No false hope in Balkan carousel of death
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