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Book Review October 4, 2001
 
Trainspotting With Guns...
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 3
 
Of course, there's another way of reading this "surprise" ending: perhaps the true moral of the story is that girls shouldn't fight; that primitive warfare is a boy's job. This may be the real point of the novel, because like many texts which ostensibly decry "ethnic strife," it manages to make said strife seem like a very welcome interruption of dull, pointless lives. How many "anti-war" statements are really anti-war, anyway? Remember those Clash songs? You play those now and tell me they're not war anthems. Those hymns to testosterone and smashed faces -- tell me that's "peace"!

The big wars are no fun, true. The one that's coming -- it won't be fun at all. But a Balkan "strife" like the one this novel recounts can't help but seem like an improvement on the peacetime lives of stupid village drunks. The novel begins with Ostijek at peace, with Luka, Greg, and Bili hanging around in the heat, trying to get their worthless band, The Anarchitects, going again. They have girlfriends, more or less; they have a car, sometimes; they make a lot of cool remarks and drink... and drink... and drink. Apparently we're supposed to consider this the fun part. Which is difficult. You end up longing for the damn war to start so there'll be a little action. What would happen if these three Balkan surfer-dudes lived on in peace? They'd drink more, they and their girlfriends would get ugly, their livers would roast, and they'd die. Roll on Death! Roll on War!

The way Jokanovic depicts the Croatian majority of Ostijek makes one impatient for the war to start, just so the reader can see these swine get their desserts. The Croatians in this novel, as in many other recent accounts, are a remarkably unattractive people, at once bloodthirsty and cowardly -- rather like the way teachers and parents describe playground bullies. The trouble is that most bullies are not cowards. But the Croatians' dismal performance in the Balkan tournaments seems to justify the characterization. The Serbs are a bit dim, but decent peasant folk and good soldiers -- again, a characterization very much confirmed by recent Balkan history. Luka, the half-Serb hero, is forced out of Ostijek by Ustashe bigots, and joins the Serb militia. The Croatians, drunk on their own Ustashe rhetoric and slivovitz, attack a Serb village and are mown down with ease. Then the Croats send in their silly Ninjas, the black-clad commandos, and those two are wiped out -- including that sweet li'l genocidal gal Maria.

Well, God damn it, she had it coming! It couldn't've happened to a nicer girl! And that, it would seem, is the true moral of this story: don't play tough when you ain't got the Wehrmacht backing you any more, and don't send a girl to do a boy's job.

This is in fact very much a Boy's Own story, reeking of what the Brits call "Laddishness." And the translation only makes it worse. If you read a lot of Slavic literature in translation, you've encountered the problem: do Slavs speak British English or American English? This novel has been translated not only into British English but into very bad, very twee British English. Parts of the story read like Trainspotting in Transylvania, Trainspotting with a bigger body count, or The Naked Chef giving a recipe for ambushes al fresco. It's hard to take these tough Balkan dudes seriously when they say things like, "This place could do with a clean-up" and "She's not been around for weeks," and "Sit down, you wanker, you haven't a clue what life's about!"

I could name a couple of translators who haven't a ruddy, bloomin' clue what idiomatic English is about, either. Sometimes the translation is not just un-idiomatic but simply wrong, as when one of our Balkan Lads says, "Man, this town will be a valley of tears." Of course, the idiom for which the translator was groping was "vale of tears"; "valley" is, er, wrong. Again, when the lads are sitting around on a beach in the heat, one of them complains, "This is a fucking sweatshop." Er, no, my dear translators; a "sweatshop" is a place of work. Luka and company are not working on sewing machines in a Bangladeshi factory, therefore "sweatshop" doesn't fit. The word you wanted was "sweatbox."


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