At the age of 12, Ivan Dolinar is undeniably precocious.
Intrigued by the idea of eternal life, Ivan raises the subject in
conversation with an aging artist. In the artist’s view, life
is simply a loan from God; as an individual, one is never really
alive. “You mean we are dead?” Ivan asks.
“No,” says the artist, “we aren’t capable
of that either.” Despite its breadth, “April
Fool’s Day,” the first novel of Josip Novakovich, falls
short of greatness, establishing Novakovich’s reputation as
stylist rather than storyteller.
Born in the Croatian town of Nizograd in 1948, Ivan obsesses
over power from a tender age, bullying children in the schoolyard
and professing love for the state. At 19, he enters medical school
in Serbia, hoping to realize his dreams of power through knowledge
“of people’s hearts, genitals, and brains.”
Despite early success, a prank ends his medical career and sends
him into forced labor. Unemployable upon his release, Ivan returns
to school, studying philosophy. In the years that follow, Ivan
teaches science, witnesses Yugoslavia’s dissolution and
survives the brutal war a decade later. With the worst seemingly
behind him, Ivan tries family life, fathering a child with the
woman he marries. After his death, Ivan remains conscious,
pondering his existence as a harmless spirit. In a book preoccupied
with life’s meaning, it is fitting that the author also takes
the protagonist into the afterlife.
In the 226 pages allotted to Ivan’s life and afterlife,
Novakovich manages to conjure up an absorbing portrait of
post-World War II Yugoslav existence. Marshal Tito, widely
considered to be the father of Yugoslavia, even makes an
appearance, offering Ivan a cigar on a visit to his labor camp.
With such attention to famous politicos and to politics in general,
it’s understandable that Novakovich makes the Balkans war of
the early 90s central to the novel. Well into his 40s by the time
he is drafted, Ivan finds himself pitted against fellow Croats in a
conflict as senseless as it is cruel. Throughout the chaos, Ivan
remains distant from the events around him, capable of suffering
but never despair. Novakovich’s deadpan style shines here,
his gift for understatement allowing for a brutal and mystic
portrayal of war.
Unfortunately, Ivan’s emotional reserve is far less
effective in times of peace. For much of the novel, the
protagonist’s inability to plumb the depths of his
often-pathetic condition make for a narrative in which life’s
failures and triumphs are nearly indistinguishable. When Ivan does
become emotional, upon hearing of Tito’s death, a bitter
irony emerges. “He wondered why he had shed tears for the
president who had caused so much pain to him.” Even after
death, Ivan remains incapable of profound regret.
If it is Novakovich’s intent to present this view for the
sake of philosophical clarity, he succeeds admirably. One chapter,
for instance, is titled: “A chapter containing not much more
than one extended metaphor: the state as an organism with many
organs.” It is hardly a surprise that Ivan’s life
should parallel the troubled existence of his homeland.
Unfortunately, it is also disappointing. In a novel cloaked at
every turn by the bleakness of Yugoslav life, one gets the feeling
that Novakovich’s dull protagonist is allotted more attention
than he probably deserves.
Wrought by supernatural and allegorical elements, “April
Fools Day” is, at heart, a fable. As the subject of a fable,
Ivan Dolinar is a wandering, wondering fool. If Ivan falls short as
a compelling protagonist, his life still serves the author’s
allegorical intent. In Novakovich’s eyes, Ivan is the perfect
fool: a good man lost in his search for meaning, and, ultimately,
happiness. In its entirety, Novakovich’s offbeat novel is
still immensely readable. As a stylist, Novakovich commands the
page with his dry wit from the very first chapter. Though flawed,
“April Fool’s Day” is simply the work of a master
in a form not yet entirely his.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.