This sweeping historical fiction, the first in a projected trilogy, covers 10 centuries in the history of Dalmatia, in the former Yugoslavia.
The framing device of Tuma’s novel is the life and memories of Maria Peric, a 66-year-old historian and hotel owner on the peaceful Croatian island of Pag, in the Adriatic Sea. She’s the doting grandmother of Paula, a young girl suffering from leukemia, and to distract the child, she tells stories about the long history of Dalmatia and the Balkan region. Maria has her own traumatic history: “Like thousands of Croatians, Bosnians and Serbians from former Yugoslavia, I am one of the victims of that bloody Balkan war ravaging the heart of Europe in the nineties.” But in the book’s ensuing chapters, Maria tells Paula dramatic stories from the past, starting with the ancient Greeks of the sixth century B.C. and moving on to the Roman emperor Diocletian (“still the most important politician of all times coming from our shores”) and to the 14th-century empire of Ragusa, which controlled the world’s trade routes and grappled with the mighty Venetian Republic. The narrative moves on to the Ottoman Empire and eventually to the rebirth and fall of modern 20th-century Yugoslavia. By pausing the narrative and using fiction to illuminate daily life in each era, Tuma’s dramatization is reminiscent of Rebecca West and James Michener. The momentum of all that history brings the book to the present, to the trial of a Yugoslavian war criminal at The Hague, forming the backdrop for a jarring transition to the book’s second half, which abandons history and deals with the modern-day politics and daily lives of a disparate group of survivors of the recent Balkan wars. The prose throughout can be clunky and a bit prone to cliché, while the relationships in the present day—especially those involving the overly saintly Paula—are curiously less convincing than any of those set in the past. Still, Tuma’s human insights and her considerable scene-painting abilities shed great amounts of light on a region and a people often overlooked in historical fiction, and subsequent volumes should help sharpen the focus on the modern era.
The tumultuous history of the crisis-torn Balkans rendered in a gripping panoramic novel.