SHOW TRIGGER WARNING concentration camp

Reviews||

Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac

27th Nov 2014

★★★★
Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac
A poignant yet brutal memoir detailing a tumultuous period in the former Yugoslavia, and its effect on one family.

This is Nina Bunjevac’s second graphic novel, following Heartless, a collection of dark, grotesque, fictional comics focusing on the experiences of the women characters. Fatherland is a change of direction; a factual account of her family background and Serbian fanatic father. She learns from her mother how they came to live in Canada, and why they had to return to the homeland during Nina’s childhood.

The story begins in Toronto in 2012. Nina’s mother calls at her flat; an ordinary domestic scene with the mum fussing around about furniture. We are then transported to Welland, Canada in 1975, and the rest of the story is told in flashback.

It soon becomes clear that Nina’s Serbian nationalist father is involved with a revenge group who plan to bomb the homes of local sympathisers with Yugoslav president Josef Tito. His activities ensure that he, and by extension his family, is not safe. Nina’s mother develops a ritual of blocking up the windows with wardrobes as defence against potential bombs.

It soon becomes clear that Nina's Serbian nationalist father is involved with a revenge group who plan to bomb the homes of local sympathisers with Yugoslav president Josef Tito. His activities ensure that he, and by extension his family, is not safe. Nina's mother develops a ritual of blocking up the windows with wardrobes as defence against potential bombs.Unable to tolerate this paranoid existence, she decides to escape with the children and take them to her parents’ in Yugoslavia. The father holds onto their son, insisting that he needs to stay in Canada. His permission is needed to take the children abroad, so she is forced to leave with only the girls.

An image follows of an aeroplane and the children’s questions: “Mom, do they have chocolate in Yugoslavia? How about cornflakes?” At one point the tiny Nina has a tantrum because her sister Sarah receives a doll as a birthday present, and tries to claim it as her own. These relatable childhood moments are contrasted with overheard adult conversations: “Over my dead body! I won’t have my girls raised by that lunatic.”

In Part Two: Exile we learn about Nina’s father’s violent history and how his parents met. There is also a potted history of the political situation which led to him forming his views. This is described in a clear and neutral way, illustrated by portraits of important figures, images of protests and propaganda posters.

Bunjevac notes that she has researched the history of the region extensively and discovered many similarities between the warring Serbs and Croats in terms of customs, ethnicity and other traits. However, invasions from outside and divides in Christianity led to more differences being formed.

The historical and political sections are all very informative and easy to follow, and fit well with the personal story of Nina’s family. We also discover the story of how her parents met, an interesting one given that we know how badly it ends.

Every so often we see glimpses of Nina’s early interest in drawing, learning how to hold a pen and practising. The book’s artwork is incredibly beautiful – starkly monochrome and painstakingly detailed, with a variety of shading techniques including cross-hatching.

Brutal panels – scenes from a concentration camp, images of violence within the family – combine with the more domestic and commonplace. There are also several ominous one-page images such as that of black, silhouetted birds perched on a telephone wire.

A startlingly beautiful and important book, Fatherland cleverly combines politics, history and biography with a personal touch.