Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man, William T. Vollmann’s “Three Meditations on Death”, and Jasmina Tessanovic’s “Diary of a Political Idiot”
Art Workers Coalition, And babies, 1969
“I don’t bother to think what will become of us, I just know I have to survive.” –Jasmina Tessanovic, “The Diary of a Political Idiot”
And just like that, we are back here, sitting in a circle and just kind of staring each other down. I know you were all expecting that joining a club would vastly improve your social skills, but you’re with me…and…so…I thought this book club would be a joke, but it turns out I also needed it to take a break from all the reading I had to do for my MA Thesis (built on a historical framework dating from the end of the Fil-American War to Occupy…FUN!!!), I figured I’d make it a productive break and revisit my collection of literature from the Croatian-Serbian conflict.
Last time I cornered you all into this crapola I mentioned a Balkan edition to acquaint us all or immerse us in the human element of what happened in former Yugoslavia in the 90s. I saw this unfold from the comfort of my grandma’s house, watching CNN in an airconditioned room. Ahhh…cable. Thank you CNN for those sweeps through images of crying women and children layered with the standard sterile narration. I knew something was happening, but something was always happening.
Years later, I would watch a movie with Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins that quietly dealt with the subject, but this was more than a decade later so I was utterly confused about the historical backdrop which took place pre-Google—especially with, you know, being perpetually saddled with my country’s own shit. This is where I learned that it’s not history unless there’s some well-dressed white dude (or Will Smith) charging towards the fore. On a horse. I mean, at this stage I knew more about American relations with aliens that may–or may not exist–than I knew about things that actually happened in this hemisphere. (Also, has anyone seen Fury?)
There should be more emphasis on the quiet, because that’s what stuck from the story that played out between Polley (a hearing impaired nurse) and Robbins (her charge). There was no score, no sudden flashes back to endless gunfire, no spectacle. It spoke of the aftermath but focused mainly on the human cost, when all we’re left with are the stories of what we went through, the reasons we are left alone, and the few who are willing to listen.
This would be a recurring theme in the stories I’d later encounter about the Balkans, which had its share of media coverage, but never in the overwrought way history is typically spoken of if it is to signify its value. It was the kind of coverage that fell between British Royalty and the rising price of oil. There were no grand gestures, and this might be because the grand gestures were reduced to whispered secrets, as if this would contain the unspeakability of the atrocities committed. There’s also the matter of language, in which grief and curses were delivered in a language that few outside of the region understood. And so, a couple of decades later, it’s still largely made up of noise and footnotes–which is usually the case when your country is cast as a bit player in world affairs.
And hello from the Philippines, where it’s more fun! (Surprise, we speak English here!)
This makes it no coincidence that Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man opens not with its protagonists surveying the damage of a war torn home, but in a language school in Chicago. As Jozef Pronek (a recurring character in the author’s work) is reading aloud, our narrator is taken back to their childhood, as neighbours in Sarajevo, long before the siege:
“They built an ugly high rise, which we hated along with its tenants. So we would throw stones into the windows of the building and set their garbage on fire. We would corner a kid from the building and beat him up viciously. Pronek lived in the building and when we cornered him, he would never put up a fight—his nose would bleed, and he would look at us with scorching fury, and then he would just walk away. Eventually, the war against the building withered away, and we ended up playing with those kids…We let them settle, but they were still in our land, and we never failed to let them know that.”
Likening it to childs’ play speaks of the same banality referred to by Hannah Arendt; of how every petty thwarting can escalate to the more universal terms by which we understand death. “War is a great silencer of hypocrisy,” wrote James Blount, a former US soldier turned judge, referring not to the Balkans, but to the Philippines at the turn of the century. That’s it, I guess, you think you know and then you don’t, and as the bodies pile up, so does the knowledge of how easy it is to reduce a life – to make one death the same as the next, and the next.
So the real challenge is to find a language for the unspeakable, and this is where journalistic coverage takes on a literary, almost poetic quality. While Hemon dealt with the grief wrought by the siege through fiction, William T. Vollmann’s “Three Meditations on Death” and Jasmina Tessanovic’s “The Diary of a Political Idiot” began with the seemingly easy task of description: a catalog of pain done objectively, which is a mammoth task once you consider that it’s kind of fucking impossible. Think of cutting your thigh open, make the wound big enough and deep enough to show layers; then catalog the gore.
And that’s where the skills of writers like Vollmann and Tessanovic come through. This is from Vollmann’s “Siege Thoughts”, the third of his Meditations:
Every morning I woke up to chittering bullets and crashing mortar rounds. I hated the snipers I couldn’t see because they might kill me and because they were killing people of this city, ruining the city in every terrible physical and psychic was that it could be ruined, smashing it, murdering wantonly, frightening and crushing. But their wickedness too had become normal: this was Sarajevo in the fourteenth month of the siege. Needs lived on; people did business amidst their terror, a terror which could not be sustained, rising up only when it was needed, when one had to run.
And this is from Tessanovic’s “Diary of a Political Idiot” which appeared in Granta 67: Women and Children First:
It’s not even the killing that makes me die every day little by little, it’s the indifference to killing that makes me feel as if nothing matters in my life. I belong to a country, to a language, to a culture which doesn’t give a damn for anybody else and for whom nobody gives a damn.
The funny thing is after all of this, plus a lecture given by Hemon and writer Igor Stiks, I still don’t know much about the conflicts aside from the broad strokes offered in lieu of analysis. I do however, know the stories as told by Tessanovic and Hemon of exile and blackouts and what a pain in the ass it is to cross the street when there are fucking snipers all over the damn place and you could just die in your inconsequential quest for a quart of milk. War, the greatest hypocrisy, is a bitch to live through but there’s not much else to do besides continue living in the shadow cast by political conflict you’re helpless to control.
Amid carnage of this scale, it’s easy to dismiss literature or to recast definitions of value or things of consequence. What we want are strategies and statistics: body counts, shifting borders, land, and all these other complicated figures decided by powerful people who are not us. With or without war, we want to know how to get what we want, to report our victories. No one wants to count their losses, let alone describe their wounds.
At a conference I attended on design, one of the opening addresses (and I can’t find its author because the website is in Portuguese) had this to say: “In the universe of utilitarianism, a hammer is infinitely more useful than a symphony.” That was from a music professor and conductor belonging to the Department of Art and Communication at the University of Aveiro. I’ve committed it to memory as a reminder that despite the uncertainty of survival (especially in the middle of a decade-long civil war) there’s much to be gained by having faith in your voice, or in the words you use to tell a story. People are small and lives are dispensable and (I think this is from Nowehere Man [I left my copy at home–again]) others will continue to push forward with or without you. The labor of love that constitutes words, whether as movies, novels, diaries, or reportage, is another means to remember, to redeem, and to preserve dignity.