Sunday, 24 January 2010

Views of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Following on from Serbia, I have just spent six days in the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina: Sarajevo.

In line with my rules for my 'Round the World' trip, this book was written post-1990 (in 1994), and this makes it all the more shocking in its depiction of the graphic horrors of a war-torn European country in the very recent past.

In 1994 the Bosnian War was at its height - an international armed conflict that took place between March 1992 and November 1995, involving the neighbouring states of Croatia and the (then) Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Sarajevo was in the heart of this conflict and so, unlike my trip to Kosova (which took place after conflict had ended) and Serbia (where the protagonist was dangerously close to, but somewhat removed from, the conflict around him), here we find ourselves in the horrifying and bloody midst of war.

The book starts with an almost elegiac and nostalgic recollection of a bus trip to a scenic waterfall at Jajce, as recalled by a young boy. Whilst there is a degree of trauma here (a fatal road accident is witnessed), this vignette is in stark contrast to the collection of short stories that follow...

The overriding theme of this collection of short stories is that of ordinary lives suddenly interrupted - and often cut short - by shocking violence, usually in the form of heavy shelling on the city. The format is often similar in each work, a purposefully mundane description of ordinary urban lives - and then a cataclysmic moment of violence - often retold in the same mundane, matter-of-fact tone as the preceding part of the story. For instance in an excerpt from "The Gardener"... "We were coming home with our water when the shells began to fall, so we ran into the nearest building. The hall was already full of people. Ivanka leaned against the wall and put her canisters down, but I didn't let go of mine. She lit a cigarette, and then the place just exploded. People fell to the ground, and then one by one they stood up again. All except Ivanka, that is - she didn't stand up."

And the author, Miljenko Jergović, does not limit his observations of the conflict to the somewhat detached use of shells on civilian cities, he also describes with great insight and pathos the way in which personal relationships and communities were torn apart by the ethnic divisions which shaped this conflict. Stories such as "Beard" illustrate the heart-breaking instances where neighbour was turned against neighbour in this conflict, and the spectre of ethnic cleansing - in this instance at the hands of 'Chetniks' (Serbian paramilitaries) - infuses many of these accounts with brutal realism ("Beard" opens with the line... "Juraj's head lay in the mud like an empty dish into which the raindrops fell. But the soldiers marched past without giving him a second look").

All this is not to say that there is no room for humanity - and even humour - in this collection ("Beetle" is a poignant story - at first seemingly written to a lost loved one but which, as it turns out, is actually a requiem to a beloved VW Beetle Car owned by the narrator - itself a metaphor for the loss of normal life in post-war Bosnia & Herzegovina:- and the irony of the Beetle being a car designed by the Nazi regime of World War II is not lost on the author).

In striking such a balance - and in the sheer descriptive and emotional quality of the writing - Jergović shows himself to be a writer of real quality, one whom, like so many other writers I have encountered in this part of Europe, is deserving of a much wider audience in the Western world. When my ‘Round the World’ trip is eventually over, Jergović is a writer whom I shall return to and whose other works I will seek out.

If I have one criticism it is this - the constant format of normal lives destroyed by conflict in each successive story has the effect of numbing the reader to the impact of these stories by the end of the book. However, in achieving this effect - perhaps unconsciously - Jergović effectively demonstrates how us readers in the relatively peaceful West reacted to the Balkan Wars on the 1990s at the time... horror at first, sympathy, and then a sense of numbness at the repetition of the atrocities played out on the news each night... and even, eventually, a tragic disengagement with the plight of our neighbours in Southeastern Europe.

And now it is time to leave, and to make my way to Zagreb in Croatia, with "Zagreb, Exit South" by Edo Popović. This is another country impacted by the Bosnian War and the wider Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. However, for this leg I am travelling not just between countries but forward in time... to 2005, for an account of lives in this Balkan state several years on from the war, lives which are nevertheless still impacted upon by those recent conflicts.

The trip between these two cities is a long one (8 - 9 hours) so I decide to take a night train from Sarajevo, leaving at 9.20pm. I opt for a secured berth on the couchette car, meaning I am able to get a few hours sleep on the journey. The train itself has seen better days, but the couchette is clean and comfortable enough and worth the extra 10EURO - although there is an inconvenient ticket and passport check at the Bosnia/Croatia border crossing which means you won't get an uninterrupted night's sleep!

I arrive in Zagreb's cathedral-like train station at 6.42 in the morning and on to my new destination, the novel: "Zagreb, Exit South" by Edo Popović.

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