Miljenko Jergovic: Sarajevo Marlboro & Ivo Andric: Omer Pasha Latas

She knew there would be pain in these books. But don’t people in the warmest climes imbibe hot drinks to temper the body’s response to heat? By that logic, here she is; steeped in the rich wordscape and sorrowful history of the Balkans.

The first days of November find this reader still silenced by life. A point in which literature remains among the few things left that can coax words out of her.

Sarajevo Marlboro and Omer Pasha Latas fell into her possession around the same time. That both books come from two of her favorite publishers, that the earth tones of their elegant covers match her autumnal soul, that both authors are exemplary, that their stories juxtapose on the same geographical region, were reasons enough to read them together.

Jergović’s extraordinary vignettes is a dip into a sea of humanity and tragedy in the midst of the Yugoslav wars. Andrić, born a century before these wars, whose words seem to flow as naturally as a limpid stream in the Bosnian countryside, write of a different time under the Ottoman rule, but of eerily similar sufferings.

Sarajevo Marlboro, traces of life retrieved from the rubble, fragments that suggest that the real casualties of war are the living; Omer Pasha Latas, unfinished at the time of Andrić’s death. But none of these books leave this reader dissatisfied. It is strangely easy to be drawn into the hypnotic quality of the details.

Both books intimate our need for context and our need for stories if only to make sense of life and divine its purpose; they whisper about the lies of those in power and of fabricated histories; but both beautifully manifest the ephemerality of life.

Andrić’s last word: “Music”. Jergović’s last paragraph: “You can never list or recall the private libraries that have burned down in Sarajevo… But the fate of the Sarajevo University Library, its famous city hall, whose books took a whole night and day to go up in flames, will be remembered as the fire to end all fires, a last mythical celebration of ash and dust. It happened, after a whistle and an explosion… Gently stroke your books, dear stranger, and remember they are dust.”

Dust: Like everything else we deem precious in this world. So while she can, this reader will stroke her books. They don’t always hold the answers, but they hold her, and hold the dusty, broken pieces of herself together.

Rebecca Solnit: Orwell’s Roses

When you turn to a book for solace and get chills instead.

Yes, this has got to be the most beautiful literary criticism of Nineteen Eighty-Four: It rethinks the man that was George Orwell, it guides us to reassess beauty, and it reviews Nineteen Eighty-Four in a light that is distinctly hers. But with Rebecca Solnit, you never know where she will take you next; it is only guaranteed to be a place of startling insight and perspective.

Written and published amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it surprisingly mentions and describes Putin as an admirer and rehabilitator of Stalin’s reputation; even calling to mind the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine, recognized by 16 nations as a genocide carried out by the Soviet government that killed 3-5 million Ukrainians from 1932-1933… and it seems like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will not be the only prescient book in question here.

What is chilling is the reminder that, “To be corrupted by totalitarianism, one does not have to be in a totalitarian country.” Orwell set Nineteen Eighty-Four in England, “To emphasize that totalitarianism could triumph anywhere.”

And what buttresses totalitarianism? Lies. “Lies gradually erode the capacity to know and to connect… Lies are integral to totalitarianism… demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The attack on truth and language makes the atrocities possible. If you can erase the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie, if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies, if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes. The first victim of war is truth.”

And yet, despite these ominous warnings for which Orwell is known, Solnit asks us to reconsider the word “Orwellian” and look at the man who, in the spring of 1936, planted roses. Beautiful is far from the first word that comes to mind when confronted with his writings, but there is a definition of beauty, Solnit emphasizes, that does not have to do with prettiness. “Another kind of beauty, of a toughness that is life…” The beauty to which Orwell was most committed and for which he strove was “this beauty in which ethics and aesthetics are inseparable, this linguistic beauty of truth and of integrity as a kind of wholeness and connectedness, between language and what it describes, between one person and another, or between members of a community or society.”

What was beautiful to him was truth, clarity, honesty — and roses. “Orwell was passionate about the beauty and gestures and intentions, ideals and idealism when he encountered them, and it was to defend them that he spent much of his life facing their opposites.” 

“Orwell’s work was about ugliness of various kinds, but what he found hideous serves as a negative image of what he found beautiful.”

There is, after all, solace through the roses telling us that stopping to smell them does not necessarily distract us from the seemingly more important things in life, but strengthens us instead. Through Rebecca Solnit, and through the man who made my birth year significant in literary history, we are spurred to recalibrate what we deem beautiful, to acknowledge our need for beauty, and to always strive to pursue it.

The Beekeepers

Try as we might to hope that the two apian titles speak only of positive lessons from bees — of how theirs is a society where each one functions for the good of the entire colony, of how they continue to work even when everything around them is dying — I am afraid they don’t.

Two beekeepers of neighboring nations; one real, the other fictional. Both written by women; one an Iraqi journalist and poet, the other a novelist who volunteered in refugee centers, herself a daughter of Cypriot refugees.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar is Abdullah Shrem. When DAESH (ISIS) began terrorizing Yazidi communities and abducting their women including Abdullah’s sister, he took advantage of his knowledge of the terrain and select personal contacts to rescue and smuggle women back to safety. Each time he saved a captive woman, he felt that he was also saving his sister.

Among the stolen women was Nadia Murad, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, the first Iraqi and Yazidi to be awarded the prize.

Dunya Mikhail initially inserts poems into a journalistic approach and recounts distressing interviews with the rescued women who were sold, beaten, and raped repeatedly, but who nonetheless opened up to the author so that she could write about their suffering. “It’s important that your book see the light of day, so that the world will know what’s going on here.” The journalistic eventually veers into the poetic, and I feel that this is one of the books from the region that will endure not only as an overwhelming account but also as a literary work.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is the fictional Nuri Ibrahim, but through him and the plight he shares with his blind wife, Christy Lefteri expresses the unspeakable realities and consequences of war, of lives ended, uprooted, wasted, abused, and destroyed.

“War,” writes Dunya Mikhail, “comes with various names but with only one face.”

Even though it seems that love and hope is universal, unfortunately, so is war.

“The problem isn’t that the world is going to end, but that it continues without any change.” — Nadia Murad