Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Josip Novakovich’s Ex-Yu is hardly a joyful read. Like many laments for countries fragmented by sectarian strife, the twelve stories in Nokavovich’s collection revolve around the misery of the victims. But it also celebrates these ordinary and at times extraordinary individuals as “victors” over the depravity of Balkan warlords. And through the powerful development of his characters, the author propels the reader toward a total rejection of nationalism in all its incarnations.
Novakovich has lived now for almost forty years in North America, but his Weltanschauung was clearly formed before he left his hometown of Daruvar in Western Slavonia. In Ex-Yu, he captures in dispassionate terms the evil that the war inflicted on towns like Daruvar where Croats, Serbs, Czechs and Hungarians had lived as neighbours for centuries. He dishes out generous portions of scorn to extremists on all sides, but perhaps an extra serving for Milosevic and his Chetnik allies whose policies of the mass rape and ethnic cleansing dashed all hope of national reconciliation. But despite the dark subject matter, there is no vindictiveness in Novakovich’s writing. Instead, he focuses on the positive—elevating the good common people amidst the small ironies of their survival.
I particularly enjoyed one of the first stories in the collection, “Honey in the Carcase.” The hero of this story is Ivan Mevdevich, a humble honey-maker in Daruvar. As the war ravages the town, turning it into a carcase (carcass), Ivan holds out devoted to his bees. At risk to his own life, he crosses enemy lines to bring his bees in from the fields before winter arrives. When Chetnik killers turn up on Ivan's doorstep, his bees wreak on them a biblical wrath—a simple but moving parable.
Although male characters dominate most of Novakovich's stories, he captures in the persona of Ana Tadic, the heroine of “Acorns,” the central albeit tragic role of women in the Yugoslav war. Ana, a young Croatian-American journalist from Cleveland, joins the UN as a translator. When she discovers the complicity of UN peace-keepers in the Serbs' sexual enslavement of Muslim woman, she quits—only to return to Yugoslavia to document the horrendous war crimes against women there. Twice in the story, she meets Bosnian rape victims who are both named Alma. In Bosnian, the name means “apple,” but the Spanish meaning of Alma, “soul,” seems more appropriate here—for it is through these two women that Ana finds her own soul. In pursuing her quest to expose the mass rape of Bosnian women, Ana herself is victimized. She survives and opts to overcome the injustice inflicted on her by choosing hope over despair and abandoning the vestiges of her old life for the new life within her.
While Novakovich excels in privileging the common decency of denizens over the machinations of despots, he is equally adept at derision. In “Self-Medicated,” he enters the mind of Yugoslavia's archvillain, Slobodan Milosevic. The Serb leader is spending the last months of life on the docket of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Unrepentant, he believes that he is thwarting the arguments of the prosecutors with his boorish repartees. His ego is as large as ever. However, when his equipment fails to work during a conjugal visit from his wife and co-conspirator, the pit-bullish Mirjana Markovic, Slobo convinces his doctor to procure some little blue pills for his wife's next visit. Well, the pills work for Slobo. And even though Mirjana tells him that at her age, sex is almost more painful that “a root canal,” Slobo, the supreme egoist, takes pride in reasserting his Serb manhood. After Mirjana's visit, Slobo becomes enamoured with the little blue pills, and unwittingly causes his own demise in a “vain” attempt to given himself an orgasm.
The parables in most of Novakich's stories are reasonably discernible, but some are esoteric. And this makes discovering them in a second reading all the more enjoyable. My only criticism is that Novakovich may have gone a yard too far in his last story, “In the Same Boat.” The crude darkness of this story was simply not for my palate. Others may find it intriguing—each to his own.
Astute students of contemporary history may enjoy how Novakovich has succeeded in putting aside the media hip surrounding Europe's last war (last if we don't count Putin's adventure in Ukraine), and restores this sad chapter of Balkan history to “real people.” I certainly did.
Ex-Yu is published by Esplanade Books, an imprint of Montreal's Véhicule Press.