What can a person learn from a graveyard in a valley? Very little, suggests the narrator of “The Gravedigger,” one of the 29 stories in Miljenko Jergovic’s outstanding collection Sarajevo Marlboro. Looking at a graveyard in a valley, one sees nothing but stones. These stones indicate that certain people have died; yet, they do not provide any knowledge of the people, any knowledge necessary to understand what these deaths mean. That is why it is important that a graveyard be built atop a hill: From such a vantage point, one can look over the countryside and map out the lives of the deceased—the hospitals where they were born, the schools they attended, the cities their spouses came from, and so on, right up to the houses where they died. By looking out at the events of each person’s life, it is possible to understand the significance of their deaths. It is also possible to see that, no matter how large a country’s graveyards may be, there is always much more to it than a cluster of tombs.
Seeing beyond the graves is a good piece of advice for an American reader to keep in mind when approaching a book of short stories about Sarajevo, a city that, for many of us is, in a way, a graveyard in a valley. During the Serbian siege—which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996—approximately 12,000 people died in Sarajevo. As a result, we identify Sarajevo almost exclusively with death and the humanitarian crisis that brought it. We see the city’s tombstones clearly enough, but we know little about the names of the people written on them and have almost no idea of whether there is much else in Sarajevo, nor of what there used to be in the city before.
Fortunately for us, Milkenko Jergovic is not a man to stare at graves. His concern is for the living and in this collection of stories about Sarajevo and its inhabitants he writes about them with the seriousness, sensitivity, quirky intelligence, and gentle humor of a master of the short story. In fact, Jergovic is a master of many crafts, known throughout Europe and the Balkans as a poet, novelist, and journalist of the highest caliber. Published in 2004, Sarajevo Marlboro—fluidly translated by Stela Tomasevic, published in this elegant edition by Archipelago Books—is the first of his works to be made available to American readers. It is a book that takes readers to the hilltop graveyard overlooking Sarajevo and invites them to gaze out onto the past lives of not only those buried in the ground below, but also the lives of the residents still bustling in the city in the distance.
This is not as easy as it sounds. The only analytical tool that most American readers have to contextualize the lives of the city’s residents is our knowledge of the political circumstances that brought about genocide. As a result of the extreme nature of these circumstances, we tend to see each individual life that comes to our attention as an allegory for them, a symbol of the greater political tragedy. This is well intentioned and, to an extent, unavoidable; however, it is deeply insufficient and suffers from the fundamental flaw of treating the political circumstances that destroyed a person’s life as if they constituted that life. Rather than view the city’s residents as individuals, we reduce them to nothing more than the connotations (victim and victimizer, good and bad, etc.) that their ethnicities and political affiliations carry for us, ignoring or downplaying the importance of any characteristics or quirks that spill out of our simplistic framework. We level them. Even when confronted with an individual life, we tend to see it as a sort of tombstone, little more than a reminder that things can go wrong. This prevents us from feeling a true sense of empathy or pathos for the residents of Sarajevo who have suffered as a result of the siege and, indeed, prevents us from having any lasting understanding of just how the siege affected the city.
Take the book’s first story, “The Excursion,” in which a young boy in Tito’s Yugoslavia looks at the wreckage of a car crash and fantasizes about what it would be like if his own “bus or car or whatever were to become the object of morbid scrutiny by palefaced onlookers.” At first glance, this scene clearly appears to be a sort of national allegory: The “whatever” the boy is hinting at is his country (or at least his city), and the reader knows full well—though the boy does not—that it will indeed become an object of morbid scrutiny to millions of palefaced onlookers throughout the world. This reading is very smooth; so smooth, in fact, that it is easy to gloss over just how lazy it is. In itself, there is nothing particularly Bosnian about this boy’s fantasy. Any child in any country on Earth could easily have it without it being a symbol of a national tragedy. An American can have it and it could mean a million things. Why is it that a Bosnian boy can have it and it can mean only one? After all, the boy is having this fantasy well before the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. He knows nothing of what is to come; the reader, however, is only able to process the scene through his or her knowledge of what came after. Thus, a gap is created in what Ammiel Alcalay, in his excellent introduction to the collection, refers to as the “terms of knowledge” with which the reader understands the boy’s experience and those with which the boy experiences it himself. This gap not only prevents the reader from seeing the crash through the boy’s eyes; it threatens to lead him or her to misread the story entirely. For there are many elements in “The Excursion” that simply do not fit into a reading of it as an allegory centered on the siege of Sarajevo—elements that speak more to Tito’s Yugoslavia than Milosevic’s, elements that, more than anything, have to do with the boy’s burgeoning adolescence.
