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from the January 2016 issue

The Return of the Narrative: Miljenko Jergović’s “The Walnut Mansion”

Reviewed by Ellen Elias-Bursać

Miljenko Jergović (Sarajevo, 1966) is just enough younger than David Albahari (1948) and Dubravka Ugrešić (1949)—the best-known writers both in the region and abroad of the generation preceding his—to allow him the breathing room to step away decisively from the postmodern voice that propelled the literatures of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia through the 1990s and early 2000s. The Walnut Mansion, his first novel (Zagreb, 2003), demonstrates a strong turn to narrative, further borne out by the six novels he has published since. And as much as this is a return to narrative, it is also the return of the native. Unlike Ugrešić's and Albahari's deliberately universalist prose, Jergović roots his stories firmly in local Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian turf. History is back.

Every writer from this part of the world has negotiated their relationships with the various often inimical national communities within the larger region that was Yugoslavia. Jergović's way of handling this has been to diversify and straddle. Born in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), living in Zagreb (Croatia) since 1993, he is a natural straddler by birth and his life choices. For instance, he publishes some of his novels, stories, poems, and essays in Croatia, others in Serbia. He has co-authored two books of correspondence, one with Sarajevo poet and writer Semezdin Mehmedinović, the other with Belgrade (Serbia) writer Svetislav Basara. Furthermore, he and Marko Vidojković, another Belgrade writer, made a documentary film, The Long Road through Balkan History, about their travels in tandem in a rickety old Yugo, musing on the Yugoslav political and cultural legacy as they drive along the road called, in Socialist Yugoslavia, the Brotherhood and Unity Highway that ran from Slovenia through Croatia and Serbia to Macedonia. And the film Buick Riviera (four Golden Globe nominations in 2009), based on Jergović's novel of the same name, engaged a Serbian actor who plays a Muslim character and a Croatian actor who plays a Serb. Jergović also showcases on his blog and in his newspaper columns his commentaries about the writers from Belgrade, Zagreb, and, sometimes, from Sarajevo whose views dovetail with his. This straddling allows him to cultivate an unusual and productive position within the cultures of Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia: a part of all three, yet belonging to none of them.

The geographic reach of The Walnut Mansion, with its epicenter in the city of Dubrovnik, exemplifies Jergović's lifelong straddle. The novel chronicles the life of a woman, Regina Delavale, narrated backward across five generations and a hundred years in fifteen chapters. Delavale lives in Dubrovnik but her story ranges across what was Yugoslavia and beyond, to Europe and even the Americas. Beginning with Chapter Fifteen in 2001 when Regina is ninety-seven and dying in the throes of a violent delusional lunacy, the story backtracks over the decades, following the backward gaze of the “logic of memory” (as Jergović puts it) until it reaches 1904 in Chapter One, just before her birth, when at the behest of her grandfather, a woodcarver makes a dollhouse for her out of walnut wood (hence the title).

The chapters are the loosely linked stories of family members—Regina's twin grandchildren, her daughter Dijana, four brothers, parents—and how their lives intersect with key twentieth-century Yugoslav, European, and world historical events. For instance, Regina's twin grandchildren are born at the same moment in 1980 that Josip Tito—the president of Yugoslavia for thirty-eight years—is dying. Going back in time, Regina's daughter Dijana flees home to live with a Sarajevo boyfriend during a repressive episode of the 1970s. A brother is nearly killed for rejoicing after Stalin and Tito break off relations in 1948. Before that, Regina's sailor husband shares a Bosnian attic hideout with a Jewish shipping magnate during the Second World War. Meanwhile two of the brothers take up opposing sides in the war. One is killed by Partisan Communist fighters after he'd allied himself with their enemies, a band of Chetnik royalists, while the other, the family simpleton, favors the Croatian fascists and is murdered by Chetniks. Each of these episodes brings the epic events back to the personal, anti-epic lives of the novel's characters. And each chapter closes with enigmatic references that blossom backward. There are even cameo appearances by Isidora Duncan and Sigmund Freud.

Comparisons abound between Jergović's writing and the novels and stories of Ivo Andrić, the 1963 Nobel Prize laureate in literature. After all Andrić, like Jergović, was born in Bosnia to Croatian parents, has a penchant for storytelling, and is known for his fascination with history. In Bridge on the Drina, Andrić moves forward from one century to the next while in The Walnut Mansion Jergović moves backward over the decades of the twentieth century, but both share a sense of movement through time. And there are further compelling parallels in the personal choices they made. While Andrić chose Belgrade over Sarajevo for his domicile, Jergović chose Zagreb when he left Sarajevo during the war. In his introduction, however, the translator, Stephen Dickey, suggests key links with writing by Borislav Pekić, Miroslav Krleža, Danilo Kiš, and Meša Selimović and feels that the frequent associations drawn between Jergović and Andrić tend to overlook much of what Jergović brings to the literatures of Bosnia and Croatia.

