Josip Novakovich’s short story “Hail” is the story of Haris, a Buddhist pacifist fighting for the Bosnian Muslim forces. The story takes place during the conflict between the Muslims and the Serbians. Haris and his group attempt to ambush a Serbian camp but end up attacking their own in the mist and confusion. Haris is knocked out during the skirmish, only to be targeted as a traitor when he later meets up with the survivors of the battle. However, before he is executed for crimes he did not commit, Haris is rescued by the Serbians who overwhelm the Muslim survivors. Hearing that he was to be executed for being a traitor, the Serbians take pity on Haris and encourage him to take revenge on his friends who turned against him by gunning them down with a machine gun. The story ends ambiguously, with Haris leaning onto the cold metal of the gun and remarking that it feels nice on his hurt wrists. This story comments on the subjectivity of the war by showing that there is not necessarily a right side; squadrons can end up killing and betraying their own, and in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are a Buddhist, Muslim, or a Serbian, violence is violence.
Novakovich uses conflict in the form of irony to create dynamic characters and humor. Irony, in the way Novakovich is using it, is when an event or situation contradicts what one would expect to happen. For example, Haris, the main character, is supposed to be a Buddhist. However, he is far from the focused pacifist that many picture when they think of Buddhism. Haris, ironically, is quite scatterbrained. When he is meditating, he often has trouble focusing, and his mind wanders in strange directions. For example, Novakovich writes, “He buzzed om to end his meditation, but instead of emptying his mind and attuning to the universe, he thought of how coincidental it was that the electricity resistance unit was designated by the same sound, ohm” (94). Haris is supposed to be clearing his mind but instead he is thinking about homonyms. The only time he does manage to achieve a perfect calm is, ironically, in the midst of chaos: “He thought it strange that what meditation hadn’t managed to accomplish, the concussion combined with torture and thread of shooting: equanimity, ataraxia of the mind” (111-112). It is also ironic that this self-proclaimed pacifist is one of the few who has volunteered for the war. These sorts of inconsistencies make Haris a dynamic character who is conflicted with himself, and the scatterbrained quirkiness that stems from his ironic Buddhist image adds to the dark humor of the story.
Novakovich also uses irony to create a ridiculous situation that comments on the larger issue of prejudice. Out of all the squadron, it is Haris, the Buddhist pacifist, who is blamed for being a traitor. It is ironic that the one who claims he wants peace is targeted as being an instigator of violence, even against his own comrades. When Haris reveals that he is a Buddhist, the characters laugh at him and say that’s a “good one” or a joke (105-115). They fail to take him seriously because of the absurdity of a pacifist soldier. However, is is precisely because he is different that he is targeted. His conflicting character is something the other soldiers cannot comprehend, so they place the blame on him. The commander even goes so far as to blame Haris over the Serbian soldiers in their midst, saying “Being a Serb means nothing,” but apparently being Buddhist means everything (111). This absurd trial and conviction seems to be Novakovich portraying prejudices at work; people condemn what they cannot understand, and in this story irony acts as the vehicle that creates this misunderstanding.