The reader’s reliance on the siege of Sarajevo as an analytical tool to understand the story—a reliance that will be particularly strong in a foreign reader—leads to an obfuscation of much of the story’s actual content, as well as a hindering of any pathos that he or she might have felt for its central character. It turns what could have been a vibrant reading experience into a stale intellectual exercise of connecting the dots. The story is about a vivid, humorous, and appealing young boy. The reader—eyes still nailed to the tombstones—sees nothing but the coming genocide.
Such discrepancies in terms of knowledge and perception are common in Sarajevo Marlboro. The collection’s characters frequently confront two tragedies: first, that of the siege, which ruins their lives; second, the tragedy that comes after their lives have been ruined, when they find themselves set upon by foreigners who, though perhaps well-meaning, force them into ethnic or political categories that do not fit. Although there are several offenders in this regard—including the Czech doctors of “A Diagnosis“—the foreign journalists covering the siege figure high on the list. In Sarajevo Marlboro, foreign journalists—many of whom are American—are generally depicted as pesky, misinformed, and pompous characters who rarely help the city’s residents, frequently annoy and misunderstand them, and on occasion are as concerned with their own vocational success as they are with doing anyone else any good. Discovering some of the misconceptions of these foreigners helps to form an empathetic bond with the Bosnian characters being judged by them. After all, there is nothing particularly Bosnian about being misunderstood.
In “The Letter,” a stranger gives the narrator—a cynical ex-resident of Sarajevo now living abroad—a letter to deliver to someone back in the city. With the siege still underway, communication with Sarajevo has been cut off. The sender hopes that the narrator—whom he believes to be more connected to the city than is actually the case—will be able to get the letter to its intended recipient. Instead, the narrator happens to know that the letter’s intended recipient has recently been killed. Unable to break this news to the stranger, he buries the letter in a drawer and hopes it will just disappear. One day, when he is sufficiently emotionally distanced from the recipient’s death, he decides to open it, reading it “as if it was a work of literature, cut off from reality like the dead man, another distant memory.”
The letter’s sender is unexpected: He is a black man, presumably an African (he describes himself as coming from a “non-aligned country”), who came to Sarajevo 15 years ago as a student and identifies himself only as “M.L.” Beginning his epistle with an apology to his friend for leaving Sarajevo without saying goodbye (“I didn’t have the courage”), M.L. quickly launches into a recollection of his own time in the city, a tale about how Sarajevo, the peaceful and relatively tolerant city where he enjoyably spent a significant portion of his life, became “Sarajevo,” the world’s graveyard, the city of death and intolerance that, as far as those on the outside were concerned, had always been the land of “the one-hundred year hatred.” He writes with outrage about this transition, movingly recounting how the inhabitants of Sarajevo resigned themselves to believing the lies that the world was telling about them; how, hearing nothing more than these falsehoods, they came to inhabit them themselves. M.L. describes the residents’ attitude of surrender upon his departure from the city: “If the rest of the world had failed to acknowledge what was good about the people of Bosnia, let them see what was evil.”
M.L. refuses to resign himself to this, and his letter—far more than just a criticism of the outside world—is an attempt to reconstruct the city that he knew and loved. It is infused with a choking sadness at the loss of this city, as well as a need to remind himself that the city he left just a short while ago ever really existed at all. It is a great credit to Jergovic’s skill as a writer that, in a few short pages, he actually succeeds in bringing back the Sarajevo of old. Reading the letter, the narrator comments that he understands its pathos, particularly because its writer is distant and unknown to him: “Letters are probably the last means by which you can talk about such things. Everything else that has been written about Sarajevo is just an attempt to create a framework for a new existence or to find the least painful way of dividing up life: the one that has already happened and should be forgotten and the one that’s coming, in which people will live comfortably and happily until death, as in a fairy tale.”
A letter—private rather than public, focusing on individual experience and not political generalization—is almost the exact opposite of a journalistic dispatch. Sarajevo Marlboro should be read as a letter. The reader who appreciates it as such—turning away from the graveyard that has constituted much of the international discourse about Sarajevo—will be rewarded. Jergovic is a writer uncommonly talented at portraying these characters while they live, not to mention the lives of those left behind to mourn them. Jergovic never gives the reader the sort of gray-hued, grisly victim that we might come to the collection expecting to mourn. In fact, in “The Cactus,” one of the collection’s best stories, the death that most moves the story’s narrator is not that of a human being but, rather, that of a cactus. The narrator nurses the cactus throughout the siege, right up until the moment when it dies from the cold. Precisely because of its seeming insignificance, the plant breaks through the narrator’s defenses and triggers the surge of emotion that he had made such an effort to repress. Reflecting on the sadness he feels whenever he thinks of a cactus dying, the narrator advises the reader: “It’s not important, mind you, except as a warning to avoid detail in life. That’s all.” It is often said that detail is the hallmark of a great writer, but it is rarely specified why. The answer is simple. Looking over an endless field of tombstones, detail is the one thing never seen. Thankfully, in this beautiful collection, Miljenko Jergovic does not heed his own narrator’s warning.