The prose throughout The Walnut Mansion is fresh and inviting, lingering and rich with digressions and meanders. Each of the story-chapters juxtaposes the impersonal epic sweep of history with excursions into the lives of secondary and tertiary characters. There is a strong focus on the lives of the novel's women: Regina, Dijana, and others. The chapters parade an astonishing array of characters—nurses, train conductors, waiters, combatants, neighbors, lovers, teachers, wood-carvers, thieves—about fifty in all, some sketched only in a brief episode yet always memorable. The novel is written with a generosity of detail in a voice that is wry, poignant, sometimes tragic, in a few instances brutally violent; never mawkish. And in his translation Dickey follows Jergović's meander closely with a colloquial voice that never flinches from the casual vulgarity and colorful diction of South Slavic banter and the novel's sideways approach to tragedy. A nice touch in the translation: while Jergović spells a character's name "Diana" as it is spelled in Western Europe and English-speaking countries—presumably a reflection on the character's Western-facing Dubrovnik origin—Dickey opts for the Croatian spelling "Dijana" in the translation, thereby shifting the emphasis to the home turf of the story.

The Walnut Mansion will serve handily as an introduction to key moments in the history of the ex-Yugoslavia for readers interested in learning more about this part of the world. The translator's introduction offers a useful outline of the larger-scale historical context framing the story. Writing that is steeped in a specific historical and cultural context is often a challenge for the translator in terms of how much to explain and how much to leave to the reader to decipher. But the events in The Walnut Mansion are explained so fully in the original Croatian version of the novel that further explanation by the translator is seldom necessary. Take, for instance, the episode when Dijana flees Dubrovnik to join her boyfriend Gabriel in Sarajevo during the early 1970s—a time when Yugoslav Communism was at its most repressive. Gabriel, a carpenter, builds stage sets at a Sarajevo theater. He suddenly finds himself in a political pickle when a group of defiant actors gathers out in front of the theater and sings a Croatian aria from the opera Nikola Zrinski, which has been banned by the authorities. For those readers unfamiliar with the risks assumed by Croats in the 1970s when they sang the provocative aria "Into battle, into battle," the story neatly tells them all they need to know. In fact many of the pivotal historical events explored in The Walnut Mansion are every bit as unfamiliar to younger generations of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian readers as they are to foreign readers, so local readers often require guidance as well. And this transparency takes some of the pressure off the translator, affording the novel both breadth and accessibility.

Another notable characteristic of The Walnut Mansion is the way it eschews sentimentality. For instance, when Dijana arrives by bus in Sarajevo on a wintry day, her first impression is of smog: "Outside the bus she was greeted by a winter like she had never experienced and the heavy smell of burning coal, which she would never get used to but would stay with her for all her life as the dominant sensory memory of her months in Sarajevo." After dragging her suitcases, aided by Gabriel and friends, through the snow and up into the hills to his house, she sits down to warm up in front of the fire. "A fire was burning hot and bright in a coal stove in the corner. It produced the same odor that permeated the entire city. So this was the price that Sarajevans had to pay to fight off the cold and warm their homes." And, then, summing up her stay there: "Dijana would know everything in this city that she came to love by its taste. Her other senses would be shocked and disgusted, but her palate would remember those nine months in Sarajevo with nostalgia." Jergović is particularly unsparing in his descriptions of his native Sarajevo—a city often idealized since the savage four-year siege of the 1990s.

Readers of Miljenko Jergović's novels appreciate his rich storytelling voice, his exploration of historical events, and his ambitious range of characters. Readers and critics alike mention as refreshing the geographic breadth and narrative sweep of his writing, his sense of humor, his portrayal of tragedy. In fact, he enjoys an international readership. On his website he lists over twenty countries where his prose has appeared in translation. We now have four major works of Jergović's in English and more on the way. Dickey (already known for his translations of Pekić and Selimović) has also translated another one of Jergović's novel, Ruta Tanenbaum—the final book to appear in the Northwestern University Press series "Writings from an Unbound Europe"—crediting Janja Pavetić Dickey for her help with both these translations. And furthermore, two collections of Jergović's interlinked stories have appeared with Archipelago Books: Sarajevo Marlboro (tr. Stela Tomašević) and Mama Leone (tr. David Williams).

In the introduction,  Dickey presents Miljenko Jergović and his writing to us by saying Jergović is: ". . . the contemporary paradigm of a Balkan/Southeast European storyteller: he writes stories and novels replete with the charm and tragedy of the region that local and outsider alike simply can't put down." There is no question that Jergović is the most popular writer of his generation; he enjoys a readership throughout the ex-Yugoslavia. With The Walnut Mansion he raised the bar, showing that he was not only a short-story writer and poet but had what it took to produce major novels about postwar life in the region. Since The Walnut Mansion came out in 2003 he has produced bestseller after bestseller in a community that, as publishers complain, almost never reads local writers. Jergović writes substantial novels and The Walnut Mansion is no exception. But readers who pick it up will find themselves caught up in the swirl of events, both personal and historical, as they spin back in time across the twentieth century.

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