In the Hold
By Vladimir Arsenijevic
Translated by Celia Hawkesworth
Alfred A. Knopf,
128 pp., $20
JudgING by the portrait offered in Vladimir Arsenijevic's first novel, "In the Hold," there were at least some Yugoslavians who were as surprised as any outsider by the sudden reemergence of virulent ethnic nationalism in their country.
This novel, which won a prestigious literary prize awarded annually by a Belgrade magazine, is a laconically observed, quietly discomforting reminder of how easily a society can slip from apparent "normalcy" into barbarism that at first seems normal.
The novel, translated from Serbo-Croatian, takes place in Belgrade over a three-month period: October, November, and December 1991, as young Serbian men of the former Yugoslavia are being called up for military duty in the war against the newly independent Croatia. The narrator, a cool, ironic sort of fellow entering his 30s, seems to have a lot in common with the sort of vaguely arty, jeans-clad, drug-using generation Xers to be found hanging out at clubs and coffee houses everywhere from Soho to Melrose Place.
Our self-confessedly passive hero has recently wed a woman named Angela, who used to deal drugs, but who's given them up now that she is pregnant. Angela's younger brother Lazar, a feckless follower of the Hare Krishnas, has just been drafted. Despite his supposed pacifism and vegetarianism, he has, with typical woolly-headedness, decided it is probably his "karma" to join the army.
Our hero, the expectant father, is terrified of being called up. Many of his friends have fled the country to avoid military service. Others have been dying already, before the war, of AIDS, drug overdose, suicide, and miscellaneous illnesses. Those who have joined the army seem to have done so out of fatalism or apathy rather than on account of any patriotic fervor or deeply ingrained hatred of non-Serbs.
This, then, is not a novel that "explains" the origins of this war or the long history of tension among the various ethnic groups in the Balkans. The narrator and his friends do not have a particularly strong sense of membership in their ethnic group, nor do they seem to hate any other group. Yet all the same, as the narrator recognizes, young men like his brother-in-law Lazar may prove all too capable of going to slaughter Croatians if that is what they are asked to do.
Readers, nonetheless, may find themselves thinking that if only more young Yugoslavians were disaffected, arty types more interested in looking cool than in centuries-old ethnic rivalries, the Balkans might be a safer, more peaceful place. Unless, perhaps, the reader is meant to fault these aimless young folk for lacking the conviction to resist the tide of nationalism that is engulfing their country?
Or, perhaps there is not a clear lesson to draw from this story, only a startlingly calm picture of ordinary life seeming to go on, an illusion that allows the narrator and others like him to live on the verge of catastrophe while endeavoring to minimize its all-too-real threats.
One moment, the characters are playing in rock bands; the next, they're wondering if playing at a war of "Serbs and Croats" might not be something like playing "cowboys and Indians" they've seen in their favorite movies. Clearly, membership in the international "global village" of mass communications and pop culture is not enough to save them from the encroachments of retrograde savagery.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.