Spomenka Štimec’s Croatian War Nocturnal, translated from the Esperanto by Sebastian Schulman and published by Phoneme Media, is a fictionalized memoir of the wars in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, told from the perspective of a Croatian Esperanto activist and teacher. The book consists of short, interconnected episodes composed on an early machine-translation computer while the author hid in her bathroom during the bomb raids, and it explores the daily traumas of war and genocide and their effect on life and family, memory and language.
May in Sarajevo
Anyone who was young enough to belong to the World Esperanto Youth Organization in 1973 was at the congress that year in Sarajevo. The young Esperantists stormed the city that summer, each participant taking back with them their own distinct impression of the town. I was the congress secretary. Sarajevo had already welcomed me in May before the festivities began. Before that, I’d only known the city from poetry collections. Now I had the chance to get personally acquainted with those verses. At the train station, arches of water sprang from the lips of stone frogs and greeted me upon my arrival.
I spent my time at no. 8 Vase Pelagića bent over reams of official congress letterhead. It was violet, decorated with a stylized image of a bridge. The Esperantists shared their space with the office of the Czech minority community. In one of the cabinets, which even back then I regarded with a bit of nostalgia, there was a set of several small copper pots that the Czechs used to brew their coffee between meetings.
The Year 1973. Then.
The Year 1992. Now.
Bombs are falling on Sarajevo. As I type the city’s name—a city I can call my own—its famed Hotel Europe is burning. The smoke rolls slowly, heavy and suffocating. Where is the smoke going? To the next street over where the congress offices used to be? Are former congress participants, back in their comfortable faraway countries, coughing as the smoke from the TV screen seeps into their living rooms? The stench of scorched memories spreads from Sarajevo out into the world.
Memories of the same city are preserved unspoiled in our Esperanto literary anthologies. Poul Thorsen forever fixed the city in our literature with his poem Early Morning in Sarajevo. Do you remember it the way he does?
Above the mosque sits a sliver of moon
Embracing a pale white star
Sharp as a scythe, it makes night from the noon
A reminder of Turkish wars
Spice-scented winds carry me off to bed
The flutes bring their song to an end
Night shyly wraps a dark veil ‘round her head
Cicadas cry out their lament
Everyone is struggling to save their bits of memory. I, too, struggle.
The truth is my alarm clock fell in love with him first. The clock started it. It happened like this: It was late at night, after I’d already shut off the lamp. A beam of light from a passing car ran across the ceiling and then—silence. The only audible sound left in the room was the clock. She was an entirely ordinary, everyday sort of clock. And like all clocks, back in Croatia she had recited her usual refrain: tick-tock, tick-tock. That’s how she spoke at home. Now, here in Sarajevo, she had changed her language. It was crystal clear, no doubt about it. She was now saying: Ke-mal, Ke-mal, Ke-mal. How amusing! My alarm clock had learned a foreign language and spoke it beautifully too. I was pleased with her progress. It didn’t even occur to me to give the clock a good shake and set her back to her old way of talking. I giggled into my pillow and repeated after her: Ke-mal, Ke-mal, Ke-mal.
And so began the month of May in Sarajevo.
When I woke up in the morning, I no longer remembered the incident. The day had other surprises in store for me. But the alarm clock had not forgotten. She had an excellent memory. Moreover, it sounded like she’d been practicing the whole night. She spoke very fluently now: Ke-mal, Ke-mal, Ke-mal . . .
The new sound suited her very much.
The next morning I bumped into him—Kemal. I couldn’t even look him in the eye. It was too embarrassing. It wasn’t his eyes I was worried about, but mine. You could read the whole story right there, in my eyes. And in my alarm clock.
I looked down at his shoes and at his hands, but when I had to look up, my eyes went no higher than the collar of his red shirt. The top button was open and, looking through the buttonhole, I could see a small red thread. I was tempted to grab the thread and tear it off, but I resisted the urge.
When evening fell and it was time to go home from work, he announced that he had some free time. By sheer coincidence, I wasn’t in any rush either.
“Where are you headed now?”
From ul. Jekovac, you could see the whole of Sarajevo and even a bit further out. He excitedly began explaining something or other about the city while I listened rapt. Not that I could repeat a word he was saying. I was looking a little at Sarajevo and a little at him.
An ant was crawling on the table between us.
“Look out! They’re listening!”
He burst out laughing again.
The ant was well trained and promptly retreated.
“Should we go back? Are you cold?”
“No,” I lied and looked into his eyes. He knew I wasn’t telling the truth. We both knew it.
The lovestruck are capable of anything. They can pass a test without studying. Save up just the right amount of pocket money. Cook up a delicious soup from two carrots and whatever else is lying around.
I was becoming more capable too. I could wake up at five in the morning and not feel the least bit tired the whole day long. Then, I memorized his phone number. All six digits. Me, who couldn’t keep more than three numbers in my head at a time. Early in the day, I called him just to hear how he pronounced the r in Good Morning. At eleven, I called to ask how many hours were left until six o’clock. At three, I called to see what page he was on. At four-thirty, I wanted to know if he could come any sooner since it was too long to wait all the way until six. Soon I was getting jealous of Miki, the boy he was studying with.
The month of May looks different in Sarajevo. Say what you will, but this is the most beautiful city in the world. Tramlines that end in Ilidža. Benches full of people on Wilson’s Promenade. Magical phrases all over the city that begin with the word “Kemal.”
After that he left for far away. So far away that I couldn’t even bear to call the place by its name.
Sarajevo changed without him. I presume that Ilidža is now a totally unremarkable place. I haven’t been back there, but I can just imagine. I’ll bet the grass there is so mediocre, you can’t even lose your glasses in it. The place is surely swarming with gnats.
I sit and wait for the postman. And write long letters. Their recipient will learn from them the sad fact that the month of May doesn’t last so long in Sarajevo.
All sorts of things have changed. You’ll say I’m exaggerating, but sometimes late at night when everyone else in the building is asleep, I hear my alarm clock repeating his name.
Such was the story according to my congress diary in 1973.
Two decades later, Sarajevo is burning. The city’s children, scrambling up cherry trees to taste the fruits of May, are shot and killed. In a world with many kinds of cherries, there are no others that taste as good as those you eat after coming out of a bomb shelter. The sunlight bursts with flavor; the air is nourishing and rich. Cherries are a gift from heaven, and to heaven they will send you.
My days now begin with the news from Sarajevo. The number of casualties, the number of wounded. Yesterday twenty-eight people were killed. I picture a classroom full of children, so as to better imagine the horror.
My imagination and good thoughts can also protect my friends. When I was last able to call them, the Esperanto office in Sarajevo had not yet been demolished. They weren’t yet starving. How many months have passed since then?
My clock has gone silent. She’s grown old since my student days. Alarm clocks nowadays are all electronic. They cannot speak in any language.
When the war ends, peace will come. Kemal will send a very clear message: I am alive and so is everyone that you love.
And when the trains are running again, we will meet. I’ll tell him how I dreamt that his diploma from Beijing University was lost in a fire. He’ll look at me as if to refute the nightmare and his eyes will be as naïve as they were at the time of the congress. I won’t be able to read in them how much agony he has seen.
We’ll eat grapes, remembering those we washed in the office in old Baščaršija. Do you remember the sound of the water hitting the copper?
That’s when there will be peace and fruit will taste like fruit and not like death.
© 2017 Spomenka Štimec. Translation © 2017 Sebastian Schulman. Excerpt by agreement with Phoneme Media.