The New York Times
April Fool's Dayby Josip Novakovich
Ivan Dolinar is born in Tito's Yugoslavia on April Fool's Day, 1948 -- the auspicious beginning of a life that will be derailed by backfiring good intentions in a world of propaganda and paranoia. At age nineteen, an innocent prank cuts the young Croatian's budding medical career short and lands him in a notorious labor camp. Released on the eve of civil war, Ivan
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Ivan Dolinar is born in Tito's Yugoslavia on April Fool's Day, 1948 -- the auspicious beginning of a life that will be derailed by backfiring good intentions in a world of propaganda and paranoia. At age nineteen, an innocent prank cuts the young Croatian's budding medical career short and lands him in a notorious labor camp. Released on the eve of civil war, Ivan is drafted into the wrong army, becoming a pawn in an absurd conflict in which the rules and loyalties shift abruptly and without warning. But even in a world gone mad, one course of action remains eminently sane: survival.
Told with bitingly dark humor and a deep tenderness, April Fool's Day is both a devastating political satire and a razor-sharp parody of war.
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April Fool's DayA Novel
By Josip Novakovich
Chapter OneIvan falls in love with power as soon as he learns how to crawl
Ivan Dolinar was born on the first of April in 1948. Since his parents did not want him to go through life as a Fool's Day joke, they registered his birthday as the second of April, in the Nizograd Birth Registry in Croatia. His surly father gave the baby the first name that popped into his head - the most common name in the region and, for that matter, Europe. Nobody else in the family tree, however, bore that name, from what Milan could tell, and that was a further advantage to choosing it, since he didn't feel particularly grateful to the tree.
That Milan Dolinar was surly was not personal but historical. On his wedding day, the sixth of April, 1941, Belgrade was bombarded. The king, having signed the pact with Germany, had already fled the country (taking along all the gold that could fit on his plane and dropping some to enable the plane to attain sufficient altitude to fly over the Bosnian mountains toward Greece - to this day people look for the gold in Bosnia), and a variety of armies, domestic and imported, began to crawl through the country.
Ivan's father was drafted into one of them. He distinguished himself by courage on the battlefield and would have received the highest honors had he not changed armies several times and joined the winning side too late. He was not the sort of medal winner who hides in a bunker during battles, who is the loudest once the battle is over, and who carries with him enough brandy to give to his superiors. Ivan's father rushed to the front lines and threw hand grenades at the enemies from up close; he shot from his machine gun, shivering with joy when his bullets ripped a soldier's guts, blood spurting into mud in the heart's rhythm.
One white wintry day, a green mufflerless truck dropped Milan Dolinar off at home, maimed. Milan carried his severed arm and leg in a potato sack, because he had heard that science could put his limbs back on. After several weeks the ice thawed, and the hand and the leg rotted, despite Milan's keeping them in the coldest corner of his basement. Yet he kept even the bones, thinking that science would one day be able to restore his limbs. He read all the medical books he could lay his hands - or, rather, hand-on, and he claimed he knew more about illnesses than all the doctors in the county combined. When he sat near the town center kiosk, under chestnut trees, and smoked his pipe (which was good for his sinuses in the wet climate), many people stopped by and asked him how to treat their rheumatoid arthritis and varicose veins. Sometimes lighting his pipe was the fee for the advice. He was prophetic indeed about the beneficial influence of red wine on the blood vessels and memory faculties, so every afternoon his nose turned red, and he related his war reminiscences to random young listeners in horrifyingly vivid detail. And when Ivan was born, his nose positively beamed. Several months after Ivan's birth, Milan Dolinar died in delirium tremens.
From early on, Ivan wanted to distinguish himself, as though he knew that he suffered a handicap. He fell in love with power as soon as he learned how to crawl. He screamed for milk even when he didn't want any, just so he could command his mother's attention. He was breast-fed for almost a year; he wouldn't have cow's milk as long as he could sink his face into his mother's smooth bosom.
Then his mother, Branka Dolinar, gave birth to Bruno, the son Ivan's father had conceived before his death - red wine was good even for that. Ivan was pushed away from his mother's soft breasts, although she did have two. No matter how much he screamed, he got only cow's milk. As for pacifiers, after the war there weren't any, and he had to make do with his little fingers.
Several years later Ivan took revenge for being displaced from his mother's bosom: he continually tortured his younger brother - pulling his ears and nose, and bopping him on the head. There was nothing more melodious to him than the boy's crying. Ivan was not vicious - he merely treated his brother as a temporary musical instrument, an organ, on which he was learning to control the keys, and after all, isn't music all about the beauties of control and order? The rest of the day he would spend hugging Bruno, making him paper airplanes, and giving him chocolates he stole from the local store. But as Bruno was about to grasp a bar of chocolate, Ivan would withdraw it and tease him to grasp it again - in the meanwhile, he would back his way up toward the dark attic, and Bruno would follow, reaching up toward the alluring bar. And once his brother passed the threshold of the attic, Ivan would lock him in to scream in the dark. Ivan enjoyed the high pitch he thus elicited from his brother's windpipe-but soon thereafter he would open the door and apologize, promising they would go fishing together.
They often went to the little river, which passed through the town, and sat on the clay bank below weeping willows. Ivan found the fish they caught too slimy to touch, while Bruno enjoyed getting the fish off the hook and spearing it on a branch and grilling it over the fire Ivan made. Under the tree's canopy, they were like little Indians; they ate, and they smoked dry willow leaves. Bruno caught toads with his bare hands and laughed at how they looked like bald, fat old men.
When Mother went shopping, she ordered Ivan to babysit, and often he did it quite literally, sitting on his crying baby brother. Mother beat Ivan for beating Bruno, and the resentful Ivan would beat the boy again and then offer him pencils, with which Bruno drew frogs and fish ...
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Meet the Author
Josip Novakovich's stories have appeared in many publications, including The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, and Ploughshares. He teaches at Pennsylvania State University and lives near State College, Pennsylvania.
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I bought this book because we are soon traveling to Croatia and it was on a reading list we had been given. I read about 2/3 of it and then gave up. Other than a brief reference to Tito here and there, and a mention or two of the republics that made up Yugoslavia, it was nothing that I had hoped for. I found it neither interesting nor funny as was written in the book notes. A thorough disappointment.
While I enjoy and seek out books by foreign authors, I found this book a bit tedious and hard to follow. I still don't know what exactly happened in the end. It does provide an interest look life in Yugoslavia under the dictator Tito.
If you're looking for a book that takes a look at politics and human relationships and how they go awry--without preaching and often with a dry, acerbic wit, this is the book for you. Novakovich's style is level, almost Beckett- like, even as his character's journey is a roller coaster. A wry yet highly readable look at the absurdity of war.