The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodroziç
Images of death and destruction in a hitherto little known corner of Europe filled our television screens in the early 1990s. Week after week saw ever more alarming reports about the thousands of people forced to flee as the Croatian war of independence advanced on their homes.
The Hotel Tito is a novel about that experience of displacement told through the eyes of a young girl.
When war breaks out in 1991 she is nine years old. She is sent from her home town of Vukovar to take a seaside holiday far away from the hostilities.
By the time she returns at the end of summer, everything that was familiar no longer exists.
Her father has disappeared while fighting with the Croatian forces. Her town has become a battle ground fought over with shells and rockets.
It’s not safe to stay in Vukovar so she, her mother and elder brother join a stream of residents who become refugees in Zagreb. But then they are evicted and end up in Kumrovec – a village near to Zagreb, on the Croatian-Serbian border.
And there they are stuck for three years, sharing a one room apartment in the former Political School (known as Hotel Tito in homage to the village’s most famous son Josip Tito, former president of Yugoslavia).
Life in Hotel Tito: a strange existence.
The large conference rooms of the Hotel Tito have been re-assigned to serve the needs of a new type of resident.
Conference Room One is designated as an infirmary, number five is the church, four is used for daycare.
For the young inhabitants of the hotel, the magical room is number seven; a space designated for parties, card games and social activities. The front lobby is their rendezvous point for ventures into the local night spots.
Though it might sound like a playground, the hotel is hardly an ideal place in which to live. Naturally the family find it difficult to live in a room so tiny it can only just accommodate three beds. Other families are moved on, to bigger and nicer apartments. Why not them, they want to know?
Battling against officialdom
Petitions and appeals to the government result in promises that new accommodation will be found for them. But the promises never materialise. Nor is there any good news about the missing man.
Believe me, it is much harder for the families of the missing because there are things we can never accept, and the uncertainty is crushing us.
The girl never gives up hoping that one day she will learn her father is alive.
But in the meantime she has to get on with the business of growing up. A process which involves ditching the Barbie dolls and embracing the rites of adolescence: the first disco, encounters with boys, experiments with smoking and cocktails and the shock of the first hangover.
This narrator is an intelligent girl with a funny way of looking at life but is also keenly observant. At the beginning of the book she has limited appreciation of the momentous changes happening in her country. Although her parents don’t explain why she is being sent to the seaside, she has “a sneaking feeling it has to do with politics because everybody talks about politics all the time.”
I know a thing or two about politics myself, like I call my toy monkey Meso, because my monkey and our president look a lot alike.
About the Croatian war of independence itself she has little to say other than it’s “cruel and went on for ages.” She is more focused on the daily challenges of getting around a strange place, making new friends and experiencing the sneers of local people towards incomers who don’t even know the correct names for basic foodstuffs.
The city was lovely and totally insensitive. They didn’t need us, there were enough people in Zagreb already; they felt that being from Zagreb was a matter of some prestige. … We made the switch to salty rolls but when we said the words they sounded off , always with a twang; when we bought them the baker had a little sneer. Like it was something enormous, not a stupid doughy roll.
Teenage confusion amid the chaos
This is a girl who is full of the anxiety and confusion experienced by teenagers. One moment she suffers acute embarrassment at the drunken antics of her grandfather, the next she feels a deep love for the old man. Desperate to get away from home and experience freedom but nervous about whether she will fit in and find friends in her new school.
Her insight and honesty make reading Hotel Tito a very human novel. It relates the experience of people who are displaced in war. The are in a state of constant anxiety about what is happening “back home” and never feel completely accepted in their new “home.” But it is also very much a novel about the process of growing up.
And like so many bildungsroman novels, despite the tribulations and frustrations experienced by the protagonist, by the end you sense that they have come through the challenge. That they have emerged stronger and with a spirit of optimism and hope for the future.
About the author
Ivana Simić Bodrožić was born in Vukovar in 1982 though she has lived in Zagreb for many years.
She published her first poetry collection in 2005, Prvi korak u tamu (The First Step into Darkness) and has since published a second anthology plus a short story collection 100% pamuk (100% Cotton).
About the Book
Hotel Zagorje (Hotel Tito) was the first prose work by Ivana Simić Bodrožić. It is described as an autobiographical novel. We know that Bodrožić was in fact displaced from Vukovar and did live for a while in Hotel Tito. But the book reads more like fiction than as a memoir of the Croatian war of independence. I suspect that has much to do with the fluidity of the translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac.
Hotel Tito was published to critical acclaim in 2010. It received the Prix Ulysee for the best debut novel in France, and a number of prestigious awards in Croatia and the Balkan region. Bodrožić is currently working on the film adaptation of the novel with Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić (the winner of Golden Bear 2006, Berlin International Film Festival).
Why I Read This Book
My edition was published by Seven Stories Press. I wouldn’t have known about the book however but for the fact it was chosen by Asymptote for their book club in November 2018. Including it in my #15booksofsummer list meant I could read my first ever Croatian author. Another country that I’ve now covered as part of my World of Literature challenge.