Drazan Gunjaca - Balkan Farewells



Balkan Farewells
- book on-line
- editor's note
- introduction
- review

- Balkan Farewells
- The Balkan Roulette
- The Shade of Reason
- Love as punishment
- Half-way o heaven
- Good night my friends
- Dreams have no price
- We are all brothers
The Balkan aquarelle




There aren't very many good literary texts about the Croatian HomelandWar and about all that happened to us in it and after it. It is as ifwriters are unprepared and caught off guard at the prospect of writing about the tragedies of refugees, exiles, those driven from their homes, andparticularly, the soldiers. And children, especially the children! Almost asif it is better (and easier) to forget unhappiness than revive and renew it
in memory. It is easy to return to pleasures - adversity we remove frommemory as it revives and gives birth to pain and sorrow.Balkan Farewells is the first published book by Drauan GunjaËa. Theauthor notes that he wrote another novel ten years ago called "Halfway toHeaven". In ten chapters, ten independent stories are tied together by thesolid figure of the omniscient narrator, or rather, through his painful confessions (of the time and place of events), numerous tragedies arenarrated about people caught up by war and wartime events. As if in atheater performance (the dialogues in the book are so vivid!), the author brings on stage for our curiosity numerous lost souls whose lives weresevered by the war. Partings are painful cuts in life, and often and toooften they are departures from life. So many tragedies on so few pages.Weren't the ancient Greek tragedies, the greatest achievements ofliterature, born in Greece, in the Balkans? In tragedy, usually all are inthe right, but all are punished. The laws of God are not those of Man.Many will be surprised by the crude language of the text, particularlyin the dialogues, with curses as the strong and sharp spice of the everyday.But they will also be surprised by the gifts of the narrator, unburdened by
the traditions of literary creation. With the experience of a born storyteller, with irony and a sense for the grotesque, but also a strongsensitivity, he builds a picture of the lost years that we lived through,some in a restless peace, others less happy in the winds of war that changedso many fates, and took away so many lives.If only, after all this, we could be more sensitive and careful towards
one another.

Prof. Dr. Josip Bratulic


Antonio Spadaro
Rastislav Durman
Giulio Maria Artusi
Emilija Rogosic
Tanja Stupar
Professor Alessio Piano
Paola Dell'Armi
Francesco Mazzetta
Shirley Gerald Ware
Selena Delfino
Mauro Mirci
Anna Calonico


Balkan: is it possible to take leave of the front?
Antonio Spadaro (Letture, n. 601/2003, page 40)

Dražan Gunjača is one of the emerging author in the Croatian literature. His first novel, Balkan farewells, is traduced in many languages and it comes in Italy thanks to the Fara Editore (2003, pages 212, Euro 14,00).
The eternal conflict which seems to be unremitting, the myth and the crude facts are the basic elements of this novel that immerse us deeply emotionally into the recent Yugoslavian conflict. 
The protagonists are naked characters whose humanity appears between high ideals and low incomprehension, between the cold tragedy on one side and the warmth of the affection - the only "reason you need for living" - on the other side.
The military "farewell" assume a symbolic dimension which seems to become a figure of global existence.

Rastislav Durman
(writer, literary critic, NOVI SAD, SERBIA)

The third book of "The Lord of the Rings" reveals the nature of the hobbits since the king finds out that "hobbits always say too little because they're afraid to say too much". The situation in Dražan Gunjača's novel "Balkan Farewells" is completely different, everything is said, nothing is left untold, but certainly not out of fear to say too little, no - Gunjača's novel is a scream, and there is no dosing when screaming.

