By: Josip Novakovich
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Dzanc Books (January 10, 2017)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
This is a collection of gloriously transgressive extremes. People kill each other in this book — and sometimes eat the corpse. They rise from their death bed to celebrate life by assaulting their loved ones. They turn sexual energy into a weapon that can destroy cities. They use a dead sea scroll to roll a cigarette. They smile when the twin towers come down, adoring “The sight of all that smoke as though witnessing the epiphany of an angry God.” What is glorious in these transgressions? The dizzying transformations. Life becomes death, which sometimes becomes life again. We watch as the past and the future, the murderer and his victim become one. Ordinary reality is transformed by inventive and lyrical prose. “He beat the coffee beans into Turkish dust in an iron cup with a round-headed piece of iron, which looked like a bone, the head of a child’s femur. The metal rang dull under the crunch of the beans. Branko sprinkled the coffee powder into boiling water as though scattering ashes and the intoxicating smell of black dust wafted through the room.” The specter of death and the longing for resurrection lurk beneath a startling range of stories that include ghosts, thieves and transients, a great scientist, slaughtered Muslims, and many ordinary people struggling to make their way in a painful world.
Dutch Treat is the story of Martin, an idealistic U.N. peacekeeper whose initial actions and subsequent failure to act help to cause the death of 8,000 innocent people. Told in a straight forward, and, unfortunately, historically accurate manner, the story describes Martin’s childhood fascination with the United Nations building where “All that glass reflecting the gold of the setting sun struck him as splendid, even more so than the World Trade Tower’s apparent silverworks.” Volunteering for Bosnia, Martin soon realizes two things, that both the people and the buildings are more damaged than they seem, and that his mission was “a show.” Feeling like an actor, he parades his healthy, muscular body through town while grinding his teeth. He and his fellow soldiers do nothing when the Muslims they’ve disarmed are murdered in a soccer stadium, despite the fact that, “Soccer is equal to tulips and windmills as a symbol of Dutch life, and that the Serbs would chose a soccer stadium for this seemed like an additional insult. But what was an insult in the face of mass murder?” The unreality of Martin’s thinking and life become even worse when he meets a survivor of the massacre in New York and attempts to make amends. The shame Martin has tried to leave behind comes back to destroy him in a chilling and unexpected conclusion. Martin, the idealistic and accidental murderer, has become his own victim, bent on revenge.
In When the Saints Come, Davor “Had been wheezing for days and he gasped in his sleep and talked about Armageddon, global warming, and the vanished Boeing 777. Even awake, he talked about the 777 as the ascension airplane — all the people onboard went straight to heaven and the rest remained on the ground, awaiting the wraith of God.” Davor, who has not been religious since his childhood, soon discovers that he has lung cancer, and as with his initial rantings about God and the 777, his reawakening faith is curiously mixed with literal, earthly concerns as well as a surging sense of beauty and loss. “Now he saw the world differently and loved the forest flowers whose names he didn’t know, some white like little bells, others blue, yellow, purple. After a dreary, colorless winter, the ground had burst in the full spectrum of a rainbow, as though it had become the heavens, and who’s to say it hadn’t, as our earth is part of the celestial harmony?”
He goes to Jerusalem, experiencing the sun, the oranges, the olives, the soldiers with machine guns, the gold-covered chapel, only to lose faith in Christianity, and, preemptively, Judaism and Islam as well. After calculating the value of the gold on the Dome on the Rock, Davor imagines that “The soil contained the blood of more than a million pilgrims, Muslims, and Jews fighting for that square kilometer of arid land.” He rejects religion, largely on logical, humanistic grounds, but also loses his sense of joy and much of what was left of his health. “As morning doves began to coo on his roof, announcing the thinning of the night, dispersing the darkness (where did it all go, where could it hide in this universe that is mostly darkness?), . . . he could not get out of bed, could not lift his head.”
For the rest of the story, Davor wrestles, expansively, with the unanswerable questions of life. In the end “He lay for three days and three nights and then died with a mysterious half-smile on his thin blue lips, his blue eyes pale like the spring sky, irises only, with tiny and hazed-over pupils, reduced to milky black dots bleeding into the blue.” Heritage of Smoke boldly explores a world in which change is the only constant, and in which great beauty coexists with losses that are transformed but can never be escaped. It’s an exciting and unsettling read.