In the middle of her long, incense-soaked wedding ceremony, Lara Kulicz amuses herself by creating a philosopher's alphabet, assigning a name to each letter of the alphabet, identifying X for Xenophon just when the priest declares the couple "man and wife".
In much the same way, Domnia Radulescu incorporates light-hearted elements and subplots which offer readers relief from the novel's central theme - the devastating effects of the 1982 Bosnian War.
As with Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, a friendship is a key component of the novel, and this is a friendship viewed from a distance too. Their friendship - like every other aspect of their lives - is fundamentally shaped by the genocidal war surrounding them, and readers are preoccupied more with the absences of the women in each other's lives than their presences, more with their feelings of separation and alienation than union and intimacy.
Katja Rudolph’s Little Bastards in Springtime would make a great reading companion, exploring the aftermath of this conflict from the perspective of a young man, Jevrem, who also survives the conflict, but is forced to draw and redraw his own borders in the aftermath.
“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud. It’s why we’re here, together, in this flat, endless city next to an abnormally large lake. They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”
There are many Bastards of Yugoslavia, beautiful mongrels, whose stories have not been told, but Domnica Radulescu's Country of Red Azaleas brings forth one such story.
Both Lara and Marija are untethered. One of them is ostensibly more protected, able to ruminate on this sense of dislocation: "We spoke Serbian again and the many consonants of my native language soothed my burning mouth, my parched throat, my devastated soul. I need a break from English, from America, from idiomatic expressions and mannerisms." The other is more overtly vulnerable, in the thick of the conflict: "But a boot kicking you in your stomach is always real and you can’t mistake it for not real. And you can’t mistake the dead bodies strewn next to you for the images flickering on the walls of a cave."
The settings are significant as representations of the characters' choices (and reactions, for there are not always true choices): Belgrade and Washington DC. From the Ferhadja Mosque to the Hirshhorn Sculpture, the details matter; but the symbolic importance of the point of confluence, in Belgrade, where the Danube and Sava rivers meet, is perhaps most important of all.
Domnica Radulescu's style is spare and her language uncomplicated, perhaps deliberately, in light of the horrific details which underpin the story, from the Srebrenica massacres to the mass rapes and NATO bombings.
These devastating events play out alongside other losses (e.g. divorce, custody, adultery), tragedies broad and narrow, rooted in a "shiny web of lies and a second life of illicit encounters". This particular conflict perfectly reflects the reality of broader identities resulting in intimate betrayals, "lives of halves", a "missed heartbeat".
Occasionally there is an emotive burst (Sarajevo described as a "delicious secret" and an experience as a "volcano of sorrow") but the language is simple. The structure is chronological, with half the book covering a broader swath of time (1980 - 2003) and the second half covering only 2003 and 2004. The narrative voice is first-person, consistent and direct.
Ultimately the novel's success lies in characterization, but this is a difficult connection to forge because of the element of distance inherent in the key relationships. Domnica Radulescu uses the motif of audience and performance to allow the reader to settle into a seat from which they can view at a distance.
Lara is named for the heroine of Doctor Zhivago, a story better known via the film version than the book, an American interpretation better known than the Russian original.
She imposes the perspective she learned from Hollywood on everyone she encounters, one man her Marlboro Man and another a mix of Clark Gable and Omar Sharif. She recognizes the tilt of a woman's chin to be the same angle as Ingrid Bergman's in the final scene of "Casablanca".
Both these references include strong relational plots but ultimately their stories are shaped by war, just as in Country of Red Azaleas.