No false hope in Balkan carousel of death

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

AN­OTHER Balkan back­block has de­clared in­de­pen­dence. No mat­ter that the gross do­mes­tic prod­uct is less than the tak­ings of a milk­bar or that the na­tional air­line is a rented Cessna. Or that the Euro­pean Union has to su­per­vise and fund it, pos­si­bly for­ever.

My grand­fa­ther, who fought in both world wars, said of the Balkans: ‘‘ They need their heads knocked to­gether.’’ He knew that when Tito died the carousel of death would start again. So did Roza, the par­ti­san’s daugh­ter in Louis de Bernieres’s new tale.

Cal­abria does ex­cel­lent vendet­tas, Afghanistan su­perb tribal strife, Ul­ster built dream­ing spires of big­otry to die for, but none can match the rich cul­tural her­itage of the Balkans. They com­bine in­tense and in­fin­itely di­vis­i­ble na­tion­al­ism, com­plex re­li­gious ha­treds, a schizoid im­pe­rial past, ban­ditry, en­demic poverty, and lin­guis­tic schism, all fer­ment­ing in a maze of stark moun­tains avoided by ev­ery sane im­pe­ri­al­ist. Even that chronic loser, the French cock­erel, pre­ferred to scratch in the sands of North Africa. In the 20th cen­tury the hap­less Haps­burgs, ruth­less Nazis and sci­en­tific so­cial­ists all failed to do­mes­ti­cate this feral ter­ri­tory.

De Bernieres has won a star­tling list of lit­er­ary prizes but is best known for the mega- seller Cap­tain Corelli’s Man­dolin . Mer­ci­fully, he aban­doned his early, im­i­ta­tive magic re­al­ism for a less man­nered style. In A Par­ti­san’s Daugh­ter , the familiar com­pas­sion­ate fas­ci­na­tion with the hu­man con­di­tion is in­tact, as is the smooth, plain, con­ver­sa­tional tone that makes him a plea­sure to read. His flair for the ex­otic, for com­pre­hend­ing the angst of the for­eigner cast on a dis­tant shore, is un­changed. But there is some­thing strange about this book. There’s an un­canny his­tor­i­cal em­pa­thy for the pe­riod. It felt au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal.

Pic­ture a derelict Lon­don house in the 1970s, stocked with im­pe­cu­nious 20- some­things with hair like pos­sum fur, many with aliases to avoid the rev­enue- rav­en­ous au­thor­i­ties. The dy­ing days of Jim Cal­laghan’s wretched gov­ern­ment fol­low sev­eral win­ters of dis­con­tent: strikes, power cuts and rub­bish in the streets.

My old Kombi, with its de­funct, un­trace­able Dutch reg­is­tra­tion, served grotty Lon­don, ferry- ing the un­worldly goods of the de­classe from squat to dive for two quid an hour. Frank’s Friendly Van, I kid you not. Al­though I was la­belled a mere wimpy me­lior­ist, burly Marx­ists would help for the price of a Guin­ness if you kept the sects apart. De Bernieres was a denizen of this van­ished world.

Twenty years old in 1974, de Bernieres was known to the land­lord as John Ho­race. The crum­bling ter­race con­tained an ac­tor, a sculp­tress and a Ser­bian wo­man in her late 20s. Claim­ing to be a re­tired pros­ti­tute with a trunk­ful of money un­der her bed, she re­galed de Bernieres with her ad­ven­tures. He wrote it all down, but the novel took 30 years to ap­pear. The blurb says noth­ing about this, though he re­vealed it to Bos­ton jour­nal­ist Robert Birn­baum in 2005.

The au­thor says the novel jelled only af­ter the in­ven­tion of Chris, a 40ish trav­el­ling sales­man who for years lis­tens to Roza’s sto­ries and falls help­lessly in love with her, only to lose her af­ter a burst of drunken rude­ness. Chris, now in his 70s, deaf and dy­ing, re­flects on his ut­terly wasted, mean­ing­less life.

At first glance, de Bernieres’s familiar op­ti­mistic moral­ism has mor­phed into ni­hilist de­pres­sion. But the book is ac­tu­ally about choices. Well- con­nected Roza risks ev­ery­thing, Chris noth­ing. Sec­u­lar and free- think­ing, Roza knows Yu­goslavia will erupt af­ter Tito dies. Yu­goslavs are like ‘‘ chick­ens im­pla­ca­bly peck­ing at each other’s bloody back­sides’’. Pen­ni­less, she heads for Lon­don, only to dis­cover she’s just an­other vul­ner­a­ble il­le­gal mi­grant. Chris lives vi­car­i­ously and pla­ton­i­cally through Roza, re­turn­ing home to the in­dif­fer­ence of his wife each time.

