Book Review

Farewell, Cowboy by Olja Savičević

some more great balkan writing

Olja Savičević’s Farewell, Cowboy is a 2015 novel published by Istros Books. It was translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published in its original Croatian as Adio kauboju in 2010.

Original Cover

It’s intriguing Croatian fiction about the psychological fall out of the Yugoslav Wars.

It’s about young people turning to crime and sex and drugs for a way to kinda like live or whatever. This is not the generation who fought in the war, but those who lost parents and older siblings and just, basically, all sense of the validity and predictability of their own futures. Everything was changed, the past was riven from the future.

Farewell, Cowboy is set in Split, the kinda place tourists love to go to, but the narrative is about the natives, families who have lived there for generations. The majority of the novel (though not all) is from the first person perspective of a young woman, Dada. Dada’s younger brother killed himself several years ago, and she has recently (at a wild Zagreb party) seen a porn video hipsterishly projected on a wall that starred the creepy old man neighbour who may have been abusing her brother as a child. The faceless body he fucks from behind might be a young boy’s, she cannot tell, but she recognises the face and the voice of the man who is fucking. She packs her bags and leaves the city, rushing back to her hometown to investigate and confront, but there isn’t much to be found, much to be changed. There is no simple explanation for her brother’s suicide, and his death is only one of numerous violent deaths that have befallen boys of his generation in the city.

It’s a novel about the legacy of violence. It is understandable to seek something darker (something more unforgivable than war) to explain the death of a loved one, but Daniel’s death isn’t the result of abuse-caused trauma, it’s more complex than that. In the 1990s the Soviet bloc collapsed, Yugoslavia descended into bloody war, tourism flooded Croatia and with it came loads of international money. Sex tourism was and is a part of that, but also too is the presence of international media organisations who like to use Croatia as a filming location (eg Game of Thrones).

Savičević’s novel won major awards and it’s understandable why. There’s lots about escapism through film and TV and literature, as well as through partying and sex. When the people who make film and TV suddenly appear, it is impossible for many of the locals to deal with yet another shift in reality, and real violence arrives in a scenario where only pretended violence is anticipated. There’s also lots about the lure of death and the normalcy of violence that results from the ubiquitousness and jarring destruction caused by a civil war. Of course, Farewell, Cowboy seems to say, you’re gonna grow up wrong if bullets and bloodshed are familiar in childhood, of course the generation who just miss a war feel a confused sense of relief and shame: they are lucky that they missed the violence, but they’re also unlucky that they missed the opportunity to really find out who the fuck they are. (This opinion reeks of the influence of recently watching Westworld…)

I suppose the one way in which this book could be criticised is in its centring of the male narrative and male experience, despite it having a female protagonist and narrator (and, of course, author). Like her brother, Dada is traumatised and she is maladjusted, but rather than working through her problems, she chooses instead to explore someone else’s, and thus the novel does, too. Maybe the resolution’s implication is that Dada’s discovery that her brother’s friendship with the older pornographic actor was a curious inter-generational friendship is meant to show the emptiness of trying to heal others to heal ourselves? Maybe Dada will go on to happiness and to contentment, but not in Split and not in Zagreb. There is too much history in these places for her: too much has changed, but – also – not enough has either.

Dada is not nostalgic but maybe tries to convince herself that she is: the past cannot be returned to, Croatia before the war is gone, so is her brother, so are the animals and friends of that time, and so too are many of the buildings that have been bought, knocked down and replaced by luxury accommodation for the tourists. Lots of change, but not the change she needs.

Farewell, Cowboy is an intriguing, gently experimental novel about trauma, societal trauma. The Yugoslav Wars did a lot of damage, damage that will continue to be felt for a long time, as too – see also Quiet Flows The Una – will its literary aftershock.

Well worth a read.


Why not watch this episode of my unsuccessful web series, #TotNTV, where I travelled around the Balkans?

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