#EU27Project: Slovenia

Goran Vojnovic: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, transl. Noah Charney

Goran Vojnović is a Slovenian scriptwriter, film-maker, journalist and writer. As far as I can tell from the scant biographical details available in English, he was born and grew up in Ljubljana, but encountered other immigrants from former Yugoslavia in a ghetto estate in his home town. Their plight (and the prejudice against them) impressed him so much that he wrote a novel about it Southern Scum, Go Home! which drew some unflattering attention from the Slovene police. With his second and third novel all winning the most prestigious literary prize in Slovenia, he seems to be a versatile writer at the top of his game.

That first novel hasn’t been translated, alas, into English but his second novel Yugoslavia, My Fatherland has, with partial funding from the EU as part of the ‘Stories that Can Change the World’ initiative. And indeed, this one does change the world.

I was shocked recently to hear people of my age who could barely remember the Yugoslav War. Although I didn’t live there, it marked my youth decisively and tainted my joy at the fall of Communism. When people say that the EU has allowed the continent of Europe to live in peace for so many decades, I always feel uncomfortable. It feels disrespectful somehow, as if they are forgetting this cruel war which showed us that our old, civilised continent had not outgrown its barbaric feuds. Simply because it took place ‘on the outskirts’, in the Balkans, where it’s always been messy anyway. 

The novel follows two timelines: Vladan in the present-day, a young man who discovers that the Serb father he believed dead is in fact still alive and most likely a war criminal. The second timeline tells the story of how his parents met, their contented lives in Pula before the outbreak of the war, how his father (an army officer) had to go to fight and how Vladan the little boy fled with his Slovenian mother to the relative safety of Ljubljana.

As Vladan searches for his father, who he believes lives in hiding somewhere in Serbia, he also relives some of the most distressing moments of his childhood. His mother sinks into a deep depression once they moved to a hotel in Belgrade as refugees, waiting for news from his father. 

Lying there on the floor of room 211, I suddenly felt that I had neither a father nor a mother anymore, that I was without friends, that everyone in the hotel had forgotten about me, and that no one in the world would be interested in me anymore. So I kept on lying there, waiting for Dusha [his mother] to emerge from the bathroom. I felt so unwanted, so lonely, that I promised myself that the Bristol Hotel would be the last hotel I would ever set foot in.

He meets old friends of his father and family members who are still numbed by the war and trying to understand how it could have happened. 

They all used to be Yugoslavs. And they were all communists…we who defended Yugoslavia stood side-by-side, in the same uniform,with those who demolished it. We sang the same anthem and bore the same coat-of-arms. But what was mine to me wasn’t theirs to them… The country fell apart because it didn’t mean more to any of them than their own arseholes… The Yugoslavs disappeared overnight, as if they’d never existed… I’m only sorry about my old man, who built this country with his bare hands. I’m glad he died before he could seethe scum he’d built all those bridges, schools and hospitals for. The scum he left all this to. They lived among us all those years, smiled at us in our Tito’s Pioneers uniforms, waved flag but, in the end, they could’t wait for it all to end, so they could fight with each other.


Vladan is always in-between cultures, and therefore never fully buys the rhetoric of any of different nationalities that used to make up the Yugoslav Republic. He is profoundly distrustful of sentimentalising the past, which can be used all too quickly to stoke up nationalistic resentments. He calls it the ‘Infantile Balkan Sentiment Syndrome’, an important ingredient in the periodic fratricide that afflicts that region. The war in Bosnia, he explains to his patient Slovenian girlfriend, who grew up untainted by the war, was ‘one big nightmare of yearning, one big bloody orgy of mental pain. The revenge of the lovesick, of the twisted and the eternally immature.’

The dual narrative allows the grown-up narrator to cast a new light on the defining moments of his childhood. In contrast to The Hotel Tito, which is most determinedly a coming of age novel, and all is narrated by the young protagonist in the present tense, here the author slips fluidly across timelines, adding depth and poignancy to each.

Author picture, courtesy of Istros Books.

