The 44-month-long Siege of Sarajevo, which took place between 1992 and 1996, marks the longest siege of a major city in the history of modern warfare. According to the United Nations, at one point during the siege, daily shelling of the city could result in as many as 800–1,000 shells being dropped. Official estimates of casualties indicate that more than 11,000 people were killed during the blockade.
The psychic toll that such violence incurs on the civilians who find themselves subjected to it forms the basis of Katja Rudolph’s first novel, which centres around Jevrem Andric, who is 11 years old when hostilities break out. He lives in Sarajevo with his father, a journalist, his mother, a concert pianist, his brother and twin sisters, and his beloved grandmother, known as Baka, who was a Yugoslavian partisan during the Second World War. “It was death to fascism, freedom to the people!” Baka says of her experience battling the forces of nationalism, which she felt were as dangerous as the Axis powers at the time. “We fought on principle, not tribe.”
The principles Baka espouses, which are manifest in the Andric family’s mixed Serbian-Croatian background, are extended in the anger of Lazar, Jevrem’s father. “We must gain the upper hand on the airwaves again,” he argues at the onset of hostilities in his home city, “and in print, change the tone of the discourse, eclipse ethno-nationalist politics, forge a post-communist democratic citizenship, maintain communities of affinity over communities of biology and tribe.” (Not everyone is so grandiose in their speech: Jevrem’s uncle chastises Lazar for using “those big, fancy words.”) Lazar is an obvious idealist, which, in such a vicious, cynical, and degraded world, also means he can’t possibly survive. Indeed, he signs up to fight and is killed; Jevrem’s older brother Dusan and one of the twins similarly become casualties of war.
Flash forward five years. Jevrem and the remnants of his family have fled their ravaged home for Toronto. Scarred both physically and psychologically by the horrors he has witnessed, Jevrem has become a delinquent and a kind of nihilist, ignoring his studies, smoking a profuse amount of drugs, and engaging in violent break-and-enters with his crew, a group of Bosnian refugees who collectively call themselves “the Bastards.”
The first half of Little Bastards in Springtime is swift and engaging, nicely playing off the horrors of war in the former Yugoslavia with the casual violence of the disaffected teenagers in Canada. Rudolph, who has an academic background in social and political sciences, is highly adept at illustrating the siege mentality that afflicts the Andric family, and indicating the ways in which the survivors carry their experience with them in the aftermath.
Unfortunately, this momentum drops off precipitously in the second half of the novel, after Jevrem is arrested and incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility. Jevrem’s incarceration is ironic, given that the moral qualms about his criminal acts have launched him on a career as a kind of urban angel, breaking into houses in order to leave food for people in need, clean up accumulated garbage, and do minor home repairs. (He is picked up after being caught on a home security camera fixing the shutter on a window.) “We’re either doing bad or we’re doing good,” Jevrem says to the officers who arrest him. “There’s no neutral in between.”
During his time in detention, Jevrem has numerous meetings with a counsellor named Dr. Ghorbani, who speaks in the lingua franca of therapy and provides Jevrem with long disquisitions on healing and the effects of trauma. “I understand that you’re angry and cynical,” she says. “That’s a normal response to the abnormal events you’ve experienced. But at some point you’ll find it to your advantage to take the leap beyond reactive feelings and put yourself on the road to your own freedom.”
Dr. Ghorbani’s pontificating tone becomes wearisome quickly, and the didactic language of therapy is less effective as a fictional tool than the straightforward drama in the novel’s first half. Earlier in the novel, Mr. Duff, Jevrem’s high-school English teacher, compares the horrors experienced by UN peacekeepers in Bosnia to those of the citizens who lived through the conflict. “Thousands of Canadian soldiers were over there,” Mr. Duff says. “It was hell for them, poor lads.” This indirection, and Jevrem’s bitter, muted reaction, is yards more effective than the pages upon pages of sermonizing that follow it.
Unfortunately, there is not enough of this to carry the book forward through its repetitive, overly didactic final stages. Jevrem ends up breaking out of detention and embarking on an ad hoc road trip, east toward Montreal and Fredericton, then west to California, where he hopes to find an uncle who is living out there, working in the movies or possibly as a gangster. There is an encounter along the way with a couple who appear helpful at first, but become increasingly suspicious of the hitchhiker’s intentions the more he insists they allow him to crash on their floor rather than drop him at a motel. This scene is well handled, and serves as a reminder of how much more powerful fully realized fictional drama can be than simple rote messaging.
Steven W. Beattie is the review editor of Quill & Quire magazine.