Some might compare Ivan Sršen’s Zagreb Noir to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as it is a collection of short stories that examine a single situation experienced by each of the protagonists. On that note, it shares this quality with the Bible with one exception. The stories which Ivan Sršen collected examine the dark side of human nature. That part of humans which expresses vulgar, sadistic and anarchistic behavior towards one another.
Published by the Akashic Books imprint, Zagreb Noir is a compilation which readers might want to be selective about the stories they choose to read. Many will turn people’s stomachs as the depravity is too much to conceive, and others will give the audience inspiration. The book is a cross between the 1982 film The Wall and the 2003 flix Love Actually. The thread which links these stories together is that they each take place in some part of Zagreb.
The authors of these stories give readers a look at an underground culture that is alive in society though not necessarily visible. The characters and their tales won’t be found in mainstream magazines. The tales reveal the ugliness in people, their proclivity to abuse others and weld power and control over their brethren. The protagonists success is measured by their ability to out-smart, out-run, and slip away from their opponents grasp. In this regard, the stories are symbolic of Zagreb’s former wars, transpiring from World War II to the Yugoslavian Wars of the 1990’s. By the tone of the stories, there is a faction in Zagreb which is filled with rage though that segment of society is oftentimes concealed to the public eye by the accounts provided in the read.
In Ivan Vidić’s The Old Man from the Mountain, the tale is written in first person so the protagonist’s name is never revealed but his fears and worries are palpable. There is a gangster vibe in this story as the old man is a type of formidable mobster who exiles the protagonist after a slight transgression. Though the transgression seems trivial to the reader, the story ends with an upbeat as the protagonist expresses a vibrant sense of freedom, free from the mob-like existence he had been living under the prohibitions imposed on him by the old man. There is a correlation between Germany’s Third Reich represented by the old man and the protagonist being symbolic of the Von Trapp family who escaped the oppressive dictatorship. On another level, the old man could be viewed as Pope Leo X and the protagonist symbolizing the German friar Martin Luther. The ways of France’s Ancient Regime could be translated in the old man and the French émigré Madame Tussaud in the protagonist. This story can be representative of many others that earmark history.
She-Warrior, penned by Nora Verde, takes place in Lanište, a suburb of Zagreb. The protagonist is a student, Milena Jakšić who has experienced more injustice in her young life than most people have living for half a century. The vulgar language sprinkled throughout the read seems gratuitous but Milena’s situation is spine-tingling. Almost raped first by hoodlums then by cops, she slips away from both abusers and rightfully earns the moniker She-Warrior. The animosity which men show towards feminists in this tale, or more precisely women who don’t do whatever is told to them by men, is archaic to a modern audience.
Neven Ušumović’s Happiness on a Leash is one of the more inspiring stories. There are two protagonists in this tale, Anton and Jelena Lengel. An aged dancer, actress and former lover of an acclaimed celebrity who has joined the Ustasha, the name for the Croatian Revolutionary Movement during World War II, Jelena is unable to move on and wallows in the pain of pining over her glory days. Anton helps her to move forward, albeit by pushing her through a Baptism by fire-style diatribe. His language is harsh and bitter but serves its purpose by forcing Jelena onward and leaving her past behind her, thereby, healing her wounds.
The stories shed light on a sickness that stirs within society’s boundaries. Readers will easily glean that this sickness is not exclusive to Zagreb. Sršen reveals the ugly truth about human nature that burrows under the surface in war-torn countries. Thinking about it, that covers every country in the world as no single country has escaped being involved in a war at some point in its history. Wounds are not necessarily healed in every tale but the protagonists are each a victim of an unjustice and each prevails, sometimes at the cost of losing compassion for a brethren.