The Grbavica neighborhood is one of the areas of Sarajevo where the footprint of the Bosnian war is most noticeable. The buildings with artillery impacts make it almost an oasis in a city that tries to look to the future, despite the new phase of nationalist rhetoric that the country is entering and the military maneuver of the Republika Srpska at the end of October, somewhat that has awakened the fear of a new open conflict. Damir Ovčina (Sarajevo, 1973) knows him well. He was just 18 years old when Grbavica was occupied by Bosnian Serb forces. It was spring 1992, a four-year siege of the city was beginning that left more than 10,000 civilian deaths and countless rapes.
Two decades later, Ovčina published a novel based on his own experiences that was an overwhelming success in his country, and was worth the comparison with authors of the stature of Vasili Grossman or Imre Kertész, and the Mirko Kovač prize. Now, his novel has been translated into Spanish as Prayer in the Siege (Automatic Editorial). A 700-page story of short and dry sentences, of a tense laconism, and so realistic that there are already those who have taken for granted that the protagonist of the book is the author himself.RELATED
In his novel, the protagonist goes to visit a friend in the Grbavica neighborhood and cannot return to his home in Dobrinja for four years. Everything happens very quickly, but there were already tensions for months, after the Bosnian independence referendum and the proclamation of the Republika Srpska. Drums were already playing. Was this expected to happen?
No, and like me it happened to a lot of people. In fact, for me it has not been an easy part to describe in the book. I remember that on May 1, 1992, I was returning home from the city and for the first time I saw the Serbian police making checks and stopping the bus, and for some reason they let me pass. The next day, I couldn’t go back to the city center. The police began to mount check points, more troops began to be deployed with machine guns that made you get off the bus. The message was clear: we control the situation, we control the area. Actually it was all there, because in Croatia it had already happened, and a part of my 18-year-old self had known for days that something was happening in Sarajevo, but we did not have enough imagination to see that we would end there.
I recently read an article in which it was assumed that everything that happened to your protagonist happened to you. The novel is based on his experience, but from what he says, I understand that he was not trapped in the Grbavica neighborhood. Were you in a work squad burying corpses?
No, I was able to go back to Dobrinja and I was not in a work squad. I have used it in the novel because it is something real, these people existed. They worked in various areas of Grbavica, burying corpses, digging trenches or fortifying. They were practically slaves, whoever did not work was shot. I wanted to write a true story, I had a responsibility. If I carry that weight on my shoulders, I need to know what is going on, to immerse myself in the truth as much as I can. This happened and it happened like this.
Why did you choose Grbavica as your main stage?
Because Grbavica is a great story of our lives. A story about who we are and what we were supposed to face. It’s almost a metaphor for being guilty for no reason. Sentenced to death in our own city and in our own neighborhood.
None of its characters has a name, not even the protagonist himself, except some of the army officers.
The names unmask the story. They make it less interesting for my type of storytelling. I wanted to show people and have readers name them themselves.
In his novel, the relationships, luminous images between the stark narratives and the constant reference to the gusts of Vacra Avenue are not lost sight of. How do you keep living like this?
I remember having a short period of very dark emotions, but my goal was to move, not be still, or it would destroy me. In the war many people got depressed, it is something very common in my generation, although not much is said about it. But people also look for tools to continue living: there are those who transport other people, there are those who do push-ups. I was looking for books, I read them as much as I could. He read those at home first, then those in a small library near him. I used to read, study and carry water, and I tried to think about not dying. I was thinking about my future wedding and things like that. It was a way of saying “you won’t take anything else from me.” In Sarajevo many things were done to sustain life: model shows, concerts, theater.
Narratively, he seems to be more interested in life than in death.
Here we have a literature industry that arouses very few feelings in me. They are presented to the victims, who shot whom, who died. It has very little interest. We are not special for being victims, we cannot stay there. It is more interesting to talk about how you continue to live and fiction is a good mechanism to do so.