From the point of view of someone living in Istria in the period of the war in Croatia, in his novel Gunjaca speaks about farewells, or better, about breaking-ups that history and its actors forced upon the people in "this area".These breaking-ups are different, not only people break-up, the novel is full of farewells with beliefs, values, and in the end - with life, with the life of the body as well as with the life of the soul. It is not unusual in Gunjaca that a person breaks up with him/herself.
Structure represents a special quality of Gunjaca's novel. It is built as a spiral - characters appear in self-contained episodes and then disappear, giving us the impression that they will never be back again. After a dozen of pages they appear again, in a new episode somehow connected to the previous, but they are changed, different, giving Gunjaca the opportunity to add another stanza to the half-crazy rondo.
Characters that drastically change in every new episode - and it is logical considering the things they are exposed to - are in contrast with the hero who seems to stay the same from the first to the last page (he expresses his attitude towards "Serbian heroism and Croatian culture" at the beginning and he sticks to that till the end). Nevertheless, this stability of the hero is only apparent - the events "eat" the man, he ends up with a heart attack he will probably survive but the crazy Balkan whirlwind destroys him as a man and he will probably never survive that. (Under pressure because of all that is happening to him, the hero thinks less about his own children than about his best man Aca, Denis and other people whose destiny meets his own.) We have to point out that the character of the hero is very well constructed, flirting with the stereotype of the urban loner with an addition of the attitudes towards the little important things of the late 70-ies and 80-ies (music, drink, etc.).
Stylistically, "Balkan Farewells" are somewhere between realism and naturalism and the language is the same. It is told in first person, in a language that the hero normally uses, just like that. The esthetic imperfection is surely justified by the consistency of the procedure. Any different language - poetic for example - would make the reader doubt the authenticity of the "represented reality".
When assessing a literary work we can often be influenced by its theme. If the theme is important and crucial for a period as it is the case with "Balkan Farewells", the critic can easily be mislead and treat the theme instead of the criteria the literary theory and criticism demand. In this particular case, the high literary quality of the text excludes this kind of mistake.

Never ending war
By Giulio Maria Artusi
(LN Librinuovi, n.28/2003, Italy)

The hero of the novel is Robi. He is a lawyer in Pula, just like the author. And like him, he has a long history of service in the ex Yugoslav navy and cannot get used to the idea of a war that separates families, breaks up marriages, poisons friendships. It is the beginning of the nineties, the internal fracture of the Federation becomes an open war. Croats and Serbs fight each other again, faithful to a tradition that saw them enemies for a long time. They are above all victims of the “Balkan tradition”, says Robi:

The other members of the human race have never nor will ever adjust to the Balkans, and still less can they understand its people (…): they cannot understand the power of its numerous historical truths, of the even more numerous living myths and the current deceits that no one pays attention to any more. Since there is no common idea, the war is just another way to do politics.

Robi thinks that the war is a fraud but he cannot convince himself that there is a way to stop it and avoid it, just like his friends, all ex soldiers he feels close to in a sort of fatalism similar to a magic spell. What brings them together is the difficulty to imagine a world without wars, murders, revenge, that oozes in like a poison, destroying relationships, memories, every day lives. Many of them married Serb women and are now lost without wives and children, suddenly on the edge. The return to a military life is for many of them an occasion, a cursed hope, a way to react to an incomprehensible situation. They go to the front, someone to defend the reborn nation, and most of them, at least it seems so, because it is impossible to even think of not doing it.
The war marked the lives of their fathers and grandfathers. The war is a perfidious mother, but one who gives a definite and clear goal connected to life or death. It is something almost absolute, more important than living a mediocre everyday life. It is a refuge from solitude and, maybe, from thoughts. It is a lie told, first of all, to ourselves.

(…) Let’s switch to singular, because all the wars have so many things in common that there’s simply no point in using the plural. There, we do not realize that the war is not knocking at the door because the locks are preventing it from entering, it plays with our ingenuousness. The war is a curious creature. It’s interested in knowing the limits of human blindness. And when it realizes that it has no limits it gets sick and tired of its elementary decency (which it always respects in the beginning) and it goes back to its original nature.
To get one thing straight, it’s not pretending to be something else in the beginning. On the contrary! But it’s probably a little amused by the fact that people call it all sorts of names except the right one. And its name is war. Nothing especially difficult to remember or understand. At least it seems so. And when we finally call it the right name, and we have to sooner or later, it’s already too late for some people.i

