A pearl of insight that should be read and reread by anybody interested in the recent Balkan wars appears on page 115 of "Sarajevo Blues." There we find, in an interview between translator Ammiel Alcalay and author Semezdin Mehmedinovic, the latter's comment that "Bosnian culture is inclusive, it includes the Bosnian Franciscan tradition (of Catholic mysticism), the Muslim Sufi tradition, and the Sephardic Jewish tradition; this is all part of my culture." This sheaf of poetry and prose sketches offers a modern transformation of such transcendental currents. "Sarajevo Blues," as it was called even in the Bosnian version, is legendary in the stricken city of Sarajevo, serving as a local souvenir for those who survived the brutal siege that struck the city beginning in 1992.
One of several disparate and more or less hurried editions, printed on the roughest newsprint and selling in the bookstores of Marshal Tito Street, retails for only three marks, or $1.80 -- a major investment for Sarajevans, who have few jobs and less money.
Mehmedinovic is a Muslim Bosnian living in the United States. Born in 1960, he was no longer young when the Bosnian conflict commenced, but his writing still bears the marks of the youthful American style -- brief but eloquent notes and comments -- that swept the world with the Beat revolution. With considerable effectiveness, Mehmedinovic has synthesized the sentimental traditions and idealistic illusions of the Sarajevans, the horrors of the war and the disillusionment of its victims with an indifferent world.
He writes of the prayerful burial of a Muslim martyred in the fighting: "Sorrow gathers in circles under the eyes; the men pass their open palms across their faces. As the rites continue, I feel the presence of God in everything; when this is over, I will take a pen and make a list of my sins." The one-paragraph text ends, "A cat jumps across the shadow of a minaret."
Elsewhere he describes how Serb terrorists expelled the mental patients from a suburban asylum, driving them into the city: "One of them -- holding the body of a dead sparrow by its claws -- came up to someone walking along King Tomislav Street and said, `You'll be dead too, when my army gets here.' " The combination of poignant and surreal details is characteristic not only of Bosnian war narratives but also of contemporary Bosnian writing in general, a field of literature unknown in the outside world until the war, but featuring great achievements of perception and lyricism.
If the war has had a positive aspect -- aside from the shutdown of old, polluting indus tries, which has allowed fish to reappear in the country's rivers for the first time in decades -- it is the introduction of Bosnian authors to foreign readers. (Recent volumes issued in English include an outstanding work, "Death and the Dervish" by Mesa Selimovic, a Muslim who wrote with great delicacy in the Serbian dialect, and who died in 1982. That book, published in 1996 by Northwestern University Press, describes the dilemma of an 18th century Bosnian Sufi dealing with governmental injustice.)
Mehmedinovic's sharp eye allows him to summarize three years of genocide in a few lines. He describes a Serb woman at an artillery post, whom he watched through binoculars as she sunned herself in a bathing suit. "She lies like that for hours," he writes. "Then she gets up, goes to the rocket launcher, pulls the catch and lets a shell fly at random toward the city." After the explosion, "she goes back, rubbing her body in suntan oil to fully give in to her own state of well-being."
He is devastating in his comments on foreign observers, voyeuristic correspondents and other spectators of Bosnia's torment: "I'm running across an intersection to avoid the bullet of a sniper from the hill when I walk straight into some photographers; they're doing their job, in deep cover. If a bullet hit me they'd get a shot worth so much more than my life that I'm not even sure whom to hate: the Chetnik sniper or these monkeys with Nikons."
Mehmedinovic's book is an incisive answer to the claim by the German philosopher Theodor Adorno that poetry could not be written after Auschwitz. Poetry survived Auschwitz, and poetry has survived the atrocities of Bosnia, but it is a grim genre of verse. As Mehmedinovic says, "When a ten-year-old kid asks if he's a Muslim and after getting a positive answer says, `I don't want to be expelled,' " -- from his home, not his school -- "then you know something horrible has happened to this people."