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Ivana Bodrožić: Rupa (We Trade Our Night for Someone Else’s Day)
This novel is set in the Croatian city of Vukovar, Bodrožić’s home town. The city is not mentioned by name in the book but it is very clear that it is Vukovar. This is what the Wikipedia article linked says about the city: The city remains very divided, as a deeper sense of reconciliation has failed to take root. The ethnic communities remain separated by mistrust, divided institutions and disappointment. Separate schooling for Croat and Serb children remains in place. Incidents involving Croats and Serbs occur regularly, and public spaces have become identified not by the services they offer but by the ethnicity of those who gather there. Even coffee shops are identified as Croat or Serb. This is what this book about.
Bodrožić does not hold back about the huge mistrust between the ethnic communities, the extensive corruption and the past but very recent past history of brutality and cruelty. Bodrožić is Croatian so the Serbs come out worst but it is clear that the Croats are no saints either.
Our heroine is Nora Kirin, a journalist. While Bodrožić does focus on the political and ethnic problems in Vukovar and Croatia, she does raise other issues such as climate change and sexism. Nora is a victim of sexism. When there is a meeting, despite being a better and more senior journalist, she is sent to get the coffee. When good stories come up, they go to the men.
The assignment she has at the beginning of the novel is about a woman teacher who allegedly had her husband murdered by her schoolboy lover. The basic facts are known. She just has to find out more about the background of the woman. What she wants to do is to expose corruption at the top and the top means the mayor. She wants to expose the system, which stank like a fish from the head. That story is given to one of her male colleagues.
The woman teacher is called Kristina. We learn a lot about her background. She was married to Ante. He was a drunk and abusive. She taught Croatian to ethnic Serbs. Nora speaks to her in prison and learns how much she hated her husband. We learn of his history. In one of the many horrific events described, we learn of the Serbs capturing a large number of Croats, keeping them in inhumane conditions and torturing and killing them. Ante, it turns out, was one of the prisoners but he spied on his fellow Croats and told the Serbs, in order to get better food and save his skin.
As for Kristina, her father had left when she was still young and disappeared. He may have been dead but he may not. He was a Serb, her mother a Croat. She was now a teacher. However, she had written on her Facebook page a post encouraging people to attend a concert given by a pro-Croatian performer. This had caused a certain amount of resentment among the Serbs and it was clear that she was targeted. She was reprimanded by her boss, Brigita Arsovska, who herself had a colourful and insalubrious past. In addition, a Serbian nationalist, Mrs. Olivera Vujanovic, was after her. Mrs Vujanovic owned a local chain of butcher shops and apparently, in the war, her refrigerated vehicles were used for transporting bodies of Croats. Mrs Vujanovic was also the mother of Dejan, the boy Kristina has an affair with and who allegedly murdered Ante. We gradually learn the story of what really happened with Kristina, Ante and Dejan.
Brigita is another key player, with political ambitions. The mayor had phoned her up and her offered her various positions in return for her support. She had recorded his offer and made it public. This has caused a lot of problems for the mayor and may have cost him his job. However, he is not going quietly nor is he going to forgive Brigita and will plot his revenge.
At the same time, we are following Nora’s wanderings round the city. She meets various people some of whom are relevant to her story but others who clearly are not or, rather, they are often involved, directly or indirectly, in the wider corruption story and/or the exposure of war crimes.
What seems to be clear is that Nora could be seen as a sort of Dante. She is wandering round the circles of hell and meets the various people condemned to these circles. She even has her Virgil, a taxi driver called Marko (who is a Serb who fought – unwillingly – in the war), who keeps popping up and guiding her around.
At the same time, she could be seen as a sort of Leopold Bloom. Her name is Nora which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the name of Joyce’s wife. The Danube is to her and the city what the Liffey was to Joyce and Dublin. Like Bloom she explores her city.
Nora has another issue. As with Bodrožić, Nora’s father died during the war and was almost certainly murdered. We gradually learn what happened. Nora, not surprisingly, wants justice and, with the help of Marko, believes she can find who was responsible.
This is a grim book, though very well written. We see a large number of deaths, all violent. Corruption is rampant, often on an industrial scale. The politicians are thoroughly dishonest. Yes, I know, so are many politicians elsewhere but, again, these seem to worse. Not only are they systematically corrupt, both in the sense that they do it all the time and also because there does not seem to be a single honest politician, they also freely indulge in blackmail, violence and murder to achieve their ends. However,as you live by the sword, so shall you die by the sword. No-one comes out happy by the end of the book. If they have not been murdered – and various key characters have been murdered – things have not worked out as planned.
Bodrožić’s father was killed in the war and she and her mother had to flee. It is therefore quite understandable that she is bitter. As the Wikipedia article mentioned above shows, Vukovar is not a pleasant place to live and ethnic tensions remains and, as the article delicately puts it, incidents continue to occur.
First published in 2016 by Naklada Ljevak-24sata
First English publication in 2021 by Seven Stories Press
Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać