"April Fool's Day"
From Publishers Weekly
Like Aleksandar Hemon and Ha Jin, short story writer Novakovich (Salvation and Other Disasters) manages the feat of writing vibrantly and inventively in a second language, shaping English to the dictates of his satiric, folk-tinged storytelling. His debut novel tells the story of Ivan Dolinar, a Croatian Everyman born in the town of Nizograd in 1948. As a boy, Ivan is a bully and a patriot (as one chapter title puts it, "Ivan loves the state apparatus"), and he grows up longing to serve his country. After a buffoonish but successful stint in medical school, he's about to become a doctor when a foolish joke gets him arrested and sent to a labor camp on a desolate Adriatic island. He's released three years later, but his criminal record makes him unfit for everything except graduate school in philosophy. Demoralized and hapless, he's drafted into the Serb-heavy Yugoslav army to fight his fellow Croats; he soon deserts and is hustled into uniform on the other side. Novakovich gives a pithy, biting account of the Balkan wars, following it up by an even more caustic account of Ivan's marriage to a woman he raped during the war. The story culminates with Ivan's first-person account of his own death and afterlife. Novakovich's English is foreign-tinged and brash, giving a jolt of chaotic energy to this dark Balkan comedy.
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STARRED REVIEW from Kirkus Reviews.
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All Rights Reserved
August 1, 2004
LENGTH: 333 words
HEADLINE: APRIL FOOL'S DAY
A Balkan Everyman's progress through the later 20th century and the afterlife.
Protagonist Ivan Dolinar is born on April 1, 1948, and grows up in the Croatian village of Nizograd, where he learns "to admire the power of the state," worship Tito, and channel his adolescent romanticism into the study of medicine. In a quirky episodic narrative, Ivan attends medical school in Serbia and somehow passes his exams, but finds his life plans irrevocably altered after a prank misfires and he's charged with plotting to assassinate Tito and sentenced to four years' hard labor. In prison, he meets Tito (who's surprisingly cordial, under the circumstances) and is befriended by visiting Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, then released early (during the "Croatian Spring" of 1971), and reinvents himself as a student of philosophy. Similar ups and downs mark the next 30 years, during which Ivan remains basically unemployable, finally loses his prolonged virginity, fights for the Yugoslav Army (against his fellow Croatians), marries after having perhaps fathered a daughter (the facts are ambiguous), experiences the pleasures and pains of adultery, and succumbs to a stroke in his early 50s. The Croatian-American author's deadpan prose, used to such brilliant effect in his story collections Yolk (1995)
and Salvation and Other Disasters (1998), is less effective here, because Ivan--whose inability to fit in anywhere subtly parallels his homeland's instability--is too emotionally subdued to be a particularly compelling character. But Novakovich's understatements work superbly in the closing chapters, when Ivan's inquisitive ghost achieves a harmony with his surroundings that had been denied him throughout his life.
A flawed though agreeably eccentric first novel from one of the more interesting and unusual contemporary writers.
Publication Date: 09/07/2004
Author: Novakovich, Josip