Five years passed in the blink of an eye. Natasa was in Belgrade, and I was in Sarajevo. The war was raging. The war of my life, the only one I remember and the only one in which it seems that I’ll die, yet remain alive. . . . The phone lines were down. I was in the Jewish Community Center at the Drvenija Bridge. All around there were people waiting for a connection, in front of me a ham radio operator with a funny machine like something out of the Second World War. From the machine you could hear the hum of all the world’s oceans, the cracking and creaking of every shipwreck, all at once. A voice surfaced from between and beneath the waves. The voice said she’s asking how are you?
This paragraph from the title story of Miljenko Jergovic’s Mama Leone (Brooklyn: archipelago books, 2012; published originally in Zagreb by Zorro in 1999) breaks my heart. The scene is also funny, as when “she” in the radio operator’s third person asks if she can send him anything and he says, sotto voce, newspapers and bacon, and the waiting crowd at the Jewish Center breaks into laughter.
The stories in the first 2/3 of the book are told by the same character, stories from his childhood in and out of Sarajevo. “Mama Leone” is the final story in that section, and even though the radio operator is turning them into narrated characters, the narrator breaks through with a loud I love you more than anything in the world, is cheered by the crowd, and then subsides into a mostly sad resignation when Natasa moves to Canada and he never contacts her again.
The stories in the final 1/3 of the book (That Day a Childhood Story Ended) are about various characters and are told in the third person. That break in the text is a disruption like the disruptions of identity that occur when nationalist Serbs and Croats and Bosnians assert separate identities, when new identities are required, when Sarajevo and Belgrade are suddenly no longer connected.
It is, I think, a fine book.
Jergovic’s book of stories Sarajevo Marlboro was published in the same beautifully square format by archipelago books in 2004 (originally published in Croatia by Durieux in 1994). Its stories are about war from the perspectives of characters who suffer in the war, sometimes, as in “The Condor,” at the hands of their enemies and then at the hands of their own people as well. It is a profoundly anti-war book.
The question of identity in a time of new identities catalyzed by conflict is manifest awkwardly, or perhaps poignantly, by these two books. A book published in “Croatia” in 1994 would have been among the first to be published in a country broken away from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Despite that fact, the archipelago edition of Sarajevo Marlboro says that it has been “translated from Bosnian by Stela Tomasevic.” Born in Sarajevo, Jergovic’s language was once Serbo-Croatian but is now, as Bosnia establishes its own identity after Yugoslavia, Bosnian. This new Bosnian identity was transported to Croatia, where Jergovic has lived and worked since the mid 1990s. That change is reflected in Mama Leone, which, the archipelago editition asserts, was “translated from the Croatian by David Williams.” Add a translation from the Serbian and the circle would be complete.
For another example of fractured and translated identity, see this.