I was expecting to find this book interesting: the story of the former Yugoslavia has intrigued me ever since it fell apart in the barbarous wars that fragmented the country into Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia et al in 1992. King of Tuzla promised to be the tale of a young UN peacekeeper who is unexpectedly embroiled in a real war in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars.
The book was sent to me for review by the publisher so I felt obliged to finish it, but I might not have otherwise. The translation from the Dutch is clunky, not just because of mistakes like ‘snorted’ for ‘snored’; ‘costed’ for ‘cost’; and ‘post-deaf ears’, but because the language simply doesn’t flow. Whether this is a feature of the original Dutch I can’t tell but it hampers the reading. So does the occasional howler such as this one: precocious girls laughed at the cars with their bad teeth (p50) or this one which had me momentarily wondering why Tijman had failed Office Training School until I realised the mistake:
Beyond the parade ground was the castle, Henricus. Beneath the gate were the names of his predecessors were displayed. Their names had been scratched on every stone. In some cases the year of passing out was added. He could have inserted his own. Passed out 1986. But he hadn’t. (p84)
And on p153 when Tijman is reflecting on his sense of alienation in French, shouldn’t Je est un autre be Je suis an autre or J’ai été un autre??
The author is a former soldier who served in the UN as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia, and it seems to me that he assumes knowledge of events that many readers may not share. (His acronyms are annoying too: what kind of military vehicle is a YPR??) With the passage of time the confusion felt by those of us observing the dissolution of the country from a distance has become even more muddled; I came to this book with vivid memories of the genocide and the so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ as it was reported here, but I had only a vague recollection of the geo-political conflict i.e. that the Serbs were against the Croats and the Bosnians.
So, for example, when a mother cryptically replies to a child’s query about where father is with the ‘mysterious word Vareš, that dreadful word which shouldn’t be spoken, (p59) I had no idea what it meant. Was it an admonition to be quiet indicating some kind of problem in the relationship with the mother? Was it a reference to a friend or relative perhaps dead or on the wrong side? Was it an allusion to some atrocity or underground resistance or political movement? It turns out to be a small town in Central Bosnia but Wikipedia didn’t enlighten me any further, and it’s not until a good while later that there’s a snippet in the book about there having been ’ethnic-cleansing’ there. I found the first 50 pages a chore while I tried to unravel what was going on politically and geographically, and to sort out which if any of the snapshot characters were going to be significant.
I did like the cameos of characters, but I found it frustrating that some stories were never followed up. Galib Prolaz, a civil servant harassed out of his position and into farming, vanishes after two pages. His survival mattered to me even though parts of the narrative about him were incomprehensible. This is from the first page, (curiously numbered page 11 in the table of contents and page 13 on the page):
Galib had returned home with his briefcase and his sandwiches. He said to his wife that it really was war now.
Not long after, in his own village, ‘the man from Marrakech’ had disappeared; he was blue like the men who lived in the Southern Atlas Mountains.
Was ‘blue’? What does that mean? And why does the sudden disappearance of this man from Marrakesh cause a panic that makes all the Croats ‘leave the village head over heels’? (Unfortunate imagery, that, IMO). Is Galib a Croat? a Muslim? A Serb who objects to the harassment? We don’t know because he insists on being defining himself as Yugoslav, not as a member of any particular ethnic group – but if he’s a symbol of what might have been, and that the unity that had existed is irrecoverable, it’s a bit flimsy.
I don’t know what the central character Tijman was expecting when he joined the army and become a UN peacekeeper, but he finds himself dismayed when trouble erupts. Perhaps where he comes from there hasn’t been the avalanche of books and films that depict the horror and confusion of war because it’s all a bit of a surprise to him. The best part of the book, however, is his diary entries from when his unit is under attack, reinforcements don’t seem to be forthcoming and he secures the Tuzla airbase. This part reads more like a memoir, and seems more authentic and less disjointed than the rest of the book.
I think I learned more about the banal cruelty of war from Danis Tanovic’s 2001 film No Man’s Land. Reviewed on Kinoeye, this film … never asks about the comparative merits of the nationalist claims of the different sides in the Bosnian war… The first half of the film has three enemy soldiers trapped in a trench between the front lines, in various degrees of misery, both scared of and dependent on each other. The opportunities for black humour in this situation are obvious, and the film relishes them. This humour has little do to with exploration of character; rather, it works on the premise that people, especially young men, and including soldiers, are very much alike, making the battle lines drawn between them all the more absurd.
The second half of the film is a critique of the role of the UN and the media. Deeply cynical, it questions whether neutrality is possible or desirable. As Wikipedia says, UNPROFOR’s mission in Bosnia was to guard the humanitarian aid convoys, to remain neutral and act as a mere bystander. No Man’s Land shows that at times this can sometimes be patently absurd and is an affront to our ideas about the UN’s humanitarian role, but the film-maker has chosen not to acknowledge that countries in conflict insist on strict conditions for any external force intervening in their affairs. Still, it’s a very good film.
For me, the biggest problem with King of Tuzla is its disconnectedness. It’s as if the author has needed to get things off his chest and has insisted on including a jumble of characters and incidents that seem to have little bearing on the narrative. There are snippets of information that seem irrelevant or strange: why, for example, was it impressed upon Tijmen that he should not shake hands with the elderly members of the Officer Selection Board? (p82) I couldn’t make much sense of the book, except to recognise that this type of military activity is necessarily confused and confusing, and that one way or another it exerts a human toll on all the participants.
But we knew that already, didn’t we? From All Quiet on the Western Front to Fly Away Peter to any number of reflective works about the horrors of war, we know that young men go off to war in search of adventure and excitement and come back disillusioned. We know also that war impacts on the sense of identity because these experiences take place when soldiers are still so young. Those books are worth reading as works of enlightenment as well as works of literature, but I don’t think King of Tuzla succeeds as either. But don’t take my word for it: Stu Allen really liked it and rated it five stars, and Sue at Whispering Gums feels that it has its merits..
For anyone interested in the history of the former Yugoslavia, I recommend Brian Hall’s The Impossible Country. This superb book is an account of the author’s travels through Yugoslavia just before and as it broke up, and is a poignant portrait of how ethnic groups who lived in harmony together for many years erupted into hatred and violence that shocked the world. (See an excellent review by D R Godine at Google Books.)
For a harrowing but illuminating perspective on the impact of this war on civilians, Music for the Third Ear by Susan Schwartz Senstad is also well worth reading, if you can find a copy.
Title: King of Tuzla
Translator: Paul Vincent
Publisher: Holland Park Press, 2010