A Peculiar Fratricide


A review of Ex-Yu by Josip Novakovich

Published on November 6, 2015

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.

Josip Novakovich

Véhicule Press

A good example of how Novakovich develops his ideas is his three-part exploration of the honey metaphor in “Honey in the Carcase.” This pattern of imagery also gives a great taste of his writing. First, he cites a Montenegrin poet who says, “A glass of honey asks for a glass of spleen, together they are easiest to drink.” Then, as the hostilities mount, Ivan the beekeeper examines the biblical verse “There was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion.” Finally, when old Ivan fashions a willow flute to call the bees from the hives, and we are given hope that social cohesion and its fruits may triumph over predatoriness, Novakovich brings it all together: the bees “came out and criss-crossed the sky into a mighty net. When they came back, they tossed out their drones and kept tossing them for days. A peculiar fratricide – that aspect of bees theologically troubled Ivan. Some kind of wrath of God built in the natural order of things? In front of the beehives, fat drones with stunted wings curled atop each other and shrank; the ditch filled up with drones. On a sunny day, so many crows flew over Ivan’s head to feast on the drones that it grew dark.”

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

Rob Sherren feels blessed to be living in a land where relative peace prevails.



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