Category Archives: Bosnian literature

A biographical note for Alma Lazarevska

A biographical note for Alma Lazarevska:

author of Death in the Museum of Modern Art

alma l,2013  Alma Lazarevska is a Bosnian prose writer. The attribute ‘Bosnian’ appeals to her most when it is used in conjunction with the word, ‘kilim’ or traditional woven rug. She has written a story with that title. She began to consider the date of her birth worth mentioning when she realised that it was the day when Robert ‘Bobby’ Fischer was born. One of the recurrent themes in her work is ‘the light and dark woman’ and she has played ironically with the idea of astrology in her novel The Sign of the Rose. However, out of respect for ‘the last great Yugoslav writer’, Danilo Kiš, and her exceptional liking for the books of the Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier, she acknowledges belonging to the sign of the Fish.

Lazarevska also recognises the year of her birth as the one in which the Nobel Prize for Literature was won by Albert Camus. She likes The Outsider because it is concise, precise and devoid of sentiment. And she likes it because of the title. She is used to the fact that the combination of her first and second name provokes questions: a Bosnian writer, but ‘Lazarevska’? How come? Her answer to that kind of question may be found in her text, entitled ‘The Origin of Silk’. It is only here that she mentions the town of her birth. She does not, regrettably, speak the language of the inhabitants of that town. Constant moving in the first eight years of her life accustomed her to a sense of impermanence and not belonging. Through her father (in his day one of the most important Yugoslav authorities on porcelain), she acquired an interest in the dividing line between chemistry and alchemy. This interest is built into the essence of her writing and her affinities as a reader.

She lives in the town where her mother and her mother’s forebears were born, in the town where her brother and her son were born. It was here that she was educated. Given the choice between studying regional and comparative literature, she chose the second without hesitation.

The town where she lives is mentioned in the title of a collection of her essays, Sarajevo Solitaire. It is mentioned also in the novel The Sign of the Rose, a novel that has recently been translated into French and German. The stimulus for the novel was the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, or rather the fact that Lazarevska began to experience this theme as almost obsessive during the siege of her city.

Her books Death in the Museum of Modern Art (translated into French and German.. and now – English!) and Plants are Something Else (the title story has recently been included in the most recent edition of the literary magazine Wasafiri) deal with siege, and a ‘besieged city’, without naming it. They are written in the first person, for dramaturgical and stylistic, rather than confessional reasons. That this is the case is confirmed by the fact that several stories are written in the male first person voice. The author leaves it up to the reader to recognise Sarajevo in ‘the besieged city’. If asked, she will confirm that she lived in Sarajevo during the siege. Every single day and every single night. But she refuses to be a loudspeaker. Her stories are always intimate stories. She likes Nabokov and his distinction between ‘average reality’ and ‘true reality’. In her writing, Lazarevska pursues the latter. Her story ‘How we killed the sailor’, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, is included in an anthology of women writers from East and Central Europe. Lazarevska feels honoured that her work has come to speak in the language of authors whom she appropriates as ‘her own’. One of the fundamental threads of her reading runs from Charles Dickens to Virginia Woolf and beyond. Her graduation essay, which she wrote in the department of theatre studies, is concerned with four of Shakespeare’s plays (Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest). Her biography is inconceivable without mention of the books that she has read and continues to read. Books are frequently mentioned in her writing. She has a large library and particularly likes books that fit into the pocket. She likes substantial books, or novels, if they are written by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mann, Hamsun, Broch … but she is suspicious of recently published long novels. Experience has taught her that after reading such books she regrets the wear and tear on her eyes.

Death In The Museum of Modern Art [NEW]3She is honoured by the fact that her book – Death in the Museum of Modern Art – has been translated by Celia Hawkesworth, who has translated the Nobel laureate, Ivo Andrić, a writer whom Lazarevska considers an unsurpassed teacher of language and style. She experiences Andrić’s language as her own, although because of regional divisions it is inevitably called by different names Andrić’s language is called Serbian. Lazarevska’s is called Bosnian. The language of the poet Ivan Goran Kovačić, whose tragic life inspired Alma’s recently published story ‘Letter from 1938’ is called Croatian. This language Lazarevska also considers her own. Lazarevska keeps in a small corner of her biography the fact that she attended the oldest grammar school (gymnasium) in Sarajevo and Bosnia, which was attended also by Andrić. Andrić ‘failed’ mathematics. Lazarevska had top marks in mathematics, and even won school contests. But she would renounce all those top marks and prizes for the beauty of Andrić’s sentences. When she wishes to believe in language as perfection, she reads The Damned Yard. After such séances, she always thinks: it is a great achievement to be at least a pawn in the literature in which Andrić is king.

