September 30, 1996 12:00 PM

by Vladimir Arsenijevi? Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth

Subsisting on the ragged fringes of the former Yugoslavia’s generation X, the characters in Arsenijevi?’s engaging, offbeat first novel seem like young people everywhere, only more so. Since this is Belgrade, 1991, the intensifying war in Bosnia and Croatia actually gives Angela and her pals something more pressing to worry about than how to get along with their parents and whether or not to eat red meat.

Lazar, a saffron-robed vegetarian, is drafted to fight on the front lines—from which Dejan, an ambitious punk-rock drummer, has just returned, missing an arm. Angela and her husband (the book’s wry narrator) are anxiously expecting their first child, while all around them military recruiters are banging on their neighbors’ doors.

The bright humor of this novel belies its basic seriousness. Without moralizing or preaching, In the Hold makes us realize that the combat in the Balkans involved not only the thugs in camouflage and the grandmas in babushkas we see on the nightly news.

Subtly, the author helps us understand how a society and a culture very much like our own were caught up in—and destroyed by—the bloodthirsty passions of war. (Knopf, $20)

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