Anyone growing up in a dysfunctional family, especially a divorced one, can certainly attest to the layers of mystery and confusion that compound clarity when trying to figure out not only the chronology of the familial decay, but its exact effect on you. In this one way, Nina Bunjevac is very lucky, as Fatherland (Amazon, Powell’s) stands as a clear testament to what she was able to unearth, and then get down on paper. In other ways, I wouldn’t call it lucky at all. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to process what she did.
Fatherland is a delicate mix of several lines of inquiry presented together, following Bunjevac through her childhood in Canada and Yugoslavia, and swapping it with chapters on her quest and conversations with her mother in the current day, as well then the history of the conflict in Yugoslavia and biography of her father. It’s a compelling summation of how everything that is and has been effects your life, from the failures of your parents to large swathes of geopolitical history. The lines of inquiry are who you are.
Opening in Toronto of 2012, Bunjevac swirls back the clock to dissect the circumstances of her parent’s marriage as well as their courtship, laying out the players and their roles, including the incredible culpability of her grandmother in pushing a mistake, and then fumbling to correct it without humility toward her role. Bunjevic’s father, a Serbian nationalist, has a secret life tied up in politics and violence, with the purpose of bringing down the Communist government of Yugoslavia through terrorist acts within Canada. The revelations of his actions to this end and the direct way it impacted his own family are harrowing and heartbreaking.
Bunjevac’s memoir stretches through her parent’s separation, which resulted in a split for her whole family — her brother stayed with her father in Canada, while she went to Yugoslavia, where the indiscreet tongues of grown-ups gave her hints to what truths she would later have to face. In particular is the obvious stress between Bunjevac’s mother and grandmother
Bunjevac’s art style reminds me most of Drew Friedman, which makes for an unusual presentation, since I am used to seeing it applied to minor celebrities and, of course, Jewish comedians, but the combination of its stark reality and artistic surreality is perfect for this journey through the shadows of a family’s history. Coupled with Bunjevac’s mastery of her own situation and her sympathy for even roughest players in her story, this is a remarkably resonant memoir.