This exhausting book covers a breath-taking range: from a present day story set in the Balkans to fairy tales that sometimes begin in the Ottoman days. The narrator is Natalia, a doctor who tells the stories of her grandfather in the course of a trip she makes with another doctor to take medical supplies to an orphanage in the countryside. One story necessitates the telling of another, for example, the story of a tiger roaming the countryside because his zoo has been bombed and the tiger’s wife, who is the widow of Luka the butcher, requires telling the story of Luka of course, but also Darisa the Bear, whose chosen profession of taxidermy had to be supplemented by bear tracking. The stories are told alternately with the present day story which itself involves gypsies digging up a vineyard in search of a body that had been buried hastily during the war. They wanted to recover the body as they believed that was the cause of the family’s sickness and misfortune.
The author names fictional places and names that are recognizable to those who know the events of the war, but she refers only to “the border” or “the City.” Everyone has much to avoid.
Barba Ivan and Nada did not ask us about our drive, about our work, or about our families. Instead, in order to avoid any potential political or religious tangents, the conversation turned to crops.
And about the war, the doctor says those her age fought the presumption that the
City’s postwar generation [was] destined for failure. We were seventeen, furious at everything because we didn’t know what else to do with the fact that the war was over. Years of fighting, and, before that, a lifetime on the cusp of it. Conflict we didn’t necessarily understand — conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinions, seized as the reason for why we couldn’t go anywhere, do anything, be anyone — had been at the center of everything. It had forced us to make choices based on circumstances that were no longer a part of our daily lives, and we kept it close, a heavy birthright for which we were only too eager to pay.
I suppose the violent fairy tales somehow illuminate village life from another era and are intended to help us understand the hatred that bubbled over in that region. This was an ambitious undertaking, but I am not convinced.