May 2016

Katherine Q. Stone


Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičević, translated by Celia Hawkesworth

"You just be yet another stupid character in a Croatian novel." So says the sister of Dada, the redheaded protagonist of celebrated Croatian poet Olja Savičević's 2011 novel, Adios, Cowboy. In this English-language edition, published in 2016 by McSweeney's and translated by Celia Hawkesworth, the question of postwar Croatian identity is a central one, particularly in the context of the so-called "Lost Generation" of Croatian youth, many of whom are still currently struggling with joblessness, increasing financial hardship, and political or ideological tensions from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Avoiding the standard, and perhaps overused, depiction of Croatia and the former Yugoslavia as a mafia-run, Scarface-esque dystopia, Savičević instead compares the Croatia of 2009 to the quiet, unending desolation of the Wild West. (The book was written and published before Croatia joined the European Union in 2013.) The novel progresses much like the Spaghetti Western films Savičević references by name (My Name is Nobody, Down By Law, Once Upon A Time In The West) throughout -- slowly, but with a steady undertone of gloom that eventually leads, both in Westerns and in the novel, to a shootout. As Savičević writes, "there is a prairie here too."

But to dismiss the novel as simply an elongated poetic metaphor -- to focus only on Dada's small hometown (called the "Old Settlement" within Split) as a Balkanized Wild West -- is to miss Savičević's clear commentary on the discontent and perseverance of contemporary Croatia. The characters are searching for, as Savičević writes, "a little radiance:" but it is unclear whether or not the searingly honest, if not at times disheartening, world of the novel will allow for that.

The novel is divided into two sections, "Eastern" and "Western," mirroring the divisions of the Old Settlement itself. The East is described as the "industrial zone," a "great stranded wreck" where "nothing has changed." This is where the Old Settlement, which Dada has left the cosmopolitan capital city of Zagreb to return to and take care of her addicted mother (and to find out the truth about her brother Daniel's death), lies.

The Western end of the town is "a mass of rubble and broken glass, diggers and trucks, steel scaffolding"; a "scintillating showroom," a "digital adventure," full of "silicon hordes" and "hotel complexes." The Old Settlement is bombarded by a constant "ferocious heat" that fries shoes left out on porches, it is characterized by the continuous assault of dust that gets "into your eyes and throat and between your toes in your sandals." It's a place where women are "born to be wives," one populated by disabled war veterans, a town that tourists continue to infiltrate, peppered by workers' strikes, signpost graffiti, and constant fatal traffic accidents. Dada notes, "Not in a hundred years will this ever bloom into a paradise garden." Borrowing a line from her favorite (fictional) Western film hero, Ned Montgomery, Dada resigns herself to the fact that, "That's what the towns where you abandon your failed illusions are like."

Yet Dada, who also goes by the nickname Rusty, feels the pull to "go west," both physically (in a proposed move to Berlin) and metaphorically, to "find wealth, fame, and adventure." And when Ned Montgomery himself arrives in the Old Settlement, to shoot a Western film, the tensions of the Eastern town, those created over decades of personal, political, and ethnic rivalries, finally come to a head.

It's almost impossible to write a novel set in the former Yugoslavia without addressing ethnic tensions directly, but Savičević uses the framework of "Cowboys and [sic] Indians" for a metaphorical, if at times oversaturated, comparison. Dada's sister describes the residents of the Old Settlement, in a description that could apply to much of the present-day former Yugoslavia, in this way: "There's various nations here, at least two nations in every house in our street, but it's all the same mangy culture." Though the Old Settlement may be populated by Bosnian workers, Serbian peasants, and even Irish and Chinese tourists, in the end, they're all still trapped in the same place. Indeed, even the highly colloquial language of the novel, which may reference the numerous competing dialects of the region, is "cobbled [...] together," "picked up in the street and from announcers in the news and stolen from Dylan Dog, Grunf, Sammy Jo Carrington, and Zane Grey." But still, the loyalty to one's own tribe persists, if out of nothing more than a lingering sense of duty.

