The Horrors of War

Over the years, the Balkans have produced several writers who took the literary world by storm. The rich landscape, colorful cultures, and diverse population of the region were captured by the powerful and evocative literary masterpieces of writers such as Albania’s Ismail Kadare; Croatia’s Dubravka Ugrešić and Daša Drndić; Greece’s Nikos Kazantzakis; and former Yugoslavia’s Danilo Kiš and Mehmed “Meša” Selimović. The region has also produced Nobel Prize in Literature winners in Yugoslavia’s Ivo Andrić, and Greece’s Giorgos Seferis and Odysseas Elytis. Another writer originating from the region who has built a name for himself was Yugoslavia’s Aleksandar Tišma.

Tišma first worked as a journalist before foraying into the world of prose. With a career that spanned more or less five decades, he has produced literary pieces that spanned different genres such as poems, novels, and short stories. Of his corpus, The Use of Man singly stands out as one of his most accomplished. Originally published in Serbo-Croatian as Upotreba čoveka in 1976, it was made available to the English-speaking public in 1988. The novel is the second novel in what is now collectively called Tišma’s Novi Sad trilogy; it succeeded Knjiga o Blamu (The Book of Blam, 1972) and preceded Kapo (1987). The three book’s setting, Novi Sad, is a city in northern Serbia and, in the contemporary, the second largest city in the country, just trailing the capital Belgrade. It was also the city where Tišma grew up and where he spent his twilight years after spending time abroad.

The trilogy was anchored on the city and was one of the main characters. In The Use of Man, four friends’ stories and individual destinies were juxtaposed with the city’s rich history. These four friends’ individual strands intersected in pre-Second World War Novi Sad where they all attended Fräulein Anna Drentvenšek’s German language class. Drentvenšek, referred to as Fräulein by her students, was one of the first German refugees to arrive. The novel opened with Fräulein purchasing a notebook which eventually became a diary: “Fräulein’s diary was small and oblong, with a coarse-grained red binding of imitation snakeskin, and in the top right-hand corner was the inscription “Poesie” in embossed gold letters.” Being one of the early German arrivals, Fräulein found herself isolated and alone.

“To prey on others or be preyed upon, to use or be used, if this was the range of possibilities for inflamed desires, then it was certainly easire, and more direct to translate them sensual pleasure, into games of cards, and beer-drinking under the shade of trees in summer or in a warm, well-lit tavern in winter, into marbled meat, warm potatoes, cold watermelon, fragrant wine, woolen underwear, and lined shoes.”

~ Aleksandar Tišma, The Use of Man

Of the four friends, Vera Kroner was the only female in the group. Born to a Jewish father and a German immigrant mother, Vera was strong-headed. She was also one of Fräulein’s favorite students. During the dying days of Drentvenšek due to kidney disease, she entrusted her diary to Vera, asking her to retrieve it and burn it. While Vera was able to retrieve the journal, she failed in burning it. Instead, it got buried in the pile of Vera’s other works, forgotten especially after the war reached the city. The journal would be retrieved after the end of the war by another one of the four main characters, Sredoje Lazukić. Sredoje was the son of a nationalist, Nemanja, who sent him to German lessons because he believed that this skill would come in handy should the Teutonic race threaten to invade the city. The third member of the quartet was Milinko Božić, who was Vera’s neighbor childhood friend. He eventually became Vera’s boyfriend. The last member of the group was Sep Lehnart, Vera’s cousin on her mother’s side.

Everything seemed to be in order in the city. It was the early 1940s and in Germany, Adolf Hitler ascended to the top of the Nazi Party and consolidated his stranglehold on power. The rest of the world was clueless that this was a huge red flag. Soon enough, Adolf Hitler started his conquest of the rest of the continent. With each passing day, the news reaching Novi Sad became gloomier and gloomier. The arrival of the war was a realistic fear that threatens to inundate the city. It didn’t take long before the German army was marching on the streets of Novi Sad, wreaking havoc at every turn. Survival has become imperative for the denizens of the city, including the four main characters. In their own way, the main characters found ways to escape the tentacles of the war. Unfortunately, or perhaps inevitably, some of them found themselves reluctant participants in the war.

Ever since time immemorial, wars have been waged. Some left a heavy toll and even altered the course of history. This has become a popular theme in literature; the horrors of wars, after all, are universal. But despite the universality of the subject – some may even find it cliched – the voices of those who have suffered need to be heard. They may have been muted by the din but literature ensures that their stories will be told, even if they are fictional accounts. However, it is glaring how the literary discourse on the Second World War has long been focused on the war’s impact on major metropolises such as Paris, Berlin, London, and Tokyo. Other places and events such as the Bataan Death March, the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the Battle of Guadalcanal were mainly mentioned because of their roles in the war.

