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.
One of the perplexities of Kin is how to classify it. It has been referred to as an “epic”, a “saga”, a “family novel”, a “chronicle” and an “historical fiction.” Many of the sections in the chapter ‘Inventories’, however, read like essays. Jergović often repeats information and reintroduces characters. Some of the essays in ‘Inventories’ are addressed to himself. When describing an event in the home of his great grandparents that happened before his birth he uses the first person plural ‘we’, though he was not there. One can conjure tedious explanations for such perplexities. Jergović, perhaps, has reached the point in his career where his editors will publish anything he writes. The otherwise diligent translation efforts of Russell Scott Valentino contain simplistic grammatical errors. The appeal of these explanations results in a failure to understand what Kin is and what Jergović is doing.
Jergović is a storyteller. This is made clear in the chapter ‘Mama Ionesco: A Report’, which recounts his mother’s slow and gradual death. His mother is dying, and this is a burden for Jergović. He is not close with his mother who was an absentee parent. Instead, he was raised by his grandparents, his Nono and Nona. He does not love his mother, but he is duty bound to spend time with her while she is dying. Jergović and Javorka bicker. He is distant, she blames him for not doing more to prevent, and then cure, her illness. She wants him to call his publishers and beg them for money for miracle cures. They are both unpleasant and immoral. Jergović describes his mother as “unhappy as Varlam Shalamov.” Shalamov is best known for a monumental set of tales based on his decade and a half spent in a Gulag in Kolyma. It is a distant, pretentious and cruel way to describe one’s mother.
Yet, four months before her passing, Javorka begins to tell Jergović stories of their family. These stories form the basis for the first section of the novel. The also mend the distance between mother and son. Jergović tells us that “What brought us together was the story, which appeared between us amid the two horrible torments that were killing us. Hers was without a doubt more horrible than mine, but even mine I could hardly bear, even in my dreams I was conscious of it.” All of a sudden Javorka appears in a different light, she is now described as “happy as Varlam Shalamov was when writing The Kolyma Tales.”
Jergović is neither naïve nor sentimental about the uses of storytelling. It is not just something that brings him closer to his dying mother. In a land marked by death and disappearances, storytelling saves the murdered from oblivion. During a digression – one of many throughout the book - Jergović tells us of his mother’s teacher Nada Vitorović. Taken from her home by soldiers with the “insignia of the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina” in 1992, she, along with others, were killed for having names that were too Serbian. “Where and how they were killed is unknown, no one asked after them, and no one, in the heroic history of Sarajevo that began thereupon, which in part constituted the newly christened Bosniak nation and its suffering known throughout the world, no one asked about Nada Vitorović.”
Benjamin says that Herodotus was “the first storyteller of the Greeks.” Herodotus’ task was, according to Hannah Arendt, to “save human deeds from the futility of oblivion.” This task of the storyteller, to at least save something temporarily from oblivion, to stave off forgetting a while longer, is how Jergović understands storytelling too. Just before recounting the tale of Nada Vitorović, Jergović is reflecting on old photos his father took of monkeys at the Vienna Zoo. He knows one day these photos will disappear, be forgotten:
Forgetfulness is like garbage, except with forgetting there is no ecological problem. Forgetfulness is an ecological garbage incinerator. Nothing is left behind. But forgetfulness ravages the person, just as garbage ravages the world. Against forgetfulness there is only story, which must be narrated at the moment before everything is forgotten. Then before the final forgetting, each story at least comes of age, and a picture of a monkey taken by my father becomes important the moment before it turns to garbage, and it, like everything, is saved by story, and the world is saved by story alone.
Jergović is not a historian though. His work’s strange relation to fiction and non-fiction is related to his understanding of what it means to tell stories, and their purpose. ““Every story written stops being real life, moves into fiction and fable, even if it is all recorded from reality. There are no stories that deal with so-called true events. There are only true and untrue stories, actual and invented. Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are equally true.”
This commitment to storytelling, to understanding Jergović as not a novelist but a storyteller, helps explain the repetitions and reintroductions of family members that pepper the book. For these repetitions invoke a sense that this is, more than anything, a collection of stories, to be read in any order. Kin can be read linearly . When one reads it this way, a story will unfold, one will learn more and more about Jergović, his family, his Bosnia, his Croatia, and distantly, his Yugoslavia. This story does not just belong to Jergović but also to his family. It recounts their Jergović, their family, their Bosnia, their Croatia, and less distantly, their Yugoslavia. Yet, because the chapters are relatively autonomous, the logic of memory and remembrance is at play in the very form of the book. For one does not sit down, after the wake or before the wedding, to narrate to their guests and kin an entire family history starting with their great grandfather. You will learn your family history when, coming across a strange object in a forgotten drawer you ask you family what it is. And if you, as a reader of Kin, open this book at random you too will be told about strange objects just discovered. The photographs that appear in the books closing pages are like such objects. They do not function like the pictures in a W.G. Sebald novel, they function like a photo album dredged from the bottom of a storage container. Just like a collection of short stories – for example those of Nikolai Leskov, the object of Benjamin’s ‘Storyteller’ essay – one can begin anywhere and move at random, if they wish. Just as we learn our family history over time, piece by piece, sometimes randomly, so too can Kin be read in any order, provided one has read the opening chapter in which one ‘meets’ the family.
In a region where cemeteries and graves are obvious motifs, Jergović asks we gather after the funeral and listen. In doing so we too take into remembrance something on the verge of being lost and recall the complicated positions people hold between ethnicities, religions and ideologies, the names of those who one day disappear and the stained and dusty objects from which one can unfold a world. The moment of death is the moment at which a life can fall into oblivion. A life cannot be rescued after this, but its memory can. In a region scared by ethnic conflict, of missing persons and forgotten graves, the simple domestic act of remembrance can transform into a more powerful statement against the politics of hatred and annihilation. It is in the everyday that Jergović hopes to find salvation enough for the entire world.