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Once Upon a Yugoslavia


1.
Is there something about Surya--then Norma--Green's life in 1968 that leads her to so readily answer "yes" to the opportunity for an internship in a communist country with a lifestyle for which she is totally unprepared? What is it about the year, the era, that makes her decision make sense, even if she herself can't quite articulate it at the time?

2.
The author's encounter with her first landlady, Svetlana, yields compelling exchanges between the two women on the American Way vs Tito's Third Way. Who is right? Is either right? Is the author as conditioned by the American Dream--failing to appreciate its drawbacks, such as  overconsumption--as Svetlana is by the dark sides of the socialist dream as implemented in Yugoslavia (e.g. suppression of dissident political voices)?

3.
Living in a society of few personal choices after growing up in a society in which choices are taken for granted leaves a deep impression on the author. Initially, the transition is, for her, not an easy one--it is "forced," even if the choice to go to Yugoslavia in the first place was hers. What is it that she finds hardest, and why, in the end, does she adapt? She observes that sometimes, we must be "forced" onto the path of new perspectives, of opening our minds to other possibilities. Have you been in comparable situations in your travels or on account of other life experiences?

4.
Comment on the author's relationship with Zelimir Matko and her other colleagues at Zagreb Film. Is she indeed being exploited by being overworked for little pay? If so, because she is a "Westerner," a woman, or both?

5.
Among the book's most moving episodes is that depicting the author's encounter with Herr Stern, who poses the author some hard questions about herself and her situation in Yugoslavia. What is it about this enigmatic man who, by revealing himself to be a deeply thinking, feeling human being, that forces the author, a young Jewish woman with family members who perished in the Holocaust, to reconsider her anti-German bias? Might Herr Stern be a former Nazi? Or perhaps Jewish, as the author wonders? Perhaps even a concentration camp survivor?

6.
What other characters stand out most for you? What roles do they play in the author's journey away from the confines of "her" American Dream? Comment on how the romance the author finds in Zabreb with Mario--who, as a Czech immigrant, is, in some respects, also an outsider—complicates the author’s decision to leave Yugoslavia.

7.
Once Upon a Yugoslavia
is much more than a memoir: its personal journey unfolds against the backdrop not only of the social revolution in America and Europe taking place in 1968, but also, more directly, against that of Yugoslavia and its history. What picture does the book paint of Marshall Tito and the events before, during, and after World War II that culminated in that country's unusual path in the communist era? That of a dictator? A war hero who, in his effort to transform his own society and resist both Stalinism and the capitalist West, made misguided decisions that ultimately, after his death, led to his country's implosion? Who was Milovan Djilas, and what does his fate in a country he helped build say about the ultimate legacy of Titoism?

8.
The author is impressed by the Workers’ Self-Management she witnesses in action at Zagreb Film--a system of worker ownership and workplace decision-making by employees, a form of direct participatory democracy with collective decision-making. In what ways does this system work, or not work, in Yugoslavia? What contemporary examples of experimentation with such workplace structures can you think of, whether in the United States or elsewhere? Have you or people you know been employed by companies or organizations where some elements of workers’ self-management were in practice? How, practically speaking, might they be introduced in a capitalist system such as that of the United States?

9.
What is the impact on the author's evolving perspective of her encounter with the pioneering documentary filmmaker John Grierson? What is the filmmaker's responsibility to his/her country, especially if the government of that country is--as was the case in Yugoslavia and was (and is) the case in Canada, where Grierson helped found the National Film Board of Canada--in the business of funding films?

10.
Yugoslavia in 1968 was, among other things, a Big-Brotherish "surveillance society." While the author herself was not literally followed about by agents of the state, she, the foreigner, often felt under observation, even as she walked about the streets of Zagreb and Belgrade, where locals, from day one, eyed her suspiciously. What lessons did she come away with that might be applicable to the "surveillance societies" we inhabit today, whether in the United States or Western Europe and beyond?

11.
Once Upon a Yugoslavia, while set in the historic year of 1968, is most timely--both for its themes of sustainable living and its premise that a more fair and just society is possible. What contemporary parallels can you think of--whether of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign or others?

