One-on-one | BiH

Elvira Mujčić: Have you ever seen Bosnia through the eyes of a woman?

By - 24.12.2020

Faruk Šehić and Elvira Mujčić in conversation about the world they live in.

Elvira Mujčić was born in Loznica, Serbia, in 1980, but lived in Srebrenica until the war broke out. This seemingly unimportant fact would go on to define her life in full as well as the lives of her loved ones as the central motive in her novel titled “Ten Plums for Fascists” — which I have edited as part of Buybook publishing house’s “Zeroth Reality” series. The book was translated by Jasenka Kratović and designed by Aleksandra Nina Knežević.

I sat down to talk with Elvira Mujčić for two reasons. Firstly, this autumn, her book was published in Bosnian and subsequently launched at the Bookstan festival; secondly, Elvira had translated two books of mine into Italian. My Milan-based publisher Mimesis hired her to translate “Quiet Flows the Una,” so we met afterward.

The latest book of mine she translated, “Clockwork Stories,” came out around the same time hers was published by Buybook. Therefore, our conversation here is a conversation between two writers, a translator and an editor.

Photo: Jasmin Agović.

Elvira: In every story [of yours], there’s a moment when your face pops up. Anyone who’s read “Quiet Flows the Una” or “Under Pressure” can recognize you. How much of you is there in all those stories?

Faruk: We are everything that we write, but that’s not us either. It’s the eternal division of to what extent the given work is biographical and to what extent it isn’t. Your question is more related to some authorial signature or sensibility. Since we know each other privately, you’re able to hear my voice and see my face…

Elvira: Your signature and exploration of all the roles of yours are even more pronounced in this book, because you’re not a writer who takes on the role of protagonists with good faces. You talk about war as a soldier, not as a civilian, and you could’ve been a soldier in any unit belonging to any people, in a way. It’s not that you spare yourself; one of the stories that struck me a lot was the last one in the book…

Faruk: It’s one of my favorite stories. It’s autobiographical and fictitious alike. So, I was riding my bike along the river Miljacka in Stup, on the outskirts of the city [Sarajevo], parallel to the river. Unfortunately, the river is dirty there, full of solid waste, sewage. The water is black.

At one point, I happened to be trespassing. I passed by a house full of bullet and shrapnel holes; that’s where the frontline had been, where fierce battles had taken place. The house reminded me of houses used by railway staff, built along railways; it brought to mind a railway house we called vegtarnica, where I spent New Year’s Eve 1992 standing guard.

I entered the property and bumped into a bulky man. He looked strange, talked weirdly and wore overalls; it was very awkward. He wasn’t letting me pass. As a general rule, I’ve had lots of negative experiences in that part of Stup; I was attacked by a dog once. It’s a very dark place. Everything is sort of dislocated.

The narrator is someone whose body is gridded with veins of gold.

Faruk Šehić

The man reminded me of the wild Cajuns from Walter Hill’s movie “Southern Comfort.” That story is a metaphor of Bosnia. The character [the bulky man] is not a war criminal, but he’s dark; he doesn’t even espouse an ideology. I wanted to go into this primordial darkness, unrelated to war or nations. His nationality isn’t important at all, although he does label himself in the story — he doesn’t identify with any political option, but he says that he’s bought the house from a Serb.

This story is all of us, an eerie Bosnia of sorts, forgoing all those nice stories of Bosnians as good people drinking coffee like in a postcard. I wanted to write an underground story. By the end, the narrator tells the story from the country’s point of view.

Photo: Jasmin Agović.

Elvira: Yes, yes, it ends like: He’s the country…

Faruk: He says: “Rivers flow through me, the river Miljacka.” He’s Bosnia; that character is Bosnia. The narrator is someone whose body is gridded with veins of gold. I wanted to say that we’re neither good or bad, but various. There are some beings who attack him there, he gets paranoid…

Elvira: The lights…

Faruk: The lights passing through shrapnel holes. My favorite stories from this book are the ones that kind of turn fantastic…

Elvira: But almost every story of yours turns fantastic at one point. These stories are perhaps less poetic; they’re rougher, but all contain a poetic image leaning toward fantasy or poetry. Even in this story, when the character speaks of light, it somehow turns into poetry, although he’s a terrifying figure, although you don’t understand what happens when he finds the glove…

Faruk: He’s killed the cyclist… The dog dug up the glove and brought it to him. In reality, I scraped through, but he killed me in the story [laughs].

