Salvation and Other Disasters by Josip Novakovich

[Review adapted from an author introduction read at Dactyl Foundation October 2002 ] Despite the fact that Novakovich may write about what he knows — immigrant life or life in Croatia —  these stories not the  so-called “slice of life fiction” that is considered the epitome of realism these days. They are concerned with an artfulness in a way that much of contemporary fiction is not. They may remind you of myths. I want to make a comparison to one myth in particular, Oedipus Rex, not in terms of content but in terms of plot structure.

It has to do with the way he uses chance and coincidence. It’s something he does in many stories in his new collection, Salvation and Other Disasters, (Graywolf Press, 204 pages), but I want to focus on one called, “Crimson.” In that story, a man named Milan is forced to join the Serbian army. He takes part in a siege of a Croatian town. Finally, they take the town, and his captain makes him shoot an unarmed man to prove his loyalty to Serbia. He pulls the trigger for reasons that have more to do with lack of courage than anything else. Later that day, Milan sees his captain raping a Croatian woman, whom he mistakes for his first love, Svetlana, but only because of some slight resemblance. He had been recalling her earlier that day, remembering painful unrequited love, and his lack of courage then too. Now, if it were she, it would be quite a coincidence! As if fate had contrived this chance for Milan to act courageously and to right one of his previous failures.

Milan acts on this misrecognition. He kills the captain. He revives the woman, who, it turns out, is a stranger named Olga. Milan then flees the army.

Then, many weeks later, he happens to meet Olga in another town, by chance, as she is on her way to an abortion clinic. She says she’s pregnant from the rape. Milan convinces her to marry him and they raise the child together. Time passes. Olga finds a photograph of her dead father and shows it to Milan. Milan recognizes her father as the unarmed the man whom his captain had made him kill. Milan confesses to the killing, and then confesses to Olga (and to the reader too) that he had raped her while she was unconscious, after killing the captain, of course, who had never “finished,” as it turns out. The child is actually his.

It can’t be easy to come to terms with what one does in a time of war, especially if your victims do not remain strangers. Novakovich is good at complicating matters.

Now how is this a “story” like Oedipus Rex? It would be complicated to discover that you had killed your future father-in-law or been raped by your future husband. Just as it would be complicated to discover that you had killed your father or married your son.

What are the chances that a random crime will turn out to be extremely meaningful? When Milan discovers that the first and only man he ever killed in war turned out to be his father-in-law, he says to Olga:

That’s amazing bad luck. How many people lived in Vukovar? Thirty thousand? Two thousand men in their fifties? And to chance upon your father … But not to chance upon anybody would have been even more likely.

Now what is so special about coincidences in narratives?  Why are they so important in myths? How do they function there? Why were coincidences used ironically in the age of postmodernism? And why do coincidences function differently now?

Let’s look at chance in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus meets his biological father at the crossroads and kills him. The crossroads are a conventional site for random events, as are train stations today. Crossroads allow the coincidental intersection of two distinct causal chains.

Especially fortunate or unfortunate coincidences that occur when mere randomness is what you should expect, seem to be due to fate, karma, whatever. Random meetings are the only occurrences in this world that one might suppose the supernatural can affect, since all else is strictly governed by the laws of physics.

Let me clarify that these coincidence aren’t miracles. Only in fantasies do the plots turn on miracles that defy physics. In a “story,” what I’m calling a story, the gods or spirits may seem, to some, to fiddle with the odds, but not with the laws of nature. I picked Oedipus Rex, rather than, say, Medea, to talk about myth. Sophocles was subtle about the way he merely hints at divine intervention through chance. Euripides, in contrasts, had a god in a chariot descend in the final act to resolve everything. One has to interpret Sophocles’ coincidence in order to see the hand of fate. In Euripides, the audience isn’t left to infer divine intention, they actually see it. Coincidences are interesting because they require interpretation.

Let’s look at chance in postmodernism. Postmodernism declared that there is no chance and everything is due to chance. There is no divine order in the world, and yet no one has any control over his or her world either. One couldn’t be sure what chance was, so one just put quotes around the term. Postmodernism may have claimed that there is no intentionality in nature. And while it’s true that there is no divine intentionality, there is what you might call a morally neutral aesthetic intentionality insofar as natural processes involve interpretive contexts and constructivist interactions. Coincidences provide the space in which human interpretation can work, alter the course of events, and bestow upon the interpreter the gift of intentionality. Artfulness has been out of style for too many years now and for too many dubious reasons. I admire Novakovich for not being squeamish about using coincidences.

The way we understand the laws of physics have changed since Sophocles’ time. “Crimson” may be like Oedipus Rex structurally, but this structure has a different function in new environment. Meaningful coincidences don’t point to the designs of the gods anymore. They don’t ironically point to the ultimate randomness and meaningless of reality either. Coincidence points to the opportunity for humans to realize functions in a random environments, act on them and influence their own fates. And there is something about this that we may call the epitome of artfulness.

V. N. Alexander, author of Trixie (2010).

excerpt from “Crimson”

Half of the cannons did not work because they were rusty and soldiers often forgot to oil them. When the weapons would not fire, the soldiers played cards, and watched American porn movies on VCRs hooked up to tank batteries. And they sang: Oh my first love, are you a bushy Slav? / Whoever you rub and mate, don’t forget your first hate. / Of my first hate, who should I tolerate? He wondered why so many songs dealt with first love, lost love, why all this nostalgia? His first love was only a childhood thing — on the other hand, childhood was perhaps the only genuine time of his life, the time to which all other experience was grafted, like red apples on the a blue plum tree, where apples grow stunted.

At the age of fifteen he’d had a crush on a girl, Svyetlana. For a New Year’s dance party, he had put his shoes on the stove to warm them and gone to the bathroom to shave, though he had no need of shaving yet. The rubber soles of his shoes had melted, but he didn’t have another pair, so he went to the dance in them…. He had followed Svyetlana to the gym, where the dance had begun. To avoid stepping on her feet, he stood away from her. Her friends whispered and giggled–probably about his melted shoes. Like Svyetlana, they were Croats and the daughters of engineers and doctors; to them he was just a Serb peasant.

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