‘Serbien können wir eh nicht entkommen.’ A review of Die guten Tage by Marko Dinić

Marko Dinić is angry. Or rather, his narrator is. To assume that author and narrator are one and the same is a cardinal error, yet given the plot devices and narrative structure of Die guten Tage, I think that the reader would be forgiven for at least wondering. Yet whether Dinić does or does not equate to the first-person narrator of his debut novel – or, alternatively, the young man’s mysterious travel companion and interlocutor – is ultimately irrelevant. Even without this knowledge, Die guten Tage is a blistering account of a life lived between states, and a bright new constellation in the firmament of diaspora literature.

Dinić, who was born in Vienna and grew up in Belgrade before returning to the city of his birth, where he now lives and writes, made quite a literal choice when it came to choosing a vehicle for the subject he wanted to tackle in his novel. Die guten Tage (in English The Good Days) largely takes place on a bus – known as the Gastarbeiterexpress, or ‘Guest Workers’ Express’, it shuttles back and forth between Austria and Serbia on a daily basis. On this bus is a young man, returning to Belgrade for the first time in ten years to attend the funeral of his grandmother, who was seemingly the only member of his family he actually liked and instrumental in his self-imposed exile in the first place. Having last heard her locking the door behind him when he left for a new life in Vienna, he is now faced with the prospect of burying her without ever having expressed his thanks or affection.

Even if he had had the opportunity, though, I got the sense that Dinić’s narrator would never have come close to uttering such platitudes. This is a young man who has been toughened beyond all measure by his childhood, who freely admits ‘I don’t love anyone now’. Whether it was bombs falling on Belgrade; rough city school days riddled with episodes of bullying, bunking off, smoking pot and underage drinking; or his deeply troubled relationship with his father, the narrator is highly aware of – even proud of the fact – that life has not been kind to him. Every sentence is shot through with bitter disappointment and a sense of deeply entrenched injustice.

This kind of tone could easily become wearing over the course of 230-odd pages, but the fact that it didn’t is due to Dinić’s sensitive handling of a deeply complex subject and his innate understanding of human nature. In all the narrator’s unrelenting hatred of both his homeland and his father – which are conflated in part due to the father’s job as a civil servant and support of Milošević – we come to decipher a deep sense of lost-ness. The very fact that he is in a bus travelling back towards his childhood home means that the narrator has to confront a truth he has been trying to resist: no matter how far you run or how little you look back, it is impossible to erase where you come from.

Having so thoroughly turned his back on his country of birth, the young man has still found himself being pulled towards it again by a sense of obligation, the power of the past, or perhaps a bit of both. At the same time, while trying to build a new life in Vienna, he finds himself surrounded by reminders of the past: fellow immigrants who speak the same language, shops and restaurants selling Balkan food, attitudes that remind him of his father or teenage friends. The end result is, of course, that he is lost somewhere between these two worlds, hating his past but unable to fit in to what he would like to be his future. ‘Serbien können wir eh nicht entkommen,’ he says despairingly at one point. ‘We can’t escape Serbia anyway.’The endless-seeming bus ride is symbolic of this: a long, dark journey on which the passengers are suspended in a sort of between-borders limbo.

Diaspora literature is an important genre and one that I think will only gain traction as our world becomes increasingly fragmented and porous. To read Die guten Tage is to be unsettled by a searing portrayal of a state all humans fear: alienation. Whether geographical or emotional, this is a topic that is extraordinarily difficult to confront, and especially to confront well. Dinić has proved himself more than equal to the task, getting under the skin of a grating me-against-the-world character and portraying his life in a series of visceral images that at times are enough to turn the stomach. To find out what happens when the narrator reaches Belgrade, you’ll need to read the book, but I was pleased to find it in keeping with the rest of the novel: there is not a hint of reconciliation or banal resolution.

Published in 2019, Die guten Tage is relatively new on the German literature scene and has yet to make it into English – although this is a job I would love to do. Tackling themes of migration, statelessness and family divisions, it is a novel that holds relevance for just about any European country – and, I would dare say, for Britain in particular. Highly recommended for translation and for any German reader to pick up right now.

My rating: 4.5/5

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