Elvira: What he hears — he says he can hear something in the night, shrieks… As if someone’s whimpering… All that can be felt, but nothing is too clear.

Faruk: He keeps people locked up, tortures them… He’s like those characters from American horror films, from the provinces, who lock people up in basements and terrorize them. 

A short story needs to have a secrecy to it. A novel can be explicit, like your novel, where some moments are entirely clear, clean. Some of your descriptions are poetic, while you’re full-on prosaically concrete in your dialogues.

Novels have the power to spread over multiple registers, but stories belong to the short form. As Danilo Kiš would say: “A story is a novel on the palm of one’s hand.” Likewise, in “Ten Plums for Fascists,” you retain a certain secrecy in terms of the overall theme, because you don’t want to exploit the subject — Srebrenica, genocide, the wait for the deceased people reported missing. You’re not too explicit because you aim to be subtle, while still wanting it to have its magnitude.

In one part [of the book], you literally write about the missing, about how no one has ever died a natural death, and you write that your grandmother will be the first person to be buried because her body is there. It speaks about all those whose bodies haven’t been found, or have been found in three mass graves.

We as writers are unfortunate enough that some of our intentions pass completely unnoticed by critics. Andrić was once asked if he was satisfied with the literary reception of his books and he said he wasn’t. You as an author have understood that story, which I’m glad about because now I know my intention is visible. To me, that story, “The Dark Prattle of a Lightseller,” is far more significant than many other lauded ones from the book.

Photo: Jasmin Agović.

You’ve got this side character, a failed boxer, who you meet at the bus station in Trieste. He reminds me of characters from Cortázar’s stories, who are bizarre and fantastic. He’s an interesting episodic character, but an important one as well…

Elvira: It’s a road novel…

I'm not a person who writes with ease. I need a lot of time to write something. Then, I prune the text.

Elvira Mujčić

Faruk: Just like in a movie, I can see the exact scene where you go out of the house and wait for the car, with dust in the air… Or the scene where they listen to the cassette. That’s a movie scene. While I was reading your book, I saw a film in it. It’s got potential for dramatization.

Elvira: It was staged at a theater in Italy, in Bologna, but the pandemic brought everything to a halt. A book becomes popular in Italy if it’s turned into another medium. Some other books of mine have also been staged at theaters. I’ve worked on some scripts, too, with another writer.

I’m not a person who writes with ease. I need a lot of time to write something. Then, I prune the text. I don’t like long books, because you haven’t got respect for the reader, because there are so many unnecessary things in books, but I do understand those who write them. I grew up reading the Existentialists: Sartre, Camus… And then Calvino… He wrote a book of letters, back when he was an editor at Einaudi; he used to reply to every unknown author and give them feedback on their books. Today, literature is taught from that book. Those are the real lessons about literature; it’s called “The Book of Others.” Often when I’m in the process of writing, I read excerpts from this book.

Faruk: “Cosmicomics” is another book of his that I really like. In one of the stories in there — which explores the origin of the universe according to the Big Bang Theory — Calvino mentions some refugees, while everything takes place in an infinitely small and infinitely dense point of space-time. And he says that everything’s cramped over there, and lumped together; he mentions furniture. How pertinent is that to our war since both of us were refugees as well to people on the move, because great literature is timeless?

Elvira: As for me, the absurdity around us has always got to do with bureaucracy. Maybe because when you’re a foreigner, when you’ve lived in a foreign country for a while, bureaucracy becomes very important to you.

Exile is a time that doesn't pass; it has completely stopped.

