So begins Girl at War, Sara Nović’s excellent new novel about one of the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia apart in the early 1990s. The immediate perspective is that of the book’s 10-year-old narrator, Ana, making her usual cigarette run for her godfather, only to be asked for the first time whether she wants Serbian or Croatian cigarettes. For the outer world — and perhaps even many Yugoslavs themselves — the war might as well have been over a pack of cigarettes, for all they understood as to what could have happened to make yesterday’s neighbors suddenly start slaughtering one another in what would eventually develop into a three-sided civil war in Bosnia. Later Ana will wonder if there were also Bosnian cigarettes.
The Croatian-born Nović, who now lives in New York, is too young to have been cognizant of the events the novel describes (she was actually the age of Ana’s year-old sister who is sent to the United States for medical care, unavailable in her war-torn homeland). But the book’s particulars — the apartments that are modest but all come with balconies; the buildings with the “more modern, uglier architecture”; the Nutella; and the rakija, that local “brandy cooked in bathtubs by old ladies in the mountains and sold on the side of the road in Coca-Cola bottles” — show that she knows the details of life in the former Yugoslavia well.
Ana’s family lives in Zagreb, capital of what had until recently been the Yugoslav Republic of Croatia and is now the independent nation of Croatia — precisely the change that had precipitated the conflict. Our first views of the war come through a child’s eyes. Friends meet after school at a nearby, recently constructed road blockade as war “quickly became our favorite game.” The game had clear rules: when it is “every-man-for-himself war” you die three times, but when it is Serb versus Croat, you only die once. The war on TV was harder to understand. Ana now sees soldiers who don’t look like soldiers used to: they have beards and pirate flags and are wearing uniforms that don’t match. She asks her father “why the Yugoslav National Army would want to attack Croatia, which was full of Yugoslavian people.” He just sighs. What answer is there, really?
The war is closing in. Those who can, generally abandon sweltering Zagreb in the summer, but this year “the Serbs had blocked the roads to the sea […] so for the first time in my life we spent the summer inland.” And on the way back from bringing her sister to Sarajevo, the war reaches Ana’s family. There will be no more childhood war games for her, but there will be real war.
After a 10-year hiatus we meet Ana again as a New York University undergraduate: a family in Gardenville, Pennsylvania have adopted her and her sister. As a child in Croatia, the United States seemed “a wonderland full of actors who subsisted on McDonald’s.” But her conservative American hometown turns out to be the type of place where there is so little going on that you buy things “out of a desire to be interesting.” She develops a keen eye for the two countries’ differing cultures. Always excited for a trip in the car in Croatia, she learns that you need a car for everything in Gardenville. And there are no bakeries: “In stores bigger than any I’d ever seen in Europe […] I could not find a fresh loaf of bread.”
When she hears Americans talking about how they’re “starving,” she finds it hard to take, particularly “at college, where every night was a buffet of excess.” The US is obviously the richer nation, yet she recalls that “as a child I had taken the summers for granted — a month’s vacation time was the country’s standard,” but now,
I considered how insane a month off would sound to an American. Jack [her adoptive father] could barely get a week away from the computer consulting firm where he worked, and even then he was constantly hassled by pages and phone calls from needy clients.
On a trip back to Croatia, she remembers that “as children we’d been much freer than American ten-year olds, but now there’d been a strange reversal: Luka [her childhood friend] and all the other university students were living at home, beholden to their parents.” At the same time, she finds herself
feeling that my American education had left me remarkably ill-equipped for a discussion of philosophy. Luka seemed to have read at least chunks of the seminal texts in high school, while I kept up by regurgitating lines from the single critical theory course I’d taken my freshman year.
In New York, no one knows her past. At one point she tells people that Croatia is the country next to Bosnia because “they’d heard about Bosnia; the Olympics had been there in 1984.” Over time, however, she finds that people become uncomfortable hearing about things like the smell of singed flesh, and she finds herself instead telling a version of her story that is “nonthreatening, even funny […] palatable.” Over time she loses her accent. She stops talking about Croatia at all. Her boyfriend thinks she was born in New Jersey. When we pick up her story in the New World, she’s testifying about “Children in Combat” at the United Nations, on a program that includes a couple of Lost Boys from Africa.
The Yugoslav wars were widely considered a monumental setback for Europe, unleashing atrocities of a level not seen on the continent since the Second World War. But if there was any kind of silver lining to be gleaned from these wars of the ’90s, it might lie in the fact that their idiocy was so readily obvious to American and European audiences. These were Europeans subjecting each other to massacre and mass rape, people who appeared virtually identical to an outside observer and had until just recently lived amongst each other peacefully.
In fact, in order to further justify the slaughter, they had to work at developing and exaggerating differences between them. Perhaps no aspect captured the absurdity of it all so well as the linguistic: once the wars started, the very idea that the warring peoples even spoke the same language (Serbo-Croatian, which was written in either the Cyrillic (Serbian) or Latin (Croatian) alphabet) was no longer acceptable. So from now on the language of the Muslim, or Bosniak, population of Bosnia would be known as Bosnian (although a Croatian dictionary would continue to work just fine). Then, when the combatants finally negotiated an end to the conflict in the Dayton Accords in 1995, participants in the talks wore headsets with six language channels. Channel one was English; two — French; three — Russian; four — Bosnian; five — Serbian; six — Croatian. The last three were actually all tuned to the same interpreter who spoke a language that the three warring parties were free to call what they chose.
Unfortunately, so far as the United States went, the silver lining aspect didn’t really play out. In hindsight, the last of the Yugoslav civil wars, the 1998–’99 Kosovo war of secession, stands out as the moment when a significant sector of the American population decided to once again “Give war a chance,” as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman so memorably put it. With the widely reviled Serbs (“Milosevic’s Willing Executioners,” as one writer dubbed them) as the enemy, with no draft and no American “boots on the ground,” and with a Democrat, Bill Clinton, in the White House, many Americans abandoned the anti-interventionist stance that had prevailed since the Vietnam War. Even if we bombed an occasional Serbian power plant or television station in violation of international law, the argument that at least we were trying to “do the right thing” once again seemed good enough. Subsequent events would soon turn this new course into a habit that we now seem unable to break.
In contrast, those in Ana’s little corner of Zagreb do actually seem to have learned something from the idiocy of it all: when she returns, she sees street posters defending General Gotovina as “Hero, not criminal.” Luka explains that they are a response to a European Union requirement that Croatia “give up our war criminals” if the country wishes to join the organization. After at first objecting to the idea that anyone but the Serbs had war criminals, she concludes, “I knew in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other.”
The conversation grows depressing. Speaking of the ruminations of British writer Rebecca West on Yugoslavia, Luka says, “Some people say the Balkans is just inherently violent. That we have to fight a war every fifty years.” This is intended as a tragic reflection. And yet, from the vantage point of Ana’s adopted nation, which has been at war continuously since the day of this fictional conversation, it’s hard to know what to think.
Tom Gallagher has been a voter registration and election supervisor and observer in Bosnia and Macedonia. He is the author most recently of The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent akes on the Military Industrial Complex.