Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać
Winner of the Prix Ulysse for best debut novel in France
Winner in Croatia and the Balkan region of the Kočićevo Pero Award, the Josip and Ivan Kozarac Award, and the Kiklop Award for the best work of fiction
When the Croatian War of Independence breaks out in her hometown of Vukovar in the summer of 1991 the narrator of The Hotel Tito is nine years old, nestled within the embrace of family with her father, her mother, and older brother. She is sent to a seaside vacation to be far from the hostilities. Meanwhile, her father has disappeared while fighting with the Croatian forces. By the time she returns at summer’s end everything has changed. Against the backdrop of genocide (the Vukovar hospital massacre) and the devastation of middle class society within the Yugoslav Federation, our young narrator, now with her mother and brother refugees among a sea of refugees, spends the next six years experiencing her own self-discovery and transformation amid unfamiliar surroundings as a displaced person. As she grows from a nine-year old into a sparkling and wonderfully complicated fifteen-year-old, it is as a stranger in her own land.
Applauded as the finest work of fiction to appear about the Yugoslav Wars, Ivana Bodrožić’s The Hotel Tito is at its heart a story of a young girl’s coming of age, a reminder that even during times of war—especially during such times—the future rests with those who are the innocent victims and peaceful survivors.
An excerpt from We Trade Our Night for Someone Else's Day: A Novel by Ivana Bodrožić, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać
finger a fold on the silken skirt let the fingernail rip to pain
now (fall 2010)
“The worst part is realizing you can’t open the door from the inside,” was the first thing she said. Then she fixed her gaze on the gray linoleum floor and spent a long time picking at the cuticle around her fingernail, her skinned elbows propped on the school desk. On her left pinkie and ring finger she was still wearing fake nails, so she hadn’t been there long. There were moments when the look on her face was bemused, as if she’d surfaced, mystified, from another time, but this quickly faded to stiffness and a dull gaze. Nora had no idea how to kickstart the conversation, and even less how to get close to her after all the salacious, tragic, twisted stories of pedophilia the papers had been printing about her for weeks. She hadn’t expected her to look like this—a shapely blonde with light eyes in the Požega prison visitors’ lounge. Nora would have trusted this woman to look after her child—if she’d had a child—without a second thought while she ran an errand. She’d spent hours poring over the photos peddled to the tabloids by shocked relatives and people who until recently had been this woman’s friends: a snapshot of her wrapped in a sarong, out with her husband at the river island beach, squinting into the sun and grinning at the person behind the camera; then another shot of her, head bowed, wearing a jacket with sleeves reaching down below her wrists, being escorted out of the building while the old ladies peered out of their windows, their elbows planted on brightly colored cushions; and, finally, a third one of her standing, contrite, in the modest courtroom of the county court. In this last picture, published on the front page the previous week, Nora thought she saw (had she merely imagined this?) a jeer playing around the woman’s tightly pressed lips. “This dragon-lady story is the sort of plum you don’t get every day,” said the editor of the paper as he urged her to take on the job, but somewhere beneath his coercive, wheedling veneer she sniffed the sleaze of the system in which she lived and worked. The editor supported her male colleagues without a blink, and he spoke to them, even when they were junior to her, with courtesy and respect, while whenever anybody dropped by the office he dispatched Nora to fetch the coffees, even though she was better educated and more competent than the men. He occasionally spoke with admiration for the slick criminals in politics and others who boasted of their reputations as war criminals while they strutted around, flashing their folksy charm. He thought they were badass, even if he didn’t share their politics. This made Nora sick. She’d rather be writing about other things; she ached to have a go at the people at the top, to expose the system, which stank like a fish from the head. She would have preferred to keep away from this desperate-housewives woman who’d snapped and murdered her husband. Nora was vying with a colleague to dig up dirt on the mayor of the city, who had offered to bribe a city councillor from the opposition party; the councillor had recorded their conversation and made the recording public. But instead, Nora was assigned the desperate housewife. Everybody already knew the facts—they’d been chewed over in several dailies. K. G.—a teacher at the city’s general and vocational high school—had hooked up with, or possibly seduced, D. V., a seventeen-year-old student. After they’d been together a few months, the teacher talked the boy into killing her husband. Three shots to the chest and head, pools of blood; the neighbors heard the screams. True love is so poignant. At first the alibi was a break-in, then self-defense, but soon the lovers confessed. There was no conclusive proof that he’d pulled the trigger, so the boy was released from jail on the condition that he be committed to a mental health institution for many years. K. G. made no comment—and now she couldn’t open the door from the inside. It appeared to be the logical outcome.
