Girl at War
In the second part of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a character famously observes that there is no book so bad that some good may not be found in it. That notion is tested by Girl at War. Sara Nović’s debut arrives flanked by the kind of marketing campaign that makes the monster trucks of Mad Max: Fury Road look like Tonka toys. It comes with the requisite admiring blurb by Gary Shteyngart and US publisher Little, Brown’s announcement that the book is one of their lead fiction titles for 2015. A Very Serious Work indeed, then, grounded in the direct and indirect historical experience of its twentysomething Croatian-American author.
And to be fair, that particular history would be terrible and compelling in almost anyone’s hands. Girl at War opens in Zagreb in 1991, just before the Yugoslavian air force destroyed the official residence of the president of Croatia. Our window on what is transpiring is the 10-year-old Ana Jurić: a sweetly decent, tomboyish but ordinary girl who appreciates the charged nature of unfolding events without wholly understanding them. She and her childhood friend Luka meet the bombing raids with the anarchic insouciance of youth.
Yet the situation is darker than it first appears. Food is running out and fissures are opening up between the city’s various ethnic clans. Ana’s parents are short on money and yet their youngest daughter, Rahela, has poorly functioning kidneys. She needs to be evacuated to the West or she will die. It is a desperate trip across the Bosnian border to enable this evacuation via an American medical charity that brings the first part of the novel to a sudden and horrific climax.
At which point, having finally flicked on the narrative arc lights, the author turns them off again. The second section of the novel opens in New York a decade later. A now-grown Ana is addressing a conference on child soldiers at the United Nations (it is briefly explained that she has some form in this area) and the experience of doing so reopens old wounds. For years she has claimed New Jersey origins as a way of fitting in with the kindly yet naive folk who have taken her into their homes or lives. Now she rediscovers a hunger to revisit her past: to see Luka, and to reconnect with her godparents, Petar and Marina – if they are still living, that is.
The only problem with this approach is that it shows the author’s hand. What becomes clear is that Nović is far more comfortable occupying the mind of a bookish, melancholic American grad student than a Croatian girl who has witnessed and survived the mass murder, and who has gone on to become a murderer herself (we later learn) – such experiences are as indelible as the ink on concentration camp survivors’ wrists. But when Ana arrives back in Zagreb, having abandoned her boyfriend and spent all her savings on a plane ticket, we are granted a shallow, touristic account of her homeland:
Red and yellow tulips bloomed in beds across the city, and the cobblestone walkways … looked cleaner than I remembered. While people on the street were clothed in fashions long past in America, they looked well fed, with no outward signs of distress.
This level of insight belongs to a gap year travel blog, not the reeling consciousness of a former child soldier. And this sense of American modernity as the benchmark from which all other nations are merely impoverished, uncool declensions (“Inside the club was tinted purple and filled with cigarette smoke and the pounding rhythm of some remixed hip-hop song that had been popular last year...”) could only belong to someone for whom the United States was a total horizon.
No sooner are Ana and Luka reunited than they hit the road. They head south, through sites of personal memory and wartime violence, all the way to the Dalmatian coast. The story shifts back to the war one more time, explaining all that was withheld before: the aftermath of Ana’s parents’ murder and her eventual escape to the US. But the energy has gone out of the tale by now. What power it possessed was in the artless rehearsal of a set of terrible facts. Nović’s scrambling of chronology draws attention to the narrative artifice on which the novel is based, and her prose – along with the ideas that animate her words – is not strong enough to carry it off.
Nović has wrung a personal story out of the Balkans conflict whose subject matter – a young girl! The horrors of war! – is guaranteed to excite attention.
There is nothing bad and indeed there is something honourable about books that take on wartime subject matter as a means of illuminating the past, whether personal or collective. But to borrow such traumatic experience from family and wider social networks and then treat it in such a numbingly simplistic manner is an affront to those who were really damaged by those years. To do so in the hope of commercial success only compounds the error.
If you want to read a true book about the Balkans conflict, try Aleksandar Hemon’s ficto-memoir The Book of My Lives. His life has also been divided between (in his case) Bosnian childhood and youth, and American adulthood. He, too, draws on family and broader social networks to fill in the gaps of a conflict for which he was not present. But the cultural data he brings to bear is infused with life experience at a cellular level. Even after years away from Sarajevo, he is no tourist but an Odysseus returning:
Nowadays in Sarajevo, death is all too easy to imagine and is continuously, undeniably present, but back then the city – a beautiful, immortal thing, an indestructible republic of urban spirit – was fully alive both inside and outside me. Its indelible sensory dimension, its concreteness, seemed to defy the abstractions of war.
“I have learned since then,” he concludes, “that war is the most concrete thing there can be, a fantastic reality that levels both interiority and exteriority into the flatness of a crushed soul.” AF
Little, Brown, 336pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "Sara Nović, Girl at War".
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