Radovic’s (Vuka: Destination Alaska, 2016) memoir tells the story of five boys growing up in mid-20th-century Yugoslavia.
This remembrance opens on Sept. 6, 1965, when the author enrolled at the First Belgrade Gymnasium, a school situated in the capital of what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. He soon bonded with four other boys: Serge, Zee, Jo, and Dee. Together, they formed a tight group called the Belgrade Five. The memoir chronicles two years of their lives together, which, in certain respects, reflect the lives of most teenage boys, punctuated by school pranks, soccer, and a burning desire for the opposite sex. What makes this book engaging is its setting: a country that the author describes in a preface as a place that “no longer exists” and “belonged more to the East than to the West, but mostly to itself.” The author captures beautifully what it meant to be a teenager in 1960s Belgrade, including the minute details of daily life in the kafana (a type of bistro): “smoke-filled, and desolate…a pressurized beer dispenser and several spherical spittoons on stands.” Yet there’s also the pull of Western culture: the author had a significant collection of rock records, ranging from the Beatles to the Shadows; “The best rock groups are British,” he told Jo. However, despite successfully capturing a unique moment in European history, this memoir fails to establish distinct identities for the boys, and it’s therefore difficult to follow their individual plights. This is compounded by the flat dialogue, which doesn’t modulate from character to character and often seems textbooklike, as when Jo discusses a soccer team: “Their coach Arribas insists on one-touch offensive and collective play called jeu a la Nantaise, without excessive dribbling or possession.” But although the staccato dialogue lacks the fluidity of true conversation, it doesn’t negate the book’s overall appeal. It’s still a passionate love letter to a city, a school, and a group of close friends, and it will attract readers with even a vague interest in Eastern European cities of the pre-perestroika era.
An atmospheric description of life in Belgrade, notwithstanding a few stylistic failings.