If you struggle with the moral questions raised by the disastrous political commitments of certain otherwise stimulating or even essential writers, then ponder this anecdote. It goes back to the years 1992-95, when Sarajevo was besieged by Serbian paramilitaries and the Serbian-controlled Yugoslavian Army, and when civilians—dashing through the streets for water or food—were being killed daily by snipers hiding in the surrounding high hills. The Russian novelist Edward Limonov (who is the author of the best-selling It’s Me, Eddie, among other books, and who had become pro-Serbian with respect to the Balkan War and ultranationalist with respect to his homeland) arrived at an army outpost on the Trebevic mountain flanking the town, then was filmed as he shot machine-gun rounds down at scurrying Sarajevo inhabitants.
This may be old news to you: the event was featured in Pawel Pawlikowski’s 1992 BBC documentary “Serbian Epics,” and the footage was later used as prosecution evidence at the trial, in The Hague, of the Serbian ethnic cleanser Radovan Karadzic, whom Limonov had befriended. Mea culpa: like most European and American writers—Juan Goytisolo and Susan Sontag are conspicuous exceptions—to whom the Balkan War, however close geographically, was at best a very distant concern, I was unaware of much of this until I arrived in Sarajevo for a prolonged stay last spring.
A decade has passed since the Dayton Agreement (of 21 November 1995) brought a still-fragile end to the Balkan War, yet memories of this gruesome anecdote involving Limonov have not faded. It was spontaneously recounted to me on three different occasions by Sarajevans, none of them writers, who were trying to convey what the treacherous siege was like. The specter of a novelist aiming at men and women lugging jerricans epitomizes, for such survivors, the widespread calculated cruelty and murder that marked the war and changed probably forever a town famous for its centuries-long, more or less peaceful, cohabitation of Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews.
Indeed, the square (Trg Oslobodenja) where I drafted parts of this letter while sitting on a bench near the bust of the too little-known novelist Mesa Selimovic (the author of the deep-probing, Sarajevo-set, psychological novels Death and the Dervish  and The Fortress ), is flanked by the large Serbian Orthodox Church; if you pass by the many outdoor chess players and cross the square, then turn right, the Catholic cathedral stands just a little off Ferhadija, the pedestrian shopping street; continue on your way down Ferhadija, and you soon arrive at the great Gazi-Husrev-Begova mosque; and a few yards more, to the left up a narrow passageway, is the old synagogue, now a museum devoted to the history of the local Jewish population, most of whom were exterminated by the Nazis during the Second World War. Within a few minutes’ walking distance from there is the bridge near which the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on 28 June 1914—the event that sparked the First World War. Under that bridge flows the muddy, reddish Miljacka river, an incessant symbol of earth mixed with copious blood.
One of my interlocutors, named Igor, insisted on driving me up a winding road to the spot from which Limonov had fired his rounds. It is an overlook not far from the former bobsled run of the 1984 Winter Olympics, and the slope descending from there down to the town is still specked with thousands of antipersonnel mines. Signs warn hikers to stop. “No walking anymore in these lovely mountains, let alone skiing and sledding,” Igor pointed out, adding that his own adolescence had been nipped in the bud and that he himself had taken up arms to defend his hometown. The offspring of a mixed Croatian-Serbian marriage, he was not alone among non-Muslims in deciding to remain and side with his fellow Sarajevans, the majority of whom are of Muslim origin. “It was only during the war,” he related, “that we learned to listen to first names ethnically—sometimes with disastrous consequences. Up to then, I never paid any attention. We are all Slavs and speak the same language.”
Now, after the war, Igor sometimes finds himself painfully stigmatized—depending on whom he is talking to—for being neither “purely” Serbian nor Croatian nor Muslim. In one of the moving short stories of Sarajevo Marlboro (1994), Miljenko Jergovic (1966-), recalling the war, similarly notes that as time went by the Muslims and the Croats began to listen to the firebrands among their leaders. They began to look askance at each other and then to set fire to one another’s houses. Each community went its own way—some escaping to Zenica, others from Zenica to neighboring towns. They dug trenches for several weeks and then the chaos began. Wherever you went there was blood and shooting. . . We battled over each field, over plots of land to which none had given a second thought until then.
From Trebevic mountain, Igor and I had “an excellent view of the hills around Sarajevo, which are dotted with white Turkish tombstones,” as Jergovic also states with bitter irony. Resembling so many small Arlington cemeteries (each similarly impressive in its stark row-by-row accounting of slaughter), well over a dozen Muslim graveyards sprouted up on every hillside during the war. Some ancient graveyards adjoining modest neighborhood mosques likewise became overcrowded with white, turban-crowned, pillar-like stones.
