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Archive for the ‘War Literature’ Category

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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In J.L.Carr’sA Month in the Country‘, the narrator and one of the main characters are soldiers in the First World War, and that experience leaves a permanent impact on their psyche. After I read the book, I thought I’ll read a First World War memoir to understand this more and I picked up Edmund Blunden’sUndertones of War‘.

I discovered Edmund Blunden when I was in school. An excerpt from his book ‘Cricket Country‘ was one of the lessons in our English textbook. In that section, Blunden talks about the beauty of the English cricket season and mentions the great allrounder Frank Woolley. After I read that excerpt, I wanted to read the book. But I discovered that ‘Cricket Country’ was long out-of-print. Years later I searched for it in Gutenberg and at other places online and it was still not possible to find. But while looking for this, I discovered that Blunden has written a First World War memoir. I was amazed! I always thought that Blunden was a cricket writer. It turned out that he was a poet who fought in the First World War. Blunden’s cricket book is almost never mentioned anywhere and it seems to be just a footnote in his career. I am not giving up though – I’ll still keep looking for it.

On the book itself, ‘Undertones of War‘ is regarded as one of the great memoirs of the First World War. It has been compared to Robert Graves’Goodbye to All That‘. Blunden is frequently mentioned together with Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon as the three poets who fought in the First World War and survived to tell the tale.

Blunden’s memoir is not long. The edition I have is 190 pages long. Blunden doesn’t beat around the bush and start the book from his childhood and describe his family to us. He just gets to the point and describes how he signs up and gets called up to serve in the army. This happens on the first page. The rest of the book is about his war experiences. The book ends with Blunden coming back home, and the war not being over yet.

So what do I think about the book? Blunden is a poet, and it shows in every page. If it is possible to describe something in plain language and describe the same in poetic language, Blunden almost always chooses the second option. So there are many beautiful sentences and descriptions in the book. Sometimes it feels like we are reading a Wordsworth poem. For example, these lines –

“I heard an evening robin in a hawthorn, and in trampled gardens among the language of war, as Milton calls it, there was the fairy, affectionate immortality of the yellow rose and blue-grey crocus.”

And these lines –

“The village was friendly, and near it lay the marshy land full of tall and whispering reeds, over which evening looked her last with an unusual sad beauty, well suiting one’s mood.”

Even when he describes the war, he describes it like this –

“On the blue and lulling mist of evening, proper to the nightingale, the sheepbell and falling waters, the strangest phenomena of fire inflicted themselves. The red sparks of German trench mortars described their seeming-slow arcs, shrapnel shells clanged in crimson, burning, momentary cloudlets, smoke billowed into a tidal wave, and the powdery glare of many a signal-light showed the rolling folds.”

Blunden describes nature poetically at every opportunity he gets. This book has been described as an extended pastoral elegy in prose, and that is what it is.

There are, of course, descriptions of war, and shells exploding, and people getting killed, but those descriptions are not graphic or gruesome but brief, unlike war memoirs which might be written today.

Blunden also has a wonderful sense of humour and that peeks out at many places in the book. For example in this sentence –

“The weather had turned heavy and musty, the pre-ordained weather of British operations.”

And this sentence –

“No protection against anything more violent than a tennis-ball was easily discernible along that village street…Our future, in short, depended on the observance of the ‘Live and Let Live’ principle, one of the soundest elements in trench war.”

I laughed when I read that 😁

Blunden also describes incidents in the book, which can only be called dark humour of the Kafkaesque variety (or the Coen brothers’ variety). I don’t want to mention them here and spoil the surprise for you. I’ll just say that they are funny, but also tragic. Blunden also describes many of the people he worked with during the war and some of them are fascinating. My two favourites were Corporal Worley and Colonel Harrison. A couple of dogs also make their appearance in the story at different times, one of whom is adopted by the army and another who is adopted by Blunden.

When he ends the book, Blunden calls himself ‘a harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat.‘ It made me smile. I couldn’t resist comparing Blunden with Pierre from ‘War and Peace‘ – both nice people, both fight in a war, both have a dog, both are harmless young shepherds.

Undertones of War‘ is like no other war memoir I’ve read. It is beautiful and poetic, it demands attention and involvement, and it bestows rich rewards if one reads it slowly while savouring and lingering on its beautiful sentences. The book also has a forty-page poetry section in the end, which has poems which cover some of the same themes and sometimes events described in the book. I didn’t read that part, but have saved it for a rainy day.

I loved ‘Undertones of War‘. I am glad I read it finally. Now I want to read Robert Graves’ ‘Goodbye to All That‘ and compare it with this. And I’ll continue my search for that elusive pearl, Blunden’s ‘Cricket Country‘.

Have you read ‘Undertones of War‘? What do you think about it?

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