Vedrana Rudan's Night is a fierce novel about life, death, and sex in wartime Croatia. In its prologue, the narrator, Tonka Babic, a journalist in her fifties, is asked by an unnamed interviewer to "explain to someone outside of it all who you are and they are. . . . So an outsider can understand." But I wonder if I'm the right outsider, or if anyone who isn't a Croat, Serb, Bosnian, Slovene, or other citizen of the former Yugoslavia can be, because Tonka speaks in a regional shorthand. Boldly translated by Celia Hawkesworth, Tonka's thoughts burst forth in elliptical, exclamatory staccato, telegraphing her history rather than explaining it. An insider would presumably know this shorthand. But whatever the reader's shortcomings, Tonka invites you and me, insiders and outsiders both, to spend an intimate night with her and learn her story through a disputatious monologue about the war that violated her country and her.
Reading Night is like witnessing somebody else's family argument. You're drawn in because you're in the same room, and you can't leave politely; you know the gist of everyone's complaints, but not the gruesome details. Tonka spends the night watching TV and ranting, repeating herself and especially certain phrases, ensuring that every reader, wrong or right, realizes Night's subjectóthe myth of human decency and the vagrancy of justice. About the Serbs, Tonka frequently asks, "What did they ever do to us?" The refrain, rhetorical and futile, is at the heart of the novel.
It's a long night. Tonka's waiting, she announces, for her lover, Miki. She's leaving her husband, Kiki, for Miki, and the rhyming names should alert readers to playfulness, suspicion, and deceitóTonka's doppelgängers. Since Night is a work of fiction, Tonka's reality is her experience, subjective and imagined, and Rudan is not claiming Truth, but lived truthfulness. By choosing to write a novel, not a memoir, the author has embraced the honesty of fantasy and irrationality.
There are victims and victimizers on both sides of the war in Croatia, Tonka contends, and this ethical conundrum may be Night's raison d'être. Tonka doesn't cleanse her own house of bad motives: "I suspect that we are all cutthroats," she says to you and me. But male or female, Serb, Croat, or American, to Tonka, we are all basically stupid, incapable of seeing how we have been duped by governments, lovers, and society into accepting whatever's dished out. Occasionally, Tonka admits she has been fooled, too. "Get it?" she repeats often, knowing the outsider can't or doesn't. By emphasizing a shifting, ignorant reader, rather than just its narrator's unreliability, Night risks the distress of a humanist who believes in the universality of human suffering. The novel asks: Is it possible to identify in every situation? To step into anyone else's shoes? If not, then how do we "understand" others? Is "understanding" a weak, insufficient, or wrong term?
The Iraq war, which America started, is experienced at a distance by Americans themselves, except for the US soldiers who are being killed or wounded daily. But Iraqis live in it, and many more Iraqis than American soldiers have died so far during it. If Americans could hear Iraqis over the administration's noise for war, maybe this country's citizens would "understand," that is, be able to listen. Tonka's cri de coeur, no matter who "gets" her, wants and relies upon a listener. That's essential. Rudan's solution or alternative to the inadequacy of understanding may lie in Tonka's plea: "But what will you do with yourselves, if you stop listening to me?"