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Daša Drndić: Canzone di guerra

This novel is narrated by Tea Radan, though we do not learn her name till about half way through the book. As the blurb for the book rightly describes it, it is told in mosaic fashion, i.e. we get glimpses from Tea’s story, the stories of other nationals of the former Yugoslavia and an account by Tea about what went on in the region, particularly during and after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Language is key to the region and its writers the issue crops up in other books by writers from the region. I will mention Miljenko Jergović‘s Rod (Kin) as an obvious example but there are many more. We see here the usual issue between Serbs and Croats, between using Roman and Cyrillic script and issues when people move around. For example, when Tea moves to Rijeka (as did Drndić) she is told to tone down her Serbian accent. Using the wrong accent, the wrong script or the wrong language could, as Jergović tells us, get you killed. The issue also becomes important as some of them move to Canada and the fact that they do not speak English fluently is also an impediment, particularly for getting a job for which they are otherwise qualified.

Drndić gives a wonderful example of the language issue which I shall quote in full:
There’s little Lulu from Somalia. Her father speaks French, English and German, as does her mother. Her mother is not from Somalia but of half-Polish, half-Hungarian origin and she was born in America. She asks Lulu from Somalia: Qu’est-ce qu’ily a dans ta soupe? Lulu says: Il y a des carrotes, des pommes-de-terre, chicken and noodles and je veux un ice-cream maintenant. She asks the waiter: A glass ojvoda, please. Lulu’s not yet five. Everyone understands her.

Of course language is only one of the key issues post-Yugoslavia and Drndić/Tea gives us plenty of examples in the form of stories told by a host of characters. The issue of emigration to Canada is key, as many former Yugoslavs went there and had a variety of problems: money and jobs being paramount. Some people thought they were coming to the promised land, while others quickly realised that there were no promised lands. For all emigrants there is one key issue: Overnight you become a person without anything. A person without property, without money, without land. You have nothing. Most of the characters we meet are highly qualified but because of language or because their qualifications are not recognised by Canada, they end up doing menial jobs.

Our narrator Tea, and her daughter, Sara, have their problems and we see their struggles. Sometimes these are amusing as bureaucracy rears its ugly head. When applying for social security support, she has to indicate the father of her child. Either because she does not know or does want to reveal his identity, she comes up against an impasse, till she invents a man she calls Croaticus Magnus, of improbable dimensions.

Though we know about the Nazi camps, we tend to know less about what went on in Croatia and Drndić fills us in on some of the horrors of Croatia under the Nazis, including the Independent State of Croatia, which was anything but independent but a Nazi puppet state.

When she was in Canada, Tea researched what happened in Croatia but also, more generally, Nazi war criminals from that region. I discovered a lot of secrets, a lot of combinations, dark, political, religious, ideological, personal, to do with chess; spying, double and triple secret agents from all camps, secret police involved in dirty activities. There was fascism, there was communism and the bugbears of communism. Now, there is, supposedly, none of that, and all the filth of those times has been swept under the carpet. It is here, it is all here, hidden, transformed into democracy, which is not that. She maintains that Canada turned a blind eye to many Nazi war criminals for a long time.

Yes, she is critical of Eastern Europe under the Nazis but also critical of Communist Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslavia.

Today that Odyssey of the new socialist man is over. In great fury, sickened by himself and his own acceptance of the imposed alteration of his genealogical code, he reared up, he shouted, he destroyed towns, he forged himself a path to his mental pastures and now he is calm and ecstatic. He squats bewildered on the ashes of his past. Roast suckling pig and even roast turkey are things he only dreams of now. And yes, there is a long section on pigs and their importance to the local culture.

Canada is not a dream, Why did we come? We thought Canada was a country of great possibilities. I don’t know why no one told us the truth. But then nor is Croatia: Each time I come back to Croatia, I see that it is not the Croatia I left, that I am not the person who left.

We follow her story, along with her daughter Sara and also about her sister Lena and her daughter. All have their problems – money, jobs, bureaucracy, language, racism, fitting in. We learn of the awful jobs she has to do such as envelope stuffing and the difficulty of getting a rescue cat – the form she has to fill in takes up pages and pages. These and similar issues are treated with both a wry dose of humour but also a sense of frustration.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this might not have worked but Drndić cleverly mixes it all in so that we get an overall picture of her life, the many problems Croatia and Croatians have had to put up with, the problems of being an émigré, even in a country like Canada, as well as a few interesting digressions on such things as pigs, cats, the environment, do-gooders. She tells her stories well – the frustration, the bitterness, the horrors, the sadness, the evil, the incompetence but also the will to survive, a sense of humour, parental love and perhaps, somewhere, there is a light a the end of the tunnel.

First published in 1998 by Meandar
First English publication in 2022 by Istros
Translated by Celia Hawkesworth