Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hearts in contraction.



There's a scene in Bridget Fielding's Bridget Jones Diary where her titular heroine, Bridget, has just arrived at a hotel with her insufferable sort-of boyfriend and starts blathering on about Srebrenica and the Serbs and not having "pinned down" the difference between a Bosnian and a Serb, or a Bosnian Serb, or which is attacking which. Bridget is an idiot and reading that book made me feel faintly nauseous, but she can be forgiven for not really getting it. After all, I've read a fair bit on the subject, and I still have trouble wrapping my head around it.

Which is kind of the point, according to Roger Cohen, the author of Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo. Cohen is an author and journalist, and was the New York Times Balkan correspondent during the strange and terrible days of the mid-1990s when concentration camps were springing up a few hours drive from Paris and Muslims were disappearing into mass graves.

Cohen starts his book not with the history of the 'impossible country' of Yugoslavia (author Brian Hall's phrase) but with the more intimate history of one man, Sead Mehmedovic, as he searches for his vanished father. Mehmedovic personifies the blurred ethnic, cultural, and religious nature of Yugoslavia's inhabitants: the son of a Muslim father who fought on the side of the Germans in World War II against the Yugoslavian partisans and a Catholic mother, raised both in Croatia and Serbia, who was herself the daughter of an Austro-Hungarian father and a mother of mixed Viennese-Serbian parentage.

And there you have it, the ridiculousness, of trying to disentangle the ethnic lines in the aftermath of the collapse of Yugoslavia. A Serbia for the Serbs, free of Bosnian Muslims? The expulsion of the Serbs from Croatia? A Muslim Bosnia? The idea is fatuous in the face of families like Mehmedovic's and countless others, whose blended marriages and families were more the norm than the exception. And yet the idea and its concommitant nationalism took hold powerfully enough to spur the death of hundreds of thousands of people in that confused corner of Eastern Europe.

The thread of Mehmedovic's search for his father continues throughout the book, and for Cohen it seems to personify the casting about for a story of origin that seemed to obsess Yugoslavia and later, Bosnia. The first book in Hearts, "The Lost Century," traces the rise of Yugoslavia both as a nation and an idea in the aftermath of World War I under the dictatorship of Tito. It is clear that Cohen viewed the dissolution of Yugoslavia after the death of Tito as inevitable, and perhaps he's right - history does seem to agree with him. And yet, Cohen also rejects the trope, so readily employed by America and the European powers reluctant to get entangled, of the 'centuries-old blood feuds' or 'tribal hatreds' that were viewed as intractable, impenetrable, and unsolvable. At the center of Hearts is a sort of dichotomy perhaps very fitting given the book's subject matter - that of the author blaming nationalism and the persistant view of Bosnian Muslims as some sort of foreign, invading force, while at the same time, Cohen invokes images of fatalism, apathy, and a sort of entrenched malaise coupled with violence that seems to seep from the very mountains of Bosnia.

That aside, Hearts manages to marry both the perspective of the foreign journalist, focused on upper-level machinations by the officials of the United Nations and the Clinton administration, with the perspective of those on the ground. By following the lives of a few Bosnian families, Cohen shows the waste, confusion, and senselessness of the dark days of 1994 and 1995. At the same time, he skillfully relates the political maneuverings that led to so much delay, up to and past the point when intervention could have conceivably headed off the camps and mass executions.

Hearts is, bluntly speaking, a mess: a mash of interviews, personal narrative, gleanings from his own and others' reports, interspersed with attempts to explain the complicated history of Yugoslavia and the conditions that led to the inferno. But ultimately, a book about Bosnia could really be nothing else - any attempt to straighten out the sources, to plot the snarled history on a linear line, loses something important. From the morass of its own history, Bosnia and Croatia's muderous nationalist leaders, Mladic, Tudjmann, and Milosevic, attempted to straighten the ethnic lines, inventing them when necessary, and the result was carnage.

Hearts Grown Brutal is heavy going and often requires rereading and annotating, but Cohen provides a timeline, a historical preface, and a list of the people included in an attempt to help the reader navigate the text. Despite its muddled nature, Hearts is an admirably complete account of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the resulting chaos, all the more so for its inclusion of various sources of information and its far-ranging perspective

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