Salvation and Other Disasters by Josip Novakovich
Paperback, 200 pages
Published by Graywolf
Publication date: May 1, 1998
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 4/21/1998
While the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia raged, while “ethnic cleansing” campaigns decimated entire towns and cities, while torture, brutal rapes, summary executions, and mass murder became commonplace, while an entire culture was dissected along ethnic lines and reconstructed as a no-man’s land where anarchy and authoritarianism ran hand in hand over the ravaged landscapes, most in Western Europe and America sat on their hands and shook their heads, saying “nothing can be done.” Through our media lens, in the U.S. we understood the troubles in the Balkan states as tribal conflicts, as the product of age-old ethnic hatreds. Trained by the Cold War to reduce every conflict to black and white, to good and evil, the Balkan War challenged our sensibilities. “We want to do something, but who are we to bomb?” Finding the white hats jumbled everywhere with the black, and no clear divisions, we did nothing until the battle had all but exhausted itself. After the genocide had waned, we moved in and proclaimed it our victory. We read our occupation itself as a form of salvation. Having let “these people” kill each other with impunity for years on end, we finally moved into the rubble and hoisted the NATO flag, policing borders which had not existed five years before, our act of charity towards the barbarians.
The American impulse towards war is to dehumanize it, to objectify it in quantifiable terms. In Vietnam, we were provided charts of body counts. In the Gulf War, we watched videotapes taken from smart bombs, surgical strikes from high in the clouds. When it is our war, it is a technological marvel. When it is somebody else’s war, it is the indecipherable brutality of the uncivilized upon their fellows. In Josip Novakovich’s latest collection of short stories, Salvation and Other Disasters, however, the author has done us the service of closing that comfortable distance, of demanding that we stand closer to the carnage, and recognize that what happened in the Balkans did not happen to faceless crowds of “Serbs” and “Croats” but to individual people, whose lives were forever altered by the conflict and its aftereffects.
In the world Novakovich presents us with in this volume, there are no white hats. It is a world after the fall, where everyone suffers from a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome that no dose of Prozac could ever cure. The narrator of the first story in the book, “Sheepskin,” is an unreliable tale-teller, a Croat survivor of a Serb invasion of the town of Vukovar. Tortured while in the hospital, he emerges from the ordeal physically healthy but psychologically malformed, obsessed with the idea of revenge. When he spots “Milos,” one of his former tormentors, on a train, he follows him and kills him. When he realizes that he may have killed the wrong man, he justifies it by reasoning that now he has even more reason to hate Milos, since he is now responsible for the death of this innocent double. The narrator then seduces the dead man’s wife, extending his violation to the family of the deceased. The victim here becomes the victimizer. In an atmosphere of distrust and dishonesty, he who was a sheep has now himself become the wolf, wearing sheep’s clothing.
These stories raise deep psychological questions which refuse simple answers. The distinctions between friend and enemy, between sin and circumstance, are completely muddled. In “Out of the Woods” what begins as a story of love and seduction between a war widow and an eye doctor turns into a tale of abiding distrust. After Dena’s new husband hears that she had to prostitute herself in order to survive during the war, his view of her is drastically altered. He tells her that she has the “whore hormone,” and denies her even a shred of understanding of her ordeal. They both seek sexual fulfillment outside marraige, as their home becomes just another battleground. Their household is brought together again only by violence, when their child is nearly killed in a mine field. Only when they huddle together admidst a cloud of deer’s blood (thankfully not that of their son) do they once again become “one joyful family.”
Novakovich doesn’t stick to the mapped borders of the new Balkan states, but extends the reach of his stories to those Croatians and Serbs who, like the author himself, have moved away from the Balkans, seeking a new life in another country. One of the most absurd, while also absurdly realistic, stories of the volume, “Rye Harvest”, features a narrator who needs to flee his Croatian village after he has set free a non-combatant Serb, one of his childhood friends. Perhaps the most existentially “good” character in the entire volume, his sufferings prove once again that, especially in America, “nice guys finish last.” Tortured and nearly killed by fellow Croats for freeing his friend, the narrator finally makes his way to “the land of opportunity” on a borrowed passport. Having escaped harrowing dangers, his freedom is finally denied from within an American courtroom. Though he describes in great detail the dangers that a return to his native village will pose to him, the judge denies him asylum on this basis: “This country has invested enormous resources to make sure that the peace in the Balkans would take hold, and therefore I see no reason why the country should put even further resources in taking care of refugees who would apparently be safe in their native reasons.” In other words, “we’ve already sent in the calvary, pardner, now you’re on your own.” Though this kind of treatment might seem to be unthinkable in the U.S. of A., one need look no further than the docket of the local immigration court to see that it has its basis in reality. A xenophobic American bueracracy reasons that, having thrown money at a problem, it has solved that problem. Kept an ocean away, the wars in the Balkans were a heroic opportunity for American intervention, but brought within our own borders, the problems become too complicated for us to deal with them.
Like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka, Josip Novakovich is drawn to the wreckage of scarred human consciousness. Backed into corners, his heroes are anything but heroic. No one is saved, and everyone is culpable. War rapists marry their victims; lifetime friends sell each other out; war profiteers manuever riches from the wreckage. Given the wrong set of circumstances, every man is a dog, every human relationship a transaction. What in peace-time were petty resentments during and after the war become Nietzschean ressentiments, the grounds for slitting the throat of a boy you once played with or buying the wife of your neighbor. Ironies are complicated by ironies, onion-skin layers of deceit. These are complicated, dark, human stories, and they are important for that reason. I highly recommend you read Salvation and Other Disasters. These carefully wrought tales perform one of the tasks that great fiction ought to — they bring us a clearer understanding of what’s going on in our world, in our time. While it might not help you sleep at night, Salvation and Other Disasters will definitely give you reason to rethink the way you watch World News Tonight.
JOSIP NOVAKOVICH was born in Croatia and now teaches at the University of Cincinnati. Recently honored with a Whiting Writers’ Award and the Friends of American Writers Award, he was also a Finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, the Midland Prize for Literature, and the Paterson Prize for Fiction. His other books include Yolk, Apricots from Chernobyl, and Fiction Writer’s Workshop.