And this sight continued to bring back all the horror and hubris of the Limonov incident. It was, moreover, all the more tangible for me in that I had run into and chatted with the Russian novelist a few times during the 1980s, when we were both living in Paris. We had writer-friends in common. His act has kept me thinking about writers’ oft-troubled relationship to reality, and by this I do not mean reality as it is aimed at merely through the sights of crafted language. A cynical French novelist once speculated that “perhaps in the final reckoning . . . the goal of this coup d’Ètat, with all its consequences, was simply to offer attractive scenes enticing talented men of letters to write about them.”
Gustave Flaubert knew well how human conflict and suffering can allure writers (independently of any sympathy for the victims), sometimes politically deluding them in the process. His remark is quoted by the dissident Serbian novelist Vidosav Stevanovic (1942-) in his memoir Voleurs de leur propre libertÈ, which became available in French in 2003. Living in political exile in Paris since 1992, Stevanovic takes the Frenchman’s comment literally in order to raise the question of how aesthetics relate to ethics. “Ethics nonetheless still concerns [writers],” cautions Stevanovic, “who use aesthetics as an excuse for hiding their head in the sand and refusing to participate, to accept responsibility.”
This is a classic call for political concern and direct writerly commitment. A democrat and a long-standing adversary of Balkan nationalisms, the novelist had returned to his homeland during the crucial period, mid-December 1996 to mid-July 1997, in order to take part in the growing opposition movement against Slobodan Milosevic. It seemed then that Serbia could become more democratic. Stevanovic’s memoir recounts the failure of this movement, and castigates the intellectuals who eventually exchanged their ideals for political privileges. His chronologically intricate novel, Abel et Lise, which was also translated into French in 2003, similarly evokes the personal destruction caused by the rise of nationalist sentiment, in this case as it tragically affects the now separate lives of two former lovers, an Albanian man and a Serbian woman.
In Stevanovic, the political dichotomies are clear-cut (however literarily engaging), but let me return to Flaubert’s more psychological observation about the motivations of some writers attracted to war and suffering. Several of Jergovic’s stories in Sarajevo Marlboro scrutinize authorial or journalistic inspiration per se, raising the additional question of how events are consequently construed from various vantage points. The lesson formulated both by him and by another compelling Bosnian writer, Aleksandar Hemon (1964-)—much of whose formally sophisticated collection The Question of Bruno (2000), written in English, concerns the dilemma of a young Sarajevo writer who finds himself in Chicago on a scholarship when the war breaks out in his hometown—is that even well-meaning outside observers are inevitably trapped into viewing events according to their ideas about how such events should be viewed. Both Hemon and Jergovic are interested in the phenomenology of violence, hatred, and survival, as well as in how such phenomena are perceived, especially by writer-eyewitnesses, writers-newly-arrived-on-the-scene, and writers-in-exile. More generally, they overturn the too simplistic Western understanding of the Balkan War as an irrational ethnic and nationalistic confrontation.
The two short-story writers are not alone in espousing this viewpoint. As quoted by Ammiel Alcalay in his preface to Sarajevo Marlboro, the Slovenian theorist Slavoj Zizek, for example, posits that in former Yugoslavia, we are lost not because of our primitive dreams and myths preventing us from speaking the enlightened language of Europe, but because we pay in flesh the price of being the stuff the Other’s dreams are made of . . . Far from being the Other of Europe, former Yugoslavia was rather Europe itself in its Otherness, the screen onto which Europe projected its own repressed reverse . . . Against today’s journalistic commonplace about the Balkans as the madhouse of thriving nationalisms where rational rules of behavior are suspended, one must point out again and again that the moves of every political agent in former Yugoslavia, reprehensible as they may be, are totally rational within the goals they want to attain—the only exception, the only truly irrational factor in it, is the gaze of the West, babbling about archaic ethnic passions.
I’m sure that Flaubert would have understood Zizek’s point about passionate or violent behavior actually concealing a devastating, rigorous, Machiavellian logic—applied by outside, sometimes initially opaque and undesignated sources—that one must pinpoint and define if one is to make some sense of the reality transpiring before one’s eyes. Such is the gist of Jergovic’s story “The Letter,” in which the narrator finds a missive that has been sent to a man in Sarajevo who, before receiving it, was killed by a sniper while he was standing in his doorway smoking a cigarette. It turns out that the letter has been written by an African who had originally come from a nonaligned country and had settled in Sarajevo during the years (between 1948 and 1980) when Yugoslavia, ruled by Marshal Tito, was itself a nonaligned communist nation. In his letter to his Bosnian friend, the African explains why he has fled the city and details how hard it is for the foreigners, where he is now living in exile, to understand the war. Significantly and tragically, the letter cannot be answered; it is in the writer’s hands, in all possible senses of the expression.
