Country Focus: Croatia (Hrvatska in Croatian)
Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust
By Josip Novakovich
Published by HarperCollins, 2005.
My edition: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Acclaim: Novakovich won the Whiting Award
Genre: Fiction/Short Stories
Time period: Various; from the eve of World War I to post 9/11
To make a long story short: The protagonists of Infidelities are as varied as the stories’ time periods and settings: a woman in Cleveland dreams that her new lover is the masked man who tried to rape her in Bosnia (“Spleen”); a cohort of Gavrilo Princip hopes to kill Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand himself (“The Stamp”); and a school boy whose terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day inspires him to join a band of enemy soldiers (“Snow Powder”). The book’s title gives away the subject common to the stories. Protagonists betray their spouses, their country and their companions. Some of these infidelities are merely fantasies, like the married man who daydreams about the woman who shares a box with him at the ballet (“Tchaikovsky’s Bust”). Others result in serious repercussions, like the Serb couple who abandoned their embattled Croatian home for a safer one in Serbia and are beaten by Serbian soldiers for their inconstancy (“The Bridge Under the Danube”).
“I was a pacifist, still am, and I dodged the Yugoslav People’s Army draft. But in Sarajevo, the park I used to gaze at from my favorite cafe disappeared. People cut down the trees and burned them at home in pots and makeshift stoves, smoking up their apartments. The park became a bald meadow, with little tree stumps sticking out, like severed arms, with chopped hands gone, as thought the trees had stolen – what, air? – and were then mutilated according to the Koran laws. I thought, you can’t take trees from us, and I volunteered.”
The armchair travel experience: Novakovich does not provide historical background for his stories. He merely reveals the characters’ nationalities and locations and expects the reader to extrapolate from there. Infidelities features Serbs living in Croatia and Croatians living in Serbia and the uneasiness that these minorities felt. There is repeated mention of an area within Croatia called Krajina, which Serbia fought for but failed to annex. Novakovich does describe the impact of the war on regular people: distrust of neighbors, looting, bombing, prejudice, and worry over relatives who have gone to war or who may be drafted.
The author’s relationship to Croatia:
Josip Novakovich was born and raised in Daruvar, Croatia. Although he immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1970s, he visits Croatia frequently and has sent his children to school in Zagreb. Novakovich says, “I imagine I will never be free from being drawn back to Croatia, though, or the impulse to flee it once I am there.” He has published several other works about the Balkans, including April Fool’s Day, Salvation and Other Disasters, Yolk, Plum Brandy: A Croatian Journey and Apricots from Chernobyl.
My opinion: I enjoyed the variety of situations and characters and found Novakovich to be an intelligent, talented writer. My ignorance of the region’s political situation and past conflicts made the context of some of the stories confusing. The Serb and Croat labels initially threw me – Who are the good guys? What was the fighting about? – but I learned not to sweat it. Fear, lust and vengeance are Novakovich’s true focus, not Balkan history.
In my book (or what Croatia means to me and maybe you, too)
That’s Dalmatian islands, not dogs, although the spotted breed did originate from this area. Dalmatia is the southern splinter of Croatian coastline that rests against the Adriatic Sea. I first read about this vacation destination in National Geographic Adventure. Stunning scenery and relatively low-cost seaside European travel…my tail is wagging!