April Fool's Day, the debut novel by acclaimed Croatian-American writer Josip Novakovich, recounts the life of Ivan Dolinar, a Croat born into Tito's Yugoslavia on April Fool's Day, 1948. His aspiration to become a doctor is derailed when he is condemned to break rocks in a labor camp for allegedly desiring Tito's assassination. Later he is conscripted into the Serbian army to kill Croats. The word absurd does not even begin to describe his fate: Ivan becomes a murderer, a cuckold, an adulterer, a rapist, a thief. But his actions have so little enthusiasm that he is less a monster than a marionette, tugged by historical forces while the moral void of war yawns below.

The author's depiction of a disintegrating Yugoslavia is bleak indeed, and its people seem alive only when under the influence of slivovitz (a Slavic brandy), jealousy or ethnic hatred. Violence is spontaneous and gratuitous, as is sex, while officialdom can always be counted on to lower the moral common denominator. Hope, meanwhile, takes curious if not perverse forms: Ivan trying to raise his daughter according to the principles of American textbooks, or his brother Bruno escaping to Germany for a life as lucrative as it is stultifying.

Novakovich conveys a sense that, despite everything, one should soldier on. Though Ivan never attains anything approaching religious clarity, the novel's conclusion turns upon the idea found also in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which the novel resembles in some ways that death's inevitability should be cause for levity, not gloom. Novakovich's prose is rich without being ostentatious, with humor occasionally so dry that it crackles. April Fool's Day fulfills that basic criterion of good art: it elevates the undeniable sloppiness of life to something like grandeur. And it further confirms that the best literature often arises out of humanity's darkest times.

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