The longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare began on April 5, 1992 when Bosnian Serb nationalists surrounded Sarajevo. The assault would last for 1,425 days, almost four years. Inside the blockaded city, citizens tried to pull together as their city was bombarded with mortars and artillery fire, cut off from access to food, power and communication. Families were driven from their homes, faced the real possibility of detention, rape, torture and slaughter. And yet, in small corners of daily life, small embers of humanity were kindled and nurtured. Death in the Museum of Modern Art is a testament to the fragility and the resilience of the ordinary people trapped in the city, an evocation of beauty in the face of unspeakable horror.
This slim collection of six short stories by Bosnian writer Alma Lazarevska reads like a quiet musical meditation, a set of variations on a theme. Most of the stories are narrated by an unnamed woman, married, usually with a single child, a boy. The stories are imbued with a quiet humanness that is as comforting as the death and destruction that surrounds the characters is terrifying. To those of us who can only faintly imagine what it must be like to endure such conditions the effect is startling.
There is not a weak entry in this collection and despite the themes that do recur (in fact at times I wondered if the same family was at the core of some of the stories) each tale shines a light on a different angle of the experience of the residents of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.
As a parent myself I was especially moved by the story “Greetings from the Besieged City”. Framed through a series of imagined picture postcard scenes this is a meditation on the desperate desire for a happy ending despite the awareness that in literature as in life, happy endings are elusive. While the knowledge of this truth drives a former classmate of the narrator mad, she herself tries to protect her own son from fictional unhappiness by changing the ending of the book she reads to him, The Seville Fan, a love story in which the hero dies:
“And so Pablo succeeded in not dying, which he was, after all, not accustomed to. Because, when I exhaled and put the closed book down, in its printed pages he was still dead. As I was pronouncing the sentences that were not in the book, it seemed to me that, for the first time in our reading sessions, our boy turned his eyes away from their fixed point. He glanced suspiciously at the book then at my face. A pedagogue would say that he was beginning to get used to the fact that parents tell lies. Or that they become accustomed to sentiment!”
The mother is conflicted by her need to prepare her child for the reality of death – of unhappy endings – and the desire to protect. But when “red-hot balls” start to fall on the besieged city, instantly transforming “human bodies into bloody heaps of flesh” the effort to create some variation of a picture postcard greeting against a landscape of horror is increasingly distorted. The impact is deeply unsettling, yet poignantly human.
The siege is a persistent presence in these tales. It drives the tenants of an apartment block from the odd niceties of shared accommodation to huddle in the basement in fear, or to flee the city if possible, in “Thirst in Number Nine”. The superstitious belief that each used match is a saved soul, leads a couple to use and collect precious matches to light cigarettes, rather than the candle that is equally vital in “How We Killed the Sailor”. This represents a perverse and symbolic luxury as civilian casualties mount around them. The wife wonders about these souls they pretend to protect as each day new faces grace the obituary pages of the paper: “Do they know that there is a besieged city somewhere in the world with the saviours of their souls in it?”
The title story “Death in the Museum of Modern Art”, features a narrator who muses on her involvement in a curious project. Bound for publication in a glossy magazine and an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, photographs of 100 inhabitants of Sarajevo are to be paired with their answers to a survey which includes the haunting question: How would you like to die? In a besieged city how does one begin to answer a question like that?
Upon its publication, this collection received the “Best Book” award from the Society of Writers of Bosnia and Herzogovnia. In this lovely edition from Istros Books, the translator, Celia Hawkesworth, brings the gentle and shocking power of Lazarevska’s unique voice to life. I am extraordinarily grateful to Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the editor of the wonderful Istros Books for selecting and passing this moving, haunting collection on to me. I can recommend it without reservation, these are stories that need to be read. After all, the Bosnian War only came to an end twenty years ago later this year and today, in so many parts of the world, ordinary families are still struggling to survive under the conditions of unimaginable conflicts.
Sadly the happy ending continues to be elusive.