How do we judge literature in translation? Particularly when ignorant not only of the original language, but also of the literary and cultural history surrounding the creation of the work in question, most readers of translation are at a loss. In Sarajevo Marlboro, a collection of short stories by Bosnian writer Miljenko Jergovic, the reader’s sense of loss slides away from issues of translation, and into an appreciation for the Bosnian mediation between the languages of life and death.
Reading Ammiel Alcalay’s introduction to Sarajevo Marlboro orients us through immediate contact with that loss. On the first page, we are told “The texts that manage to sneak through our monolingual borders still only provide a mere taste—fragmented, out of context—of what such works might represent in their own cultures, languages, historical and political contexts.” But this loss extends further than the cliché of being “lost in translation.” Alcalay lets us know the futility of trying to make up for lost time, too: “Following the publication of Sarajevo Marlboro in 1994, Jergovic has published nine books, while never ceasing to be an acute observer and critic of Croatian political and cultural life.”
Jergovic’s examination of Croatian life at times extends into an awareness of the gap between the foreigner’s translated gaze and the native reality. In “The Letter,” the narrator opens a letter that explains how “Foreign reporters began talking about ‘the hundred-year hatred’ and incomprehensible tribal conflicts, and the Bosnians became less and less interested in convincing them otherwise.” Or in the central story “Gravedigger,” a character explains to an American reporter that “he can’t write the piece because he already knows what it’s going to say.” Then, opening a pack of cigarettes with no label—because there are no printing presses in Yugoslavia—the narrator knows the reporter will not understand his excitement: “Whatever I say, he’ll just think, ‘Look at these mad people! They turn cigarette wrappers inside out, then tear them apart to see what cigarettes they’ve bought. If you want my opinion, the people here are just like their pack of cigarettes: everything is back to front—what they say and what they think and what they do.’” But the secret, unavailable to the American journalist, is that the cigarettes are the old style Sarajevo Marlboros. A different taste from American Marlboros, they present a quality unique to Yugoslavia. They are, in fact, a translated cigarette, known by the same name but with a distinct and evasive identity.
The disconnection between the reality and idealized world of Bosnia pervades nearly all of Jergovic’s quick stories. In almost every example someone or something dies—even, in “Beetle,” a car—and at times the book reads like a eulogy for people’s ability to deal with death, rather than for the dead themselves. In war stories that almost never mention the soldiers, focusing instead on the civilians who bear the emotional brunt of the war, we find that the true loss is perhaps an ability to comprehend our world. “Declension” opens with Jergovic’s signature understatement, and the inability to concentrate on the horror:
Hypnotized by the rhythm, the young boy had been declining the Latin word terra for the last fifteen minutes. He gently swayed in the middle of the room, happy and vacant, and just as handsome as a Buddhist monk.
His stepfather was chain-smoking cigarettes and rewinding the videotape of a massacre he had filmed in central Bosnia. The speeded-up images of suffering and tears played on your nerves, dispelling the memory of emotion. He had to think of a commentary in a hurry in order to dispatch the report to the United States the next day. Briefly he thought it would be a good idea just to record the sound of the boy declining terra, terra, terram, terre…and blood.
In “Beard,” Dinka, returning from identifying the body of Juraj, her dead husband, remembers Dejan, a long-bearded Muslim who had interspersed promises to rescue Juraj with threats to kill him. But, “still trying to comprehend that her Juraj was no more, and that nothing was left of him except a hollow skull,” she cannot focus on her husband’s absence. Instead, “All she could think was, ‘How on earth does [Dejan] wash that beard—does he shampoo it or does he just wash his face in the morning like everybody else?”
Of all the characters who cannot bear too much reality, the character of the city of Sarajevo is cracked the deepest. A city which should have replaced New York as world capital has been torn through, its citizens mired in a confused hatred. In “Bosnian Hotpot,” Sarajevo is described as inclusive enough to be “a city that didn’t require people to change the habits of a lifetime—it could even put up with people’s contempt.” But with the start of the shelling, the city is abandoned, its lovers scattered to refugee camps and cemeteries. By the time Sarajevo is described in “The Letter,” it is written in the language of loss: “At first it was rumored that the Serbs would take the city, and then that they would kill everybody. As soon as we realized that neither event was going to happen, we understood that we had to be—different the outside world became an object of hatred.”
The final loss illustrated in this translation comes out in the final story, which—like all great final stories—encapsulates and lifts off from the dissociation embodied in the earlier pieces. Describing the burning of libraries, Jergovic writes:
There’s no point in not letting a fire swallow up things that human indifference has already destroyed. The beauty of Paris or London is only an alibi for the criminals who have allowed Warsaw, Dresden, Vukovar and Sarajevo to disappear. But even if they hadn’t ceased to exist, they would have become places inhabited by people who even in peacetime were ready to evacuate, who were prepared to abandon their books.
And so we return to the loss that contemplation of translation hints at. With language, with life, each moment slips past, irretrievable, lost. Only a few instances stick for more than their allotted time; these instances are epiphanies such as the last sentence of Sarajevo Marlboro: “Gently stroke your books, dear stranger, and remember they are dust.”