MAY 29, 2021
HE POINTED KNOWINGLY at my surname on the place card. He asked me about my parents, their ethnicity, and I said I was the child of a mixed marriage. In his capacity as a poet, he had travelled to the Balkans, and so for most of the reception, wanted to talk about the war.
Anya, Asylum Road’s protagonist, must put up with a poet seated next to her at a wedding. After listing “his top ten most harrowing sights,”
He topped up my glass and said that history must not repeat itself. That though the EU was imperfect, like Yugoslavia, like any marriage in fact, British people valued what it represented. Membership, he mused as a server took our plates away, was probably my homeland’s only hope. We had better get a move on with integration.
The poet suppurates condescension. He doesn’t care if his conversation is intrusive or traumatic. Anya remarks that she has encountered his type of tone before: “[A]s though such chaos could never occur within his island, whereas in the Balkans it was inevitable.” The wedding occurs before the referendum and the poet will, of course, be proved wrong.
On the ballot, and then in popular discourse, Brexit versus Remain is what it came down to. But the circumstances leading to the state of Britain now cannot be encapsulated in a neat binary. A lesser novelist would have woven Anya — refugee! Other! — into a morality tale of sorts with a political message on the state of the nation. But Olivia Sudjic has no interest in facile dichotomies.
Asylum Road is the story of an unraveling. Anya, a refugee of the Bosnian War, Cambridge graduate, PhD candidate, gets engaged to her boyfriend Luke in the summer of 2016. She spends time with his Brexiteer parents, then travels to Bosnia to introduce Luke to her family. The trauma of the war, the heightened nationalisms and identity crises of fractured nation-states, historical ignorance, and repression all come to a climax by the end of the year in Anya’s relationship to Luke and within her own person.
The novel is a pleasure to read, though my stomach was clenched and my palms were sweaty. Asylum Road is suffused with dread. Anya’s anxiety disorders and trauma are not only described through her thoughts, body language, and metaphors; Sudjic also evokes trauma by playing with perspective and tense. There’s a section near the end of the novel where first person changes to third person, showing us the extent of Anya’s dissociation. Another section changes from past tense to present, fitting the traumatic memory evoked on the page — for trauma is always in the present tense within the body, according to psychologists such as Bessel van der Kolk in his wonderful The Body Keeps the Score.
The novel is meticulously researched, and Sudjic has been careful to incorporate a wealth of history with a light hand. Goli Otok, a notorious prison camp for Stalinists from 1949 to 1956, is mentioned once at the end of a conversation, for instance. Similarly, the Burgenland lorry tragedy is not named: it is described in all its horror instead, while Anya waits for Luke at a service station, “remembering the man who’d abandoned a truck crammed with people and left them trapped in there to decompose by the road. A pink rosette of what looked like ham printed on the side, a mysterious beige sauce, a grey lock on the outside of the doors.” Dates are important, too: 2008 is the year of the great financial crash, and the year Anya’s brother Drago kills himself; Anya and Luke’s relationship begins in 2012, the year Britain hosts the Olympic Games and the atmosphere is all pride.
There are two particularly interesting aspects to Asylum Road which, in my view, make it one of the best novels published in the last few years and the first great Brexit novel.
The first is the novel’s exploration of the myriad ways in which we construct our identities, who and what we hold on to in order to cement these identities, and who is rejected and disavowed in this process of identity-formation — as tenuous and fragile a project as it may be.
The wedding scene illustrates this. The poet talks about her “homeland” as if it were a fixed thing, but home for Anya is immensely complicated. For one, the country she is technically from — Yugoslavia — no longer exists. Sudjic is also deliberately ambiguous about Anya’s ethnicity (perhaps anticipating that this would be the first thing some readers would look for, as a clue to elucidate her character and her past), but it can be surmised that her father, Jusuf, is of Bosniak heritage, though he is a communist and not a practicing Muslim. Her mother, Elena, is implicitly Serb. It is a dangerous “mixed marriage” to be in during the war, where your ethnicity and political affiliations can mark you out for death. Staunchly Yugoslav, Jusuf refused to state his nationality in the last census before the war, circling “Pacific Islander” on the form instead.
