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Ex-Yu

by Josip Novakovich

In his new book of stories, Josip Novakovich, who was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, presents a diverse, bracingly eccentric cast of characters. An essayist as well as author of the novel April Fool’s Day and three other story collections, Novakovich made the U.S. his home decades ago; he recently became a Canadian citizen and now lives in Montreal. But his imagined worlds remain fuelled by a powerful connection to his Yugoslav heritage.

Josip Novakovich Ex-Yu October 2015The story “White Moustache” features a boy of 15 who visits a relative known for his reminiscences about the horrors of the Second World War. Uncle Branko offers a rambling yarn that includes spirit visitations, buried bones, and two doomed brothers dragooned by Fascist and Partisan armies. “Honey in the Carcase” fast-forwards to the wars of the 1990s as villagers endure weeks of intermittent shelling. Ivan risks his life to continue caring for his beehives and the precious source of nourishment their stores of honey provide. His wife, Estera, is hit by shrapnel and hovers near death; Ivan’s carpenter brother presents him with a gift of two homemade coffins, “[o]ne for Estera and one for you.” This from a man, Ivan recalls, who once spent his days “making tambourines and singing.” In an arresting final paragraph, the sustaining bees serve as a deadly weapon.

“Dutch Treat” is a standout. In pre-9/11 Manhattan, a former Dutch peacekeeper is recognized by a flower seller, a Bosnian Muslim who knew him during his time with the UN Protection Force in Srebrenica. Novakovich concisely revisits the UN failure that condemned more than 8,000 Muslims to death at the hands of Serb General Ratko Mladic, then ramps up to a smartly plotted, morally intricate take on the relativity of guilt and innocence, culminating with a solid dig at the ethical quagmire of the War on Terror.

Other stories are reminders that untimely death stalks us in peacetime too. In post-Yugoslav Croatia, Davor learns he has lung cancer. When treatment brings a reprieve, a package trip to tourist-crammed Jerusalem boosts his wife’s faith while tipping him into despairing rage. The story takes us deep inside Davor’s inner world, to the very moment of his ungentle death.

Novakovich’s imagination roams freely across the scarred territory of ethnicity. In “Heritage of Smoke,” a Serb refugee dodges NATO bombs in a bleak suburb of Belgrade, where rural Serbs driven out of Croatia are “government ghettoised.” Even menus in the cafés seem intent on erasing his treasured peasant identity.

Slobodan Milosevic gets a ruthlessly barbed parable all his own, set at the war crimes tribunal in the Hague. Arrogant and dangerously hypertensive, his prison musings end abruptly on the floor of his cell. “He heard thunder … guessed that his heart had exploded, and he was right.”

A story of soccer hero worship ends in darkly comedic violence, while another tale expertly fulfills Novakovich’s deep-seated satiric impulse, turning a Tito-era plane hijacking into political vaudeville. In “Remote Love,” inventor Nikola Tesla is delightfully reanimated as a high-voltage sex guru who seduces bored housewives at dinner parties.

One or two entries fall short. In “Acorns,” a Croatian-American journalist on self-
assignment to a Serb-run  prison camp ends up being held and gang raped. After her release, she implausibly encounters the journalist husband she’d left in New York soldiering with a Muslim unit. Together they become warriors for the cause. Filled with battleground action and spikes of atrocity, the story feels stuck between black satire and stark realism.

The book closes with a striking allegory of xenophobia. A Mexican and an American chart a course from California to Peru on a stolen boat. In a gruesome climax, one of them becomes dinner. It’s a spectacular wind-up to a consistently intriguing collection.