The Use of Man starts with an unexpected discovery. World War II is ending. Sredoje Lazukic has been fighting all through it. Now, as one of the victorious Partisans, he has come home to Novi Sad. He visits the house he grew up in. Strangers nervously show him around. He looks up the mother of Milinko, his best friend. Milinko’s girlfriend, Vera, was the daughter of a Jew, a bookish businessman. Her house stands empty and open. Venturing in, Sredoje is surprised to find the diary of the German tutor that Milinko, Vera, and he all shared, Fräulein, who died on the operating table just before the war. Here, however, in a cheap notebook in Vera’s old room, is a record of Fräulein’s lonely days, with the sentimental caption Poésie… .
The diary survived. Sredoje survived. Vera and Milinko have survived too. But what survives? A few years back Sredoje, Vera, and Milinko were teenagers, struggling to make sense of life. Life, they now know, can be more bitter than death.
A work of stark poetry and illimitable sadness, The Use of Man is one of the great books of the 20th century.
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. This is a seminal work of post-war fiction, and Bernard Johnson has produced not only an exemplary rendering from Serbo-Croatian, but something of a classic in English.
—Branko Gorjup, Ottawa Citizen
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