Talon Review: May 2016

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An Entryway / Taylor Bump

Hurrying you along from one bustling cafe to the next train stop and plunking you down in the middle of an existential crisis, “Berlin Journal” by Josip Novakovich is travel literature at is best. More than a well-written itinerary entry, the journal is insightful and revealing. Novakovich speaks to the reader in an intentionally causal tone that is cut through every so often with a bleak reminder that he is not home. In this particular essay he is writing about six weeks that he spent in Berlin as a guest teacher at a university there. But his reasons for being in Berlin are merely a side note, Novakovich spends the majority of his time on the experience of the city rather than his purposes there.

At first it seems like Novakovich accidentally included a journal entry in his anthology: raw, unedited, and unexciting. This tool can be defined as tone characterization in my opinion, as the author makes a deliberate choice to use particular language throughout the piece, which gives it a very unhurried feel and anchors every scene in a precise setting and atmosphere. The excruciatingly specific details about everything from his taxi cab driver at the airport to the instructions on how to open his mail box seem to fall off the page after every period. Were they there in the first place? Did they matter? But then, as the piece goes on, the patter starts to emerge. Ah, the taxi driver is an immigrant too. The instructions are detailed and robotic, exactly the feelings he’s trying to escape from. These little details, though by themselves appear arbitrary and exhausting, fit into the larger narrative of a stranger abroad. For instance, there is a large section devoted to the description of prostitutes near a synagogue, but right in the middle is one sentence that gives Novakovich away:

A block away, girls lined the streets on the sidewalks and stood in the road off the curb. I didn’t see anybody stop by to pick them up, nor did any pedestrians come over to talk to them. I did not know what the laws were, but clearly, with so many police around, prostitution could be curbed unless it was legal. I wondered how many of them came from Moldavia and other poor ex-Soviet republics. Most prostitutes wore something tacky. It wasn’t even the amount of flesh revealed–some of the women sitting crosslegged in the sidewalk cafes revealed more–but the style; the extra-high heels, the fur collar atop an extra-short leather jacket.

The point is subtle, but then you remember that Novakovich is from one of these “poor ex-Soviet republics” and it doesn’t seem so odd now that he is taking down every detail of the women’s presence. However gaudy and unusual they are, they are worth remembering. He uses these carefully detailed stories throughout the essay to reveal more and more about himself without writing an explicitly philosophical memoir on the life of an immigrant.

“The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break” / Katrice Stover

The novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, by Steve Sherrill, is a witty and relatable story about a Minotaur, worn down from thousands of years alive, living day by day with several obstacles, both physical and emotional. He works at a restaurant, fixes cars, lives in a trailer park, and falls in love. He longs often to be fully human, fully accepted, without impaired speech and vision. However, through his trials and tribulations, he realizes, and so does the reader, that perhaps no one is fully human. No one is free of flaw; no one is free of struggle.

The element of Sherrill’s novel that I will be discussing is motif. Motif, motif, motif. There is no one passage that well-encapsulates this element. It appears, like the Minotaur’s emotions and his being, scattered and stretched over time in varying degrees. Sherrill’s use of motif illustrates the long and repetitive life of the Minotaur, while also showing areas in his life where he can find solace, feel more human, escape, or develop as an individual. As the motifs make sense of the Minotaur, the reader can empathize and take an introspective approach, highlighting that perhaps the Minotaur isn’t all that different, besides having a bull head. The re-occurence of certain themes (which is what motif is) happens often for the Minotaur, more often than it does for an average human. Cigarette breaks are prominent in the narrative and show a need to take a breather, prepare for a stressful situation, or unwind from one. The following quote is an example of the cigarette break and its effect: “‘What a fuckup,’ somebody said. ‘Go have a smoke,’ Hernando said, starting to clean up the mess. They look out for each other; it’s one of the things the Minotaur likes about the kitchen” (6).

The cigarette break provides solace from an uncomfortable situation, both for the Minotaur and the audience, and it appears several other times throughout the story. But cigarette breaks are not the only form of solace that the Minotaur finds.

The second motif to be discussed is the Minotaur’s knack for fixing things, cars and clothes specifically. Often when we fix things, we have control. The Minotaur does not have a whole lot of control over his life, as his strength and fervor have been worn down by thousands of years wandering the Earth. The continuous desire, despite how tedious, to fix things and have control is juxtaposed with this helplessness in social settings and with his ability to control his horns, tongue, and snout. Sewing, in particular, also highlights the Minotaur’s desire to be more human, to be more normal, more relatable. He does, however, also use it as solace.

“The Minotaur taught himself to sew. Years ago, too far back to remember, the Minotaur resolved to cover his nakedness, resigned himself to the continuous struggle of repair and upkeep” (82).

“When the Minotaur can’t sleep he finds something to mend. Sometimes he sews until morning” (83).

As explained in the quotes above, the Minotaur sews to clothe himself, a human habit, despite the struggle he must endure to do so. And he finds solace in sewing when he can’t sleep, burdened by dreams and thoughts of the past.

Sherrill was inspired by his first Minotaur book, which was a poem, to write this story. Because of this, I have decided to write a poem about his use of motif throughout the story to create depth of character and relatability.

 

Solace, Human, Solace

Smoke, through face black and furry

Black and furry is his also

And hers as well

Solace is the cigarette break

For bull and human alike

Lungs fill, forcing deep breath

Nicotine meditation

***

Mend and sew and mend

And mend

And fix ourselves, thus cloning

Fit a mold of masculinity

Fit a mold of human

But then, what is flaw?

