Fans of Joe Sacco, take note – with Nina Bunjevac, there’s a new and exciting political / historical graphic novelist on the scene and one of the things that makes her so interesting is: this time, it’s personal! Bunjevac engages with the history of her family to tell a story that revives a piece of history that I expect will be unfamiliar to many.
Although this is primarily the story of Bunjevac’s father (it is his picture which graces the front of the book), the story opens with Bunjevac and her mother (a somewhat eccentric lady) and reads like a doffing of the hat both to Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which I’m sure Bunjevac will be familiar with) and also Joff Winterhart’s Days of the Bagnold Summer (which she may not be familiar with). The opening of Fatherland has the pointed drama of the former and the gentle comedy of the latter. Perhaps, the reader wonders, this will be a family drama in the vein of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
Then we jump back – from 2012 to 1975 – and we see the nightly rituals, as Nina’s mum pulls wardrobes in front of windows to prevent bombs being thrown into the house. We see the shadowy figure of her father, a man who comes and goes, a man who drinks, a man who sits with his newspaper, a man who refuses to allow his son to leave on a trip with mother and sisters. And so we move from Ontario to Yugoslavia and we learn that mum has in fact left her husband, has abducted her girls and wants to take her son too – but the father resists, begging and cajoling and shouting and threatening. Is this, we wonder again, a tale of marital drama, separated by continents? Is the distance what makes the tale so urgent to Bunjevac?
The Yugoslavian family into which Nina and her sister find themselves is beautifully wrought, the household in thrall to the grandmother, a divisive opinionated figure who runs the house with an iron(ish) hand. Bunjevac also takes her time, painting in details of how life in Yugoslavia in 1975 would have been different from Ontario in 1975 (no peanut butter, haircuts done over the kitchen table). She uses interesting devices to indicate the passing of time (such as a short middle section in which we only see photographs but they work hard to tell the story). An accident then propels the story into the past and, like Philip Roth in American Pastoral, we see that the long opening has been a preamble to the history. The history of her father, his parents, the kingdom of Yugoslavia, Europe.
Her father Peter was born to Stana and Druro in a village called Bogicevci and was raised in an environment where dad often took his hand to mum (a horrifying frame in which Stana is thrown from the hay loft of the farm will stay with you long after you finish reading). During WWII, Yugoslavia was split into two separate fiefdoms, Serbia and Croatia, and ethnic tensions were inflamed that remain to this day. We glimpse the mass deportations undertaken by the Nazis and learn that Ante Pavelic, an exiled politician given Croatia to rule, started deporting Serbians to the death camps too. Bunjevac explores the ethnic tensions and raises some interesting issues, such as the fact they seem to have been largely engineered within the 20th century. The key point of what she tells us, though, is that her father saw some dark history unfolding directly in front of his bedroom window and this shaped him into the man he became, troubled, cruel, aware. Eventually he joins a terrorist group in Canada, committed to acts of atrocity against the entrenched Communist regime in Yugoslavia, acts of terrorism that would take place on Canadian and US soil against diplomatic outposts. The shady comings and goings are amongst the best scenes in the book, beautifully drawn, tremendously well realised and acutely placed to deliver tension, suspense and tragedy.
All told, Fatherland is a terrific piece of work, a substantial graphic work that more than deserves a place on the shelf alongside the likes of Safe Area Goradze.
Any Cop?: We eagerly wait what Nina Bunjevac turns her hand to next.