My Family and Other Enemies: Life and Travels in Croatia’s Hinterland by Mary Novakovich - review by Mark Almond

Mark Almond

Back to the Balkans

My Family and Other Enemies: Life and Travels in Croatia’s Hinterland

By

Bradt 280pp £9.99
 

Try explaining to British readers, who, by dint of birth, might consider themselves to have won what Cecil Rhodes called ‘first prize in the lottery of life’, what it is like to be descended from someone on the losing side in a series of Balkan wars. That’s what the Canadian travel writer Mary Novakovich sets out to do here as she explores her family’s history and returns to the scene of the mayhem. It is a story of discovering the complexity of a past that seemed so simple from three thousand miles away. It is also a reflection on how, in a mere thirty or forty years, perspectives can change.

In 1941, the Nazi Blitzkrieg turned her Serb family, who lived in the Krajina region straddling Croatia and Bosnia, into an endangered species. In Yugoslavia, the Second World War was a multilayered conflict involving Croat nationalists, Serb royalists and partisans, and the Axis powers. On the back of the German invasion, the so-called Independent State of Croatia came into existence, incorporating the part of Yugoslavia where Novakovich’s family lived. They found themselves under the rule of the pro-Nazi, Croatian nationalist Ustaše movement.

Grisly wartime massacres, as well as the hair’s-breadth survival of her parents and a few other relatives, form the background to Novakovich’s exploration of where her family came from and what it went through. The ‘lucky’ ones went into exile, her parents ending up in Canada.

At the start of the book we meet Novakovich as a teenage ‘brat’ (her term) visiting Tito’s Yugoslavia alone in 1976. There she finds an extended clan whose language is very different from the odd bits of Serbian she has picked up at home and whose traditional cooking is

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