Slobodan Novak is an award-winningnovelist andwriter for television and radio.He isa leading author ofcontemporary Croatian literature and the coauthor of the critical work "Two-Hundred Years of Writing in Croatia. "Celia Hawkesworth is the author of "Ivo Andric: Bridge between East and West "and "Voices in the Shadows: Women and Verbal Art in Serbia and Bosnia. "She is the award-winning translator of "The Museum of Unconditional Surrender" and "The Culture of Lies," both written by Dubravka Ugresic."
As Christmas approaches, 100-year-old Madonna lies on her death bed. Finicky, frail and foul-smelling, she is cared for by an exasperated man whose identity is never made quite clear--Is he a nephew? A grandson? The book consists of confrontations between Madonna and her coterie, juxtaposed with the narrator's childhood memories and various philosophical digressions on Communism in Yugoslavia (where the book is set), family and religion. In his first book to be published in this country, Novak displays an impressive eye for detail and interjects deft, sardonic touches throughout the book (``External shame lasts as long as a shoe horn'' is one epigram). But the overlay of symbolism grows wearisome. Aristocratic Madonna, whose very name is loaded with symbolic weight, is described as ``a cripple of confiscation, nationalization and collectivization, an historical cripple!'' No wonder she's ill! More than 200 pages are spent hovering at her bedside. After the first few chapters, the reader, like the characters who tend to Madonna, will undoubtedly grow more than a bit impatient waiting for the old woman to meet her maker. Illustrated. (Sept.)