I almost put Miljenko’s Jergovic’s Sarajevo Marlboro (Archipelago Books) aside when I read this passage from Ammiel Alcalay’s introduction:
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 in America 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.
“Military/industrial/new critical approach”? Now, I understand that New Criticism (formalism more generally) was guilty of a multitude of sins—primary among them a preference for literature over propaganda and polemics—but to associate it with the military-industrial complex? This is so over-the-top that it convinces me once and for all that such frenetically politicized prattle masquerading as literary commentary really is just plain silly, not worth the attention of anyone who believes that a work of fiction or poetry is under no obligation to be “a call to arms, a cry for justice, an act of solidarity or a witness to history” or who wonders why calls to arms or cries for justice have to be also labeled “art” for them to be worth doing. Why not a place for political agitation or acts of solidarity and a place for art less grandly defined? And how thoroughly has Alcalay turned formalism on its head! Gone is the idea that a work of literary art, including translated work, has even a shred of formal integrity, that it can be appreciated without resorting to secondary “information.” Now we need “correspondence, biographies, or critical studies” or our reading experience is “unbuttressed.”
I concluded that Miljenko Jergovic could not be held responsible for the inanities of someone chosen by others to write about his book, so, free entirely of external buttresses—including the remainder of Alcalay’s introduction—I did read Sarajevo Marlboro . And I’m certainly glad I did, since it is a very good book, worthy even of being regarded as (gasp) “an object of contemplation.” It certainly does act as a “witness to history”—the seige of Sarajevo during the 1990s—but if we were to take it simply as that we would be willfully ignoring both the quiet artistry of the individual sketches making up the book and the cumulative effect of these sketches as they work to depict an enclosed world struggling to maintain itself against destructive forces (themselves largely kept outside the frame of the book’s portrayed world) threatening to overwhelm it. These forces are not preternatural—the Serb militias are real enough—but by the end of the book one does feel that the Sarajevans are being subjected to a speeded-up version of the distress and ill-fortune life ultimately inflicts on almost everyone.
In calling these pieces “sketches” I don’t mean to suggest they lack something in formal substance compared to a more fully-formed “story.” Most of the sketches in Sarajevo Marlboro are no more than 5-8 pages, and although some of them compress fairly long stretches of time, few take on the characteristics of the “well-made” story. But to do so would actually detract from the overall coherence of the book, which depends upon each of the more modest parts adding up to a powerful whole. This is not to say that individual sketches lack their own kind of force. Most of them present memorable characters Jergovic is able to draw in a minimum of brush strokes but who are also representative of the sorts of people who inhabit a city like Sarajevo, itself a kind of crossroads of cultures. Most focus on ordinary activities—ordinary if you’re living in a city under bombardment—but through understatement and, at times, a kind of grim humor the sketches seem laden with significance.
If all that such sketches did was to announce, over and over again, that “war is hell” or “injustice reigns,” in my opinion they really wouldn’t be worth reading. I’m pretty sure I already know that these things are true, as well as that the Bosnian war was particularly senseless. Perhaps there are some readers who will settle for the canned interpretation of a book likeSarajevo Marlboro as a literary “indictment” of war or of the political powers that engage in it or fail to stop it, but they will be ignoring the way Jergovic portrays a multifarious array of human beings discovering their own hidden reserves of dignity and endurance at the same time he portrays the most ruinous expressions of human nature. They’ll be overlooking the way he chooses just the right aesthetically restrained means of creating a fictionalized Sarajevo whose plight we can appreciate not because it seems exotically terrifying but because it seems recognizably human. In short, they would be missing out on a work of literary art that can also be an “act of solidarity” only because it’s first of all very skillfully made.