Fatherland is a chilling portrait—a month after reading it, I looked again at the ominous cover image of a smiling, clean-cut blond man, and felt a palpable sorrow. The man is the author’s father, a radical Serbian nationalist whose troubled childhood and the convictions that came of it brought him into terrorist activities and broke apart his already troubled family.
Nina Bunjevac has every reason to hate her father—he treated her mother terribly, participated in dangerous and deadly things in the name of politics, and his radical activity forced her mother to flee to Communist Yugoslavia with Nina and her sister. But, she’s measured in her view of her father, who dealt with his own family problems and uncertainties as a child. One thing that particularly surprised me was the fluidity of family movement between America and Yugoslavia. I tend to think emigration only moves westward, but multiple generations of eastward moves within Bunjevac’s family prove otherwise. Through her own narrative, she pieces out, without justifying or excusing, what may have lead her father to participate in terrorist acts. It’s uncompromising and intelligent and indicting and compassionate all at once.
At the same time, she skillfully weaves into her own family’s story a surprisingly succinct history of the last century of the Balkan conflict. It’s a complicated one. The region was dramatically affected by World War II, as well as the spread of Communism. Those who had fought against the Nazis were soon subject to the strictures of Tito’s particular brand of communism, which tried to squelch national ties and punished dissenters. Bunjevac doesn’t come down in favor of one side or another, since her own experience straddles both; her maternal grandmother and her father were at each other’s throats, even in her earliest childhood memories, over ideology and ideologues. Without insisting upon a stance of her own, Bunjevac simply shows how people can hold so fiercely to their own beliefs at the expense of relationships and even their lives. What we understand to be history is really a whittling down and winnowing out of much more complex and intricate human stories, and what we see as terrorism often arises out of someone’s personal convictions, however misguided. By telling her own family’s story, Bunjevac offers a powerful reflection on both.
There is much to be said for the effectiveness of Bunjevac’s illustration style as well. Cross-hatched, almost journalistic panels—think Wall Street Journal portraiture—are both sober and emotional. Each image is static, but cinematically composed, adding to a sense of intentionality. It almost feels as though you’re looking at individual cells of a home movie, or perhaps at what happens to be a less-than-rosy family album. Furthermore, she doesn’t try to pack each page with information. Many pages feel almost sparse, but you feel like you’ve learned and experienced multiple volumes when the book is finished.
Fatherland is worth a read, even if you think you have no interest in the particular piece of history it is based on, or are no great fan of the personal memoir genre. In this slim volume, Bunjevac bravely delves into her father’s radical psyche and a closet full of her family’s ghosts in an attempt to understand the past. The result is powerful.
by Nina Bunjevac
Jonathan Cape, 2014