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Weekend reads: Perfidia, Fatherland and The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being

James Ellroy on form and doing what he does best ... again


Fatherland book cover

In tattooing it’s called a powerline, a thick outline to accentuate a character or lettering. Nina Bunjevac’s comic novel Fatherland uses similar strong dark outlines to make characters prominent and give them even greater definition on a page of high contrast black and white.

It’s like she’s trying to reinforce the memory of the father who is just a ghostly presence in her subconscious, her mother, having fled her husband and Canada, taking her back home to live in Yugoslavia in 1975.

Under slightly different circumstances, I moved to Toronto during the early nineties and the animation company where I worked was full of ancient Serbian women cursing trigger happy President Clinton for authorising air strikes on Kosovo.

As Fatherland unfolds I learn that Nina’s father, Peter, was an insurgent Serb in Tito’s troubled Yugoslavia. Escaping to Canada in the 1960s to work in the mines in Quebec, a pen pal romance with a girl back home ultimately leads to a broken marriage.

Peter’s illicit life as an anti-communist extremist and would-be assassin is what drives Nina’s mother back to Yugoslavia, abandoning Nina’s younger brother as an unwitting hostage to her father’s madness.

Fatherland extract

The American way ...

He dies in an accidental explosion, after finally falling foul of his own bomb plot to assassinate communist sympathisers, thereby releasing his family from the constant spectre of his tyranny.

Fractured families and the emotional pain of suppressed memories haunt Nina’s work. Like Art Seligman’s Maus, the story of her father’s past political hysteria and family’s troubled history is told through the recollections of overheard conversations as a child and the reactionary OCD behaviour of her mother once the family return to Canada.

Fatherland extract

Family backstory vividly drawn

I can relate to Nina’s carefully autobiographical panels bluffing when dealing with her family. “Back in the days of my chronic pot consumption I used to feign being tired all the time.”

The chapters explaining collective amnesia of a common ancestry that led to the persecution of the Serbs during World War II feature drawings of political leaders, looming profiles reminiscent of Rodchenko propaganda pieces and striking characterisations of Eastern Europe’s heathen spiritual forbears.

“Pagan deities whose influence survives to this day in the rituals and the dress of the Zvoncari in Croatia.”

Part history book of Serbian struggle and part dysfunctional family memoir, Fatherland deserves to be mentioned as part of the same dialogue brought to us by Persepolis and Love and Rockets.

Fatherland extract

Portraits in time

Realistic pointillist drawings, posed and framed like photographs and drawings of actual photographs, detail the impact of one family’s struggle with the hangover created by persecution and political strife across decades and continents.

Throughout Nina Bunjevac’s Fatherland there is a theme of birds and in dream symbolism they are said to signify impending news. One of the strongest pages of the graphic novel shows a murder of crows sitting on a sagging powerline, a portent of the imminent news of her father’s death.

For many, comic novels are a matter of taste but Bunjevac's work is an exception as you don’t have to be an aficionado of comics to be moved and compelled by this darkly symbolic, stunning and approachable piece of work. LO

Nina Bunjevac Fatherland book coverAuthor Nina Bunjevac
Title Fatherland
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Price £16.99 (Hardback)
More info Publication web site

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