By Surya Green. Foreword by Dr. Henry Breitrose. New Europe Books, 2015, 291pp.
In 1968, Surya Green, a graduate student in communications at Stanford, traveled to Yugoslavia to work at Zagreb Film, which had won acclaim for its animated features and documentaries. In Once Upon a Yugoslavia, she explores the cultural differences she encountered and how they influenced her life, and she does this effectively—until the book loses its way.
Green, then in her late twenties, was searching for the meaning of her life, and this quest clearly kept her open and attentive to what she saw around her, both negative and positive. She observes the slow pace of life in Yugoslavia, the limited material goods, the confined and often inadequate (by American standards) living conditions, and the lack of free expression. But she is also aware that people have universal access to health care, education, and employment, a calmness that comes from a lack of pressure, and a noble national goal of “Brotherhood and Unity” that translates into teamwork.
These observations awaken her to a more critical view of her life in the United States, with its pressure to achieve individual success, its focus on material wealth, its emphasis on consumerism and fashion, its own constraints on freedom. She comes to find the slower pace of life in Yugoslavia allows for more reflection, that she doesn’t need so many things, that she can begin to focus less on herself.
Green’s prose is often awkward; it frequently sounds as though it was written by someone who is not a native English speaker. (“The meeting with Stern upraised my mind.”) But she is a good storyteller, with an ability to create scenes that bring her issues to life. We feel her humiliation when an elderly woman in the street yanks at the miniskirt she is wearing, unacceptable attire in Zagreb. We feel her frustration when Zagreb Film, operating on slow Yugoslavian time, fails even to meet her on her arrival and has not organized a place for her to live. And we see the impoverished room she comes to inhabit, a room occupied until her arrival by a philandering ex-husband who, though the couple were divorced, stayed on (with various lovers), unable to afford another apartment. It is the overpriced rent Green pays that enables the former wife to finally kick him out.
While Green stays with this story, the narrative is engrossing. It is repetitious, both about the lessons she is learning and her quest to find meaning in her life, but she reveals, through her own story, an intense sense of life in the land of Tito’s Third Way. Unfortunately, when she leaves Zagreb, the book turns into a ramble with many pages left to go. On her way out, she reviews her experience and repeats the lessons learned that she’s already repeated too many times, then sums up again, and on and on, with still more about the same lessons applied in her later life.
Where was the editor of this book? It needed someone to trim the repetitions, to severely prune or omit the last part, and, throughout, to edit the prose. As it is, what would have been an excellent book is one I would half-recommend.