On April 22, 1999, one month into the NATO offensive against Serbia, Boris Bulie stands on the last barely functioning bridge over the Danube into Belgrade, watching bombs fall on the city he used to call home. His hired car has broken down on the bridge, and though his instincts command him to run to one side of the river or the other to escape the NATO jets, he stands transfixed by the surreal power of the scene. He is also transfixed by the waves of painful and bittersweet memories that brought him to his current impasse.
Many novels would quickly wilt under the load of such a dramatically symbolic opening, but debut novelist Dragan Todorovic (author of the non-fiction work The Book of Revenge) wisely returns the action to a more human scale, moving the story back in time to the first of several interconnecting narratives that will, by the novel’s equally powerful ending, return the reader to Boris’s vigil above
The second chapter opens in 1992. Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic has seized power in a still-united Yugoslavia, but the cracks in the federation are growing every day. Provinces are threatening to become republics, ethnic borders are being drawn down the middle of ancient villages, and the Serbian-dominated army is propping up local militias, ostensibly to protect ethnic Serbians in Croatia and Bosnia.
Belgrade, a city that has survived hundreds of wars and rebellions and clampdowns, is still, as Boris’s friend Sara reflects, “smart, lazy, informed, misguided Belgrade. Gossipy, benevolent, slow-rocking city.” But at a peace rally/concert in the city’s core, Boris, an artist whose work viciously parodies the excesses of the Milosevic regime, is attacked by Serbian nationalist skinheads, escaping with a few cuts and bruises and the certainty that he is living in a country “crossbreeding xenophobia with paranoia.”
Headlining the concert is the enigmatic and wildly popular singer-songwriter Johnny, Sara’s longtime lover and Boris’s best friend. Johnny’s anti-war songs have attracted the attention of Milosevic’s secret police, who threaten to jail Johnny, Sara, and Boris on drug charges if the singer refuses a short tour of duty in the reserve army – strictly for propaganda purposes, he is assured. Johnny will do his time in the reserves, tell the local press that the Serbian forces are not the monsters the world media has made them out to be, and then return to his life of touring and songwriting.
Johnny’s reluctant assent lands him behind the lines in Croatia fighting side by side with a private Serbian militia commanded by a sociopathic gangster known as The Candyman. The trauma and geographical distances of war splinter Johnny’s connections to Sara and Boris, who emigrate to Toronto to escape the violence.
Impatient readers may initially be put off by the novel’s time shifts and deliberately fractured narrative structure, but Todorovic is after something more intriguing than the typical dramatic arc of war, dislocation, and memory. Like a postmodern visual artist, he uses a collage technique to deconstruct – without resorting to the distancing effects of deconstructivism – the linear narratives that we use to define and understand political and military conflicts, narratives that too often leave out the idiosyncracies and personal associations of the combatants and civilians on the ground.
Diary of Interrupted Days bristles with the energy of those too-human personality tics, subjective reactions, and interpretations. The characters engage in erotically charged intimacies with tenderness and droll black humour before retreating into the protectionist postures of the traumatized. All of the novel’s multiple characters are delineated with the same degree of insight and sympathy, even The Candyman, who, while holding a pistol to Johnny’s head, is described as possessing an “oddly gentle face, as if the gun belonged to another person, someone who happened to share the same hands.”
Todorovic laces the characters’ revolving narratives with surreal imagery, as when he describes the imploding air vacuum that proceeds an explosion: “The explosive burns the oxygen in the air, creating a strong vacuum that … draws everything towards the centre of the explosion. The bomb kills then hugs.”
There are also passages of unexpected beauty. As Boris looks down on the Danube from the damaged bridge, he reflects, “Small rivers are leafy-green, and bigger ones turn grayish. This river had the steely surface of power.” Here the unmistakable rhythms of poetry create a resonant series of images that do not break ranks with the precision of prose.
Todorovic’s fiction debut deserves the same acclaim as Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game, a novel that took readers on an equally compelling descent into a war zone.