Made in Yugoslavia
By Vladimir Jokanovic
Translated by Zeljana Zovko and Cathy Porter
Ah, we're already nostalgic for the little wars of the nineties, especially the colorful Balkan popups, with their quaint rituals and goofy flags. Remember those warm breezy days when the Balkans were popping with small-arms fire? Remember how avidly the lovable hairy villagers returned to their ancient customs, supressed by the commies? Remember those warmhearted village-to-village ambushes all day every day, except when the slivovitz hangovers made them sensitive to loud noises? It was a triumph of the human spirit, the way they nourished their village snobbery, kept it bubbling at throat-slitting temperature, through the dark years of Tito's peace.
Novels will be revisiting these little brushfire wars for decades, now that we're entering a phase of big no-fun 1914-style warfare. Stock in Ustashi and Chetnik will be rising every time a Cleveland strip mall gets mustard-gassed, or a bazaar in Karachi jumps to the new beat of an arclight strike. We'll turn off the news and dream of the good old days, when buses from Hamburg and Essex let even the budget-priced tourist have a glimpse of T-62s rumbling through the orchards of Panonia.
This novel is a piece of already-belated war tourism, set in a Croatian border town. It follows three laddish -- very laddish -- guys who just want to drink beer and play Pogues covers in their bad band, as they are sucked down into ethnic savagery. It's pleasant enough, taken as a piece of war tourism. There's some decent comedy and more local color than a food tour of Tuscany.
The only problems are the unintentional comedy of this English translation, and the fact that the author wasn't content to tell funny stories from his quaint, tiny war but felt he had to glue on a big surprise ending, with attendant "moral" on the evils of what the newspapers call "ethnic strife."
The funny thing about "ethnic strife" -- well, actually there are lots and lots of funny things about it; as the feller says in the joke, "Amn't I the luckiest Arab in all Belfast!" -- but the very funniest of all these funny things is the fact that the Arendt essaysists, the Norton-Anthology philosophes, have somehow managed to cow people ("cow" as a verb here, though the noun is also a good fit) into the absurd notion that "ethnic strife" is an anomaly.
Let's be clear: "ethnic strife" is the norm, and the closest thing to a "universal human value" one can discover, with the possible exception of that other alleged anomaly, "Patriarchy." If you put those things together -- "patriarchy" plus "ethnic strife" -- you have the ingredients of every single human culture ever studied. It's the peace-and-solidarity vendors, Voltaire's children, who are the anomaly, a tiny minority who have somehow claimed the norm.
So here's this young Balkan novelist, trying to do his best to write some funny scenes of a hungover village war, but desperate to get published in the West. He can't just tell it the way it happened. He has to tag on a moral about how wrong, how evil, how un-nice it is. And Vladimir does so, by borrowing the schlock ending of an old Irish Civil-War story, "The Sniper." In that story, a sniper wins a long duel on the rooftops of Dublin only to discover that his opponent, whom he's just killed, is... HIS BROTHER! Oh Jaysus Mary and the Other One, if that's not high tragedy then I'm a hairy baboon in the Phoenix Park!
If it was good enough for Dublin, it's good enough for Osijek, the little Croatian town where most of the novel is set. But Vladimier doesn't simply borrow O'Connor's lachrymose device; he updates it, via a gender switch. He sums up the 80 years of cultural change between Dublin 1920 and Osijek 1990 by making the hero kill, not his brother, but... his GIRLFRIEND! Equal opportunity! Gender balance! Yes, the Serbian hero, Luka, ends up staring down at the Croatian commando he's just killed and realizing that it's... it's... Maria! Girl of his dreams and ranting psychotic Ustashe maniac! -- But still a good lay, you know? And not a bad girl, really, aside from her belief that Serbs are vermin to be extirpated ASAP.