12.
What does the concept of “success” mean to you--and how is this similar or not to the evolution of the author's thinking along this line in Once Upon a Yugoslavia? How has your concept of “success” changed over the years?

13.
What does “freedom” mean to you? “Without social equality and social justice,” the author writes in the book, “there is no freedom. Without personal freedom, there can be no equality and justice.” What does this statement mean to you? Do you consider yourself to be a “free” person? What does “slavery” mean to you? In what ways do you see yourself to be a “free” person and in which ways a “slave”?


The Upright Heart

1.
As replete with suffering as its story is, The Upright Heart is much more than yet another sad tale of war, of the Holocaust. Its lyrical prose, its intimations of healing and reconciliation, and its moments of romantic love exude a strange ecstasy. As one reader has observed, it shows that “even in the midst of the most appalling atrocities that man has committed against man, there is hope, love, kindness, and beauty alongside the pain, horror, and loss.”

  • How did you perceive this “dual” nature of the story, this delicate intertwining of the unsettling and the uplifting?

  • Does The Upright Heart convey, through one country’s experience of war and its aftermath, something of the totality of the human experience?

2.
Why the title The Upright Heart? Discuss the significance of the heart--of love--in this novel.

3.
“We are all called Sarah,” the book begins. Why are the girls all called Sarah?

4.
Throughout, we encounter the spirits of the dead—or, more precisely, those souls yet to find eternal peace. As haunting as it is on the one hand, however, is The Upright Heart a “ghost story”? Magic realism? An elusive subgenre of literary fiction generally?

5.
There are no easy dividing lines here. As one reader has observed, “The voices of the living and the dead are given equal weight, and the narrations slip effortlessly between the two, as well as across timelines. Before, during, and after the war meld into one.”

In this light, can the book’s ghosts be seen metaphorically--as suggesting that in a land that has undergone such conflict and suffering, the living (even those who seek to forget or obliterate the past) necessarily inhabit a landscape in which the past is, in fact, ever present?

6.
Comment on the image of a devastated, postwar Poland that emerges through so many evocative passages. How does this image compare to other landscapes you yourself have experienced, visited, or heard about that conjure up past collective traumas, whether elsewhere in the world (e.g. Auschwitz, Hiroshima, hints of past devastation in cities like Dresden and Berlin) or closer to home (e.g. the World Trade Center site)?

7.
Alongside the chief narrative thread--the return to Poland of the Brooklyn-based Jewish man, Wolf--the book weaves together a rich fabric of other subplots, from that of Rachelka and the other Sarahs in the school to Wiktor and his family, the fallen German soldiers in limbo, an orphan boy, Olga, Anna and Maryna, and a dog.

  • Which of these stories linger in you the most?
  • How do they come together as one even as the narrative perspective shifts?
  • How did you navigate these shifts?

8.
  • How is Wolf received in Poland on his return?
  • What about his appearance marks him as an outsider?
  • Is it, in fact, his foreignness that doesn’t sit so well with some locals--or their impression that he is the sort of insider they would rather not face again, a face of a painful past, a “face that has come back to haunt them”?

9.
The Upright Heart goes further than any similarly themed novel in recent memory to reconcile the stories of people conventionally imagined as on opposite sides of a country’s, a region’s cultural-religious divide--Jews and Christians (i.e. Roman Catholics in the Polish context), onetime foes (Germans and Poles). For example, after his death the Polish Roman Catholic railway worker, Wiktor, after his death goes on to act as a guide for a group of fallen German soldiers and then as a protector for Wolf, a Jew. And then there is the story of Wolf and his Roman Catholic lover.

In doing so, does The Upright Heart suggest that recognition of this intertwining of lives is a necessary step on the path to healing?

10.
Are the orphan boy and Anna the book’s two most resilient living characters? They do both exude something akin to optimism despite their losses. Though hungry and on his own, the nameless young boy whom Wolf  takes under his wing has a “magic pill” that makes everything better, and he seeks to share it, “because it is important to share, because I can see that you need rescuing, too.” In similar fashion, as one reader has observed, “Anna uses her imagination to escape the horror of her existence where she felt ‘like a cloistered witness to the end of a world,’ and the guilt of her survival.”