Robi doesn’t go, he does not want to go back to the military life. He is not frightened enough to want to be a soldier again. His friends go one by one. They flee, hide or simply disappear. They part with him and with life. Mario, a ruined barman, Denis, a cadet obsessed with ideas of heroism and country. Damir, a man made right by the closeness of death. Ordinary lives made invaluable because unique that Robi, in despair, is made to remember with no exceptions.
There is not a single bit of rhetoric in this book, nor a Great Mystical Teaching, no moralizations or judgements and certainties. Just incredulity, bitterness and lucid despair.
Robi has a drinking problem, he is kind of lazy and an egotist, does not have an easy relationship with the opposite sex and has a certain tendency to abandon himself to self destruction and to reject emotions and feelings that are too intense or binding. In spite of these faults he does not manage, or does not want to avoid his responsibilities. Cursing the world, his friends, relatives and the war, he faces the events as he can and makes it, without false pretenses. He is a witness, a thinking and writing mind that entrusts us to be the judges and to find out who’s guilty.
Paradoxically, Balkan Farewells is often an amusing book, maybe atrociously amusing, when it tells about the old hates that have never come to an end even though no one remembers the reasons any more, about quarrels, stories of heirlooms, small and big cunnings, betrayals and the disappointment of Dalmatian tourist operators. To an Italian reader there is indeed a lot that is familiar in this war in the homes, in political positions or ideological choices made on the basis of hate and not a pondered choice.
In the Balkans you live and die without protesting too much – says Gunjaca – brought together by an unconscious belief that life is a simple episode, a moment that, like a tuxedo, has to be worn with dignity. Its goal is not important, if life has any goal at all. Living is a moment following another: friendship, passion, fear, then passion again, friendship, fear, and then again. The merry-go-round stops, it has to stop. It is normal and it would be idiotic to negate it.
Robi shares this view of life. He was born in the Balkans and knows how these things go. Nevertheless, he cannot accept it. He is still surprised, genuinely hurt, and asking himself if anything different was ever possible. This is where the power of his character lies, and with him also the profound importance of the novel.

Drazan Gunjaca is a writer, poet and comediographer. His familiarity with the theatrical form is easily seen in his narrative texts as well, rich with lively dialogues with no stereotypes, onomatopoeia, slang or false “realism”.
He has received numerous awards in Italy, for his trilogy Balkan Farewells made of the homonymous novel and Half-way to Heaven and Love for Punishment (unpublished in Italy), as well as for his collection of poems When I’m Gone (2002) and the drama Balkan Roulette (2002), published by Fara.

Emilija Rogosic

How do you feel when someone tells you you're a Balkanite? Do you feel offended? Or is it a compliment? Does it flatter you if someone calls you "a true Serb" or a "true Croat"? How about Yugoslav? And I mean the real one… true… ex… failed… extinct. After all, does it matter? Does it really matter much?
Balkan Farewells have again stirred suppressed emotions confirming what I think about "us" and "them", bringing the analysis to the point of absurdity.
In my case "us" and "them" are one thing, "ferocious enemies" who have infinitely loved each other in the last 30 years. We "mixed breed" have the privilege of being able to observe things from a distance, not burdened by "the preservation of national interests".
Drazan Gunjaca's novel is a novel about any of us. Everyone will recognize themselves or someone around them in Gunjaca's heroes. That's why reading it, besides the easy and flowing style and a lot of humor, hurts and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
The author is an ex officer of the ex JNA (Yugoslav Army). He was born in Sinj, served the army in Split and has been living in Pula for the last 10 years. This is his first (published) book. He is a lawyer but he also writes trying to show to the younger generations all the evil of wars on a territory on which "you are born with one anthem, live with another, and God knows with which you'll die", as the author says in the afterword to the Balkan Faerwells.
The book is rich with dialogues, often explicit, as they must be in the trenches and the back lines. It adds to the dynamic and the novel is read in one breath, from the front to the back cover, even though it has 310 pages. Gunjaca is no Remark nor is he trying to be. Our wars are so specific that novels, poetry and films about them have to be specific, too.
Balkan Farewells are a collection of tragedies happening to simple people born at the wrong time in the wrong place. The terrible fate of numerous generations born on these territories. If it were written in Serbian and with other toponyms, it would have been a Serbian novel, or a Bosnian one. The ill fate of simple individuals does not touch anyone but them. It should be a warning for the coming generations not to believe chauvinistic rhetoric served by political elites for their power-holding interests. "Good deeds" done in the name of the state are not equally returned. Maybe in the shape of artificial limbs to substitute the ones lost in war. But what about the head? They still haven't invented a prosthesis for a devastated psyche. Thousands of young people chose voluntary exile to avoid mobilization. Thousands of young, educated people are out there somewhere drinking beer and telling stories about the old Yugoslavia. Is a distance of a couple of thousands kilometers the condition and the guarantee of a tolerant and normal communication?
I hope not. There are "normal" people among us here, too. People who think of a different opinion as a start of an interesting discussion after which you won't stick a knife in your neighbor. "You know how things are in these territories…", says one of Gunjaca's characters.
We've played at wild Slavic tribes for long enough, going from one to the other extremity. We loved each other madly and hated each other's guts. We are no different. But it's a start. It seems to me that the artists haven't been loud nor resolute enough when the fire started. Maybe this is the right moment for them to give their contribute and extinguish the flame which is still treacherously smoldering. I hope this is not Gunjaca's last book. And I hope that soon "both sides" shall offer their own to the altar of Balkan's stupidities, for the purpose of making the Balkan farewells as rare as possible in the future.


