Youjo Senki (also known as The Saga of Tanya the Evil) was one of the better titles airing in Winter 2017. It’s the story of a perfectionist nerd reborn as a little girl in a war-torn world as punishment for being a man of little faith. If you think that description reeks of Narou… indeed, it was based on a webnovel. The novels are thick, packed with references to real history, and absolutely ridiculous. Although Narou writers are known for not trying particularly hard, the author of Youjo Senki, hiding behind the pseudonym Carlo Zen, after an Italian war hero, is different. He seems to want to remain in the business for a longer time. He’s currently co-working on a comic titled Baikoku Kikan… and another novel series, published by Seikaisha Fictions. Yakusoku no Kuni (The Promised Country) – I learned of its existence in early 2017 from @bakalov_ptr. Thanks! I think he’s the reason why I bought Sekai-kei to wa Nani ka as well. After learning it’s set in a fictional equivalent of Yugoslavia, I decided I have to read it.
The republic of Kunaan is not in good shape. It’s collapsing, really. Several years before, it was a communist state called the Federal Socialist Republic of Hiltria. President David Ernest is now looking back at his homeland’s recent history. He hated Hiltria with a passion and had an active role in its transition from communism to liberal market economy. And yet, he’s shocked to see that the old shitty cardboard shack of a state was still vastly superior to what his country is now – at least they didn’t have hyperinflation and things actually worked. As he’s discussing the hopeless condition of his homeland, his wife and advisor Carnelia whips out a pistol and kills herself. Having lost everything, David reaches for the gun… The next moment, he wakes up. Young again and surrounded by his fellow soldiers of the Hiltrian army. It looks like he leapt around fifteen years back in time…
That’s strangely similar to Youjo Senki, isn’t it. Very Narou-like. Except this time, there is no Being X around to toy with the protagonist. Carlo Zen didn’t make this novel into a biblical tale of god punishing a sinner, that’s not the point this time. What is the point then? I’d thought Yakusoku no Kuni would turn out to be a textbook on the modern history of Yugoslavia, but with changed names. But, wouldn’t that be too easy? That shit writes itself. I mean, it would still be an interesting read, but of course Carlo Zen wouldn’t do that. How much do you know about Yugoslavia? People younger than me might not even know what that is. I only had a general idea – from once reading a book on history of Yugoslavia, where history ended on 1945. And from watching TV in the 90s. This novel will teach your everything you need to know. Even though it’s supposedly set in a fictional world, the map of Hiltria you can see at the beginning of the book is identical to Yugoslavia, only the proper names were changed. Why not some other place on the world map? Yakusoku no Kuni will prove to you that picking Yugoslavia out of all places, wasn’t a random, whimsical choice.
David now has knowledge of future events. Bloody, violent events. In theory he could tell you, the reader, what will happen. But, he will not – that isn’t the point either, and the story wouldn’t be very interesting that way. Not to mention, he’s determined to change history – he’ll climb his way to the top yet again and try to save the seemingly doomed Hiltria from decay and eventual fragmentation. After being transported to what seems to be 1980 or close, David marvels at how peaceful and moderately well organized the place is. As the president, he had destroyed Hiltria. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. David is now determined to find an equilibrium between two evils – Hiltria and Kunaan.
After David gets used to his newly regained youth and homeland, we get a little review of what Hiltria is and how it works. The federation is a unity consisting of five parts. A common house for five brethren – nations culturally similar enough to each other, but also different enough to feel mutual animosity. The small Slonia, inhabited by the Nash tribe, up north, looks down on the rest of Hiltria as less civilized. The Tarvoi folk from Savina have the numerical adventage over others and constitute a sizeable minority in every federal republic Hiltria is made up of. Bornia, home to the nation of Sarnia, is perilously sandwiched between two of the most powerful nations in the country. And then there’s Hrvatska and Machedonis, only mentioned in passing in this novel. Several decades before, after a great, continent-wide war, the noble founders of Hiltria attained their dream – to create their own promised country, free from foreign powers and their ambitions. How long can this communist utopia last, though? Centrally planned economy, cooperatism being the everpresent form of economic activity and dogmatists from the Party intervening anytime they can won’t be helping David achieve his goal.
In chapter 2, we get a good taste of the ubiquitous shittiness of every communist state – the tour climaxes in David and friends having to investigate a murder which happened in a co-op as a result of bad management and frustration venting. This is where we get to meet Norus Tolbacain, a bigwig from the secret service who tries to recruit David and fails. He’ll prove to be of great use to the future president later.
