#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.

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Reviving the #EU27Project

114 days or 17 weeks until the 29th of March, which is my self-imposed deadline for the #EU27Project. Yes, by then I want to have read at least one book from each of the EU member countries with the exception of the one flouncing off. I started this project quite a while ago, even before Britain triggered Article 50 in 2017. And, just like Britain, I was not quite prepared and spent a lot of time faffing about and procrastinating. Or doing the same thing over and over, like reading books from France and Germany.

So let’s do some arithmetic, shall we? I still have 15 countries to go through, for which I’ve read absolutely nothing. In the case of some countries (Cyprus and Luxembourg), I am struggling to find anything in translation. And I am likely to want to ‘redo’ some of the countries, for which I didn’t find quite the most satisfactory books (Romania, Greece or Italy, for example). That means at least one book a week from this category. Eminently doable, until you factor in all the review copies and other things that crop up. However, this will be my top priority over the next few months – my way of saying goodbye (sniff!) to the rest of Europe.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Here are some books that I have already sourced and will be ready to start shortly:

Bulgaria: Georgi Tenev – Party Headquarters (transl. Angela Rodel)

Hungary: Miklos Banffy – well, I need to finish that trilogy, don’t I? (Especially in the centenary year of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire)

Slovenia: Goran Vojnovic – Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, transl. Noah Charney – struggled to find something from this country, but this seems to fit the bill: the author, like the protagonist is Serbian/Slovenian and  this novel about discovering your father is a war criminal will fit in nicely with my Croatian read.

Croatia: Ivana Bodrozic – The Hotel Tito, transl. Ellen Elias-Bursac – another author and protagonist who experienced the war as a child, considered one of the finest works of fiction about the Yugoslav war.

Estonia: Rein Raud – The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde, described as a spy and love story set in the dying days of the Soviet Empire

Latvia: Inga Abele – High Tide, transl. Kaija Straumanis – experimental and anti-chronological story of a woman’s life

Lithuania: Ruta Sepetys: Between Shades of Gray – this is not a book in translation, as Ruta grew up in Michigan as the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, but the book is very much based on her family’s tory at a crucial and tragic time in Lithuanian history

Slovakia: Jana Benova – Seeing People Off, transl. Janet Livingstone – winner of the European Union Prize for Literature

But then I met Julia Sherwood at the Asymptote Book Club meeting, and she has translated Pavel Vilikovsky’s Fleeting Snow from the Slovakian, so I had to get that one as well. So two for Slovakia.

Malta: Very difficult to find anything, so I’ll have to rely on Tangerine Sky, an anthology of poems from Malta, edited by Terence Portelli.

Belgium: Patrick Delperdange: Si tous les dieux nous abandonnent  – bought a few years back at Quais du Polar in Lyon, highly recommended by French readers

Denmark: Peter Høeg: The Elephant Keepers’ Children, transl. Martin Aitken – one of the most experimental and strange modern writers – I can see some resemblances to Heather O’Neill, whom I also really like, but they are not everyone’s cup of tea – this one I found at the local library, so yay, finally saving some money! But it is quite a chunkster, so… it might be impractical.

Greece: Ersi Sotiropoulos: What’s Left of the Night, transl. Karen Emmerich – because Cavafy is one of my favourite poets

So, have you read any of the above? Or can you recommend something else that won’t break the bank? (I’m going to try not to buy any more books in 2019, which may be an obstacle to reading my way through the remaining countries, as libraries do not stock them readily).

Cycle route 6 in Franche-Comte, with my beloved Montbeliard cows sipping Doubs water.

Final point: I do not intend to stop reading books in translation from all of these countries after the UK leaves the EU, by any means. In fact, I’m thinking of doing the EUVelo 6 cycle route from Nantes on the Atlantic to the Danube Delta across all of Europe and reading my way through each of the countries en route (10 of them). Maybe when the boys leave home, if my joints will still allow me to…