The main point of this novel is irony, if not plain comedy. There are no war scenarios, gun fire or snipers. It only speaks about "the line", the shadow equally following everything. The described stories are the everyday ones, normal lives of normal people who happened to share their lives with the state of war in their country. Weddings, engagements or relationships which end because of people's origin; a father who cannot see his children because the mother, of a different nationality, took them with her. And alcohol, lots of alcohol, pills and cigarettes. It is all told with surprising humor if we consider the fact that the author himself experienced those tragedies; it is sometimes a dramatic humor. The characters are also funny, they get mad at each other and the next moment they are doing things together, torn between the love for their country and plans to evade the army towards Germany or Montenegro. Robi is the first to be self-ironic, he calms the situation down when he speaks. In that way we can laugh loudly in some parts and get down to earth the next moment with just one sentence, one thought which brings you back to the beginning, back to the story.

Why "Farewells": characters come and go, scattered around by war, trying to survive and do something with what is left of their lives, on the other side. Only the narrator remains, watches, negotiates between all these characters who pass him by. He has different interests, he doesn't blame anyone, he doesn't judge; he just finds a different philosophy for himself ("I know what I don't want but I don't know what I want"). This war is for him an unreasonable burden, a huge pot in which, sooner or later, the bodies of those who fought for their country, both Serbs and Croatians, will be thrown for no special reason at all.

Denis, young and an idealist who went to the front line is the key character of the novel. We only understand that towards the end. The final explosion of the narrator who, defending Denis, uses the moment to "get the pebble out of his shoe", is not accidental since Denis represents the evil and the lack of logic in war. He is a symbol, he is young and full of ideals, naive and passionate as only 20-year-olds can be. That's why he is sacrificed on the altar of the mother country. Which country? … "war for this or that independence, this or that ideal that definitely represented the most perishable goods in this part of the world. It always goes bad before the best by date stamped on the packet of illusions, which its creators nicely wrap, tie a bow on, and sell to the people".

When speaking to the public attorney Robi will say: "You can't evoke the principles of conscience, as you did, unless you understand the problem. For there's no conscience without understanding." It is the final word of the defense but it is also a complaint which is larger than the defense itself and which in the end becomes an insult, an attack on the whole of society that doesn't want to see anything. It is an insult to the institutions of the state that sacrifice a city to get included into the United Nations… That closing word trespasses the page and comes to us directly, it hits us western people who do not have the real picture of how things really are, how can a young man kill another at a party with no reason at all. Against the silence and hypocrisy of those who want everything swept under the carpet and who therefore do not understand: "How can you say that someone lost his mind just because he fought for his country?! How can you lose your mind fighting for your country?"

The result of that speech is what the narrator repeats two times in the story, i. e. , there is no deafer person than that who does not want to hear. And so Denis was sentenced to ten years. "Ten years in the name of the Republic of Croatia! Bravo, Republic! Bravo! You've paid him back wonderfully."

Tanja Stupar, Nezavisne novine,
Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2003.

