On 3 March 1992, after a referendum for independence from Yugoslavia, held on 29 February and 1 March 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence. A vast majority of the Serbs boycotted the referendum and the Bosnian Serbs, whose strategic goal was to create a new Bosnian Serb State of Republika Sprpska, encircled Sarajevo with a siege force of 13,000 stationed in the surrounding hills.
The City of Sarajevo was under siege from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996, making it the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. During this period the city was assaulted by artillery, mortars, tanks, rocket launchers, aircraft bombs and sniper rifles. The city was officially blockaded from 2 May 1992 and it is estimated that during the four years between 9,502-14,011 people were killed.
Alma Lazarevska is a graduate of the University of Sarajevo, a Bosnian writer and celebrated in her homeland, winning the “Best Book” award from the Society of Writers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for this collection of six short stories, “Death in the Museum of Modern Art”. All of the stories set during the siege and in Sarajevo.
Our collection opens with “Dafna Pehfogl Crosses the Bridge between There and Here”, the story of Dafna who has been cursed since birth. And literally since birth, her mother having a crooked tooth from clenching her jaw during childbirth, and the maid was distracted by the screams, burning the last half a kilo of coffee she was roasting at the time. Dafna needs to cross a bridge out of the besieged city, to simply be reunited with her family.
The second short story is “Greetings from the Besieged City” where our narrator is attempting to conjure up a happy story about postcards from the coast. A tale where she chases the endings of children’s stories to avoid an explanation of death, even though there is death all around them:
She was sent to a hospital on the edge of the city, somewhere I never had reason to go. It is only when a city becomes besieged city that you acquire a burning wish to reach its edges. Then you are drawn by a strong desire to step over the ring imposed on you by force. Then you gradually realise that there are always rings around you, albeit invisible and not always imposed malevolently. You cross them on those quite ordinary journeys the aim of which is a summer holiday or distance that may easily be attained by the simple purchase of a ticket. And all that interests you then is that edge of the town where such journeys start. Not remotely the one where sorrowful hospitals are built, in dead-end streets.
This story also contains a fellow literature student who wanted Anna Karenina to have a happy ending. This short story contains postcards, two redheads and a pink balloon! Is there still beauty in a besieged city?
Although you live in a besieged city on which dozens of people may die in one day from the blow of a single ball of fire, you still find it difficult to start to accustom your boy to the fact of death. Which reading matter can you use for that? Although, when you compare the two planes, it becomes senseless. Out boy knows that a friend of his was killed a few months ago. A fragment of the red-hot metal that is let loose when the ball of fire bursts went through the very centre of his brain. The child’s brain spilled onto the asphalt, before it had become familiar with the fact of death. And here we are, still protecting our boy from the fact that the hero of a book has died.
Onto our third short story, “The Secret of Kaspar Hauser” which takes place over breakfast in an apartment opposite the hospital and the main question is “why is their bedroom on the north side of the apartment”. There is no answer, what is the secret of Kaspar Hauser”? the sentence is interrupted by a colon “as though anticipating a list” but there is no answer, there is nothing there, no questions, no full stops....nothing
“Thirst in Number Nine” is set in housing block number nine, where our narrator has recently moved and tells us the tale of the residents without actually meeting them. She can tell from the sounds behind the doors, the smells from kitchens, and the one blue eye peeping through one of the spy holes in one of the doors. The residents do meet, eventually, in the cellar whilst under a siege.
Our fifth tale is “How we Killed the Sailor”:
That’s what he did when I pointed out that he was spreading the margarine too tickly on his slices of bread; when i remarked that he had given away almost the entire contents of the package of humanitarian supplies that the inhabitants of the besieged city occasionally receive. All he’d left us was a little packet of green mints. I once told him they reminded me of my grandmother who had died long ago – my mother’s blue-eyed mother who was never hungry. It’s true that we still has the cardboard packing. It burns well, but we won’t use it. The inscription on it and the list of contents may one day feed some future story.
The myth for this one is that if you light a cigarette with a candle a sailor will die, so the dilemma is keeping matches to light candles (made from balls of wax from already melted candles) or using the scare matches to light the cigarette and saving a sailor’s life.
Finally we finish up with the title story, “Death in the Museum of Modern Art”, the title coming from an exercise by the New York Museum of Modern Art who has written to Sarajevo residents and asked them “How would you like to die?” the answers to appear in a publication with photos.
This whole collection is made up of short staccato sentences and paragraphs as islands. Quickly jumping from one description, one thought to the next. The writing is rapid fire but at times it is mere fragments of a whole, at other times even cryptic, you as a reader feel under siege. You are living in the besieged city, so much so you thoughts have been transformed.
The whole collection is deeply layered with metaphor:
On sunny days, the street reminded one of transparent sea shallows in which the spine of slender fish flashes, like a silver exclamation mark.
Occasionally ambulances sped along the street. The sirens rent the silence. Then the piercing sound subsided and silence closed in again like water over the drowned.
A sunset does not damage even the fish swimming under the point where the sun falls into the sea. There, beyond the ring that is holding the besieged city in its grip stands a man with eyes the colour of which vile frogs could spawn.
Like the taut, transparent bubble that appears when you cut into fresh fish.
This is an important collection of stories, the tales from a part of the world that we rarely see literature translated, taking place during an important time in world history. This year we had Hassan Blasim’s “The Iraqi Christ” taking out the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Judge Boyd Tonkin saying, “a decade after the Western invasion and occupation of Iraq, that country’s writers are exploring the brutal and chaotic aftermath of war and tyranny with ever-growing confidence.” Similarly in this work of short stories, we have Alma Lazarevska using “fearless candour and rule-busting artistry”, slightly surreal, slightly cryptic but with the siege of Sarajevo always bubbling in the background.
Thanks to Istros Books for the preview copy, along with “A Handful of Sand by Mirenko Koscec and Marija Knezevic’s “Ekaterini” I can say their selection of Balkan works are ones that you should be keeping an eye on.