Ivana Bodrožić’s Hotel Tito closely follows the author’s own life. Like her nameless narrator, Bodrožić was a young girl when Yugoslavia broke up in a bloody civil war. And, like her nameless narrator, she also spent years in displaced persons’ housing, waiting for either a new home in Zagreb or the all clear to return to her hometown, Vukovar. Unlike many other survivor stories I have read, Hotel Tito is not an inspirational or heroic tale. The characters here are resolutely ordinary, fractious, and ineffectual. Such ordinary people do a lot to make this novella a feel more real than those other survivor stories because they create a sense of how disruptive, chaotic, and bloody the Yugoslav Civil War was.
We meet the nameless narrator of Hotel Tito when she is nine and already on the road. She doesn’t seem to really know why. All she knows is that everyone in her family, except her father, had to leave Vukovar. (The family never learns what happens to the narrator’s father, but it is assumed that he died in the Vukovar Hospital Massacre.) After a brief stint squatting in a Zagreb apartment, the family is relocated to the eponymous hotel, a repurposed Holiday Inn that was used to house hundreds of refugees from Vukovar and other embattled places in what would become Croatian territory.
Hotel Tito covers the five years the family spent waiting in that hotel. We watch as the narrator’s brother grows into a frustrated young man who can’t help his family. We also see the narrator’s mother succumb to depression. Meanwhile, our narrator, who barely seems to remember her pre-war life, struggles to fit into young teenage life among refugees and locals. She is an almost stereotypical teenager, to the point where I was frequently aggravated by her selfishness and lack of empathy.
As she grows older, the narrator slowly learns to observe the people around her. She never quite loses her self-serving ways, but she tells us more about what others are going through. She also learns to focus so that we readers aren’t bounced around like a pinball as her attention shifts from diversion to diversion. While she eventually gets a good education, the narrator never asks why all this happened to her and her family. The narrator is anything but a reflective person.
Hotel Tito ends abruptly, so that the entire novella feels like dropping into and out of the narrator and her family’s life. For some readers, this abruptness, the narrator’s shortcomings, and the lack of any hint of heroism, will make this a difficult read. But then, I think that’s part of the point. War is not about heroism. Being a refugee is not about being a survivor who inspires others. Being a refugee is about fleeing for your life and losing home and family. This book is about the long, anxious turmoil of not having a home or lodestar anymore.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.