In 1992, Jevrem lived through the siege of Sarajevo and Katja Rudolph’s novel considers the impact of such trauma, which extends far beyond national borders. He develops fervent opinions and beliefs based on his early experiences and the events witnessed in his family, ensuing losses and severences.
“What was wrong with all the fucking stupid, sobbing, bullshitting adults? Making wars, then wailing about the dead children. They were ridiculous, absurd. They made me sick.”
Jevrem is at the heart of this debut novel, but the character who truly leaps off the page is his grandmother. Perhaps that is partly because readers view her through Jevrem’s perspective: a heroine across the ages, wholly admired although her history seems to taunt Jevrem in his teen years, when the lines between resistance and revolution, genocide and war become blurred.
“You see, if you were a partisan in World War Two, lived in the forest for years, kicked the shit out of the Nazi and Italian invaders, you’d be the definition of good too, it doesn’t matter what you did with the rest of your life. How can anyone compete with that shit? Our war was just a bunch of maniacs killing each other, and people in faraway places watching and making the decisions.”
What does it mean when a child “has” a war to call his own? What develops alongside the realization that one has no control over such dramatic events? When one realizes that families have not only experienced great losses but have perpetrated actions against other family members on opposing sides of a conflict? What becomes of those “sides” when the residents inhabit other territories? Do divisions cross into other borders, or do new conflicts emerge which require that battlelines be redrawn?
In 1997, the action shifts to Toronto, where Jevrem struggles with questions of identity like any other teenager, but without a convenient national affiliation. He draws his own borders.
“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud. It’s why we’re here, together, in this flat, endless city next to an abnormally large lake. They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”
One striking element of Little Bastards in Springtime is the use of parallel settings, the detailed descriptions of Toronto (with specific roadways and corners named, so that one can imagine riding in the car and walking the streets with Jevrem) and Sarajevo.
“At night, a wash of lights like jewels filled the valley, and the river reflected moonlight when it was in the mood. Even the crappy parts were beautiful, because of the grandeur of our geography, Papa said, with hills and mountains on three sides, always visible no matter where you look, the frame to the picture. When I was little, delicious smells pulled you into bakeries and fishmongers and restaurants and the kitchens of friends’ mothers. Hookah, ćevapćići, pizza, burek. The bazaars, markets, souks had everything in them from all the countries of the world.”
What sets Katja Rudolph’s debut novel apart, however, is the commitment to complexity. Jevrem’s rage flourishes on the page, unchecked, and because the novel is rooted in his perspective, the only glimpse readers have of another perspective is via his interactions with secondary characters, often those who inhabit positions of judgement.
“‘Rebels and delinquents and even nihilists,’ she continues, ‘are fierce moralists, contrary to popular understanding. They see what’s wrong with the world and react with their own forms of outrage.’”
Readers understand through Jevrem’s eyes that Little Bastards in Springtime is an expression of outrage.
And, as Molly Ivins says, “What you need is sustained outrage…there’s far too much unthinking respect given to authority.”
Books like Katja Rudolph’s Little Bastards in Springtime challenge unthinking.