Book review: 'April fool's Day' by Josip Novakovich
Here's a review from the Minneapolis Star Trib:
Reviewed By Brad Zellar, Special to the Star Tribune
September 19, 2004 APRIL0919
Book party on Sept. 29, 7:30pm, at Dactyl Foundation, 64
Grand Street (one block north of Canal). . . Free wine!
Ivan Dolinar, the fractured protagonist of Josip Novakovich's forlorn and frequently hilarious first novel, "April Fool's Day," is a Croatian man trapped in the teeth of history and at the mercy of the universally merciless machinery of the state. Caught up in the bloody fragmentation of Yugoslavia, Dolinar's journey takes him, in alternating surges of hope and despair, through the full, horrifying range of human possibility.As such Novakovich's novel is a sort of Balkan conflation of Louis-Ferdinand Celine's coruscating post-World War I novels "Journey to the End of the Night" and "Death on the Installment Plan," with obvious nods to a host of other absurdist classics, from Gogol's "Dead Souls" to "Slaughterhouse Five." Yet while we might have seen countless variants of Novakovich's picaresque tale over the centuries, what makes "April Fool's Day" such a jarring experience is how contemporary and raw the history it recounts still
is; time and again you have to remind yourself that this is not, as it so often seems, a novel born of the World Wars. And what makes the book such a strange and special achievement is the fact that Novakovich is a Croatian expatriate who emigrated to the United States at the age of 20 and now writes in his second language, a precise yet wonderfully gymnastic version of English.
"April Fool's Day" takes Ivan Dolinar (the title alludes to his birth on April 1, 1948) from the cradle to the grave and, quite literally, beyond. Along that bleak, hamstrung journey Novakovich subjects his anti-hero to all manner of barbarism, indignity and suffering, and Dolinar is a marvelous creation, equal parts bumbling philosopher and resigned victim of fate.
As a boy, Ivan is fascinated by the spectacle of power as represented by the Yugoslavian leader, Marshall Tito. He soon enough becomes disillusioned, however, when a medical school prank lands him in a labor camp for four years. Upon his release the country begins its descent into chaos, and Ivan observes Tito's special forces breaking up a demonstration in Zagreb: "The police, riding on parade horses, attacked the demonstrators and clubbed them, fracturing skulls and clavicles. Ivan watched it from the sidewalks. He had little sympathy for the nationalists -- how could you be a nationalist? A nation is a huge group of people, and each group of
people has a lot of jerks in it, so if you identify yourself with the group, you partake of the jerkdom." When war breaks out, Ivan nonetheless finds himself conscripted to the Serbian army and partaking of the jerkdom on a large and appalling scale. He deserts, only to be captured by a battalion of Croats, pressed unwillingly into service once more, and taken
prisoner yet again, this time by Chetniks. Novakovich tempers his descriptions of the horrors of war with black humor and moments of grace, and as Ivan is marched through
the blasted countryside he is struck time and again by surreal visions, disturbing and frequently beautiful, emerging from the carnage all around him: "Past a burnt-out and gutted steel mill, the decimated regiment of Muslims and Croats stumbled through a field of
bomb craters," Novakovich writes. "Water filled the craters, out of which rough-skinned gray frogs leaped like beating hearts that had deserted the bodies of warring men and now roamed the doomed landscape. Ivan found the sudden leaps of so many hearts out of the gray earth unsettling. He could not see any of them until they were in the air, so it seemed to him that the earth was spitting up useless hearts and swallowing them back into the mud."
Ivan eventually makes his way through many such doomed and unforgettable landscapes to what is left of his home and his life, only to discover that not much of either remains; he literally spends the last third of the book as a dead man, and even as he slowly
dissolves into a permanent piece of local folklore, Ivan the ghost is still searching for the connections and answers he failed to find while he was stumbling around on the planet, still "hankering for any trace of love and faith to give [him] the sensation of being alive in
the face of empty eternity."
Brad Zellar is a Minneapolis writer and former bookstore owner.