Leskov Amongst the Tombstones: On Miljenko Jergović’s Kin
The Storyteller and the Legacy of Annihilation
Cemeteries are a common motif in documentaries about the various conflicts that define what is called ‘the breakup of Yugoslavia.’ In one such documentary a man standing amongst tombstones in the Bosnian town of Travnik tells us he doesn’t hate anybody, but that when someone points a gun at you what choice is there but to point one at him. Another man, who escaped a mass execution and mass grave by playing dead and then crawling away under the cover of dusk, weeps in the cemetery that commemorates the victims of this war crime. Just like these documentaries, in which macabre imagery plays a decisive role, an efficient way to signal the horror of what happened, so too do graves play a thematic role in Bosnian writer Miljenko Jergović’s Kin.
In a sense this is necessary. Kin is, first and foremost, a tale of Jergović’s family, of his parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Jergović is in his fifties, his parents are dead. There is more at play, however, than this simplistic logic. Jergović knows that graves are sites of remembrance and that all stories begin with death.
Walter Benjamin, in his 1936 essay ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ states this truth that Jergović knows. Benjamin writes that “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.” Death is at the heart of Kin. Not just because Jergović’s narrative spans a century defined by two world wars and horrific ethnic conflicts between Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks. At the heart of the history of his family is both death in general and the singular death of his uncle Mladen, killed in 1943 by Tito’s Partisans whilst wearing a German uniform. Mladen’s parents, Jergović’s grandparents, believed Mladen would be safer fighting with the Germans than against them. In this way they are directly responsible for his death. His grandparents are wracked by guilt. Jergović’s mother, Javorka, cannot live up to the memory of her brother, she fights with her mother and mistreats her son.
Kin has seven chapters, most of which are as long as a novella. The first of these book length chapters, ‘The Stublers: A Family Novel’ – Stubler is the family name Jergović does not inherit - ends with a story of Javorka going to visit Mladen’s grave. Javorka feels that her life is finished before it was able to start, that it ended when she was eighteen months old and the news of Mladen’s death arrived at her parents’ doorstep. At Mladen’s grave in Donji Andrijevci, the caretaker of the cemetery tells Javorka he can point out the man who killed her brother. Javorka rejects this offer, but this knowledge haunts her, she visits the grave of her brother only one more time. She tells no one this story, until on her deathbed she tells Jergović.
These two deaths frame the novel’s relation to history. In her review of Jergović’s The Walnut Mansion Ellen Elias-Bursać tells us that “history is back”. She refers to Jergović’s tendency to root his stories in the local intricacies of Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian life, which she contrasts against the “universalist prose” of David Albahari and Dubravka Ugrešić. Kin, however, sets out a quotidian and relatively calm family history against the backdrop of the seismic events that defined Europe in the twentieth century, including the events in the Balkans which drew that bloody era to a close. Benjamin identifies this practice, of keeping history in the background as a narrative focuses on more domestic events, in line with the practice of the storyteller. Jergović keeps history in the background, for it is history that says ‘here are the Croats, the Serbs, and the Bosniaks and they hate each other.’ It is only from a narrative that one may learn that a man who hates no one will take up a gun and shot at others, that a family with no fascist convictions will send their son to join the Nazi army because they believe it is his best chance for survival.