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This article was published 27/12/2014 (2214 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A noticeable trend in recent graphic narratives is cartoonists depicting themselves as both historians and detectives, digging up family stories that have been variously remembered, reconstructed, or repressed.

Nina Bunjevac's Fatherland is a powerful Canadian contribution to this genre. It joins such celebrated works as Alison Bechdel's Fun Home in reconstructing a deceased father's mysterious life from the adult daughter's point of view. Whereas Bechdel uncovers her father's gay affairs, Bunjevac reconstructs her Serbian father's clandestine terrorist activities during his exile in Canada.

Fatherland was published first in Britain and then had its Canadian launch at the Art Gallery of Ontario in September. Bunjevac is a Serbian-born artist and cartoonist who lives and teaches in Toronto. This is her second graphic narrative and her first to delve into personal and political history. It is a beautifully illustrated and at times harrowing story of how her father's commitment to militant Serbian nationalism ultimately destroyed the family and led to his untimely death.

Like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Fatherland telescopes complex historical conflicts through a single family. It begins in Toronto in 2012, as the female narrator shows her mother a photo of their old house in Welland, Ont., which triggers her stories of the past. As Part 1 unfolds, we are taken back through the narrator's 1970s childhood in that house.

Something is clearly amiss: her mother stacks furniture against the bedroom windows at night and is "guided by an overwhelming sense of dread and paralysing fear." Her mother decides she must leave her husband, Peter, who is a shadowy figure at this point. Leaving their young son behind at his insistence, Mom and her two daughters return to live with her parents in Zemun, in the former Yugoslavia.

The narrator depicts a relatively happy but impoverished childhood in Yugoslavia that ends with the abrupt news that Peter has died in Toronto. A newspaper clipping explains that his militant Serbian nationalist cell was building bombs to detonate at the homes of Tito sympathizers and Yugoslav missions in Canada and the U.S. when the explosives accidentally went off. His death launches Part 2 and the narrator's reconstruction of her father's life story.

This is a tragic and disturbing story of a young man who watched his village taken over first by Nazis and then by Communists. He knew nothing other than "fear and violence." Political upheaval meets a wave of tragic deaths in the family, and Peter grows up into an alienated and disturbed young man.

Bunjevac traces her father's growth into a Serbian dissident and anti-Communist organizer that continues when he moves to work in a mine in northern Manitoba. After marrying her mother, they move to Ontario, where Peter joins the Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland. The story comes full circle to that Welland house and the departure to Zemun, and then overtakes the first telling to imagine his final day.

Fatherland combines personal and family narrative with maps and historical information for those unfamiliar with the region's history. Bunjevac's monochromatic style uses a lot of cross-hatching and pointillism to echo photographs as much as comics. It also gives the book the feel of mid-20th-century illustration that is reinforced by its handsome hardcover binding.

Fatherland is not for the faint of heart. Like Art Spiegelman's Maus, it depicts multiple generational traumas by folding individual stories into collective experiences of war and upheaval.

It is well worth reading, though. This is a moving and powerful depiction of a particular family and history that resonates beyond the Balkan conflicts.

Fatherland is a significant contribution to Canadian memoir, immigrant and diasporic literature, war writing and graphic narrative.


Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the English department of the University of Winnipeg.