The novel by Drazan Gunjaca is a cross section of the tragic period in recent history. It concentrates war in a logical story. Everything is subordinate to the reality of the story, to its authenticity. If we open this novel at any page, we'll easily recognize moments taken from life itself. What is going to win the readers over is sincerity. Balkan Farewells is an anti-war novel in which the author objectively talks about all those difficulties one is bound to face in a war. The story of suffering is universal and it doesn't really matter whose uniforms the people wear and whose side they are on, they are just people and they are vulnerable. This is Gunjaca's main point, the truth he begins with, the one which made him defend a humanistic approach to things. Gunjaca is so immersed in the novel (after all, the story is told in first person) that he occasionally drops the reins of the strict narrator and abandons himself to emotion, lets it take complete control of him. It is the theme itself that makes him do it. A great piece of his heart is in these pages, but it is impossible to avoid this at times exaggerated emotionality in such a story. It will sooner win the reader's sympathy than disturb him. Besides, this is his first novel which has been translated in several languages and has also been published here at the end of last year by Besjeda from Banja Luka. Drazan Gunjaca is the first Croatian author whose book has been published in Republika Srpska.
As is suggested by the title, this is a book about farewells of which there are two kinds, temporary and permanent, both being equally sad. Some leave, the others die, and the third, confused by the terrifying atmosphere, run from their own personalities into alcohol, madness, isolation. The author deals with the psychological side of the war and each time, through events, experiences and stories of people he meets, he leads us to the same conclusion, the absurdity of war. The game with no rules in which loss is the only certainty. The main character is in complete contrast to what the war actually means, to the environment it imposes on you, to people who are carried away by it for one reason or another. He is a pacifist, a pacifist who grew up in a city, in a culture created by the Yugoslav attitude, rock 'n' roll and some values that are completely different from those created by war. His system of values does not change during the war, he remains firm in his beliefs and puts individual relationships above the actual mentality of a society which elicited friendship and all kinds of reciprocity only among members of the same nation. In difficult times he takes over the role of guardian angel over people and their destinies, he helps, saves and protects because something inside him makes him do it; by saving others he is actually saving himself as a human being from the growing senselessness and madness surrounding him.
Balkan Farewells is a book written in a simple style, acceptable to a wide audience, interesting because it comes from a neighbouring country and brings a story of the war from the other side. Besides that, in a multitude of books which always put one nation above the others, Gunjaca took a step aside and wrote an objective novel without idealizing just one side. He manages to see the big picture and spot the imperfections of the environment he lives in. Although the plot is placed in the years of war, this is a book about people and their destinies and the war is only the background which makes human characteristics better visible.


A Time for Peace
In Balkan Farewells, Drazan Gunjaca finds humanity in the midst of war torn ex Yugoslavia. He writes of the lives and loves of a group of friends who should be enemies because of their place of birth, but instead retain their friendship through the tragedy of war. Told from the perspective of Robi, an ex soldier who is attempting to regain some semblance of his former life, when he is asked to go back to the front line and rescue his nephew . As grim as it sounds Balkan Farewells brims with a black humor that can only come when lives are on the line. Beautifully written, it captures the spirit of a people who have been at war forever. A worthy winner of the Peace Prize for literature at the Premio Stayagraha 2002, Riccione, Italy.


Professor Alessio Piano
Art Director of International Literary Competition Anguillara Sabazia, Citta d'Arte 2003, Italy
-Il Convivio, n.15/2003 (Italia)

A novel stormily eventful, impressive owing to its high-riding passions and compelling atmosphere that surrounds, floods the reader. A page of a forgotten war, a minute psychological analysis, superb in expressing feelings to the bottom of the human soul. Where private affairs run parallel with epochal upheavals in the former Yugoslavia, where a generation is overwhelmed with events and powerful emotional reactions to them. A story full of tension, with unforgettable characters driven by tragic fate. Feelings become increasingly powerful, unspeakable, irresistible, ranging from malice and guilt to enchantment. Judgments passed by the author are severe, bitter, but always embedded in love, love that is there to stay. That is the background against which the Balkan Farewells take place, against the background of fear and death. The hero is one of many actors in many events who just cannot understand the reasons of an overall moral collapse, of incredible brutality. Indeed, a powerful story which seduces us with its unusual narration. A novel written in masterful language and compassion of a first-class story teller that Drazan Gunjaca indisputably is. Its characters, all victims, are like arrows piercing through the rough surface of reality. Its leading characters are like apparitions of pain and despair, victims of injustice and inhumanity, witnesses of a tragedy full of horrors and misfortunes. The other side of the Moon is illuminated, mystery unveiled, all masks fallen – that is indifference. Crying over the dead, lamentations of the defeated and the helpless, are replenishing the pages of this novel, adding up to its weird, choking, deceptive atmosphere in which war is once again shown in all its grotesqueness and appalling cynicism, in which there are no winners and losers, in which people are seeking their lost soul. The essence of Gunjaca's story-telling and thereby his distinguishing feature as a writer is dramaturgical: the texture of his story is despair, loneliness and expectations of its characters. A genuine document, a genuine testimony. It's the testimony that we'll remember, because it's perennial, on the other side of our conscience.

