Thursday, January 23, 2014

Welcome to Sarajevo

Sarajevo Marlboro, by

Miljenko Jergović

"You can never list or recall the private libraries that have burned down in Sarajevo. And why should you?  But the fate of the Sarajevo University Library, its famous city hall, whose books took a whole night and day to go up in flames, will be remembered as the fire to end all fires, a last mythical celebration of ash and dust.  It happened, after a whistle and an explosion, almost exactly a year ago. Perhaps the same date you're reading this. Gently stroke your books, dear stranger, and remember they are dust." --The Library

Sarajevo Marlboro is a collection of short stories in a style reminiscent of Raymond Carver (without much dialogue, smoking, or drinking) and with more than a dash of the earnestness and irony of the stories of the Polish author Jerzy Andrzejewski. Jergovic explores the physical and emotional catastrophe that occurred in the capital city of Bosnia during the nearly four-year long siege (1992-1996) of Sarajevo--the longest continual bombardment of a city in the history of modern warfare.  It is impossible to imagine the conditions under which a quarter of a million residents of Sarajevo lived during the encirclement and bombing of their homes by the Serbian army.  Twelve thousand civilians died; and if the number means little in this era of extraordinary casualty counts, consider the visceral meaning of the phrase "the precariousness of everyday life" for the residents of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, or compare it to the horrors visited upon Beirut--and Lebanon--during the fifteen years of that country's civil war.  As Jergovic's collection demonstrates, death was on every Sarajevan's mind--it had to be so--but the routine nature of disaster couldn't detract in the least from the anxiety and fear felt by every person in the besieged city.  Where would the shells fall?  Could one continue to live above ground, or did one have to climb--as the hero of Cactus does--into a subterranean room to survive?  When the fear of death becomes routine, what happens to one's connection to life?  These are the questions explored in Sarajevo Marlboro, an understated and almost matter-of-fact engagement with the destruction of Jergovic's beloved city.

"Salih F. saw with his own eyes his wife and two daughters being cut up with an electric saw by the Chetniks."  And what is the fate of Salih F.?  A prisoner, a refugee, a patient--what to do with a man who has witnessed such horror?  The point, of course, is to forget--but if one cannot, then one is declared insane.  I kept thinking that Jergović's laconic style reflected the impossibility of knowing what to do with such memories--going mad seems as good a choice as any.  And yet most of the characters in Sarajevo Marlboro are resolutely sane, trying simply to survive, adapting to conditions that most of us can't even imagine.  Many of the stories end with little moral lessons that are, under the circumstances, bitterly ironic: a man who has witnessed a friend's throat being cut for presumably telling a lie to the Chetniks reasons that "Perhaps there really are occasions in life when it is best not to say anything." 

Miljenko Jergović is an interesting and important literary figure   A Bosnian Croat born in Sarajevo (in 1966),  Jergović now lives in Zagreb and has written extensively both as a novelist and journalist about the sense of displacement felt by former residents of Yugoslavia since the tragic disintegration of that country.  The most moving story in the collection for me is The Library, a story that was inspired by the destruction of the National Library of Sarajevo and its 3 million volumes (!), many of them unique copies of works central to the history of the polygot, multi-cultural enclave that was Bosnia before 1993.

"With the illusion of the private library also vanishes the illusion of a bibliotheca, or civilization of they burned, disappearing irrevocably one after the other, you stopped believing that there was any purpose in a book's existence."

For a recent story of the preservation of 100,000 rare books and manuscripts from the conflagration of 1993, see Bookmarks Toolbar Most Visited 

Sarajevo Marlboro was translated by Stela Tomasevic, with an introduction by Ammiel Alcalay, and published by Archipelago Books (in 2004).

George Ovitt (1/23/14)

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