July 24, 2008

Stream of Consciousness on the Yugoslav Wars

At the end of my last posting, I wrote a short laundry list of dramatic ideological shifts: times that looked very different when those who lived through them looked back on them. The impetus for this exploration was the way the ideological purge of post-war Japan is portrayed in Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World.

Before I move on to the topics I planned to explore, I'd like to reflect on the Surprise that came in yesterday's news: that they'd finally arrested Radovan Karadzic. Talk about your anticlimaxes! How does this relate to my theme? Well, in an odd sort of way. Serbia is a country that hasn't really undergone the post-defeat purge. And so you have a small part of the population that feels repentant about what happened there in the 1990's, and a large part of the population that still feels defiant and justified for its ultranationalist atrocities.

This posting is going to be a bit "stream of consciousness" because I find that the recent news is dredging up lots of memories and sentiments, and I'm not sure what conclusions to draw from them yet, but I'd like to relate my second-hand relationship to the wars Serbia waged. You may recall that last week I wrote "As in another well-known Ishiguro novel - The Remains of the Day - the story of an intense era with reverberations well into our own time is not told on the grand scale of historic figures and events, but on the level of less prominent people and their personal lives. One gets the sense that the grand historical and political life of the world is made up of the sum of millions of personal lives." Indeed, these wars had their effects on my little life. And now that the war-criminal architects of those conflicts are finally being brought to justice, I find myself reflecting on how my life felt the echoes from their deeds, distantly, but distinctly.

I was planning, in the summer of 1991, to move to Europe for a while. I religiously read Die Zeit, every week in an effort to brush up my German, and to tune into the European news and media. German media was very keen on reporting the developments in the incipient Croatian War of Independence. Germany had, after all, made the controversial move of being the first country to recognize the newly declared Republic of Croatia. I recall sitting in a greasy-spoon diner in Knights Landing, California reading an article by a Croatian woman who described how unprepared she was when the war began. She called her mother and asked her what kind of supplies to buy, and drawing on her experience from the second world war her mother rattled off the list "oil, flour, salt, candles, potatoes, bacon, sausages, pasta, rice, tea, coffee, soap." I will say more about this article in a minute.

Part of my complicated motives for coming to Hungary sixteen years ago was to try my hand at making a living as a writer. I even imagined that once I'd established a base in Budapest, I might slip down to Croatia and do some reporting. It all seemed so interesting and "real" when I read about it in Die Zeit. It was the sort of stuff that would inspire a budding Hemmingway. But once I got comfortable here, I (sanely!) decided I wasn't meant to meddle in that world, especially when I heard the tales of the people who did venture down there to report about it.

I recall the young freelancer (who incidentally shares my not-all-that-common surname) who stayed in my apartment twice between jaunts down to Croatia. One evening he sat in my living room telling me how two nights before he'd spent in the cellar with a Croatian family while they endured the nightly shelling by the Serbian Army. No, I thought, not my cup of tea.

When I was working at the Budapest Sun, there was a freelancer named Julius Strauss who regularly did stints in the Balkans to report for the Telegraph. One evening at the watering hole around the corner from the Sun offices, Julius told us about driving up a Bosnian hillside toward the war front in a rented Jeep full of reporters, and being informed by the Bosnian Serb Army that their presence wasn't appreciated by raining shells around them. I was quite certain that was not an experience I needed in my life.

I was the book reviewer at the Budapest Sun, and one day a local English-language bookstore sent me a book called Balkan Express by a Croatian journalist named Slavenka Drakulic. Among the essays in that book I found the one I'd read in the rural California diner two years before in Die Zeit. I liked the book so much that I pestered some publishers to send me more of her books. I gave a glowing review to a darkly passionate novel of hers entitled Marble Skin. Not long after that I met her at a book festival in Budapest. I brought along copies of her books to sign. When I told her who I was, she gave me a big kiss. Her publisher had sent her a copy of my review, and she said it was one of the most flattering things she'd ever read about her writing (which is pretty amazing, considering some of the gushing reviews of her work I've read).

The apartment I rented in those days looked out over the Danube river toward Margaret Island (a locale I couldn't even dream of affording nowadays). Over time it occurred to me that the flags on the ships that passed by were always from countries north of Hungary. Due to the war, the river was unnavigable because of sunken boats and bombed bridges, for years. No boats from Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria. Perhaps a little thing to me. But once I noticed it, I thought about it every day when I watched the boats pass by my balcony window.

There was a photographer who briefly worked for the Budapest Sun in the early nineties who had fled from Vojvodina, the ethnic Hungarian region of northern Serbia. One day we were talking in a cafe. He reached over to get something out of his camera bag. I briefly caught sight of a nine millimeter automatic among his cameras. That's the only time in my sixteen years in Hungary I've seen a firearm anywhere besides on a policeman's belt. Though a dear man in most ways, he was paranoid and uptight. I could feel the war craziness in him.

My wife had a Serbian office mate at the advertising firm she worked at many years ago. She invited us to come over for a few drinks with her and her husband. Things were going quite smoothly until the subject of Kosovo came up. They had been living in Belgrade during that war. Addressing me as the only American in the room, his eyes suddenly got wild, and he shouted, "Why on earth did you have to bomb us?" I tried to politely say a few things about atrocities, but I could tell he hadn't been convinced yet that that wasn't all just Nato propaganda. "But why did you have to bomb us?"

It's hard to describe what it was like to live in a country at peace and in relative prosperity, knowing that barbarous butchery and cruel terror were transpiring less than a day's drive away. I think Hungarians tried to forget what was happening in the country next door. But there were always reminders.

There was an odd incident one Saturday morning in the early nineties. I was awoken in the first hour of daylight by the sound of an explosion. Turns out it had been many miles away at the St Matthias Church on Castle Hill. People got a bit nervous when news reports said the bomb site had been marked with Serbian nationalist symbols. But people realized soon that a) Serbia had enough on its hands without involving Hungary, and b) Hungary was quickly falling within the sphere of influence of the EU and Nato. Serbia wouldn't dare.

And so, you see, despite the fact that I didn't experience that war first hand, and that I have yet to go to the former Yugoslavia, my life was affected in many ways.

As I said before, the grand historical and political life of the world is made up of the sum of millions of personal lives


anthromama said...

I think it's hard for most Americans to understand what it's like living anywhere near a war zone. We're just such a large country, and insulated because we have so few neighbors. The destruction of the World Trade Center would have been shocking enough in and of itself, but it was just not something that happens here.

And though we have been involved as a nation in our share of wars in recent memory, there has been little to no actual deprivation on the home front. No rationing, no black market, no refugees. Sometimes I'm amazed that anyone cares about the rest of the world here at all, because we're in our own little (big) world here.

I guess that's what strikes me when I read things like this about experiences in Europe. The interaction of so many disparate nations, all cheek by jowl.

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