Paola Dell'Armi (29-09-2003), Italy
Balkan Farewells: those who go and those who stay

Some go away, others die, other still, shocked by the terrible atmosphere around them, flee into alcohol, madness, isolation.

The social commitment of Balkan Farewells is clear from the very first page the novel, the one depicting the surrealist scene of an apartment with a foreign comedy series on TV while the latest news on the bombardments are running in titles on the screen. The sound of shelling is a counterpoint to the recorded laughter, making the message clear. The civilized and consumerist western world should not deceive itself and think that the seeds of war can only sprout somewhere in the third world. No one should consider the chapter on the war in Europe definitely closed, there can always be a spark glowing under a surface of stability if we do not nourish a culture of peace.

The title of the novel plays with the ambivalence of the term "farewells" thus synthesizing the existential condition of the individual in the Balkans, continually dominated by the motive of separation and detachment, as well as giving us a bitter analysis of the historical conditions in this part of Europe. With tact and intellectual honesty, Gunjaca goes back to the crucial years of the war in the ex Yugoslavia through the stories of individuals, their emotional dimension and their, sometimes controversial choices. The little personal tragedies intertwine with the huge tragedy of war making the personal vicissitudes of the characters revolve and develop around the core thus created.

There are grotesque elements through the whole novel, as if to point out the absurdity of a war whose historical reason seems lost or deformed. The tone is nevertheless calm, and the attitude has a certain amount of irony, as if the narrator was used to meditate on the disappointments history continues to distribute

(Mucchio Selvaggio, num. 553/2003, Italy)

We have already talked about Drazan Gunjaca on occasion of Balkan Roulette. Balkan Farewells, always published by Fara, is not moving far from the first one. Although Roulette is in the form of a drama and Farewells in that of a novel, it has to be said that dialogues prevail in the last one so that the two books are not that different from that aspect. What is more, Roulette is fundamentally the development in theatrical form of the first chapter of Farewells. Both deal with the war that destroyed Yugoslavia, suddenly turning relatives and friends into strangers and antagonists. If we want to point out a difference, then it is in the feeling inspiring the two books. Roulette is a short, compact text, with a tragic ending. Farewells are a long narrative in which case, if we need to synthesize in one word the genre to which it tends, we have to speak about farce.

Farce because the events are seen through the eyes of Robi, an ex officer of the Yugoslav navy, who lives in Pula, a relatively peaceful port. Robi sees loves and friendships die away, engulfed in the terror of war. They part from him either directed to the front or a safe haven in a foreign country. Continually stimulated by ones or the others, he is on one hand too convinced in the absurdity of war which would make him oppose his ex fellow-soldiers and surrender to the war, while on the other hand he is incapable of leaving his country devastated by the absurdities of power. The only solution is fatalism, to consider wars and mournings an inevitable destiny of the Balkans so that the tragedies can somehow become a farce, absurd and almost ridiculous events without losing the tiniest bit of their dramaticism. Just like the soldier who lost his mind and went walking through the trenches with an open umbrella for his only protection, or the friend Mario who, after having survived numberless battles, died by falling into a pit.

It's like having the folk-ethno discs by Goran Bregovic (another great pan-Slavic "monster": born in Sarajevo to a Croatian father and a Serb mother). His music for weddings and funerals is the sonorous counterpart to Gunjaca's writing: a fatalism partly transpiring pain and partly cynical, but never cold, on the contrary, always kept warm by alcohol, cigarettes and good music.

