Archive for the ‘Bosnian Literature’ Category

Our unnamed narrator gets up from bed one day. He says that he has been lying on bed for the past nine months. And his wife has left him. And it is his fault. He proceeds to tell us the story. When the doorbell rings. A woman is standing outside. She wants his help in finding her father. Before long we are hurled into a world, where the narrator’s city has changed beyond recognition in the last nine months, and the story looks real before the narrator starts seeing people from his dreams in the real world and things turn increasingly surreal and then some mythical, magical creatures appear. What happens after that and whether the narrator is able to help in finding the woman’s father forms the rest of the story.

This is the surface level story. Of course, this is not all there is to it, and there is more to it than meets the eye. The nine months that the narrator spends in bed are the worst, most violent nine months in Bosnia in the ’90s, and when we realize that, the whole story takes on a totally different meaning and we see everything in new light. The monsters in the story are real-world people who did monstrous things, and the disappearances of family members is what most families went through. A reader who reads this book in Bosnian or Croatian or Serbian will catch all this on the first read and will be able to appreciate the metaphors of the story with a deeper resonance. But for an outsider like me, it took a while to figure things out.

Selvedin Avdić’s prose is beautiful and is filled with humour and is a pleasure to read. There are many footnotes in the book which were fascinating. The book has a foreword by Nick Lezard, who reviews books for ‘The Guardian’, which is very interesting.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Then I thought that some music might help, recalling how it can easily change the atmosphere of any room. Do an experiment, if you don’t believe me. In a completely empty room, play different types of music and you will see how the shadows shift, the air stirs, the nuances of light change, as the room adjusts itself to the music, like the scene changing from act to act in the theatre. There is no such thing as complete silence. It does not exist. At least not in this world, maybe in outer space or in the bowels of the earth, where it’s only cold and dark.”

“Allah created this world so that it would be pleasing to an intelligent seven-year-old boy. That is what Ahmed said to me when I left his office. I think the thing that He made best was the morning. How I used to love the morning! I loved to drink coffee with Anđela and to make arrangements for the day, while morning was coming into the room. I loved every one of our conversations. I loved the little movements of her fingers around the cup. The scents, the clock ticking, the news on the radio…my whole body would relax. I could be alone with her for days, with her and the child in that little room. I used to tell her even prison would not be hard for me if we were together. Because, as the proverb says, if the household is never spiteful, the house is never too small. Mornings are now completely senseless. I imagine that they are still beautiful, but I can no longer notice.”

Have you read ‘Seven Terrors’? What do you think about it?


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Alma Lazarevska’sDeath in the Museum of Modern Art‘ is a collection of short stories. It has six stories. They are all set during the siege of Sarajevo, though the stories don’t mention the city by name. Most of the stories are narrated in the first person, and the narrator seems to be a literary version of the author.

I loved most of the stories in the collection. In most of the stories the narrator describes everyday scenes in her life and how they change suddenly after the siege starts and the first shells start falling in the city, and things like sugar, matches, bread and even water become hard to get. Alma Lazarevska’s prose is soft and gentle and reading the narrator telling her story is like listening to our favourite aunt sharing her experiences while sipping a cup of hot tea, while we are sitting in front of the fire in winter listening to her. I loved listening to Alma Lazarevska’s voice through the voice of the narrator. At some point, I stopped thinking about the story (the stories were beautiful, poetic, and haunting) but just continued reading for the narrator’s gentle and wise voice. Someone said this about Alma Lazarevska’s books – “There are books about which one talks and there are books with which one talks—Alma Lazarevska’s book is of the latter kind.” I felt exactly that, when I read this book.

I loved Alma Lazarevska’s ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘. Her work is hard to come by in English translation. There are one or two stories by her in online literary journals. None of her other works have been translated. She has a slim backlist – just one more short story collection, a novel and a collection of essays. Hope they get translated into English. I wish she had written more. There is an interview with her online in which she talks about how she started writing, her literary influences, her favourite writers, her city of Sarajevo, about Bosnian literature and other things. When we read the interview, we feel that we are in the presence of a gentle soul. There was one particular thing she said in the interview, which went like this –

“In my tongue Ivo Andrić is the undisputed master of language. The precision and the beauty of Andrić’s language are fascinating. In a biographical note for my English-language publisher I pointed out that I was born on the 9th of March, the same day as Bobby Fischer. To use chess terminology, I would like to be at least a pawn in a language in which Andrić is the king.”

