April Fool’s Day makes for a tough novel

Hopefully you haven’t been pranked yet today. Or at least the joke was more innocent fun than the practical jokes occurring in the house I’m visiting for spring break. Without getting into sordid details, suffice it to say that the teenage antics here have the mom, a doctor, thrilled to be out on call delivering babies.

People always speculate that it must be terrible to be born on Christmas day, but what must it be like to born an April fool? In Josip Novakovich’s novel April Fool’s Day, the main character is brought into the world on this inauspicious day. Because his parents didn’t want him to be perceived a fool his whole life, they recorded his birth as April 2.

The scheme didn’t work. Ivan is an awkward, at times cruelly intelligent, deeply unfunny character who is nonetheless, a perfect fool. He grows up in an unforgiving time in Yugoslavia. A few decades before the civil war, tensions build between Serbs and Croats. As a young man Ivan is sent to a prison labour camp for uttering threats against the dictator Tito. Years later, when set free, Ivan is drafted into the Yugoslavian army — made up of Serbians slaying his fellow Croats.

Forced to kill many Croats, he isn’t a character who is able to resist or to rise above the atrocities. Given a choice to die or to shoot an innocent man, he fires. As in all the other decisions leading up to this point, Ivan’s actions aren’t the stuff great heros are made of. Fools, certainly.

At times, it’s hard to invest enough interest in this character who is so thoroughly unlikeable. He is sullen, rude and unable to forge true friendships. Even his own mother doesn’t particularly care for him. After the war, Ivan gets married to a woman who has no other options. When he suffers a major stroke, a doctor is called in but Ivan is so forgettable that his wife and the doctor are having sex as the death certificate is being signed.

But somehow this book stuffed with equally unlikeable characters is thoroughly engaging. Novakovich’s writing is clear; his voice unique bordering on eccentric. His sharp descriptions, and especially his bizarre denouement, are unlike any other I’ve read.

As you may have guessed, April Fool’s Day is also darkly, even wickedly, funny. Novakovich writes so well, you wonder whether given the same overwhelming heap of hopeless options, any of us of us would act better than the broken, drunken and damaged fools in his story.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton. allenh@telus.net