One of my dear friends, who inspires me with her reading (she was the first person – and for a long time the only person – I knew who had read Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’) gifted me the book ‘Fax from Sarajevo’ by Joe Kubert many months back. It was a collector’s edition and it was out of print. I have been reading the introduction, flipping the pages, reading a bit here and there, but not really reading the book to complete it. I keep my favourite books aside and read them slowly and try to spread the enjoyment for the longest time. I was doing that to this book 🙂 Sometime this month I realized that I have to really read it and enjoy the book as a whole rather than reading a snippet here and there. So, I took the book and read it from the beginning to the end. Here is the review.
Summary of the story
I am giving below the summary of the book as given in the back cover.
In this full-color graphic story, comics legend Joe Kubert has produced, without question, the greatest and most personal work of a long and distinguished career. This is the story of Joe’s friend Ervin Rustemagic, as he and his family struggled to preserve their lives and dignity during the eighteen-month siege of Sarajevo in 1992-93. Ervin had nothing to rely on but the tenuous lifeline of a fax machine to communicate with his friends during the war. From hundreds of faxes detailing everything from the atrocities committed in the name of “ethnic cleansing” to the ever-present fears and frustrations of the Rustemagic family, Kubert has expertly pierced together a truly heart-wrenching story of a very real tragedy and, ultimately, of unflagging hope.
Here is another description of the book from the inside flap.
In 1945, we told the world, “Never again.” In 1992, we forgot our promise.
That was the year the war broke out in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The year that genocide revisited the planet. That was the year that Ervin Rustemagic and his family found themselves trapped in a city under siege.
An international businessman and art agent, Ervin had grown up in Sarajevo, and, for more than a decade, run his business there. When the shells and gunfire tore the city asunder, Ervin’s only means of communication with the outside world was his fax machine, through which he began to send rapid-fire messages. Messages that were faxed and re-faxed among Ervin’s many clients and friends.
For client and friend Joe Kubert, these faxes were a story unfolding, a story of horror, outrage, and inhumanity. Doing what he had done for years, Joe put the story on paper. The result is perhaps the highest achievement of one of comics’ greatest living masters : a story of hope and promise against the worst kind of odds. It’s the story of war, a very real war, told from the point of view of the innocent victims. It is the story of survival.
What I think
I found the book quite interesting, touching and sometimes very scary. I wasn’t following the international news much when the civil war in Bosnia was going on. I remember having an argument and quarrelling with one of my friends when the NATO forces bombed some parts of Yugoslavia and the bombs hit civilian targets – my friend supported the bombing and I didn’t. (To be fair, after reading this book, I realize now that she might have been right and I might have been wrong). I also remember former tennis player Goran Ivanisevic, making statements against Serbia, and supporting the Croatian cause, at tennis tournaments during those times. But, otherwise, I didn’t know a lot about the post-Yugoslavia scenario, when war erupted between Serbia and other former-Yugoslavian republics. This book gives a snapshot of that period, from the perspective of one family, who suffered during that time. The story is touching, moving and sometimes unbelievable. It is difficult to believe that things like this, which we see in movies, actually happened, not long time back. One of the characters in the story talks about concentration camps and about mercenary snipers targeting children because they were easy targets. The book also describes how tough, life was, during the siege of Sarajevo and how people lived through those terrible times with unflagging hope and how they also managed to bring happiness to each other during those trying times. Sometimes I had to pinch myself to realize that the book was not a story but was a record of real events. In one of the faxes, the main character in the story, Ervin, says this :
To all of us here it looks ridiculous now when we look back and remember some terrorists’ actions in Italy, France or England…When terrorists have killed 5, 6 or dozen persons. How much fuss was made about such terrorists’ acts?!? And we have here hundreds of such terrorists’ acts every day and nobody cares! New York, London, Paris, Rome or Hamburg are being very much shocked when a bomb explodes in metro or railway station…And only in our district of Dobrinja (residential area of Sarajevo where we live) over 250,000 bombs and grenades have exploded so far…
One can’t help but feel for Ervin. Unfortunately, international law is not strong enough to prevent atrocities within a country by the countries own rulers. Also, in a situation like this, when a country declares independence, and the parent country hasn’t accepted it, the situation is fluid and no one intervenes till the dust settles down. Unfortunately, this is no consolation for the people who live in the war-torn zone, and suffer a lot of turmoil because of things beyond their control.
One of the interesting things I liked in the story is the name of the main character and his family members – Ervin, Edina, Edvin and Maja. All beautiful names and the first three rhyme 🙂 Another interesting thing which I found was that the book describes Sarajevo as a multi-religious and multi-ethnic city and that seems to be the case with the whole of Bosnia and the story suggests that ethnic cleansing was done by the Serbs. I don’t know what is the objective version of history with respect to the events in Bosnia – I will have to do a little bit of research into it – but if the facts suggested by the book are true, then it follows that NATO forces were actually fighting on behalf of the Muslims of the erstwhile Yugoslavia, when it decided to send its bombers. It is an interesting fact to ponder in these post-9/11 days. I am looking forward to doing more research on the breakup of Yugoslavia and what actually happened in Bosnia.
I have a couple of other observations on the book. One of it is that sometimes the story moves in fits and starts and the scenes don’t transition in a smooth manner. But, when one realizes that it is actually a narration of real events, then one realizes that the the fits-and-starts character of real events is captured on the page. Another observation that I have on the book is on how much can be lost, when a real person is depicted by words or even by pictures. For example, Ervin’s wife Edina is shown as a normal homemaker, who takes care of her children and cries a lot and is depressed during the events of the story, but in the back pages, there is a photograph of Edina, in which she doesn’t look that way at all. She has the face of someone who is ready to withstand any pain and fight against all odds. She also has beautiful Slavic eyes, which I am fascinated with, which doesn’t come through in the main story. It just shows that it is extremely difficult to depict all facets of reality in a story – even if the story is in pictures.
I enjoyed reading ‘Fax from Sarajevo’ very much, though the story is at times sad, depressing and scary. I have to thank my friend for introducing me to this classic. If you like reading personal accounts of historical events, you will like reading this book. If you need some motivation, I will add some spice here : this book won both the Eisner and Harvey awards and so it has got a lot of critical acclaim too 🙂