Traces of Humanity

Josip Novakovich
Heritage of Smoke
(Dzanc Books, 2017)

The past is a wind that constantly blows through the present with varying degrees of force: sometimes as a pleasant nostalgic breeze, at other times a destructive monsoon, shaping the future while eroding the present, leaving only smoke, the final visible trace of human presence.

“The Second World War ended eleven years before my birth,” begins “White Moustache,” the first of fifteen arresting stories in Heritage of Smoke, Josip Novakovich’s first fiction collection since he was named a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, “and by the time I could follow conversations, people still talked as though the war hadn’t ended. Silver-haired men limped in the streets like incompetent ghosts who’d lost the ability to float.” 

Tragedy finds everybody in time, and alcohol is the poison-slash-cure used to forget the traumatic impact of the tragic. At least this is the case for many of Novakovich’s war-battered characters. “[B]ut war is like that,” says a man in “White Moustache,” “full of sorrow you can do nothing about but drink for the rest of your life.”

Alcohol is one of many preoccupations in this brilliant collection, and it is what separates the self-searching world of childhood from the self-medicating world of adulthood for the young Croatian narrator of “Wino”: “Pop (my friend) explained that there were all sorts of alcoholics, such as rakijasi (brandy drinkers), pivasi (beer drunks), and the worst of all, winos (vinasi). Something in wine made these people hooked and incurable.” Pop informs the young narrator that winos are easy to spot, since they’re always dehydrated, gulping back water; thereafter, the narrator eyes the thirsty adult world “suspiciously.”

Soccer is another preoccupation of Novakovich’s in Heritage of Smoke. Sometimes it is a youthful pastime or fun distraction, while at other times it brings forth shockingly violent hooliganism (as in “Crossbar”) or horrific indelible associations, as in “Dutch Treat”—wherein a soccer stadium is the site of a mass execution of Muslims in Srebrenica in July of 1995, while U.N. soldiers stand idly by.

Living in Manhattan in 2001, Martin is a theology student on scholarship and former Dutchbat solider who, in 1995, was stationed in Srebrenica as a U.N. peacekeeper, unable to prevent the massacre. While buying tulips at Grand Central Terminal, the florist claims to have known Martin in 1995 in Bosnia. The man, Esad, lost everyone close to him in the genocide and shames Martin for the impotence and, he claims, indifference Martin shares with his fellow soldiers (“Tell me what jokes you were retelling that evening to kill the time?”). Martin offers to treat Esad to some Grolsch. The two men talk of the past. Esad says, “When you have something that big in your past, you don’t think of the future. There’s no future that won’t contain that past.” 

Out of a sense of culpability, Martin offers Esad 10,000 dollars: that is to say, half of his fellowship grant. But Esad doesn’t want money; he wants revenge: “The best thing, even better than resurrection, would be if you could go to Bosnia and find Mladic and kill him.” Esad would rather see the murder of the general who commanded the killings than take the cash. Nevertheless, Martin insists and, in an effort to right a wrong, he unintentionally implicates himself in a global terror plot that eventually leads to 9/11.

Often, paradoxically, when people in these ingeniously twisting stories try to do good, they inadvertently do evil. Novakovich doesn’t just write global stories, in the sense that these stories are set in various locales, with characters often living peripatetic, polyglot lives; he also shows how lives can often be intertwined—between East and West, haves and have-nots, old and young—even living and dead. In these stories, we witness human beings responding to impossible situations.

In “Be Patient,” for example, Nenad, a father in the former Yugoslavia, in the small Croatian town of Daruvar, responds to the sudden feverish illness that befalls Lyerka, his daughter, after she receives a measles inoculation the U.S. government is testing there. (Earlier, Nenad boasts, “Yugoslavia is the first country in the world to get the medicine!”) But, devastatingly, the dosages are off, and more than eighty children in the area die, including Lyerka. “Be Patient” is a masterpiece that confronts the reader head-on with unimaginable trauma, but also with the aching dignity of a father giving up everything in order to save his daughter’s life.

“Acorns,” one of the collection’s most unforgettable stories, is about Ana Tadic, a Croatian-American U.N. interpreter who, while on a mission to Banja Luka, Bosnia, discovers that high-ranking U.N. soldiers are frequenting a bordello full of young Muslim women abducted into sex slavery. When Ana reveals this to an implicated colonel, he responds, “Your job is to interpret, not to make judgments.”

The experience, understandably, sours Ana to the U.N. She tells her husband, “The U.N. is a bunch of sex tourists and vultures. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I must go back to gather evidence.” Thus is the setup for another moving, torsional tale.

But perhaps the pièce de résistance in this collection, chockablock with innovative storytelling, is “When the Saints Come,” a story of about Davor, a god-fearing believer diagnosed with stage three lung cancer who, as he descends closer to death, decides to visit Jerusalem with his non-believing wife, Alana, in an effort to feel closer to god. In addition to theologically probing, offering up genuine revelations about faith, “When the Saints Come” is also very funny, like many of the stories in Heritage of Smoke. Davor, while visiting one of the supposed Tombs of Jesus, notes how small the graves are: 

The tomb of Jesus had an antechamber and two parallel graves, which were at most five feet long. “Was Jesus five feet tall?” asked Davor. “Otherwise, he would have had to crouch in the grave. That would be something, a five-foot-long God. Well, Beethoven was less than five feet tall.”

Later, Davor says, “How can there be two tombs? […] And what difference does it make when he was in one of them for only three days. It’s like a hotel. It’s like houses in Russia. Here stayed Lenin for three days.” 

In “When the Saints Come,” Novakovich brings us all the way to the end of a life, (like in his excellent novel April Fool’s Day) and beyond—leaving us feeling moved, even augmented, not only by the sublime follow through of the protagonist’s life trajectory, but also by the wisdom garnered along the way: a wisdom as dense, mysterious, and, ultimately, ephemeral as smoke. In this world of varied customs and rituals, superstitions of every stripe and color, Novakovich celebrates different ways of being, all while questioning them rationally, thoughtfully, and jokingly.

While debates in Jerusalem rage over the true traces of the Messiah, Davor thinks, “But never mind that. The soil contained the blood of more than a million pilgrims, Muslims, and Jews fighting for that square kilometer of arid land.” Traces of humanity haunt him, even as questions of theological authenticity seem less and less important while his own life dwindles. He wonders if the evaporation of religious belief is “part of my death, puffing into nothing like cigarette smoke.”

Novakovich interrogates what Freud calls the narcissism of minor differences. Jovan, from the collection’s titular story, thinks, 

what’s the world come to that you need to call the same thing by different names? Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Croatian […] despite different names and accents and folklore, aren’t we all the same? How can coffee have so many nationalities? It’s still the same damned bitter mud. 

While killing time, he also thinks, “We don’t exist in time but between time, a nothing sandwiched in dual infinities.” Traces of humanity, with all their beauty, mystery, (plenty of Schadenfreude,) and cruelty, haunt these stories.

Holy fools, soccer hooligans, soothsayers, mendicants, exiles, refugees, migrant workers, interpreters, inventors, sex-workers, sex-slaves, soldiers, professors, doctors, and even cannibals people this wonderful, brutal, and often funny collection. Heritage of Smoke is perhaps Novakovich’s most spellbinding and impressive story collection to date. There is no question he is a modern master of the form. 

Holy fools, soccer hooligans, soothsayers, mendicants, exiles, refugees, migrant workers, interpreters, inventors, sex-workers, sex-slaves, soldiers, professors, doctors, and even cannibals people this wonderful, brutal, and often funny collection.

Contributor

John Goldbach

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