Reviewed by Sue Bond
Ivan: from Adriatic to Pacific
by Coral Petkovich
Glass House Books
2008. ISBN 9781876819750. $30.
This is the story of Ivan Antulich, a Croatian man born in 1935, whose childhood was marked by the onslaught of war. ‘He had seen death many times in his short life and every time he was afraid’, Coral Petkovich writes, after describing his seeing a group of people in an air raid bunker, all of them dead. The destruction of his world shocked him: ‘everywhere ruins, rubbish, desolation, as though no one lived there any more, no one cared. They were all caught up in the fight for survival, the eternal search for food, often for shelter’. Air raid sirens were constant, so that ‘Ivan had lost count of the number of times they had rushed for safety in the middle of the night’.
Petkovich describes one terrifying night of sudden bombing with no warning:
The loud roar of the planes, the whine of falling bombs, that terrible moment when it seemed the nearest one would fall right on top of them; then the explosion and sounds of destruction, breaking, snapping, collapsing. It went on and on, Ivan screaming hysterically…
The author of this fictionalised biography writes well, with clarity and simplicity. It is her late husband she is describing, but Coral Petkovich takes the position of omniscient narrator, writing a novelisation of Ivan’s life based on stories he told to her, and ‘general family knowledge’. In the foreword, she tells the reader that she reconstructed surrounding detail, and changed the names. The childhood of Ivan is the most interesting because, as suggested by the quotations above, it gives the reader an understanding of the trauma that survivors of the war experienced. Ivan lived with fear and death all around. He lost friends and realises that anyone could be killed at any time. His parents were sometimes physically violent towards the children, and each other, and Petkovich shows Ivan growing gradually distant from them because of this.
The telling of his adult life is not as compelling as that of his childhood, as there seems to be little development in his inner self. Indeed, Petkovich notes late in the book that Ivan never liked being introspective. Was it because of his traumatic early experiences that he rarely formed deeper friendships, knowing and being admired by many people, but not having many close friends? His wife notes that ‘[a]nyone disagreeing with him was just being difficult, or worse, was showing they were against him personally and was being disloyal’. Very tellingly, and sadly, he also believed that if you think ‘the worst of someone…you don’t run the risk of being disappointed’. He tried to escape from Croatia more than once as a young man in the late 1950s. On the second attempt, with adventure, he finally reached Australia. This is where he met and married Clair (Petkovich), began a family, and started establishing clubs and cafes, moving on when he became bored and found another venture more interesting. They moved between Australia and Croatia, but Ivan was restless and unsatisfied and seemingly disappointed with others and with his situation; there was always someone to ‘take the edge off his pleasure’.
Ivan was a patriarchal, controlling man. Life seemed to be centred around his own needs and desires, with everyone else coming second, even when it came to caring for his family. He cared for them his way, without asking what choices they might have made, and expected them to be grateful for what he did for them. Further sadness lay in his inability to understand why they were not grateful, and why he should not try to control other peoples’ lives. He did not understand why Clair would not want to go back to work after having a baby, or that she might have needed help with housework, or felt homesick for Australia and her parents. He believed that women in Australia ‘had too many rights’. Indeed, the book ends with ‘he died not really understanding himself or those around him’. And this lack of insight is partly the reason that, despite the fact Ivan had energy, ambition, zest for life, and worked hard, my interest in him waned as the story progressed. Without that inner life coming to the fore, without more psychological depth, he comes across as self-centred, bullying, and insufferably sexist. The author hints at these problems, but she needs to have explored them more deeply to bring out the special character of Ivan that drove her to write this book.
About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane with her partner and their large cat. She writes reviews for the Courier Mail, Metapsychology Online, Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, dotlit, Asian Review of Books and Social Alternatives. Some of her short stories have been published in Hecate, Imago, Mangrove and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has degrees in medicine, literature and creative writing. She is working on a memoir of her adoptive life, as well as short stories and essays. Her blog is at http://geckowriting.blogspot.com