11.
One reader has observed that The Upright Heart unfolds “in varying shades of gray, through a metaphorical mist. If the book is ever filmed, it cannot be done in color.”

Do you agree? Why or why not?

12.
Why did Wolf leave behind Olga, his Roman Catholic lover? Was it right of him to do so even if he was following his parents’ hopes of a better life for him in America?

13.
The Upright Heart is a multilayered book that can be read again and again, its nuances revealed more with each reading. Which of its motifs left you either desiring more clarity or else savoring the mystery? Can you, for example, explain the significance of the feather? The black bird?

14.
What to make of the ending? Is it the culmination of the theme of reconciliation, suggesting that there is indeed hope for the future?

15.
  • What similar books can you think of? Discuss the similarities and differences.
  • How is The Upright Heart similar to, and different from, what we generally think of as “Holocaust” fiction?

The Color of Smoke

1.
The Color of Smoke is "fiction"--or is it? Is it more memoir? Or sociology? Or a singular blend of all three? Its rich chronicling of the details of Romani life is something to behold--the work of a writer (and sociologist) who did extensive research while also drawing on the memory of his own, World War II-era boyhood. And yet The Color of Smoke is also a work of great passion, with passages of extraordinarily lyrical prose, with profound contemplation of suffering and, more generally, of the human condition. 


How do these two aspects of the novel--its documentary impulse on the one hand, and its literary, artistic impulse on the other--come together? Or not?


2.
The book has many fans in its native land, including numerous non-Romani Hungarians who regard it as among their favorite novels for its power to sweep them into all the richness of an otherwise inaccessible world. Literary comparisons have been inevitable. Some have called The Color of Smoke a "Gypsy One Hundred Years of Solitude"--both for its sweeping vision of the world of a marginalized people and its elements of magic realism--and others have drawn parallels with Toni Morrison's work. 


What other novels does The Color of Smoke remind you of--in particular, books that provide "insider's views" of the lives and concerns of marginalized peoples? Comment on the similarities and differences.


3.
How is the magic realism in The Color of Smoke different from that in, say, works by Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers--apart from the fact that there is not as much of it? Is it really "magic"? Or, rather, is Lakatos--through the lens of a relatively educated, first-person narrator who looks at his own people just as dispassionately as he does passionately--suggest that as mysterious as life can be, power is to be had in knowledge, in being able (as the narrator is) to separate truth from fiction (including much of the myths and lore that otherwise bind a community)?


4.
As steeped in history as the novel is--set during World War II, with fascism gathering force in Hungary and the Holocaust underway--The Color of Smoke is also astoundingly ahistorical, with hardly a mention of its era, of time, and with even news of the war raging in the world outside reaching the settlement's inhabitants only well into the novel.

Three questions in this regard:
  • Why does Lakatos chronicle the protagonist's life and that of his community with so little reference to the goings on in the world at large? Does this work for you, or would you have preferred more historical reference points? (Bear in mind that he was writing initially for an audience of Hungarian readers all too aware of the ravages of WWII on their country. That being said, the Holocaust, in whose shadow this novel unfolds, was not exactly a topic of much public, officially sanctioned discussed in 1975, when the original, Hungarian edition was first published. Might that be why he didn't address that topic more specifically? Or was he in fact seeking to chronicle the everyday socio-political circumstances in the life of a community and its relation with mainstream society that lay the foundations for such a tragedy?)
  • How would the book had been different had he chosen an omniscient narrator--rather than the young boy on his way to adolescence, largely oblivious to current events much beyond his community?
  • Does the book have a power, an authenticity, precisely because it zeroes in on the boy--thus avoiding some pitfalls that might have come with an omniscient narrator?
5.
The harassment the narrator, his friends, and other Roma experience at the hands of the gendarmes--Hungary's national police force in the years before and during World War II--is eerily reminiscent of contemporary news of police harassment of African Americans in the United States. How are they much the same? Different? Discuss specific incidents and how the narrator responds. Might he respond differently, less antagonistically at times to the gendarmes? Or is he compelled by social circumstances and by the need to survive to do as he does?


