‘Art allows more room for the truth, especially if your goal is not merely to tell your own story…’ says the author of The Hotel TitoIvana Bodrožić. So this is most decidedly not a memoir, but a novel, the story of an entire generation of people who grew up in a country that suddenly disintegrated, children who had to leave their homes and grow up in displaced peoples’ housing.
Of course, even though the war ended, nobody won. In Zagreb people wanted to forget, but refugee families like the narrator’s are still writing letter after letter to the authorities in the hope of getting proper accommodation rather than camping out all in one room at a run-down hotel. The family separated from the father, who was left behind in Vukovar, and is now missing, presumed dead. The uncertainty of his fate and the lack of paperwork to confirm his death meant less rights in terms of benefits and housing.
These are similar themes to those tackled in Yugoslavia My Fatherland, but the viewpoint is resolutely that of the child here. We first meet her at the age of nine, when she first becomes aware of the war because her father tells her off for humming ‘Whoever claims Serbia is small is lying’. We grow up alongside her, see her almost superficial preoccupations about fitting in, putting on her make-up in secret and going out with boys, fighting with her older brother, being exasperated by her embarrassing grandparents. A normal teenager, whose normality keeps getting punctured by stark reminders of her ‘barely tolerated’ status. No wonder she soon develops a shell of cynicism around her:
It’s the hardest when they turn you down the first time, afterward you get used to it and you don’t care.
Seeing everything through the child’s naive perspective was a deliberate choice. The author says: ‘I knew I didn’t want to fall back on the wisdom of hindsight, I tried to set aside my adult perspective. I also didn’t want to spare anybody, including myself, in terms of treating with honesty the emotions I’d felt and my memories.’
In conclusion, both books are powerful and poignant reminders that destruction of life as we know it is always just a heartbeat away. I would recommend Goran Vojnović if you want the grown-up trying to analyse the situation calmly after the events, seeking to understand the mindset of the nationalists and finding himself not quite able to excuse them. But if you want to feel part of the events, how it feels to be a child refugee albeit in far more ‘civilised’ circumstances than many refugees experience today, and that life is not all bad, that children will be children and find ways to play, rejoice, forget and make suffering bearable, then Ivana Bodrožić is the way to go.
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.
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.
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.
This debut novel is really three distinct stories meshed into one: a child’s eye view of the war in Croatia, the displacement that comes from being adopted and growing up in the US (and having to hide one’s heritage for fear you won’t be understood or accepted), then finally returning to your home country after a traumatic period in its history, trying to reconnect with friends and family and make your peace with your past.
The problem is that the book addresses predominantly an American audience who may be less familiar with the war in Yugoslavia – or perhaps a younger generation who has forgotten about the war. (The author herself was very small when those events were happening, so may not have much personal recollection of them, although she has interviewed friends and family to ask about their own experiences.) So there is perhaps more telling than is strictly necessary.
For those of us of a certain age living close-by to the former Yugoslav republic, the trauma of a war that we had believed was impossible in modern-day Europe is still sufficiently fresh. We’ve all seen friends and their families torn apart and made homeless by this war, the bullet-riddled buildings, the often toothless War Tribunal at The Hague, the deep scars of distrust that will take a few generations to recover from… and all of these are hinted at in this book.
The story is, of course, interesting, often harrowing and almost unbelievable. The observations of people’s reactions in Croatia and outside it, the contrasts between cultures and countries, the dilemmas of international adoption are spot on. The novel may not be wildly original in format or style, but it’s a good read, emotionally wrenching and very informative, with not a hint of a dry lecture.
The recreation of childhood in Zagreb and the seaside in the summer is the most successful part to my mind. This is when the book feels less ‘educational’ and more evocative. It’s mourning a lost way of life, a loss of childhood innocence, the loss of the innocence of a nation… Think Le Grand Meaulnes with a Croatian accent. The encroaching war and its horrors are things that the adults still try to protect the children from, but they end up incorporating their increasingly dire reality into their games.
By the end of the week we’d absorbed the sandbags into our playscape. War quickly became our favourite game and soon we had given up the park altogether. If we could convince enough people to be Serbs we’d play teams… which meant you only got one life, and when you died you had to stay dead… Other times, we played every-man-for-himself war, in which you got three lives and everyone got to kill everybody else indiscriminately. In both versions, the idea was to kill a person by shooting him with your imaginary gun… There were also two subcontests within each game. One was who could make the most realistic machine-gun sound effects; top players could distinguish between a Thompson, a Kalashnikov, and a Zbrojovka…. The second was who could act out the best death.
It’s perhaps unfair to compare this passage, written with a detachment and humour that belies its underlying horror, with ‘Tigermilk’, a story of deprived childhood in present-day Berlin. This book felt much more genuine and shocking, without deliberately trying to shock.
Sara Novic is not just a very promising young writer, she is also a deaf writer. Although her hearing loss was gradual, she has some very interesting things to say in this Guardian article about how to feel language in your head and on paper when you cannot actually hear it. To get a feel for Sara’s clear and distinctive writing voice, as well as her unique experiences as a child between cultures, here is a piece by her entitled ‘Notes on a War-Torn Childhood‘.