Culture & Conversation

The Talking War

What is it about the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia that they have spawned so many works of fiction and so many films? I’m not talking about the Western vultures who feasted on the ruins of Sarajevo, but those works created by people who actually lived in that region that “produces more history than it can consume,” as Winston Churchill put it. Wars are good for writers as long as they survive, and there’s nothing better than the particular anguish of a civil conflict to get some good stories into the light.

The fighting in the ex-YU created massive waves of immigration out of the war zones, mostly young men who did not want to put on uniforms for their dictators. A lot of these young men ended up in Canada, like Dragan Todorovic, and a lot of them, like Todorovic, found they had a story to tell and a public willing to listen.

This Belgrade native told part of his story in his 2006 memoir The Book of Revenge, and now he’s back for more with the novel Diary of Interrupted Days. The “interruption” is the war that leads to a love triangle between the charismatic rock star Johnny, his best friend Boris, and Sara, the woman they both want. Johnny disappears into the fighting, tricked into joining a unit that ends up as part of a private militia run by a gangster named The Candyman. Meanwhile, Boris is free to marry Sara and take her to Toronto.

Things are going reasonably well between Sara and Boris in quiet Canada until the past comes roaring back. An amnesiac, brain-injured man has been found on the street in Amsterdam, and through a series of coincidences, the attempt to discover his identity leads to Toronto, and Sara. As quick as you can pack a suitcase, Sara is at his side in a Dutch hospital; the man, of course, is Johnny.

On his own now, Boris turns to the last pillar of his identity: his former country. He returns to Serbia during the NATO bombing of 1999, to Belgrade, a city that is greeting with customary fervor the excitement of being under attack. Boris, with nothing left to lose, joins the orgy of self-sacrifice.

This novel is full of the ironies of refugee life. Filling out the Canadian immigration forms, for example, that ask the applicant if he or she has ever taken part, in any way, in the current armed conflict. There’s not a single soul in the country who hasn’t taken part in some way, Sara muses. And of course, there’s the remodeling of identities that all emigrants engage in as a way of keeping emotionally afloat in their new societies. This book is an excellent place to start if you want to understand the refugee mindset, and you’ll be entertained — if not cheered — by it too.

David Homel is a Montreal writer and filmmaker, and the author of seven works of fiction.

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