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Miljenko Jergović: Rod (Kin)

Jergović calls this a family novel and, yes, I suppose it is. However, it is the story of his (very) extended family, spreading out across Central Europe. We have actually already seen some of then, fictionalised in his novels, but here we meet them in the flesh.

The poor little country of Bosnia, where nearly 90 percent of the people in the 1920s and ’30s were illiterate, where epidemics of typhus and cholera would take over with alarming frequency, and where an endemic syphilis ravaged generation upon generation without respite, like some kind of evil tradition is the focus, of course, and the maternal great-grandfather of our narrator, who actually came from Banat (a region of Central Europe), describes it as the ideal place to be living. Opapa (Karlo is his name) was and remained a German speaker and would only speak German to his children, though he could and did speak Croatian and Slovenian.

Though we follow the stories (mini-novels) of numerous people – he claims fifty-two of the Stublers (the surname of Karlo and his descendants) but there are also numerous friends and neighbours, the focus can be said to on five people who put in an appearance, temporarily, give way to others, before returning – on multiple occasions. The five are the author himself, his mother, Javorka, her parents – Franjo Rejc and his wife Olga, and Mladen, their son and Javorka’s brother, whom she barely knew. Mladen does appear in the novel but not as much as the others but his life or, more particularly, his death, is key to the book. However, the book is as much as about Javorka as anyone else and, indeed, ends with her death in 2012.

One of the key aspects of the story is the multinational/cultural aspect of the region. Bosnia had been under the sway of various others – the Ottomans, Austro-Hungary, Germany (the Nazis), Yugoslavia and then its current independence via a very unpleasant war. All of this meant a profusion of ethnic groups – various Slavs and Austrians but also Turks and Jews. It also meant a profusion of languages. Franjo, for example, speaks Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, German,French, Italian, Hungarian, Romanian and, at the age of seventy, started learning English. (Though he’s been dead for forty years, this sort of united Europe was my grandfather’s true homeland). Our narrator claims to be a Bosnian Croat and, when the Balkan Wars started in the 1990s, he moved to Zagreb from Sarajevo, where he suffered some racist abuse. (My mistake lies in imagining a unified Europe as a completed and modernized Austria-Hungary, the land in which our kind old king and emperor deemed on principle that he should know all the languages of his monarchy.)

Franjo and Olga – he refers to them throughout the book as Nono and Nona, i.e. grandpa and grandma – met when she was seventeen and the narrator surmises she may have been pregnant when they were married. They had two sons, Mladen being the oldest, born in 1923. Then, in 1942, Javorka, the author’s mother, was born.

During this period the area was the Independent State of Croatia, a very right-wing puppet state of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It is possible that Olga may have wanted to have an abortion but, under the then current laws, that would have been a capital offence, so Javorka was born. Seventeen months later Mladen was faced with two choices – join the Partisans or join the Germans. His mother felt he would be safer with the Germans so he joined them. His father had favoured the Partisans. On a routine patrol, they were attacked by the Partisans. Mladen hid behind a haystack while his comrades hid behind a wall. He made a run to the wall as he thought it would be more secure. He did not make it. He was the first and last person to be killed. Several days later the entire unit together with its commander joined the Partisans.

Olga never really got over his death. Indeed, she took it out on Javorka. Why did she survive and her darling son die? This, not surprisingly, had a profound effect on Javorka. Like her mother, she married early. Her husband, the narrator’s father, was a doctor. They married quickly and she became pregnant. Before our author was born they had separated. They never lived together. However, they did remain married for a while. Our author was brought up by his grandparents and mother and father visited sporadically.

The father – Dobroslav – plays a very minor role in this book post-procreation of the author. However, not surprisingly our author has a somewhat complex relationship with his mother, particularly after his move to Zagreb. She elects to stay in Sarajevo which was, of course, very dangerous at that time. She had several health problems, so he would phone regularly and also occasionally visit, not least to extract information from her for this book.

As well as all the other complexities of life, the Mladen episode shows that the various wars had a huge influence on the family, friend and neighbours. For example, at the end of World War II, Karlo was arrested as a German and and was to be deported. However, he had saved several Serbs from the Germans, so the neighbours came and demanded his liberation. The Partisans resisted but the next day he was sent home and never bothered again.

The Balkan Wars of the 1990s were worse. It seemed people took pleasure in all these animosities and antagonisms. This too was nothing new: there is no sensation as overwhelming and fulfilling as hatred, and nothing other than hatred can go so quickly from being a private to a public emotion…Croatia truly became a land of hatred. This hatred was for the most part directed inward, toward aspects of the country’s own society and, in turn, its own culture, history, identities, languages…

While a lot of the book is about the wars and their impact on the inhabitants, there is a lot about other aspects. As mentioned, we have numerous stories of his relatives, friends and neighbours. Some are very funny. Some are very sad. All of them are excellent, colourful mini-novels. Some if them are about real people. Many writers, for example, are mentioned. These include writers such as David Albahari, Ivo Andrić, Branko Ćopić, Miloš Crnjanski, Davorin Gubijan, Danilo Kiš, Miroslav Krleza, Meša Selimović and many more, some unnamed, many simply unknown, to me but also to Google.

From baking to beekeeping,from Satan to citizenship, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to war, famine, and poverty, Jergović covers the gamut of a hundred year period, a variety of languages, nationalities, religions, historical events and famous and ordinary people, in many cases only connected by geography though all connected by his telling of their stories in a thoroughly novelistic manner.

Are his stories ‘true’ stories? He gives a novelist’s answer: There are no stories that deal with so-called true events. There are only true and untrue stories, actual and invented.

So is it all factual? I did not invent anything in that novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely true. She invented a bit, lied, or narrated things as they seemed to her. I didn’t touch any of her skilful lies. But there are not so many. Fact or invented, this is a superb family novel. Jergović has the skill of a novelist in telling stories of often ordinary people and making them interesting, funny, sad, tear-jerking, colourful, lively and thoroughly original. The book is eight hundred pages along but I was not bored for a minute,

Publishing history

First published in 2013 by Drugo izdanje
First English publication in 2021 by Archipelago
Translated by Russell Scott Valentino