This is the kind of thing that a contemporary writer will rarely say. Alma Lazarevska’s humility is inspiring and her love for Ivo Andrić’s prose is infectious.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘The Secret of Kasper Hauser

“But, life was still order that had not yet begun to disintegrate. It lay in drawers with folded white bed linen and little bags of dried lavender. It was still all-of-a-piece, even if it was sometimes disrupted in the morning by the disagreeable sound of the alarm-clock. On one such morning the north-facing room acquired a new secret. I woke up before dawn in order to take an antibiotic. Replacing the bottle from which I had tipped a red and yellow tablet onto my hand, I caught sight of a bright, swaying blot that I had never seen in this room before. It was trembling on the spine of the large book I had been reading the previous evening. That is how I discovered that in the early morning a little ray of sunlight manages to penetrate into the room that faces north…We wake up too late or else that rare ray of sunlight penetrates into our room too early…The green book with silver letters was lying over there, and on its spine was that trembling blot of light I had seen once before. If I was quick and quiet, perhaps I’d catch it. I know that light is not sensitive to touch or sound. But still, I edged towards it as though it were a live butterfly. I lowered my hand onto the spine of the green book and now the blot was trembling on the back of my hand, like a transparent, asymmetric butterfly.”

From ‘How We Killed the Sailor

“The room had lost its box-shape. The light of the thin candle didn’t reach its corners. It created a dim, uneven oval that shifted lazily if an unexpected current of air happened to touch its tiny wick. There was a transparent, trembling film over us. The few objects that were bathed in dim light, and the two of us, made up the inside of a giant amoeba. We were its organs, pulsating in the same rhythm, but not touching.”

I loved Alma Lazarevska’s short story collection. Hope more of her work gets translated into English. I’d love to read them.

You can find Marina Sofia’s review of the book here.

Have you read ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘? What do you think about it?

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I loved John Cox’s translation of Biljana Jovanović’s book, especially his introductory essay on Yugoslavian / Serbian literature and on Jovanović’s work. So I did some research on which other books he has translated and that is how I discovered Ajla Terzić’sThis Could Have Been a Simple Story’. Ajla Terzić is a Bosnian writer and this book was originally published in Bosnian.

Esma works in an organization which helps people. She is single. She doesn’t have any near family – her dad moved away when she was young, and her mom has passed. She has an aunt and uncle and cousins and they invite her home during festival times. Once her office sends her to Vienna for a seminar. She meets a woman in the train compartment and sparks fly. But later the woman disappears. After a couple of days, this woman, called Roza, calls up Esma and they meet again. The sparks become a fire. And that is the end of life, as Esma knows it. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

This Could Have Been a Simple Story‘ is a beautiful lesbian love story. The first meeting, the attraction, the love, and the relationship between Esma and Roza is beautifully depicted. The kind of resistance that these two have to put up, and the battles they have to fight, especially when facing opposition from their friends, family members and loved ones, has been portrayed in the story in a nuanced way. In the last chapter of the book, Esma is at the edge of the precipice (a metaphorical precipice, of course), and we can feel the author Ajla Terzić literally pause her pen over paper, and contemplate on what to do next, and we readers realize that the fate of our heroine Esma, and our own happiness lies in the author’s hands, and we wait with bated breath to find out what happens next. Does Esma take the risk and jump off the precipice and take the plunge? Or does she step back to the safety of her previous life before all this happened? You have to read the story to find out.

It was nice to discover a new Bosnian author in Ajla Terzić. There is a beautiful introduction at the beginning of the story, in which the translator John Cox introduces us to Bosnian literature and Ajla Terzić’s work. It is vintage John Cox. John Cox is odd among translators, because he is a Balkan historian. So his knowledge of Balkan and Bosnian history, culture, literature and language is deep and that is clearly visible in the introductory essay and in the footnotes throughout the book.

John Cox says this in his introduction – “She (Ajla Terzić) herself sees no need to stress this, but you are about to read the first novel by a Bosnian woman that has appeared in English translation.” If this is true, then this book breaks new ground and this translation is pioneering. And the fact that the first book by a Bosnian woman to be translated into English is a lesbian love story – that makes it even better.

