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Biography & Autobiography Historical

The Book of Revenge

by (author) Dragan Todorovic

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2007
Historical, Editors, Journalists, Publishers, Other
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2007
    List Price

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A darkly comic recollection of a country that no longer exists, and a lyrical examination of the importance of taking a stand when it counts. Set against a backdrop of horrific world events, this is narrative non-fiction at its best.

To a young boy growing up poor but happy in an industrial town in Serbia, politics means many national holidays that result in parades, piglets roasting on a spit, and getting to see both his hard-working parents at the same time. An observant child, Dragan Todorovic quickly learns the power of words. Even before he can read or write, he is mesmerized by the squiggles made by the grownups around him and diligently recreates them in the notebooks he carries with him always. He also learns that reciting naughty limericks usually yields some chocolate.

This love of words eventually takes Dragan to Belgrade, as editor for a cultural magazine. He hopes to inspire and support the young and innovative artists of the time, but soon discovers that naughty articles do not yield the same results as limericks, and he finds himself constantly clashing with the system. His many questions get only one answer: he is drafted into the army.

Dragan survives his tour of duty, but his return to Belgrade is unsettling. Everything is changing, rapidly. Friendships are collapsing, conversations are guarded, nothing is as it seems. Bit by bit, the country he knows and loves is being torn apart.

Filled with great characters and poignant and often hilarious stories, The Book of Revenge is a superb duet of a citizen and his country, a universal exploration of just what it is that inoculates the human spirit from dangerous ideologies and toxic nationalism.

About the author


  • Short-listed, Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize

Contributor Notes

Dragan Todorovic aspired to play his material in this blues for Yugoslavia like Hendrix played his Fender. He is an award-winning writer and multimedia artist who was born in Kragujevac, Serbia, and lived in Belgrade for many years before moving to Canada in 1995. His previous books (published in Yugoslavia), include biographies of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, and a collection of poems.

Excerpt: The Book of Revenge (by (author) Dragan Todorovic)

Slaughter Time

It is early morning in the late fall of 1963. The fog is lifting slowly. The light is the color of bad steel and the air is cold.

The pig lets out ­high-­frequency cries that hurt my ears. A universal sign for help in the world of sentient beings.

The animal is heavy, more than three hundred pounds, or so I heard this morning. I don’t know what it means and if it’s good or not, but now, watching this rushing mass through the fence, I can see that the five hundred pounds means power. I don’t quite understand why it will all happen to the animal that was a pet until last night, when my uncle went with my aunt to feed it one last time, murmuring quiet words of approval and love. I know only that the men will kill the pig, but I don’t know how death looks or what it is.

The lower yard is closed from all sides: the gate towards the upper yard, the narrow passage next to the stable, the one that leads to the orchard, and the big wagon entry from the dirt road. Through the laths on the upper gate I am watching the men slowly close in. The sow that runs panicky inside that narrowing circle is huge, and not because I am five years old. Ten or so dark, tense silhouettes are coming closer and closer, their hands spread wide to fill the space between them. The animal speeds up and changes its direction frequently, but every time it comes close to a gap that looks like an exit, another human figure jumps in to close the passage to freedom.

Two knives and a sharpener rest on a transverse beam near where I stand. The knives are long, with wooden handles, narrow and so old that their dark blades look ragged after years of sharpening against stones. Miladin has left them there after finishing his coffee and rakija, so he could fetch them quickly when the time comes.

I feel an unknown fear. Not of what I see but of what is yet to come. I can understand – by the seriousness of men and the rush of women – that this is important business. We all got up before dawn, even we children. Water is already boiling in the big cauldron on the bonfire, and the damp air pushes the smoke low, creating a long, slow curtain that delineates the stage. And, although I’m too young to be in that circle, hunting an animal, I am part of it all. They let me watch on purpose, to harden up, to see how death looks.

Someone is the first to throw himself onto the sow, which loses speed and stops for a second. Others follow and the huge ball of flesh is suddenly on the ground, its legs tied with ropes, two men kneeling on its side, several others holding its snout. The pig is fighting desperately. Miladin, a big, slow, stern man whose hands are huge and the color of soil, and whose face has lines so deep that one could sow wheat in them, picks up his knives.

