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April Fool's Day

April Fool's Day

3.0 4
by Josip Novakovich

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Ivan Dolinar is a man caught in the crosscurrents of senseless wars, ridiculous dictators, and the usual and unusual difficulties of just trying to get by in the Balkans. His life begins, auspiciously, on April Fool's Day, 1948. As a boy growing up in a small town in Croatia, Ivan tries to love the people's dictator, Tito, but his love is not returned. In a world


Ivan Dolinar is a man caught in the crosscurrents of senseless wars, ridiculous dictators, and the usual and unusual difficulties of just trying to get by in the Balkans. His life begins, auspiciously, on April Fool's Day, 1948. As a boy growing up in a small town in Croatia, Ivan tries to love the people's dictator, Tito, but his love is not returned. In a world of propaganda and paranoia, young Ivan quickly discovers that the best of intentions can backfire. At nineteen, full of hope and ambition, he enters medical school in Novi Sad, Serbia, but his medical career is cut short by a prank, and he is sent to a notorious labor camp to dig rocks for two years. War breaks out soon after his release, and Ivan is drafted — into the wrong army. A pawn in an absurd conflict in which rules and loyalties shift unexpectedly, Ivan finds himself in a struggle simply to survive.

From the tavern to the ivory tower to the battlefields, as Ivan's fortunes rise and fall faster than one can say "Yugoslavia," a tender novel emerges. Told with the bitingly dark humor ofttimes used to keep despair at bay, April Fool's Day is both a devastating political satire and a razor-sharp parody of war.

Editorial Reviews

“A heartfelt novel about the war-torn Balkans that’s actually quite funny...and touching.”
Newsweek (International Edition)
"[A] laugh-while-you-grimace novel...[Novakovich] writes with dark wit, and a touching sympathy."
Maud Casey
This wickedly funny and deeply harrowing first novel from Josip Novakovich, a Croatian expatriate who came to the United States at 20 — in part to avoid enlistment in the Yugoslav Federal Army — relates the picaresque tale of one Ivan Dolinar, born in Croatia on April Fool's Day in 1948, around the time of Tito's historic split with Stalin.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Like Aleksandar Hemon and Ha Jin, short story writer Novakovich (Salvation and Other Disasters) manages the feat of writing vibrantly and inventively in a second language, shaping English to the dictates of his satiric, folk-tinged storytelling. His debut novel tells the story of Ivan Dolinar, a Croatian Everyman born in the town of Nizograd in 1948. As a boy, Ivan is a bully and a patriot (as one chapter title puts it, "Ivan loves the state apparatus"), and he grows up longing to serve his country. After a buffoonish but successful stint in medical school, he's about to become a doctor when a foolish joke gets him arrested and sent to a labor camp on a desolate Adriatic island. He's released three years later, but his criminal record makes him unfit for everything except graduate school in philosophy. Demoralized and hapless, he's drafted into the Serb-heavy Yugoslav army to fight his fellow Croats; he soon deserts and is hustled into uniform on the other side. Novakovich gives a pithy, biting account of the Balkan wars, following it up by an even more caustic account of Ivan's marriage to a woman he raped during the war. The story culminates with Ivan's first-person account of his own death and afterlife. Novakovich's English is foreign-tinged and brash, giving a jolt of chaotic energy to this dark Balkan comedy. Agent, Anne Edelstein. (Sept. 7) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Balkan Everyman's progress through the later 20th century and the afterlife. Protagonist Ivan Dolinar is born on April 1, 1948, and grows up in the Croatian village of Nizograd, where he learns "to admire the power of the state," worship Tito, and channel his adolescent romanticism into the study of medicine. In a quirky episodic narrative, Ivan attends medical school in Serbia and somehow passes his exams, but finds his life plans irrevocably altered after a prank misfires and he's charged with plotting to assassinate Tito and sentenced to four years' hard labor. In prison, he meets Tito (who's surprisingly cordial, under the circumstances) and is befriended by visiting Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, then released early (during the "Croatian Spring" of 1968), and reinvents himself as a student of philosophy. Similar ups and downs mark the next 30 years, during which Ivan remains basically unemployable, finally loses his prolonged virginity, fights for the Yugoslav Army (against his fellow Croatians), marries after having perhaps fathered a daughter (the facts are ambiguous), experiences the pleasures and pains of adultery, and succumbs to a stroke in his early 50s. The Croatian-American author's deadpan prose, used to such brilliant effect in his story collections Yolk (1995) and Salvation and Other Disasters (1998), is less effective here, because Ivan-whose inability to fit in anywhere subtly parallels his homeland's instability-is too emotionally subdued to be a particularly compelling character. But Novakovich's understatements work superbly in the closing chapters, when Ivan's inquisitive ghost achieves a harmony with his surroundings that had been denied him throughout hislife. A flawed though agreeably eccentric first novel from one of the more interesting and unusual contemporary writers. Agent: Anne Edelstein
Columbus Dispatch
“Delightfully neurotic . . . Novakovich brings a deft touch to his ambitious and unconventional first novel.”
Republic of Letters
“APRIL FOOL’S DAY is a wonder...[It] has an economy of style and narrative that all good readers will relish.”
Chicago Tribune
“[Ivan] is a fully rounded character, the type of protagonist...that we rarely find in fiction.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“Rife with dark humor [and] notable for its witty reflections on politics, literature and the vicissitudes of the human heart.”
USA Today
“Both humorous and horrifying as it traces one man’s misadventures.”
Newsweek International
“[A] laugh-while-you-grimace novel...[Novakovich] writes with dark wit, and a touching sympathy.”
Washington Post
“An ambitious first novel ... The magic realism of the final sections is exemplary; Novakovich has found his groove.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Disturbing and frequently beautiful...the novel is a Balkan conflation of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Gogol’s DEAD SOULS, and SLAUGHERHOUSE FIVE.”
Tibor Fischer
“There are very few native-born English speakers who write as well.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
P.S. Series
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

April Fool's Day
A Novel

Chapter One

Ivan 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 medalwinner 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 handgrenades 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 ...

April Fool's Day
A Novel
. Copyright © by Josip Novakovich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Tibor Fischer
“There are very few native-born English speakers who write as well.
Maud Casey
“Wickedly funny and deeply harrowing...Novakovich knows how to tell a story...Strange, lyrical beauty abounds here.”

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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April Fool's Day 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Chris-An More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.