Girl At War

War came to Croatia in 1991. For the adults, it marked an abrupt shift, but for ten-year-old Ana Jurić it causes subtle changes to her daily routines, a reflection of her parents’ fear rather than something that had to do with her. But these changes slowly press inward and soon threaten the life of her sickly little sister Rahela, who needs medical treatment available only in America. They succeed in getting her out, but at a cost that causes the war, previously abstract and distant, to crash home on Ana.

Such is the opening to Girl at War, a novel that explores the consequences of this violent disruption. Ana escapes to America and the family that took her sister Rahela (now Rachel) in adopt her as well. In suburban America Ana buries her experiences and pretends to be normal, filling her life with boys and school. These memories resurface in college. While reading novels about the trauma of the Holocaust, Ana runs into someone she knew back then and agrees to speak before the United Nations about her experience in the Balkan War––not as a soldier, but as a child with a gun. Suddenly the past is present. Ana’s relationship with her boyfriend Brian deteriorates and she resolves to return to Croatia.

Ana’s first stop is to reconnect with her childhood friend Luka, who takes Ana on a pilgrimage to the parts of her past that even he doesn’t know about: the scene of a crime, the town where she fought, and the vacation home where she hopes to find her godmother alive and well.

In what is, at its core, a straightforward story, Nović captures the jarring transition from carefree childhood to sudden responsibility and terror, with a dash of the absurd (the Croatian militia Ana falls in with name everyone after Hollywood action heroes). But what stood out to me about Girl At War is its treatment of memory. Rachel never knew herself as Rahela and has no memory of Croatia or the war; Ana couldn’t escape her memories, so instead buried them deep. She hopes to find resolution in going home, but instead learns that she is not alone. By the early 2000s Croatia is at peace, but the healing is superficial. Even before returning to the the scenes of her particular traumas Ana sees lingering signs of the war everywhere, and the resonances grow stronger the closer she comes. Ultimately there is no resolution, Girl At War says, only experience.

Girl At War is Sara Nović’s debut novel, which makes its sensitive treatment of memory remarkable in its own right, but my copy included an interview with the that added several wrinkles.

First, there is a sense of remove to Girl At War and Nović says that it is not her own story, but a composite story of Croats she knows. Rather than detracting from the story, however, this serves to make this specific story universal.

Second, Nović talks about the experience of writing a novel while deaf. In particular, she says that she has a particular difficulty writing natural-sounding dialogue, being someone whose experience is so different than speech. Without reading the interview, I wouldn’t have known. The dialogue is not exceptional, but it is perfectly acceptable literary dialogue. In retrospect, though, Girl At War catches on vivid visual and tactile details in a particularly effective way.

In sum, Girl At War is an effective novel that is simultaneously easy to read and a raw exploration about the lasting legacy of a collective trauma.

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Next up, I am about halfway through Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, The Red Haired Woman, which, so far, is a return to form. At the midpoint, it is a simple novel about the clash between modernity and tradition, urban and rural, and a story about coming of age, but it is also a book invested with mystery that particularly defined Pamuk’s early books.

Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor

…history seemed to drop from the air and spring out of the ground.

I start with a confession: on some level, I still idolize Patrick Leigh Fermor, a British adventurer and travel writer. “Adventurer” is somewhat of an odd descriptor for a citizen of the twentieth century most famous for his travels in Europe, and yet it is the most accurate. Between the Woods and the Water is the second (of three) part of Fermor’s most famous adventure–his cross-continental jaunt in the 1930s that began when he was asked to leave school for having been seen holding hands with a woman in town. And so, at nineteen, he crossed the English Channel and set out walking toward Istanbul, picking up languages and making friends along the way. This is one of my dream trips.

It might have been wise to read the first volume about this trip, A the Time of Gifts before Between the Woods and the Water, if only to see the journey from the start, but the reader does not lose much by starting with this one, as I did. The book picks up on a bridge over the Danube between Slovakia and Hungary and takes the reader across the Hungarian plain and through Transylvania to the Serbian border. Fermor has a lively style, and shows indefatigable enthusiasm for this trip. In one moment he is daydreaming about the Mongols or eating wild strawberries, the next bathing in a river with a friend and being teased by young women watching them, the next sitting still in the mountains watching a giant eagle. He comes to wild leaps about the etymologies of the people and places he encounters, speculates about the religious connections, and fumbles through learning the languages. All the while he alternates between truly living rough and tumble, seeking shelter from the rain in pines or caves and leading what he terms a “parasitic” existence, being taken in by strangers, friends, and friends of friends. The description of the parasitic existence, including parties in Budapest that see him waken to a hangover in the late morning and dim memories of the night before, and, particularly, an excursion with his host and an unhappily married woman are tinged with happy nostalgia.

Overwhelmingly, Between the Woods and the Water is a travelogue infused with history coming from two directions. The book was composed from memories, letters, and journals and appeared in 1986, but the journey itself was in 1934 and it presents the political developments of its time as an ominous shadow, dimly recognized in the background. Thus, springing from the ground, as it were, is a first-person history observed of Eastern Europe before the rise of Nazi Germany, before World War 2, and before the Cold War. The author is aware of developments later, but the trip itself is infused with the remnants of the Austo-Hungarian empire and defies modernity. Falling from the sky is a history even older–the daydreams of Magyars, Romans, Huns, Mongols, Turks, and schismatic Christians criss-crossing the plain, sowing destruction and leaving behind their names.

Fermor has a flair for description and erudition. I would love to make a comparable trip (even on foot!), but for a brief time I was in fact swept away.