The novel starts in earnest in chapter 3 when we learn of military maneuvers in Slonia in which David and his buds will be participating. Here, David discloses a bit of his knowledge of the future to drop a bomb: the maneuvers will spiral into an actual conflict – Slovenians will use this opportunity to attempt secession. The incident won’t amount to much, but from the perpective of time, it will definitely be the number one step towards Hiltria’s demise. David knows he’ll have to prevent history from repeating itself at all costs. Not only won’t it be easy, events will become increasingly unpredictable down the road. With some help from Tolbacain, David gets permission to carry out an unconventional plan: his brigade will be train hopping to move quickly around the country, trying to outrun and outsmart Slonian soldiers who are supposed to play the enemy, and who then decide to make the fictional scenario of the maneuvers into something real. Eventually, they find themselves on the “Railway of the Youth”, built for no compensation by young laborers in the 50s. And then David accidentally discovers Russian weapons on one of the freight trains heading to Slonia. Things go downhill from here. Although they’re the antagonists here, Slovenian nationalists have some strong arguments for wanting Hiltria to crumble spectacularly. Slonians are the least numerous tribe of Hiltria and need to tread more carefully than others. To them, Yugoslavia is a “prison of nations“. Maybe the idea that its downfall is not only inevitable, but also that it should happen as soon as possible isn’t bad either…
Chapter 4 is a beginning of an all-new plot thread. This time, David’s brigade, having won some appreciation after exposing the Slovenian conspiracy, go to Bornia where they’re supposed to “observe” an archeological dig. But, the job of a soldier isn’t supposed to be “observing” anything – the true, secret objective of their mission is way different. Not-Sarayevo will be hosting a world class event soon – the Spartakiad. David gets sent to the construction site of the event’s venue to discover it’ll be built on the site of a cemetery, which won’t be moved or anything – it will be covered in concrete, as is. And not just any cemetery. The place is a site of a mass killing that happened several decades ago. In the name of Hiltria’s unity, the place will need to be concealed forever. Recording and remembering the past is valuable and important and all, but if history is to be potential fuel for an ethnic conflict, it’ll need to be destroyed. Since the state doesn’t ever mention the massacre or anything, the locals probably forgot about it anyway, right? Well, what if they didn’t? What if David will need to defend the besieged construction site from the locals – who’re difficult to clearly divide into actual indignant nationalist and common thugs looking for an excuse to punch somebody. In eastern Europe, it’s really hard to tell which is which, and if there is a difference at all. Can the protag figure out the optimal way out of this mess?
So, how good a job does Yakusoku no Kuni do at being about not-Yugoslavia? It definitely doesn’t adhere to history too closely. David Ernest, since he’s the Serbian president of the country in the 90s brings Slobodan Milosevic to mind, but that clue proves to be a dead end. Milosevic wasn’t a soldier and David doesn’t seem to be particularly in favor of Serbian nationalism. The story is supposed to be set around 1980, the year when Tito died, so Yakusoku no Kuni not mentioning any highest officers of the state like him isn’t particularly weird. That doesn’t mean Carlo Zen didn’t do any research for his book – imagine my surprise when I discovered seinen tetsudou was real. Or that he knew what a kafana is. If I did some more googling, I’m sure I’d discover more of these bits of Yugoslavian culture in the novel. Then again, the character names are probably the least Yugoslavian ones possible. Making them sounds cool or more pronouncable to a Japanese proved more important. Not the mention the food, which seems more like “stuff the Japanese think white people eat” than actual Yugoslavian cuisine.
Now, most importantly, the novel nails the essence of Yugoslavia. If you asked a political radical (they’re mostly right wing nowadays, are they not?), they would tell you nationalism and communism are mutually exclusive. Even though a detailed look at history will tell you most communist regimes weren’t too choosy when it comes to this opposition – they were using nationalism as a crutch, to make ruling their nations, reluctantly cooperating with leftwing regimes, easier. Stalin pretty much changed the Soviet Union back into Russia. He left all the red flags and statues of Lenin intact, but started oppressing non-Russian citizens of the Union and in many aspects immitated Hitler (at least intil 1941). The unique thing about Yugoslavia, however, was: nationalism was never an option for them. They mercilessly oppressed any nationalist sentiment because of fundamental, existential reasons – the federation, this united entity of five parts was so fragile, every symptom of valuing the nation higher than the Yugoslavian state was being punished. As is shown in the novel – the word 民族主義 appears frequently, and the specter of nationalism lurks in every plot thread. For a good reason, too: guess what ultimately destroyed Yugoslavia?
As far as poetics are concerned, Yakusoku no Kuni is more on the “tryhard” side of the spectrum. It’s as weird, obscurely written as possible. You know you’re a chuuni-byou patient if you use words like あらまほしき in your novel. I had to look things up often – reading Carlo Zen is definitely an educational experience, in the linguistic department as well. It certainly is a few notches above what I usually read, vocabulary-wise.
When I was starting the novel, I thought it’s a contained, one-volume-only work. But it’s not! It’s four volumes long, the last book explicitly states it’s the last one. I might even buy the rest of the them. It sure taught me a thing or two. It’s worth a spin. Now I should probably buy Youjo Senki and keep those books where they won’t fall on my head…