Shirley Gerald Ware
FRESH! Literary Magazine, n.10/2004 (USA)

This novel tells the stories of the many tragedies brought forth by war in the Balkans. So much pain is inflicted on the poor and innocent, who find themselves fighting a war with a little meaning of them. Mr. Gunjaca describes the character of Robi, a young man who spent too much of his youth serving in the Yugoslav Navy. Robi now sits alone in his attic apartment in Pula. The year is 1991. He has seen a dark side of the war resulted in the brutal death of too many friends, now buried without headstones. Now a survivor and a civilian, Robi thinks about the fate of his remaining friends, who remain in the Yugoslav navy. There comes to mind his friend Toni, whose death was caused by too much drinking and drugs. Robi and Toni spent many years in the Navy together, and now on the anniversary of his friends death, Robi mourns in private by reading his goodbye note and drinking cheap cognac. As the story unfolds, old friends, still serving the Yugoslav Navy visit Robi. While listening to his Pink Floyd album, his heart grows heavy with the human toll of this unjust war, and the painful loss of his friends. He begins to question his own purpose in a war that brings forth so much pain.

This is an insightful and engaging novel that gives you a heavy dose of war and politics. As I sat down to read “Balkan Farewells” I didn’t know what to expect. But I came away with a deeper understanding and a feeling I myself had endured too many victim’s suffering. Gunjaca has done an extraordinary job of portraying the friendship and loyalty Robi feels for so many compatriots, especially Toni. Robi’s surviving friends visit and telephone, to bid their farewells before being shipped out to war. Though the language is often strong when his friends gather at Robi’s apartment (this is a book for adults), I think it can be overlooked because of the circumstances surrounding the gathering. This novel is a great read and I highly recommend it as a year round gift. “Balkan Farewells” can be purchase online at Amazon.com.

di Selena Delfino (Italia), 2004

An intimate view of the war, far from the front and the spotlight on the public political scene. Robi is an ex-officer of the Yugoslav Navy. His choice of civilian clothes means injuring himself with the fragments of his own life, as well as the need to face the pain: for all the broken relationships, lost friendships and a love almost impossible to realize in Croatia in the years from 1991 to 1993. Some people die, some get lost in drugs or alcohol, others go insane. Robi is one of those who survive and is forced to face his own helplessness and the senselessness of hate. It is a straight-forward and autobiographic novel, a story that goes deep and creates a mirror for all the wars out of the tragedy of the Balkans.

Mauro Mirci (Parole di Sicilia, 2004, Italy)



A conflict prepared for a long time in a growing vortex of national pride and ethnic hatred. An army where best friends suddenly find themselves on warring sides, like deserters, attackers or traitors depending only on their personal choice. A lawyer and his messy life. Alcohol, women, egotism, misanthropy, fraternity, violence. A war that's been seen and experienced. A mental disease. A lack of adaptation.

Balkan Farewells are all that. A description of a war with a thousand fronts, only some of them visible and almost all of them far from the line of fire.

Gunjaca is a Croat, but that is a coincidence. He could have also been a Serb or a Bosnian: he would have written the same words of condemnation against the war and ethnic hatred that shattered the Balkans in the terrible 90ies. His story is just as frightening as those years. Gunjaca describes a world that is falling apart, but also a new one being created; he describes events and facts that can only be justified in war and places them side by side with family life, conversations and small everyday things that could easily be part of our homes. He proves that war is not the big, sounding event described by the regime orators or the press; it is not the simple opposition of sides. Gunjaca wants to prove that the real perversion of war is in the simplicity and naturalness with which it manages to sneak in the lives of those who get caught in it.

I think that this is the peculiarity of this novel. It is not a huge epic poem, nor a story telling amazing events, not a "monster" capable of attracting the attention of the public starving for bloody and sensational scenes. It is the everyday life translated and partly erased by the echo of the battles fought somewhere - in the neighbouring region, the neighbouring state, on another continent or in front of our house - Balkan Farewells combines egotism and generosity, speaks very negatively of the war but does not strike on those who fought in it, it describes the wish for normality but is mild with those incapable of it. These elements together create a unique product brought to light by the author's extraordinary humility: a real narration - not only a chronicle, because a chronicle can describe the events but not the emotions - crossing the boundaries of autobiography in order to become a story of a whole nation.

