Listening to the dead in Bosnia
by Francine Prose
Stillness - and other stories, by Courtney Angela Brkić, 206 pp., New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.
Every war reminds us that it is essential to have writers who have witnessed the realities and the aftermath of battle, who can help us see into the hearts and minds of soldiers and civilians, who can describe - without excessive romance or rhetoric - bloodshed and brutality, survival and resilience. One such writer is Courtney Angela Brkić, whose introduction to Stillness, her first volume of short stories, explains the passion and conviction she has brought to this spare and poignant book.
In 1996, Brkić travelled to Bosnia with a forensic team to exhume the mass graves that were part of the grim legacy left by the struggle that divided and nearly destroyed the former Yugoslavia. Uniquely qualified by her profession (trained as a field archaeologist, she had spent a year amassing statistics on refugees in Croatia) and by her background (she is a Croatian-American, whose father grew up in Sarajevo), she undertook her painful and demanding job with a profound sense of mission.
Brkić interviewed survivors and - to borrow the affecting locution often employed by pathologists and forensic specialists - she listened to the dead: ‘In the morgue and on-site, I found letters and prayers in shirt pockets or rolled up with amulets inside tiny leather pouches. ... The faded words were written in a language that I could understand, and I carried them in my head long after providing translations for the rest of the forensic team.’
This sense of enduring responsibility to both the living and the dead carries over into her fiction, helping determine her narrative strategies: whose stories she has elected to tell and which characters engage her sympathies; the ways in which the ironies and contradictions, the complexities and compromises, of life in wartime find their way into her work. In fact, what's most admirable about Stillness is what their author shares in common with many of the ordinary heroes and heroines she describes - a courage born out of the experience of finding yourself in a situation you would never have chosen, one that demands a response that is both canny and intuitive. In Brkić's case, this courage manifests itself in more than her determination to take on a worthwhile and serious subject. It is also seen in her willingness to trust her own imagination and write from the point of view of characters - men and women; old and young; Americans and Bosnians; Muslims, Christians and Jews; soldiers and refugees; the wounded and the doomed and those who survive them - who may be nothing like her and whose histories are nothing like her own.
Her narratives range widely enough to offer a view of the most recent Balkan tragedy that is at once sharply focused and panoramic. In the title story, a former writer, hiding in a cellar while Vukovar is being razed, feels his identity, his spirit and his memories disappearing along with
his beloved city. The elderly Muslim man at the centre of ‘Suspension’ summons up the memory of a childhood accident, an arm broken during a boyish prank, to aid the forensic experts helping to search for the body of his missing son. ‘Where None Is the Number’ focuses on a Portuguese-Irish boy from Boston who has gone to Croatia to fight alongside his fellow Roman Catholics in a war he can't begin to understand. His equally clueless, less sympathetic and more privileged counterpart, the title character in ‘The Peacebroker’, is a jaded diplomat who works to arrange a cease-fire in Bosnia without learning a thing about its culture except for its drinking habits, its bad jokes and the sexual proclivities of a few local women - but feels confident enough to tell a government commission: ‘Frankly, gentlemen, they're all guilty as sin. ... They can't help it. It comes from a Byzantine nature.’
Stresses and dislocations
In yet another story, ‘Passage’, the tensions between a young man and his brother, who have fled Yugoslavia to escape military conscription, are heightened by the stresses and dislocations of their unstable existence as refugees in New York. ‘The Daughter’, which tracks the plight of a university student who must pay a cruel price for the war crimes her father committed, provides a welcome reminder that there were also innocent Serbs whose lives were ruined by the policies
of their leaders. Several of the stories concern the ways in which those who commit the quotidian brutalities of warfare and tyranny attempt to stave off remorse or become obsessed with their victims. In ‘Surveillance’, a government spy develops a quasi-erotic fixation on a woman he has been assigned to watch. And in ‘The Angled City’, a sniper leaves his post to walk the same streets on which he systematically picks out - and kills - his human prey.
Reading the less successful stories, you sometimes wish that Brkić had searched harder for the one telling detail that can transform a character from a composite into a fully realized individual, the one startlingly unpredictable but (when we consider it for a moment) perfect twist of plot
that can turn a fictionalized account of a situation into something more mysterious, closer to art. On occasion, events in these narratives - which, for all we know, actually happened - seem almost too ironic, too ‘perfect’ to work entirely well as fiction. So in one story a wife neglects to tell her husband that she is pregnant with his child until after she has been raped by enemy soldiers, and his doubts about the baby's paternity complicate their efforts to repair their marriage after the war. Because her earlier reticence has not been made convincing, her subsequent suffering seems more like an authorial construct than a fully credible development. Similarly an otherwise strong story about an Argentine forensic worker asked by a Bosnian mother to find her lost son seems diminished, rather than enhanced, when we learn that one of his favourite relatives was among the ‘disappeared’ in his home country.
But these are minor complaints. For the most part, the impression we are left with after reading Stillness is one of respect for Brkić's seriousness, her sympathy and her spirit. Having witnessed something important and terrible, she is to be commended for telling us what she saw, and for having produced a work so immeasurably distant from those all-too-common debut story collections by beginning writers who seem to believe that the worst fate that can happen to them is to suffer the torments of a bad blind date.
Francine Prose's most recent books are After, a novel for young adults, and a travel book, Sicilian Odyssey. This review appeared in The New York Times, 8 June 2003