One of the central things in the book is the way music is embedded throughout the story. This would be easily perceptible to a Bosnian reader, but to an outsider like myself, it would be impossible to see. For this reason, the introduction is invaluable. The main character Esma’s name, the title of the book, and the titles of all the chapters are taken from the songs of the famous Yugoslav band Bijelo Dugme, and John Cox explains the connection between the band and the author and the book. One of my favourite musical discoveries from the book was a Bosnian music form called Sevdalinka, which expresses unrequited longing through music. I went and listened to a recording of it. It was beautiful, haunting, heartbreaking. (Do search for ‘U Stambolu na Bosforu’ by Daphne Kritharas, in YouTube, if you’d like to listen.)

I enjoyed reading ‘This Could Have Been a Simple Story‘. I can’t wait to read more books by Ajla Terzić.

Have you read ‘This Could Have Been a Simple Story’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Sarajevo Marlboro‘ by Miljenko Jergović recently. I have never heard of Miljenko Jergović before and so I was excited to read this.

Sarajevo Marlboro‘ is a collection of 29 stories. Nearly all the stories are set in the ’90s during the war in Bosnia. Some of the stories are about how the war impacts the life of normal people. Other stories are just about normal people and their beautiful, charming, imperfect lives, with the war playing only a minor role in the story.

Some of my favourite stories from the book were these –

Theft – a story about two neighbours which involves apples. The last passage in the story was heartbreaking and made me cry.

Beetle – it is about a man’s love for his Volkswagen Beetle car.

The Gravedigger – a beautiful story about a gravedigger, which is also related to the title of the book.

The Condor – hilarious dark comedy.

The Gardener – it is about a gardener, but it really isn’t, because it is about a lot of other things and it is so hard to describe.

The Letter – a letter is the main character in the story.

The Library – a heartbreaking story about the Sarajevo library

This is just a random list. I loved all the stories in the book. Nearly every story had beautiful passages in it. As I continued reading the stories, I realized that Miljenko Jergović was no ordinary writer. His prose was beautiful, his observations were perceptive, his insights were amazing, the humour was cool. He is probably one of the greatest literary talents to have come out of Bosnia in recent decades. His stories were such a pleasure to read. I was happy to discover that he has got a nice backlist. I can’t wait to read more of his work.

The book has a beautiful introduction called ‘Everyday History‘ by Ammiel Alcalay. The first passage of this introduction was brilliant. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I am sharing it below.

“The circuitous routes traveled by literary texts across various borders, checkpoints, blockades and holding pens should finally, once and for all, lay to rest the romantic notion that such texts announce themselves and arrive simply by virtue of their inherent qualities as literature. Nothing could be farther from the truth: like any commodity, literary texts gain access through channels and furrows that are prepared by other means. Fashion, chance encounters, fortuitous circumstances, surrogate functions, political alliances and cataclysmic events such as war or genocide are much more certain and constant catalysts than judgment based on actual literary history or cultural importance. The texts that manage to sneak through the policing of our monolingual borders still only provide a mere taste – fragmented, out of context – of what such works might represent in their own cultures, languages, as well as historical and political contexts. One novel or book of poems by a single writer, removed from the cluster of other writers and artists from which it has emerged, unbuttressed by correspondence, biographies or critical studies – such a work of translation…too often functions as a means of reinforcing the assumptions behind our uniquely military/industrial/new critical approach to the work of art as an object of contemplation rather than a call to arms, a cry for justice, an act of solidarity or a witness to history. The writer remains an individual, chosen by authorities as representative of a period or style, rather than one of many emerging from a densely textured and pluralistic scene.”

I loved ‘Sarajevo Marlboro‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I can’t wait to explore more of Miljenko Jergović’s work.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘The Letter

“Everything I had was left behind, and represents, at least in my imagination, the price of fear. And my home, my books, fridge, video, furniture, the feeling that I have to save up for the future . . . These days I spend money more freely than ever, because I don’t have enough of a stake in this new city to buy anything of value. Just a microwave. Since I’ve got money I eat in expensive restaurants. I leave the change. I don’t even bother to count the smaller notes. I feel like a monk, without any possessions, but with a wealth of choices. I could be somewhere very different in just a moment. Or I could be nowhere, in a world of pure dreams, faith or fatalism. It really doesn’t matter.”

