JUNE 15, 2021
GRAVEYARDS ARE a recurring motif in Bosnian author Miljenko Jergović’s autobiographical novel Kin, originally published in 2013 and now available in a superb English translation by Russell Scott Valentino. They first appear in “Where Other People Live: A Presentation,” which functions as a kind of introduction to the many stories of family members that follow. As Jergović helps his grandmother clean gravestones, they “make each other laugh while performing our graveyard rituals and so announce the beginning of another Sarajevo spring.” His work in the graveyard is an early apprenticeship that links up with his work as the family storyteller.
Kin captures brief moments that have shaped the family, including “a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1947,” when great-grandfather Karlo “was sitting at the garden table, teaching his five-year-old granddaughter a song. Sixty-five years later, though she is now a seriously ill, demented old woman, she remembers every line.” She doesn’t remember the name of the song, but Jergović calls it the “Mushroom Prayer.” Kin is deeply interested in these moments that trickle down through the years, and how, even when languages and the names of countries have changed, when wars have completely reshaped the region, these fleeting seconds have stayed rooted in a family’s mind.
Jergović carefully collects the lost objects of family members, in the process documenting, imagining, recreating, and brooding over their lives. The result is a novel made up of stories of varying lengths, with swooping and intersecting narrative arcs. About his boyhood work in the graveyard, Jergović muses, “about five hundred pages would be adequate for narrating from memory and reconstructing the biographies of those whose graves Nona and I would make the rounds of on those first Saturdays of March. Each gravestone would be its own chapter.” Almost twice that long, Kin is a sprawling epic that uses a range of literary resources to capture as fully as possible every branch of a family tree.
But it is not the only rich family saga by a Bosnian author to appear in translation this year, being joined by Semezdin Mehmedinović’s My Heart, originally published in 2017 and newly translated by Celia Hawkesworth. My Heart offers the profile of a family in exile, exploring the connections that survive despite illness, loss, and displacement. It is an autobiographical novel divided in three parts: “Me’med” introduces the father of the family, a surrogate for the author, as he suffers a heart attack; “Red Bandana” picks up the summer after Me’med is stricken, following him on a road trip through the desert, where he reflects on his flight from Sarajevo, his arrival in America, and his relationship with his son, Harun; finally, “Snowflake” focuses on the mother, Sanja, who suffers a stroke that results in memory loss and partial paralysis. After Sanja sees Harun for the first time after her stroke, she “looks at her son as though she hasn’t seen him for years” and says she loves him “with a whole universe of mouse footsteps.”
Both My Heart and Kin offer sweeping novelistic views of the simplest and yet most complex of organisms: the human family. They capture the bizarreness of these deeply knitted groups, warm to one another yet closed to outsiders. In the hospital, after the nurse mistakes Me’med and Sanja as blood relatives, Me’med corrects her, but notes, “when I say, ‘She’s my wife,’ that is a simplification, she’s more than that. For instance, in 1993, during the siege of Sarajevo, a murderer pointed the barrel of a Kalashnikov at my chest. And she stepped between the gun and me.” We offer strangers specific words to explain our family members’ connections to us — mother, father, grandmother, brother, sister. These small words attempt to encapsulate all the complexities that link us to each other. Kin and My Heart answer the question of what it means to be from a specific place by exploring what it means to belong to a family — an immediate family in My Heart, an extended one in Kin.
Translated from Bosnian and Croatian respectively, My Heart and Kin are too small a sampling to generate any major conclusions about the reality of people’s lives in the region. Yet their themes of memory and familial connection, and their chronicles of exile, war, and political upheaval, certainly speak to the tumultuous histories of the countries where these languages are spoken. Jergović notes in Kin that “[t]he disarray of every home is the result of the disorder of people’s lives, their intertwinings, attachments, and initiatives.” But My Heart and Kin are not just about the trauma of war; they’re about the drama of belonging to a family that has managed to live through war, as well as through many other things. The family in My Heart is directly impacted by the Bosnian War of 1992–’95, while the sprawling family in Kin endures two World Wars, the Cold War, and the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and 2000s. Both families have been deeply affected by the dissolution of Yugoslavia, which eventually splits into six different countries. Observing his uncle’s grave, Jergović says, “I’m not at all certain what my uncle’s homeland would have been. What’s clearer, at any rate, is that I don’t have one, which means in the end that I wouldn’t really know what such an epitaph on his hypothetical grave would even mean.”
Both novels deal with the question of what it means to be from a place, or to have family from a place, that has ceased to be. Jergović speaks to the specifics of his identity: “My Croatianness was Bosnian, and more than that it was kuferaš Bosnian. […] In my case, or rather, in the case of my family, this meant we were Bosnian Croats whose identities were marked by the Slovene, German, Italian, and rare other nations of the former monarchy.” The family in My Heart becomes refugees in America after living through the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege of a capital city in modern history, while Kin traverses the history of Yugoslavia from its infancy to its collapse. Jergović notes that his own “birth was, from before the beginning, a political project.” Both Kin and My Heart show how a family’s connections are shaped, cemented, and obscured by such projects.
The painful events these families endure go beyond war and social conflict. Awake in the hospital, Sanja, speaking in Bosnian, murmurs to the father who abandoned her as a child, afraid that she has made him angry. Me’med recalls a childhood accident involving an injured horse, “feel[ing] the same sorrow half a century later, remembering it now.” In Kin, Jergović’s mother, Javorka, fights with his grandmother, Olga. “All this would be happening somewhere around me,” he writes, “the doors slamming, my mother throwing herself on the floor, yanking at her hair — like a child.” Scenes such as these point to a different, more intimate form of trauma: painful events mark us, and we’re never able to fully evade them.