As a child, Anya was brought to Britain and grew up in Glasgow with her aunt. Britain is home, too, and she is caught up with the referendum, voting to remain in the EU, exchanging “insults with strangers on the internet late into the night.” While reading this I was struck by how calls to remain in the EU — calls that seek to remind Britons that they are part of Europe — invariably mean Western Europe. The Balkans, though geographically a part of Europe, aren’t considered European. In Imagining the Balkans, Maria Todorova writes that the Balkans are “geographically inextricable from Europe, yet culturally constructed as ‘the other’ within.” Ida Sefer, president of the Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Center, asks me to
consider just even the memorialization of the Holocaust or WWII. The way politicians, journalists or academics talk about it in terms of Europe being “war-free” for over 80 years completely ignores the war and genocide in Bosnia and the war in Kosovo and Croatia. Or note, for example, how most people somehow forget that Muslims have existed in Europe for centuries and that the Balkans have had an indigenous Muslim population for over six centuries. Frankly the majority of this forgetfulness is very much rooted in Orientalism that paints the Balkans as an invading culture from the East.
In Asylum Road, Anya desperately wants to assimilate:
All I’d wanted was to be blonde and otherwise hairless with a name like Amy. While it was not that remarkable to encounter foreign surnames on a class register in Glasgow, mine glowed radioactive in the nineties. Certain teachers looked up from the list in horror — as if I myself was violently disintegrating.
She also sees herself sometimes as an animal that she has to tame; she feels that her Bosnian heritage marks her as an “outsider” by birth, a “savage” that she must “civilize” into Britishness:
Of the things I cared too much about then, one was appearing civilised. In ethical terms but also in aesthetic ones. I had read the right books, bought thrifted designer clothes, gained several degrees at elite institutions, and, in Luke’s flat, arranged an elegant mise-en-scène that in fact held no emotional resonance.
This desire takes particular shape in her constant grooming rituals to shed her body of hair, a way of taking back control over herself — and an act of self-harm: “[T]he routine continued: check face, check chin, pluck renegade hairs — digging when they weren’t ready, wiping blood from the blade.”
Particularly affecting are passages on Anya’s cousin Nikolaj, who embraces his own brand of Scottish nationalism to construct a sense of self. He has tattoos of the Scottish flag and of a “kilted man dragging on a spliff.” He takes the acute unease he has of being-in-the-world and directs it outward, hurting Anya, hungering for violence.
But Anya, for all her “civilising” projects, cannot endear her in-laws to her. Hypocritical, domineering Anne moved to Cornwall as a child “but made up for it with Cornish nationalism and loud suspicion of second-homers, which her own parents had once been.” Matters seem settled as to the future of Luke and Anya’s relationship when Anya overhears her would-be in-laws in the garden, discussing her family:
If they come,
I told you,
Stuck with it darling.
To Sudjic’s immense credit, Anya isn’t poised as a counterbalance to her fiancé Luke’s Brexiteer parents (again, this is no morality tale). Both Anya and Anne seek traditional institutions (marriage, property, fixed places in the world) as a way of gaining some agency and control. Anya wants to change her surname to Luke’s so as to “be shielded by it,” to have “the garden wall covered in lichen, the barking of the dog. […] As a child I’d fantasised about a low-beamed, thatch-roofed cottage from British children’s books.” Anne, who already has the British cottage, fervently schemes to divest her property of wildlife. She wants her son’s wedding to take place in the same dismal church she was married in. She sees her son as part of her territory and strives to keep him unadulterated from any foreign substances: she wouldn’t vaccinate Luke as a child, and “[t]he way she’d told me this, proprietorially, made it clear his body would never belong to me,” says Anya (note how telling “belong” is here, too).
Anya values the security of property and marriage so much that she won’t leave her less-than-ideal partner. Luke doesn’t remember anniversaries. He leaves her for hours to go running. He is so indifferent, so cold, that they are unable to have proper conversations. “[H]is dark shape like a hill faraway,” Anya thinks, watching him sleep next to her. Her sense of agency and of relationships also seems to have been greatly affected by trauma: the war, the snipers, and her parents’ unhappy open marriage meant that “[e]ven before the siege I’d got used to waiting with increasing foreboding for one or other of them to come home, or being bundled out of bed still in my pyjamas.”
