“The decimated regiment of Muslims and Croats stumbled through a field of bomb craters. Water filled the craters, out of which rough-skinned gray frogs leaped like beating hearts that had deserted the bodies of warring men and now roamed the doomed landscape. Ivan found the sudden leaps of so many hearts out of the gray earth unsettling. He could not see any of them until they were in the air, so it seemed to him that the earth was spitting up useless hearts and swallowing them back into the mud.”
Croatian author Josip Novakovich crafts a novel here which bursts the bounds of genre. Both naturalistic in its depiction of the Yugoslavian war and its atrocities, and fantastic and darkly absurd in its depiction of the life of main character Ivan Dolinar, the novel seesaws between the horrific and the hilarious. Surprising in his ability to wrest unique images from universal experiences, Novakovich writes with such clarity and directness that the reader immediately identifies with Ivan in his predicaments and empathizes with him as uncontrollable forces buffet him throughout his life.
Born, appropriately, on April Fool’s Day, 1948, Ivan and his family fear the post-war Russian army, and when President Tito stands up to the Russian tanks and gets them to withdraw, he is lionized by the populace, even though his less than stellar war record has had to be “sanitized.” Ivan, fatherless, is taken under the wing of a Communist sculptor/art teacher when he is in elementary school, and he comes alive for the reader through the author’s recognition of the universal qualities of children—their mischief, their desire to please, their wanting to fit in, their mockery of those who are different. In many ways Ivan is like a child-Everyman, albeit one with a Croatian upbringing, and this is one of the reasons the novel is so effective in creating reader identification.
At nineteen, he passes the exams for medical school and moves from Nizograd to Novi Sad for his studies. There he forms fast friendships with other students, all equally disinterested in hygiene and housekeeping, tries to fall in love, and does well in anatomy—until one of his roommates starts joking with him about assassinating Marshall Tito, a conversation which is overheard.
The absurdity of his life in Croatia increases over time as Ivan becomes more and more a prisoner of the political system under which he is forced to live. Arguments about the desire of Croat politicians to secede from the Yugoslav federation, about the role of government, about religion, and about the future of the country pervade the novel, and after the Croatian Spring Uprising is put down and the secessionist politicians are jailed, the country is thrown into even more turmoil by the death of Marshall Tito. When the unrest grows, Ivan, a Croat, is drafted into the Yugoslav army and, absurdly, sent to Croatia to fight the Croatian army, only to be captured by the Croats and forced to fight the Serbs until his unit surrenders to the Yugoslav Army which had drafted him in the first place. Forced to make a 100-mile march, the end of which would be freedom for anyone who survived, Ivan observes atrocities beyond his imaginings.
In the second half, his eventual marriage, fatherhood, employment, and decision to engage in “preemptive adultery” lead to further absurdities (and some long-standing enmities) as he ages into his fifties. Having studied philosophy, Ivan continues to look for meaning in life throughout his adulthood. Often engaging in his own religious debates, he searches for “a chance to think something essential,” something which would “give him the sensation of being alive.”
The conclusion is a blockbuster, sixty pages of the most absurd, farcical, and hilariously ironic writing in recent memory, a section which comes close to slapstick at the same time that it is indescribably bleak. Mining the emotions of both comedy and tragedy, the ending transcends the boundaries of realism. Novakovich has written a testament to the absurd, creating a satire/farce using a main character whose wasted life comes as close to tragedy as anything the Greeks could have imagined.
Notes: The photo of the author appears on http://www.ekf.bg, the site of the Foundation for Creative Writing, established by Elizabeth Kostove (author of The Historian).
A communist revolutionary, Marshal Josip Broz Tito commanded the Yugoslav People’s Army from 1943 – 1980 and became a hero to the populace after the defeat of the axis powers. He was elected leader of an independent communist state. http://en.wikipedia.org