The word Balkan may bring to mind a number of associations. Complex borders, fraternity, religion, betrayal, atrocity. It gets complicated very quickly.
Josip Novakovich’s most recent collection of short stories, Ex-Yu, explores each of these topics in turn and in conjunction. Novakovich, the Croatian-born Montrealer and Concordia creative writing professor, who was a 2013 finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, uses the short form to focus on these elemental themes and to examine how humans react to them in the crucible of brutality. And yet, the stories also gleam throughout with moments of hope and brightness.
The story “Honey in the Carcase” perfectly exemplifies the twinned themes of hope and dread that run throughout the collection. In it, Novakovich describes an older couple who refuse to flee their town, even as a battle front threatens to engulf it. She braves the shelling to visit the bakery. He drives to his apiary in the fields outside town, bribing his way through the checkpoints with honey. They are preserved – for a time – by the simple solidity of the brick house he built with his own hands and the life they built together.
The collection’s range of topics and settings is broad: from cousins who cross Balkan battle lines to share the proceeds of an inheritance in “Heritage of Smoke” to the diamond-like self-interest of murder-cannibalism in a Pacific lifeboat in “In the Same Boat.” Novakovich sketches his fictional characters sparsely but humanely. However, he spends less time sketching the historical figures, relying instead on their pre-existing persona. As a result, the stories featuring historical figures Nikola Tesla and Slobodan Milosevic came off flat for this reader.
The short form is perhaps the best medium for exploring these particular conflict zones. It allows each of the specific complications to express themselves in turn and keeps the focus on Novakovich’s characters, who are generous, flawed, violent, and rooted in an understanding of the earth in which they grow plums and bury their families. mRb