Memoir as mask
by Chris Agee
Chernobyl Strawberries: A Memoir
By Vesna Goldsworthy Atlantic Books
293 pp, £14.99
In 1986, aged 24, Vesna Bjelogrlic left Belgrade with her English boyfriend for a new life in London. Aspirant poet, editor of a student literary journal, and up-and-coming presenter of a popular youth programme on radio, she had been ‘a spoilt child of communism,’ part of a cosseted Belgrade élite that flourished under Tito’s non-theological brand of socialism. Her father worked in intelligence at the General Staff Headquarters of the Yugoslav Army, and she grew up in the fashionable district of ‘Dedinje’ – soon to become a Balkan byword for the nationalized Serbian communism that would unleash the Milosevic Terror in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosova.
Tito’s Second Yugoslavia – a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces, held together by the Partisan glue of the League of Yugoslav Communists – was already on the cusp of dissolution by the mid-eighties. Tito had died in 1980, and with him the viability of a unitary Titoism. The Pandora’s box of inter-republican nationalisms, so long suppressed by Tito’s Machiavellian grip, had edged open by the summer of her departure, not long after the toxic breezes of Chernobyl.
Goldsworthy, now married, continues to live in London. In her immigrant’s progress through England, she did a stint in publishing and was a newsreader for the Serbian section of the BBC World Service through the three wars of Yugoslav succession. She now teaches at Kingston University in England and is author of Inventing Ruritania (1998), a well-received academic study of Western stereotypes about the Balkans.
Switching languages, codes, cultures, worldviews – in this age of the migrant, Goldsworthy’s bifocal tale commands an innate fascination. At her best, she reminds us that ‘roots’ are proper only to plants, not humans; and that each of us is, in some sense, a ‘transplant’.
Like many in the Balkans, Goldsworthy is an accomplished linguist; and it is, of course, a prodigious feat to write a memoir in a second language. Reflecting the cultural distance between English and the language now known variously as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian or Montenegrin , the number of English-language writers who have written in the opposite literary direction must be small indeed.
Yet the widespread use of English as a lingua franca throughout the former Yugoslavia means that overconfidence apropos our global tongue is often in evidence. The native English-speaker cannot but wince at the omnipresent contortions of ‘Slavlish,’ by which a familiarity with the language’s lower registers makes the complacent Balkan translator oblivious to the higher ones.
Something distantly cognate, on a literary plane, seems to characterize Chernobyl Strawberries. Goldsworthy is no Conrad, Nabokov, or Makine – Slav exemplars of triumphant bilingualism – even in the purely technical sense of a flawless mastery of a second literary language. Equally, by choosing not to write in Serbian, she has foreclosed on the forensic brilliance and native-language wit of other literary accounts of the death of Yugoslavia, such as Slavenka Drakulic’s Café Europa (1996), or Miljenko Jergovic’s Sarajevo Marlboro (1994).
Phrasing and style, tone-wise, are often not quite right. Her uncertain exercise of idiomatic registers, for instance, is a bit too eager, and overconfident, to be successful. Infelicities and awkwardness accumulated in the margins of my copy: syntactical hiccoughs, overuse of similes, demotic missteps, a recherché abundance of French phrases, shades of unintended meaning, and so forth.
All of this might be the literary equivalent of a pleasantly Slavonic accent, if not for the way style and structure interleave with sensibility. The non-chronological narrative, bound tightly to the autobiographical and accompanied by vintage family photographs of a puzzlingly conventional mien, proceeds in short sections, with many vignettes and leitmotifs; but this episodic approach often borders on the unsustained, seeming to descend from a too-strong style-formation by journalism.
If her procedure appears reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s mixture of Proustian meanderings and the atmospheric photograph, the actual effect is quite otherwise, tending to the descriptive-explanatory and thumpingly portentous or declamatory. Goldsworthy learnt her English style, one guesses, in a news studio. The fact that the text often strains after fleeting poetic and novelistic effects only confirms its undertow of thwarted literary impulse.
Two tropes predominate – ‘pampered child of the Serbian middle-class’ and an aspiration to become ‘almost English’ – and each proves a high-risk strategy. The success of the first depends on our belief that her cosseted past has indeed been transcended; that of the second, on our perception of the version of coveted Englishness in question. There is the danger of condescending to previous selves, since owning up to past attitudes doesn’t necessarily exorcise them, in the reader’s mind, from the present text – or the present life.