“The Gravedigger” likewise stages an encounter between the writer-narrator and an American journalist. “I understand that he is researching the subject for his article,” pointedly explains the writer (who has become a gravedigger), “except he can’t write the piece because he already knows what it’s going to say.” This, too, is a caveat for any well-intentioned writer desiring to probe behind the epiphenomenona of reality. Even more incisively, a story about one Slobodan, who is an idiot, describes how one of the first CNN bulletins from Sarajevo contained footage of the retarded man wandering aimlessly through the city as dozens of shells exploded on all sides. “The camera followed him for about seventy yards,” adds Jergovic, no doubt because the journalists were expecting to capture the moment when the Serb onslaught destroyed an innocent life in Sarajevo. Slobodan very casually sauntered over to the cameraman and gave him a warm smile. . . . He didn’t stop. He just went on his way as the shells continued to fall. That night the reporter, with some disappointment, informed viewers that there were insanely brave people living in Sarajevo.
While I was exploring the streets and back streets, I thus often thought of the different ways in which writers have responded to, or spurned, objective reality. I thought of how reality has been variously defined by writers and philosophers alike. In Sarajevo, it is certainly hard not to be overwhelmed by the brute (and brutal) factuality of nearly everything in sight. War scars are omnipresent: bomb-devastated edifices that have not yet been razed and replaced; weeds and even trees that have sprouted up through shattered concrete; the half-destroyed helicopter, tank, and sundry artillery vehicles that are rusting behind the Historical Museum and next to the National Museum with its stunning Bogomil gravestones and excellent wild animal, bird, and insect collections; countless shell-dented walls and bullet-pelted balconies (sometimes with blooming flowers in a pot or two); numerous smoke-blackened, windowless apartments in buildings also containing attractively curtained flats that have been repaired. In the small shops of the Bascarsi Muslim quarter in the old town, not far from the phosphorus-bombed National Library (everything was lost), you can buy artillery shells of all shapes and sizes that have been transformed into vases, pen holders, and ashtrays. Dire contrasts such as these pop up at every corner.
As for the human realities of the Balkan War, two remarkable collections of short prose by the Bosnian Velibor Colic (1964-) focus—like Hemon and Jergovic’s stories—on the kinds of telltale detail that, if you prefer keeping your emotions intact, you had better avoid. Written on the spot during the fighting and available in French, Les Bosniaques (1993) and Chronique des oubliÈs (1994) recall both the short-prose interludes of Hemingway’s In Our Time and Daniel Zimmermann’s terse eyewitness accounts of Algerian War scenes (Nouvelles de la zone interdite). One also thinks of Marcel Cohen’s volumes of short prose reports on all sorts of disturbing contemporary phenomena. Like Cohen, Colic’s concise texts record extremely grim facts, without proffering the slightest moral judgment. For this reason, the images are all the more harrowing:
The guards of the Doboj concentration camp dragged Jozo the prisoner by the balls to the toilet of the former Federal Army barracks, now transformed into a prison. When he was finally able to prop himself back up, he saw the Serbian emblem (the four C’s) drawn on a mirror with human shit. The guards forced him to lick it off.
No direct transition can link this despicable scene and Chinese Letter, a novel by the Serbian writer Svetislav Basara (1953-), yet the book provided an unexpected coda to my Sarajevo sojourn. Published in Serbian in 1984 and in English in 2005 (Dalkey Archive Press), the novel is unrelated to the Balkan War. But from the very first sentence, with its evocation of jarred identities (“My name is Fritz. Yesterday I had a different name.”) and with the author’s tense first allusions to a 100-page statement that he has been ordered to write by two unnamed, threatening men, a grim political tragedy seems to loom on the horizon. Chinese Letter is informed by the communist ethos of Eastern Europe and, more specifically, by the increasing tensions, following the death of Tito in 1980, among politically manipulated ethnic populations in a Yugoslavia already falling apart. Yet this historical and political background does not sufficiently describe the unsettling ambience of the book. There are echoes of Kafka and Beckett, but also of Stephen King and Agatha Christie. Major philosophical concerns are raised when “something happens,” and the question too of what the writer should do with whatever he thinks an “event” or “incident” means.
These questions alone were sufficiently pertinent to what I had seen and learned in Sarajevo. Indeed, Basara ominously (and sometimes jocularly) tells various stories and conjures up quite a lot of disturbing trivia, all the while reflecting on the logic underlying everyday life. It is impossible to sum up his at once capricious and hyperlogical narration, which constantly moves from the routines and common facts of the quotidian to something opaque and undefined and threatening. As I was reworking my notes for this Letter, long after I had returned home to France, two sentences from Chinese Letter kept haunting me. Let me quote both as tentative summaries of my Sarajevan experiences. The first points to the problem of determining the rational connections among what one sees, how one lives, and what one writes. “On paper everything has its direction, its logic,” claims Basara, “but in reality everything that happens except for this logic is unclear.” The second quotation concerns a girl without an arm: “What is this girl going to do,” asks the author, “in [a] world in which even two hands aren’t enough to cover your face with?”