No one knows if Roza’s tales are true, any more than de Bernieres knew in the 1970s. It doesn’t mat­ter, be­cause the moral is clear: carpe diem, or for­ever re­gret.

Roza and Chris may be di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed per­son­al­i­ties, but they share so­cial val­ues. The in­di­vid­u­al­ism of Lon­don, how­ever anomic and penu­ri­ous, is prefer­able to fer­vent Balkan loy­alty. In Bri­tain even in­tol­er­ance is tol­er­ated. In the Balkans tol­er­ance is in­tol­er­a­ble. Tito and the Haps­burgs made cer­tain tol­er­ances com­pul­sory by de­mand­ing a higher loy­alty, to no avail.

The Cel­list of Sara­jevo ar­gues the same case within the con­fines of the Balkans. I dreaded this book, think­ing it might be a Hol­ly­wooden melo­drama pit­ting evil Serbs against Poor Lit­tle Bos­nia. But it’s not in the least par­ti­san.

True, the short- term mes­sage is that the greater Ser­bia tries to be, the smaller it be­comes. But Ser­bia stands for any other Balkan na­tion. They’re all vic­tims. Ev­ery­one has a wa­ter­tight case against ev­ery­one else. Re­venge may take

cen­turies, but Balkan cul­mi­nat­ing in evil.

The siege of Sara­jevo lasted, with vary­ing de­grees of in­ten­sity, from 1992 to 1996. About 10,000 were killed and 50,000 in­jured, of whom 85 per cent were civil­ian.

The Yu­goslav army and its Bos­nian Serb al­lies shot and shelled the Sara­je­vans with near im­punity from the hills that dom­i­nate the city’s nar­row val­ley.

The ti­tle of the book de­rives from the protest




virtue of Ve­dran Smailovic, who played his cello in the street for 22 days to com­mem­o­rate the 22 peo­ple killed by a mor­tar while queu­ing for bread. He might have been shot at any time. Iron­i­cally, Smailovic now lives in Ul­ster.

The cel­list is the key to the book. He rep­re­sents civilised re­sis­tance to bar­barism. He also stands for the tol­er­ant city, repos­i­tory of uni­ver­sal val­ues, against the prim­i­tive trib­al­ism of ‘‘ the men in the hills’’.

Steven Gal­loway tells the story through three main char­ac­ters, Ar­row the fe­male sniper and two or­di­nary cit­i­zens, Ke­nan and Dra­gan. The last two ex­press the aw­ful pri­va­tions of the siege. They strug­gle to main­tain civilised deco­rum amid the con­stant, ran­dom threat of death by sniper and shell. Self­ish­ness and in­dif­fer­ence to the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers is con­ta­gious as the daily scrab­ble for food and wa­ter drags on. There are no he­roes, just oc­ca­sional hero­ism.

The deadly Ar­row is de­tailed to pro­tect the cel­list, to kill the sniper sent to kill him. Grad­u­ally the in­sid­i­ous forces of bar­barism gain ground. Sara­je­van crim­i­nals, cor­rupt politi­cians and zealots drag the city down to the level of its op­pres­sors. As Roza might have said, the only op­ti­mistic Yu­goslav is a mi­grant.

The Cel­list of Sara­jevo is a tour de force and a tour of the lim­its of force. The Yu­goslav army kills at will and can­not be dis­lodged by the poorly armed de­fend­ers. Yet ev­ery dead Sara­je­van tes­ti­fies to the fu­til­ity of Balkan war. Tak­ing the city would be point­less. It would be de­serted or full of en­e­mies. The city could have been evac­u­ated, but the cyn­i­cal Bos­nian lead­ers used civil­ian sac­ri­fice to cast Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic as the sole bar­bar­ian.

The Cel­list of Sara­jevo is a grip­ping thriller, not­with­stand­ing oc­ca­sional gar­rulity and strain­ing for ef­fect. We can ex­pect to hear a lot more from this young Cana­dian writer.

Coura­geous protest: Ve­dran Smailovic play­ing his cello dur­ing the siege of Sara­jevo in the city’s bombed Na­tional Li­brary

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