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Good Doctor, Bad Father

April 16, 2013 - Iwona Reichardt - Articles and Commentary

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This review is a special addition to New Eastern Europe Issue 2 (VII) / 2013: Painful Past, Fragile Future. To read the article by Miljenko Jergović, please download the whole issue from our mobile application.

With these three words, “My father died,” Miljenko Jergović, an internationally recognised Croat writer and essayist, starts his recent novel, simply entitled Ojciec (Father). A story of his father, one might have thought; or lack thereof, as we find out from reading the book.

Father, first published in Croatian in 2010, now translated into Polish by Magdalena Petryńska and published by Wydawnictwo Czarne, is a short story of a Croatian, Sarajevo-based, family – the Jergovićs. The cover of the Polish translation informs us that what we are about to read is a “small story” of a particular time and ordinary people who lived through this period. It also tells us that the book is an unusual story which is very different from everything else Jergović has written so far.

And unusual it is. But not because it is a story of one particular family, its complex relationships, and hidden skeletons. The interesting plot, presented in a unique and very gripping way, is not what makes the book unusual, but the valuable sociological account that it offers in regards to a certain generation. A generation whose childhood was haunted by the ghosts and crimes of the Second World War, whose youth was marked by membership in Josip Tito’s pioneer organisations, while early adulthood coincided with the turn of political and economic systems in Eastern Europe, followed by the bloody brotherly wars that in the 1990s brought an end to Yugoslavia.

But even this sociological account, although most interesting and, in fact, also very provocative, is also not what solely makes Jergović’s book unusual and unique. What makes Father different and most relevant for today’s readers is the analysis it offers of a father figure. Or the lack in one’s life. In other words, the dilemmas that Jergović experienced in his relationship with his father and which he so artfully describes in the book, although set during a specific period (1970s) as well as a specific country (Yugoslavia), are what makes this book, originally written in Croatian, striking and relevant, regardless of our cultural and linguistic background.

Miljenko Jergović, as many of us may know before we even start reading the book, is a well-known Sarajevo-born writer, now residing in Zagreb. Some of us may also have heard about his controversial baptism to which he unwillingly succumbed to official Croatian citizenship. This episode is also presented in great detail in the book and definitely marks one of its more difficult to forget parts, to say the least. However, what we may have not known until now, and what we learn from reading the book, is that writing is everything Miljenko Jergović had always wanted to do, and more than anything else determines who is. Luckily, his great talent has allowed him to live this dream and make a living of it.

His father, although not a writer, was also passionate about his own profession. And this profession also determined who he was. Born into a Croat family, Jergović senior was a doctor. For the whole of his adult life he treated patients suffering from leukaemia and, like his son, was widely recognised for his talent. His high stature in Sarajevo brought him the kind of privileges that the stature of a good doctor would typically bring in a socialist country. They took the form of “in-kind” gifts from grateful patients and their families, as well as opportunities of overcoming the barriers that make life difficult for ordinary people. The latter came in handy, we learn from the book, when the already middle-aged doctor wanted to get his driving licence, something which in Sarajevo during the 1970s would take anybody else up to seven attempts to succeed. It took him only one.

However, it was also this stature, and all the privileges that came with it, for which Dr. Jergović paid a high personal price, to the point that his son, Miljenko, wrote such a poignant statement: “My father was a good doctor because he was a bad father.” This statement, probably the most unforgettable in the entire book, emphasises the dilemmas (all too well-known to us modern readers) of finding the balance between private life and professional ambitions, and the consequences that come along when we don’t find it: a dysfunctional family, divorce, lack of a common language and mutual understanding.

These are also the motifs that make us realise that this book, although entitled, Father, is in fact written about the lack of one. And which is probably why, by the end of the book, Jergović admits that his father, even when still alive, was like an imaginary creature; a hobbit, he states. Somebody he, his biological son, did not know very well. The illustration that there was no communion of souls between the two could even be seen in the topics of Miljenko Jergović’s writing. More precisely, in the earlier pages of the book we find out that at a certain point, Doctor Jergović wanted his son to write a book on Srebrenica, a motif that until now Miljenko has not taken up. Instead, the writer admits that he has been fascinated by human landings on the moon, and this great achievement of mankind, rather than one of the most shameful massacres of the 20th century, might be the topic of a future novel.

When his father died, Miljenko Jergović decided not to attend the funeral. He never met his father’s second wife nor wanted the whole of Sarajevo to see this last symbolic meeting with his father – a symbolic ending to a symbolic book, we might say. But also quite characteristic of an author, who happened to be the son of this most devoted Sarajevo-born doctor, but who also does not want to compromise with external pressures, including those of his fellow countrymen who, until today, as we sense from the book, remain, in Jergović’s view, too uncritical of their frequently very shameful past.

Miljenko Jergović is an award winning writer whose books have been translated into many languages including English, French, Italian, Polish and German. Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jergović currently lives and writes in Zagreb, Croatia.

Iwona Reichardt is an editor and lead translator for New Eastern Europe.

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