Shopping for a Better Country: Essays
by Josip Novakovich
Dzanc Books, 2012
978-1936873067, 240 pp., $15.95 paperback/$7.99 e-book
My first thought based on the title was that Novakovich's essay collection would entirely explore themes of war, relocation, and separation. But, the author denies knowledge of what it means to be born in one country and live in another. He remembers talking to a literary critic at a dinner party:
Not only does Novakovich admit not experiencing war in Croatia first-hand, but he also does not praise the United States, and I often noticed the author's unattached ideas about countries. It is one of the collection's best qualities—he doesn't pretend to know the unknowable. Although the author lived on the border of Hungary, he claims, "If I had visited on different days I would have had different experiences and would be tempted to draw different conclusions. Hence, no conclusions." This attitude of uncertainty, to me, wasn't the center of the collection. Novakovich's work seemed less about "shopping" for a new place to call home and more about observations and stories.
The most memorable sections are dedicated to Novakovich's mother, Ruth. The author admits his mother wasn't completely friendly when he flew to Croatia to visit her because she criticized everyone, which he admits was her way of "talking." Importantly, the mother relishes the visits so that she has stories to remember later. I took the mother's strategy to heart: as a child, I remember the best visits with family were those during which we reminisced, but those can only last for so long and new memories must be created.
On another occasion, visiting his mother in the hospital, he finds Ruth in a room with two elderly women. How do they fill their time?— "...we talk and talk. What else can we do?...It's like a conference of biographers here....all that remains after so many of us is stories." While most of us picture decay and associated smells with a hospital, Novakovich reveals the significance of stories, even near our death. Even though she wasn't the most pleasant woman (she would criticize young Josip for choosing a particular novel, but read it before she had the chance to tell him how stupid it was—for some reason I laughed at her audacity and wished to meet this woman), her life represents the stories we each carry in us. Why is the author so moved to retell stories from his past? Is it because his mother worked to make opportunities to build stories with her family? At the heart of the collection, I felt, was the message that each of us is a vessel for carrying experience—stories—and not as much about countries. This is not a reason to pass up this text, but a hint about the context of the collection.—Melanie Page