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Zvonimir Popović, Våt sand (Wet Sand)

Natur och Kultur,  2005. ISBN: 9127107469

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2005:2

In Våt sand, the narrator Milovan Vidic makes a short trip to Serbia, and the reader probably expects a contemporary semi-autobiographical novel to emerge. However, Zvonimir Popovic does not oblige. Instead, he gives us a complex melding of time schemes and a cast of characters that extends over sixty years. In the process, we gain many important insights into the Balkan experience. When Milovan first leaves his comfortable life in Bromma, Sweden, and arrives in the small, regional town of Jagodina in Serbia, he has ostensibly come to have a look at his old country whilst working on a translation assignment – a Swedish psychotherapist is paying him to translate a document written by the late Adam Savic. This is expected to reveal important facts about her patient, Svetlana Larsson (Adam’s niece), whose family has emigrated to Sweden. In fact, as we learn in reading excerpts from the journal, Adam is probably her father. While his brother Jovan lay comatose after drinking too much alcohol at his wedding, Adam impregnated Jovan’s beautiful bride, Jelena, then helped her sprinkle chicken blood over her white dress. There are a number of parallel plotlines. First, we have the life of the narrator in a small, paranoiac town whose policemen are corrupt and whose citizens’ lives are still being run by shadowy figures of power in Belgrade. The title of the book alludes to their habit of getting rid of political undesirables by having them run down by lorries loaded with wet sand, with the usual postscript, “he/she didn’t have a chance”. Secondly, there is the narrative in Adam’s journal – a heartbreaking account of a blighted life, albeit with some rewards. Adam, born with a withered leg, is spared the agonies of the Srem front, where the Germans and Croats make a defensive line to allow an ordered retreat, whilst Tito throws a rag-tag army of boys at them. Adam Savic inherits his farm and beehives from Lale, after the latter loses both of his sons and heirs in this conflict. Ranko is shot by a German firing squad in 1942. Ratimir (Adam’s good friend) dies whilst cradling his beloved accordion, from German bullets in Srem. Lale is hailed as a hero by the local communist party for sacrificing his two sons. The local communist leader also greedily annexes Lale’s prize stallion to pull his expensive carriage, once the property of the local salami king. Lale is not fooled by the empty rhetoric: “Just think if Tito, the mighty general they said was our comrade, had understood bees! Just think if he had understood they were the most important things of all! But he let the bees die although he still wanted honey.” As the narrator starts to delve into the mysteries of Adam’s journal, he is slowly drawn into his own past prior to emigrating to Sweden. As the son of a war hero, he always enjoyed certain privileges in the old Yugoslavia. His mother worked as a telephonist for the national police, and when Milovan grew older, he was chosen by the State to undertake low-level spying missions in Sweden. When Milovan is prevented from boarding his plane back to Sweden on what seems an official pretext of not having confirmed his booking, he is forced into spending another two weeks in Jagodina. Suddenly he feels he is being watched – does he have political enemies in Serbia? At the same time, he begins to suspect that his father’s origins have been faked by the State. A beer-swilling local informs him pointedly that Tito took many of his enemies’ children and had them reclassified as the Serb offspring of “fallen heroes”. As the novel closes and Milovan goes on the run, the State decides to terminate his life, running him down with a lorry loaded with wet sand. This is an accomplished novel showing the misuse of power and manifold injustices that the people of Yugoslavia had already suffered in the lead-up to the recent civil war. Although it is a poetical work imaginatively indebted to masterpieces such as Kafka’s The Castle and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, it forms a strong and complex picture of the Yugoslav experience while at the same time reaching beyond particularities of time and place, and functioning as a stand-alone polemic on the abuse of the individual by the state.

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