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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

A Surreal Portrait of the Casualties of a Balkan Civil War : IN THE HOLD by Vladimir Arsenijevic; Translated from Serbo-Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth;Alfred A. Knopf $20, 128 pages

September 25, 1996|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Do the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia seem an abstract collage of horror, history and kinked politics, glimpsed on television and in barely read newspaper accounts? Most of us, numbed in the most contemporary of dysfunctions--moral specialization--leave engagement to a handful licensed to deal in opinions and outrage.

An oddly equivalent numbness pervades the opening sections of "In the Hold." Disconcertingly so, since Vladimir Arsenijevic's novella depicts a handful of young people in Belgrade in 1991, when war was raging between Serbia and Croatia and would soon spread to Bosnia.

A senseless conflict, we in the West have thought, between people who had lived more or less peaceably together for half a century. Surely Arsenijevic's young Belgraders will elucidate or at least give partial voice to it.

Instead we see the narrator, a university graduate in a small clerical job, lying down after lunch and brooding about his father's detested habit of taking a similar nap. He broods about disintegrating into indecisiveness, about his sense of non-being. "I'd never agree with the choice of toes that had been allotted me, with the size of my shoes, my height. . . ." His sweatshirt is more real than he is.

This would be off-putting, even if the novella were set in peacetime post-existential Paris--or non-existential Dubuque--instead of wartime Belgrade. We have to be convinced of a character's reality before we can take a real interest in his nonreality. The opening pages of "In the Hold" stifle in literary fumes.

They never disperse entirely, yet bit by bit they admit something more instructive and affecting. The war enters obliquely. It is as if our television news segment on the former Yugoslavia were successively to blow the household fuses, shut down the heating and electrocute the cat.

The narrator's wife, Angela, is enormously pregnant. "My drug-dealing wife," he calls her--before she got pregnant she sold drugs to their friends--and perhaps we don't much care. It seems a fashionable claim of status in the contemporary malaise wars (as against the specific Yugoslav ones). Let her deal ham sandwiches.

But the pregnancy is real; so is Angela's fury at her parents for signing a receipt of a draft summons for her weedy brother, Lazar. It is a splendid, even comic brawl: The parents alternately shrug off Angela's howls and propitiate her with cookies and a glimpse of her father's new slippers. But the war has presented itself. Lazar is killed fighting the Croatians; Angela vomits for a whole day and night.

The harshest imprint of the national disaster is the return from the front of Dejan, drummer with a popular rock group. Dejan's arm has been blown off; the narrator, who loves him, finds him in the hospital, glittery, tense and gesticulating spastically with his remaining arm.

Released from the hospital, Dejan turns up hyper with enthusiasm over a plan to start a sex counseling service. Still later he announces a scheme to market children's T-shirts. Not long afterward he kills himself. The narrator explains that his friend was trying to construct a new Dejan and couldn't stand him.

It is a sequence of arid anguish; more piercing is a moment when the narrator impulsively hugs Dejan after a meeting. "I held him long enough for him to embrace me with his whole arm. Although I was prepared for the experience, nevertheless I almost choked with tears when his stump tapped me, impotently, on the shoulder."

Angela and the narrator retreat into nursing her pregnancy--life amid death--and making plans to emigrate. In the life of the young people, emigration is the war's day-to-day reminder. The phone rings less and less; postcards come instead: from London, Munich, Caracas, Stockholm.

The book ends with a list of friends who have emigrated and a brief account of what they are doing. Most struggle in menial jobs abroad; one is flourishing in Sweden. The narrator had always despised him; now he remembers him as attractive, someone to be friends with.

In the former Yugoslavia's disaster, virtue as well as success reverse their usual terms. They are attributes not of presence but of absence. The triumphant, in a nation that has disappeared, are those who disappear.

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