Olga and Zehra

Rounding page 340 and making good post-holiday progress, I continue to find little gems of passages, like this one in a chapter from Part Five of Kin, which is called in the source Inventarna knjiga, a play on “invention” and “inventories” that I think I can get at by simply calling it Inventories in the English (this is what I am trying at this point anyway):

One after another she gave birth to her five children. There were two by the time Olga arrived in town, and the others were all born with her there. Olga told Zehra she herself did want to have any more children. This was not an easy thing to accomplish because Franjo was pushy. He didn’t understand about children, only about his male needs. Zehra understood all this. In general Zehra understood everything and was able to reduce any overlong, complicated story to two or three sentences in which everything was simple, easy, and clear. She was not embarrassed by a single one of Olga’s stories—this was important, for her other friends were easily embarrassed—but rather found her way around in each one and managed to say something to comfort her. How was this possible given that Zehra was a Muslim, a very devout Muslim who kept to all the rules of her faith and did everything every day, when she was awake and when she was asleep, in accordance with it? The answer is strange but simple: Olga belonged to a different world and a different faith, one that determined that the women could have their heads uncovered and all sorts of other things that were different from Islam. If Olga had been a Muslim, Zehra would have died of shame, run away from her confessions, and never seen her again. But as it was, she not only did not have to run, she could always be helpful. Before Olga’s faith, Zehra was always completely free, just as Olga was free before Zehra’s. This made them best friends.

The unlikely friendship of Olga and Zehra is one of the many standalone moments of the book, and its splicing together of these moments—through stories interwoven with other stories like the great network of the Habsburg train system that Olga’s husband Franjo helps to build and manage (other literary references come together here, most notably to Danilo Kiš but also to Robert Musil and others, this in another superb standalone chapter entitled “Kakania”)—is a major achievement, constructed of sentences that do something like what this one is doing, weaving and interweaving these stories in verbal tapestries around an inscrutable center that is perhaps best expressed as history through memory, family, and the stories of a family.

The Personal and the Historical

A major feature of the Kin, sometimes rehearsed with surprising results, comes out in the following passage quite vividly. The narrator is describing life with his mother.

She didn’t clean the apartment anymore or wipe away the dust. She only worked at her work place. And she was a good, thorough head of the accounting department. She followed the rules with strictness, in accordance with the Stubler heritage. Quite the Swabian. But in her life she did nothing more. She did not move and did not care about the current state of things around her.

This bothered me during the first years after Nona’s death. But later no. I grew accustomed by degrees to her unhappiness as an aspect of my own family circumstance. We lived together, but until the war all we ever talked about was how badly she felt. During the war in Croatia, she was at the height of menopause. A year or two earlier she had had a serious hemorrhage. She went three times to have the upper layer of skin scraped off in order to remove all the blood. I was with her during every instant of this. She had no one but me, so I experienced my mother’s menopause from beginning to end in great detail. Both the psychological and the physical aspects.

When they attacked Croatia, it had been some time since she had stopped losing blood. But she was in the depth of depression. She would take her yearly vacation time only to lie in bed for three weeks. It’s hard to live with someone who doesn’t move from her bed and doesn’t care. She said her life had no meaning and she would kill herself. She had no one else, so she had to say this to me. At night she would call a telephone number for help in such situations. This kind of line had been working for years in Sarajevo. It was started by a psychiatrist couple. But now it was someone else who answered. The other two had different jobs now. They were Ljliljana and Radovan Karadžić.

The move from the personal to the historical throughout the passage, which becomes most vivid in the final line, will blind many readers to the underlying implied connection, which is perhaps not so blatant as Tolstoy’s juxtaposition of Vronsky’s breaking the back of his racehorse Frou-Frou and the near death of Anna because of Vronsky’s getting her pregnant, but has a similar feel. I can’t remember now whether I’ve ever seen an equation of war with menopause, though as I think it about it, the blood letting that ends with the cessation of life is a natural connection that someone must have made in the past.

