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A Cool, Painstaking Account Of A Difficult Past In 'Fatherland'

Do you love your father? How do you love him? Is your affection spontaneous, dutiful, rote, wry, overflowing, ambivalent or simply unexamined? When you consider these questions — or decline to do so, thank you very much — consider also Nina Bunjevac's drawing style.

It's supremely controlled. In Fatherland, the story of her Serbian nationalist father and 20th-century Serbian history, Bunjevac adorns practically every inch of each panel with tiny little pen strokes. Walls and floors are densely hatched or beaded with dots. A terrycloth bathrobe is so painstakingly textured, it looks like velvet. Human figures are outlined in thick, unwavering lines, giving them a doll-like quality. Faces look frozen, even in moments of frantic emotion. Again and again, expressiveness is set aside in favor of formal composition, held still under glass.

And yet, Bunjevac's story is one of torrential passions. When she was just 2 years old, her mother fled her father, taking Nina and her sister from their adopted home of Ontario, Canada, back to their grandparents in the former Yugoslavia. Sally Bunjevac was driven in part by Peter Bunjevac's emotional abuse and alcoholism, but there was more: She'd become aware that he was involved in a Serbian nationalist terrorist group, one that was manufacturing bombs. Every night Sally barricaded the windows with tall furniture, afraid someone would throw a bomb in and blow them up in their beds.

Time would justify her fears. Two years after she left, in 1977, Peter Bunjevac and two compatriots died in an explosion while preparing a bomb in a garage.

"One thing I always found particularly annoying about my mother is her inability to remember anything of real importance," Bunjevac reflects. "Now that I'm older, and having gone through some tough times myself, I finally understand just how crucial this selective memory has been to her survival."

Still, Bunjevac realizes she herself can't employ the same tactic. (She's "cursed with one of those faces that just won't mask emotions," she writes.) She sets out to assemble a true picture of Peter Bunjevac, and instead of shying away from unsavory details, she depicts them with icy-cool objectivity. Her drawings look more like etchings.

Her armor serves her well when she revisits the history of violence in her family. When her paternal grandfather beats her grandmother, the two figures appear frozen in a tableau. Even when he throws her from a hay loft, causing a miscarriage, she seems to hover rather than plummet. When Peter, then a boy, kills cats by throwing them in the stove — and when his father beats him with a stick for it — Bunjevac presents it as a series of silent snapshots. It's left to the neighbor lady to voice a reaction to his behavior: "Something is seriously wrong with that kid!"

Bunjevac is determined to shape a holistic image of her father, keeping her own inevitable feelings under control. She dutifully notes that at least one person was always devoted to Peter: his aunt Mara, whom he'd stuck by when the rest of the family cast her out following an illegitimate pregnancy. But when Bunjevac describes her father's courtship of her mother, her icy-cool voice is bitter. The couple met when her father, living in far-away Quebec, struck up a correspondence with Sally's mother by placing an ad for a pen pal in a Belgrade-based sports magazine. "Father lays the groundwork carefully," Bunjevac writes. "Building trust, presenting himself in the best possible way ... and then he strikes." The couple wed shortly after the bride's 17th birthday.

Bunjevac's book is also about Serbian history, naturally, and she traces the lines of nationalism and extremism from the 1940s down to the present day. Her style, so effective in bestowing layers of somberness and irony on explosive family scenes, serves her well whenever there is great suffering to be depicted. When Serbian villages are burned during the war, with Serbs and Jews deported to death camps, stylization and a certain numbness evoke horror as effectively as rampant expressionism would.

Bunjevac seems fundamentally detached from this larger history; certainly her feelings about her father are far more complex and powerful than her feelings about the country of her ancestors. But both aspects of her family's experience benefit from her lens. Whatever the scale, it seems, there are some extremes that necessitate a dose of icy cool.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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