Beyond these places and events, it is not often that one encounters intimate details of how the war has adversely shaped lesser-known localities, such as Novi Sad, Trieste in northeast Italy, and the Albanian countryside. It is through war novels like Tišma’s The Use of Man, Dasa Drndic’s Trieste, and Ismail Kadare’s The General of the Dead Army that we get to learn more about the pandemonium caused by the war in areas not typically mentioned in such literary discourses. These literary pieces provide different lenses from which we can peek at the events that transpired during another time. They provide a broader scope, thus, a fuller portrait of the war. These literary pieces gave more voices to the men and women who suffered during the war.

“Yesterday’s circle of constraint, though he had not seen it then as constraint was broken. Law and order were no more, because they were maintained by an invader with a machine gun across his chest and pale eyebrows and a frown benath the rim of his steel helmet. Respect was no more; hunger and fear had destroyed it. Patriotism was no more; shame had made a mockery of it.”

~ Aleksandar Tišma, The Use of Man

As it creeps inch by inch, the pandemonium it has set started to manifest. Prior to the war, Novi Sad was a thriving city at the edge of Central Europe It is a melting pot of different cultures where different groups of people of different ethnicity and religious backgrounds have converged. Coexisting in harmony within the city’s boundaries are Serbs, Croats, Germans, Jews, and Hungarians. Intermarriage was also prevalent. However, following its capture by the Germans, the city that was the cultural nucleus of the region has turned into a place of bloodbath, the site of countless slaughters and deportations. These gruesome events were painted in vivid detail by Tišma’s relentless storytelling.

It was not only the community that was adversely affected by the war. The novel captured how the war has destroyed different relationships, including the erosion of the institution of the family. We see sons and daughters going against their parent’s desires. They were sometimes driven by selfish motives, such as ensuring their own survival. For the hard-working and intelligent Milinko, who was raised by a brutal father, going to join the war was a no-brainer. He has an optimism that made him believe that the impossible can be hurdled. The unfortunate families were forcefully separated by the war. With parents and children retreating in haste, chaos was the norm. The children were the real casualties of the war.

The war’s most pervasive impact can be seen on the individuals who became reluctant participants of the war. One thing was for sure, no one was going to escape the war unscathed. Some perished and some survived but even survival does not ensure peace of mind. Those who were lucky enough to survive the war found themselves reeling from the trauma and horrific memories. The ghosts of the war keep on haunting them no matter where they go. In one chapter, we read in vivid detail the experiences of Vera in the concentration camp; being half-Jewish, her destiny was already predetermined. In one chapter, Tišma was able to encapsulate several years of Vera’s life but it was, nonetheless, one of the most intimate, riveting, moving, and impactful portions of the story.

There was too much suffering permeating the air. Tišma, resolute in capturing vivid details of the war, never provided respite from the bleakness that enveloped the story. Vera was badly scarred by the war that even a return to her hometown did not provide the reprieve she was yearning for. Instead, she found herself sinking into poverty. While Novi Sad held so many wonderful memories, it also was an emotional prison that the characters are bound to. Misery was everywhere. It was inescapable. Rather than taking control of their own destinies, those who survived the war were too weary and battle-scarred that they no longer had the desire or the strength to change the course of their lives. Rather than planning for the future, those who survived spent hours to reminisce about the war. It was ubiquitous and it seems that the only way to survive is to cling to the past. There is no moving forward. Ending one’s life, at times, was a more viable option compared to the incessant voices that linger in one’s head.

“Vera had the feeling those of at the diary contained a whole human being – someone unknown to her until now, or known in a different way – and that if she destroyed it, she would never again have the chance, once the shock of surprise had faded, to know that human being more clearly. She was seized by a fear she had not felt at the funeral: Was it possible for the content of a whole long life to vanish so easily, so abruptly?”

~ Aleksandar Tišma, The Use of Man

Novi Sad formed the emotional backbone of the story. It provided a wonderful backdrop to the story. With Tišma’s cunning and powerful storytelling, the city came alive. We read the plights of the common men. The working men, frustrated by their work and life in general, beat their wives. The tavern played a seminal role in their quotidian lives. Prostitution abounded and the brothel played an integral role in the society of Novi Sad. It was one of the different portrayals of the uses of men, rather the use of women by men. We also read of the common men’s dreams and aspirations. The sky is the limit for the scores who wanted to become millionaires. There were also those who simply wanted to be policemen.

