In addition to Let’s Go Home, Son, his most personal novel (now available in an English translation from Istros Books), Prtenjača has published three other novels—Dobro je, lijepo je (“It’s Good, It’s Nice,” 2006), Brdo (“The Hill,” 2014), and Tiho rušenje (“Quiet Collapse,” 2017)—along with several collections of short stories, a play, and numerous volumes of poetry. Prtenjača’s work has received many awards: this particular book won the Vladimir Nazor and the V.B.Z. unpublished novel award in Croatia.
By way of fully introducing the novel itself, mention must be made of the translator, for his journey to this novel was a small miracle. David Williams had given up translating literary fiction from Croatian to English (see the 2017 piece he wrote for World Literature Today) until offered this book by Susan Curtis at Istros Books. He immediately felt very close to the story of a father and son. “I gave the translation heart and soul,” Williams told me. “I just wanted it to be the best book it could possibly be in English. I was lucky too, because so much of the narrator is in me. I was precocious as a child, but both of my parents were from very humble backgrounds and neither got anywhere near a university.” He adds that “writing the book was obviously a way [for Prtenjača] to honor his father. Translating the book became a way to honor mine.”
It doesn’t take long for readers to realize that the novel could have been set anywhere: it is a universal story of love, respect, and struggle, of growing up and learning what masculine dignity looks like, depicted in an understated and compelling way. This is not to say that mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts figure less prominently in the story, but the focus here is on the father-son bond. Prtenjača’s father was a baker, and his final illness was caused by years of breathing in flour. Reading the novel is a bit like watching bread being prepared, smelling the aroma, and then eating it hot from the oven without burning the inside of your mouth. It’s so good that it’s like watching a miracle unfold.
Miracles can be funny too. Early on, the son comforts his mother, who is worried about the deteriorating health of his father, commenting afterward that “[l]ies are beautiful. They make life possible.” The father is dying in a hospital a long way from the home he built and the family he raised with his wife and their relatives. His last wish is to return home, a journey complicated by easily understood medical obstacles and the social convolutions caused by the COVID-19 lockdown in Croatia. Fortunately, we are spared a COVID commentary. The disease appears, like a minor character, toward the end of the novel, just as we all experienced it at first: the impending calamity was not understood then. The father gets home before any lockdown is enforced, and that’s the last we read of it.
The father’s final journey parallels the journey the author takes as he comes to act and react like an adult, making decisions for the family and forming judgments about his own life. How he becomes that adult unfolds in a series of delicious vignettes of rural coastal life. At the first of many family weddings, the young author gets drunk for the first time, but only his grandmother notices, and even then, it isn’t clear that she does anything to help or hinder his recovery. Everyone else at the wedding is distracted by the happy couple and the antics of the very flashy “Uncle Joe” visiting from Canada. Known as Jole before he emigrated, Uncle Joe feels the need to arrive in a gold BMW hired in Germany and driven to his homeland. He brings with him a very expensive camera, both to record the day and to be validated as a success by his family. The father is conspicuous only by the strength of his smile in his son’s favorite photo of the event—a rare smile that makes him unrecognizable as his “normal” self. Fortunately, the young author, throwing up and fainting, goes unphotographed by the uncle, who is too busy trying hard to impress his relatives. Granny seems to wander off singing. Father arrives much later and offers no judgment, although we assume he knows what happened.
In another episode, an itinerant group of Albanian builders is introduced shortly after we discover an Italian neighbor known to all as “Signor Fascist” (I really wanted to learn more about this guy, but there is nothing else). This tight-knit group, consisting of a father and four sons, refuses alcohol and offers of food in order to focus on completing the exterior of the author’s family home in five days. Tragedy and prejudice strike when the oldest Albanian son is badly injured and is driven to the hospital by the author’s father at high speed. He recovers afterward in the author’s bed while the author sleeps on the floor, in a modest scene of youthful masculine serenity disrupting racial stereotypes, as the two young men talk in broken Croatian about their respective families. It is a touching portrayal of a minority community (Albanians make up less than half a percent of the country’s total population). After the trip in the family’s ancient car to collect the injured young man from the hospital, the author remarks that the vehicle “swelled with the pride poor people feel when they’ve outdone themselves”; a little while later, he reports that “know[s] all about the transience of things.”
The transience of things is beautifully emphasized by the most enigmatic and ambiguous male presence in the novel: the local priest, Father Ante, who haunts the author’s childhood amid a cloud of cigarette smoke. Every morning, the children pray for the Holy Father, for their homeland, and for Father Ante to find the courage to quit smoking. This doesn’t seem to happen, but still the holy smoke moves in mysterious ways. Father Ante never seems to need to be heard saying anything; in a series of humorous asides, other people speak for him. The priest appears again to preside over the church wedding of the author’s parents. This time, he is smoking and wearing expensive brown shoes. The trees planted by the priest appear in the final pages, many years after the wedding: even the celibate creates life, a miracle of sorts.
The novel is divided into three parts rather than separate chapters. The first two parts offer the enjoyable meanderings of the author’s life so far and the impending illness of his father. For most of these sections, the author narrates like a child not understanding what has happened. The third part begins with the author admitting fatigue: “I haven’t slept well. It’s more like I’ve swallowed it in small flavourless portions, the way a waiter eats during a shift.” The narrative then begins to leave his childhood behind.
In this final section, we are treated to reminiscences of a more recent family wedding. This time, the author notices more menace: some of his male relatives sing ugly patriotic songs calling for the return of the Ustaše to save the Croatian homeland. Though Granddad was a Partizan, an enemy of the Ustaše in the Second World War, he merely waves his hand dismissively, knowing or hoping that those sentiments will depart tomorrow with the onset of hangovers. The author remembers hugging him as a child and feeling the shrapnel still lodged in his neck, too dangerous to remove. When pressed to answer “Who were the Partizans?” Granddad responds, “They were slimy creeps.” “We left it at that,” says the author, realizing that is how grown-ups speak. As his family walks home very late from the same wedding, the author, growing up quickly now, observes that “[t]he townspeople were enjoying the kind of peaceful sleep that existed before mass slaughter was invented.” The miracle here is that they also seem to have survived the 1990s. The recent history of Croatia, and its bloody emergence from the unnamed country of Yugoslavia where the memories of the family’s past take place, is never referred to, and may only linger in the minds of those readers aware of the historical context.
Let’s Go Home, Son is a compelling short novel, a novel of truths already learned but unrealized, and David Williams’s translation of it is a marvel. The characters are sketched rather than painted, and the prose is pithy rather than beautiful, but the overall effect is powerful. In fact, like life itself, the novel doesn’t really end, in any conventional sense. The father isn’t recorded as dying; instead, the son completes the first part of his journey toward becoming an adult man. We witness him kneading flour and being reminded of how he got there, realizing that being an adult is knowing that each day is a miracle.
Michael Tate is the founder of Jantar Publishing.