Josip Novakovich, April Fool's Day

Information and Questions for reading

small black and white picture of Josip Novakovich

Croatian-American author Josip Novakovich was born in 1956 in Croatia, then Yugoslavia, in the town of Daruvar. He studied medicine in Novi Sad (the major city of the province of Vojvodina, in the north of Serbia), so the novel we read has some obvious biographical relevance, but then moved to the United States and received his BA at Vassar College. According to Wikipedia, his grandparents had emigrated to the US when Croatia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but they returned after WWI, when the first Yugoslavia was established (initially called "The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes"). Hence, Novakovich is more Croatian-American than your average émigré. He later earned advanced degrees at Yale and the University of Texas at Austin.

Novakovich has received several prestigious writing fellowships, and after teaching at a variety of colleges he is now Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at Penn Stae University. April Fool's Day (2004) is his first novel, but he has published six other books: three short story collections, two collections of essays, and a creative writing textbook (fiction).

Just one comment on the arrest for joking about assassinating Tito: I met a guy a few years younger than Novakovich who had gone to school in the Croatian city of Zadar (a gem on the Adriatic coast). When he was in high school, at some kind of after-school meeting the kids started fooling around and someone stuck a moustache of chewed paper (like spit-wad material) to the framed portrait of Tito on the classroom wall. This guy was fingered as the guilty party, was arrested, and spent a year in jail (age 16 or something). He told the story as an example of absurdity, since he hadn't suffered in jail except for missing the year of school and having to dig trenches from time to time (prisoners used to help work on highways). Of course, under Stalin you could get yourself sent to camp or simply shot for making a joke about Stalin...

Questions and Comments for Reading:

  1. What is your opinion of scatological humor?
  2. How does violence intertwine wth humor (and the element of the disgusting or monstrous) in the novel?
  3. Compare the joke in this novel with Ludvik's joke in Kundera's Joke, or with the mockery of Stalin in VoinovichChonkin.
  4. The novel includes some "talking names": the name of the town of Nizograd means "low city" (you'll recognize the root "grad" from "Beograd" or "Leningrad" - Russian uses "grad" when it wants to sound more fancy than the Russian equivalent "gorod.") Ivan is, as the narrative tells us, the most ordinary name: it's Croatian for John. (His medical school friend Jovo, short for Jovan, is also named John: Jovan is the Serbian version.) The name "Ivan" (pronounced EE-van, not EYE-van!) would mark him as a Croat wherever he went in former Yugoslavia. His last name, Dolinar, means "valley man" or "resident of the valley" - underlining the name of Nizograd, and making him a kind of Everyman of that place. Fans of Realist novels may note that Nizograd could be abbreviated "the town of N."
  5. What's the effect of the chapter titles?
  6. Can the novel be read as a picareque narrative?
  7. Note the "buried past" on p. 17: Roman, Byzantine, Turkish, Hapsburg, Hungariuan, Croatian, Yugoslav coins - in chronological order, too.
  8. Who are the positive characters? (if any!)
  9. Ivan seems to alternate between being a hero and being an anti-hero: what is the eventual impression?
  10. What's your impression of the interactions of the different ethnic groups? (At peace? At war?)
  11. If you have read The Return of Filip Latinowicz or other works by Miroslav Krleža, how much does this book recall the detailed, repellent depictions of the land and landscape in the Croatian plains?
  12. The novel feels very Eastern European to me. Which elements remind you of the rest of the reading list, and which don't seem to fit?
  13. How does the discussion of work on p. 22 reflect (or not) what you know about socialism?
  14. On the other hand, there are entirely American things, such as the lovely word-formation "jerkdom" (p. 58).
  15. Does the eventual pholosophizing become tedious, or has the reader suspended the faculty of boredom (parallel to suspending disbelief)?
  16. How do th Americans come off? - experts at precision sex, bombing, and dentistry.

Unlike many of the other authors we have been reading, Josip (pronounced YO-seep) Novakovich is very much alive, and if you e-mail him with a question about his book he might answer you.

small color picture of Josip Novakovich

If you liked this book: I was originally hoping to have this group read Dubravka Ugrešić's 1988 novel Fording the Stream of Consciousness (Forsiranje romana reke) - it's not really a dissident book, but it's very funny, and her more recent writing often raises a dissident voice. The book has gone out of print, though, so there were not enough copies available. The book is highly recommended, though.

Along the East European-American vector, there are now many wonderful writers working in the US, writing directly in English and thus themselves "translating" their experiences. I would especially suggest What Is Told by Ukrainian-American Askold Melnychuk, and anything by Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon, whose works are much darker.