That Wondrous Paragraph

And, oh my, Miljenko, you have some lovely paragraphs, which I knew already of course, but when I get to write them again in English, I feel them in a way that makes me new:

In the winter of 1945, while Vjekoslav Luburić was cooking people alive in the basement of a Skenderija villa, and the Independent State of Croatia was, with the blessing of our Archbiship Ivan the Evangelist Sarić, squaring accounts with all those not living in accord with Jesus Christ and the Poglavnik Ante Pavelić, my Nona—who knows where or how in Sarajevo then—had her final abortion. If they had captured her, she and whoever had helped her would have found themselves among those hanging from their necks along the boulevard in Marijin Dvor. It was the final moments of the Croatian state and no time to be fooling around by throwing some woman into the camps at Jasenovac. It was also the final moments in which an abortion could have been carried out, for a month or two more and the fetus would have been too large to dispose of. Thus was the birth of my aunt or another uncle avoided at the final moment.

There are too many things to love about this, the personal subtly mixed into the historical, the ironic deftness, that splendid repetition of final. It is so good. I have added the explanatory Vjekoslav and Ante and camps, for the source is appropriately eliptical there, and there is something darkly hilarious about the part about Jesus Christ and—in the source, article-free—Poglavnik Pavelić, which allows for the possibility of thinking of Pavelić as the administrative superior of Jesus Christ (I hope my rendition does not eliminate completely that possibility), but that twist at the end is so like a Shakespearean couplet that closes a soliloquy, a little rhyme to say here we are together, see? Now on to what comes next.

Big New Book

I’ve just signed a contract to translate a 1000-page novel. It is due to the publisher in May of 2017, so I’ll be working steadily on it for the next couple of years. The publisher (the visionary Archipelago Books) asked for a sample, but I had not read the book, which came out in 2013, so I asked if they had a print copy they could send me, and they agreed. I knew the author’s work already and had actually approached the same publisher about another of his books, Buick Riviera, which I like a lot, but they indicated that they wanted to publish several other works by him before they got to that particular book. They had already at the time published his Sarajevo sarajevoMarlborough, an exquisite collection of short stories about the war, translated by Stela Tomasevic. Then came this request.

I read some reviews online and then read, when it arrived, through the book—I wish we could use the Russian imperfective verb for such expressions, as it suggests more “I engaged in reading” than “I read the whole thing” and that would be closer to how I read in this case—and decided I liked it and wanted to try my hand at it. I was very busy with a host of other things and had trouble squeezing out the 5,000 words from the beginning that I eventually sent them. I got a note back immediately from the publisher. Could I do the whole thing?

A friend later said I should have talked to him before signing the contract because he “could have talked me down off that ledge” (he had done a similarly massive project and it had taken a lot out of him), but I didn’t have anyone to do that at the time, and the book seemed to be calling. It is Rod, m_92787by Miljenko Jergović, which I’m translating as Kin, for now at least, as maybe a different title will surface as I go. The source language is what we refer to these days as Bosnia-Croatian-Serbian, or BCS, and some people add Montenegrin to the mix lately, making it BCMS. The author is a Bosnian Croat from Sarajevo, the publisher, Fraktura, is based in Zagreb, but much of the usage is older and regionally specific. Jergović is very sensitive to such nuances and likes to pepper his prose with them, often with ironic intent.

The title Kin seems good to me now, a very short title for a very long book. Kin, moreover, has many of the connotations that rod has, as well as many of the root associations. Rod is much richer, however. Rod is at the heart of roditi, to give birth or, when reflexive, be born. It is in the word for relative, relation, and cousin. Kin, in turn, is in kindred and kindergarten, and kind. It also has a very old feel, something almost primordial, and this is true of rod as well, a Slavic root that reaches to concepts such as parenthood, fertility, maternity, and motherland. I don’t know that English has a single word that can do that, so kin might have to do.

One of the reasons I like the book and have agreed to work on it is that it dovetails with some of my own thinking about cultural mixture, crossing, hybridity, especially in families, including my own of course. So I suppose there is a “simpatico” element to my motivation. I often feel that I know what the author is referring to beneath the surface layer of the words of a sentence. These thoughts come to me in my sleep or the next morning as insights into the book or the language or life in general.

