Books

REMEMBERING BOSNIA: Two Contemporary Bosnian Novels, reviewed by Esther Harper

December 23, 2015

Selvedin’s Avdic’s Seven Terrors (2012) and Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art (2014) provide a deeply poignant insight into the lives of those who suffered the Bosnian War. Though fictional accounts, the stories evoke clearly the literal and figurative battle endured in Bosnia throughout the early nineties, and give a strong impression of the deep scars those years have left behind.

seven terrorsSeven Terrors, originally published in Bosnian in 2010 and translated into English by Coral Petkovich, takes readers on a psychological journey with the narrator – who remains unnamed throughout – as he searches for his friend Aleksa, a journalist suddenly gone missing during the war. Aleksa’s daughter Mirna, having discovered her father’s war diaries, has come to the narrator’s apartment to ask for his help, hoping the diaries might serve as a clue to his whereabouts. This fictional account of loss is, one suspects, symbolic of  thousands of Bosnian families broken up by the conflict.

The narrator’s account of events begins relatively normally – ending nine months of isolation and depression following the abrupt departure of his wife, he’s brutally honest about the emotional trauma he’s been through. With Mirna’s appearance, the narrative takes on a second layer, and the following chapters are spent on the contents of her father’s diary, in which he describes his supernatural encounters, whilst researching an article, with a spirit in a mine. There’s a strong focus on Bosnia’s mining industry throughout, much of the action taking place underground with abiding themes of darkness, destruction and evil. While the narrator embarks on a quest to piece together what’s happened to his friend, he’s also on an internal journey of exploration, processing the trauma of losing his wife. The journeys are merged and blurred, difficult to distinguish from one another, both leading him down a path where he comes face to face with fear and darkness in different forms. Readers should be ready for a searching and disturbing metaphorical account of a country in the grip of conflict.

death in the museum (2)Meanwhile Death in the Museum of Modern Art, published in its original Bosnian in 1996, and translated by Celia Hawkesworth, offers a series of six portraits of people affected by the siege of Sarajevo in the early to mid-1990s. Each of the short stories describes a person, a group of people or a situation in a range of contexts and each is completely absorbing. Though in all probability based on actual events, the stories nonetheless add to the narrative a crucial element of surrealism. This extra layer draws the reader in and adds depth, accentuating the emotions of their protagonists. The first, ‘Dafna Pehfogl Crosses the Bridge Between There and Here’ is at root the tale of a woman who’s been separated from her family during the siege and, in order to be reunited with them, has to cross a bridge leading out of the city. Yet Lazarevska adds another layer of detail about Dafna – she’s been cursed since birth: it’s affected her life and many of her relationships, and much of the chapter explores Dafna’s background. The point is clear: though many people experienced separation from family during the siege, each was an individual with a unique story to tell.

The fourth story describes the narrator’s experience of living in a block of flats and the people she comes across there. We become acquainted with them through assumptions the narrator makes based on smells and sounds emanating from their apartments. Poignantly, the residents only meet when they have to gather in the cellar during a siege, and the very opposite point from the first story is made: though they’re different people with individual stories, they all have war in common.

Each of these stories is a strikingly deep account of different characters, and all show the search for beauty in the midst of war. Though the people in them are imprisoned in a war-torn city, we see them striving nonetheless to find good in lives dominated by death. One striking aspect is the rarity with which we’re given the characters’ names: it seems Lazarevska wanted deliberately to withold this clue to origin, showing that, in a conflict whose whole basis was identity and ethnicity, such things in the context of war were more or less irrelevant: the experience – whichever side you were on – was shared and universal.

Both Lazarevska’s and Avdic’s novels are strong on the realities of conflict for ordinary people, showing how they dealt with war on their doorstep and in their houses. Both authors succeed in telling stories through which the harshness of the war permeates, and the picture they allow the reader to create through an accumulation of emotions and experiences is hugely affecting, even when the issue of war’s only implied and not plainly spoken of. They’re the perfect insight into life on the ground during and after the Bosnian conflict, and of the indelible mark those years left on the nation – even when the headlines have long since moved on to other things.

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[The carousel image used for this review was “Sarajevo Siege Mehmed Fehimovic PinkFloyd” by Christian Maréchal – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Selvedin’s Avdic’s Seven Terrors (2012) and Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art (2014) are both available from Istros Books, priced at £8.99.

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