Anna Calonico (Arte & Cultura, n. 75/2004, Italy)

A straightforward book on the war in the ex Yugoslavia
Balkan Farewells by Drazan Gunjaca
Ten stories about ordinary people as an example for everybody

Drazan Gunjaca: first an officer in the Yugoslav Navy in Split, now a lawyer in Pula. About twenty years ago he wrote the novel Half-Way to Heaven that he never published; instead, he published his second novel, Balkan Farewells, and its sequel Love as Punishment (2002). These are all anti-war books written not to explain the causes, something the author leaves to the competent people, but to maintain the hope that the things he experienced in his country will never happen again.
As far as Balkan Farewells (Balkanski rastanci) is concerned, it has been published in Italy in 2003 by Fara Editore, translated by Srdja Orbanic and Danilo Skomersic, and it represented an excellent debut for the author since it has been awarded and published in Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, USA and Australia. It is an anti-war novel speaking in particular against all the difficulties the people involved in a war have to face, and especially about the difficulty to maintain solid emotional relationships. It is about the problems of the individuals, seen separately so as to show their helplessness better. Gunjaca’s narrative does not speak of uniforms because all of his characters intertwine their dramas with those of their enemies. It does not matter if the hero is a Serb or a Croat, if his wife is Serb or Croat; the suffering described in Balkan Farewells goes beyond this distinction. It has been noted that the story of this novel is constructed almost “spirally”. Each character enters the story in a precise moment, tells his story and bids “farewell”, all in the same chapter. It seems that his role is thus complete, it seems that Aca, Boris, Mario or the others will not come back, but then the same character appears again, “grown up” in the war and therefore changed, so that the author can continue his story. Obviously, some of the characters will have a second farewell, this time for good, and in the introduction Gunjaca dedicates the book to these lost friends: “May they rest in peace wherever they are buried… it is only because of them that I honestly believe in the existence of an afterlife, whatever it is, because they deserve it”. Robi, the hero, says almost the same words: “For us born in the Balkans, the afterlife is a guarantee because this life is worth nothing. Ruined in advance”. The aim of this book was to tell the truth about the war in the Balkans and the introduction says that the aim has been reached: the book “has only ten chapters but it could have had thirty. Anyway, I think I have managed to say everything I wanted to say in these ten chapters”. Read and see for yourself.
The two hundred pages of this novel speak about a place where no evil is temporary, just the good things are; a place where anything can happen because logic or reason do not count; where a man cannot soberly meditate on his own past, let alone on the future; where no ideal can be realized because ideals last “from day to day” there and they soon expire. It is a place where so many things have happened, so many battles have been fought that several new Iliads could be written; “God only knows how many have died in that corn fields” and maybe only God knows how big should be the altar of homeland for all those who gave their lives for it. Robi contemplates on this matter and asks himself how could “liberation” bring back all the martyrs and missing sons to their relatives who, with them, lost all their world, no matter which nation they found themselves in. The hero passes from pain and hopelessness to anger, thinking of the hundreds of young people who were sent to die, while the lives of those who survived have been ruined forever. But nothing of that sort happened to the sons and heirs of the great leaders who return to their country from abroad only for occasional parties, not even being aware that there is a war going on.
Absolute victims are young volunteers like Denis, full of hope and courage, happy and pleasant people… until the war comes, with its dead, its wounded, its psychological traumas that were snobbed and even condemned by the “civilian” courts that know nothing of the front. Other absolute victims are also children who have to fill the emptiness left by their missing fathers with mute objects, with the last letter from the battlefield. Beautiful, even if a little pathetic, the scene of the “exchange of children” between the Serb Aca and the Croat Damir. It is suggestive because it seems to create a hope of a possible good. Throughout the novel there are the happy end stories, but there are also some characters that have a breakdown just when it seems that everything is fine and that they are overcoming the last difficulties.
The scene of the bombing is also significant: what can you do under falling grenades? Pray. And what if Robi forgot all his prayers? He starts praying anyway, and bomb after bomb they come back to his mind: six hours are time enough to remember Our Father. The ordinary people can only suffer the distinction between friends and enemies, and most of all, become military experts, like in Sarajevo, “how do you go from the shelter to the market and stay alive. On the way back too, of course!”