Miljenko Jergović: Buick Riviera [Buick Riviera]
Hassan Houidour is a Bosnian man who has been in the United States for twenty years and currently lives in Toledo,Oregon. He works as a cameraman. He is married to Angela, an actress. It is not a particularly happy marriage. Hassan has one real love and it is not Angela. It is his Buick Rivera. He saw it in a supermarket car park, tracked down the owner and bought it for eight hundred dollars cash. He lavishes a lot of attention on it. Angela hates the car, not least because of the high cost of its fuel consumption, but also because most people she knows drive Japanese cars.
Hassan spends much of his spare time at the Alhambra Bar. The bar is owned by a Spanish painter. José. He made a lot of money painting in Spain but had had enough of his thirty million compatriots so he came to the United States. He picked Toledo, Oregon as he was sure it would be better than the Toledo in Spain.
He is an erratic owner, as he does not need the money. If he does not like you, he will refuse to serve you. If he is tired he will suddenly close the bar, regardless of the time. Fortunately he has taken to Hassan and Hassan’s best, indeed only friend, Piero Manigno.
Piero and Hassan play what, in the French text, is called billiards but may well be pool. They play the best of ten. Either Piero wins all the ten games or Hassan does. If Hassan is rowing with Angela, he always wins. If he is not or she is away on tour, he always loses.
Hassan is not working at the moment and Angela works late at her rehearsals, usually getting a lift back. Hassan, however, volunteers one day to go and pick her up at 3 a.m, and then take her to an all-night hamburger place. It all goes horribly wrong. First the car won’t start and then he skids off the road into a ditch.
He is not the only Bosnian on the road. Vouko Salipour is a Serb. Hassan left because he saw the trouble coming and wanted to avoid it. Vouko was very much involved in the war. Indeed, he is clearly a war criminal. When the war looked like ending and he was going to be on the wrong side he headed for the US Embassy in Belgrade, pleading innocence and the risk of being killed by his neighbours (which was true but because of his guilt, not innocence). He and many other Bosnians had to wait some time in a camp and he was afraid of being recognised, not least because there was an old, blind man there who had looked after him as a child but whom he had helped abuse during the war.
Vouko gets away, marries Liz, daughter of a banker. He is really after US citizenship, which he gets. Things go no better for Vouko in his marriage than they do for Hassan in his, though for very different reasons. Vouko is aggressive and bullying. When he kills a puppy which had defecated in his slipper, they have a huge row and Vouko takes $15000 he has hidden and Liz’s Mercedes and leaves.
On the journey, he sees a car in a ditch and, despite his history, he feels a responsibility to travellers in distress. He tries to pull Hassan’s car out of the ditch but fails. He does, however, give Hassan a lift to meet the angry and cold Angela. The two men talk and we see how different they are. Hassan is shy and reserved and, as we learn, fearsome since he was a child. Vouko is the opposite, a loudmouth, full of himself and not afraid of anyone, even his father-in-law who, he feels, will have by now mobilised the police to find his daughter’s car.
Indeed, at this point we learn the back stories of all three protagonists. Hassan is always fearful with a ferocious grandmother, saying various people, in turn, are Satan, including, in particular her daughter-in-law, Hassan’s mother. We learn the details of Vouko’s wartime exploits though he comments that the Serbs and Bosnians never hated one another like the people do in the US. He states that there was more hate shown by his father-in-law to the Puerto Rican concierge than he had ever seen in the war. Angela, who is German, had been sent away by her father while her mother was dying and she has remained bitterly resentful about this.
Vouko tries to pull Hassan’s Buick out of the ditch but with no success so he offers to take Hassan to Salem, where Angela is waiting for him. They have a discussion about the war (though not about Vouko’s role) and their differences become apparent. Vouko offers to drive Hassan and Angela back to Toledo but, though he now finds he has lost his wallet, Hassan declines. He finds Angela, freezing and bitter, and they take the bus back. Meanwhile, Vouko has driven the same way and he sees Hassan’s wallet on the front seat of the car, picks it up and decides to take it back to Hassan in Toledo. They meet at the Alhambra, where the four men – Vouko, Hassan, Piero and José – get drunk. Angela had told Hassan to invite Vouko back to lunch, though she is a terrible cook. She ends up ordering a Thai takeaway.
The differences between the two men become quickly apparent,with Hassan feeling that Vouko is Satan, a topic in which he is well-versed. Vouko clearly despises Hassan for being so weak-willed, particularly over his precious Buick. Indeed, Vouko offers to buy the car for a ridiculous amount of money, purely as a challenge to Hassan’s honour and pride. Hassan maintains that he would not sell it for any amount of money, also out of honour and pride. At this point each man makes a (different) major emotionally-driven decision, which completely changes their respective lives. It goes well beyond the car and the two decisions would be considered by most readers to be thoroughly irrational and ridiculous.
The six main characters in this novel – Vouko, Hassan, Angela, Piero, José and Al-Rahimi, who works with Angela and usually gives her a lift to and from the theatre and who is present at the final scene – are all immigrants to the United States. Jergović’s point is that we clearly carry our culture and upbringing with us wherever we go. Several times references are made to the differences between different people – Americans and Bosnians/Serbians, Serbians and the Spanish, Germans and Bosnians. In other words the main characters remain what they were born and do not change even after many years living abroad.
Of course, the main clash is between the Bosnian Muslim Hassan and the Bosnian Serb Vouko. Hassan is the low-key one. Angela says that she had never seen him argue till Vouko appeared. Outside his Buick Rivera and his low-key visits to the Alhambra – Piero seems as low-key as Hassan – Hassan does not seem to have any interests. Vouko was an ordinary bus driver for many years before the war. He was considerate to his passengers and well-liked. Not surprisingly, the war changed him. He is a bully, aggressive and macho. He still has some of the moral decency earned as a bus driver, as can he seen in his stopping to help Hassan, when he sees his car in the ditch, but proving himself seems to be important for him.
As you can see below, it has been translated into nine languages but not into English, though two of his other novels and a collection of his stories have been translated. I can see that this novel may not appeal to everyone. Those of us who consider ourselves more or less rational will be surprised by the ending, as the actions of Hassan and Vouko are not, at least by our standards, the actions of rational people. We have probably carried out irrational actions in our lifetime but not ones over a fairly trivial issue that has changed our life. However, one of the purposes of reading novels from other cultures is to learn that other people have different approaches to life from us and we certainly learn that here.
First published in 2002 by Durieux
No English translation
First Dutch publication as Buick Rivera by Cossee in 2008
Translated by Reina Dokter
First French publication as Buick Rivera by Actes Sud in 2004
Translated by Aleksandar Grujičić
First German publication as Buick Rivera by Schöffling in 2006
Translated by Brigitte Döbert
First Italian publication as Buick Rivera by Libri Scheiwiller in 2004
Translated by Ljiljana Avirović
First Spanish publication as Buick Rivera by Ediciones Siruela in 2005
Translated by Luisa Fernanda Garrido Ramos and Tihomir Pistelek
Also available in Finnish, Polish, Slovenian and Swedish