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Popular Dystopia Meets Croatia

The debut novel from Croatian-American writer Sara Nović, Girl at War, has received significant praise from both readers and critics in influential publications such as the Guardian and the New York Times. According to such reviews, the book succeeds in representing distant experience as universal; it enables readers to empathize deeply with the main character and to gain an understanding of the Croatian war. What has not been said, so far, is that Nović’s attempt to universalize the Croatian experience and make it accessible to a US audience also quite boldly adjusts its story to popular American narratives, modifying the local cultural context and even inventing historical details. As a reader of the novel who was raised in Croatia during the 1990s, a female of mixed ethnic and cultural background, I am understandably particularly sensitive to certain topics, such as ethno-nationalism and gender issues, as it will be obvious in the analysis that follows.

No girls at war in the real war

Nović’s book is set in 1991 in Croatia, during the Yugoslav dissolution that gave rise to several wars, with the war in Bosnia as the most infamous. Croatia was fighting the Yugoslav national army, controlled by Serbian forces, during a time when a part of its own ethnic Serbian population had also proclaimed an independent state on Croatian territory. Nović’s main character, ten-year-old Ana, loses her parents in a brutal massacre committed by local Serbian forces. The orphaned girl then joins the war as part of a special children’s unit that assists the war effort through simpler tasks, such as fieldstripping weapons or sorting ammunition. Ten years later, Ana is living in the US, fighting emotional trauma, and she decides to return to Croatia.

The most curious element in Nović’s story comes straight from the title—“girl at war”. There were no children’s units in Croatia. There were, perhaps, roughly three thousand underage warriors, and allegedly a couple of youngest were thirteen when they joined the war, but the majority of underage soldiers were sixteen or seventeen, and most looked old enough to join the local defense forces. Moreover, they were male. Which brings us to the second curiosity. In Nović’s book we don’t have only one girl at war, there is a whole unit of Croatian teenage girls with assault rifles in their hands; they head out on reconnaissance missions and work alongside their male comrades as equals. This is a beautiful story, but it is not the story of the war in Croatia, or of any of the Yugoslav wars. Apart from rare exceptions, women did not fight alongside their male compatriots. Women of all nationalities were almost exclusively victims—they were beaten, raped, humiliated, and expelled from their homes. To put it mildly, any story about emancipated warrior womanhood, without a trace of deeply engrained machismo and patriarchy, is quite unrepresentative of the local context.

Arya and Katniss wearing Croatian costumes

So, if these elements are not inspired by the Croatian war—where do they come from? 

I can’t assume to know what directly inspired Nović’s choice characters and events, but it is clear that the motifs mentioned above are present elsewhere, both in recent history and in Western popular culture. Elsewhere child warriors have attracted a good deal of attention, especially in a notorious case from Sierra Leone, documented in a widely read memoir by one of the child warriors, Ishmael Beah.

Moreover, girls as action heroes are everywhere in contemporary popular culture, most notably in dystopias such as Susan Collin’s Hunger Games or George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. It is hard not to see Collin’s Katniss Everdeen mirrored in one of Nović’s supporting characters, Red Sonja—another badass teenage girl with a braid and a rifle. And the novel’s main character Ana seems to borrow from one of the most beloved George Martin characters, Arya: both girls are tomboyish, both witness their parents’ execution and become warriors, and both remain deeply traumatized and full of unresolved anger.

Popular culture narratives of dystopia and war are not only formative for the characters in Nović’s book, they also define the setting, plot, and narrative as a whole. The third section of the book, which deals with the child and teen warriors, has all the basic elements of dystopia: a collapsed social system that needs to be restored, an apocalyptic setting of full of ruined villages and abandoned fields, and a conflict between good (Croatian victims) and evil (drunk, animalistic Serbs). There is also an excess of gore: ten-year-old Ana survives a massacre after lying in a pit full of dead bodies, she is soaked in blood several times during the story, she shoots a man and even shares a bus ride with a cargo of decomposing, putrefied soldiers.

The “Siege” of Zagreb

Nović changes other historical details rather boldly as well. Zagreb, the Croatian capital and Ana’s hometown, is portrayed as a war zone: there is no hot water for months, a childhood acquaintance of Ana’s is shot on the street, and the child hero even becomes so hungry that she steals powdered soup in a store and eats it while hidden in the aisles. In fact, Zagreb was one of the safer places during the war years, far away from the front lines; it functioned relatively normally. Nović even rewrites well-documented events: in her book, the Presidential Palace in Zagreb is bombed, and this disaster is described as having with a recognizable smell: “Flesh, we’d learn.” In reality, this bombing caused only a single casualty.

The pattern holds: each time Nović either changes or invents, it underlines gore and suffering, as if certain expectations must be satisfied in any war narrative. Her tendency to sensationalize is present even in minor details: the vitamin drink Cedevita, popular for decades all over Yugoslavia, is described by Nović as a “war food,” something handed out to schoolchildren “to make sure we got some nutritional value in the weeks when food was hard to come by.”

The resolution of Ana’s war experience seems particularly made-for-Hollywood: she flees to the US with a passport and visa, forged by a suspicious man in a dingy apartment. Her final scene moments include a lot of running and shooting, and help is provided by a beautiful UN soldier who distracts the guards, swaying her long hair as she smuggles Ana into the UN plane.

