A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Nostalgia and Sorrow

I’ve been a fan of “The Amazing Race” since I happened upon it during its fourth season, but I have to admit that the formula casting – especially the Bickering Couples like this season’s Nathan and Jennifer – has begun to wear a bit thin. One thing I have liked about this season, the show’s twelfth, is the variety of some of its locations – Burkina Faso, Lithuania, and tonight’s trip to Croatia, particularly to Dubrovnik, a fascinating place I visited many, many years ago.

When I wrote the following review for the Mercury News several years ago, I felt a rush of both nostalgia and sorrow. Nostalgia for being very young and very foolish, sorrow for the country that had suffered so much. Dave, Bob, Rainy and I were four young Americans studying on a variety of grants at the University of Tübingen in what was then West Germany. (Studying” is a very misleading word for what I was doing. After a few months of conscientiously trying to attend lectures, I gave up and concentrated on a seminar in contemporary American lit being taught by an American professor – in English.)

When a long holiday came, we decided to explore Yugoslavia, since none of us knew anything about it. We squeezed into Rainy’s VW beetle and navigated ourselves through the countryside, which changed from lush to barren with a breathtaking suddenness. After winding our way through miles of Bosnian hills, we found ourselves confronted by a vast green plain. Finally, we thought, the road would straighten out and we could make some time. But instead, it stuck stubbornly to the hillside, making its tortuous way to the Adriatic. We concluded that the great green plain below was a flood plain too treacherous for a highway.

As we neared the coast, the land grew greener, however, and we happened into some pretty villages. Years later, I would encounter their names again as the tragedy of Bosnia unfolded. And even Dubrovnik, that extraordinary gem of an old city, would be shelled – as one of the tasks on tonight’s “Amazing Race” mentioned.

I misbehaved in Dubrovnik. I developed a taste for slivovitz, the plum brandy. And sitting on the pier that night, I guzzled far too much of it. Back in the room, I passed out. And then threw up. A lot. (To this day, I can’t eat a plum.) The result is that we were kicked out of the nice, incredibly inexpensive hotel we were staying, and I spent a miserable hungover day in the beetle as we wound our way up the stunning Adriatic coastline.

Oh, to be young again. (And a little smarter.)


THE STONE FIELDS: Love and Death in the Balkans
By Courtney Angela Brkic
Picador, 320 pp., $14 paperback

Many years ago, three friends and I wedged ourselves into a VW Beetle and set out to drive through what was then Yugoslavia to the Adriatic. We didn't know how wild and beautiful and strange and lonely much of the country was, or that we would ride for hours, hairpinning through green hills and barren ones, and seldom see another car or come upon a village or farm.

And in the towns and cities, we naive Americans were surprised to see minarets rising above the rooftops. We hadn't known that Yugoslavia had such a large Muslim population. Later, the whole world would know that -- and, terribly, much more.

When that time came, and the names of places where I had been -- Dubrovnik, Jajce, Mostar, Sarajevo -- filled the news, I felt sadness and horror but also remorse: I had learned so little when I was there; I had passed through those places in the tourist's cocoon of ignorance. At least I was not one of those Americans who, in Courtney Angela Brkic's words, ''asked whether Croatia and Bosnia were in Latin America.'' But though my ignorance was lesser, it was still strong.

''Those savvy enough to know the region's geography would express surprise and confusion that the war had happened at all,'' Brkic writes. ''Yugoslavia had been an idyll, hadn't it? Where the past had been forgotten and people lived as brothers? I did not relish explaining, over and over again, that the past had never been forgotten, but merely buried.''

Brkic may not relish explaining that, but she has done so eloquently in ''The Stone Fields,'' trying to bring into emotional focus -- such things are beyond reason -- the hideousness that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the rapes and torture and massacres, as well as the ignorance and indifference of the outside world.

As her name suggests, Brkic is Croatian-American. Her father left Yugoslavia in 1959, and, she says, ''Like other new Americans who seek to reinvent themselves, he let weeds and dirt overtake the past.''

She was given the all-American name Courtney, along with an Americanized version of her grandmother's name, Andelka (pronounced ''Anjelka''). But as she notes, ''My father had been troubled when I started responding to the name Angela. I think it seemed to him a rejection of the safe life he had created for us in America.''

Trained as an archaeologist, Brkic went to Bosnia in 1996 to work with a forensic team of the Physicians for Human Rights that was unearthing mass graves and attempting to identify the bodies. ''My father did not know that I had come to Bosnia,'' she tells us, ''and the knowledge would have eaten away at him.''

Part of the book is about Brkic's work on the grim task of identification, handling human remains and working in fields that had been land-mined. It was work that took both a physical and psychological toll. She came to be bothered by a burning sensation in one of her fingers.

''I had the terrible feeling that a splinter of bone from one of the bodies had made its way into me and lay buried under my skin.''

But the book is also about her grandmother, Andelka. Brkic has always been ''a stubborn demander of stories,'' she tells us, and from the stories told by her father and her aunts, she has crafted a fascinating account of her grandmother's life -- one ruled by the unresolved tensions of her country's violent history.

''Politics is a whore,'' Andelka would say, bitter at the sway it held over her life. She was born in Herzegovina, orphaned at 14, and married at 16. Soon after their marriage, she and her husband were exiled to a remote village by the Kingdom of Yugoslavia because he was a follower of a Croatian nationalist.

Andelka gave birth to four children, two of whom survived, before her husband died of typhoid when she was 21. Not wanting to live the life of a self-denying village widow, she moved to Sarajevo with her two small sons, Bero and Zoran.

In Sarajevo, she fell in love with Josef Finci, who was Jewish. With the coming of the Nazi occupation, Andelka was arrested for hiding Josef, who was sent to a concentration camp. Twelve-year-old Bero and 10-year-old Zoran were left on their own for weeks -- a neighbor looked in on them and fed them -- until Andelka was released. They never saw Josef again.

After the war, chaos was succeeded by the regimentation of communism, but the country's ethnic tensions were only repressed, not resolved. Andelka ''had endured her own life,'' Brkic writes. ''This impossible country had undermined her.'' So she urged Bero and Zoran to leave: '' 'Get out while you still can,' she told them. 'And don't come back.' ''

For Brkic, a tension remains between Andelka's ''impossible country'' and the ''safe life'' her father, Bero, had tried to create for her. And her desire to understand overcomes her need for security.

In Zagreb, she has an affair with Stjepan, who has served in the army and seen terrible things. She tells him that her father would like to come back -- ''a piece of him is always here'' -- but would find the adjustment difficult after growing used to life in America. ''This troubled him. Stjepan had, afterall, fought for the right of people like my father to come back permanently, to reclaim their lives.'' But deep conflicts about his country also trouble Stjepan, who is prone to nightmares. Their relationship sours to an end. The buried past will not stay buried.

''The Stone Fields'' has a haunting, lyrical economy. Brkic wonderfully blends precise depictions of a harsh land and hard lives with a deep and sympathetic understanding of what people have endured. Added to this is a keen self-awareness that never becomes self-indulgence.

It's a book designed to banish ignorance, and it goes a long way toward its goal.


RELATED READING

STILLNESS AND OTHER STORIES, by Courtney Angela Brkic (Picador, $13 paperback)
Fiction based on Brkic's experiences in Croatia and Bosnia


A PROBLEM FROM HELL: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power (Perennial, $17.95 paperback)
Pulitzer Prize-winning book on our failure to prevent genocide in Bosnia and elsewhere

BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, by Rebecca West (Penguin, $25 paperback)
A classic account of the country on the brink of World War II