From ‘The Condor

“Izet was what they call an eglen-effendi, or brilliant talker. He could talk non-stop from dusk to dawn. One story flowed into another, one event turned into the next. Often he’d use the day’s events to begin a story that would range across whole centuries and finally return to the price of meat or some gossip about a fellow called Hido…There was no end to Izet’s stories, just as there’s no end to time, the past or the future. But they were never dull and they usually had a message or a moral and were seldom erratic : a tiny thread of narrative kept you holding on to the story, and forced you to listen, even if it meant that you had to go hungry or without drink, or that your life as a whole became a tense silence in which things only mattered if they could be described by a storyteller.”

Have you read ‘Sarajevo Marlboro‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘The Moment‘ by Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar serendipitously while looking for something else.

Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar is a Bosnian writer who has written novels, short stories, poems and plays. ‘The Moment‘ is a collection of her short stories.

There are ten stories in ‘The Moment‘. The first story ‘Memento Mori‘ is nearly one-fourth the length of the book. It is set in the ’90s during the war in Bosnia. It is a sad, heartbreaking story with a surprising ending written in what can only be described as serene and tranquil prose. The surprises continue in the rest of the book. Nearly all the stories have surprise endings, and most of the time they are unexpected. ‘Dzevad of Sokolica‘ is a story about the beautiful friendship between a fifty year old man and a ten year old girl. It has a sad ending, which seems to be Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar’s favourite kind of ending, but the ending was so unexpectedly surprising that I didn’t see that coming. It also put the rest of the story in context and made me think. ‘Pigeon‘ has the feel of an Edgar Allan Poe story. ‘The Vase‘ is about a mother and her son. ‘Mother‘ is about a man who accidentally discovers a dark secret about his family which changes him as a person. I enjoyed reading all the stories in the book and I loved the surprise endings. My favourites were ‘Memento Mori‘ (because it was atmospheric, dark and heartbreaking) and ‘Dzevad of Sokolica‘ (because of its depiction of a beautiful friendship and the surprising ending). I want to read more of Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar’s stories. Hope they get translated into English.

I read this for ‘Women in Translation Month‘ which celebrates translated literature by women writers during the whole of August.

Have you read Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar’s book? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Zlata’s Diary‘ by Zlata Filipović recently and read it today.

Zlata is a eleven year old girl living in Sarajevo. It is the year 1991. It is a normal year. Zlata goes to school, plays with friends, celebrates birthdays, plays the piano, catches up with her grandparents who live nearby, goes on holiday trips with her family. She writes about all this in her diary. Then one day news arrives that there is war in a nearby town. And after that rumours spread. Then one day the rumours arrive that Sarajevo is going to be shelled on a particular day. People who believe in the rumours start leaving the city. Smart people, wise people like Zlata’s parents, are sad that people are believing in rumours and misinformation. Sarajevo is a peaceful city and they believe that things will continue to be peaceful there. Unfortunately, the rumour-believers turn out to be right. The shelling happens and all hell breaks loose. Zlata continues recording all these happenings in her diary, which she calls Mimmy. So everyday, she has a conversation with Mimmy. For nearly two years, we get a firsthand account of what happened in Sarajevo during those terrible, war-torn years, as we see the daily happenings, the small happy ones and the big sad ones through the eyes of a eleven year old (and later twelve year old and thirteen year old). Our heart goes out to Zlata, as she wonders why there is a meaningless war going on, and why grownups who are supposed to be making rational decisions and doing better, keep the fires of war and hate burning.

Zlata’s Diary‘ takes us into the everyday life of a Bosnian family, and then before we know it, we are transported into a war-torn zone, which is scary as we can almost hear the shells exploding in the front of our streets, and the fear and dread creeping into our hearts. It is a powerful book. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed reading it – it was scary and heartbreaking – but I am glad I read it.

I am sharing a couple of my favourite passages from the book below.

