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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 205-207

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Book Review

Salvation and Other Disasters

Salvation and Other Disasters by Josip Novakovich. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1998. 203 pages, paper $12.95.

In Sarajevo in October 1993, the siege of the Bosnian capital was in its eighteenth month. The morning press briefing had been given over to statistics--by then more than ten thousand people had lost their lives, tens of thousands more had [End Page 205] been wounded, and the city was without water, electricity, and gas--and at its conclusion I had occasion to tell John Burns, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the New York Times, how much I admired the way his dispatches provided a human dimension to the war. This story writes itself, he replied wearily, waving at the mountains overlooking the city, where Serbian gunners were orchestrating the siege. Nevertheless a Times survey showed that only nineteen percent of its readers followed his stories, which usually appeared above the fold on the front page. Burns was nearing the end of his tour--it was said the Serbs had threatened to kill him.

The wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo), which dominated this decade's headlines, produced not only incalculable suffering--millions displaced, hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, thousands of women raped, hundreds of cities, towns, and villages razed--but also a great deal of inspired reporting: the first drafts of history. Moreover, several fine books of reportage (history's second drafts, if you will) were published, including Roger Cohen's Hearts Grown Brutal, Chuck Sudetic's Blood and Vengeance, and Ed Vulliamy's Seasons in Hell; compelling radio and television reports were aired on a nightly basis. Indeed no war was more thoroughly documented than the Third Balkan War. (The First and Second Balkan Wars, in 1912 and 1913, respectively, were just as vicious, according to a report issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.) Yet journalists heard time and again, often from very educated people, that the story was too complicated to follow--and that the media had failed to cover it properly. In fact, most Americans averted their eyes from the defining tragedy of the post-Cold War world, even when, in the spring of 2000, nato mounted its first military campaign in Kosovo to bring the conflict to an end.

Now that an uneasy peace is at hand, we may turn to the news that stays news--to poetry and fiction rooted in this much misunderstood war. And Josip Novakovich's fine collection of short stories, Salvation and Other Disasters, illuminates the dark hearts of ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Novakovich, who was born in Croatia and now teaches at the University of Cincinnati, concentrates on the conflict between Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats that fueled the war in Croatia and complicated the fighting in Bosnia. He subscribes to the notion promulgated by Croatia's greatest modern writer, Miroslav Krleza, that Serbs and Croats are one people afflicted with two national consciences, each defining itself against the other, sometimes with disastrous consequences. "God save me," Krleza wrote, "from Serbian heroism and Croatian culture": the martial deities of the Third Balkan War. And it is one of Novakovich's literary virtues that both hardline Serbs and Croats will find fault with his descriptions of them. For what emerges in Salvation and Other Disasters is a relentlessly honest vision of the human condition. A one-legged man's remark--"I've lived my life to the emptiest"--could stand as the epigraph to this book.

The characters in these sixteen stories are alternately anxious and angry, disillusioned and confused. They make poor decisions, then have to live with the consequences. In "Sheepskin," a survivor of the massacre at the hospital in Vukovar, [End Page 206] Croatia, meets his "old tormentor" on a train in western Slavonia. Certain he has come face to face with the man who stabbed him in the thigh with a broken wine bottle, at the next stop where they must change trains, he follows him...


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