‘God can come up with some funny tricks,’ said Zoran,
‘particularly after he’s had a good bottle of wine.’
‘Under the Croatian Sun’ by ‘Anthony Stancomb’ is an expatriate’s experience in a place far from home and totally different from his hometown. Leaving behind a cosmopolitan life, successful career and grown up kids, Anthony with his wife, Ivana, leaves off for the island of Vis amid the Adriatic islands in the country of Croatia.
Reading the first couple of pages where Anthony describes the couple’s arrival to the island, the intricate details kind of put me off and I was wondering if that’s the whole book going to be like. But another few pages into the book, it got more and more interesting.
The plot of the story is simple enough, a couple trying their best to fit in their new adopted home. The book is written in first person narrative with a male authoritative voice. Anthony’s way of writing is engaging and interesting with humor weaved into the story. The author has a witty way of describing the couple’s efforts, repeated failures and hard earned achievements in winning the hearts of the locals.
The beauty of the island, its vineyards, green mountains, heavenly smell of flowers, the clear water and the novelty of swimming in it under glistening sun right in your backyard, all painted a vivid picture of Vis for the reader. One of the great strengths of this book is that author has painted the landscape of Vis acutely. The descriptions shows author’s delight in the beauty of his new home but dedicating a whole chapter to the flowers again later on, and describing the swimming experience again had me skip a few pages.
The pace of the story is fast. We walk through the couple’s first year in Vis as they make new friends, fare with new neighbours and go at lengths to win their trust. The story has many subplots that are not only interesting but informative and insightful. The village hierarchy and the influence of elders seeps into the narrative like,
“We’ll get to the village through the grannies”
when Karmela, their maid, advises them to use ‘granny power’ to infuse the hearts of the villagers. The incidents that ensue are funny and delightful.
True to English culture, the history of Cricket in Croatia and formation of Vis Island cricket club occupies a significant portion of their experience and process of acceptance. As a Pakistani, it was satisfying for me to see my country’s name listed with the prominent few. The first team of the islanders reminded me of the cricket team of villagers in Indian movie, Lagaan. Though, the detailed commentary of the matches had me skip pages again, but perhaps that was only me or me being a ‘woman’ as Anthony might put it.
The story in an interesting and light way gives a firsthand description of the politics of a former communist country. Belonging to a country with injustice and corrupt authorities, I could relate very well to the natives’ reluctance to be in the bad books of the authorities by teaming up with the couple in their protests.
The book underlines the sharp differences in perspective and behavior of people, their struggle to survive and their emotional capacities that becomes their instinct after living in a certain political setup. The couple’s frustration and active protest as compared to native’s silent acceptance of encroachment on their rights goes to show how profound an effect a stable or unstable political setup has on people over the decades.
As grandma Klakic puts it,
“Our kittens have to grow up fierce and strong,” she was saying. “They must learn how to kill rats and fight off dogs. If they were just sweet and cuddly, they would never survive, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?” Seeing me arrive, she gave me one of her flinty looks. “And that’s the way it is with our people. We’ve been trodden down for so long that this is how we’ve become. Hard and difficult to deal with, some might say, but, if we weren’t like this, we would never have survived.”
The book has a lot of references… and by a lot, I do literally mean “A Lot” and though they might show author’s zeal to write and his breadth of knowledge, but being a non-English, and as a ‘general’ reader it was difficult for me to put things into perspective. Not that it made the story less interesting, but I felt constantly at loss for understanding. The book will perhaps be more entertaining for Englishmen but for a more diverse audience, it might not catch up to that end.
All in all, an interesting and easy read. In the end, both author and his wife get accustomed to the ways of the village and get accepted by the community. A change in their personality is also discreetly described by the author when he says,
“The way I dress makes me feel at home with the guys at Zoran’s who have a similar taste to mine in practical attire and manly footwear.’ With a snort she’d learned from Karmela, Ivana left the room.
Anthony Stancomb was educated at Wellington College, St Andrews University and the London School of Film. He worked in Feature films and political documentaries for a while. In his mid-thirties, he left to set up a company that promoted and sold British contemporary art to galleries throughout the world, and created a worldwide distribution network. After twenty years, however, discovering the island of Vis, and realizing that running a commercial venture was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, he sold the company and went to live on the island. Ivana, his wife, is the winner of the Woman of the Year Award for Literature in 2000, and is the granddaughter of the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. With two children who now live in London, they divide their time between Croatia and Fulham.
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