Terribly sorry for not posting over the last two weeks. There have been a lot of changes offline—accepting a new job, wrapping up the old job, the good news of having my girlfriend back in town for the summer, the bad news of dealing with what I guess are unbelievably bad spring allergies.
I was able last week, though, to get a look at a few pieces in the latest Tin House. And I’m really upset about one of them, “Srebrenica” by Edmundo Paz-Soldan.
In the story, a fiction piece, Paz-Soldan describes a lonely Kansan who has volunteered to exhume mass graves at Srebrenica. She, the Kansan, empathizes with the victims’ families, experiences disgust, and finds comfort in sleeping with another woman working on the exhumation. To be frank, it’s not much of a story; the familiarity of its plot and its emotional simplicity make it look like a workshop first draft, though it comes from a distinguished writer. The story is dedicated to the late Elizabeth Neuffer, the finest war correspondent the Boston Globe ever had, but Paz-Soldan has hardly burnished Neuffer’s memory with a story so short on insight.
It is awkward to write in the voice of a second culture viewing a third culture, as Paz-Soldan does—and in translation, at that. And it’s just as awkward, in my case, to feel indignation on behalf of another culture, as I did while reading “Srebrenica.” My connections to the Balkans are deep, but they come by choice, not birth. So I don’t know if my disappointment in “Srebrenica” is more valid because I’m not a Serb, or less valid for the same reason, for being an outsider. My disappointment has its source in the author’s apparent disregard of—or inability to understand—the depth of Serbian and Albanian culture and how that depth relates—and doesn’t relate—to modern war crimes and the atrocity at Srebrenica, where in 1995 state forces systematically gathered thousands of Mulsim men and boys and murdered them.
Paz-Soldan buys into the unhelpful notion of “ancestral hatreds”:
I wanted to talk to the girls about Marcos, but I was left no choice but to keep reading Balkan Ghosts, the book I had started on the plane and that was helping me to comprehend the ancestral hatreds of the region.
It’s very believable that a character new to the Balkans would read Balkan Ghosts, a popular but poor introduction to the former Yugoslavia. But Paz-Soldan makes no indication that he’s highlighting his character’s naivete. The author makes himself look terribly underinformed. There’s no hint in the story that he has internalized the good introductions to the Balkans, books like the famed Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric or almost anything by Ismail Kadare (ironic, because Kadare has a story in this same issue of Tin House).
Anyone who takes the Balkans seriously—in its geographic, historical, religious, or artistic forms—knows that the “ancestral hatreds” thing is a lazy explanation. The historic Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian, Jewish, Greek, and Turkish populations of the southern Balkans—they each have long memories. But their memories largely concern themselves, that is, stories about themselves. Memories of heroes and martyrs are passed down. Enemies are interchangeable—for Serbs, for example, sometimes enemies are Muslims, sometimes they’re Communists, and sometimes they’re simply each other.
When conflict breaks out in the Balkans, enemies are almost always enemies of convenience or victims of circumstance. Or, really, victims of a group’s reaction to its own weakness and fear. When war broke out in 1993 over the partition of Bosnia, it wasn’t because Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs suddenly remembered they were supposed to hate each other. War happened because national leaders were afraid of losing their priviledge as Yugoslavia dramatically changed. To maintain their power at all costs, they impoverished certain populations, shifted others, and made it generally impossible not to have differences with those who were different from you. The lowest example was Slobodan Milosevic’s calculated efforts to drive Muslim populations into sensitive places like Kosovo, the essential territory in the Serbian narrative, in order to further agitate his own citizens for prolonged war.
In short, the hatreds were real, the atrocities were real, with real victims and real individual guilt, but repeated conflicts in the Balkans are indicative of political patterns, not cultural ones. Thus, Paz-Soldan’s story perpetuates a common but unreal version of events.
The irony, as noted previously, is that Tin House also published a mind-blowing story called “Hagia Sophia, a Wall Painting” by a Nobel short-lister, the Albanian Ismail Kadare. It’s terribly unfair to compare the under-40 Paz-Soldan to the venerable Kadare. But, boy, if you want a story about the nature of the Balkans, starting where all Balkan histories start—with the fall of Constantinople—you have to read “Hagia Sophia.” Kadare has perfected the character of the divine-minded but practical artist in the employ of a king, emperor, pharoah, etc., and “Hagia Sophia” features the same, namely, an architect ordered by the conquering Ottoman Sultan to convert the Hagia Sophia from church to mosque. Kadare’s story is a vivid, layered, and moving imagining. The coexistence of reverence and profanity, the love of paradox, and the grand history told in very fictional, very personal terms—of all it is very Kadare, and very Balkan.
Anyway, enough of that. Pick up the new Tin House and judge for yourself.