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Wars are waged and war novels are written. Seldom are they written about small, out-of-the-way places or non-heroic people,  unknown beyond their own town.  A big novel needs a big event or a big city: London, Paris, Berlin, Stalingrad, Moscow, Hiroshima.  Named “theaters,” or places with strange or punishing topography will do: the Western Front, Guadalcanal, the Beaches of Normandy, North Africa.  If a small town get the attention of a story-teller it is because of the weight and enormity of what took place in their vicinity: Auschwitz, Babi Yar, Wounded Knee, Antietam.

But Novi Sad?  Where is that? What war? What happened to those who lived there? To whom might it matter? Are there stories to be told about small out-of-the-way places where the nearest large city is known in name only, where shop keepers, cart-drivers and housewives of different nationalities and languages live together, intermarry, are busy getting ready for the winter if they are not getting ready for the spring? Is there a linkage between warriors and their storytellers, each striving to be known and remembered by the most people for the longest number of years?  Does the lack of stories about small towns and out-of-the-way places, unknown except to its residents, contribute to a sense we readers get that war only happen in big battles in named, heroic spots, not in “my little town” and not my concern?

The Use of Man, (1976), by Aleksander Tišma,is the second of a war-time trilogy.

The Book of Blam (1971) is the first of the trilogy, in which a survivor of the Hungarian occupation of Novi Sad walks along the former Jew Street in Novi Sad, and remembers; a modern-day retelling of the Book of Job.

The Use of Man was 1976, followed by Kapo (1987) which takes place in Banja Luka, a town now well known from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It is based on the true story of a Croatian Jew, raised as a Catholic, who turned torturer to survive. Tišma found the threads of his story about Vilko Lamian, the protagonist, in a German book that detailed the testimony of Nazi commandants at the Auschwitz chemical factory. 

These are not the only work Tišma has produced. Although not all have been translated to English, a fairly complete bibliography is on his Wiki Page.[/efn_note] all of which take place in and around Novi Sad (“New Orchard” in Serbian) in then Yugoslavia, now Serbia, the largest town in the Vojvodina region, north of Belgrade. In April of 1941, when Tišma was thirteen, Axis troops – German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian– poured across the borders and divided up the area: one sector occupied by Hungary, one by the newly founded Croatian fascist state, and the rest under German control.  Born to a Serbian father and Jewish-Hungarian mother, and too young to be conscripted, Tišma was sent to Belgrade as a student, the safest place for a young Jew, though his Jewishness was more evident to the occupiers than to his family.


If the human population in this part of the world were soil and stone they would be called a sedimentary melange, swept in from every corner, layered over earlier imports, tossed and tumbled, compressed until certainty about origins and cellular makeup is all but impossible.  Early in the novel, we get a signal of this:

“The Germans were the enemies of his people… German immigrants had usurped the most fertile land…from the Serbs and on it built huge houses, which they filled with their own progeny … Lazukić, too, was a newcomer, but from Serbia.  Not only did he not understand German, but he could not conceive that that harshly guttural language could be pronounced without shame … he was also irritated by Hungarian, a more widely used language there…

Vera Kroner, as a young girl, sweet on her Serbian neighbor Milinko Božić, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a German mother.  Her uncle, Sep Lehnart,  her mother’s brother, is a soldier in the German army, who as the war comes, talks at length to his Robert Kroner, his brother-in-law, Vera’s father, Jewish.

“…the Jewish hydra in the shape of the merchant Solomon Heim ensnared (him) in its web, to squeeze him dry and drag him down the vile slavery of the god Mammon, the filthy god of money, of Wall Street, of Jerusalem, the god of the rabbis.”

Kroner listens, horrified.  He firmly believes that the Germans will lose the war,

“…but now he understood that that would not save him from the steam roller of their insanity. The insanity was already rolling; Sep was its herald; tomorrow it would burst into this town, into this house.”

War, in all its volcanic displacements, melts and transforms not only villages but human beings. The corrosive ideas of “purification through war” descends on Lehnart.  He has,

“… the unpleasant presentiment  that when the army had finished its bloody work , there would still be enough people left to lie around in those houses, to light fires, cook, wash, and clean, and do all those unwarlike things that diminish the vital forces and distract them from the march to victory.”
“He felt an impatient urge to kill.  The hands that moved back and forth beside him as he walked shook with the desire to clench someone’s throat; his index finger quivered to pull a trigger.”

Young Gerhard Kroner, Vera’s brother, loses his structure like the smashed metal of artillery shells

“The more brutality the Jews were persecuted and the greater humiliations they suffered, the more bitterly Gerhard despised them. It was as if all the Christian prejudices he had made his own, while still belonging to the Jewish faith.

Reza Kroner, Robert’s wife and Vera and Gerhard’s mother, a young German immigrant,  had worked for the Kroner family when Robert was young.  On a visit to a brothel as an adult he encounters her and they are married.  In the autumn of 1944 after several years of occupation, her husband and daughter having been taken to the camps and her son not seen since he joined the partisans, and as the Germans are being pushed out, moves with a German shopkeeper to Frankfurt.

