The Croatian writer/poet Olja Savičević’s first novel, Adios, Cowboy, is a bizarre, darkly comic, postmodern fable set in Zagreb’s “Old Settlement,” a part of the city untouched by the Croatian war of Independence. (Zagreb itself is closer to Slovenia than Serbia, but was attacked by Serbian air and ground forces over the war’s five years.) This isolation drives the plot and the mood of the novel, where protagonist Dada, her mother, and her sister are trying to understand their brother’s suicide in the wake of their father’s death from an unspecified disease. And somewhere in here an American film crew shows up to film a western just outside of the Old Settlement because … I actually don’t know why, to tell you the truth, although its grizzled John Wayne-like co-director, Ned Montgomery, hovers over Dada’s family in posters and old VHS tapes.
The war may not have reached the Old Settlement, but the village exists in the war’s shadow. This is a town of survivorship, and the postwar generation is inured to suffering and crisis; Dada says early in the book that “people who have been lucky talk about the worst and the best days of their life. We who have been less lucky don’t talk about that.” Her name is no accident, as Dadaism emerged after World War I as an antiwar, anticapitalist, “anti-art” movement in reaction to what its adherents saw as the bourgeois underpinnings of that pan-European conflict. Here Dada exists in a circle around life rather than within it, heavily detached from her romantic affairs and the problems of her addled mother, yet obsessed with solving the mystery of why Daniel took his own life.
There’s no single plot thread in Adios, Cowboy, in case you couldn’t tell from those two paragraphs; the narrative, such as it is, is as scattered as the prose, producing a constant sense of unease in this reader, similar to that of reading the work of an unreliable narrator. Here, Dada isn’t unreliable so much as muddled, only partially present in her own life as she tries, like a bad noir detective, to unravel what drove Daniel to throw himself in front of a train Anna Karenina-style. She uncovers a partial plot involving their veterinarian neighbor who is probably gay but doesn’t appear, despite the suspicions of the local thugs, to have molested Daniel or any other boys, and finds some of Daniel’s last correspondences to the professor, which only serve to show how confused Daniel himself was becoming over the last few months of his life.
The main story of Dada and Daniel sputters out when she learns some of what was bothering Daniel but fails to find the smoking gun you’d expect in a story like this – if those books, where a survivor finds out some big secret that drove a loved one to suicide, are a type of art, then Adios, Cowboy is its anti-art – and the narrative jumps to the film shoot just outside of the Old Settlement. This bit reads like a related but disconnected short story, where the shoot descends into comic tragedy over a dead chicken and a local Roma woman whose grip on reality is tenuous. Ned Montgomery, of the posters on Daniel’s wall and the VHS tapes that Dada discovers, appears in the flesh on these pages, but as a relic, past his prime, trying not to admit it to himself, dependent on his assistant to function, working on this film as a last gasp back towards the embers of his old career.
Adios, Cowboy appears to have been met with universal praise when it was first published in English in 2015, and it is indeed a highly literary novel, rich with allusions, with a unique prose style and an unconventional structure. But I don’t think I fully understood Savičević’s point(s) here, perhaps because I don’t know much about the Croatian War of Independence or Croatian culture since the war, or perhaps because I couldn’t follow her peripatetic plot. It’s probably best for folks who like reading experimental literature, but not for those who read for story first.