Elvira Mujčić

When it comes to the last book I wrote on migrants, I was deeply moved by a story of this migrant who told me that after he had left Gambia, he had to go to storysellers selling stories that work in Europe. I reach out to you and you tell me: “Look, I’ve been to Europe, I know how it works, you’ve got to tell them that you’re gay and that they kicked you out from Nigeria.”

The storyseller makes up a story for you, you pay and then you go to Europe with your wonderful story. In the book, there’s me as Elvira and we walk through the streets of Rome; the migrant character comes to me to ask me for a lesson on how to become a good immigrant. Our conversation revolves around me trying to find out what his real story is. He bought his made-up story and told it to the commission deciding on who’s going to get a permit to stay in Italy. People leave Gambia and arrive in Italy five years later. After word gets around that a certain story does the trick, everyone starts using it. But many of them have got a worse story, more real than the made-up one.

Photo: Jasmin Agović.

The story of my protagonist is that his cousin banished him, but that story doesn’t matter because you feel that he’s got an even more terrifying story he doesn’t want to reveal.

My book starts with a fake story of mine that I’d tell after we had arrived from the broken up Yugoslavia during the war. I was born in Serbia, but I didn’t know how to explain to them that I was Bosnian, so in the documents, I wrote that I was born in Loznica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I took a Serbian town and carried it over to Bosnia; what’s more, my ID says that I was born in Loznica, Bosnia and Herzegovina [laughs]. I always lie in my documents.

From that fake story of mine, we move toward his fake story. That’s why I started writing the book. It’s just like the story of the boxer who’s got Yugoslav documents, but the country no longer exists so he waits for someone to bring him new documents. I would wait for a lot of things back in the time when I was a refugee… Exile is a time that doesn’t pass; it has completely stopped.

Faruk: People on the move, those who want to get to the EU from Bosnia, they call their journey “the game.” To me, it sounds like a title for a dystopian story, a novel draft. They’re players in something that isn’t playable at all.

Elvira: There’s the idea of Fortress Europe… The closed space many want to enter.

Faruk: I had a shirt with that print, which I got as a gift from the late Bekim Sejranović.

When we talked at the book launch, at Bookstan, I didn’t want to reveal the contents [of your book]; we talked about the missing and dead, but not about the plot of the book.

The biggest tragedy — which is bigger than death — is that people can’t be buried. After World War I, the feeling of grief for the deceased was so strong that many expected the deceased to come back, since it was so hard to wrap one’s head around such an enormous loss. Many writers wrote about the World War I trauma: Ungaretti, Quasimodo… And then the English trench poets… In your book, there’s a moment of waiting, when your protagonists drink coffee. It’s a frightening moment of anticipation.

Elvira: This book is about the missing people indeed, but it’s more about those who have remained alive, but don’t know how to cope with the whole situation, how to talk about it.

For me, translation means an opportunity to go to another country, meet other readers; your book becomes a different book.

Faruk Šehić

You wouldn’t know what words to use when someone asked you where your father was. My mum didn’t know what to write — whether she was married or widowed. She’d never state that she was widowed. Someone asks you where your father is and you can’t say he’s dead. There are some things that are unbearable, so there aren’t any words for them. There’s no word for a mother who’s lost her child. There is a word for a widow, but not for [the latter].

The thing with those who have remained alive is how to live with the fact that there are no words to describe [these matters]. On the other hand, there’s a great desire to live.

Elvira: What does it feel like to have books released in translation?

Faruk: To me, translation means an opportunity to go to another country, meet other readers; your book becomes a different book. I remember, after I had one of my books released in French, I went to the legendary Paris bistro Select to meet with my editor, the well-known French writer Patrick Deville. He told me: “When you write, you have to be aware that other people will be reading you in other languages as well.”

The experience of translating books enriches the author, at least it enriches me as an author.

Elvira: All festivals I attend in Italy are often terribly boring, because they’re dominated by boring, old, white men. A young woman — especially if she’s Black — poses a big problem.

In Italy, I try to have women’s voices from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia translated, but it’s so tough. Once I asked this editor: “Have you ever seen Bosnia through the eyes of a woman?”

Feature image: Jasmin Agović.