New narratives, old stereotypes

Dystopia and war clichés are far from the only narratives Nović uses to frame her story. Part of the novel also follows Ana as a grown-up, with a story about emotional healing, searching for roots, and even an element of romance. Unfortunately, some very old stereotypes about the Balkans also find their way into this section of the novel. Once again, the Balkans are represented as seething with hundreds of years of hatred, cursed to repeat their wars every fifty years. Grown-up Ana quotes Rebecca West like a parrot, and Nović does nothing to distance herself from her main character. These Balkans are an Orientalized wilderness of excess and insobriety, where the traditional rakija is a “brandy cooked in bathtubs by old ladies in the mountains and sold on the side of the road in Coca-Cola bottles”—apparently, it is also drunk by children, given that an eight-year-old slams “his glass on the table and lets out a drunken belch.” Nović even goes so far as to suggest that Croatia was fighting against communism, a statement sometimes used by the Croatian right wing. There is no mention of the fact that Yugoslavia was the most tolerant and economically prosperous of the Eastern European socialist states, but the novel does report (inaccurately) that Levis were banned. That Nović does at times reveal a more genuine voice, and real cultural insights, makes her tendency toward Balkanist discourse and other Western fantasies an even greater pity.

In sum, it is safe to say that Girl at War was influenced as much by popular narratives and fantasies about the Balkans as it is by the Croatian war itself. Of course, literature is not journalism, yet the question of how much historical accuracy we should expect from our fictions is an important one.

Freedom—and responsibility

Girl at War is fiction, and, in theory, Nović has the right to write about whatever she chooses. By convention art in the Western world is based on notions of artistic autonomy and freedom: an artist has the right to imagine whatever s/he wants. There are great advantages to such freedom, but it also comes with obligations.

To begin a discussion of writerly responsibility we must first reject the notion of absolute freedom. An unwritten contract between reader and writer defines the basic set of expectations and rules of operation. Reading a horror story, you agree not to complain that zombies are “unreal,” because real-world rules do not apply in the genre of fantasy. Another popular literary genre, postmodernist metafiction, makes it equally obvious when it is ironizing, questioning, and playing around with history. In novels following the realist tradition, however, you expect the historical background to be relatively straight, especially when its story happened only twenty years ago, in one of the most thoroughly documented conflicts in the modern world.

“I didn't know very much at all about the Croatian Civil War until I read Nović's book”, says a typical reader from In historical fiction, readers expect that a fictional story will represent real experience, so that they will learn something new and gain a deeper understanding of the past; for that reason literature about unknown and distant places is often described as a “window on the world.” This implied educational role brings an additional value to such books, especially if the author is represented as an authentic voice (for example, as an ethnically Croatian insider). On, another reader comments, “I’ve found that the best critics of America are those who are new to this country, and the author’s eye-opening and caustic remarks hit home with power.” Nović’s official bio allows room for such misconceptions, stating that she “has lived in the United States and Croatia,” yet she was in fact born and raised in the US. In one interview, she notes that the novel was inspired by a trip to Croatia in 2005, following her high-school graduation.

Does that mean that a writer shouldn’t write about things that didn’t actually happen, or things that s/he didn’t experience? It does not. Literature has the right to imagine or challenge and change reality. But if you are writing a popular novel about a distant war for a US audience, you should be aware of the cultural work your literature performs in that context. It will be marketed and read as a “window on the world,” and readers will invest their trust in you—so the responsibility to represent that history and culture accurately needs to be taken into account.

Reading from a Croatian perspective

Analysis of Nović’s novel becomes even more complex if we include the possibility that it will be read by Croatians. To be blunt, her story aligns very well with Croatian right-wing, ethno-nationalistic rhetoric: the ethnic conflict presented in her novel is a clear battle between good and evil, its heroes are innocent Croatian children, and its villians are drunk, violent, filthy Serbian soldiers.

During the ‘90s, Croatia in fact committed its own share of war crimes, including the harassment and murder of civilians of Serbian origin, and the country has been struggling in years since to face up to them. The nationalist rhetoric that opposes that process generally starts with a noble acceptance of the possibility of “our” crimes, but then quickly redirects all discussion to the fact that Croatia was attacked. As such, what has in Croatia become known as the “Homeland War” is inevitably presented as exclusively defensive, inherently righteous, and ultimately sacred and unquestionable. Within such rhetoric there is no place for Serbian civilian victims, or for Croatian nationalism, not to mention the extremely problematic role of Croatians in the Bosnian war.

As the novel begins, Nović does portray a somewhat more complex picture, and she refers several times to the nationalism displayed by both sides, but soon after she becomes fully immersed into a story about victims and monsters. Just before her conclusion, an attempt at nuance returns: the main character discovers Croatian wrongdoings and says: “I knew in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other”.

As far as that particular sentiment goes, I certainly couldn’t agree more. Yet a single statement cannot change that fact that the overall pattern of the novel converges with the sort of nationalistic discourse that disables conflict resolution and divides people along ethno-national lines. Despite its success in the US, Girl at War may never find a large audience in Croatia, and it is certainly unlikely to find favor in the rest of the former Yugoslavia—yet any author that enters the public sphere must be mindful of the possible usages and effects of her message.

Certainly, for anyone with a clear sense of history, the spectacle of prominent publications, almost without exception, publishing intellectually lazy, even ignorant reviews of Girl at War is, to say the least, immensely disappointing. That such reviewers also cheer Nović’s “universalism”—seemingly unable to recognize the work’s obvious historical misrepresentations, problematic stereotypes, and compatibility with nationalist rhetoric—tells us something more as well. In the end, the novel and its readerly reception reveal more about the US than about the war in Croatia.

Iva Kosmos is a Ph.D candidate in literature and cultural studies at the University of Zagreb, where she has recently completed her dissertation on Dubravka Ugresić, Aleksandar Hemon, and David Albahari. She lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia.




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