican success) to ecstatic, delayed reunion. (WWI ran August 1914- November 1918, and if Ludwig left in 1912, nine years would place the return to where he had lived in Frankfurt in 1923. Zweig did not offer any explanation of why the return wasn’t in 1919.)

For all the shared regret for the long separation-blamed on geopolitical interference-diffidence remains. (She feels old now and believes that “when a woman’s hair turns grey, she has no more to wish for, no more to give”) Ludwig remembers (not quite correctly) a couplet from Verlaine:

In the old park, in ice and snow caught fast
Two spectres walk, still searching for the past.

The regret-filled lovers are not specters, hair dye existed during the 1920s (not that Ludwig is put off by the grey of his beloved’s hair), and the past could be prologue.

The black-and-white movie-like 82-page novella is framed by substantial texts about Zweig and it. Award-winning translator Anthea Bell’s afterword should have been first and Aciman need not have told the whole story.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray