Book Review: The Hired Man and Winters in the South

The most recent Balkans conflict was shocking in its cruelty and, for many, difficult to comprehend. Two novels offer a new examination of Croatia’s role in the war. What is refreshing about both these books, written by outsiders, is their impartiality, though neither author is a stranger to the repercussions of conflict. Aminatta Forna was raised in Sierra Leone and her memoir The Devil That Danced on the Water (2002) was an attempt to clear the name of her father, who was hanged for treason in 1975. The English Years (2002) by the Austrian writer Norbert Gstrein was about a Jewish author who fled Nazi Austria only to be interned as an undesirable alien on the Isle of Man.

In The Hired Man, an English woman, Laura, and her two children arrive in the small Croatian town of Gost. They’ve come to renovate a beautiful blue house that has remained derelict for the past sixteen years. Their neighbour, Duro, offers to help the family with repairs, and together with Laura’s daughter, Grace, he uncovers a mosaic concealed beneath the plaster. As they restore it, hidden resentments among the townfolk begin to surface. What the family doesn’t know is that Duro has a long association with the blue house, and is reconstructing a past that has powerful repercussions for the future. The conflict may be over, but memories of the bloodshed linger. Forna is eloquent on the far-reaching consequences of ethnic hatred. Two local men, Fabjan, the owner of the local bar, and Kresimir, Duro’s childhood friend, appear to have sinister connections to the past. The three, we later learn, have blood on their hands – whether by shooting enemy soldiers, betraying a family to the death squads, or bearing responsibility for the murder of their neighbours.

Forna reveals a conspiracy of silence. Duro does not refer openly to the victims but alludes to them as “the people who use the word hleb for bread”. The terrible ethnic cleansing is never spoken about. All that remains is the graveyard, a metaphor for the town’s history. We are told: “There are different neighbourhoods for the rich and the poor and people who worship in one church and people who worship in another. Everything you need to know about Gost is here in the cemetery”.

Winters in the South also explores the region’s ethnic tensions, but from a different perspective. Gstrein recalls the end of the Second World War, when the Croatians who had allied with the Nazis tried to flee to Austria. Many were then returned to Tito’s Partisans. Gstrein’s central character, Marija, was six when she found refuge in Vienna with her mother. Her father never joined them and is presumed to have been killed.

Now aged fifty, Marija is adrift from her marriage and comfortable existence in Vienna. Though there are rumblings of war, she decides to return to Croatia in an attempt to find herself. She is unaware that her father managed to elude capture in 1945. Like many other fascists, he fled to Argentina where he has been waiting for the opportunity to resume the fight for Croatian independence. Focusing on the old man’s obsession with the past, and his determination to exact revenge, Gstrein illustrates how old differences left to fester can lead to new conflict.

As war erupts, Marija’s father begins preparations for his return. He hires Ludwig, a disgraced expat Austrian policeman, as his bodyguard, and installs a shooting range in his cellar. He gives the lifesized dummies names: a long list of candidates, among whom there always featured a former partisan general or a minister of the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia whom he hadn’t managed to dispatch himself yet, until Ludwig too knew the names of all these prominent figures by heart, consoling himself with the afterthought that many of these World War Two heroes and postwar fighters were already dead anyway.

Gstrein uses the various settings in his novel to draw parallels between the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia, the 1990s Balkans conflict and Argentina’s Dirty War. Each of his characters has a different perspective on war, and Gstrein cleverly juxtaposes the ideology of the two men in Marija’s life. Her husband is a renowned communist revolutionary and respected journalist whose anti-fascism sits uneasily with her father’s fervent nationalism. The author’s multi-layered approach and convoluted style may frustrate some readers, but Anthea Bell and Julian Evans have done a good job of rendering his complex sentence structure into accessible English prose.

Originally published in the TLS