And therein lies the inescapable rub. Bjelogrlic-Goldsworthy’s writing hasn’t erased all trace elements of that class-conscious upbringing and the élite mindset of ‘a spoilt generation … arrogant from birth.’ Something in her sensibility grates. At first hard to credit, an unmistakable note of swagger, a kind of stage-Balkan puff and bravado (‘as his student, I was beyond compare’) is soon made apparent by dozens of examples. There’s something here of the self-projection, the self-creation, of a conflicted immigrant. Has some severed, youthful self been fossilized by the act of emigration? Or did she simply misjudge how such CV braggadocio might seem in another language?
Ironically, Goldsworthy evinces a deep internalisation of Western perceptions. Much of the memoir operates through the stereotypical, even tabloid, lens of England as it looks towards the ‘Wild Balkans’. A sublimation of the Serbian into the British seems to be at work, echoing, perhaps, the old Serbian royalist affinity for the martial and regal traditions of the Great Powers, especially Britain.
The cumulative result is a flattening of inner vividness, as if the memoir had been homogenized for Western consumption. Somehow, the rich particularity of the Balkans is absent. The memoir is all sweep and exemplar, aspiring to an image of grand literary importance, but verging continually on the kitsch and cliché of popular magazines: ‘To be of old Belgrade stock but also from Herzegovina was for me the winning combination – a bit like having a house in Mayfair and an old family castle in the wildest part of the Scottish highlands – but that was perhaps only because I was of the same stock myself.’
Apart from the evocations of family life, the local Party, the Belgrade literary world and her own juvenilia, very little of the lost federation comes clear, with nothing whatsoever on the other republics and their peoples. The minimalist references to the ‘Yugoslav war’ (note the singular: a Belgrade perspective) invariably occur in a vacuum of context, with many elisions of studied generality. Except for one mention of Milosevic and Tudjman, silence reigns on the dynamic of the break-up; the role of the UN and its War Crimes Tribunal; the sieges of Dubrovnik, Vukovar and Sarajevo; ethnic cleansing, death-camps and ‘safe havens’ in Bosnia.
Goldsworthy is at pains to declare her general horror and neutrality – ‘my compatriots have done their share and I’m certainly not judging anyone’ – but, for many, this will possess a subtext of Serb parallelism, by which a moral symmetry is maintained and the hard historical responsibility distanced. The constant iteration of Yugoslav begins to seem a sleight-of-hand, a convenient form of Yugo-nostalgia, hiding more than it reveals.
An emblematic passage concerns the fall of Knin – the tinpot, secessionist statelet in central Croatia established, then abandoned, by the Greater Serbia project. The brutal coup de grace delivered by Croatian armour in August 1995 sparked a flight by rural Serbs of biblical proportions. She writes: ‘I cried for the bewildered refugees in their endless columns moving east, and then I cried that I didn’t cry in the same way when others suffered.’ But if her heart was truly with the whole of Yugoslavia, why did the trauma not hit home years earlier? What of the fall of Srebrenica, three weeks before? Omitting all mention of Srebrenica, amidst recurrent images of Serb embattlement, smacks of ethical bad faith.
Not without its well-turned and affecting passages, Chernobyl Strawberries belongs to an unusual genre: the memoir as mask. In Bjelogrlic/Goldsworthy’s case, this mask is the reinvented immigrant’s, subset Balkan. (I speak as an immigrant.) Another telling passage comes when she remarks that she would not contemplate a Serbian translation of the book. But why, one wonders – if not for fear of being unmasked on her native ground, whose ghosts and complexities she has yet to elude?
Chris Agee is the Editor of Irish Pages: A Journal of Contemporary Writing. A long-standing Friend of The Bosnian Institute resident in Northern Ireland, he put together a special Irish issue of Bosnia Report in February-March 1994 (number 4 in the original series). He also edited Scar on the Stone: Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia (Bloodaxe Books, 1998, Poetry Book Society Recommendation), available from The Bosnian Institute. He spends part of each year at his house near Dubrovnik, and his second collection, First Light (Dedalus, 2003), included a suite of Balkan poems, while the two poems published here will be incuded in his next collection Next to Nothing .