Aleksandar Tišma’s The Use of Man is an unsparing and unequaled reckoning with the destruction of human life, self, and being in war, a book about a particular time and place, World War II and the Balkans, but nonetheless for all times. Set on the banks in the multiethnic town of Novi Sad on the Yugoslavian border with Hungary, the novel tracks the intertwined lives of a group of young people, high-school classmates, accustomed to studying and dancing and flirting and gossiping with one another. Then war breaks out, changing everything. Vera, of German background and half Jewish, is sent to a concentration camp; her cousin Sep becomes a Nazi; her boyfriend Milinko, a Serb, joins the resistance. Another friend, Svedoje, triumphs over the mayhem by becoming a killer, pure and simple. And when Vera returns after the war to what remains of the place called home she finds that survival, too, has its dead ends.
Tišma is one of the master writers of the twentieth century, a companion to Vasily Grossman, Curzio Malaparte, and László Krasznahorkai. Writing about the savagery that erupts in war but also about the persistent terror that underlies peace, Tišma, more than any of his peers, speaks directly to the unspeakable cruelty of life. He does so, however, with a composure, with a respect for the singularity of human character and existence, and with bleak beauty that makes his work not only unignorable but essential. The scrupulous archaeologist of the destroyed soul, he restores its fragments to our contemplation with such art and care that we cannot turn aside.
Tišma’s The Use of Man is a stunning book. I have seldom read anything that authentically conveys the feel of that nightmare—the war, the Holocaust, the brutal aftermath, and the almost equally brutal dreariness of a provincial town frozen in time, caught between Mitteleuropa and the Balkans. The angle of vision—call it compassionate detachment—accounts for some of the impact, but the most impressive achievement is the range of characters. Understated, they all come to life, or to death-in-life, on their own terms.
A bleak and moving account of the tender lives of the damned.
This novel is written with an undeluded toughness of spirit, the spirit of a European who has seen just about everything there is to see and doesn’t blink or evade. The prose is firm and the structure is tight. Tišma maintains a consistent tone of austere detachment, yet one ends with a great deal of pity for his characters. Reading the novel, I felt I was privileged to meet a distinguished European writer.
A masterly evocation of fortitude, resignation, turpitude and sheer bloody-minded self-preservation in the face of fear, violent repression, and leaden-jawed dogma.
—The Times (London)
The novel is tough, terse, with episodes that will turn your stomach; yet, because it is written in a style of luminous detachment, it becomes hauntingly poetic and even humorous in its bitter ironies. It is a novel whose power is on a scale normally associated with our favorite (dead) authors. Whether you like what he’s got to say or not, the world will not look quite the same after you’ve read this book.
The remarkable trio [The Use of Man is the first] make up a Balkan bible presided over by an ironic vision of the imagination, capable of envisioning utter barbarity but not the expiation for sins, dwelling on delusions of paranoia rather than traditional community.
—Bill Marx, The Boston Globe
Man has no noble use in The Use of Man, Aleksandar Tisma’s exceptional novel about the Nazi conquest of Yugoslavia…. Mr. Tišma’s deliberate unfolding of his characters’ fates serves to illustrate the novel’s underlying premise: Yugoslavia’s wartime experience—everything from the deportation of the Jews to Tito’s Communism—resulted in his country’s inevitable ruin. That Mr. Tišma manages to convey such large historical ideas without sacrificing the story’s drama attests to his abilities as a gifted and humane writer.
—Barbara Finkelstein, The New York Times
As [Tišma] probes the complexities and ambiguities of people’s behavior under these terrible circumstances, he is unrelenting in his quest for the truth yet compassionate in his judgments of individuals.
—Merle Rubin, The Wall Street Journal
Aleksandar Tišma may appear to be writing yet another novel dealing with the Second World War devastation of Europe. He is not. It is an amazingly fresh and profoundly wise piece of writing…. He brings the reticence of the scalpel to an examination of the nature of violence. He probes with clarity and detachment the secret areas of the human psyche where motives for violence are born…. With The Use of Man, Tišma has created a seminal work of post-war fiction, and Bernard Johnson, in translating it, has produced not only an exemplary rendering from Serbo-Croatian, but something of a classic in English.
—Branko Gorjup, Ottawa Citizen