“I’m not recording this; I’ve come to see you, and, as you probably know, I’m a reporter; I’d like to hear your side of the story, that’s all,” Nora blurted out.
“Are you married?” Kristina asked, her voice tired, never looking up from her nails.
Nora paused, weighing whether to marry herself off on the spot to keep the conversation going, but instead she opted for sincerity. “No, I’m not. I was with someone, but”—then she broke off, midsentence, wondering what it was about this woman that she’d nearly begun to confide in her about her own life.
“What point is there, then, in telling you?”
“Well, I don’t know. How did it all begin?” She pushed on, knowing this was her only chance.
“How did what begin?” Kristina laughed and shook her head. Nora could see that once something like this has happened, the person to whom it happened no longer speaks the same language other people speak. One of the two women talking in the lounge was behind bars, while the other was free and independent. But Kristina had nothing left to lose, so she could allow herself everything, while Nora still had everything to lose: the interview, her freedom, her job, her resilience, her solitude. Kristina laughed, while Nora kept her mouth shut— and weighed every word spoken to Krstina and everybody else. Somewhere, beneath the surface, this ordinary, banal, and tawdry prison could actually free you. The pressure that rose from Nora’s chest to her throat every evening was released, strangely, by Kristina’s harsh barks of laughter; yes, freed.
“I wanted Ante dead, I did, I did. Really . . . Ever since we moved back to the city. I had the whole thing down to a science, every evening when he came home and I heard the key in the lock. Whether he was drunk or not—I could tell by how he turned the key. And once it turned, hop to it, girl, God help us. Out of bed with you. It was even worse if I pretended to be sleeping. I jumped as high as the roof without him so much as lifting a finger. Never once in all our fifteen years did he hit me; ha! But it was: dance me a jig! Sing me the anthem; swear, swear to me up and down that you’ve no clue where your father is. Till he dropped off to sleep in my lap before dawn, slob- bering, drenched in sweat, a wreck. ‘You’re all I have,’ he’d sob. The motherfucker.” Here Kristina stopped. Here, where she’d only just begun—but the images shimmied before Nora’s eyes, and she couldn’t work out how to keep moving forward with any sort of reasonable question. She didn’t dare take up paper and pencil; all of this had to be committed to memory.
“So, he abused you?” and after she’d uttered the words she knew this was a mistake; her question was all wrong, way off base and so insulting, even to a woman who’d just been convicted of murder. But she didn’t want to approach the story the same way the right-wing tabloids and Serbian papers had been doing, the way most of the local papers except the official press had done. Their fangs were bared, the blood dribbling down their chins, especially at the news that Kristina was a Croatian-language teacher for students who were ethnic Serbs. She was Croatian, married to a Croat; her husband, Ante, was a war veteran—a war invalid, a former prison-camp internee. Meanwhile, Dejan, her teenage lover, was from a Serbian family, born in the city in 1993, while it was still under Serbian occupation. Dejan’s grandfather was one of the leaders of the Serbian territorial defense, the Chetniks, who scuttled off like cockroaches after Eastern Slavonia—the region they’d occupied by force—was reintegrated peacefully into Croatia three years after the war. When Kristina spoke of her return with Ante to the city after re-integration, she was referring to a time when Dejan was still only six or seven. So what did Ante making her dance a jig and Kristina’s lost father have to do with any of this? In response to her question about abuse, Kristina shot Nora a sharp glance that could easily be read as: Stupid woman, so what if I have all the time in the world? Don’t waste it.
They stopped speaking. Nora broke out in a cold sweat; she could tell her forehead shone and felt the hairs gluing them- selves to her neck. As so many times before, she knew she didn’t have what it took, so she shut her eyes, wondering how much longer things could go on like this. She longed to do right by the story; she couldn’t bear to be one more in the parade of reporters smearing this woman, penning an article and going on with their lives. She often felt that way, to be honest, when faced with almost any story involving people. She didn’t have the stomach to hold her nose and poke at the half-putrid flesh. She had no backbone; she’d pull back just when she should be getting the story. When she reached the point where ideas took precedence over people—the essence of sensationalism—she shut her eyes and took herself off to the Drava riverbanks of her girlhood. Her, her father, her mother. The smell of their gray terrier’s wet fur and the roasting corn, all the river’s shades of August green. Arching over the river, the bridge spanning the two banks, the place where everything stopped. Cut.
