In Exileby Michael McCanne
(Archipelago Books, 2012)
The 1991 disintegration of Yugoslavia shattered a 73-year-old project aimed at ethnic and national unity. Miljenko Jergović’s newly translated collection of stories, Mama Leone, traverses the before and after of that dissolution, passing through language, family history, and exile to form a fragmentary Bildungsroman.
Jergović was born in Sarajevo in 1966, to a Bosnian Croat family of Germanic origins, and grew up awash in family stories—of sickness, the German occupation, and the rise of Communism. In the first half of Mama Leone, Jergović describes his childhood as an overly intelligent boy whose family moved back and forth between Sarajevo and Croatia in the then-unified Yugoslavia. Told from a child’s perspective, these stories are constructed of overheard whispers, lies, stories, and hyperbole—the language of grown-ups. Yet in this first section, the voice of our child narrator sounds like a grown man sifting through memories, extrapolating, and trying to understand the political and social currents that have shaped his life and family. When the young protagonist says things like, “My mom smiled, had blonde hair and looked like a woman out of a Socialist film magazine, full of intolerable and irresponsible optimism, Even worse she was young and pretty, rich in the way you are rich before figuring out that your poverty is eternal,” it is hard to say who is speaking.
The second half of Mama Leone follows the post-1991 diasporas, returning to multi-character fiction to examine the lives of those who fled the Yugoslav Wars. Jergović lived in Sarajevo for most of his life, but after a year of siege, escaped to Zagreb in 1993, where he lives today. The war, and the dislocation it caused, is central to his literary work. But unlike his acclaimed collection Sarajevo Marlboro—also published in English by Archipelago—these stories don’t deal with the war directly. Instead the war is a blank space between the two sections of stories, felt in effects and mentioned in the abstract.
From the first section the author tries to discern his identity within the multiethnic history of his family and the Yugoslav state. In the latter section, it is as if that identity has fractured into characters of all ethnicities and genders, scattered across Europe, Israel, and even North America, trying to parse their newfound exile for some sense of solidity. Sometimes this parsing is quite literal, delving into language itself. Boris from Sarajevo is horrified how exile has changed a former lover’s syntax, while Marina, who settled in Canada, “searches for the code to a former world, to which, as the story goes, she belongs.”
The stories of the second half are more compelling than the stories of the first. The prose is less encumbered by the artifice of a child’s narration and tinged with a wry bitterness often present in literature of the former Yugoslavian states. Whether or not any of this book is fiction is unclear—perhaps irrelevant—but the stories in the second half are less personal and provide a sense of distance. They feel more complete than the stories in the first half, maybe because they are not beholden to family history.
Nonetheless, in pairing the two sections together, Jergović sets his childhood against his fictions, perhaps blurring the line between the two. The young Miljenko tries to find his identity in the stories of his family; his characters try to forge an identity within a state of internal exile. The question Mama Leone seems to ask is: did that exile begin with the siege of Sarajevo or long before?