My Heart only alludes to the family’s life during the siege of Sarajevo, instead spending more time depicting the seemingly more banal pains of illness. Mehmedinović layers sorrows onto one another without ever really classifying them. Sanja and Me’med suffer the typical hurts and abrasions of childhood, while Harun’s youth takes place against the backdrop of the siege. The implication is that all forms of pain — ranging from common childhood traumas up to outright war crimes — create ripples and fractures in family relationships. As Sanja returns to the sadness of her childhood during her recovery, Me’med writes about their marriage: “We have lived together for thirty years, and all that time she has been wary of me. I never saw [her father], but I bear that man as my personal burden. I’m tired of him. And I’m used to him.” Traumatic events in a loved one’s past invade and inform all of their connections with others.
Yet these events are held by memory, which is by nature fickle and flickering. When Sanja is forgetful after her stroke, Me’med frets that “[s]hared remembering, a precious part of our relationship, has pretty much vanished. How can I now restore to her memory the important days that should not be forgotten?” Their shared past is not made up simply of “big, important events,” but also of small moments they experienced together. Me’med mourns the possibility that his wife has lost the memory of when “we were driving in New Mexico, and if you looked through the window on the left-hand side of the car you saw a lovely sunny day; but if you looked through the right-hand one there was rain pouring down the pane. A quite unique moment of pure beauty! What if she’s forgotten it forever?” At the same time, he thinks that his desire for her to regain all her memories may be merely selfish, concluding that it is “good that she doesn’t remember all those sad and difficult days. There would be justice in their remaining forever in oblivion.” Even the shared memory of husband and wife has its limits, and Me’med’s interrogation of Sanja after her stroke is just as much a reflection on what his own memories offer him.
In Kin, Jergović preserves family memory by chronicling the lives of specific objects, a project he compares to capturing fireflies in a jar. For example, he spins a long story out of his grandfather’s beekeeping journal. These objects, lovingly curated by the author, give his kin a second life and a significance that extends beyond simple family lore. “A place that did not have its famous writer, painter, and director,” Jergović muses, “was insignificant, for it did not qualify for eternity.” This longing to transcribe family life so it reaches others outside their small country hints at the question of legacy in both novels. But novelizing your family also has its limits. Both Kin and My Heart struggle with the moral difficulties involved in adapting family life into literary form. Mehmedinović refers to his fictionalizing of Sanja as a form of infidelity:
“A friend emailed me from Zagreb and asked: ‘How is S.?’ He doesn’t know her. Or, rather, he knows her only as S., the way I most frequently used to refer to her in my texts. He was inquiring not about the health of my wife, but about the health of my literary character.” He goes on to admit that he has “turn[ed] almost my entire life into fiction. It was now a collection of illusions, fairly unreliable, so that it would be hard to construct a factual account of my life.”
Celia Hawkesworth and Russell Scott Valentino are both gifted translators, and they’ve brought concerns about language in the original texts to the surface, tying them to the questions that naturally arise when reading a translation. My Heart engages with issues of language through its family of refugees — a father who continues to write in Bosnian, a mother struggling with sentences after her stroke, a son more comfortable in English than his parents. Me’med struggles to connect with his son because of their linguistic differences. “What language are we speaking?” he asks. “When we came here, you were young enough to adopt the rules of your new world without resistance, and for your new language to be closer to you than the one you arrived with. […] Does that mean that you and I, father and son, speak different languages?”
Again and again in both books, the possibilities of language are more prominent than their limits. When Harun studies Serbo-Croatian in college, he reads another of Miljenko Jergović’s books, Sarajevo Marlboro (1999), in which he finds character based on himself. His college professor says, “this is the first time that I have spoken in real life to a character from a story.” Jergović, likewise, is ambitious and direct in his understanding of the multitudinousness of language, writing about his grandfather that,
it is important that this story touch its readers so that they might spread the word, and it’s important that it be translated into as many different languages as possible, for the world of Đorđe Bijelić, the world of Sarajevo’s Jews and beekeepers, was scattered across the earth, and their descendants have been scattered three times since, so it is likely that the person who knows the whole story lives somewhere far from Sarajevo and this language, which I call again, in spite of all, Serbo-Croatian. If you hear me, please be in touch!
We think again of the sprawling graveyard that opens the novel, of the huge array of people who have lived, died, and been buried in one small Croatian city. These two books are not simply renderings of the members of a family, but opportunities for them to continue living even after their deaths. Literature and translation become a type of afterlife.
Finally, both works explore how difficult it is to understand even the people closest to us. Kin and My Heart hint at the reality of solitude even while being entangled in a family. Me’med writes that he can “see the three of us captured in the mirror so clearly, as though we are in the wasteland of the cosmos, warming each other with our hands. Three, we’re plural, but at the same time, in the mirror we’re the reflection of pure isolation.” The mere fact of family ties offers no assurance of mutual understanding. Kin includes photos of Jergović’s father in the back of the long book; underneath a snapshot of his parents, the author writes: “The hand of my dead mother, young and pretty, on the knee of my dead father, who looks amazingly like the living me. And from the beach, accidentally photographed, someone else’s eyes look at them.” These images offer the paradox of what it means to be in a family: together, yet separate, but also interwoven.
Sarah McEachern is a reader and writer in Brooklyn, New York. Her recent creative work has been published in Catapult, Pigeon Pages, The Pacifica Review, Entropy, and The Spectacle. Her reviews, interviews, and criticism have been published or are forthcoming in Rain Taxi, The Ploughshares Blog, Pen America, BOMB, Full Stop, The Believer, and The Rumpus.