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Aleksandar Tisma'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. Tisma is one of the master writers of the twentieth century, a companion to Vasily Grossman, Curzio Malaparte, and Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Writing about the savagery that erupts in war but also about the persistent terror that underlies peace, Tisma, 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 make 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.
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