MAY 29, 2019
THERE IS A SCENE in Josip Novakovich’s new short story collection Honey in the Carcase in which a drowning six-year-old narrator admires the play of light on the surface above his head. He has helped his siblings paddle an air raft into the Adriatic Sea despite not knowing how to swim. As he sinks toward the bottom, he feels more wonder than panic, noting, “The shimmering surface of the water was like melted lead, which I had melted from stolen lead pipes and poured into cups.”
Beauty and brutality mingle everywhere in the collection, which is set in the United States and in the author’s country of birth: Yugoslavia until 1991 and Croatia thereafter. The stories fall on either side of that divide and include narratives set during Tito’s Yugoslavia — communism “with a human face” — and the vicious wars that left more than 100,000 dead. Most of the book’s players are ordinary people: a Slavonian beekeeper with grown children, a student hitchhiker, two young brothers who attempt to outdo one another with their fibbing. Each is concerned with the Sisyphean task of getting through the day-to-day while making sense of the world around them.
The world is often so broken and devoid of reason that it makes sense only to the most reductive and dim-witted of Novakovich’s characters. The American man who sponsors a Bosnian refugee family, equally gleeful about the boost to his reputation and the tax breaks. The truck driver who picks up the student but cannot decide if his passenger is from Iran or “Yugoslavakia.” The paramilitary irregulars who allow a man and his dog through a checkpoint once, only to shoot the dog the next time.
A celebrated short story writer, novelist, and essayist who was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Novakovich has explored similar territory before. These stories continue his fascination with the dislocation of exile, war’s absurdity, a world without logic in which certain patterns can yet be discerned, while further demonstrating his wit, his talent for the uncanny and absurd, and his fundamental empathy with all living things.
In “Honey in the Carcase,” Ivan Medvedich is a beekeeper who watches as Yugoslav forces lay waste to his surroundings. Shells fall, civilians are killed, and domesticated animals are slaughtered for fun. His brother presents him with a coffin, telling him cheerfully that this way he won’t be “dumped in a mass grave” if he is killed. When shrapnel wounds his wife and his sons evacuate, Ivan must decide whether to go with them. But he cannot bear to lose his home, “as though it was his skin.” More than that, he will not abandon the apiary he tends with loving care, concluding, “the invisible Godhead and his plan were revealed in bees.”
At great personal risk, he travels back and forth to bring the bees from the other side of the front line. When paramilitaries overrun his village, going house to house in search of survivors, the bees attack them, an act Ivan sees as an embodiment of his favorite verse of scripture, in which bees “get the better of the lions.” It is a small, momentary victory in an otherwise disfigured landscape.
This suggestion of David and Goliath, or karmic order in chaos, is echoed in “Wool,” one of the most arresting stories in the collection. Anna, the daughter of a mean and calculating drunk who accuses his wife of sleeping with the chimney sweep and beats his family on a regular basis, finds respite from her circumstances by caring for her beloved pet lamb. That the lamb will end up on a serving platter feels somehow inevitable given the cruelty of Anna’s situation. But Novakovich takes the tragedy a few steps further by fully mining the father’s glee in the act: he ties Anna to a chair for days until he forces her, at last, to eat her friend. When Anna turns the tables on her persecutor, it is a satisfying act of retribution that nonetheless leaves the reader wishing that her father, too, could end up on such a platter.
Justice is the outcome in only a few of Novakovich’s stories. Most characters struggle to find their footing in situations both bleak and absurd. For some, the absurd can even represent a kind of redemption, and Novakovich unspools those stories with a healthy dose of his trademark gallows humor. Indeed, in a recent interview he declared, “Sometimes irony is all we have left — a kind of protest or painkiller.”
Novakovich has a clear appreciation for gray areas and things that fail to add up, and his most intelligent (and empathetic) characters understand that the world is a messy place. The collection’s dangerous figures don’t always carry guns or beat their families. Sometimes peril comes in their tendency to impose false order on a disorderly world.
In “Tumbleweed,” a graduate student hitchhiking to New York City gets a ride with an American man who regards his accent with immediate suspicion. The student has spent the summer working in oil fields trying to earn money, and for as long as the driver sees him as an immigrant laborer, their interplay stays relatively friendly. They drink and talk, and drink some more as they drive. When the man learns that his passenger attends Columbia University, however, he makes him get out in the middle of nowhere.
Their interaction is interesting — and artfully restrained — because while the driver proclaims disbelief that there would be a “pinko at Columbia,” his anger is clearly rooted in the Ivy League affiliation. The student “can’t do better than work as a worm” and, as an immigrant, must naturally be inferior. When this notion is challenged, it is like watching an operating system fail. The data goes in but makes no sense in an environment of binaries.
American exceptionalism is also a theme in “Charity Deductions,” whose protagonist sponsors a Muslim-Croat family fleeing the violence of the Bosnian war. Pleased that this act of charity enhances both his reputation and his tax picture, the main character nonetheless grows weary when his houseguests display “the kind of moodiness […] that probably led to the wars.” They smoke indoors and make long-distance telephone calls, but it is their moping — their very foreign sadness — that gets under his skin.
His is clearly a xenophobia for our times: dogged belief in the superiority of the American system with a self-congratulating veneer of Christian charity. “I believe in the concept of home,” he thinks. “Stay home. Visit briefly. Go home.”
It is in his characters’ interactions with animals, and in his animal characters, that Novakovich shows some of humanity’s starkest shortcomings. In “Fritz: A Fable,” a German shepherd and a cat engage in violent conflict. When actual human war comes to their town, driving a wedge between former neighbors and, in the case of the narrator, between husband and wife, the cat and dog reach détente in an evident commentary on the shortsightedness of their human masters.
Likewise, the rat-narrator in “My Hairs Stood Up” decries the way he and his brethren have been demonized by humans. Taking refuge in the cavity of a cooling Thanksgiving turkey, he muses, “I don’t see any dissimilarities between us except that humans are bigger and, therefore, live in bigger holes. Their world is merely our world magnified.” The pandemonium that ensues when the rat is discovered echoes Ivan Medvedich’s favorite Bible verse about bees leaving “honey in the carcase” of the lion. The rat goes on to question whether humans are at all humane, citing their treatment of “vermin” and lab animals. As he points out, “I could have killed some of their old ones, but I haven’t done it. I was considerate and let them breathe on.”
In “Yahbo the Hawk,” the collection’s most moving and troubling story, a boy imprisons a young raptor in his attic, hoping to train it. Day after day, he attempts to bend the hawk to his will, but the animal only grows weaker:
[He perches] on the narrow ledge against the windowpanes, his beak open and uttering no sound, bewildered, perhaps not understanding what kind of air it was that would show you the wonders of your homeland and wouldn’t let you pass through, homeward.
The passage comes full circle to the drowning six-year-old looking through the glassy surface of the sea. It seems at once to represent exile and a world turned on its head. It is the civilian caught in the war zone and the child confronted by the bewildering cruelty of adults. Perhaps it is even the writer struggling to find the words.
Each day that the hawk spends confined to the attic is a day he does not learn to hunt, to fly, to fend for himself in the wild. When the boy decides that he must provide meat for the animal, he weeps at the task of killing a weasel and finally decides to let the hawk go. But he has waited too long, and two weeks later a forester reports seeing “a dead hawk with a dead weasel in its talons.”
Courtney Angela Brkic’s work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, The New York Times, the Washington Post Magazine, the Utne Reader, and National Geographic. A Whiting Award winner and author of The First Rule of Swimming (2013), Stillness: and Other Stories (2003) and The Stone Fields (2004), she teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University.