What does it mean when you go to josipnovakovich.com and you get a financial website written entirely in Japanese? It’s just the weird, random way the world works, I suppose. One minute you’re searching for a Croatian writer, next you’re reading, thanks to Google translate, “refinance your new borrowing – and Thinking!”
Still, “thinking” is always good advice.The recent earthquakes and tsunami in Japan have killed thousands, and thousands more are poised on the brink of radiation poisoning. How can three little deaths amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world? But it’s to Josip Novakovich’s credit and elegant artistry that they do.
Three Deaths is a collection of three stories rooted, it is later revealed, in a shared subject, namely the death of a young child in Communist Yugoslavia. “Be Patient,” sets things in motion. Lyerka, a firecracker of a little girl and her father’s favourite, is inoculated with a vaccine whose dosage is carelessly labeled by its American manufacturers. Feverish and unresponsive, her father, Nenad, carries her back to the hospital. But the indifferent doctors cannot be enticed to examine her – nor the other children suffering the same reaction. In a moment of desperation, Nenad offers a doctor ten thousand dinars. Gathering the money from family and under floorboards, he returns the next day and places the small bundle in the doctor’s hands. But the child’s fever climbs and, that night, she dies. As for the money, the doctor has no intention of returning it. But such is life. A stray dog sniffs at the coffin and the father, grateful for its attention, decides to keep it.
Next, “Apple,” is from the point of view of a small boy who watches his ill father die. But just as vivid as the characters are the textured details of the village, glimpsed in the previous story but now filled in with more history. On the way to the cemetery they pass a neighbour – “he had been in the wrong army during the war. Now he stood against the wall, grey, ghastly, as if waiting to be shot by a firing squad.”
In a nod to the previous death, the young narrator, afraid he will die suddenly like his father, tries to calm himself: “What if I die too? I couldn’t breathe well. Maybe I am dying? No, children don’t die just like that, unless they have a high fever.”
The third story, “Ruth’s Death,” pulls back from the claustrophobic confines of the previous two and reveals the real life roots in the fictions of the past. The narrator, now clearly the author, is a grown man visiting his dying mother, Ruth. Through her reminiscences and his research, much about the family and its losses are uncovered. Lyerka’s place in the family becomes clear, as do many of the other characters and events. We slowly realize that the first two stories were merely pieces of a larger puzzle and that, in “Ruth’s Death,” we are going to put it all together. There are more than a few “ah-ha!” moments in this last story.
Those moments are both the strength and the weakness of the collection. While the long view reveals what the close ups do not, it also allows a certain artifice to creep back, in hindsight, into the opening stories. This is a shame because they are, on their own, beautiful.
I have a special fondness for a kind of Eastern European writing. World-weary, laconic, subtly sarcastic, it knows its insults are no match for the insults of the universe. As Novakovich, now teaching English at Concordia, says after burying his mother, “Perfect day. We all got a sun tan at the funeral. I had also caught a terrible cold. I wondered whether I had gotten it the moment I touched my mother’s chilly forehead.”
Leila Marshy is the editor of Rover.