One edition of this book (more recent than the 1997 edition that I had pictured here) begins with a preface by someone who suggests (apparently) that it is impossible as an outsider really to understand or empathise with what happened in Bosnia in the 90s. Well, of course, we can never really understand what other people go through. But that doesn’t mean we can understand nothing. My copy, however, comes without a preface and so launches us immediately into Jergovic’s world – which is probably just as well. This gripping anthology of short stories can therefore speak for itself and stand on its own. And speak they do – with great force and poignancy.

Having visited Sarajevo recently, I kept on trying to imagine what it must have been like constantly to fear snipers and mortars from the surrounding hills. The hills loom large, of course, still, though the dangers have thankfully gone. It is just so inconceivable that in the 20th Century, months-long siege warfare (a phrase that has positively mediaeval echoes) still took place – and this in the era of TV cameras and 24 hour news cycles…

And yet this book does go a long way to help the outsider to be immersed. These short stories (and they are nearly all very short) powerfully capture what it must have been like. The evoke the sounds, the fears, the despair – above all they evoke the humanity of Sarajevo. For as such traumatic episodes in European history recede into the past, it is all too easy (for those with any interest in such tragedies at all) to focus on the statistics and decisions made in far-away conference rooms. But books like this won’t allow that. The fear and the despair are expressed on faces with names, they are expressed by people with pasts and memories. Shared experience from decades of living together, memories of who did what during the Second World War (say) are carried into the present, so that these inform who the individuals and their families are.

Ignorant and unaware of such legacies (inevitably), outsiders come in, looking for a story perhaps: like the nameless American journalist in the story from which the book gets its title (Sarajevo Marlboro was one of a number of localised cigarette brands Philip Morris produced for different markets). The gravedigger he interviews comes to realise that it will be impossible for this intruder to understand what being a Sarajevan is really like. Not because outsiders inevitably struggle with that – but because he’s not genuinely prepared to try. He just needs his story. So, the gravedigger depressingly realises he would have been better off saying ‘we are an unhappy and unarmed people who are being killed by Chetnik [i.e. Serbian nationalist] beasts, and that we’ve all gone crazy with bereavement and grief’ (The Gravedigger, p84), and thus complying with outsiders’ assumptions, rather than trying to explain nuances. For from the inside, a refrain could be ‘it’s never quite as simple as that.

Which of course does mean that it is hard for outsiders to understand, inevitably. But we can, and must, learn to empathise. And these stories help us do just that. Their protagonists are many and varied:

  • From the daydreamer who feels he simply can’t leave or function well outside his home city of Sarajevo to the man surprised to be given a cactus by his girlfriend;
  • from the retired boxer in a bar who can’t help himself from raising his fists and punching whenever the bell of a passing tram is rung, to the woman in a fairytale marriage who discovers the photograph of her husband’s lover when his personal affects are returned to her on his death at the front.

Tragedies, agonies, histories. These are all very human realities.

And yet through it all, there is resilience and hope, and not a little fatalism. The stories are beautifully, if sparsely, told. Every word is weighty, but every story economical – everything a short story should be, in fact. They all serve to evoke and illustrate, in some way or another, how life goes on even under siege, proving that people, through life together and hope for something else (however vague or wishful), can get through. Somehow. But this is not light reading, nor gentle escapism. Far from it. It is immersive and disturbing. It is an extraordinary collection.

The words that introduce one story (called ‘Bosnian Hotpot’) have stuck in my mind ever since, and they could stand as an explanation for the whole anthology.

‘I know what the speed of light is, but we haven’t learned about the speed of darkness yet’ – Dino from Zenica, twelve years old, temporarily at school in Zagreb (p35)

Taken in Sarajevo last month, near the spot of Archduke Ferdinand’s 1914 assassination

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