Don't pity Ivan Dolinar. He's a bastard, a brute, an offense to human decency. When we meet the hero (antihero? incorrigible wretch?) of Josip Novakovich's first novel April Fool's Day, he is hogging his mother's teat, trapping his baby brother Bruno in the attic, and forcing his classmates to lick rusty pipes. These turn out to be Ivan's lovable years.
Before long he'll turn into a thief, hypocrite, and cuckolder. He organizes football games with his school colleagues and doesn't show up. He collects hard currency by translating German religious tracts into Croatian, then skips out of his day job to blow the money on Italian soft porn. By the time he's committing war crimes in the terrible Balkan campaigns, there's not much of a chance the reader is going to develop a pure affection for the fellow.
It is not easy to have an uncomplicated fondness for Novakovich's prose, either. It is impossible, however, not to be amused, disgusted, and even awed by the book's ingenious observations, its satiric bite, its rich and vivid catalogue of human grotesqueries. Ivan's small-town Yugoslavia is a realm of passed gas and terrestrial rot. It takes a strong stomach to press forward through the half page dedicated to the description of a skuzzy university toilet. The novel presents us with the smelly spectacle of Ivan soiling himself not once, but twice and--how to say this tastefully?--goes into detail about the specific composition of the expelled matter in both instances.
An even hardier constitution is useful to bear the moments of deeper brutality. A week or two into the rape of the Croat city of Vukovar,
a soldier noticed streaks of melted gold and silver dripping from inside a roasting pig. In the pig stomachs, they found human fingers with wedding rings, necklaces with crucifixes, golden bridges. The starving pigs had eaten their slain masters. There was so much grease dripping that the drunken soldiers polished their shoes and oiled their guns with it. They feasted for four days.
Ivan's crumbling Yugoslavia--from Tito's reeducation camps to the Serb killing squads--is a gruesome and hilarious place. The morbidity here is the shared province of other unmoored Soviet satellites: the Bosnian movies of Emir Kusturica (Underground), the Czech family dramas of Jan Hrebejk (Cozy Dens), or the Hungarian revolutionary novel of Tibor Fischer (Under the Frog). Yet Novakovich takes morbidity to a fantastically absurd level. Well over a tenth of this taut novel follows a living man in a coffin, awaiting his burial.
There's a lot of time to think in there, to philosophize and self-recriminate. Ivan may never amount to much of a scholar; this self-styled intellectual quits reading War and Peace 20 pages from the end. Yet his rude life lances the verities of sex, patriotism, education, religion, politics--and just about any other topic that should bubble to the fetid surface of the story.
Here's Ivan--the onetime religious translator and church violinist--reflecting on his faith:
What is Christianity? A tool for controlling the masses or a soul-saving revelation? Why should there be Jesus, if there was already God? God & Son, Inc. God is too old, so his son runs the business. The son runs the business by appearing to be terribly poor, while He is the owner or one of the major shareholders of the universe.... How can I believe this stuff? In politics, if I saw the richest man in the world walking in rags and running for an office, I'd be extremely suspicious of his plans.
To review: The world is cruel and rancid, the body is a receptacle of foul gasses and inconstant emotions, and the soul is a paltry fiction. At least there is the fumigating power of art and fiction--right? Novakovich and his startling novel make a very strong case for the affirmative. But the author lets Marko the raging tombstone maker have the last word.
What is "literature"? he spits at young Ivan. "Garbled words of sloth-ridden people who want to talk their way out of work."