- Culture Clash
www.dzancbooks.org/our-books/heritage-of-smoke-by-josip-novakovich 240Pages; Print, $16.95
How much control do we actually have over our lives? This question binds Josip Novakovich’s latest collection of short stories Heritage of Smoke. Novakovich exerted his free will by leaving Yugoslavia to immigrate to the United States to study, write, and teach. In 2009, he moved to Canada to take a teaching position. While Novakovich has exerted control over his life, he is sensitive to those with less agency. They are the subject of this collection. Each story reveals the shallowness of safety and order in life, hinting at the turbulence swirling below the surface—be it social anarchy, mental derangement, or pure chance.
Like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), many of the characters easily lose their self-control to participate in something uncivilized. These stories dramatize the relationship between individuals and their cultural contexts—primarily focusing on individuals from the Yugosphere. Here groups can be broken along many lines. There are Croatians, Serbians, Bosnians; Christians and Muslims; alcoholics and non-alcoholics. These are but a few of the identities that shape the characters, some who stay in the region once known as Yugoslavia; others who leave for a new life and adopt a new identity.
In “Crossbar” the narrator loses himself while watching a semifinal UEFA Cup football match in Zagreb. He states, “Ordinarily I was a civilized architect, with a taste for macchiato and single malts. At the beginning of the match, I was still a civilized human, but now, by the end, I had taken off my shirt and was hollering for blood.” Later a crowd, including the narrator, jumps the fence, enters the pitch, and attacks the players and officials. The story continues to take twists and turns for the worse. But this is one example of how Novakovich dramatizes the fragility of civilization—that we are all a few pints away from barbarism. Civilization supposedly keeps humans from annihilating themselves. Law and justice keep men from attaining vengeance. The story ends with a sober narrator rediscovering his moral compass.
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The story “Dutch Treat” opens in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station with a flower seller named Esad recognizing Martin, who doesn’t recall the salesman. As a member of the Dutch unit in the United Nations, Martin served in Srebrenica when the Serbian military searched for Muslim terrorists. While the Dutch drank and played cards, the Serbians massacred thousands. Eventually news got out and Holland withdrew their forces in shame, and Martin quit to study theology. Decades later, thousands of miles away Esad spots Martin as a recognizable face from his time in Srebrenica. After the initial interaction, Martin returns to the train station to strike up a conversation with Esad. This inciting incident pushes the two together to examine how civilization can trap someone in the brutality of war. The fall of Yugoslavia, which was always a powder keg of nationalism waiting to explode, points to another example of the fragility of statehood. The story continues with Martin offering Esad compensation for his suffering, but this act, done with the best intention, breaks the law. During the interrogation, Martin realizes how his one act indirectly ripples through the world. It points to an interconnectedness that exists unseen. In this instance, the best of intentions can have the worst consequences. The story ends with civilization using its tools to collect enough happenstances to argue for intention: “‘It’s too much of a coincidence for us to let it go unquestioned—way too many ‘coincidences.’” Here civilization, with its access to surveillance technology, works without morality; Martin directly experiences the corruption of civilization, echoing his experience while working in a corrupted division of the UN.
Many of these stories shake the reader’s sense of faith in institutions and systems. “Be Patient” applies this to the world of medicine. The story opens in Daruvar, Croatia, where Nenad takes his daughter to receive an immunization for the measles. During the walk home they pass a dog that Nenad...