Fathers and Forefathers, by Slobodan Selenić

Published in the last years of the Yugoslav Republic, after Tito’s death and before the horrors of war and the traumas of fragmentation, this powerful novel deftly engages three decades of tumultuous history, through the story of a single family. Stevan Medaković, a Serbian law student pursuing his graduate studies in England, meets and falls in love with Elisabeth Blake. They marry and begin their life together in Belgrade, where Elisabeth becomes fluent in Serbian and does her utmost to adapt to her new culture. They raise a son together, Mihaijlo, whose adolescence coincides with World War II, and the Nazi occupation – and the tragedy that befalls a nation is poignantly encapsulated in a tragedy that devastates a family. Relating their story with formal inventiveness and stylistic verve, Selenić compellingly dramatises the challenges of Stevan and Elisabeth’s relationship, under the intense pressures of the political intrigues that Stevan is, very reluctantly, drawn into, and the brutal historical realities that engulf them. Failures of communication across the linguistic and cultural divide (and amongst human beings generally), and their attendant resentments and insecurities, are portrayed sensitively and insightfully by the novelist, who stands admirably apart from the stereotypes he probes in his preoccupation with the Serbian and English national characters, to give us flawed and intriguing, fully realised protagonists, who leave their marks indelibly on the reader.

One of the many pleasures of Selenić‘s novel (translated into English by Ellen Elias-Bursać), derives from its wonderfully polyphonous quality. The opening chapter, in which Stevan recalls his arrival in England and his student days in Bristol, has a wide-eyed vitality and humorous predilection that recalls certain moments in Dickens. The letters from Elisabeth to her friend Rašela are equally accomplished, convincingly establishing an authentic counterpoint to the voice of Stevan, as both parties offer their distinctive perspectives on the drama that unfolds before us. Stevan’s recollections are proffered from the distance of (deeply wounded) mature reflection, while Elisabeth’s letters, responding contemporaneously to events, lend an emotional urgency to the narrative that contrasts dynamically with her husband’s analytical bent. The closing sections of the novel, in which young Mihaijlo aggressively rejects his English heritage, embraces communism as a true believer, and is drawn inexorably towards the Partisan movement, have a dramatic force characteristic of Greek tragedy at its most wrenching. That Selenić is able to manage such shifts of tone, perspective and narrative impetus so gracefully and seamlessly is testament to his formidable technical gifts, just as surely as his compassionate realisation of his characters attests to the range of his imaginative empathy.

The ultimate achievement of this unforgettable work resides precisely in this expansiveness, the true hallmark of the novelist’s art. Upon finishing Fathers and Forefathers, it is difficult to process the fact that the novel is less than three hundred pages long; you feel that you have absorbed so much history, have entered so fully into the consciousness of fellow human beings – it is a vast literary experience typically associated with the epic works of the Russian masters. And, considering the contentious and ideologically charged nature of so much of the novel’s subject matter, one has to applaud Selenić for evincing no partis pris, and having no political axe to grind beyond a wholly admirable desire to widen the range of what could be talked about openly in his country, at a critical point in its history. No constituency is spared his satirical jabs and, given the fractious and conflict-stricken nature of our own historical moment, no thoughtful reader could fail to be stimulated and challenged by his provocations, or to be enriched by his wisdom. I look forward to reading Premeditated Murder, and lament the fact that nothing else by Slobodan Selenić appears to be available in English.

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