6.
There is irony in the narrator's referring to his settlement as the “Gypsy Paris.” His is, after all, a rural community of those excluded from (Hungary’s) mainstream society--the poorest of the poor. Not quite Paris. And yet it is their home--a home they "love," for better or for worse.
  • How do the lives of the people in this settlement differ from that of the world outside?
  • In what ways do they interact with that wider world, and what are some of the consequences--good and bad?
7.
The narrator's first sexual experiences and their immediate aftermath, on the estate, comprise the novel's most shocking episode--and it is a long, page-turning one, at the heart of the book.

Is the narrator, for all his education--his ability to reflect upon himself and his people--nonetheless no different than other men in his community once he reaches sexual maturity? No sooner does he lose his virginity than he slaps his "wife," find himself sleeping with other women (and blaming them), and stealing women's money.


8.
Who are the book's most compelling, most powerful women characters? Those the narrator respects, such as his grandmother and mother? Or "fallen" women like Baldush? More questions on this theme:
  • Notwithstanding the harsh treatment some of the novel's men exhibit toward women, is there a sort of gender balance in this particular Romani community that might be absent in mainstream society? In what ways are women also powerful?
  • Does the narrator, once he reaches adolescence and is "married," suddenly turn from a respecter of women to a male chauvinist, an abuser? What to make of his apparent sensitivity, for example, in his willingness to listen to Baldush's sad story of prostitution and genital mutilation?
  • How does the narrator's behavior toward his own mother change once he goes to school and, then, begins to feel like a "man"? Is he right to challenge her?
9.
What would the Roma in the world depicted in this novel be without their horses? Beyond conjuring up memories of a mythical, nomadic past, horses are a livelihood for many in the era in which the novel is set. And yet what to make of the fact that horses are simultaneously revered and regarded as a commodity to be sold to the gullible using all the tricks of the trade, such as making sick horses seem healthy, old horses seem young? 

10.
In what ways is the world the narrator discovers in school appealing? Repelling? Why is he drawn to this world? It is, after all, a place where he, as a Romani, experiences humiliation he would not at home, in the confines of his settlement. Related questions:
  • Does the knowledge he narrator acquires in school and from books ultimately help him or his community? What incidents stand out most in this respect?
  • What non-Romani Hungarians--including teachers--does the narrator meet who seem tolerant, accepting of others--and who consequently might not fare well, either, as fascism takes the nation in its grips?
11.
How does the world of written law--mainstream society's law--collide in the novel with that of the kris, or (unwritten) Romani law? Comment on the different ways in which the book's younger Romani characters perceive the kris (and the degree to which they are bound by it) and those in which older people do--for example, in the culmination of the battle scene as the narrator and his friend, on horseback, do battle with other Romanis.


12.
In one of the book's most illuminating scenes, when a gentlemen's hunting club employs the narrator and other Romani boys to help them drive game, a drunken man, a school principal, shoots the narrator for a laugh--he does not see the Romani boy as a human being. The boy survives, and the man, to avoid criminal prosecution, offers the family a deal: he will arrange for the boy to be admitted to high school. At first the boy is not enthused, and initially his father appears too proud to accept such a "pay-off," but his mother urges them to accept. The narrator does then end up going to school--and becomes the settlement's most educated member. 

Was his family right to accept the deal offered? Or would they have been better advised to retain their self-respect? Did they have a viable alternative, such as pressing charges against the principal?


13.
School vacations come, and with them the narrator's life changes profoundly--especially in the summer when he is finally fully in the throes of puberty. Comment on the novel's shift from being a "school story" and a work of literary social criticism to being an erotic Bildungsroman and an adventure tale.


14.
Comment on how the socio-political atmosphere changes at school--on the increasing xenophobia (anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsyism) the narrator perceives--and how his clash with a young fascist finally culminates in his having to leave school. Recall the sad fate of another Romani boy from his settlement whom the narrator had encourage to go to school.

15.
What to make of the novel's ending--when we are confronted, all at once, with the first explicit suggestion of the Holocaust--which, in its manifestation as it affected the Romani, is known to them as the Porajmos? The protagonist and his community are being herded onto a train for deportation--but where to? To a forced labor camp in Hungary or a concentration camp abroad?
  • Trace the trajectory of the  circumstances throughout the book that have led them to this point.
  • Would the ending have been more satisfying, or less, had Lakatos specified their specific fate?