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Title
Ex-Yu
Author
Josip Novakovich
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Véhicule Press
Pages
207
Price
$19.95

In 2010, Philip Pullman criticized the prevalence of present-tense narration among the novels on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, claiming, "It's a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy." In a follow-up editorial, he elucidated his dislike for the device, such as it is "always pressed up against the immediate" and mostly incapable of the reflection or reconsideration permitted by storytelling that operates in "was" rather than "is."

Five years later, the Canadian writer Josip Novakovich echoed Pullman's opinion: "Present action," he claimed in a recent interview, "is unformed, and frequently that is how the writing these days appears to be, unformed and unplotted and unconsidered and untold." In short fiction, in particular, the tense is often paired with a first-person perspective, so that stories operate not just under the auspices of immediacy, but intimacy, too.

The result is a body of literature preoccupied with the subjective "now" and its attendant minor crises; the past, if it appears, is expressed in emotional inheritance ("A dog bit my grandma, now I struggle to love") and rarely with much semblance of cultural or historical scope. Conflict, as such, occurs existentially, rendered in domestic minutiae and attendant lyrical epiphanies. ("I adopt a puppy, now I can love again," et cetera.) These stories never really end, but merely angle off toward some new, restorative beginning.

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Of course these are generalizations, and there are plenty of writers working outside the Raymond Carver/Alice Munro tradition, but even so very little North American short fiction seems to acknowledge existence beyond the self. Even the social satire of George Saunders, for example, focuses the effects of neo-liberalism upon the psyche. As such, the short story might be the narrative form most symptomatic of today's culture of individualism and ahistoricity, particularly those entries that adopt the illusorily immortal mode, "I am."

As such, it's refreshing to encounter an author whose work engages with the world beyond the solipsistic purview of selfhood, and which treats mortality in a serious way. Novakovich, a professor of creative writing at Concordia University, was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, an award previously won by Alice Munro and Philip Roth. Despite his high regard outside Canada, the Croatian-born writer's previous 10 books have been less widely read in his adopted home country than his global reputation might suggest.

Perhaps Ex-Yu might change that. The stories, set mostly in the former Yugoslavia and informed by various periods of national catastrophe throughout the 20th century, display considerable range, including a missive from a would-be Tito assassin, a cannibalistic episode on the high seas, the harrowing revelations of a calamitously naive UN translator, the romantic fumblings of a lovesick Nikola Tesla and the final moments of Slobodan Milosevic, imprisoned and impotent (in all ways).

The language here is mostly functional, treading through the book's various horrors with laconic detachment. One character recalls 9/11 in New York in terms of odours: "a mix of concrete dust, burnt plastic, the suggestion of flesh, human flesh, and perhaps burnt hair wafting through the windows." Elsewhere a bike ride through the Croatian countryside offers glimpses of life in ruins: "On the way he saw starved shaggy cattle roaming, masterless. Horses rotted in dried-up sunflower fields. Blind dogs stumbled into trees." The effect of these and similar passages is to enfold such devastation within the texture of everyday life. And yet, as the narrator of White Moustache explains, "Ugly can be beautiful if you look at it long enough," and occasionally the stories soar out of the ruins.

In the collection's most moving entry, Be Patient, a father suffers alongside his ailing daughter after a botched inoculation; before she falls ill, Nenad summons the small girl to entertain the family: "Lyerka, dressed in white, glowed. She could pick a few melodies [and] stood in her tiny clogs next to the piano, dancing slowly while choosing the keys." That her loveliness is ironized with melancholy and dread only heightens the image's potency.

Much of the book works in similar contrast, from the clash of cultures in Dutch Treat, in which a former UN soldier, Martin, is confronted by Esad, an escapee of the Srebrenica massacre, to Novakovich's keen and dark sense of humour, best evidenced in When the Saints Come, in which a cancer sufferer loses his religion after being driven from the Dome of the Rock by the stink of feet. Alongside questions of faith, the book explores the tension between past and present – particularly in relation to tragedy. "When you have something that big in your past, you don't think about the future," Esad tells Martin. "There's no future that won't contain the past."

Tellingly, the present tense appears in Ex-Yu only once, as a man awaiting a cousin's delivery of his inheritance catalogues the passing time. "2:15. Danko is not here yet. […] 3:00. That's an hour of tardiness. Is he coming? […] 4:33. I admit it … We don't exist in time but between time, a nothing sandwiched in dual infinities."

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Jovan, who has quit smoking, spirals into such neuroses that he resorts to buying a cigarette – "the flavour of my memories," as he tells Danko. With each inhalation, Jovan senses that he is "ashes going to ashes": his story, like all stories, must end, and what happens now is merely the past yet to come.

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