Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sad message from Middle Europe

I am just back from my Slovenian conference, during which our P.E.N. group visited the Soca valley (in Italian, the Isonzo), remembered by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. How sobering to compare the majesty and sernity of that landscape –the most beautiful, literally, that I have ever seen, despite my numerous trips to that nation– to what transpired there a hundred years ago this year: hundreds and thousands of deaths as the Italians faced off with the Austro-Hungarian empire's armies, which included the Slovenes, of course.

In some sense, I believe that western literature owes much of itself since that time to the bullet fired at Prince Ferdinand. Never again would western men and women look at the world and at human existence in the same way.

I met or re-met any number of gifted and thoughtful writers at the conference. One particularly impressed me, a Serb from Sarajevo, who had driven up with a friend who is Bosnian Croat, which simply indicates how futile and ruinous ethnic clashes can be, and how, given the right frame of mind, they can be healed. We all ought to know as much, but how quickly we can forget it.

Nor is the problem one restricted to that corner of the world, needless to say. The news was full of the Russian-Ukrainean crisis in Crimea; my heart wept to consider the more than two hundred school girls carried off by Nigerian rebels, whose leader claims that Allah commands him to sell each last one. Incredible? We need not go all the way back to the bombing deaths of four school girls in Birmingam, Alabama to recognize that our sense of American exceptionalism– it never happened (can't happen) here– is fraudulent.

But back to that Bosnian Serb poet, whose name is Goran Simic. (Though they are not related, he shares a last name with another Serb, this one originally from Belgrade, but now one of America's most distinguished authors: Charles Simic.) Here is a representative poem, though I am sure it loses something in translation.

A Scene After the War

 I'd never been aware how beautiful my house is
until I saw it burning,
my schoolmate told me, who had twenty pieces of shrapnel
that remained deep under his skin after the war.
He wrote me how at the airport he enjoyed
having upset the customs officials who couldn't understand
why the checkpoint metal detector howled for no reason.

I had never been aware I was a nation
until they said they'd kill me,
my friend told me,
who'd escaped from a prison camp
only to be caught and raped by Gypsies
while she was roaming in the woods.
Then they sold her to some Italian pimps
who tattooed the owner's brand and number on her fist.
She says you cannot see it when she wears gloves.

I recognized them in a small town in Belgium.
They were sitting and watching the river
carry plastic bags, cans,
and garbage from the big city.
She was caressing the hard shrapnel lumps
through his shirt
and he was caressing her glove.

I wanted to say hello
and give them a jolly photograph from the times
when none of us knew the meaning
of House and Nation.
                                 Then I realized that there was more meaning
                                      in the language of silence
                                            in which they were seeing off
                                      the plastic bags down the river
                                        than in the language
                           in which I would have tried to feign those faces
                                      from the old photograph
                                     that shows us all smiling long ago.

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