Fatherland is a fascinating exploration into its author’s family history. Nina Bunjevac moved from Canada to Yugoslavia in 1975, travelling with her mother and sister, while her father stayed behind with her younger brother. Nina’s parents were both born in Yugoslavia but her father moved to Canada in the sixties to find work, and her mother followed him out and married him, despite not knowing him particularly well. In Canada they have three children, but he can’t leave his strong political views at home and gets involved with a Serbian nationalist terror cell. Nina’s mother fears for the family’s safety and reluctantly leaves her son behind, fleeing with her daughters back to her own mother, under the pretence of a short visit.
The first third of the book tells the story of this move through the eyes of the young Nina. Everything is confusing and unclear, barely coming into focus even as she grows up. We then move forward as we hear from her mother and grandmother, as Nina learns the questions she needs to ask to find out about her family’s past.
Finally, through Nina’s own inquisitive research, she finds a voice for her father and begins to unravel the mysteries that shroud his life.
Conflict has been a reality in this part of Europe for hundreds of years, tearing families apart and dividing people by culture and religion. Even when war is over, ethnic tensions run high, with political and religious allegiances splitting generations apart. It’s this post-war political wrangling that drives a tragic wedge through the family, a complicated history that’s taken Nina Bunjevac a lifetime to unravel.
Her monochrome illustration looks stiff and stilted at first, but the beauty of these starts to shine through as the story unfolds. The pictures are like woodcuts or engravings, with detailed hatching creating blocks of shade. It gives the book the feeling of being a series of posed photographs, arranged and annotated to illustrate history in motion, while somehow capturing each individual moment and the echoes they create through the family’s history.
There’s a fine tradition of family biography in comics and this is up there with the best. It’s a personal account of a family torn apart, with a backdrop of Eastern European politics, that goes a long way toward capturing the human impact of the region’s complicated geopolitical problems.