Trou­bled youth’s woes stem from civil war

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Orysia Tracz

THIS is a sad book, with just a hint of hope. It be­gins with an 11-year-old boy’s ex­pe­ri­ences, and how they turn him into a man too quickly. It tells about a once-beau­ti­ful city and coun­try, about what war does to the place and the people, about fam­ily life and how com­pli­cated it can be along age and eth­nic dif­fer­ences over time, about grow­ingn up un­der tragic ccir­cum­stances, and aabout fall­ing into the depths and ris­ing above them. This is Katja Ru­dolph’s first novel. Her writ­ing is lyri­cal at times, which can be in­con­gru­ous when writ­ing about a des­per­ate and dan­ger­ous place. The 11-year-old Jevrem’s vo­cab­u­lary is way ahead of his age; he is both a child, and a man be­yond his years. War does that to people. Jevrem lives in Sara­jevo, at the time barely hang­ing on to re­main in Yu­goslavia. But the Bos­nian War be­gins, and the Siege of Sara­jevo is on. The “ideal” fed­er­a­tion of Yu­goslavia cre­ated by Josip Broz Tito, the coun­try’s pres­i­dent un­til his death in 1980, is dis­in­te­grat­ing, the var­i­ous na­tions ten­ta­tively held to­gether fed up with a fed­er­a­tion where some are more equal than oth­ers. Jevrem’s fam­ily is caught in the mid­dle; his pi­anist mother is Croa­t­ian, and his jour­nal­ist fa­ther is Ser­bian. His fra­ter­nal grand­mother, Baka, lives her se­nior years through her youth­ful ex­pe­ri­ences as a Tito par­ti­san in the Sec­ond World War. Baka and her son still fiercely be­lieve in Tito’s ideal state. While the war still rages, of the fam­ily only Mama, her son Jevrem, younger daugh­ter Aisha, and Baka, her an­cient par­ti­san mother-in-law, sur­vive to move to Canada — the rest die in bat­tles and from hunger. Jevrem’s on­ceel­e­gant con­cert-pi­anist mother cleans people’s houses and washes toi­lets, as have so many once-pro­fes­sional im­mi­grants be­fore her. In Toronto, Jevrem joins a vi­o­lent gang made up of teens like him: “We call our­selves The Bas­tards of Yu­goslavia as a joke. We like the word bas­tard... It’s what the na­tion­al­ists who took over our coun­try called us, the off­spring of women in mixed mar­riages. They meant it as an in­sult, but we feel proud... And Bos­nia, split com­pletely in half, Croats and Mus­lims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beau­ti­ful mon­grels meant to fit?” The coun­tries or na­tions weren’t new — they were there be­fore Tito formed his “fed­er­a­tion.” What Ser­hii Plokhy wrote in The Last Em­pire about the Soviet Union’s fall also ap­plies to Yu­goslavia: the U.S.S.R. col­lapsed be­cause of “its im­pe­rial foun­da­tions, multi-eth­nic com­po­si­tion, and pseudo-federal struc­ture... It died the death of an em­pire, split­ting along lines roughly de­fined by eth­nic and lin­guis­tic bound­aries.” Baka soon dies, but still haunts her grand­son, who loved her de­spite her rant­ings. Jevrem changes af­ter her death, and lis­tens to her ad­mo­ni­tion to do some good, for once. Af­ter time in ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion, he makes his way across Amer­ica to Los Angeles to find his un­cle, who es­caped the war ear­lier. His trek is ex­cit­ing and dan­ger­ous. If soldiers re­turn­ing from war come back with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, how can a boy not be men­tally and emo­tion­ally af­fected in later life by the un­be­liev­able hor­ror he lives through be­fore he even reaches his teens? The hor­rors of war through the eyes of a child and his par­ents, the ug­li­ness of teens gone wild, and the dis­in­te­gra­tion of what is left of a fam­ily — even when well-writ­ten, it’s not easy. Orysia Tracz is a Win­nipeg writer,

trans­la­tor and speaker.

Lit­tle Bas­tards in Spring­time

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