Friday, June 28, 2013

SARAJEVO, Part I, Reading

One of the things I like to do when I travel is deepen my experience through related reading. For any given trip, I can usually find a book about a place, a person, or an event related to one of our destinations.  For example, on our trip last summer that included Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Germany's Rhine River, and Amsterdam, I read these related books:

The Year that Changed the World, which outlines the escalating revolutions all over Europe and key people such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Miklos Nemeth in Hungary who helped bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union

The Lady in Gold, a book about Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession movement

Van Gogh: The Life, an exhaustive biography of the incredibly complex artist

For our most recent trip to the Balkans, three of the books I read were about Sarajevo.

The first, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, is a novel based on actual events.  In 1992 during the siege of the city, a musician named Vedran Smailovic, a cellist in the national orchestra, often played his instrument in the ruins and rubble left by the bombing as a way to commemorate and honor the dead.  He also played at funerals, even though they were often the target of snipers.

Galloway created a character based on Smailovic who positions himself in the middle of a town square where he saw many of his friends killed by a mortar attack while they were waiting in line to buy bread. In the direct line of sniper fire, he plays at the same time and in the same place for 22 days to honor the 22 dead.  The story is told through the eyes of three people who watch him intently every day--a young woman sniper trying to protect the cellist, a man attempting to find water for his family, and a man working in a bakery and trying to understand the brutality around him.

While the story is fiction, it draws its images from actual landmarks and events, and I was moved by the courage the characters showed in the midst of horrible conditions.  I did learn that Smailovic was upset that a western writer had "stolen" his story as the basis for this novel.  I can't really blame him for that.

I was curious about the cellist, and discovered that he had collaborated with Canadian author Elizabeth Wellburn to create a children's book about the event. I purchased this book as well and loved the simple story of a young, innocent boy shattered by the war who begins to heal as he listens to and draws courage from the beautiful cello music he hears floating through the city.

The third book I read, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood, is written by Barbara Demick, author of another excellent book I had previously read, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Award-winning journalist Demick currently writes for the Los Angeles Times, but when she wrote this book she was the Eastern Europe correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The book had its beginnings in a series of articles she wrote for the paper about the impact of the war on the residents a single street in the city.

What makes Logavina Street notable was that before the war it represented a fully-integrated Yugoslavia. There were Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks, and even a few Jews living together in perfect harmony in a six-block-long stretch. Many were the product of mixed marriages that were acceptable during Tito's reign.  (In fact, Demick notes that one-third of the marriages in Sarajevo were mixed at the beginning of the war.) The three-year siege of the city by Serbian nationalists destroyed all of that.

Logavina Street portrays the city's denizens as courageous and incredibly inventive. For example, they used car batteries to power their televisions to get news. The local brewery, no longer able to produce beer, became the city's primary source of clean water. Sarajevan housewives traded recipes for ways to use Red Cross rations, including one recipe for a cream-filled cake made from the Vietnam rations dated 1967 and 1968 sent by the United States, and another recipe for french fries made from flour and cornmeal. In a form of defiance, Sarajevan women prided themselves on their appearance, putting on homemade make-up and using homemade hair dyes throughout the war. Sarajevan children continued to go to "school" in dark, candle-lit basements for a few hours a day. Amazing, all of it.

Demick also outlines the absolutely horrific realities of the war--lack of medical supplies, almost no electricity, starvation, and constant, unremitting fear.  She writes, "By late 1995, the Bosnian Institute of Public Health had logged more than 10,000 deaths and 61,000 injuries, in a city with a wartime population of about 360,000. Your chances of death or serious injury were about one in five."

So many times on this trip I had to echo the words of a woman Demick interviewed for the book who asked her, "How do you think you Americans would survive in conditions like this? Do you think you would have survived?"

Now that I have been to this beautiful, indomitable city, I look forward to re-reading Demick's book.  It is an excellent way to prepare for a trip to Sarajevo, but it is also a moving account of real people in the midst of an almost incomprehensible struggle.


  1. I listened to the Cellist of Sarajevo and now I need to read Logavina Street. I've read quite a bit of the Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, something I'm sure you'll take about in a later post. I'm also just starting to read a book on the Death of Yugoslavia. You've been much better about reading books about the places we've been and I need to do more of that.

  2. I really enjoyed Nothing to Envy--I came away with such a different understanding of North Korea. Now I am looking forward to reading Logavina Street.

  3. Ditto chrisjones comment. Definitely want to read another of Demick's books.