Sunday 28 June 2015


Whenever we think of a graphic non-fiction narrative, the first artist who normally comes to mind is Joe Sacco, who has firmly established himself as the foremost exponent of the form through classic works like Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde.(He has also some spent some time in a village in UP,India  and that particular piece was published in Caravan a few years back). Now, there appears to be a new star on the horizon-Nina Bunjevac , a Yugoslavian  graphic artist, based in Canada. A friend presented her second book (Fatherland, Jonathan Cape 2014) to me recently and I am highly impressed by her narration and the art work (in black and white) is absolutely stunning.
In Fatherland, Nina gives us an account of her family and their life’s story in erstwhile Yugoslavia and Canada interspersed with briefs about the history of Yugoslavia and the origin of regional tensions which subsequently led to the Balkan wars in 1990s resulting in the breaking up of Yugoslavia. The history of the Balkan region is very complicated and the author has done a good job of explaining it succinctly, without going into too much details. She provides just enough information for the reader to understand the motivation of the main protagonists in the novel.
Her father  Peter, a staunch Serbian nationalist, who was against the communist leadership of  Josip Toto was the first to leave Yugoslavia in 1959, after spending three years in jail on account of trumped up charges of espionage. Her mother moved to Canada after marriage and Nina was the youngest of the three siblings born to them. Peter joined  the anti-Tito organization -Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland and became an  active participant in carrying our anti-Yugoslavia activities  secretly on Canadian soil (In present times Peter would be called a terrorist and his organization a terrorist organization but that was a different era).He also started drinking a lot and that combined with his deep involvement in anti-Tito activities made Nina’s mother very insecure about the family’s future in Canada. When she saw that Peter wasn’t going to mend his ways, she decided to leave for Yugoslavia in 1975 with her two daughters, never to return to her husband. Nina’s grandparents, who were strong supporters of the communist government, were obviously very happy to see them even though they struggled to make the ends meet.  Peter continuously wrote to his wife and tried to convince her to come back but they both knew that he could not turn his back to the Serbian organization he had got so deeply involved in. He slowly became a mental wreck and in 1977 he died in an explosion in a garage where he was attempting to assemble a bomb along with two compatriots. Whether the bomb went off by mistake while assembling or the module was sabotaged by Tito’s secret police … one would never know.
Apart from Peter, the other person who played a major role in influencing Nina’s family was Nina’s grandmother.  A smart lady and a staunch communist, she was the one who got Nina’s mother and Peter together for marriage. Later when she visited Canada and sensed the dangers to her daughter and grandchildren, she decided to split the family by asking her daughter to move back to Yugoslavia where she kept a strict control on the life of her daughter and granddaughters. Nina also provides us with some beautiful vignettes of life in Yugoslavia under the communist rule and weaves in bits of Balkan folklores into the narrative. The excellent production quality of the book (art paper, hard bound and in A4 size) helps in bringing out the finer details of Nina’s artwork which almost has a life-like feel to it.

The novel ends suddenly after Peter’s death. Maybe a sequel is in the offering which would tell us what happened after Peter’s death. Since the novel begins with a meeting of Nina and her mother in 2012 in Canada it would be of interest to know how and when did the family moved back to Canada and  how was their experience on return after Peter’s mysterious death. What happened to the eldest sibling –Petey (whom the father had not allowed to go to Yugoslavia with the mother) after his father’s death and how did his relationship develop with his estranged family. Will Nina oblige us with these unanswered questions in her next book? 

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