White and Red Cherries:
A Slovenian Civil War Novel
Tanja Tuma (Self-published 2016, Trade paperback) 301 pages with glossary and bibliography, cover price n/a
It dawned on me like a thunder strikes a tree: this petite young girl embodies a mission, her reason to exist. Every one of us embodies his mission by what he does. We are what we do. Not chemical elements, but our deeds define our being. We are neither the faith we trust in God, nor the love we give and take. The least of what we are is the genetic code we get from our parents, which in turn lives on in our descendants. No. We are what we do at this moment in this bloody world. Our deeds can defy eternity. They can mirror our will and freedom forever.
Those words are thoughts by the elderly Martin, born during the Second World War and raised by the partisan heroine Valeria Batič as her son, when his natural mother Ada quite literally tossed her baby from a train window to Valeria as the train pulled out for Vienna. Ada you see was married to Andrej, a Slovenian psychiatrist who was also part of the Home Guards. The Home Guards had thrown in with first the occupying Italians and later the Nazis against the partisan communists. Ada was unsure if she would make it to Vienna to join Andrej before the victorious partisans closed off the borders and if that happened, baby Martin would end up in an orphanage infested with dysentery and threatened by starvation. That story is perhaps one-tenth of this passionate, professional novel by Tanja Tuma. What is most remarkable about it is that White and Red Cherries is an example of a rare sort of writing that touches equally both the mind and the soul.
I first ran across the work of Tanja Tuma in 2013 upon the release of her debut novel, Winds of Dalmatia. That was a very good book; one could tell that its author had both studied literature and it had the sturdy structure one would expect of someone who had spent a twenty-year career in the publishing industry in Slovenia. She was wise to wait one book before writing White and Red Cherries, for it has a narrative so intricate that it would surely break apart in the hands of anyone less assured than Tuma.
You see, White and Red Cherries is very much a history of Slovenia during World War Two and its revolutionary aftermath. The title alludes to the Home Guard and the partisans; both are the same but in different colours. To tell that story though, Tuma has chosen for her characters a family from one small village named Kozjane, in the Brkini Hills near Trieste. Valeria is seventeen at the novel's opening and she becomes very much an accidental revolutionary when she is suddenly come upon by an Italian platoon. Through brave accident she fights off the platoon with a machine gun and becomes that most sadly fated of all people, a hero.
From there though the story opens up to include the stories of Valeria's friend Ada, Ada's sister Marjana a nurse driven into catatonia by the horrors of war, and Ada's sister-in-law Sanja a concert pianist who finds herself trapped in Stalin's Moscow. Yet these stories are all woven quite truly without seams. No transition is jagged; no juxtaposition is hackneyed. It all rings as true as a diary found in an old desk.
There is also admirable wisdom in this novel as Tuma resists the urge for any 'happy ever-aftering.' Saying that, I'm not giving away any endings here; rather within the stories told White and Red Cherries resists those old cliches of love conquers all, and love rises above war. Well, no it doesn't. Bodies, minds and souls are cracked to pieces by war just as nations are broken and re-set by war just as people of a common language and ancestry are divided into good versus evil with the winners getting to define which is which.
Tanja Tuma translated White and Red Cherries into English herself and that too lends it an authenticity, a true and vivid voice telling this sweeping, intricate narrative. Even where there is the odd minor stumble – tiny things such as what you or would term a 'fiftieth birthday' is here a 'fiftieth anniversary' – makes that voice all the more real.
It is a delightful coincidence of timing that White and Red Cherries arrived through my letterbox when it did. Not three days earlier I had mentioned in a conversation with a friend that of all the independent, self-published books I have read and reviewed over the years, only three have really deserved to be signed to a major house's list. Now there are four. I bow to the excellence of Tanja Tuma.
Be seeing you.