From the entry on Thursday, 19 November 1992

“I keep wanting to explain these stupid politics to myself, because it seems to me that politics caused this war, making it our everyday reality. War has crossed out the day and replaced it with horror, and now horrors are unfolding instead of days. It looks to me as though these politics mean Serbs, Croats and Muslims. But they are all people. They are all the same. They all look like people, there’s no difference. They all have arms, legs and heads, they walk and talk, but now there’s ‘something’ that wants to make them different. Among my girlfriends, among our friends, in our family, there are Serbs and Croats and Muslims. It’s a mixed group and I never knew who was a Serb, a Croat or a Muslim. Now politics has started meddling around. It has put an ‘S’ on Serbs, an ‘M’ on Muslims and a ‘C’ on Croats, it wants to separate them. And to do so it has chosen the worst, blackest pencil of all – the pencil of war which spells only misery and death. Why is politics making us unhappy, separating us, when we ourselves know who is good and who isn’t? We mix with the good, not with the bad. And among the good there are Serbs and Croats and Muslims, just as there are among the bad. I simply don’t understand it. Of course, I’m ‘young’, and politics are conducted by ‘grown-ups’. But I think we ‘young’ would do it better. We certainly wouldn’t have chosen war. The ‘kids’ really are playing, which is why us kids are not playing, we are living in fear, we are suffering, we are not enjoying the sun and flowers, we are not enjoying our childhood. WE ARE CRYING.”

From the entry on Monday, 15 March 1993

“And spring is around the corner. The second spring of the war. I know from the calendar, but I don’t see it. I can’t see it because I can’t feel it…There are no trees to blossom and no birds, because the war has destroyed them as well. There is no sound of birds twittering in springtime. There aren’t even any pigeons – the symbol of Sarajevo. No noisy children, no games. Even the children no longer seem like children. They’ve had their childhood taken away from them, and without that they can’t be children. It’s as if Sarajevo is slowly dying, disappearing. Life is disappearing. So how can I feel spring, when spring is something that awakens life, and here there is no life, here everything seems to have died.”

I read this for Women in Translation Month which is celebrated during the whole of August.

Have you read ‘Zlata’s Diary‘? What do you think about it?

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I read two stories by Bosnian women writers yesterday and today for ‘Women in Translation Month‘, which is celebrated throughout August. I think these are the first Bosnian writers I’ve ever read. Both the stories were written for children.

Story 1 : The Poet from Unknowntown by Aleksandra Čvorović

The first story I read was ‘The Poet from Unknowntown‘ by Aleksandra Čvorović. Aleksandra Čvorović is a Bosnian writer who writes mostly poetry and stories for children. This one is a story for children. There is a poet in a small town who composes poems spontaneously and sets them to music and sings them. The people of the town love him. One day the poet sees a doll that the town toymaker has made and falls in love with it. He wants the doll to come to life. But to do this you need magic. And if you invoke magic, there is a price to pay. What happens after that forms the rest of the story. The last passage from the story is very beautiful and it goes like this –

“This is a story about the curse of beauty, and about transient, magic moments of love. I dedicate it to the people who give themselves up in order to grasp elusive fantasises. Happiness is an enchantress who slips from the hands of those wishing to hold her tightly. She roams about and favours only the free souls, the uninhibited pulses of real artists.”

I enjoyed reading this story, and I’d love to read more stories by Aleksandra Čvorović.

Story 2 : When Ivona Wants and Wants by Ljubica Ostojić

The second story I read was ‘When Ivona Wants and Wants‘ by Ljubica Ostojić. Ljubica Ostojić was a Bosnian writer who mostly wrote poems, plays, scripts for dramas and stories for children. This is a children’s story. In this story, the main character Ivona is a charming stubborn girl. The first passage of the story describes her perfectly.

“Ivona knows what she doesn’t want. She doesn’t want to eat spinach, put on the blue dress, wear pigtails, or sleep when she’s not in the mood. She doesn’t want to say “sorry” or “forgive me” when she has done something wrong. No! She’d rather be punished. Ivona’s like that. Which bothers mum, dad, the teacher of the older group in the kindergarten, everyone actually. But, when Ivona wants something? Then, she wants it, wants it, wants it. And the problems begin.”

One day, Ivona wants a dog as a pet. Her parents say ‘No’. From Ivona’s perspective, of course, this is not the end of the story, but the beginning. For her, ‘No’, is the beginning of a negotiation 😊 What Ivona does next forms the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading Ivona’s story. Ivana is such a charming character and Ljubica Ostojić’s writing is very beautiful to read. From the first passage, the story is charming and grabs the reader’s attention and never lets go. I loved it. I want to read more of Ljubica Ostojić’s stories.

So, these are the first two stories I read in August. What are you reading?

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