APRICOTS FROM CHERNOBYL
By Josip Novakovich
Graywolf Press, 201 pp. $12.95 (paper)
Josip Novakovich came to America on a student visa from Croatia, Yugoslavia before civil war engulfed it. He stayed through Yale Divinity School, receiving grants and fellowships. He married an American and became an American. Yet he remains a pilgrim.
Novakovich's true adopted home is the English language. From his teens, English has been his passport, livelihood, and refuge. He cannot connect with God or country. He cannot find a root, and so he writes. His prose is bright and comfortably American. His perspective is not. And therein lies the charm of this book. From the bleak Balkans comes a view that is both foreign and familiar. Novakovich shows us both the contortions of communism and the commonality of modern experience.
In "Apricots from Chernobyl," the author tells 17 tales of his native Croatia and his wanderings across Europe and America. Each was written separately, and stands alone; but like a good journal, their themes cohere.
Novakovich describes communist economies: drab, meager, and shoddy. Further, he shows how communism crabs humanity. People become small and odd. The tougher the regime, the more profound the effect. He chronicles an encounter with erstwhile East Germany's border police. His passport is missing a stamp. Kafkaesque authorities dangle him for hours, then release him with the air of a day's work.
His Russian portraits suggest dementia. Ancients, a corpse, and curious tourists turn a church into a theater of the absurd. Disdaining death, Russian cabbies outdrive New York's; while in Chernobyl, a wizened woman hawks stunted apricots.
The pit in this constriction of the heart is ethnic hate. Eastern Europeans narrow themselves to tribe, an artificial construct in this fluid world. Novakovich is as much a mixture as any American: Slovenian, Croatian, Hungarian, Czech. His countrymen are similarly confounded. They forge differences, then rage against them. Childhood chums shell his village; while a quiet bureaucrat snipes at patients through hospital windows.
Novakovich describes how Western culture slipped East, making his childhood closer to ours. The author played in a garage band! Yet, he also describes how the West is fantasia to Easterners: "The transgression of borders becomes an obsession with many Eastern Europeans, and it is this challenge rather than their dissatisfaction with the lack of potatoes in stores that entices many of them to cross the borders. The border in their mind becomes a frontier between the real and the imagined, between a technological junkyard (East) and a computerized perfection (West), between the drab and the brilliant."
Although he relishes robust America, he finds common dysfunctions. Fleeing atrocities in Croatia, the author gets mugged in America. He pungently titles this chapter: "On Becoming Naturalized." His description is eerily like his account of menace on a Russian train. The attack causes a concussion. Where does a poor student get care in rich America? He phones his brother the doctor, beleaguered with war in Croatia.
Novakovich is shamed at escaping this latest Balkan war. Other emigres signed up. In penance, he devotes his last chapters to recent Balkan history and slamming the Serbs. The springs in his prose tighten, but for purple depictions of war.
This book is well worth a couple of hours. It is a well-worded everyman's view of events East and reality East and West.