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South Slavic Family Secrets

Goran Vojnovic is compelled to write on ‘how unbearably easily politics reaches into the intimacy of the family, how it tears it apart.’

by Uffe Andersen 26 June 2018

“I haven’t got my own team! This is really what bugs me the most!”


Although sports is not a major theme of Goran Vojnovic’s debut novel Southern Scum Go Home, its opening words reveal the protagonist and narrator’s main interest. Not to have a specific club to root for is for him a crisis of identity. And that is the main theme in Vojnovic’s novels.


In two short sentences, Vojnovic establishes the protagonist’s voice, something he works hard at.


“I really need to hear the characters, and to make sure that they talk convincingly, like people in a movie,” Vojnovic explained in an interview with TOL.


“Every human being speaks his own completely personal language, and the way he uses the language tells a lot about him. In some way, a person is mirrored by his language, and sometimes one spoken sentence can create a more striking picture of a person than a three-page description.”


The sometimes cinematic quality of Vojnovic’s novels is no coincidence, as he originally took a degree from Ljubljana’s Theater, Radio, Film, and Television Academy, and himself made Southern Scum Go Home into a movie. In any case, his precise sense and careful use of the spoken language is one reason that readers devour his books. It also contributed to each of his novels receiving the prize for Slovenia’s best book of the year, the Kresnik.


Vojnovic himself believes that the popularity of his writing is, first of all, due to people’s thirst for a well-told story.


“I’m foremost a storyteller – and of stories with tricky themes, told with a touch of humor.”


For this Slovenian author, one “tricky theme” is given away by his very name.


Yugoslavia’s official language was Serbo-Croatian. Most linguists still see it as one language, but in the former republics it’s now called Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian, respectively. Whether in the Latin or Cyrillic script, all of these variants contain the letters ć and č, while Slovenian only has the latter. Surnames from the “Serbo-Croatian” area often end in -ić – so when a Slovene is called, e.g., Vojnović, everyone knows that his family at some point came from a more southern Yugoslav republic. Such people in Slovenia are called čefurji, thus the Slovenian title of his first novel: Čefurji raus.


As the title hints, the Slovenes’ relationship to the “southerners” isn’t good, and čefurji is highly pejorative. The novel is set in Fuzine, a neighborhood in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, which was created in Yugoslav times for workers from other republics. Mostly consisting of tower blocks, Fuzine has in the meantime become a ghetto for “southerners,” among them its 17-year-old protagonist Marko.


Marko’s family background explains why he has no football club to support. As the son of Bosnian Serbs, if he lived in Belgrade, his club would be Crvena Zvezda (Red Star). In Sarajevo, it’d be Zeleznicar. But being a Serb from Bosnia in Slovenia, “everything is shit.”


Identity Crises


The football is merely a symptom of his confusion about who he is. This makes Marko give up playing basketball – otherwise his main source of personal pride – and get into troubles with neighbors, police (who beat him up – a scene that led to a brief lawsuit against him by the police), and most profoundly his parents. In the end, his father sends him to family in Bosnia for “re-education.”


In this and all of Vojnovic’s stories, family is at the root of the problem, but is also where a solution must be looked for. The point is not to restore some mythic or childhood idyll – which Vojnovic often sets as a background for his stories – but to escape an emotional, social, and identity deadlock.


Cover of Southern Scum Go Home


“The family is the epicenter of the human universe and of social life,” Vojnovic said. “But what interests me as a writer is how often, and how unbearably easily, politics reaches into the intimacy of the family, how it tears it apart, how the time in which we live becomes a member of our families, creeps into our beds, sits itself at our tables.”


That it often hurts when “big politics” imposes itself on “small lives” becomes particularly clear in Vojnovic’s 2011 novel Yugoslavia, My Fatherland.


The story opens in Pula, on Croatia’s coast, at the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars. Eleven-year-old Vladan (Vojnovic’s age then, as well) sees his father depart for a posting in the Yugoslav Army, never to return. Vladan’s Slovenian mother tells him that he’s dead. Twenty years later, Vladan, through a casual search on the internet, finds out that his father is alive – but a war criminal. Hit with this, Vladan feels bereft, even more than when he thought his father was dead – and that “my mere 10 happy years in life disappeared with him.”


In short, we’ve got another identity crisis on our hands. Vladan goes looking for his father across ex-Yugoslavia, searching for the truth about himself, his family, and the former country, and how it all came apart.


Again, History forces its pattern upon each family’s and person’s intimate story: the dark family secret is at the same time the former country’s secret – and the protagonist feels the same need as the post-Yugoslav states to build a new identity on the truth about the past, wrenching as it may be.


In this sense, Vojnovic said, there’s a connection to the publications that emerged in the wake of Heinrich Boll’s 1951 novel, And Where Were You, Adam? In these works, German writers demanded that individuals and society face the truth about World War II – including their own responsibility.


“I believe that the very good reception of Yugoslavia, My Fatherland among German speakers is partly a consequence of precisely that literary tradition, of a more profound understanding of what I’m writing about,” Vojnovic explained.


“The Germans are the only ones who have consciously renounced the position of victim – so that, for instance, official Germany doesn’t every year cry over the dead in the Allied bombing of Dresden, but bows to the victims of Auschwitz.”


