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,
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
Dr. Josip Bratulic
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
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
The military "farewell" assume a symbolic dimension
which seems to become a figure of global existence.
(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
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.
By Giulio Maria Artusi
(LN Librinuovi, n.28/2003, Italy)
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”,
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.
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
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
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.
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.
(ROCK EXPRESS n.33/2002. BEOGRAD - SRBIJA)
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.
TRANCHIDA EDITORE (MILAN, ITALY)
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.
"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.
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".
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?"
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."
PEOPLE AND DESTINIES"
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,
Art Director of International Literary Competition Anguillara Sabazia,
Citta d'Arte 2003, Italy
-Il Convivio, n.15/2003 (Italia)
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
Dell'Armi (29-09-2003), Italy
Balkan Farewells: those who go and those who stay
go away, others die, other still, shocked by the terrible atmosphere
around them, flee into alcohol, madness, isolation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
IN THE BALKAN TRAGEDY
di Selena Delfino (Italia), 2004
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.
Mirci (Parole di Sicilia, 2004, Italy)
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
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
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.
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.
Calonico (Arte & Cultura, n. 75/2004, Italy)
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!”