Each time I come back to Croatia, I see that it is not the Croatia I left, that I am not the person who left. Today, every lengthy departure from Croatia promises a still more difficult return, an ever more remote chance of establishing a firm, tenuously secure basis for living. Today, when I leave, I no longer know who I will find alive when I come back.
Croatian writer Daša Drndić was singular literary force, able to deftly weave facts—often gathered and presented in an unapologetic, even confrontational manner—with fiction to create compulsively readable, powerful works. Her novels incorporate lists, historical details, interview excerpts, documentary asides and lengthy footnotes into a character-driven story to achieve more than what either fiction or nonfiction could do alone. In Canzone di Guerra, recently released in English translation from Istros Books, we see an early form of this distinctive approach to storytelling, deeply political yet strikingly novelistic, echoing the author’s own experience in Toronto, Canada, as a single mother escaping conflict as the former Yugoslavia was falling apart in the early 1990s. Given this context, this work also stands as an increasingly relevant portrait of the immigrant experience—one in which my own country does not come out too well.
Originally published in 1998, Canzone di Guerra’s opening chapters zero in immediately on the narrator’s decision to leave Croatia and the varied circumstances immigrants and refugees face in Canada after the collapse of “Socialist Yugoslavia.” Framed by short digressions about the origin and fate of certain varieties of pigs—parables of culture, dislocation and loss—Drndić quickly shatters idealistic illusions and hints at the embedded inequalities and ethnic divisions that her superficially homogenous community carries with it to new shores. Imagined, in part, as the transcript of a radio documentary we hear the voices of an array of characters struggling to find work, dismayed at the lack of recognition for their professional credentials, and coping with loneliness and alienation:
Here we sleep peacefully, there’s no shelling, but we’re waging a different war. A war in the soul, a war in the head. Why did we come? We thought Canada was a country of great possibilities. I don’t know why no one told us the truth.
Beneath the dialogue, footnotes discuss the disappearance of trees in Sarajevo parks, coping strategies for stretching food or resources, even quote George Orwell. Throughout the text, such notes offer the opportunity for a multilayered discourse. There is always more going on beneath the surface.
Of the migrants, seeking a better life, some will thrive, some will not. The narrator, Tea Radan (“my name in this story” as she later says), has her young daughter Sara, to consider. She has to hope for the best. But what is she really hoping for? That is, at best, uncertain. Prior to moving to Canada, Tea and Sara had lived in Belgrade before moving to Rijeka in her native Croatia. Her sister lives in Slovenia, her brother is restless but goes nowhere. Those she knows want to leave but most don’t get far. However, the distance that her ability to migrate affords her seems to focus her attention back on her family, her parents and grandparents, and their actions and political associations during and after the Second World War. Her grandfather’s letters and mother’s diary entries help flesh out the story, but questions remain unresolved.
A romance with a fellow Croatian immigrant sets her off on an extensive, obsessive search through archives and records available in Canadian libraries, triggered by the notion that his family’s circumstances may have been connected to her own, most particularly to a betrayal of her mother during the war. It is not a healthy basis for a relationship, but it spurs a journey that leads Tea from one rabbit hole to another, as she delves into the history of Croatian communist and fascist movements, through the treatments of Jews in Canada, to tragic accounts of the concentration camps Theresienstadt near Prague and Jasenovac in Croatia. It is a gut-wrenching whirlwind tour, one that invites readers to slip down their own rabbit holes. Yet the intensity of her investigations, only trigger more questions:
The more I read, the less I knew. No one was entirely innocent, no one was entirely guilty: not the cardinals, nor the bishops, nor the popes, nor the churches, nor the Vatican. Nor the communists. As for the Ustasha ‘truths’, I read them too, but I didn’t believe them. They all had their version of history. Those who survived. The CIA had its truth as well. America and Great Britain their own.
Uncomfortably, for a Canadian reader, Drdnić, through her narrator, is unsparing in her critique of Canada’s failure to deal with a number of high profile war criminals who found their way here—something I was not unaware of but was chastened to review it all again.
This novel is, nonetheless, more than a vehicle to delve into past darkness. It is charged with a certain humour and warmth as Tea and her daughter navigate life in a new country. It is not easy. Along with other migrants they are forced to seek social supports, take degrading work under the table, and scour second hand shops for clothing and shoes. It sounds bleak, but Tea’s defiance and Sara’s spirit carry them through the endless bureaucratic mazes of the modern capitalist state.
Entertaining, intelligent and disturbing, to read Canzone di Guerra today, thirty years after the time when it was set, is enlightening. Immigrants still face the same frustrations finding support, resources, and work that recognizes their training. Yet, as refugees from the war in Ukraine flow into Canada and many other countries—often moving ahead of those waiting in line much longer—it is clear that all refugees and immigrants are not treated equally. The migrants arriving from the collapsing Yugoslavia note at one point that they are invisible compared to other more “obvious” newcomers. But visibility is not an asset, as long-time Canadians from visible minorities can attest. Racism and xenophobia has grown even more over the past few decades, buoyed by the same kind of nationalist sentiments that played such a key role in World War II and the Balkan Wars alike. Daša Drndić’s work remains, as ever, clear-eyed, critical and timely.
Canzone di Guerra by Daša Drndić is translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Istros Books.