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Miljenko Jergović: Dvori od oraha (Walnut Mansion)

On the fifth of April, 1905, at precisely four in the afternoon, a child was born. This book follows the entire life (ninety-seven years) of that child, Regina Delavale. However, the book does not open with that sentence. Indeed, it appears virtually on the last page.

This may well be Jergović’s masterpiece, a long and complicated novel about the former Yugoslavia as well as a certain amount before and after it was Yugoslavia. We follow the story of Regina Delavale, born in 1905 and who dies in 2002. However, we do not follow her from her birth to her death but from her death to her birth. According to the introduction to the book, this approach, while not common, is not unique.

While we are, in theory, following Regina, we are getting two other things. Firstly, Regina is a fairly ordinary woman but had what might be described as the misfortune to live in a region that saw huge upheavals in the twentieth century and many of these upheavals inevitably affect her. Jergović does not hold back on the various issues.

Secondly, while we are nominally following Regina, we also follow a large number of people associated with Regina, mainly though certainly not always related to her. At times, Regina seems to temporarily disappear from the story, only to reappear later.

Naturally, the story starts with her death which is not an easy death. Indeed, this book has lots of grim episodes. Her daughter Dijana, starts off by asking Can you imagine what it’s like to watch your own mother turn into a monster, into a freak? Regina is living with Dijana but not only has lost her mind but has become very violent and abusive. The medical authorities are reluctant to take her – Dijana has to bribe the ambulance driver. At the hospital, they give her tranquillisers which seems to have no effect till eventually, they give her too much.

Dijana had been engaged to Vid Kraljev who had wooed her unsuccessfully for some time. He gets her pregnant – twins – but Vid, who is working as the assistant to a famous photographer, is killed in a car accident the day Tito dies and never meets his children. Dijana had had numerous relationships and has also tried to commit suicide. She had first run away from home (aged twenty-five) when she met a Bosnian man. It does not work out but it is Regina who gets her back through the help of a very expensive private detective. Regina’s view is that all men were after her daughter (There was an entire male world in Regina’s head, picturesque as Godard’s Paris, in which every man’s ultimate goal was to spray his semen wherever he went, and, if possible, inside her child.)

It is not all about Dijana. Regina welcomes technological progress (Regina didn’t differ from the majority of Yugoslav women who thought that the change from semi-automatic washing machines to those that had a built-in programmer was the greatest social advance since the Second World War.)

She also has brothers and we follow their lives. One is killed in the Spanish Civil War. Bepo fights for the partisans in the war but suffers from what we know as post-traumatic stress disorder and ends up in an asylum but manages to survive (just) thanks to his doctor, Dr Hoffmann, whose life story we also get. Đuzepe, almost accidentally, becomes a tavern owner while his brother Đovani, unknown to both of them, only a few miles away, joins the Chetniks, whose speciality is slaughtering Muslims and Catholics. Neither will survive the war. Like many of the people in this book, their death will not be easy.

Regina’s marriage was not a particularly happy one, not helped by the fact she learns of her husband’s death in the United States only by chance and whose extramarital activities she also learns about.

Moving back we meet, Kata her mother (whose death is also not very pleasant). Various characters in this book have odd mild obsessions. Regina herself, for example, will become very upset by the Hindenburg disaster while her mother will become very upset by the death of Isadora Duncan, of whom she had not heard till after her death, and even feels that she could have saved Duncan from her also unpleasant death. Rudolf Valentino is adored by all the woman in Dubrovnik. When he dies, the local priest preaches against him, saying that he was Satan. All the women, except for a few very elderly ones, walk out of the church, to the shock of the priest and their menfolk.

Kata has a difficult life, not least because her husband, Rafo, seems to be in an eternal slumber. He spends all his spare time, sorting his nails into various sizes, something that could be done by anyone else in a couple of hours but he seems to spend a lifetime over it and never completes the task. A soothsayer tells her that she needs to take charge and she does, essentially raping him every night. He is compliant but it is she who goes on top while he watches her breasts bounce up and down. He remains surprised that they only produce six children (Lino dies in the Spanish flu epidemic, aged three). He even tries suicide but cannot manage that. It is not the first time that he has tried to kill himself.

Like many of the characters, Rafo has an interesting life but the interesting bit for him occurs early in his life, with the rest of his life being very boring (counting nails…). He is unaware of his daughter’s devotion to him. In the uninterrupted history of Rafo Sikirić’s solitude the only exception was his daughter Regina. On the day of his death, on the twelfth of February, 1924, she was the only one who really lost anything because only Regina liked him as he was. Everyone else had washed their hands of Rafo at one time or another.

The book ends, of course, with her birth and, in particular with the explanation for the title. When August Liščar learns that Kata is pregnant (Regina is the first of the six children to be born and the last to die) he builds a small house out of walnut and christens it The Walnut Mansion, even making a little wooden girl to live there. He woke up the little wooden girl and placed her in front of the gate. She was happy forever and ever. Only she wasn’t.

The history of Yugoslavia, as Yugoslavia, before Yugoslavia, when it was partially in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and partially in the Ottoman Empire, and after it was Yugoslavia, has not been a pretty one. Invasions, internecine wars and internal repression have been the rule rather than the exception. Although Jergović does not make a great deal of the world wars and the post break-up wars, they do appear and several of the key characters die during these wars, usually very unpleasantly. However, even in between the wars or when the wars are not on the doorstep, the main characters suffer a lot, from romantic and personal failures, from violence, from dreams being shattered, from the death of friends and family, from psychological breakdowns and traumas and from poor choices in life. It is safe to say that, apart from the little wooden girl, none of the characters has a happy life. Of course Jergović is making the point that not only the people of Yugoslavia and its pre- and post- manifestations but also the country/countries have not had happy lives. The focus may be on Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Jergović comes from, but does cover the rest of Yugoslavia.

As well as invasions and political upheaval, one of the big issues is the fact that the region contains many different nationalities, both those indigenous to the region and those that come in, and, of course different religions, particularly Christian and Muslim, as well as the variations of those two religions. Of course, they clash. Bosnia had been part of the Ottoman Empire and was primarily Muslim and there is considerable antipathy to the Turks/Muslims on the part of the Christians, as we saw with the Chetniks. However, the Ustaše play a role and they go after the Jews and Roma. Ordinary people are caught up in this to a great extent.

Regina may be the only girl of the family, with five brothers, but the focus tends to be more on the women than the men, even if the men do play a role. Inevitably, it is the women who suffer most when the social and political order breaks down and Jergović clearly shows it though, as with men, the women can at times be their own worst enemies.

It certainly is a monumental epic. What makes it interesting for us, i.e. those not from the region, is the various highly colourful stories about the different characters, most of which, sad to say, do not end well. Jergović has a vivid imagination though, presumably, has also seen a lot in his life, particularly during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and he is not going to hold back and nor does he. The book has, of course, appeared in other languages before it appeared in English but Yale’s excellent Margellos World Republic of Letters has given us many excellent but relatively obscure works and this is a welcome addition to their list.

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Durieux
First English publication in 2015 by Yale University Press
Translated by Janja Pavetić-Dickey