More details are impossible now unless I were to spoil the book, but much later, Anya reclaims agency in other acts of self-harm and destruction. She bears an eerie similarity to her horrid mother-in-law, in her Brexiteer impulse to harm her own country in the name of control.
The second aspect I find particularly compelling in Asylum Road is the novel’s treatment of history. To return to the wedding scene described at the start of the review: The poet who so condescends to Anya is seemingly oblivious of Britain’s role in the Bosnian War — or at the very least, he won’t acknowledge it. As a reminder: The United Nations refused to intervene in the Bosnian War. In 1992, the UN imposed an arms embargo that stopped Bosnian Muslims from exercising their inherent right to self-defense against the Serbs. It is widely believed that Britain was the country most influential on the UN’s decision not to intervene in the war and not to rescue the Bosnians. As a result of their actions, more than 8,000 Bosniak men were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica in July 1995. A sustained campaign of NATO airstrikes commenced on August 30 and lasted until September 14, and an official ceasefire went into effect on October 12. The Bosnian War ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement on December 14.
When Anya complains to Luke about the obnoxious guest, he “understood how maddening it was — in the context of anthropogenic climate change.” His parents are similarly ignorant. The evening before Luke and Anya’s flight to Bosnia, Luke watches a YouTube film set to Max Richter’s “Sarajevo,” and he has “the same, trance-like expression he got listening to ‘My Favourite Murder’” (Anya and Luke listen to endless murder podcasts). During the trip, he searches for presents in the bazaar. He points to a rusting sign-turned-fridge magnet declaring Pazite, Snajper!, among other relics of the war turned to trinkets. “Who’s this for? I wanted to snap at him, amid rows of souvenirs outside a shop called NOSTALGIJA,” she says. War, death, and genocide in Asylum Road are perversely commercialized, or repackaged into entertainment. The memory of these events is also under threat. Anya’s friend Mira represents an imperiled journalist who has written a “fictionalized account of the War drawing heavily on her own experiences.” Mira is publishing the book in part to defend herself “against the trolls who still believe it’s an international conspiracy!” and because “it seems impossible not to talk about it when these people, these revisionists, still exist, even if we’d prefer to forget it.” The memory of these events is also the present: Anya’s mother suffers from dementia — war is a never-ending now.
In Asylum Road, Sudjic diagnoses one of the greatest problems of our time: the inability, the unwillingness, of nation-states and their most powerful institutions to treat “the past” with the necessary thoroughness and responsibility that history requires. For some countries and institutions, of course, it isn’t so much an unwillingness as an ambition to uphold the self-serving status quo. Last year alone, we saw British historians recoil as a slaveholder’s statue was thrown into a river; the almost superhuman efforts made to upend the venerable 1619 Project by the former president of the United States; the constant, vile attacks on critical race theory.
And in this way self-destruction lies, for nations and their people. Though Todorova, après Marx, writes that “A specter is haunting Western culture — the specter of the Balkans,” history shouldn’t be a specter, or haunt. It should be lived with, even when we can’t bear to see it — especially when we can’t bear it. Remembrance can’t be static. History demands constant research and engagement, it demands to be disseminated, it demands to be learned from. “It is by turning our gaze to the horrors of the past, in the hope that we will not thereby be turned to stone, that we are impelled to move forward,” writes Terry Eagleton on Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history.” Asylum Road shows what happens when we face the horrors with our eyes closed and our body trembling. Anya’s efforts to repress the past shatter her psyche.
Sudjic has been compared to Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy, and Jenny Offill — but there is one writer who hasn’t been named, and yet the pairing seems obvious: in the elegance of her sentences, the erudition and scholarship worthy of a historian, her dark humor and her ability to so eerily needle into the pulse of the moment, Sudjic reminds me of Don DeLillo. It is my hope that this book, released during the pandemic and overshadowed publicity-wise by some American novels, will find the wide readership it deserves.
Ariel Saramandi is a Mauritian writer and essayist. She is a nonfiction editor of The Bare Life Review, and her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Boulevard, LitHub, Electric Lit, and other places.