In the Hold

Vladimir Asrenijevic’s In the Hold is an anti-war novel which never quite reaches the war. It was the Serbian writer’s debut novel and won the prestigious NIN Prize in Yugoslavia in 1994 shortly before Yugoslavia ceased to exist. It is set in 1991 as thousands of Serbians are being conscripted in the fight against Croatian independence. At the time, Aresenjevic claimed that he did not set out to write about the deteriorating political situation:

“I wanted to tell a family story. I set it in the present–wartime–the time in which I happen to live. So my family tale turned into a nightmare.”

The novel, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, is, in fact, subtitled ‘A Soap Opera’, and largely revolves around the family and friends of the narrator: his wife, Angela, who is pregnant with their first child; her brother, Lazar, whose life as a follower of Hari Krishna is interrupted by his call-up papers; and his friend, Dejan, who used to be a drummer in a band but has returned from the war minus one arm.

The novel, in one sense, is about leaving youth behind, Angela’s pregnancy being one sign of impending adult responsibilities. We learn that the narrator and his wife’s younger days were one wild, drug-taking party – indeed, Angela was a dealer – but now he sees himself becoming his father, adopting the “domestic habits which, when we are teenagers, help us hate our fathers in precise detail,” – in this case, an afternoon nap. At the same time, any thought of the future is filled with dread:

“…I lacked the energy to confront everyday life. Troubles attract troubles, I reflected, they will leapfrog over one another, and I shall not be able to withstand the torrent when it starts to roar. I saw myself, calm in the face of the impending catastrophe, like a calf blinking meekly before the sentence of the butcher’s hammer.”

Despite this, both he and Angela are looking forward to their child being born, but they are worried about Lazar when they discover that his parents have accepted his conscription papers. “You have to hide!” Angela tells him, but Lazar is sanguine:”…none of it matters. It’s a question of karma.” The narrator lives in fear of his own conscription:

“…in so far as there was anything I feared, it was the drafters. Once they knocked for a long time on our next door neighbour’s door.”

Dejan, meanwhile, attempts to restart his life, though the narrator suspects that his missing arm is not the only difference since his return:

“Dejan bravely did all he could to give the impression of a person with whom all was absolutely well, but some sort of change – a change which was of course harder to detect than the brutal absence of his right arm – undermined that extraordinary day-long effort and spoiled it.”

Dejan talks about starting a dating agency, and then later sends the narrator t-shirts he has designed. Dejan’s determination to succeed becomes important to the narrator’s own attempts at optimism.

In the Hold, then, is a series of small stories. The novel takes place over only three months – October to December 1991. Arsenijevic captures the microscopic moments of everyday life while the conflict looms in the background, still in its early stages:

“At that time the war had not yet hit us in the face with a knot of human innards; it crushed us in wiser ways.”

Friends leave the country, maintaining that “their departure had absolutely nothing to do with the war.” Reports of the fighting dominate the news bulletins:

“Angela wept, leaning her chin on the arm of the sofa, as she watched splinters of the devastated settlements of the Danube and Vuka in the background of the rustic-featured, wartime TV reporter’s saccharine outpourings.”

As we can see, he does this with an ironic wit that extends to the title which refers to the part of a ship where, according to Arsenijevic, should it start sinking, “you have little chance of surviving but you can remain alive the longest.” Here is how he describes the attitude which allows everyday life to continue as normal:

“…like many of my fellow citizens, I endeavoured to move along the spittle-covered streets with the trained step of a native, who walks without fear along the foot of a live volcano on the island where his tribe has survived, despite the many victims claimed by the volcano, for generations.”

Although it is a slight novel, and plot is secondary, the atmosphere impresses on the reader a desperate conflict between encroaching war and ironic optimism. It is very much a novel that would have found new readers by being long listed for an award, as it could well have been had the 1996 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize occurred, having charm that is hard to resist. The conflict it describes in its infancy continues to be the subject of Balkan literature to this day; it would be a pity if this early novel were forgotten.

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2 Responses to “In the Hold”

  1. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijevic, translated from the Serbian by Celia Hawkesworth (Harvill Press) […]

  2. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijevic, translated from the Serbian by Celia Hawkesworth (Harvill Press) […]

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