“The worst part is realizing you can’t open the door from the inside,” was the first thing she said.
War, displacement, emigration, ethnic cleansing… Vukovar, a city in Croatia, saw one of the biggest battles since 1945 in Europe with the siege by the (JNA) with support by paramilitary from Serbia. Croatian soldiers and citizens were outnumbered but defended against the Serbians, the battle was bloody and ended in people being killed or thrown out of Vukovar. You can go further back in history with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, the tensions didn’t simply begin with the Yugoslav Wars. Ivana Bodrožić was born in Vukovar, lived there until her own father disappeared then she and her family moved to a refugee hotel in Kumrovec. Though this is a fictional story of an unnamed city, the events within are based on actual historical events that touched the author’s own life. I asked my father, who escaped his homeland of Hungary as a young child during communist occupation, a lot of questions about the creation and history of Yugoslavia. He knows a lot more than me about the division between people there than I can even comprehend. This novel deals with the aftermath from nationalism and those who wanted independence, the splitting apart of Yugoslavia and how it effected the next generation. It is what remains after children grew up segregated, Serbian and Croatian, what happened during ‘peaceful reintegration’ when the rubble was cleared away and what clearly remains are the ruins within the hearts and souls of the people. Can you simply unite after the bones of your family has been cleared away? People long for a reckoning after every horror and humiliation has been committed against them and their loved ones. The anger stays after being expelled, imprisoned… What happens to rumored criminal networks? When “gangsters gain legal footing” for their businesses? Money, blood, and power. The people were left to suffer from political and economical damage long after the war ended.
In the middle, always, are the children trying to move forward into a future where division has been set by the adults. Dejan is a perfect example of cultural identity and who you claim allegiance to.
Nora Kirin is a journalist chasing a story, and a juicy one at that, at least for those hungry for tabloid fodder. It began with a sordid affair that ended in a murder, but it is a political fire too. Kristiana is a Croatian- language teacher at the general and vocational high school working with ethnic Serbian students. Her Croat husband Ante (a war veteran, formerly in a prison camp) has been murdered by her lover, seventeen-year-old Dejan. Dejan is a Serbian, whose Grandfather was one of the Chetnik leaders. The salacious story is already making the rounds, a woman seducing a teen to kill for her, “one of theirs”. Nora would far rather expose the system, like the dirty Mayor but is resolved to do her best with her current assignment. What she wants is to tell the woman’s (now a prisoner) side of the story, not just continue to smear her. Her work and this city is taking her back to the past, remembering what she’d rather forget, like the disappearing children from her heavy youth. She must seek out people to interview, despite her discomfort moving through the city streets and every memory it evokes. In interviewing the victim mother, one can grasp the sentiment behind “one of ours” and “one of theirs” that isn’t erased, despite the push for unity, integration. When the war ended, new battles would eventually ensue amongst the people, often through political manipulations , of course. Children of all ages are divided at daycare and school by fencing, Serbs one side Croats on the other. Brigita is the high school principal with bigger ambitions also tied to Kristina’s story, the corrupt mayor and bribery. There are singers who ‘toy with politics’, a PTA president who is a ‘self-appointed guardian of ethnic identity’, a friendly taxi driver Marko-whose story about life in the city during the war engages Nora, a philosophical poet, and many people who have dabbled in the war with no “proof” of any crimes committed. Those in power do not take kindly to being publicly disgraced. The love triangle murder she is covering may well become an “interethnic conflict”. But it is the pursuit of truth, for her father, she is most concerned with.
This is a place where their entire world, for all the people involved, has collapsed even down to their very language. Nora is warned to stay away from dangerous men, who destroy everything, but she has to know why her father was murdered, who did it, regardless of her own well being. Not even the light of blossoming love can stop her from getting justice. What she doesn’t know is so much worse than she can imagine. Everyone is strangely intertwined. A turn of fate, helping someone can lead to more suffering. Unimaginable suffering. “Everything is linked to everything else,” even things that seem inconsequential and so much of it is a part of the war.
You have to pay attention, there are connections you will miss if you don’t read closely. It might help you to research about the wars in the 1990’s in what was once Yugoslavia. Some wanted to keep it a country, others wished to become separate countries. Reading different sides is truly only going to give you a basic understanding as an outsider. The line I quoted is brilliant too, ‘you can’t open the door from the inside’, because it’s hard to comprehend war at all, or even ourselves and everything that happens when we are in the midst of it. Those who are in the war have far more experience, but may not necessarily be able to make much sense of it either. A whole generation can be destroyed by bloodshed. Childhood, community, family, innocence, the future- all of it swept from beneath your feet. War makes prisoners of us all. Yet there are still things worth fighting for, aren’t there? For Nora at least.
Publication Date: April 20, 2021
Seven Stories Press