First Impression Friday will be a meme where you talk about a book that you JUST STARTED! Maybe you’re only a chapter or two in, maybe a little farther. Based on this sampling of your current read, give a few impressions and predict what you’ll think by the end.
Aleksandar Tišma is a leading Yugoslav novelist, and The Use of Man, published in France in 1985, established him as a major European writer.
In precise and luminous prose, Tišma portrays a group of young friends in the small, dusty town of Novi Sad on the Hungarian border during World War II. They are classmates, as serious and as frivolous as their age demands: they take dancing lessons together, they steal kisses, they learn German from a spinster who keeps a diary. Then the war overtakes them.
Vera is half-Jewish – she is sent to a concentration camp. Sep, her cousin, is German – he becomes a Nazi. Milinko, her boyfriend, is a Serb – he joins the Partisans. Sredoje is a Serb, too – he is driven by the magic of killing.
With stunning clarity, Tišma records the human truth. He draws the precariously slender line that divides the innocent from the guilty, the victim from the murderer – all pulled irrevocably into the game of life and war yet all longing for love.
Congratulations on making it through another week! It’s finally the weekend! I hope you ended the workweek on a high note and that you are diving into the weekend with a triumphant smile painted on your face. If the week did not go the way you planned it to, I hope that you get to rest and relax this weekend.’ I hope you use it to realign your energy and plan ahead for a better week. More importantly, I hope you are all doing well. Sure, we are slowly entering into a more certain time after grappling with the COVID19 pandemic for more than two years but the virus still remains a threat. The world, it seems, has coped with the presence and the thread that COVID19 presented. Still, I hope that it gets completely eradicated. Only time will tell.
But before I can dive into the weekends, let me close this past work week with a new First Impression Friday update. For June, I have decided to extend the European literature reading journey I started back in May. The journey took me to different parts of the continent, from Italy to Sweden to the Czech Republic to the Balkan Peninsula. It was a literary feast that never ran out of filling my palate with an array of flavors. The experience, as expected, was memorable although there were moments when it got perplexing. Still, it was a magnificent experience because I get to learn more about the continent, its colorful culture, and its diverse population. To make the journey more interesting, I have been alternating new-to-me writers and not-so-new-to-me writers. My current read is by a writer whose prose I have not explored previously.
Had it not been for an online bookseller, I would have not encountered Serbian writer Aleksandar Tišma. Back in early 2020, I randomly picked his novel, The Use of Man sans any iota on who the writer was or what the book was about. I was yet again gambling and simply relying on my desire to read as many books from different parts of the world as I can; I wasn’t even aware that Tišma was Serbian. Actually, I had a different work in line, Kapo, a book I purchased earlier this year when I realized that I have previously purchased one of his works. The Use of Man it is then. From what I understand, both Kapo and The Use of Man form part of a trilogy, or at least they are being advertised as such. Anyway, seniority applied so I have started with The Use of Man.
Set in the Serbian (Yugoslavian back then) city of Novi Sad, the novel underscored the horrors of the Second World War. Prior to the war, Novi Sad, I have learned, was a melting pot teeming with a plethora of cultures and ethnicities. Located strategically at the eastern edge of Central Europe, the city was populated by Serbs, Croats, Germans, Jews, and Hungarians who coexisted peacefully; they also intermarried. The author himself was born in the city, to a Serbian father and a Hungarian-Jewish mother After the city’s defenses were destroyed by the Germans, the city became the site of horrific slaughters and deportations. It was these gruesome and bloody details of the war that the novel explored. In a nutshell, the novel captured the Yugoslavian Second World War experience.
The horrors of the war were captured through the story of four friends: Vera Kroner, Sep Lehnart, Milinko Božić, and Sredoje Lazukić. Their contrasting backstories, personalities, and social and ethnic backgrounds gave the story an interesting texture. The war has also irreversibly changed and damaged them in different ways. In Milinko we see an intelligent son raised by a brutal father but brimming with hope. He found himself marching towards the war. Sredoje, on the other hand, was the son of a nationalist who managed to escape the war by conspiring with both the Nazis and the communists. He was also an opportunistic sexual predator. Sep, Vera’s cousin, became a part of the SS. Vera, a Jew, already had her destiny predetermined by her bloodline.
I am just a couple of pages from completing the book actually. The novel had a simple plot but it meandered. It gave too many layers and the voices kept shifting from one character to another. This, however, did not adversely dim the message the book tried to evoke, that of how war can destroy an individual, a family, a city, an entire race. It was all bleak. In one chapter, Vera recounted her experience at the concentration camp. It was the part that I found most moving. I guess the horrors of the Second World War will always be a subject close to the hearts of European writers, including Albania’s Ismail Kadare, the Czech Republic’s Milan Kundera, and the UK’s Ian McEwan. Expounding my horizon as a reader made me see the landscape they have painted, beyond the portraits drawn by history books. It is for this reason that I appreciate works such as The Use of Man, The General of the Dead Army, and Atonement despite the bleak subject they explored. They showed me the Second World War experience from different vantage points.
As I have said, I am nearly done with The Use of Man and I can’t help but pay a compliment to Tišma. His keen eyes provided a literary masterpiece that, with an unflinching gaze, provided me a different perspective of how the Second World War shaped the individual. How about you fellow reader? What book or books are you taking with you for the weekend? I hope you get to enjoy them. For now, happy weekend! And as always, happy reading and take care!
Sounds fascinating, I had never heard of this author before.
There are many underestimated Yugoslav writers. I think my favorite one is Ivo Andric. In my opinion, his novel “the bridge on the Drina” is one of the best 20-30 books of the 20th century.
Do you know it?
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