'April Fool's Day': Ivan the Terrified
By MAUD CASEY
Published: September 19, 2004
APRIL FOOL'S DAY
By Josip Novakovich.
226 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $23.95.
Books and Literature
HIS wickedly funny and deeply harrowing first novel from Josip Novakovich, a Croatian expatriate who came to the United States at 20 — in part to avoid enlistment in the Yugoslav Federal Army — relates the picaresque tale of one Ivan Dolinar, born in Croatia on April Fool's Day in 1948, around the time of Tito's historic split with Stalin.
Novakovich knows how to tell a story, and his prose has an easy, elegant velocity. Of the rain in Serbia, he writes, ''The wetness carried the smells of poisonous mushrooms and old leaves, not only of the leaves that had just zigzagged to the ground but also of the leaves from the last year, and from thousands of years ago.''
This novel's darkly ironic chapter headings — ''Ivan falls in love with power as soon as he learns how to crawl''; ''Ivan finds out that the world is a huge labor camp'' — deftly move us through Ivan's peripatetic existence and this novel's meditations on war, faith and the doldrums of humanity. Miraculously, Ivan survives childhood despite his parents' blasted lives. (His father returns home from World War II with his severed arm and leg in a potato sack, having ''changed armies several times and joined the winning side too late,'' and promptly drops dead of delirium tremens; his mother's goal is to be ''as inconspicuous as possible.'') He fully understands the absurdity of his own options: ''He could assimilate in Serbia. . . . He could join the K.G.B., the C.I.A., both. And he could become an alcoholic. He was absolutely free.''
Ultimately, he hits the road to attend medical school in northern Serbia, where his Muslim roommate (later nailed to a cross by Chetnik rebels) makes a joke about assassinating Tito that lands them in a labor camp, where Ivan comes face to face with Tito
himself. The dictator offers him a cigar, but when Ivan doesn't smoke it properly (''Cigar is a nose sport, not a lung disease,'' Tito says), his prison sentence is lengthened. After Ivan's release, he is drafted into the Yugoslav Federal Army and, like his father, ends
up changing armies several times. (Novakovich makes it clear that in this case there are no winning sides.) He first fights against the Croatian Army, which captures and enlists him, only to be recaptured by the Federal Army and forced on a 100-mile death march.
Here's a copy from bn.: