Book Review - The Fig Tree

In The Fig Tree, deftly translated by Olivia Hellewell, Goran Vojnović portrays three generations of a family whose lives are marked by the disintegration of Yugoslavia and its brutal aftermath.


Jadran’s grandfather Aleksandar was born in Novi Sad in 1925. Long before the Nazis marched through, Aleksandar’s cautious single mother, Ester Aljehin, married a dentist for his name and abruptly left him to settle in Belgrade, where she worked as a nurse. When she “caught sight of the first Nazi uniforms in the city,” fear drove her to move again and she arrived in Ljubljana in February 1942: Slovenes seemed less intimidating than Serbs, although they still treated her with suspicion. Years later, her son Aleksandar Dordevic arrives in Buje, Croatia. Employed as a forest warden, he feels like an outsider with a local-sounding name. Aleksandar and his pregnant wife Jana settle in Momjan (which later become part of Croatia), in a house he builds with his own hands with its own fig tree.

In that house Aleksandar and Jana bring up their two daughters, Maya and Vesna, and there they die. Jadran is a frequent visitor and after his beloved grandfather’s death, he begins to weave together the family’s story through their memories and his imagination. If fear marked his great grandmother’s choices, absence defines the family now. In the 1980s, Aleksandar leaves Jana, to work in Cairo for a year. When he returns, Jana has lost her memories of Aleksandar and their life together after a stroke. Jadran’s Bosnian father, Safet, abandons them when he is 10. Jadran’s partner, Anya, the mother of their young son, takes off on two occasions. It is Jadran’s attempts to make sense of these absences that form the heart of The Fig Tree.

Jadran suspects his grandfather committed suicide and it is that longing for knowledge and closure that sends him on a quest to understand Aleksandar and Jana, the life they shared and their deaths: I have to listen to every word uttered one more time, I must return to the memories, mine and Mum’s, I have to seek them there because I need to find that person capable of surrendering to death. I’d like to get to know that person, because Grandad, at least as I knew him, had no reason to wish for death. My grandad didn’t want to run away from life. Yet Aleksandar Đorđević killed himself; or maybe he killed himself, I don’t know. If he did, then a trace of the man who committed suicide must somewhere lie amongst the memories, a trace of a man in his seventies, who opens a brown bottle of blood pressure tablets.

Trying to understand his own feelings of despair and anger, Jadran returns time and again to his family’s past and those that married into the family— his impulsive father Safet and Maya’s husband Dane, Secretary of State at the Ministry of the Interior, who always knew more than he let on. Jadran is compelled to revisit the ethnic tensions, cultural dissonance and political strife that inevitably shaped them. He attempts to make connections and uses his imagination to fill in the gaps: I can feel it, that darkness is full of Mum and Maya and maybe me as well, we’re all in it, Safet and Dane too. Maybe the darkness is the only thing that binds us together. That darkness is now my grandad, that darkness is me, which is why I must stare into it, my eyes must adjust so I can make out the outlines of what lies within. However, by the end, Jadran admits: Maybe we’ll never really understand our grandparents. Maybe it’s impossible to bridge the years of distance between us, and those sharp edges hidden behind the softness of their exterior will always remain out of reach.

Vojnović filters the recent history of his homeland, the suspicion of outsiders, the racial and cultural tensions through the lens of one family’s experience (his background in film is evident in much of the novel). He explores a world where a name can be a threat or destroy a life. Memories can be destructive, as the Balkans wars proved. But they also sustain us. The Fig Tree is about identity – about what make us, what shapes us. Vojnović often withholds crucial strands of the narrative that reveal a character’s motivations. Safet’s abrupt departure and Aleksandar’s desire to work in Cairo are initially baffling. Together with Jadran, the reader has to untangle the threads in an attempt to find the answers. When Aleksandar returns to find his wife irretrievably changed, it is truly heart breaking. Vojnović’s portrait of Jana’s memory loss, from the perspective of the husband caring for her, is one of the most moving accounts of dementia I’ve ever read. This is a remarkable portrait of a country’s fragmentation and a family’s fracture.

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