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Prose after Srebrenica?

This morning I had cause to remember once again that much quoted line (by Theodor Adorno)   that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. The title of the article I was reading in the Independent Blogs – ‘Poetry After Auschwitz?‘ referenced that statement, and was dedicated to the poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz

In my ignorance, I did not know that Rozewicz is Poland’s most celebrated living author, a Nobel prize nominee and considered by many as “one of the great European poets of the 20th century. Despite my dedication to literature in translation, I also find myself a victim of my own specialization – with Poland not included in my chosen area of S E Europe. Luckily, Stork Press have started to remedy that, with their English-language publications of Rozewicz and other neglected Polish writers.

The shadows of the Holocaust still lie heavily over us, nearly 70 years on, especially in the world of literature. But my personal experience with the horrors of war came in the 1990s, when I was working with refugees from war in Bosnia, many of them from soon-to-be sites of atrocities, like Srebrenica and Sarajevo. And so, for me, the question becomes whether it is possible for anything beautiful and pure – in the literary sense – can come out of Bosnia?

And so it is with such pride and relief that I can be involved in translating  and publishing Bosnian writers like  Selvedin AvdićImage, who evokes the horror of mass murders and unsolved disappearances not with blood and gore, but with the shifty workings of paranormal activities in his disturbing book, Seven Terrors; and Alma Lazarevska, whose tender and revealing set of stories – Death in the Museum of Modern Art, avoid the easy traps of politics and blame in order to reveal a world full of incidents and worries so similar to our own, and yet always under the shadow of the snipers and the bombs which we know are out there and who occasionally impinge on the story in shocking ways.

The human desire to understand terror, to probe the minds of the victims and the perpetrators and – perhaps more importantly – to allow the mind to convert the horrors of historical events into the stuff of memory, is an essential one in the process of living, and indeed forgiving. The process of writing down – recording, shading and refining – itself being a kind of therapy, a way to allow one part of the brain to process the experience and allow it a proper place in our recollection and understanding. It seems, therefore, that far from being a betrayal of our humanity (as indicated in Adorno’s quote), it is an imperative action; indeed, an affirmative action by the soul in desperation to save itself.

Without poetry, without prose, we are dumb animals at the gates of the abattoir.

Post script:

The Romania poet, Paul Celan  (who witnessed the Shoah (The Holocaust) first hand, and which provided him with defining forces in his poetry and his use of language) said of language after Auschwitz that:

”Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.”

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The Hedgehog who brought the House Down

Quotes from John Bird’s column in this week’s ‘The Big Issue‘, 19/11/2012

Hedgehog’s Home Opera is a professional production but added to by Year 5 of Fitzjohn’s Primary School in Hampstead, north London. As part of the school’s attempt to help its children engage in new creativity, Hedgehog’s Home was a rich chance too good to miss. The opera producers hope it will join the repertoire that schools use, broadening the artistic chances of children and young people to meet such a serious, thoroughly inventive form such as opera.”

I felt as if I had wondered into something quite unique
, marrying education and art with social committment. The school children were wildly enthusiastic, along with the packed audience at the Conway Hall in central London’s Red Lion Square.

But where did this opera come from? What’s the story? Here it gets even more interesting. The author, Branko Copic, was a Yugoslav who fought against the Nazis in the Second World War. Hedgehog’s Home, the book from which the opera has been taken, was first published in the 1950s, becoming one of the most popular children’s stories in the former Yugoslavia.

The opera was commissioned by Susan Curtis who has a company called Istros Books, which has published an English version of the story. I bought a copy of the book and love the story and the rhyming. Beautifully designed and printed. If there are young children in your life, then I recommend that you get your copy from Istros.

Hopefully Hedgehog’s Home will find a place in the repertoire of children’s and school theatre. The enthusiasm and drive of the pupils taking part and the highly committed audience were a feast to behold. For here was a vast operation involving professionals and amateurs, musicians, stage designers, with actors mixed in, widening the children’s chances of gaining new creative skills.

WE LOVED IT. CONWAY HALL ECHOED TO CHEERS AND SHOUTS OF JOY ON A GRIM, OVERCAST SUNDAY AFTERNOON.”

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