“In this world, as it is, there is one basic rule; Zuko Dzumhur mentioned it when he was thinking about Bosnia, and it relates to the two suitcases that you always have packed in the hall. All your possessions and all your memories have to fit into them. Everything outside is already lost. There is no point looking for reasons or meanings and excuses. They are just a burden, like memories.”
This short story collection is in parts harrowing, moving and humorous. In war the extreme’s of human behaviour are all there from the man who knew how to tell a good story being imprisoned and talking his way out as some sort of general to the confident carefree Sarajevo resident driven out of his own city and his own life because of the threat of war and intolerance.
Split into three parts once you have got past the setting and the introduction to pre-war Sarajevo the bulk of the stories fit into the Reconstruction of Events section before a short but powerful ending entitled Who will be the Witness?
Like every good recounting of a civil war what is the most terrible weapon is jealously and the desire for revenge. As the differences between Muslims, Croats and Serbs come to become one’s of life and death the city becomes a battleground and neighbours fall on each other. The tragedy is that death could not only come from above via a bomb or from a snipers bullet but from an angry neighbour looking to settle scores.
This collection starts pre-war and then goes through the way a city is torn apart and uses stories on a few individuals to highlight the impact of war on people who have seen their lives turned upside down.
But this is also an insight into the culture of Sarajevo and there are lots of stories that include references to folklore and the way things work that will be of great interest to a reader like me coming from London without any real knowledge of Yugoslavia and then the countries post-break-up.
Usually when reviewing a short story collection I might pick out one or two of the stories that have made a striking impression. But because this whole book shares a common theme it’s not fair to take that approach. This collection shines a light on a war that few of us in the West really knew that much about and it is not just a testament to that conflict but a reminder of how neighbour can turn on neighbour when encouraged to do so. That danger is alive as much now as it was when the bombs were falling on Sarajevo.
Collections of short stories seem to broadly come in two cataegories: ones with an overall theme and those that are various works pulled together. This falls firmly into the first category with Jergovic describing a country Bosnia and a city, Sarajevo, that are ravaged by war.
His stories share that common theme but do seem to come in chronological order with the start describing a world on the brink of war and by the middle the shells and bullets and falling and flying pretty heavily.
What draws you in is the way that Jergovic writes about some horrible things but does so in such a way, tempted to say at arm’s length but that’s not perhaps right, that leaves the reader in a position to make up their own mind about the horror and brutality of war and its impact on innocent people.
A review will come soon…