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