Josip Novakovich: April Fool’s Day
There is a genre of novel coming out of Eastern Europe that consists of a tale of a man who is somewhat quirky, intelligent, perhaps, but certainly not too intelligent, who gets caught up in one of the many wars in the region – World War I, World War II or, more likely, the events occurring after the fall of the Soviet Union/Yugoslavia. He may well have been directly involved in one of these wars, albeit unwillingly, and may have committed atrocities in it, perhaps against his better judgement. He will probably have a relationship with a childhood sweetheart but it will not be smooth. He will drink heavily, have a series of equally quirky or even more quirky companions and have a series of adventures, most of which will be unpleasant. Novakovich’s book and hero, Ivan Dolinar, fit firmly into this mould.
Dolinar is born into Tito’s Yugoslavia. He is born on 1 April, as the title implies, though his father registers him as being born on 2 April to avoid the stigma of being an April fool. The novel consists of his picaresque adventures through Tito’s and post-Tito Yugoslavia and its successor states. That these countries are inefficient, chaotic, brutal and cruel is a given. Ivan is in trouble all the time, starting with his attempt, with his friend, to collect flags for Republic Day by stealing those in the public square and getting caught and culminating in his friend’s joke comment that he plans to assassinate Tito and getting them four years in prison. The prison sentence puts an end to Ivan’s aims of becoming a doctor. Even when Tito visits the prison with Mrs. Gandhi and speaks to Ivan, this does not help, though he does get out under what he assumes is a general amnesty a year later.
He is unable to resume his medical studies but can study philosophy. With the help of his brother, who is now working in Germany, he buys a house in Nizograd, where he moves. But this is when Yugoslavia starts to fall apart. Tito dies and Ivan, while planning, without much enthusiasm, on becoming a Croatian nationalist, finds himself drafted into the Yugoslav army. It is here that things take on a decidedly unpleasant tone, as all sides practice brutality. Ivan sees one of his fellow medical students (a Muslim Bosnian) crucified. His captain makes him execute a captured Croat, which he finally and very reluctantly does. When Ivan later finds the captain raping a woman who turns out to be Selma, Ivan’s childhood sweetheart, he kills the captain to rescue her. He finally manages to get away and returns to Nizograd where he finds a pregnant Selma. They marry and he agrees to bring up the baby – Tanya – who is presumably the captain’s but when she turns out to look like Ivan, he confesses that he raped Selma, after killing the captain, when she was unconscious.
With his marriage not doing well, he has a brief affair with the wife of the police chief, till he suddenly dies. Or seems to. The doctor determines that he is dead and proceeds to have sex with a not entirely unwilling Selma. Novakovich milks Ivan’s death for many pages, as the wake and funeral take place, while we know that Ivan is alive but unable to move and shows no sign of life. He is only finally rescued when a friend digs him up as he had heard that Ivan’s brother had buried valuables with the body. But, despite being seemingly alive, most people, his daughter and mother excepted, see him as a ghost, and it is as a ghost that he ends the book, presumably a not very subtle commentary on how Novakovich sees the various dismembered parts of Yugoslavia, Croatia in particular.
Apart from the ending – which recalls Elfriede Jelinek‘s Die Kinder der Toten [The Children of the Dead] and is an excellent touch – the book certainly is similar in tone to many other Eastern European novels, from Gogol’s Dead Souls to Saša Stanišić‘s Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Grim humour, a sense by the hero that he does not fit in anywhere and, indeed, is not sure where he should even start looking to fit in, brutality, often treated quite casually, i.e. taken for granted, a sense that there is no political structure that will be effective, a feeling by virtually all of the characters that all they can do is try and survive whatever political system they are under and a world that is continually falling apart or in danger of falling apart, are all part of Novakovich’s novel. It works pretty well, if not quite as well as some of its predecessors.
First published in 2004 by HarperCollins