I’ll be writing about this work from time to time, as it will be occupying my mind. These pages will allow me a forum for expressing things as they pass that otherwise would disappear in the invisible revision process from one “save” to the next on my screen.

And I’ll be posting some excerpts, maybe passages I’m having difficulty with, or those I think are especially good. Here is a passage at the end of the book’s first section.

“A year after the fall of the nationalist government, during the coalition led by the Social Democrats under Ivica Račan, whose Europism brought a sigh of relief to Europe, and to its Croatian neighbors first and foremost, I was at a film festival in Istria. It was held in an ancient walled city on the top of a hill that was once inhabited exclusively by Italians who, after Istria became part of Yugoslavia, were given the opportunity to vote by the Communists—either to go away as Italians or to stay behind as Yugoslavs—and these people had set off on their way, bags in hand, to spend years in Italian refugee camps, leaving their Istrian homes behind forever, and so this festival, in this town, was a form of socio-political, as well as cultural ceremonial marking a new, anti-nationalist Croatia. Of course the new minister of culture showed up, whose supporters and sympathizers had taken to calling the “Croatian Malraux,” an appellation he was prepared to accept, being that in Croatia, and as a rule in the former Yugoslavia, and in the Balkans as a whole, it is common and accepted practice to name leaders and dignitaries after magnificent foreigners, Franz Beckenbauer, Emperor Selassie, Shakespeare, in short, who cares. Anyway, this minister of ours, this Croatian Malraux, was previously a lexicographer, which means he was mostly taking it easy, or having intellectual debates at the pub after he had inspected the two or three lexical items that had turned up on his desk that day. I was not fond of the way he ran the Ministry and wrote an article about it in the newspaper, though I was truly gentle, far gentler than when I had written similar articles against Tudjman’s nationalists.

“I wasn’t thinking of my article when that afternoon I approached a café table around which, in the shade of an immense Slavic tree sat a group of directors, producers, and general practice intellectuals, with Minister Malraux at the head. I knew these people, the Minister too, and I merely wanted to convey an every-day hello in passing.

“‘Beat it, you Bosnian trash! Go back where you came from so we don’t have to send you ourselves!’ shouted Malraux. I didn’t get too upset, since the previous night was filled with such hard work and exertions that the ministerial hangover extended to the afternoon. But still I stopped long enough to look carefully at a director who had been blacklisted during the Tudjman years and whose films were not allowed to be shown on television then. He was a tough dissident, as tough as Kundera if not tougher. He looked down and did not say anything. He needed to be watchful of the ministerial hangover because he wanted to make movies again, and that, in Croatia, does not happen without government money. A promising young producer also looked down, a fighter against nationalism in every form and apologist for inter-ethnic affection, and everyone else, one after another, looked down, dissidents one and all from the time of Tudjman, until, after I had stood there for far too long waiting, I turned and made my way down that Istrian knoll, the Croatian Malraux shouting behind me.

“I left, and I’m still going, as a happy man, because unlike my Great-grandpa Karlo, I’m not being led away by a couple of guys nor is a third poking me in the kidneys with his rifle. This is the important nuance in our identities, why we live where we live without belonging to the majority. Happiness keeps us in this place, and happiness—I believe this—has often cost us our lives. Reconciled to being who we are, while carrying inside us the idea of who we are not, we represent identities that cannot be defined by a single word, passport, identity card, entry pass…. The masses know who they are from a gravestone, a flag, a name, and then they chant it out, but we are left with long, uncertain explanations, novels and films, true stories and invented ones, and the need to visit a village in the Romanian Banat where there are no more Germans but where the horizon is the same as when Great-grandpa Karlo was a boy, and with empty villages in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Poland, where people went away in a puff of smoke, and with uncertain memories, the feeling that today we are one thing, tomorrow another, that our hymns and state borders constantly elude us, and with repentance and long, painful remorse because a relative of ours lived and died as an enemy, and because we are ourselves something of an enemy, and with faith in what we hide beneath our language, the truth that our homeland is no more, and maybe never was, because for us every foot-length of the world is foreign country.”