One of the novel’s more intriguing facets was its structure. Linearity was ditched for a story that meandered. This lack of linearity and the book’s overall experimental structure provided even more pandemonium. It can be a form of suffering on its own but it was also an indirect reference to the chaos catalyzed by the war. There was no sense of time as the story kept weaving in and out of different timelines. The plurality of points of view added a layer to the story. It takes time to piece together the different parts of the novel. The Use of Man, thus, requires patience to let the story flourish and unravel.

As history has demonstrated, warfare is a profound reality of our existence. For as long as we can chronicle, we have been waging wars. This makes the role of literature critical as they play a seminal role in recounting these dark phases of memory and, at the same time, making the voices of those who have suffered be heard. Not even the passage of time can mute them. It is for this reason that novels like Aleksandar Tišma’s The Use of Man will transcend time. The novel and its unflinching gaze captured the horrors of war. While the Serbian writer provided a very little reprieve from the nightmarish landscape, his honest storytelling captured the war as it should be captured; human bonds are volatile and heroes are nowhere to be found. The Use of Man was not just another novel about the war.

“After the tremendous shock caused by the senseless, wholesale killing, the young people, previously pacifists, slipped into the opposite extreme. The crimes committed against them and their like freed them from responsibility. Forgetting the ghastly gaping mouth of the people who had been hanged, they began to speak of them as simple fools who had not taken seriously enough the frenzied armored troops.”

~ Aleksandar Tišma, The Use of Man
Rating

88%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 
24%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

Prior to 2020, I have never heard of nor had I read any works by Serbian writer Aleksandar Tišma. My interest was piqued when, back in early 2020, I encountered one of his works, The Use of Man, through an online bookseller. Despite having no iota of who Tišma was, I picked the book. Two years later, I would acquire another book of his, Kapo but I did not realize that both books were written by Tišma. It was actually Kapo that I was planning to read as part of my 2022 European Literature month but, in the end, I opted for The Use of Man knowing that I had it longer than Kapo. The book explored a familiar subject, war. Despite reading several books about the horrors of the Second World War, I was still able to appreciate The Use of Man because it provided a different perspective. When we talk of the Second World War, our attention would often be drawn to major cities such as Paris, London, Tokyo, or Berlin. Rarely do we encounter a book about how its impact on the smaller localities such as Novi Sad. For this alone, I appreciated Tišma’s book

Book Specs

Author: Aleksandar Tišma
Translator (from Serbo-Croatian): Bernard Johnson
Publisher: Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers
Publishing Date: 1988
Number of Pages: 342
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

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.

About the Author

Aleksandar Tišma was born on January 16, 1924, in Horgoš, Kanjiža on the present-day border of Serbia and Hungary to a Serbian father and a Hungarian-speaking Jewish mother. He was raised in the city of Novi Sad, where he completed his elementary and middle school education. He moved to Budapest, Hungary during the Second World War to study economics, the French language, and literature but was unable to complete his degree after he joined the national liberation struggle in 1944. After demobilization, Tišma worked as a journalist for Slobodna Vojvodina and Borba newspapers. He eventually completed his degree in English at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Philology in 1954. He also worked as editor and redactor at Matica srpska , where he remained until his retirement in 1980.

While working as a journalist, Tišma commenced his literary career. In 1951, he published his first story, Ibika’s House. He produced a score of novels such as Za crnom devojkom (After a Black-Haired Girl Guilt, 1969), Knjiga o Blamu (The Book of Blam, 1972), Upotreba čoveka (The Use of Man, 1976), and Kapo (1987). The last three books comprised the Novi Sad trilogy which gained him international recognition. He also published short story collections such as Krivice (Guilts, 1965), Nasilje (Violene,1965), and Hiljadu i druga noć (A Thousand and Second Night, 1987). He also wrote poetry and travel books. For his works, Tišma received several accolades such as the Novi Sad October Award, the 1976 NIN Award for best novel of the year for The Use of Man, the Andrić Award, and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1995).

Tišma was also active in the art scene. He was a corresponding member of the Vojvodina Academy of Sciences and Arts (VANU) in 1979 and was promoted to a regular member in 1984. Upon their fusion in 1992, Tišma became a regular member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts (SANU). He was also a member of the Academy of Arts, Berlin. He also translated into Serbian the works of other writers such as Imre Kertész.

Tišma passed away on February 15, 2003, in Novi Sad.