But he doesn’t see himself as the first to ask uncomfortable questions about the Yugoslav wars: “The older generation wrote firsthand accounts of the war, often shocking and cruel, which allowed us to view the war up close, to feel it and breathe it.”


Writers of his generation, he said, have been able to put some distance between themselves and the war – “because we were children and at once both participants in events and onlookers. Therefore, what we write is different, often colder and more sober.”


When published, the book was attacked for being “Yugonostalgic,” longing for socialist Yugoslavia. This is, indeed, a widespread trend, but Vojnovic sees it as “an infantile leftist reaction to the just-as-infantile, rightist demonization of Yugoslavia, socialism, and the past.”


He calls the novel’s title “ironic,” while noting that Yugoslavia undeniably is his fatherland: he was born there in 1980, a month after the death of Tito, and “it’s the space of my memories, culture, and language,” he says.


But Vojnovic’s stance toward this fatherland is far from uncritical.


In his eyes, rather than the idyllic Brotherhood and Unity of Yugoslavia’s official slogan, relations among its peoples were and are like those in a real family.


On the one hand, he says, there is a terrible feeling of having had enough of one another. “But, on the other, [we have] this everlasting, irresistible attraction that we feel toward our region and people, toward our unique, common culture.


“Like a family, we’re stuck in the space that we’ve created or gained together. Here we are – condemned to a common life, until death do us part.”


As in any family, members of the (ex-)Yugoslav clan would sometimes rather see the back of each other – čefurji out!


Everyone in the old Yugoslavia had their own čefurji, Vojnovic says, but things turned serious when the country broke up. In Slovenia it was argued that Slovenes had to leave Yugoslavia because it was “Balkan” while they were “Central European.” They decided to get rid of everything connecting them to “the Balkans” – and the first to feel this were other Yugoslavs.


Involuntarily Annulled


On 22 February 1992, people who had citizenship in other republics were denied the right to stay in Slovenia. These people are called “the erased.”


Many had lived in Slovenia for decades but were left without health insurance, bank accounts, pensions. People weren’t told about the decision, so many found out that they no longer had a legal existence when they were fired or thrown out of their homes, or the clerk behind the counter wrote “annulled” across their documents.


For the 25,000 “erased,” life became a nightmare – an identity crisis in a very concrete way.


“A part of Slovenian society believed that their Europeanness in no way was defined by their stance on non-Europeans. This shows a deep lack of understanding of the common European project, and of the basic values of united Europe,” Vojnovic said.


The “erasure” of more than 1 percent of the population was, in effect, “ethnic cleansing” but few outside ex-Yugoslavia have heard of it. Even in 2004, in a referendum, 96 percent voted against returning citizens’ rights to the erased – and the same year, the European Union made Slovenia one of its own.


In so doing, the EU ignored its own founding principles, turning a blind eye to a deeply anti-European action, Vojnovic said. “All this is now coming home to roost in the form of ever stronger and more influential un-European circles within Europe.”


Speaking before the recent Slovenian election won by an anti-immigrant party, Vojnovic hinted not only at threats to democracy seen, for instance, in Poland and Hungary, but to policies across the continent – “where barbed wire is put up, asylum rules are made more restrictive, rallies held against migrants, campaigns spread fear of refugees ...”


Seen in this way, the Balkans and its inhabitants aren’t as special as often thought, Vojnovic believes.


“We in the Balkans like to view the Balkans as a space like no other in the world – with people who are crazier, wilder, and bloodier than the rest of the world. But that same world is, unfortunately, one great Balkans with loads of places where people cannot escape history.”


While possibly not particularly “Balkan,” History’s looming presence in small people’s lives is certainly “Vojnovic.”


His latest novel, Figa, (The Fig Tree, 2016), works mainly as a love story while also treating themes present in Vojnovic’s earlier books. Jadran and Anja’s relationship teeters on the brink of collapse, partly because of their contrasting backgrounds: Jadran’s is poor and “southern”; hers rich and very Slovenian. This personal crisis unlocks even more profound doubts in Jadran – about who he is, or the nature of love – and he starts looking into relationships in his own family.


This takes us on another trip through the ex-Yugoslav space-time across three generations of Jadran’s family. Central is his grandparents’ courtyard in a village in part-Slovenian, part-Croatian Istria, where a fig tree grows. In a sense, this is the “family tree” that embodies its story, the unspeakable but essential in life.


The Fig Tree could be called more emotional or tender than Vojnovic’s earlier novels. But History is merciless: every character’s and family’s story, even their love stories, in many ways seems predestined by its times.


Times have mostly been tough in this region, as Vojnovic’s novels show. No times are darker than wartime, but it seems that the future stories Vojnovic will tell about the present may not be so bright, either.


“When you read what people write on social media about, say, čefurji, you get the chills,” he said, adding with bitter schadenfreude:


“Luckily for Slovenia, the extreme right is politically retarded and keeps itself in opposition, though by being just a little bit clever, it could rule the country.”

Uffe Andersen is a journalist in Smederevo, Serbia.


This article was supported by the Fund for Central & East European Book Projects, Amsterdam.

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