“Hold it tight,” he says as he kneels down on the animal’s throat and holds its snout with his left hand. With a quick movement Miladin raises the animal’s head, stretching its neck, and plunges his knife into its throat. A stream of dark, thick blood bursts from the wound. I see the knife cutting farther, led by the short, jerky moves of the man’s hand. The wound behind the blade has white edges that quickly turn red. Drops of blood cover everyone, and it seems to me that, under that turbid light, everything is dark blue except the pink skin of the animal and the red that shines. Steam is coming out of the cut throat and the pig’s screeching slowly turns into a death rattle, going deeper, deeper and quieter. That sound is horrible. I cover my ears tightly with both hands but I can still hear it. The body of the animal is twitching, strongly at first, then slower and slower as the pressure of life runs out of it. Blood gets into Miladin’s eyes and he wipes it off with his right hand, still holding the knife, smearing dark red into light pink that doesn’t mean a thing.

The animal dies slowly, it lasts maybe two or three minutes, and then it’s still. The men are standing up, wiping the blood off their hands and faces.

“It seems to be easy,” I think, measuring myself against the grownups. “I could do it all, save for that sound.”


The rules
Players separate into two groups, facing each other. The distance between groups is about thirty feet. One person stands in the middle. A player from one group throws the ball at the one in the middle, trying to hit her. If she dodges the ball, it goes to the other side, who does the same. If she catches the ball, the person who threw the ball replaces her in the middle.

The reality
The groups keep coming closer, so the ball hits harder, and it’s more difficult to dodge. Some contestants take pride in being able to throw really hard and they usually aim at the head. The weakest person in the game cannot throw the ball powerfully enough, so she quickly becomes the target, and then everyone hits her.

The game usually ends with the person in the middle, already beaten and bruised, tripping over and falling.

The courtyard was long, narrow at the entrance, widening into an area paved with cobblestones in the back, where we lived. A wooden gate with missing teeth was the only thing signaling to those outside that someone lived there. For many years the gate wasn’t equipped with a lock, and the travelers from the central bus station in Kragujevac – right in front of our home – would come to drink water from the brass faucet protruding from a concrete box close to the entrance. Some­times they would shit or vomit right next to the faucet, so my father decided to install a cheap, ­old-­fashioned iron lock with one of those medieval big black keys. He was a locksmith in Zastava, the car factory, and he knew everything about locks, so he personally chose that one. And he personally kept fixing it.

To the left of the entrance was the accounting department of some trading company in which only women worked. Sometimes they would let me stamp their documents, and that was a great pleasure for me: sinking the rubber stamp into the dirty tin box containing a thin pillow soaked with dark blue paint, the smooth lacquered wooden head of the stamp in my hand, the short and strong blow of the stamp on the paper and – always the same miracle – the square blue imprint in the ­upper-­right corner of the page. As if I knew how to write. As if I had power.

The job these women did was inspiring to me: they kept entering – in their tidy, miniature handwriting – long lines of letters neatly packed between ­hand-­drawn lines, with numbers at the end of the line. When every line of the page was filled in their ­black-­and-­blue hardcover notebooks, they would take the wooden ruler and make more lines for more numbers and signs. It looked like a secret plan, like a map of hidden treasure waiting to be decoded. I never drew, maybe because I was curious and wanted to see everything around me from very close. I loved seeing the smallest details of every structure: the relief of the bark, the first leaves of plants in the early spring, the dust particles on the stone, tiny metal parts inside the lock. I could never draw the outer lines; I could never catch the contours of the object.

I kept asking my parents for cheap small sketchbooks from the paper place on the corner, and when they would bring one, I would draw lines inside and fill the pages with signs that just looked like letters and numbers. I was three years old, and I was very frustrated, because my notebooks never looked like the big ones from the Office of Hidden Treasures.

Editorial Reviews

The Book of Revenge will not be the last book to be written about the darkness that descended over the Balkans after Tito’s death. But it is easily one of the best.”
The Sun Times (Owen Sound)

“An engrossing portrait of a guy trying to remain balanced, humane and civilized as his society spirals downward into repression, militarism and civil-war hysteria.… Todorovic’s splendid memoir is a look-back-in-sadness at his once and former country, a country that haunts him still.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“There is a great dark humour at work in the book, combined with lyrical tenderness for his country…. Todorovic is an exceptional creative writer,
but he is also an excellent reporter.”
Edmonton Journal

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