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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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Filed under Balkan Literature, Balkans, Bosnian literature, Contemporary European literature, contemporary literature, europe, european literature, literature in translation, UK publishing

Balkan Killers and British Paedophiles?

Can we allow ourselves to see the man behind the stereotypes?

Can we allow ourselves to see the man behind the stereotypes?

It has been a long gap since my last blog post – which has more to do with relevance than lack of commitment. I have decided only to write when I feel there is something important to say. And today, I’d like to get something off my chest which has been bothering me for a few days….

Last Sunday, in his review of Tim Butcher’s fascinating new book – ‘The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War‘, John Lewis-Stempel (author of The War Behind the Wire: The Life, Death and Glory of British PoWs 1914-18) summed up this in depth and sympathetic account of Gavrilo Princip’s life, politics and motivations thus:

”Ultimately, Princip was just one killer among many Balkan killers. Butcher’s first travel book, about the Congo, was called Blood River. He could easily have called this one Blood Land.”

Like many uninformed and lazy observers of the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s, Lewis-Stempel obviously feels that a little research into the politics and history of the region would be too much trouble, given his obviously low opinion of that part of Europe. In a wonderful piece of imperialist condescension, he classifies the conflicts of that time as ”that decade when Bosnia descended into a whirligig of violence inexplicable to the outsider and maybe not much better understood by the participants.”

Belittling what happened in Bosnia as ‘inexplicable’ and thereby inferring that the people and the place are inherently violent and that blood-thirsty conflict is therefore likely to explode anytime without sufficient reason was a line that many politicians took in the 90s in order to justify their lack of military intervention and inability to take a stand against fascist aggression and thereby stop humanitarian disasters like the Srebrenica Massacre (see veteran war reporter Ed Vulliamy‘s many articles on this phenomena). This attitude no-doubt instills in them a self-satisfied sense of the unavoidable tragedy, which comes ‘guilt-free’ to all those who subscribe to it.

But apart from the ignorance and arrogance intrinsic to such attitudes, there is the even nastier withholding of sympathy and empathy towards the thousands of victims killed in these conflicts. Is there no glory allowed the soldiers of this conflict, of the kind which is obviously endowed to the soldiers on ‘our’ side in Mr. Lewis-Stempel’s above-mentioned book?

Last but not least, I would like to ask Mr. Lewis-Stempel – and any others who agree with his analysis – if by the same token, and in light of the recent uncovering of decades of perversion and criminal activity in such great ‘British’ institutions as the BBC and the Public school – can we assume that men such as Jimmy Savile are simply part of a nation-wide, cultural predisposition towards child abuse? Can he therefore be summed-up (and therefore dismissed) as simply ‘just one paedophile among many British paedophiles’?

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The Romanians Are Coming!

In response to the small-minded, xenophobic scare-mongering of some politicians and quite a few journalists – all of whom should know better – I am starting a Twitter campaign called #TheRomaniansAreComing. I’d like everyone who does know better to join in and start spreading the word about the contributions people of all nations –  from the East as well as the West – make to our joint cultural heritage; from literature, art, drama, music, poetry to cuisine and science.

Romanian FlagAfter a week in which the UK was branded the ‘nasty country’, it’s time to start reminding people on this island that nations are more than a sum of their population; they are the ideas and creativity that they produce and offer out into the wider world for the enrichment of our common humanity. Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia…these are all new/newish members of the EU but they do not come into the club as beggars with nothing more to show than an open hand (for begging of course) and a foreign tongue. These countries all have histories and cultural traditions, have spent time and money educating their population through primary education, music education, sports education, and specialised training schemes. As a consequence, they offer a whole range of skills, experience and knowledge.

Yesterday I spoke about this phenomena to George Stanica, a Romanian writer and translator who has been living in London for more than twenty years and supplements his income working as an interpreter in the law courts and police stations. When I asked him if he expected as huge influx of Romanians after the restrictions have been lifted at the end of the year, he gave a completely different perspective. Rather than an influx of manual labourers, he thought it far more likely that Britain would attract graduates and skilled workers like doctors and nurses, whose wages are pitiably low in their home country and are likely to be attracted by better conditions. This is of course, can only be of benefit to us, while is a sad loss for the people of Romania – those very same people who we are accusing of wanting to drain us of our resources.

Over the next few weeks – as we lead up to the 31Dec deadline on the end to the ban on certain people from the Eastern EU – I will be highlighting the Romanians who have contributed to European culture over the decades. In this way, I hope to counterbalance the negative stereotypes that the press think normal people want to hear about. Please join in with your own positive examples. Myself, I prefer to see the world through exceptions rather than stereotypes: it’s a much brighter place, full of interesting individuals….

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Filed under Balkans, culture, europe, immigrants, romania