Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Josip Novakovich emigrated from Croatia at the age of twenty and currently teaches fiction writing at Penn State. Last year he was a writing fellow of the New York Public Library. He has a new collection of essays, Plum Brandy: A Croatian Journey, coming out this month from White Wine Press.
You’d imagine that, in the wake of 9-11, New York City subways would be less crowded than usual, that at least the paranoiacs of the city (no doubt a large population, of which I might be considered a member) would not be in the subway, which seems like a target. For a month after the attack, I observed the multitude of bags every morning and wondered, What’s to guarantee there are no explosives here, no anthrax, no plague?
Ordinarily, Marko Sakic walked the five blocks to work at his grocery store on the Street of Proletarian Brigades in Nizograd, Croatia, but these days he drove, because he didn’t want to face his neighbors in the streets. Croatia had recently declared its independence from Serb-ruled Yugoslavia, and, as a Serb, Marko didn’t know what this meant for him. He wanted to be inconspicuous.
This month marks The Sun’s twenty-fifth anniversary. As the deadline for the January issue approached — and passed — we were still debating how to commemorate the occasion in print. We didn’t want to waste space on self-congratulation, but we also didn’t think we should let the moment pass unnoticed. At the eleventh hour, we came up with an idea: we would invite longtime contributors and current and former staff members to send us their thoughts, recollections, and anecdotes about The Sun. Maybe we would get enough to fill a few pages.
What we got was enough to fill the entire magazine.
Though we haven’t devoted the whole issue to the anniversary, we have allowed the section to grow beyond our original plans. After seeing the pieces, we felt that our readers would enjoy them as much as we did — for the information about the magazine’s history, for the glimpses into the writers’ lives, and (not least) for the quality of the writing.
Fritz, a gray, wolflike German shepherd, howled so terribly at some intruder that his owner, Igor Lovrak, went into his larder and greased his great-grandfather’s rifle and thumbed gunpowder and bullets into the barrel before he dared walk out into the yard. Even then, he trembled, expecting to find bears or a band of thieves closing in. Just as Igor stumbled outside in his wooden clogs, Fritz leapt so violently at something that he tore out of the ground the thick pipe to which he was chained and, with a terrible din, jumped over a hedge. A cat scrambled up the lamppost, barely escaping the dog.
I haven’t lived well because I didn’t know until recently who the enemy was. I thought the enemy was outside, somewhere far removed from me — the communists, the Serbs, the Muslims. I didn’t know that the true enemy was much closer at hand.
Vadim felt the wind-borne particles of water bursting in the hazy sunlight. He breathed the firs’ musty aroma and remembered Bosnia’s mountain pines above his red-tiled house, and the day Serb soldiers had firebombed the forest and his house had burned in high-explosive flames.
Visiting my hometown of Daruvar, Croatia, in 1986, I was taken aback when a friend told me, “Go back to the States! We’ll have a war here. Serbs have lists of all the Croatian households. At night they will slit our throats.” I thought he was crazy. Now I think I was crazy not to see the warning signs.
Late at night I heard a scream. Ivan was shaking me violently. “Father’s dying!” he shrieked. It was pitch-black in the room. I sprang out of bed, and both of us ran to our parents’ bedroom. “Where’s Mother?”
Again and again he flew against the window so mercilessly I was scared he would break his neck. Then his eyes glowed with wrath.