This debut collection of stories from journalist Jergovic was first published a decade ago in his native Croatia (he has since written nine more books). Then in his mid-20s, he lived in besieged Sarajevo for the bulk of the war, reporting and chronicling the human suffering he witnessed. These twenty-nine stories are drawn from his experiences, and yet are not the standard-issue thinly veiled reportage than so much wartime fiction ends up as. Rather, these are brief character studies and snapshots into daily life, lives where the war has changed everything, and yet must continue. Each is only a few pages, moving quickly to the point, and then ending. Fatalism runs heavily throughout the book, as do the obvious themes of displacement, confusion, anxiety, and occasional absurdity. Although each is distinct and precise, these brief snapshots do tend to blur together into a larger picture when read as an ensemble. The collection is probably best approached as something to dip into once a week, and then contemplate. Otherwise, the stories of suffering and surviving tend to cancel each other out and their impact is greatly diminished.
The strident introduction by Ammiel Alcalay rather oddly asserts that translated works such as this can provide only an out of context and fragmentary taste of a culture and place, and that to really "get" a book like this, you need to posses all kinds of background context such as the social and political history of Yugoslavia as well as an understanding of the relationship between performance spaces, art galleries, visual artist, musicians, and filmmakers, and so forth. It's a bizarre way to introduce a bookóby stating that the reader has no hope of empathy. And this is after bemoaning how books that do get translated in the West are those that reinforce prevailing Western prejudices about a culture! It is true that the reader without any knowledge whatsoever of the war in Bosnia will read the stories differently than an expert in Yugoslav history and all the cultures thereof. But I'm not sure that the "naive" reader won't actually get more out of the stories and be affected more significantly.