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has threatened to separate the institutions of the Republika Srpska and create an army of his own. In 2022 there are general elections. The United Nations has warned of a possible destabilization of the country. Do you think it is a real threat?
Dodik’s idea is not an empty fad. It is real. Those who support this idea try to find a way to establish more territory just for themselves. Either with weapons or with documents. Nationalism is strong but without tension it is losing. You go to the side of the Serbian majority and there is a cordial relationship, people have relationships. But the conflict is possible because the territorial issue has not been resolved, and on this we will never agree. Personally, I don’t think anything will happen, it is difficult to start a war, but for some time I have started to see propaganda and references to the war. I am mildly concerned, I am expectant.
The Balkans, and especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, have been stereotyped by the West as a wild, barbaric area, where people cyclically start killing each other for their own sake. Can literature help change that image?
It’s true, we are very stereotyped, especially around Europe, and I don’t think this is changing, I think it’s getting worse. These days the situation does not help. The Balkans have been mystified and demonized. It is very cruel, and with it there will be those who have an excuse to bet on a simple and radical solution: separate Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs because, you see, together they have conflicts. But I do believe that literature can help modify that image. The strongest idea that exists is art. It is in art where we find the explanation of historical experiences. Through literature we enter a country. I hope someone reads my book, or any book by an author from here, and does not find it crazy to be born in Bosnia. Of course, it depends on us.
Prayer in the siege it is a very long novel full of details. The protagonist orders by numbers the type of information that is coming to him in a diary that he keeps hidden. Was it his way of preserving the memory?
Unfortunately, during the siege I did not keep a journal. I have a very strong memory of a phrase Dostoevsky wrote: “You must be an idiot to keep a diary.” But during the war, many people came from different parts of the city and explained everything to you, the worst thing you can imagine. They opened very easily and there were stories that stuck with me, especially those that had happened in places that I knew.
What methods did you use to work the novel?
When I started writing I used logic a lot: what could have happened in this building, how long does it take to travel this distance, how many apartments are in a block, or what part of this building was accessible without the Serbs seeing you. I have used almost a mathematical method. I have gone to those scenarios, I have submerged myself and I have taken the perspective of my protagonist, because if you are wrong in that you are not credible. It is as if I carry a camera with me all the time with only one perspective. What he couldn’t see, he didn’t use. I also kept documenting myself and talking to people, although it was more difficult then, not everyone wanted to talk to me, there were people who told me “I don’t remember, bye.”
He has a very direct and very sober style. Why this way? Are you worried that it alienates you from a part of the readers?
The direct style is what I believe in and it’s the only one I have. My idea of literature is to find a rhythm. In the second novel I just published in Bosnia, which is about the same character 20 years later, I am more radical, I avoid commas. When you speak, you speak without these symbols, and I want to make a writing that looks as much like speech as possible. And I don’t know in Spain, but here many like my first book because what they read is true, the sentences are true. But I am not very concerned with the number of readers. There are millions of books in the world and many are mediocre. You must also be lucky to reach readers.
In the novel there is no lack of humor, something very common in Bosnia, especially a very black humor. Is it a way to get over it?
Humor is our ability to think. To be superior to what attacks us. Life is full of humor. Literature not so much.
The Siege of Sarajevo ended in early 1996, but you didn’t publish the novel until 2016. Why not sooner?
Because I had the feeling that my writing was not good enough. A novel is complicated and I wanted to make a book that would compete with the best. In soccer you play a lot of games, but in literature the bad work stops there.
Did you want to be a writer before the war or did the war make you one? What influenced you?
Yes, I wanted to be a writer since I was in high school. I was probably very influenced by a bookcase in my parents’ house. I remember that the books were of different colors: we had Selimović in light green, Dostoevsky in blue, American literature in red. Everything was a temptation. Growing up among books gave me an idea of myself. That made me a writer. But the war made me stronger and more sensitive at the same time.
How did you feel when the siege of Sarajevo ended?
That he didn’t need to keep reading to live.