Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Supple storytelling

Croatian writer weaves tales of Sarajevo

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM

In Sarajevo Marlboro, Miljenko Jergovic delicately orders his collection of 29 short stories into an eloquent composition that recounts the tales of Serbs, Muslims and Croats in Sarajevo during and after the devastating post-communist-era war in their homeland.

Jergovic, a Croatian by birth, grew up in Sarajevo and stayed there throughout most of the war. The poet, novelist and journalist is published throughout Europe; Sarajevo Marlboro marks his debut in short fiction. Originally published in Croatia in 1994, Stela Tomasevic’s translation of this work only recently made its way to the United States.

Each story is at once detailed and sparse in structure as Jergovic delves into brief moments in his characters’ lives. His style allows him to quickly span many years, nimbly crossing the chasm between life and death. Jergovic deftly contextualizes friends and family, individual strengths and frailties and the precarious sanity of a people amid the madness of war-torn city.

In “The Gravedigger,” the narrator clarifies his mission as he explains why a graveyard rests on a hilltop above the town.

“Let’s say you meet a stranger idling through the deep grass and he expressed an interest in the life story of a person buried up there. … At least if you’re on a hillside, you don’t have to regurgitate the story. You can actually map out the life history of the deceased as it moved through the downtown area, from shop to bar toward the grave.”

The writer then recounts in the voice of the gravedigger the tragic love story of Rasim and Mara, recording and reviving their lives as he stands by Rasim’s grave. As the story continues the gravedigger meets an American journalist. The journalist’s questioning never comes close to touching on the life of Sarajevo that comes forth in Rasim’s story. It is here that Jergovic explains his collection’s title. Sarajevo Marlboro is a brand of cigarettes specifically developed by Phillip Morris Cos. Inc. to suit the tastes of Bosnian smokers.

“When you look at the advertising billboards, fifty feet high, you don’t have a clue what Sarajevo Marlboro is or isn’t,” goes a line in “The Gravedigger.” Jergovic’s stories help to give us a clue.

Jergovic’s storytelling draws the reader in with amusement and a sense of loss, and every now and then a sentence or two hits like a punch in the gut. The vignettes present rich characterizations, almost as if the writer is sitting beside the reader with a snapshot, explaining the intricacies of each character.

The writer’s tales can be quite humorous and utterly heartbreaking a moment later, or perhaps even at the same time. He writes about the importance of life, of living, of remembering and of relaying life’s stories to others while maintaining a level of integrity in storytelling.

In “Cactus,” Jergovic recounts the joy and pain of young love and tender memories. The cactus, a gift from one lover to another, lightheartedly gains comparison to a certain part of the male anatomy and becomes, “the sort of thing that makes a love affair worth remembering.”

As the story ends, the narrator explains his revelation, “…The war has taught me how to calm my emotions and nerves artificially. Nowadays, in conversation, whenever somebody raises a topic that I find upsetting, I have a sense of this tiny red light automatically switching on inside me, not unlike the one you press to remove the background noise on a tape. And after that, I don’t feel anything. But when I think about that cactus, the light refuses to come on … many years ago, lots of people got upset because they found out horses died standing up. By contrast, I get sad just thinking about the way a cactus dies. … It’s not important, mind you, except as a warning to avoid detail in life. That’s all.”

Liz Witte is a sometime lover of poetry and sales assistant at Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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