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Sons of the Black Hand

August 3, 2004

By Carolyn Kvajic

PublishAmerica (2004), 199 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

A sultry young journalist of mixed Balkan bloodline, Alexandra Miletic, is leading an ordinary enough life in Miami, on-again off-again with her likeable but dull sportswriter boyfriend, occupied with chasing down stories of middling importance.

However, what appears to represent the nadir of Alex’s investigative career – a trip to cover a sizzling new development at the local nursing home – actually comes to represent her deadly new lease on life when she witnesses a mysterious explosion at the scene and with it, a beautiful stranger from parts unknown…

And so begins Carolyn Kvajic’s Sons of the Black Hand, an imaginative romp through history and geography, from the forgotten pact of century-old assassins to the dark secret of Nazi war criminals turned polite and upstanding American arms dealers decades later, all stitched together by the insatiable efforts of one journalist who will stop at nothing to find the truth.

The action, spread out over 31 brief chapters, comes thick and fast. Without giving away too much of the plot, we can say that the story involves a group of Serbian assassins, heirs of a legendary secret society called the “Black Hand,” out to kill off the last surviving Nazi veterans of the Jasenovac, Croatia concentration camp run by the Nazis and the Croatian Ustashe, where certain of their forebears allegedly died. The story follows their attempts to hunt down the Germans, and vice versa, while young Alexandra tries to make sense of it all and comprehend a story that gets bigger with every corner she turns.

The book does do a service in bringing up little-known aspects of the Balkan past, such as the oft-suppressed Jasenovac. Readers with little knowledge of the Balkans may be intrigued to learn more, whereas old hands might recognize a familiar air in one of the old tunes she quotes prodigiously, or empathize with the memories of the characters.

However, the attempt to put a politico-historical discourse into the mouth of Alex’s immigrant mother strains credulity: “…we’re bombarded by nothing but Orwellian newspeak and doubletalk, both of which by the way, is coming from official government sources and high paid PR firms” (p. 91). And her ensuing explanation of the causes of the Yugoslav wars smacks of after-the-fact repackaging, something which is confirmed by a footnote to a text that was indeed penned long after 1992. It is difficult to understand what the author was trying to do here.

Stylistically speaking, the narrative is straightforward and comes with few literary pretensions. While the story and dialogue tend to flow well enough, the reader comes across recurrent roadblocks in the overuse of similes and metaphors whenever it comes time for the odd orgy of ekphrasis. There are similarly adjectives of the “you-shouldn’t have!” variety (’Rubenesque,’ p. 25, ‘nationalistic’ p. 30, etc.). Finally, one wonders why a novel not seeking to be experimental would contain footnotes.

For these and many other reasons, we may consider that the book would have been better as a movie. Indeed, at times one wonders if the creative influence did not in fact work “backwards;” certain narrative approaches that seem natural to the film media are used, somewhat ridiculously, here.

For example, when another bomb goes off at the University of Miami, young Alexandra decides to defiantly cross a police cordon to get into the smoking building, because “…nothing was getting in the way of her story.” Spotting the ubiquitous secret entranceway, she ’slips in’ to the building: the narrator states, “…she loved this part of her job.”

Of course, this glorified view of journalism is only maintained in fanciful films, which is why it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that upon entering Alex has a hot encounter with the token black FBI agent inside. Yes, postmodernity has clearly struck in this example of art imitating art, a simulation of a simulation, etc., but at least in the film medium the reader’s suspension of disbelief ineluctably occurs much more quickly and painlessly.

The author has set out, with some aplomb, to make a sassy, modern heroine out of Alex Miletic. Could Alex even make journalism cool again? Yet it’s hard to get a real sense of her, first because the book is too short and second because she’s perhaps too close to the author (who sort of giggled when asked how much of her character’s exploits were based on real personal experience).

In the end, Alex Miletic would not really work as a female pseudo-Bond. While Alex’s existence is described as “…ruled by ugly demons, haunting her with their distorted voices” (p. 13) she never actually does anything particularly dark in the text (and the occasional spats with her boyfriend don’t count). In every case of intrigue, in fact, Alex is portrayed as being swept up by events, by p. 83 losing any kind of independent thought-process whatsoever, becoming a willing victim of the unknown in a manner quite opposite the cool and measured mannerisms of James Bond, who (more so in Fleming’s novels than in the films) does indeed possess a bona fide “dark side.”

Another problem is that despite its title and early promise, the book is simply not Balkan enough. Most of the action takes place in America- nowhere near the former Yugoslavia whose wars are described as being contemporaneous with the action. The “Balkan connection” is there, but solely in the form of sentimental memories, forgotten blood pacts and imported assassins who come off as clowns, blundering oafs and not the hardened killers the “informed” reader might expect to encounter. Considering the formidable reputation which the Balkanians, and especially Serbs have, one would think that the author could have done much more with it.

While small snippets of the action do take place in places like China and Central Asia, this is instantly identifiable (and much better suited to) a film technique of showing multiple connected but geographically separate events with near simultaneity. What would have been really interesting would have been to take the action, and maybe the protagonist, to the old Yugoslavia, instead of just talking about it. True, there is a brief nod to Islamic mujahedin in Bosnia near the end, but again one wonders if this was an insertion obliged by the times.

All in all, Sons of the Black Hand is an enjoyable summertime read- a little action, a little edification, ethnic histrionics and suspense. Indeed, the book has it all, though for its relatively short length – 198 pages – the result seems a little rushed. While the author clearly has an imagination and ambition towards the realm of the blockbuster, it is simply not possible to pull off such a work in a book of this size. And so, in the end, Sons of the Black Hand leaves one with the uncomfortable feeling of inhabiting an ambivalent zone somewhere between movie script and novel.

Indeed, it would be better as a film, not least of all because the charm’s of the female protagonist would no longer require mere verbal exposition, and the sex scenes would have perhaps been less contrived than they arguably were (and certainly less abrupt- p. 75, etc.).

In any case, one hopes the author has reserved the film rights. The only thing she’d have to change, because of Hollywood’s dictates for this type of film, is the ending (sorry… we can’t give it away).

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