As Dada explains, "The advent of the war had a way of making people's ethnicity everybody's business," and her family has often suffered because of the ethnic ambiguity of Dada's father, who is described as being "always on the wrong side. First he was a kraut, and now he's a Montenegrin." However, Dada's father, who worked for a time at the Balkan Cinema and introduced his children to Western movies, died during "the last prewar summer," the "summer in the middle of which our time snapped and became forever unstuck, divided into the before and after." Dada informs us that while "No one played at these Balkan wars. [...] They all wanted to be Croats," they instead played "cowboys and Indians" "against the outlanders." As Dada's sister explains, "'You have to have some sort of conflict.'"

This conflict is provided by these so-called "outlanders," The Iroquois Brothers and their "loony" cousin Maria Carija, a band of ne'er-do-wells within the Old Settlement who are responsible for much of the mischief in town. Yet their boyish games turn progressively darker, and readers slowly learn the history of Daniel, Dada's late brother, who became involved and then broke with the gang.

Grief in the Old Settlement exists on two planes: collective, postwar grief and the void it creates; and the personal losses each resident suffers, both in terms of family members and the loss of opportunity. In the Old Settlement, grief is an established part of the routine -- the town even has a professional mourner on call for funerals. The public nature of this collective grief, which Savičević calls "a performance," is the most important thing about it. As Dada's always bitterly insightful sister remarks, "Someone else's tragedy, that requires commitment." Yet this "performance" is in itself a way of avoiding really facing the grief, a kind of holding pattern for the residents of the Old Settlement who either can't or don't seem to want to move forward with their lives. Everyone competes to send the biggest bouquet of flowers, to weep the loudest at funerals, to be the last person standing at the graveside. Dada's sister puts it best, saying "Every love's weighed, see [...] the more marble on the grave or gold on the cross. [...] There's no such thing as a poor relation, just a tight-fisted sod who doesn't love you." To move on, to make peace with what happened, is to lose. So, every morning, Dada's mother makes a pilgrimage to her son Daniel's grave, while she continues to let her life tick by as she watches soap opera after soap opera, popping a variety of pills throughout the episodes.

This atmosphere of numbness permeates the Old Settlement, as Dada explains:

People who have been lucky sometimes talk about the worst and best days [...] of their life. We who have been less lucky don't talk about that, we know there are days after which things can be good or bad, but nothing can any longer be the worst or best.

So too, comes the grief of resignation; Dada's deadpan delivery of how her brother died, ("in his eighteenth year by jumping under a speeding Intercity Osijek-Zagreb-Split train") her removed encounters with Karlo Sain, the town veterinarian who may or may not have continually molested Daniel, and her quiet acceptance of the numerous types of violence throughout her life, the knowledge that for her generation, especially those that choose to remain in the Old Settlement, things will never get better.

A revealing conversation takes place in the Old Settlement's incarnation of the Western saloon, The Last Chance. Out of the blue, a patron opines to Dada:

Make something of your life, they say. But what can you make of your life if you don't have money for a taxi? [...] Know this -- if your old man never set foot in a taxi, there's only the remotest chance that you will. [...] You and I will always have enough for a decent pair of shoes, because we know that decent shoes are the most we can have.

For Savičević's characters, the ever-present specter of the Balkan wars makes unrelenting grief and the acceptance of a stalled life seem almost inevitable -- at least as long as they remain within the confines of the Old Settlement. There is no justice here, no way to make peace with the past. For Dada, and those like her, there are only ritualistic coping mechanisms, interrupted by shaky plans of escape that are often difficult to execute. Savičević commits to paper the feelings of a generation condemned to linger in the "imperfect tense," to exist in the space where "everything that once happened goes on simultaneously, [...] that perfect verbal era and that thin, little borderline of shining conditionals."

Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičević, translated by Celia Hawkesworth
ISBN: 978-1940450490
240 pages