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Nina Bunjevac resurrects her father’s shadowy, violent past in Fatherland

Bunjevac gives readers the impression of experiencing history untouched and direct.

Nina Bunjevac
Jonathan Cape
160 pages

After a series of hilariously melodramatic short comics, the final story in Nina Bunjevac's previous book, Heartless, comes to a strange, disquieting halt. In an eerily photorealist style, scrubbed of the cartoonish exaggeration that lent comedy to her lovelorn tales, Bunjevac draws a handsome man assembling a bomb in a basement in 1977, while his estranged daughter addresses him from the present, condemning the bigotry she sees rampant in Serbian patriotism. The action is hallucinatory, almost horrific: a black cat stalks the shadows, a half-naked avatar of the daughter presides over protesters spitting hate speech, a timer clicks gradually closer to zero. In the end, father holds daughter, tenderly, moments before his bomb detonates. What exactly went on here?

In her moving new graphic memoir, Fatherland, the cartoonist reveals the personal history obscured by that cryptic explosion. In a Toronto garage in 1977, Bunjevac's father died in the process of manufacturing bombs, along with the other members of his Serbian royalist cell who'd planned to use the devices against parties sympathetic to Tito's communist rule in the former Yugoslavia. The artist, then a toddler, was living with her mother in the old country: it's only now, through her cartooning, that she can imagine a rapprochement between father and daughter like the embrace that ends her previous book. That attempt at reconciliation extends across the whole of Fatherland, as Bunjevac tries to come to terms with her father's shadowy, violent past, the national schisms that shaped him, and the scars that both fatherhood and fatherland leave on her family.

Bunjevac takes a dual approach to this reckoning. On one hand, she relies on the historical record, a linear account of the important dates and leaders that helped to define what Yugoslavia was, while on the other she creates a more intimate chronicle of her family's life. Throughout, the author refracts the official, straightforward version of national history through the lens of that history's domestic and little seen counterpart – the kind that unfolds in kitchens and living rooms.

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To introduce the paternal and pro patria thrust of her book, Bunjevac begins with a story of mothers and daughters. This first half of Fatherland is the book's strongest and most anguished. It foregrounds Bunjevac's mother's experience, detailing the fraught period that transpired between fleeing her husband's furtive movements in Ontario and learning from afar of his demise. Her family finds prickly refuge back home in Yugoslavia, where discussion of politics and history overwhelms even haircuts, birthday parties, and evening chats with Mum. It's through these smaller moments that the life of the nation – and the legacy of the father's actions – leaves its impact not just in the history books, but also on the faces and gestures of this broken family, whose expressions the artist catalogues in compassionate, observant drawing.

The book's back half belongs to the father through and through. Imagining his past and his politics is visibly more difficult for Bunjevac, not only because his complicated life refuses easy explication – he's shown at once to be a hard-working father and a danger to his family, a nationalist and a dissident, a sadist and a lost boy – but also because the intricacies of strife in the region prove so tough to unravel.

This part of the story is more impersonal than the early goings, overburdened with contextual information, told with maps, portraits, and large chunks of explanatory text. But it's also where Bunjevac deploys her most startling wordless sequences, which convey so much that the historical record can't possibly express: the look of hunger in the eyes of a child during wartime, the loneliness of exile, the ugliness of ideologues.

To the extent that this section succeeds, it's because Bunjevac's almost inhuman skill with a pen is such that her drawings move seamlessly between history and imagination, between the truth that's conveyed in photography and the life that's conjured up in the act of cartooning. Her queasy brand of realism – in which each black and white image is lit like an expressionist horror film, familiar in its contours but itchily crosshatched and pointillist in its details – is something new in non-fiction comics.

In Maus, where Nazis are cats and Jews are mice, Art Spiegelman famously used funny-animal metaphor to try to distil some of history's complexity, while Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis turned to images as abstract as icons to portray her life following Iran's revolution, and more recently Carol Tyler employed a luscious, lyricized line to represent her father's WWII service in You'll Never Know. These artists transformed the memories and material before them – simplifying here, elaborating there. But Nina Bunjevac gives readers the impression of experiencing history untouched and direct, brought haltingly to life from the pages of textbooks, or the frames of newsreels.

From panel to panel, it's as though Bunjevac resurrects the past, freeing it from its unchanging fate as recorded in photos and documents. Thanks to the preternatural quality of the drawing, Fatherland becomes more of an exorcism than a history – a way for Bunjevac to envision her father cut free from his country, and delivered back into the arms of his family at last.

Sean Rogers is The Globe and Mail's comics critic.

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