The Last War

In two story collections, Josip Novakovich and Ken Kalfus offer dispatches from the shifting front lines of human discord

Off the top of my head, I can probably quote a dozen titles that make the war in Yugoslavia their raison d'être. Some of them, such as The Death of Yugoslavia, The Fall of Yugoslavia, Witness to Genocide, Balkan Odyssey, and The Serbs, I read at the height of the media barrage, seeking a sort of morbid solace in facts, figures, maps. I reached a saturation point around 1995, and since then, books on the Yugoslav quagmire have left me highly indifferent, and sometimes irritated.

The problem I have with the proliferation of treatises about what my Yugoslav parents have definitively named "the last war" is that 90 percent of them were authored by British, American, French, Austrian, and other Western commentators. Through all the savagery in the Balkans, there remained a few Serbs, Croats, and Muslims who managed to write books. And direct movies. And put on plays. And it is these voices that were often absent in the West.

And so it is with expectation that I picked up a copy of Salvation and Other Disasters (Graywolf Press), a collection of short stories by Croatian author Josip Novakovich. Novakovich is an émigré who now teaches at the University of Cincinnati, but he writes about Yugoslavia with the insight of someone who continues to know the ethos inside-out. The irony behind Novakovich's title also reveals a proclivity for the vaguely absurd, which in the Balkan context is pretty much the order of the day (for a celluloid taste of this, check out Emir Kusturica's brilliant Underground, playing at the Oak Street on June 10 and 11).

In "Sheepskin," a man encounters his former torturer on a train headed for Zagreb. When the train pulls into the station, the narrator decides to follow the stranger, with the intention of avenging himself. The two men enter a pub, order drinks, and proceed to eye one another tensely over carafes of red wine.

Milos, as the narrator has christened his past tormentor, strikes up a conversation with the waiter. He is looking to buy a sheepskin coat. Just the kind of sheepskin coat, it turns out, that the narrator had once worn and was forced to eat (minced finely and cooked into a soup) during the dreadful siege of Vukovar. Could this be a clue? Was Milos mocking his old victim and snickering demonically behind his carafe? No need for further clues. As Milos rises and walks to the rest room, the narrator follows him and fires two shots into his spine.

But the obvious isn't what Novakovich is after. "Sheepskin" is not a story about victims and assailants or about the fragility of psyches in a war's immediate aftermath, although those issues still linger at the periphery of the tale. After the narrator starts spotting Milos's doppelgängers all over Zagreb, we find out that he probably killed the wrong man. To add insult to injury, the victim-turned-murderer seeks out Milos's wife and begins dating her. "My guilt gives me extraordinary confidence," he says in the last paragraph of the story. "I have nothing to lose." In peace as in war, the crazy get away with murder.

Most of the other stories in this collection are set during the war or in the immediate aftermath thereof, and deal with similar instances of morality under siege. There is a Croatian refugee deported from the U.S. for lack of papers proving that he had been tortured by his countrymen, a Serbian soldier in love with a Croatian woman whose father he brutally murdered, a Serb-hating war profiteer given to pronouncements like, "All business is ethnic cleansing in some way," and another Croatian refugee married to an American and nursing a persistent case of tuberculosis contracted during the war.

Novakovich's characters are all imperfect, tarnished by their role in a conflict in which good and evil share a porous border and where victims become executioners or fall in love with their ethnic enemies. The giant puzzle of Yugoslavia's war may never be solved, but for the moment books like Salvation and Other Disasters provide better markers than memoirs by Lord Owen or essays by Richard Holbrooke.

The American Ken Kalfus has seen his share of the globe. Having lived in at least four European cities (Belgrade among them) and written about locales such as Bulgaria, New York, New Hampshire, Paris, and an unnamed country in Southeast Asia, he would easily qualify for the surface epithet "cosmopolitan." But Kalfus is no travel writer, and the varied settings for the 14 short stories of Thirst (Milkweed Editions) don't serve as bucolic backgrounds. Kalfus's stories are so tightly situated in the realm of relationships that it almost doesn't matter whether they take place in the First, Second or Third World.

In the outstanding "No Grace on the Road," an army-reserve officer, traveling through the jungle of his homeland with his American wife, seeks refuge from a raging monsoon at the home of a peasant family. It is night, and the family is engaged in a vigil for their ailing infant child. The peasants, desperate and ignorant, mistake the man for a doctor and proceed to beg him to save the child's life. Curtly, defensively, the man insists that he cannot help, while his wife, taking pity on the forlorn mother, offers amateur assistance. Kalfus's canvas is small. He paints the events of a single night, but manages to include so much detail, so much interpersonal tension, and so much transcultural misapprehension, that the story becomes almost too personal to bear.

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