Eileen Battersby reviews 'Yugoslavia, My Fatherland' in IRISH TIMES
Having spent years grieving for his father who went to war and never came back, Vladan Borojevic, the narrator, appears to have become an adult, estranged from Dusha, his silent mother, and life in general.
His father’s death was reduced to a curt announcement made by a widow who had already disengaged herself from her son, the narrator, and eventually married again to begin another family. Vladan, in a relationship with a bright young microbiologist, drifts along, fixing coffee machines and when he thinks of it, attending lectures for a degree he is half-interested in. One day he decides to Google his dead father and is shocked by the findings.
Possibly not the most compelling title for a novel, yet this brilliant, sharp and human narrative about the chaotic aftermath of the most recent upheaval in the Balkans, vicious ethnic wars now 20 years in the past, attempts to make sense of the madness and the conflicting racial and cultural realities all coexisting within political boundaries which have been consistently redrawn by history.
Told in a wry, conversational tone by a likeable, observant narrator in possession of a lively sense of humour, as well as an understandable tendency towards melodrama, this may be the most insightful and measured response to the agonies and the horrors. Vojnovic does not strain at authenticity; he clearly knows the material and grasps all the ethnic and linguistic nuances.
At last comes a work which will become required reading both within and beyond the Balkans. It is profound and important and, quietly published in translation from a small publisher, it is far more convincing then many more imagined and over-hyped works which simply lack the essential truths which only an insider can bring to a narrative.
Film maker and writer Goran Vojnovic, who was 11 in 1991 when the war broke out and the country he had known as home disappeared, has avoided easy polemic and instead explains the history through the tragic story of an ordinary couple, the parents of his narrator, a bewildered young Everyman who remains hurt, angry and intent on the truth. The novel is not autobiographical, but Vojnovic makes inspired use of how he remembered the world around him beginning to change, largely as he recalls the reactions of the various grown ups to the breaking news of war.
Home for his narrator was Pula, a seaside town on the Istrian peninsula in Croatia; his father was a handsome soldier in the Yugoslav People’s Army, a Serb, and Vladan’s mother was Slovenian. Life was good and Vladan had been happy. Then everything changed.
“It must have been a normal, early summer day in 1991, when my childhood suddenly ended . . . Our world at the time was a far cry from the one our parents seemed to inhabit. For most of us, grown-ups were creatures from a distant planet, only worth noticing if they were missing an arm or a leg, if they had a wild, long beard down to their toes . . .” He recalls being told about a local man rumoured to have a big red lump on his face and the boy Vladan, too, wants to have a peek at it.
Looking back on events and certain episodes is Vladan’s way of making sense of it all, or so he believes. As a boy he had listened to stories; as a man he summons them back to his mind and sets out to make use of them. Vojnovic’s approach is anecdotal and through the vivid texture of his memories the intense depth of his narrator’s pain begins to emerge.
The tensions were always there. He mentions Cera, the cinema operator, a character who enjoyed mixing up the reels so that he would “show films from the middle or the end, or sometimes even backwards.”
For Vladan, Cera was one of the kindest people knew and yet, after the news of what was about to happen, Cera, the adult, understood the implications and turned to the local boys, Vladan among them, and declared: “The Slovenians can go swim their asses over to Luxembourg if they don’t like it here in Yugoslavia.”
Memory works in funny ways. For Vladan time moves back and forth between his present day life and the childhood he loved and lost. Aside from loss, though, loneliness is his constant. Caught between cultures as a result of his mixed parentage, he speaks Serbo-Croatian and not Slovene, his mother’s language. His personal identity is as confused as are the national identities ever shifting around him.
When he goes to have his battered old jalopy fixed, the garage owner has a novel way of explaining the political situation: “The two of you are young and don’t even realise that half of these Slovenians, Croatians and Serbians jerking their way around the Balkans were fathered by Bosnian Toms, Dicks and Harrys.”
Vladan the grown man arranges a rare meeting with his mother Dusha. It is barely friendly. “I don’t have a lot of time, so just tell me what you want” she says. Their estrangement is compounded by her having concealed the truth. The boy’s father is not dead – he is a war criminal in hiding. The narrator sets out to find him. In ways the narrative is about the parallel experiences of Vladan, the little boy who became a lonely child who in turn then became a lonely adult.
In one of the most painful passages, he recalls the time when his father was “seconded” – suddenly becoming a uniformed presence and had to leave them. The boy and his mother were taken to a hotel in Belgrade.
There, Dusha takes to wandering the city while the boy remains alone in the hotel room; watching TV and fantasising about being a famous footballer. When she returned and saw him exhausted and lying on the floor of the hotel room, she ignored him.
“I suddenly felt that I had neither a father or a mother any more, that I was without friends, that everyone in the hotel had forgotten about me . . . So I kept lying there, waiting for Dusha to emerge from the bathroom. I felt so unwanted, so lonely . . .”
The search for his father which begins years later is a quest which causes Vladan, for a while, at least, to feel as if he is a hero in pursuit of a villain. But it is not as simple as that; nothing is. Throughout the narrative which develops into a picaresque through the Balkans, there are many clever and revealing exchanges. The only false note is struck when Dusha finally decides to speak. It is a small weakness.
Vojnovic makes this book work through the character of Vladan, his remarkable, insightful and real narrator who may not have grown speaking Slovene – the language his mother only decides to teach after his father leaves. Even then her method is harsh; once she decides to teach him, she only speaks to him in Slovene.
It is interesting that a narrative which so conversational and deceptively simple is in fact a seamlessly technically sophisticated work. This a fine novel; it is also a very important book.
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