Do not be fooled by the evocative title, nor lulled by the beautiful woman on the cover. This is no gentle romance. The edges of this work on war, betrayal, exile and identity are jagged and cut deep as the Austrian writer Norbert Gstrein continues his exploration of the Croatian war of independence.
Marije's marriage to a hotshot journalist – and one-time Communist revolutionary – is floundering. He was proud of her once, his "precious ornament in a double sense, as a Mediterranean beauty... and splendid political example", fascinated by her Dalmatian heritage, reluctant to hear that her father had been on the "wrong side": a virulent anti-Communist, who disappeared, presumed dead, when she was six. Until her death, her mother went at the appointed day and hour to Vienna's St Stephan's Cathedral, in case he returned.
Marije, now 50, remains aware of her girlish dreams of that alternative existence in Croatia, the dogged yearning evoked by the photo that used to hang in her bedroom of a young soldier trailing a fully opened parachute. "All the light seemed to be trapped in its nearly transparent hemisphere with its undulating hem… as a child she imagined it was the sun, that her father could make it rise and set with a tug on the lines and that he watched over her sleep as the lord of light and darkness." As the first rumblings of violence and change are reported from Zagreb and the mountain villages beyond, Marije leaves the security of her friends, university job and husband to be there.
Also preparing to return is the Old Man who has lived almost half a century in exile by Buenos Aires, the metropolis that harboured so many Europeans from before the Second World War and, after it, the bewildering mix of German speakers with family stories that could not be more different. He, Marije's father, has been preparing for this moment, the "right revolution" that will rid his beloved Dalmatia of the "real enemy": Communism. It is time for him and his fellow gnarled warhorses to take up their position, to finance the overthrow, to stand shoulder to shoulder with today's young soldiers.
In Ludwig, a former Austrian policeman who has nothing to lose and arrived in Argentina "to forget", he has found his henchman. It is Ludwig who takes up the narrative, noting the old man's "undiminished charisma", alongside the repellent political views: a quirkiness that yields to uncontrolled violence, sentimentality and delusion about his place in history. For some days father and daughter are in the same city, that ghostly Zagreb of the weeks in which the nights are as silent as those in the countryside. Only one of them will find liberation from the past.
Gstrein's prose is muscular and compelling. Anthea Bell and Julian Evans's translation convincingly recreates the frightening world of eruptive violence which the characters inhabit. This tense, deeply unsettling tale of human dependencies, carelessness, jealousies, of the ugliness of war and the lush beauty of Argentina, comes highly recommended.
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