The Widow and the Warhorse
First published in Yugoslavia, no date
This edition published AFD, 1 April 1973
Twenty years ago, Kukavica had marched boldly through this very bus station and stood smartly at the door of the coach waving to his family and friends in triumph. Now, forgotten, and in truth partially forgetting the way into town, he trudged to the exit to the fierce indifference of the solitary porter.
With all the crime writers in translation on the market, I had been wondering where the representatives of the Balkans were. So when I saw The Widow and the Warhorse in the 10p box outside a local charity shop I grabbed it.
I’d not heard of the publisher, AFD Press, but a fruitless web search indicates they have clearly gone the way of many small presses. The back cover tells me their mission was to bring the popular literature of the Balkans to the English-speaking peoples.
According to the brief biography, Marko Kolar was a policeman for many years and at the time of publication was working as crime correspondent for an Istrian newspaper. The Widow and the Warhorse was his first book, and again the web is silent on whether he wrote more.
The Warhorse of the title is Inspektor Andro Kukavica of the Criminal Police Directorate. Kukavica is a melancholic man of 45, tall but made stooped by ‘the weight of unaddressed injustice, unrighted wrongs, and the constant slights of Commissioner Marić’. Once a bright young hope (he passed out first in his class and contributed the classic chapter on ‘Footprints, Shod and Unshod’ to the Yugoslav Police Manual), he has basically given up on life and his career, and has little hope of resolving anything when he is dispatched to his home-town to investigate the murder of a minor local party official.
The Widow is Kukavica’s maternal grand-mother, ‘a woman of (whisper it!) aristocratic background and autocratic tendencies, reduced to absolute power over lands extending no further than her bedroom door to the east and a small sashed window to the west.’ Despite her confinement, the reason for which is never discussed, the Widow’s influence is felt throughout the little town of Travnja Budala, demonstrated by a constant stream of supplicants and well-wishers. ‘Both borders, window and door, were kept perpetually open as if to invite free trade without penalty of taxation.’
Her visitors, mainly fellow widows, are called in to help ‘little Andro’ in his case. Each of the women has something which renders her invaluable to Kukavica’s investigation, including Mrs Hrvat’s colourful past entertaining Austrians in Trieste, Mrs Debeljak’s sidelines in midwifery and pharmacology, Mrs Mađar’s years as a shepherd, and Mrs Stipanov’s position as postmistress, which has given her an intimate knowledge of the local population. Even Mrs Kukavica’s smitten and superannuated errand-boy, the bus-station porter Capan has knowledge which proves vital to the case.
It’s clear Kolar was acquainted with the work of his western contemporaries. Grandmother Kukavica’s gang is referred to as ‘implacable, irresistible, definitely a Roman tortoise of Miss Marples shielded with handbags and armed with knitting needles’. Kukavica himself self-consciously twirls his moustache ‘in the latest Belgian manner’.
Between them, the Widow and Kukavica’s childhood sweetheart Katarina Kuprešak inspire him to a new-found confidence in his abilities. In a few decisive moves at the book’s finale he brings justice not only to the culprit (or culprits – there is an ambiguity) and restores balance in a small town riven by political and dynastic conflict.
Final destination: A keeper, if only for reason of rarity. If you can find one for yourself, buy it!