Goran Vojnović, an accomplished screen writer and director, is considered one of the most talented young European writers of his time. He graduated from Academy of Theater, Radio, Film and Television in Ljubljana, where he won accolades for his work. His bestselling novel Southern Scum Go Home! won all the major Slovene literary awards. His second novel, Yugloslavia, My Fatherland, is a riveting story of a young boy and his estranged family post-war, written with dark and brooding words, but it does not lack humor and awareness of the reality that was etched into the lives of many “Ex-Yugoslavs.”
The novel starts off in a somber mood, as the protagonist, Vladan Borojević, recollects how his childhood suddenly ended, and just how much adulthood had eluded him,
…since early morning, the grown-ups had been saying it would rain that afternoon, while the children wondered why people who didn’t even have tomatoes or courgettes planted in their gardens, would summon rain in the middle of the prime swimming season... For most of us, grown-ups were creatures from a distant planet, only worth noticing if they were missing an arm or a leg…´
Vojnović was the same age as the eleven year-old narrator before the war broke out, and is well-acquainted with the nuances of the time, the language and all that enriched the world of the main character. The book is written in the first person, and the narrator recalls the last fond memory of this father, an army officer, taking him to get an extravagant superhero figurine, before he becomes “seconded.” He is consequently told about his father´s death a year later by a widow, who was in tireless search for a new life for herself.
The story is propelled forward to the present time. Vladan, having left his mother´s care too early, tries to carve a new life, and is mindful of his neglected education, after meeting a beautiful microbiology student. He is still haunted by memories of his father and, after googling his name, learns that, not only is General Nedelko Borojević still alive, but he is implicated in an indictment by the Hague Tribunal.
His beloved father was a cold blooded war criminal, and is in hiding.
As the novel ambles along through the dark lives of the characters, it becomes evident that this was a time flecked with racism, animosity and division because of the war.
You know, this was not the war we wanted... but it couldn’t have been any different, if we who defended Yugoslavia stood side-by-side, in the same uniform, with those who demolished it. We sang the same anthem and bore the same coat-of-arms. But what was mine to me wasn’t theirs to them. So here... I can say this now... There was never a bin of more nationalistic trash than the communist party. Communism only collapsed because it was played out by uptight rednecks, who saw only a new church in it, run by a new breed of priests. The country fell apart because it didn’t mean more to any of them than their own arseholes, which in the end was all that these great Yugoslav people died for. In the end, Partisans and Chetniks and Ustashas and Mujahideen, the religious and the non-religious, all united and set out to fuck us all up. The Yugoslavs disappeared overnight, as if they’d never existed.
The novel, with its constant shifts to and from the past and present, allows us to explore how Vladan became the ectopic and bitter man of his adulthood. It paints an image of a child raised in a haphazard life, with an emotionally unavailable mother who is unable to mother him.
…I had even thought that this might be a flash of her maternal instinct, once considered extinct, but I certainly hadn’t thought that it was a way to cheer me up before ruining my day, my week, my year, my life. So, at minus three degrees Celsius, I had been kicking my new ball around, hands jammed into my pockets, feeling endlessly sorry for this woman who didn’t know how to get close to her child and ended up buying him a football and sending him into the bitter cold, as part of her master plan to cheer him up a bit.
The main character, displaced in location, identity and relationships, is determined to find his father, who may be able to refute all the negative judgments bestowed upon him. Vladans´s quest to find an elusive father takes him, as well as the readers, on a nerve-racking road-trip through the former Yugoslavia. Who will he find at journey’s end: an aggressor of the war, or a misunderstood victim?
The novel is a fascinating read that brings to light the recent upheaval in South Eastern Europe. It is not only insightful about a tumultuous period, but also engaging and entertaining. The use of raw, simple and conversational language leads us to underestimate its depth at times, but it is without a doubt sophisticated in its own right.