“German citizens are climbing into carts, Just as the Jews climbed into carts half a year ago.

Gerhard, a “nice Jewish boy” finds himself lusting for battle and vengeance.  He

“questioned his uncle (Sep) ardently about the life of a soldier–the marches, the battles, what it felt like to wound or kill a man. Sep answered, but less willingly that he would have to a stranger or to someone he hated, for he knew that his words were filled with images too strong, too full of terror and temptation for a person as young as his nephew. He did his best to avoid telling him of the more gruesome scenes of war, emphasizing the humorous episodes, such as misunderstandings with the locals in Ukrainian village.”

And worse, Gerhard

” … felt that something was missing in his character.  His inability to shed blood seemed like some kind of physical defect that made him inferior to other people.  It was the defect of whole generations of his people, who regarded a soldier’s trade as a waste of time, something that the Christian, who had a country of his own, might do, but not the wandering Jew.  Suddenly he felt contempt for that people who–like himself, as an individual– trembled at the thought of taking a revolver from its holster and emptying it into the enemy’s heart.
Stinking, cowardly vermin!  He hissed to himself, against the people to whom he belonged, in the very words of Sep Lehnart: stinking cowardly vermin, who deserved to be killed, since they themselves were unable to kill.” 

A whole generation shifts and overturns:

“After the tremendous shock caused by the senseless, wholesale killing, the young people, previously pacifists, slipped into the opposite extreme. The crimes committed against them and their like freed them from responsibility. Forgetting the ghastly gaping mouth of the people who had been hanged, they began to speak of them as simple fools who had not taken seriously enough the frenzied armored troops. … Everyone now talked of rifles and revolvers, even couples holding each other close in doorways.”

Even when the war comes to an end, it is not yet peace.  Vera returns from a concentration camp to find her old home occupied and old neighbors avoiding her.  She is able to visit her mother in Frankfurt but, with a Communist administration now in charge, the paper work is endless, and fraught.  She finds work at the Post Office but attempts to answer the detailed biographical questions on the application to join the Young Communist League defeat her.

“This was camp too, she realized, a continuation of camp, the camp in which she had been walled for a year and a half.  The war had ended but she had not escaped; her former captors, drowned in blood, even in death, stretched out their arms to her…”

Eventually, let go from work for unexplained absences she drifts into night-time liaisons, some paid for, some not.  Simply because.


As Charles Simic writes in a review of The Use of Man,

“The heroes of the age… are not its winners, but those who bear its wounds.  He writes about the private lives of people at the mercy of historical events beyond their control, the choices they did or did not make, victims and killers, both of whom he sees clearly, neither judging them nor forgiving them”

For all of its undeniable power, and compassionate, if detached, observations, The Use of Man may not be an easy read for those who don’t enjoy the challenge of time-travel, putting dates in order that are scattered through the sequence of pages.  Vera returns from the camp before we know she has gone away; Milinko dies of war wounds before we know who he is or what relation he has to anyone;  the red diary of the German teacher opens the novel and disappears until the closing pages, a sort of a framing device, but like the narrator’s observations, curiously detached from that within.

As the novel opens Anna (“Fraulein”) is buying the diary,  It is the mid-nineteen-thirties “as the first German refugees began to arrive.”  She is a teacher of German who has come to Novi Sad in search of a dream and has found none.  As she is about to die of kidney disease she asks Vera Kroner, a favorite student, to retrieve the journal and burn it.  Retrieved, it is not burned.  As the war begins its march into the area, it is forgotten among other books on Vera’s shelves.  She and her father and grandmother are sent to a concentration camp. Robert is shot on the way when he refuses to keep walking. Grandmother is separated from Vera and sent to the gas.  Vera, young and attractive is spared, in a Nazi officer’s brothel.  Sredoje Lazukic’, a former student of Fraulein Anna and classmate of Vera’s, now a Serbian partisan and loyal Young Communist after several years as a Nazi, finds the journal on a visit to the ruined Kroner home.  When by chance they meet, after the armistice,  their connection to the writer of the journal, as her students, draws them together.  What they read in it has no relevance to their war years –it ends before the war begins–  except to remind them that there was a time before the war which they shared, however remotely, as surfacing object might recall a ship on which they had been, gone down.  They burn in  “leaving behind nothing by ashes and cinders.”

Perhaps the diary has secondary function, beyond marking the before and after of the war-suffering in Novi Sad.  Several of the novel’s chapters read like notes one would write in a journal, in preparation for writing a novel: “Habitations, ” ” Evening Separation,” “Bodies,”  are essentially observational notes or ideas from which an author might draw. Something in his own preparation for the novel may have been tied to such a diary. 

