An ambitious graphic memoir that succeeds on a number of different levels.
Born in Canada, raised in her family’s native Yugoslavia and having returned to Canada, Bunjevac (Heartless, 2012) addresses the history of a troubled region that brought her to where she is—both in the book (which finds her reminiscing from her home in Toronto and conjuring a past she didn’t experience firsthand) and in her life. The title has dual meanings, as “fatherland” refers to the country of Yugoslavia, where German occupation gave way to communist rule and where Serbs and Croats experienced continual tension despite similar roots. The country no longer exists. Neither does the author’s father, as she tries to penetrate the mysteries of this particular “fatherland.” A Serbian nationalist committed to overthrowing the communist leader Josip Broz Tito, he had been imprisoned in his native Yugoslavia and exiled to Canada upon release, never allowed to return to his fatherland. He became involved with a terrorist organization operating throughout North America, targeting those who supported the Yugoslavian government, and he died in an explosion in the garage where the sect had been manufacturing bombs. By this point, the author and her mother had returned to Yugoslavia, fleeing from the man who had become dangerous, erratic and increasingly alcoholic (“Dad is a nervous wreck. At this time he is certain that he’s being followed”). Thus, the narrative artistry must reconstruct not only the father’s life before and after his family left him, but the decades (even centuries) of Balkan history that led them all to this juncture. That it covers so much in such a short memoir, and in such compelling and provocative fashion, attests to the author’s mastery over such powerful material.
The personal perspective humanizes historical currents that might otherwise seem abstract and inexplicable to American readers.