How do you simply cover the “history” of Yugoslavia in a short book review? In short, you don’t, however given the war in Slovenia started twenty four years ago, as did the Croatian War of Independence, and the conflicts resulted in the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, these events are items in the history books for young readers. Methinks, a little background is required.
Yugoslavia was made up of six socialist republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, within Serbia there were also two autonomous provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodnia. Our novel is set in a few places across the former Yugoslavia, with the main action happening in Ljubljana, where our young protagonist now lives, the Capital of Slovenia. Author Goran Vojnović, graduated from the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television in Ljubljana and he has won all the major Slovene literary awards with is bestselling debut novel “Southern Scum go Home!”, a film director as well as a writer for a Slovene daily newspaper, Vojnović is a celebrated Slovene.
Our novel is narrated in the first person and commences with recollections of childhood, his time as an eleven year old with an idolisation of his father, Nedelko Borojević, recalling the day where is dad was ‘seconded’ and took him to the local markets for buy a super-hero toy, at that time an extravagance. We then jump forward sixteen years and learn that our narrator’s father is not dead, but is in hiding, slowly the layers are peeled back and we learn of his father’s connection to wartime atrocities: “I knew even less about what had happened there, [Višnjići] on the night of 3 November 1991, at a time when Dusha and I were already living in Ljubljana.” As the picture becomes clearer we learn of our narrator’s, Vladan, removal from his own family history. His father is a wanted war criminal; his idol is not an idol at all:
The information on what exactly had happened at Višnjići was sparse, even online. There was probably a lot more detail in Croatian newspapers back in the 90’s, and certainly there were people around who knew a lot about it, but I had no idea who to ask, and how much they might want to tell. From what I had managed to piece together I knew that on 13 November 1991, the Third Corps of the Yugoslav People’s Army, under the command of General Borojević, looted and burnt down the village of Višnjići, near Vukovar. In the process, they had murdered thirty-four unarmed villagers, including children, women and old men. They had bured the bodies in a mass grave that had been found in the forest a few kilometres away. I also learned that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia had issued an indictment from The Hague against Nedelko Borojević years ago, but that he was still at large. The court charged him with a commander’s responsibility for the war crimes perpetrated in Višnjići. In the course of my search, I also cam across a number of theories about where the runaway General Borojević might be hiding in the vast territory of the Serbian Entity, and how he, like may Hague defendants, was being protected by members of Serbia’s secret intelligence service. In the comments section below one article, someone claimed that Borojević had been living in a fortified house in the vicinity of Užice, southern Servia, for years. Other anonymous commentators upheld this theory, and added that his protection was by direct order of the political elite of Serbia, and was well-known among foreign intelligence services, being the responsibility of the Serbian army.
Our novel shifts in time between Vladan’s youth and his current day search for his father and the further we progress the more we learn of a disintegrating family, told the innocent childhood eyes and the eyes of a bitter young adult. However this is not simply a tale of a single person searching for his family roots, it is also a struggle with identity, a human who has been constantly misplaced, uprooted from his lands, a cultural identity that has been constantly destroyed and reformed, a person where even language and your name can brand your identity, where your mother tongue isn’t spoken where you land:
I started looking around and quickly determined that there were two types of houses in Bosnia: new buildings that looked as though their owners has ordered them from a catalogue of discount Chinese building parts, and then the beautiful old Bosnian houses, with their regular shapes and subtle colors. But those in the last category were falling apart, their roofs and load-bearing facades barely holding them together. The Bosnian world was irreversibly divided: the poor in the beautiful houses, the rich in alien, ugly ones. The sense of Aesthetics of the ruling elite revealed the direction in which that elite would be taking this unfortunate country.
“Yugoslavia, My Fatherland” is a subtle view on the deterioration of a nation, the racial hatred, the division, and the remnants of a country after the war:
‘After all this, I’m only sorry about my old man, who built this country with his bare-hands. I’m glad he died before he could see the scum he’d built all those bridges, schools, and hospitals for. The scum he left all this to. They lived among us all those years, smiled at us in our Tito’s Pioneers uniforms, waved flags but, in the end, they couldn’t wait for it all to end, so they could fight with each other. Fuck them, motherfucking fuckers…’
This novel alludes to the atrocities of the war but doesn’t wallow in the details, a story of a nation that has a troubled past, a family history that is forever changing, rejection, acceptance, ignoring, and at the same time forgiving. Our story is not only Vladan’s search for his identity, nor his search for his father, nor a search for truth, it is also a story of a nation.
‘It’s been fifteen years since the war. What I was doing then, that’s no one’s business. Even today, smart-asses have no clue who was the hero and who was a criminal in that war, and nobody has any business asking me who I know or don’t know. We should forget everything, especially you youngsters who don’t have a clue what went on there, to whom and why. It’s been fifteen years, and it should be prohibited to talk about this, ‘cause people only say nonsense, and only those who weren’t there and didn’t see anything talk. War was war. That was another planet. Nobody can understand that. You were there or you weren’t. Nothing else matters. If you were there, then everything’s clear to you and you don’t ask questions. If you weren’t there, you dont have the right to ask anything. Get it?’
As per Vladan’s search for his father and the ‘truth’ behind his war crimes, we have the lingering question of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, victim or aggressor?
A wonderfully insightful look at that period of history in a subtle, yet tormenting work, a book that takes the struggle of identity and truth and aligns a nation to a family history, yet another gem from Istros Books, an independent publishing house who specialise in works from South East Europe.
Copy courtesy of Istros Books.