- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

A HOUSE IN ISTRIA
By Richard Swartz
Translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson
REVIEWED BY ERIN MENDELL


Inside the walls surrounding a house on a peninsula in the former Yugoslavia lies the history of the Balkans. Hatred is in the blood there, and NATO peace-keepers and war-crimes tribunals can deal only with the manifestation of that hatred. Through the story of a man obsessed with owning the house next door and people guarding their small territories, Richard Swartz offers an explanation for the kind of nationalism that leads to genocide.
The man's wife narrates the story related in "A House in Istria," which takes place over a particularly hot summer week and chronicles the couple's quest to buy the house that has sat empty for years. She is from Istria and speaks Italian like most of the other people on the peninsula, and usually she is forced to translate for her husband, who speaks an unspecified language and is from an unspecified place. All that matters is that he neither speaks their language nor has roots anyone they meet can recognize.
The story's real protagonist, though, is the region, and Mr. Swartz takes a political situation that is ever-changing and difficult to grasp, and distills it to a personal level. The narrator's aging attorney explains how the lives of the people who live in the Balkans go through sudden and drastic changes:
"Here we are born in one state and get buried in another without ever moving from the spot and as for the state itself … it's as changeable as the weather; just when we've got used to the Italian flag the time has come for another one, a Yugoslav flag or a Croation flag, anyway a flag with totally different colors from the one we were beginning to get used to… . I personally know people who've had to take their hats off to each one of these flags, one after another, and that without ever traveling farther than Draguc in this wide world of ours."
But while the region is in constant flux on a large scale, the obsessions and characteristics of its inhabitants remain the same. The lawyer tells the narrator's husband that he cannot buy the house he wants because it has been owned by one family for centuries and cannot be sold least of all to an outsider. Though their flag and system of government may change, houses are passed down through families, and everyone knows who's not from the town. The social and genetic rules cannot change.
In his obsession with the house, the narrator's husband is not alone. All the characters have fixations. They repeat themselves in conversation and almost always misunderstand one another. It's an effective way of establishing characters and highlighting important points, but it sometimes reads as if Mr. Swartz thought his readers needed blinking neon signs to pick up on what he wanted to say.
The characters' obsessions have them playing out the cycle of oppression in microcosm. The oppressed become the oppressors and, once in power, take it out on the former hegemony. The narrator's attorney was once a respected figure in the town but has since come to be regarded as little more than a pathetic old man, and an obsession with status has people taking joy from his failures.
"It was only after having started to lose his court cases and with that his legal standing that Franjo had been written off by the town; before that no one here would have ignored him or made a mock of him. Only his failures in the courtroom had brought him down and because they would never have dared to give him the cold shoulder before, everyone was eager to do it now."
It's almost an explanation for genocide whether in the Balkans or Rwanda.
When the powerful abuse their power, the formerly oppressed are eager for revenge, and in a place so divided along ethnic, language and family lines, it's no surprise that the Other's revenge would take the form of violence.
Someone that everyone in the town can look down on is the narrator's neighbor Dimitrij, though it's not clear why. Even he gets to turn the tables, when he visits the narrator's house the night after she and her husband have spoken with the owners of the house they want to buy.
"We are not good enough for this little house, and now your husband wants to buy himself a bigger one … but now I'm here … and his smile became confident and malicious, no longer a smile for gaining time."
Mr. Swartz doesn't use quotation marks, and his characters' words often not only share paragraphs, but also run into each other in the same sentence. They are talking over one another, and no one seems to care about what anyone else is saying. At one point, the narrator stops translating the conversation she is having with her huband, and another couple, realizing that when people aren't listening to one another only conversing to get their own ideas across it doesn't matter whether everyone is speaking the same language, because really no one is.
Mr. Swartz goes a long way in depicting how people in the Balkans and elsewhere can end up being so brutal to one another without going into the scorecard political and diplomatic details of who's doing what to whom. The result is a genuinely human story in which the author explains what's behind the who's-up-who's-down newspaper stories about the region. Though his voice is so strong that it is, at times, overbearing and he often beats an idea into the mind of the reader, Mr. Swartz has written a compelling and, especially in the current political environment, important novel.

Erin Mendell is a copy editor at The Washington Times.


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