The translation from Serbian by Bernard Johnson, except for one question, presents an English both colloquial and yet located in its time and place.  Tisma’s images startle, as intended: “portents of disaster crept around the Kroner house like rodents;” “”their unspoken thoughts came together like roads that intersect, like fingers that intertwine…”  The small disturbance, for me, is the title.  “The Use of Man,” doesn’t sound quite right.  Ordinarily, we would say ‘the uses of man,’ the uses of trucks,” the uses of sugar…’ in the plural.  Although Google translate has the original Serbian as it is rendered, ‘the use of..’ I’d be curious how it is really understood in the original, as for example, how man is used; ‘what man is good for;’ ‘the utility of man?’  It’s a small point, but one which I can’t quite get rid of.

Another curious stylistic turn is that all but one chapter is written in third person omniscient; the narrator knows all, and tells all from a somewhat elevated distance.  Though he makes us privy to thoughts, we do not stop for intimate sharing. Thoughts, events, dialog and emotions are part of a steady procession of  “realities:” this happened then that, that followed and then this…  Two-thirds of the way through, for one chapter, Vera speaks of her camp experience in the first person.

“They kept us in the synagogue three days … ordered us to gather our belongings to make a journey, but not to make any noise because the town was still asleep… Outside the station, on a siding, was a long line of freight cars with doors open and guards all around.  They ordered us to get in.  The cars quickly filled, but the guards forced more and more people to climb in, hitting them with their rifles. … all I had in my pocket were a few lumps of sugar and one small piece of bacon.  My grandmother and I took turns chewing on it…

In some of the most unforgettable descriptions I have ever read, even about the Holocaust, she describes her forced sterilization before being placed in an officer’s brothel, and the beating to death with a heavy pole of two sisters who did not satisfy enough.


How does a reading of The Use of Man answer to my several year question: “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About War?”  How is war reflected by the storytellers, and how do the stories affect those imagining, or engaged in, or immersed in war?  A first easy answer is that the novel takes place in a part of the world, strangely unfamiliar to most, for all its centrality in Europe itself, and in European history. It, along with a few other novels add to the geography of human experience.  

A second, easy, answer is that it not part of the long line of war-combat fiction which have defined the idea of “war story” even up to the present.  Tišma joins a small group of writers who are not drawn to the battles, the visceral, adrenaline-charged representations of men (mostly men) at the extremes of fear and danger. There are no exciting adventures. Men do not predominate or dominate.  There are no battles detailed, celebrated, or even mourned.   He knows such  emotions exist: Sep Lehnart “felt an impatient urge to kill;” Gerhard thinks that his “inability to shed blood”  is like a “physical defect.” But this is not where the eye lingers.

Neither is it, quite, a novel of war victims in which the author feels, and guides readers to feel, the enormity of acts and crimes against a virtually helpless people.  Among Tišma’s victims there is no ennobling courage or even praise of endurance while under the control of demonic guards.  Vera’s story, told in the first person, has the flat, fact-delivering-tone of the rest of the book 

Outside, it continued to pour. The roof began to leak, and water fell on us, so we took off our coats to cover our heads, but the water came down in streams and soon covered the earth floor, covered our shoes.  We spent the night standing in mud. … The old people and children they drove out of the other barrack; we saw them staggering, heard them weeping, but were not allowed to go near them. …

Her year and a half in the camp is horrific yet, again, he does not linger.  Her’s is one of several stories and she herself has several. All to be told.

As in war, and increasingly in modern novels, reality for Tišma is fractured.  As is the world so must be the stories that emerge from it. Although realism pervades the novel, in a Balzacian sense, there is no story-line coherence.  Details of events, thoughts, actions are there; an ordering moral or historical sense is not.  Characters do not clearly see their oppressor or seeing him take concerted and courageous action.  A Jewish boy turns against Jews for their lack of willingness to kill; a Serbian boy joins the Nazis until they begin to lose and then joins the Communist partisans — power, and sexual dominance is available in either; a young woman, sexually used in a camp, returns to sexual profligacy when she is released. Human comfort is scarcely known, and then transitory.

Influenced also perhaps by the then-new grammars of film and investigations of dreams the novel is composed of small patches of reality, almost as written as they occurred to him, and left as such, which the reader must put together.  In this sense The Use of Man is an honest and unflinching look at the destructiveness of war, even for those miles from the front. It is not clear to me, however, that as such, it has the capacity to enter into the social imagination of readers and contribute to a commonly held perceptual change — Ah!  This is hat war does, we must prevent it from happening at all costs! 

The writer writes from, it seems to me, as his characters exhibit, a war-induced exhaustion.  The diary, which at first Vera didn’t want to burn –“the diary contained a whole human being …  if she destroyed it, she would never have the chance …  to come to know that human being more clearly”  — that diary in the end, is burned “leaving behind nothing by ashes and cinders.”

In a sense, it is a perfect war story: there are no heroes,  Human bonds of trust and comfort are sundered, the unimaginable becomes common place. grandmother is taken from her and is never seen again.  Each person, to survive, “resigns” herself, as Vera says.  This is war, and should be known as such.