It is strange to be nominated for an international literary award when almost no one in your home country has heard of you. But that is what happened to Josip Novakovich. His adopted home is Canada. Who knows him? It doesn’t matter now. He deserves to be heard of, and heard from.
Mr. Novakovich, one of 10 writers in the running for the $95,000 Man Booker International Prize (for a body of work available in English) is the writer as Everyman. His life was shaped by many of the terrible events of the 20th century – world war, Communism, ethnic cleansing. He left his native country to escape service in a military (the Yugoslav Federal Army) he didn’t believe in. He came to the United States at 20, married, raised two children, wrote short stories and essays in English, which he learned by listening to Jimi Hendrix. Ultimately he came to Canada in 2009 to teach creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal. He will soon be a Canadian citizen.
He writes about war and cultural conflict, religious faith and discrimination, love and friendship. His prose “has an easy, elegant velocity,” the New York Times said in reviewing his only published novel, April Fool’s Day, which it called “wickedly funny and deeply harrowing.” (Among his other works are three books of short stories, of which his favourite is Salvation and Other Disasters.)
Mr. Novakovich gives some insight into his past in a piece published in 1994 in the Times about his father, who had a fourth-grade education. “He was drafted into the Croat Guards when World War II broke out. He deserted and joined the Communist partisans, whose atheism he could not tolerate . . . . He deserted the partisans. At the end of the war partisans captured him, tortured and starved him.”
His dark humour is evident. “One day, behind closed doors, Father and his younger brother calculated the date of the second coming of Christ, three years away. Though Christ did not arrive, Father died exactly three years later. As his brother commented, Christ came for him.”
Like any Everyman, Mr. Novakovich is a practical man. “The award means a lot, practically. I was kind of in a slump. The whole publishing industry is so shrunken. It’s extremely hard to place a book. I’m optimistic now that I can publish my [new] novel.”
Canada is lucky to have him. He deserves an audience.