When the leaders speak of peace,
The common folk know
That war is coming.
When the leaders curse war
The mobilization order is already written out. -Bertolt Brecht, War Primer
“The children will all be ruined by war, that’s the truth of it,” the commissar announces, not to her but to the table in general. “Yet some will rise arduously from the ruin to change the world for the better.” No one is listening to him. “And when the next war breaks out, the same will happen,” he continues. “When this cycle has occurred enough times, the ruined children of war will have changed the world sufficiently to eradicate the benefit of war to any man, venture, nation, or empire and there will be no more wars. You see, progress!” -Katja Rudolph’s character, the commissar
In the words of the book jacket, this is “the unflinching story of a boy who survives the siege of Sarajevo and immigrates to Toronto bearing the scars of war.”
That boy is Jevrem (pronounced Yevrem) Andric and when the story opens he is eleven years old. His mother is a concert pianist and teaches at the conservatory; his brother Dušan is “sixteen and goes wherever he wants”; his eight year old twin sisters Aisha and Berina are inseparable, Aisha being the stronger, more confident of the two; his father, Lazar, is a journalist.
In the first scene of the story (not the Prologue which takes place in 1941 and which involves Jevrem’s grandmother whom he calls Baka), the family is walking down a street alongside a protest in the spring of 1992 and Lazar tells his family: “This is the real Yugoslavia, the true Sarajevo. Artists, writers, professors, journalists mixed in with everyone else. All nationalities, no nationalities. Demos triumphing over ethos.” Lazar puts Jevrem on his shoulders and asks him to read out some of the signs he sees: “Our-nation-is-Yugoslavia. We-are-one-people…Resist fascism.”
At their apartment Jevrem’s Baka, a partisan under Tito’s leadership, declares that in her time “It was death to fascism, freedom to the people!” His uncle, Ujak Luka, “mimics Baka behind her back”and talks to Jevrem about his dreams and tells him “Everyone should dream” and that he dreams of getting away, “far from this nightmare”. Ujak Luka’s voice is the voice of sanity but Jevrem is too young to know this: he has been told often that Luka is “wild”.
The situation in Sarajevo changes quickly. As Lazar puts it: “The war’s started…fifty-one years to the month since the Nazis invaded, forty-seven years to the month since we kicked them out, sacrificing whole generation in the process. And for what?”
Jevrem has conversations with his grandmother about Ujak Luka’s departure from Sarajevo and she expresses her disapproval: “What if every able-bodied man picked up and left?”
“I (Jevrem) think about this for a minute. “There’d be no war,” I say.
“But one has to defend against the enemy,” Baka says.
“I mean if no man wanted to fight, even the enemy men.”
“But you have to be prepared to fight in case the enemy wants to fight.”
“But, let’s say no man on the whole planet ever stayed around to fight when the politicians told them to.” To me it’s just a matter of logic.
“That’s not how the world works, Jevrem,” Baka says. “There are always men who want to fight. They think they can conquer the world. They get frustrated and angry about their little lives and need to create mayhem, jut to feel like men. This happens when things aren’t going well in the economy — that’s the most dangerous time for any society.”
The discussion continues and Jevrem begins his journey towards adulthood and finding his place in the world. He will leave Sarajevo and go to Toronto (his school experience there I found particularly interesting – what does anyone really know about the effects of wartime violence upon children) and then even farther. It will be a long journey and the story is a powerful one. It would be an excellent companion read with The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.
Other quotations of interest:
“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud. …They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”
“I see how the whole world works, this circle of violence and pain and violence, on and on, down through the generations, that old saying, you reap what you sow.”
“War is a criminal failure of fathering, plain and simple, if you ask me, all the fathers, the presidents, generals, foreign ministers, peace negotiators, men mostly, who make decisions that put their and other people’s children in the line of fire, because there’s always another way, you know that, no matter what anyone tells you. ”
“Twentieth-century war is waged against civilians, all of it, siege or no siege. There is no ethical and unethical war anymore, it’s all a massacre.”
This is a solid, compelling read! The irresistible combination of entertainment and thought-provoking information.