When we are told, “Everything changed on September 11th,” it is easy for the cynic to note that the only true change has been the object of our cultural hysteria. By 2001 our old enemy, communism, was 10 years into the dustbin of history. There had been some effort to make the global justice movement into a new foe, but beating unarmed protestors made “us” look like the bad guys. …Then al-Qaeda more or less literally fell from the sky to rescue us from the anomie of life without an enemy. The pedestal, left by all those toppled statues of Lenin, now hosted dictators of so-called rogue states, each to be torn down in their turn. All the while, the idea that we had done something to create these enemies, much as we had failed to consider where previous enemies came from, went unexamined. But enemies do not simply rise from the shadows…
This is a review of Fatherland and how it negotiates the tension between terrorism, a cultural obsession and mental health, a cultural aversion. It is also an exploration of the resemblance we can find between the story in Fatherland and more current events. Here, the terrorists do not look like the ones we know today, but in a way, they have a similar story. They did not climb out of a smoldering cleft in the earth, clutching a detonator in one hand and a home-made bomb in the other. They are the products of their circumstances, circumstances we have more control over than we usually care to admit.
Peter Bunjevac Sr. was a terrorist. The comic is only half-finished when it is revealed that he has died. Nina Bunjevac goes to pains to describe her father’s upbringing and to illustrate the sociopathic tendencies he manifested at a young age. She describes the brutal beatings her grandfather gave her grandmother in front of her father. She explores the kindness his aunt showed him, the sole kind figure in a troubled life, who was herself an outcast when she got pregnant out of wedlock. She shows how her father was jailed for supporting a popular communist critical of party excess, and how he fled the country and came to Canada as a refugee. In short, she spares no detail in demonstrating all the little cruelties of life that might have helped to make him what he was: a terrorist.
There is something very old fashioned about the art style that leads us through nearly a century of Bunjevac family history. Combined with the black and white palette, the traditional use of panels and the drawings of family photos, one gets the feeling of leafing through a family album. But normally such keepsakes hide the truths we do not want to see; the drunk father, the scolding grandmother, and other dark secrets of the family. In Fatherland, we are presented with all of this. The scene changes very neatly from Nina and her sister bickering in the present day to her grandfather striking her grandmother as though it were all one story.
Which, of course, it is. In contemporary media we usually confront either the banal or the horrific, but rarely both at once. It is a mixture of the everyday and the extraordinary that works very well for historical dramas and was used to great effect in Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It gives the reader a sense that the narrator is very reliable, and that they are enjoying a special relationship with the author. Indeed, Bunjevac occasionally interjects with her own feelings and deepens this sense of intimacy. ‘Here is my family’s story,’ she says. ‘Parts of it are boring. Parts of it are awful. Parts of it are cute, funny, even tender. Above all it is human.’
Which returns us to the present day. Humanity is the thing that society denies to terrorists when it makes them out to be senseless fanatics. We take them out of context, defining them entirely by the actions we wish to condemn, stripping them not only of humanity but their history. They do not need a reason to be evil in this narrative; they simply are evil. The truth is not so simple.
Terrorists are always hurt people and they are often sick as well. The two recent “terror” attacks in Canada speak to this point. Both Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Rouleau were identified by people close to them as mentally ill. Their lives had fallen apart – Rouleau’s business had failed and he had lost his partner and child. Zehaf-Bibeau was staying in a homeless shelter. He had a history of run-ins with the law. Rouleau was being monitored by government agencies. They did not drop out of the sky. This is also the reminder we get from Peter Bunjevac, Nina’s father. Although he was a terrorist he was not an inexplicable monster who no one could have anticipated. He was very plainly a man to whom the world had been unkind.
Of Zehaf-Bibeau, “’His behaviour was not normal,’ said David Ali, vice-president of Masjid Al-Salaam mosque in Burnaby. He said: “We try to be open to everyone. But people on drugs don’t behave normally.” This is not an unusual attitude with regard to people who are unwell. We ourselves are busy or anxious or shy. We do not want to concern ourselves with people who struggle to stay sane. We are especially wary of those who look like they are losing that struggle. But it is the harm and neglect our society causes that creates alienated, desperate, miserable people. We cannot pretend to be surprised when these people resort to desperate acts or when they become desensitized to suffering. They have suffered too long themselves.
Nina Bunjevac reminds us of this. She tells a very intimate story that many would not want to share. She shows the humanity of people who do cruel things and she shows the weaknesses of people struggling to do right. Her mother grapples with leaving her father in spite of his involvement with a terrorist group. People long to speak up about problems in Yugoslavia but fear state reprisal.
Only the panels are black and white in Fatherland; the narrative is all shades of gray. We would do well to remember that life is very much like that.