The tricky issue of culpability of the older generation and how the younger generation accuse them of blindness and self-interest has also been addressed in German literature, but I found this strand of the story slightly less compelling. I myself longed for more of the child refugee narrative, which is perhaps the part which resonates most with the utter puzzlement expressed by my friends from Yugoslavia. For example, as soon as Vladan starts school in Slovenia, he is made aware of ethnic differences, and a Bosnian refugee called Daniel tells him what’s what:

I was a Serb, because Nedelko was a Serbian name, and so was Vladan, and that it didn’t matter that my mother was Dusha, because nationality was determined by the father. He was a Muslim because his father was Muslim… [in their class] there were seven Slovenians, two Croats, three Muslims, eight Serbs, one Macedonian, one Albanian and a few fags who wouldn’t say what their fathers were called, and so were hiding what they were so they wouldn’t be teased.

All this was new to me because, in Pula, we only knew that some people had ‘nonnas’ and some had ‘grandmothers’ and some had ‘grannies’, and none of us realized that this meant something, but we certainly didn’t ask people what their father’s names were, in order to draw conclusions based on something so bizarre.

Aerial view of Pula. A lost world for our narrator.

For his secondary education, Vladan ends up in a grammar school, with the most ‘carefree’ children in the world. Suddenly, none of his past experiences seem to matter anymore. He finds it hard to believe that these children once were part of the same country.

Kids from high school skied in France; they played tennis; visited European capitals; skated and tried pot. They were kind and clever and they listened to professors during lessons… They couldn’t care less about Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and most of them didn’t even distinguish between them. They didn’t ask eac other about their fathers’ names, and didn’t fight about who started the war in Bosnia. They didn’t  have cousins who had been drafted into the army, uncles who were left without legs, grandmothers and grandfathers who were exiled, or aunts killed by grenades.

So will Vladan find his father in the end and will his father have a good explanation for why he did what he did during the war? Will they be reconciled? You’ll have to read this and see. But don’t make those questions your end goal. This book is worth reading for the attempt to paint a fresco of a country which has disappeared, and a people who are still trying to make sense of it all.

Finally, I can imagine that Vojnović, heavily critical as he is of all sides in the war, must be quite a controversial figure in Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, where everyone prefers a single (heavily edited) explanation or answer. I would love to hear what local reviewers made of this novel.

10 thoughts on “#EU27Project: Slovenia”

  1. It sounds like a fascinating exploration of a part of history that’s too often conveniently overlooked, Marina Sofia. I admit I don’t know enough about it, myself. And the point of view sounds like an effective way to tell the story.

    1. The premise was somewhat similar to Girl at War by Sara Novic, but I thought it was even more interesting to read about the fate of the refugees from one part of Yugoslavia and how they were received elsewhere. Hotel Tito has a very similar theme and I’ll review it shortly.

  2. I think this would be an enlightening read to a tourist like me. I’m not entirely sure how old you are, Marina, but my guess is old enough for me to share your shock that your friends could barely remember the Yugoslav War.

    1. No friends of mine, I hasten to add – those who call themselves my friends most definitely remember the war in Yugoslavia or I’ll give them a long lecture about it!

  3. I found this book fascinating, and I loved the emotional ambiguity the author manages to sustain, because these situations are complex and involve real people. I remember reading this with a timeline of events open on my computer. Although I remember the war very well (I went to school with a considerable number of students with Yugoslavian backgrounds—and cultural tensions were very evident among them in the 70s), I was unclear on the who, what, where, when’s of it all.

    The war in the former Yugoslavia which was roughly contemporary with the end of Apartheid and the first free elections in South Africa (I had likewise known many South African expats in university) were the defining events of adulthood for me, although both were happening far away, if you like. I was in my early thirties and my children were both born during this time. Interestingly, it is in more recent years, through reading literature from both regions, that a more mature nuanced and mature understanding of these critical periods of history has developed—and of the promises and disappointments that have followed.

    1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience of that period. You are right, for me too it was a coming of age period: with the so-called revolution in my own country, fall of Communism, the end of apartheid – it all seemed so full of joyous optimism and possibility, until the Yugoslav War brought us back to earth with a thud. I’ve just finished Hotel Tito and it’s fascinating in its similarities and yet differences too.

  4. I think we’re a similar age Marina Sofia and I find it astonishing that people our age don’t remember the war, it made a huge impression on me. There was the news, documentaries, films and a translated diary written by a girl my own age at the time which I remember so clearly. But I haven’t thought about it much in recent years, so I should definitely read this.

  5. I was born in the former Yugoslavia, but have been in Australia since I was 3 years old, and so I am quite ignorant when it comes to my birthplace. I shall have to look this author up.

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