Bullish head on man-ish body?

Monter in the flesh

***

Conform, Rinse, Repeat

Motif after the verse

Drill becomes familiar to all

Routine becomes escape

Hide and seek is most competitive

Human always hides

“Snow Powder” / Brad Lancaster

In his collection of short stories entitled Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust, Josip Novakovich writes one piece called Snow Powder. In this story, a young boy named Mirko lives in his village as an outsider at school due to his common habit of flaunting his knowledge in class. The kids tease him and even the girl he likes plays love games with him just for the sake of causing him pain. Mirko is fond of skiing and one day he decides to skip class and heads up the hill to ski, where he encounters and encampment of Serbians that have surrounded his village with guns and cannons. The Serbs tell Mirko if he brings them plum brandy they will spare his family in their plan to bomb the town.  Feeling powerful ith his hidden knowledge, Mirko warns none and attempts to smuggle the brandy up the hill. However, this father catches him and beats him. This causes Mirko to resent his school, his friends and even his family. In the end, Mirko joins the Serb Army and helps them bomb his town, with the end quote that he had “…found the best job in the world for a boy.” The main idea of Novakovich’s piece is that choice will always present itself no matter the situation, but what the right choice is can only be determined after a path has been chosen.

Snow Powder is rife with choice. Novakovich himself has to make several choices as he wrote this piece, but the chief one of these decisions is ultimately whether Mirko would warn his town or join the Serbian Army. In making this choice, Novakovich had to rely upon the character he had crafted to make it for him. Having created Mirko, Novakovich had to write the choice that he, not Mirko, would make. He was able to do this by examining Mirko as a character, largely due to the way he had characterized the young boy. It is characterization that defines Novakovich’s craft and his choices as a writer in this story.

Mirko is very smart and almost wise beyond his years. A good instance of this is here: “She opened the grade book and with her trembling and swollen hand she wrote a large A in red. But that did not make Mirko happy — the world was melting away; what was a grade compared with the world?” This shows how Mirko thinks quite beyond his years for a boy of his age. While most children would be thrilled at receiving а high grade, Mirko is displeased because his one little grade does nothing to solve the problems of the world. But this does not make Mirko a fully rational character. While he is very smart, Novakovich adds another layer to his characterization of Mirko by making him very receptive to the emotions of others. This is exhibited by Mirko’s relationships with his school crush Bojana and his father at home. Novakovich, through Mirko, describes Bojana as having “a wonderful iciness about her.” That line shows how despite his high intellect, Mirko can still be captured by the outward appearancesof others, and ultimately deeply affected by them when those emotions don’t turn out to be true.

In leading up to his choice, Novakovich continues to play on the emotions of Mirko. His
forethought continues to be shown when Mirko first encounters the Serbs. They instruct Mirko to return with plum brandy, to which Mirko quickly asks: “What if I don’t come back?” His lack of fear to question the army with cannons looming over his town may be due to his age, but Novakovich’s earlier instances of characterizing Mirko as someone not afraid to question the world make this interaction between the boy and the Serbs very entertaining to watch unfold. But, as before, Mirko’s receptiveness to emotion gets in the way of his thinking, In the end, it is what trumps his better judgmemt. Novakovich sets up two instances in the story that contribute to Mirko’s ultimate choice. One, when Mirko fails to answer a question in class, Bojana turns her back on him and even washes away their first kiss shared together. Two, his father severely beats him after discovering Mirko was trying to smuggle plum brandy out of the town In response to this, Mirko says: “His father could not know that his son was saving him, but now Mirko would not tell him, out of spite. If Father could not suspect good intentions, if he needed to talk and accuse, the hell with him.” These two lines show how Mirko’s judgment can be quickly clouded by one bad interaction. His father’s actions ride in on the tail on Bojana’s betrayal, making Mirko’s rational conscience muddled by both events.

On his way to the hill to make his choice, Mirko’s emotions are exemplified by his
thoughts of Bojana. He says: “The girl who played love games, which were actually, he was
sure, hate games.” By the time Mirko makes it to the hilltop where the Serbs await his answer, Novakovich has set Mirko up to be someone who while rational is consistently bogged down by his inflammatory feelings towards others. This is what ultimately makes Novakovich’s choice for him. In the moment, due to his incendiary reactions, Mirko wishes to bomb the town, and so he does. But then, after the fire subsides, he says: “He no longer hated her, no longer wanted revenge. What if he had just become a mass murderer?” His rationality returns and Novakovich conveys that by explicitly returning Mirko’s conscience to him after he’s committed the bombing. It is Novakovich’s characterization of Mirko that makes his choices for him, and in the end, Snow Powder shows the reader that in the moment, something may seem like the right choice, but once that path has been walked, one could have made a dangerous mistake.

“Hail” / Cai Doran

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.

A Rap: Novakovich / Nataliegh Lay

Novakovich and his lad

Went to Blue Note to listen to jazz;

When listening to his story it’s like talking to your friend,

Conversational tone is the message it sends.

What does that mean?

It means he’s not grand,

There isn’t formality, he’s easy to understand.

He’s relatable and credible and funny too,

Like chattin’ with your bros or chillin’ with your boo.

Let me break an example down

So you know what I mean:

My main man Novakovich said this about green,

“This guy looks completely stoned,” “Still we only live once,”

That’s something I’d say to my friends out to brunch.

Do you see what I mean by conversational tone?

Now go out and make some pieces of you own.

As I can imagine Novakovich aiding your writing with clues,

“Now you cats don’t forget to do that, will you?”

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