Tag Archives: Croatia

The most recent collection of essays by Josip Novakovich

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

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

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


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

The ordinariness of war criminals

I wonder if the cosmopolitan Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic[h] is heeded in the former Yugoslavia. What she writes in the three collections of conversational essays about the disastrous emergence of new countries from the wreckage of decades of communist despotism seems very acute to me. In Cafe Europa she asserted that to grow up from the dependency mentality inculcated by Tito’s state (and other Stalinist states), the peoples of Eastern Europe must learn to stop treating history as ”a washing machine” in which historical guilt can be laundered and absolved. ”We are falsifying the past, just as the Communists did when they came to power,” she decried.


(Mirko Savković’s portrait of Drakuli)

Responsibility for the atrocities committed by every side in the fission of Yugoslavia fought by the heretofore dominant Serbs (whose sense of entitlement seems to me not unlike that of Sunnis in Iraq) has been taken by practically no one. An exception who particularly surprises Drakulic is the biologist who became the third-highest-rank official in the Republic of Srpska (a particularly murderous Serbian regime north of Bosnia), Biljana Plavsich.

There are also chapters on the Yugoslavian/Serbian president Slodoban Milosovich and his pretentious, beribboned wife Mira, the Serbian (who fled to Russia and avoided trial in the Hague) who was an academic sociologist, and on the fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladich, but most of the chapters in They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in the Hague are reports from the trials for torture and slaughter of those of lower rank, not the ideologists like Biljana Plavsich and Mira Milosovich (or John Woo and Dick Cheney—and Donald Trump’s endorsement of waterboarding and harsher interrogation measures).

How could apparently sane and even quite ordinary people do what they did? The question raised by Nazi functionaries re-emerged in what the Serbs regarded as a war against secession (a definition of the situation explicitly encouraged by the first President Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker) and nationalists of other sorts (than Serbian) regarded as wars for independence (like the American Revolution, rather than the American Civil War). As in stories told by the other cosmopolitan Croatian writer I’ve been reading, Josip Novakovich, the horror is not just the viciousness of the atrocities, but that people who had been living in harmony under the yoke of universalism-proclaiming communism turned on each others with such excesses.

The mass murderers are not psychopaths, but are chillingly able to dissociate what they do from who they are. The “banality of evil” was the theme of Hannah Arendt ‘s Eichman in Jerusalem and Drakulic’s book takes its title from on of the Essays in Understanding that Arendt wrote earlier. :

“When his occupation ‘forces’ him to murder people, he does not regard himself as a murderer, because he has not done it out of inclination, but in his ‘professional’ capacity: out of sheer passion he would never do harm to a fly.” (I have repunctuated Arendt, who did not put “forces” or “professional” in quotes—the “forces” is the view of the torturers/murderers)

That systematic mass rape of Bosnian Muslim women was “no big deal” was the view of the (Serbian) perpetrators, as Drakulic elaborates in her bitterly jocular chapter “Boys Just Had Fun.”

Drakulic begins with crimes committed by Croatians, including the murder of one man who testified about atrocities and stayed in Croatia. He was murdered and his murderer acquitted. The chapter that has the same title as the book is about a Serb who murdered hundreds of prisoners.

Drakulic is very clear that Croatians and others in the former Yugoslavia want to erase the record of what they did to each other, while nursing grievances from the 1940s (and, in the case of Serbs, from the defeat by Turks in 1448). “Why write about the [civil] war?” is a question both Novakovich and Drakulic report being asked frequently. Her answer is that “more than a decade after the beginning of the war in the Balkans, it is essential that we understand that it is we, ordinary people and not some madmen, who made it possible. We were the ones who one day stopped greeting our neighbors of a different nationality, an act that the next day made possible the opening of concentration camps. We did it too one another”—and continues with her leitmotif (across many books) of the lingering collective irresponsibility of Croatians and others who grew up in communist dictatorships. The people of Croatia elected Franjo Tudjman twice, the people of Serbia twice elected Slodoban Milosovich, and she asks, “If Germans were responsible for supporting Hitler [who was not elected by the majority in a free election], why should not Serbs be responsible for supporting Milosovich and Croats for supporting Tudjman? Neither of them could have survived in power without the support of the people.” Moreover, denying that the people who re-elected Tudjman and Milosovich “didn’t know” (as many Germans claimed in regard to Nazi death camps) is impossible (not merely straining plausibility as in the Nazi case):


(Milosovich in 1995)

In voting for Milosovich or Tudjman people voted for the politics of ethnic cleansing. Could they claim, like the Germans, that they did not know? Both Croatia and Serbia are too small to use that as an argument. In the five years of war, too many people were directly involved in the ethnic cleansing [if only in appropriate property from neighbors who had fled or been otherwise eliminated] to be able to seriously claim that they did not know. They did know, and they went along with it, or at least they did not care about it…. it is necessary to learn that you had a choice—and that you made the wrong one….The trials of war criminals are important not only because of those killed. They are important also because of the living. In the end, what matters in regard to war criminals and why we should bother to take a closer look at them is one single important question: what would I do in their situation?

The book has a macabre epilogue in which the prisoners who are there for organizing the slaughter of those of different nationalities, get along fine, cook for each other, eat together, talk to each other, etc..

I wish that the question about what any of us would do within a war in which combatants don’t wear uniforms was without relevance here and now, only a historical curiosity, but “civil wars” are raging in multiple locations at present, including some in which US soldiers in uniform and mercenaries (Blackwell) are involved…


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray