A novel need not be cheerful or violent or have a gripping plot to be described as good.
Sometimes it may be sufficient for it to be truthful, direct and clear.
By Erik Skyum-Nielsen
This is the eminently case with Birgithe Kosovic's account from a Yugoslavia devastated by civil war, in which she portrays former party secretary and mayor Milovan – in the novel's present a lonely, old, disillusioned and deeply conscience-stricken figure, whose inner duality must be understood by the reader as the result of having lived in the ‘doubled country’ of the title.
When the story begins he has taken refuge in a solitary house in the mountains of Herzegovina, while the civil war still rages in Dubrovnik. He has received a letter from home telling him that Frane, his wife of 30 years, has collapsed in the bathroom and was later found dead. From this juncture Milovan's thoughts travel way back to the Communist era where, from one day to the next, he was stripped of his party function and relegated to an insignificant post as the director of a restaurant association. And further back goes his melancholic reminiscence, back to his father, a hero of the resistance during World War II but at the same time a stern patriarch and a callous bully.
Why and how did Milovan himself also become cynical and evil? Why did he desert his wife? These are questions he is forced to ask as he submits himself to a last judgement. His betrayals have been individual acts, but the reader senses that he has lived in a country and at a time where cruelty and backwardness were factors that people gradually became accustomed to. Although the novel deals specifically with conditions in Yugoslavia, both before and after the time it could no longer be described as a state, it also touches on universal issues involving guilt and the burden of inescapable shame.
Birgithe Kosovic (born 1972) made her debut in 1997 with Legenden om Valmarana (‘The Legend of Villa Valmarana’), which she followed up in 1999 with another book inspired by the works of Karen Blixen, the novel Om natten I Jerusalem (1999) (‘Night-time in Jerusalem’). She adopts a different, more hardened and realistic style in her new book by making extensive use of material derived from her Yugoslavian family. It has been eleven years since she last published a book but ‘The doubled country’ has been worth all the hard work and the waiting.
Erik Skyum-Nielsen is literature critic with the daily newspaper 'Information'.
Translated by John Mason