Kristina, her gnawed hangnails caked in blood. Their time was up, and soon Nora would have to stand up and walk out of the Požega women’s correctional facility. The policewoman had already risen from her chair and was pacing nervously back and forth around the room, glancing pointedly at her watch. Nora realized that Kristina wouldn’t be saying much more, that she’d lost all desire to rehash the story.
“Fine, thanks for your time,” Nora managed to say. “Take care,” she added.
Kristina looked over at her and then went back, absently, to her nails. She was trying to reattach one of the ones that had come loose, licking it and pressing down hard. This was the last image Nora took away with her. She hoped against hope that this one visit would suffice, that she’d extract a few sturdy, logically grounded facts that would then allow her to get something down on paper and polish the story for style. She hoped she wouldn’t have to venture into the city or, if she did, that she wouldn’t have to linger long, interviewing witnesses. They’d already said everything, anyway; they’d been waiting in line during the investigation to have their say. People like that always knew everything. Of course, from what she’d gleaned in the two hours spent over the torn fingernails, there was a story here, a story about silence and anguish, but this story was of interest to no one else but her, and least of all her editor. Something here was pulling Nora in, however, even more than she’d expected. She jotted down incoherent sentences in her notebook as soon as she left, shut her eyes tight, shook her head, and decided to see when there was a bus leaving Požega for the city that afternoon.
~ ~ ~
Forget this city
and forget this
city forget this
city forget this
Winner of the Balkan Noir Prize for Best Crime Novel
A thriller of the ex-Yugoslavia Wars.
The city of Vukovar, situated on Croatia's easternmost periphery, across the Danube River from Serbia, was the site of some of the worst violence in the wars that rocked ex-Yugoslavia in the early '90s. It is referred to only as "the city" throughout this taut political thriller from one of Europe's most celebrated young writers. In this city without a name, fences in schoolyards separate the children of Serbs from those of Croats, and city leaders still fight to free themselves from violent crimes they committed––or permitted––during the war a generation ago. Now, it is left to a new generation––the children, now grown up––to extricate themselves from this tragic place, innocents who are nonetheless connected in different ways to the crimes of the past.
Nora is a journalist assigned to do a puff piece on the perpetrator of a crime of passion––a Croatian high school teacher who fell in love with one of her students, a Serb, and is now in prison for having murdered her husband. But Nora herself is the daughter of a man who was murdered years earlier under mysterious circumstances. And she wants, if not to avenge her father, at least to bring to justice whoever committed the crime. There's a hothouse intensity to this extraordinary noir page-turner because of how closely the author sets the novel within the historical record. This city is unnamed, the story is fictional, so it can show us what actually happened there.
“Murders are motivated by feelings of shame and humiliation provoked in the murderer by the victim; all other motives far below these,” the Croatian author Ivana Bodrozic writes in We Trade Our Night for Someone Else's Day, and the entirety of this political thriller, set two decades after the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, seems haunted by this statement. Nora Kirin, a journalist working in Vukovar (or “the city,” as the text always refers to it), cannot move past her own intermingled feelings of shame and revenge, bent as she is on discovering who murdered her father years before. These feelings inform her approach to the story she’s working on about Brigita Arsovka, a schoolteacher who seduced a student and then murdered her husband. Reluctance gives way to a darker give-and-take; Nora emerges from the cocoon of unprocessed trauma in a state that will lead to an act of violence still able to shock the seemingly unshockable. Bodrozic, mediated by Ellen Elias-Bursac’s assured translation, chronicles what a country chooses to remember, and what it consciously forgets, with confidence and grace.” —Sarah Weinman, The New York Times Book Review
“In an unnamed Croatian city in 2010, reporter Nora Kirin, the heroine of this searing political thriller from Bodrozic (The Hotel Tito), hopes to expose the city’s sleazy government. Instead, she’s assigned to write a lurid piece about a Croatian high school teacher who murdered her brutal husband, a Croatian war veteran, while having an affair with a student, an ethnic Serb. Nora’s own troubled past distracts her from this task. Her father disappeared in 1991, just before a horrifying massacre of Croats by Serbs. As Nora seeks the truth about his fate, she uncovers heinous instances of immorality throughout a city supposedly promoting “peaceful reintegration” between Croats and Serbs. In her effort to get justice for her father, Nora dooms her own love affair. Bodrozic smoothly integrates Nora’s gripping personal story with, as revealed in a translator’s note, the recent history of Vukovar, the author’s native city. Noir fans won’t want to miss this one.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)