Five Novels about the Yugoslav Wars

By Christopher Linforth

Many years after living in Croatia, part of the former Yugoslavia, I started to write about the effects of the civil war on the citizens of this once-united republic. As I read history books and collections of essays about the region, I realized what was missing for me was the literature of this diverse set of countries. I went back and began reading dozens of novels, many in translation, which would help me understand the nature of the conflict and how it affected the different Slav peoples. For this list, I came up with the best five contemporary novels about Yugoslavia and its devastating civil war. – Christopher Linforth

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon (2004)

Hemon’s debut novel centers on the enigmatic Jozef Pronek, a Bosnian refugee now living in Chicago. The book’s tripartite structure, further punctuated by vignettes, allows us to see the three main parts of Pronek’s life. It soon becomes clear that Pronek has a propensity for fantasy, for making things up. This habit, though, only charms us as we follow the course of his life.

April Fool’s Day by Josip Novakovich (2006)

This satirical novel bites hard into the political machinations of Yugoslavia and speculates on how and why Croats were often sidelined because of their heritage. Novakovich uses a stand-in Croat, one Ivan Dolinar. Ivan, born on April Fool’s Day in 1948, narrates the descent of his once-promising life with equal amounts of humor and rhetorical fire.

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić (2007)

Questions surrounding the pain of exile drives Ugrešić’s intelligent novel. We follow Tanja Lucic, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, as she seeks to understand the phenomenon of Yugonostalgia, a nostalgic desire for Tito’s long-gone Yugoslavia. The novel offers few answers to the thematic questions that plague Tanja, though this ambiguity deepens the complexity of the book.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (2011)

Obreht’s novel seamlessly integrates family legend and storytelling into a complex, sprawling narrative about the death of the narrator’s grandfather in his war-torn homeland. Natalia, our guide to this unnamed Balkan country, discovers that her grandfather never spoke about one particular story: the tiger’s wife. Natalia then resolves to discover the truth about this family legend.

Girl at War by Sara Nović (2015)

Told from a Croatian girl’s point of view, Nović’s novel charts Ana’s existence as both a teenage child soldier and her subsequent life as a student in New York City. The influence of Sebald is clear. Both the structural time conceit and the dual perspective offer a striking series of insights into the nature of war and what it does to people.

Christopher Linforth

Bio: A former resident of Zagreb, Christopher Linforth is the author of three story collections, The Distortions (Orison Books, 2022), Directory (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2020), and When You Find Us We Will Be Gone (Lamar University Press, 2014). Linforth’s stories have appeared in Notre Dame Review, Witness, The Arkansas International, Fiction International, Consequence, and Best Microfiction 2021, among other places.

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