I Checked and It Was Still There

“But as they burned, disappearing irrevocably one after the other, you stopped believing that there was any purpose in a book’s existence. Or perhaps the only one to have worked out their purpose was the Sarajevan author and bibliophile who, instead of using expensive firewood, warmed his fingers last winter on the flames of Dostoevsky, Tolstoj, Shakespeare, Cervantes…There is no point in not letting a fire swallow up things that human indifference has already destroyed.” 

Miljenko Jergović, Sarajevo Marlboro

There were times when a person of this city would wake up only to witness another loss. Another hole in their neighbour’s wall. Another attempt of revitalizing their instrument only to be deafened by the sound of shelling. Another shelf; another library burning. Another evening and an attempt of falling asleep, with the image of blood that has gone dry, but continues fresh in one’s heavy memory.

“When did you get it?”

“On my way here,” I respond. I let myself lose grip of the text. My eyes slip down and through the page where they are met with the professor’s name.

“You said that it is the professor’s book?”

“His wife’s.” 

I look away from the book and draw my eyes across the kitchen, to my mother. Standing above a pot, she is surrounded by steam. The thin layers of taste and smell have caught her, and now curl around the table I am sitting at. Her question, ‘Where did you get it?’ still lingers in the air. 

“He had it – for a while –  then he gave it to the publisher. Yes, sadly,” I said nodding, “his wife is not among the living.”

I never figured out whether or not she found the book during those months. Frankly, I do not remember myself trying to find out. The curiosity could not overpower the intimidation of my mother’s sharp-cutting moral compass. ‘Where did you get it?’ continues to linger in the air.

At times, I thought she knew, and ‘where did you get it?’ calls forth the afternoon, the image of my mother standing over a pot of rice in this same kitchen, submerged in poorly flavoured steam.

 “You know, you left me speechless this time,” my mother said. 

Speechless. I remember her talking about my age and the expectations that come with age; and then, for a while, about the rice she had to cook for the fourth time that week and about this apartment we all had to move into in order not to freeze, or rather, be burned alive. About my sister in a more quiet voice. 

My mother could not have ever been left speechless, but I thought I knew what she meant by it, and it did not make me feel quite well. 

I remember my sister’s tiny voice as I came into the dark room that she and I shared during those years. “I am sure she is not angry with you,” my sister said, with her head on my chest. “It must be because of dad.” 

I told her I knew. In part, it might have been because of dad. The repetition of the rice situation was hard for my mother, but the canned beef (that we could not even trick our dog into eating), was worse; much more likely to cause her anger.  

“We all have something we do not need.” With her tiny voice and what seemed to be newly found confidence, my sister talked about her doll. A doll, she was not playing with for a year or more. She looked down her left shoulder in those months, as a way to make sure that she is being understood. Always with apparent sadness and shame,  nevertheless somehow determined to state “I, for sure, cannot not play with dolls anymore.” God, was it painful to see that.

“I keep my hair long!” Touching her locks with her right hand, she talked about her hair that she was keeping long even though many girls cut theirs—at least to their shoulders—and the dress she expected to outgrow which she had got for her birthday. 

My mother was not angry with me because I bought those books. We did not have money for any luxuries, except for flour and a piece of meat here and there. Both of us were aware of that. “We are trying to keep whatever aspects of normal and ‘human’ life we can,” she said later that night, smoking her cigarette. She did not speak so much so that she would find herself naming the cigarettes she always seemed to be able to find, or my sister’s dress that she bought God knows how. Dad’s bar that she, even then, kept open. There was no need to. “Nothing about this has to be solved or fixed,” she said. “And what is on the table for dinner should not be children’s concern.” 

Nevertheless, the words that always seem to linger a bit longer in this kitchen, or, at least, the words she speaks, which I always imagined to be tightly framed and consciously packed and picked, made me feel otherwise. Age. Expectation. Rice. I had to give the books back.

In those times, with the destruction of the city and the destruction of individual lives, I, myself, let the destruction swallow books, too. Culture. Stories. This story.  

“You were leaving. Well, hoping to leave—as you said.”

The professor nodded and smiled somewhat quickly, yet excessively; to himself.  

“As a man of reasonably sound mind, I could not hope to find any of my material possessions untouched.” I could recall him saying (and myself not disagreeing)—the professor did live in a neighbourhood in which things were, it seemed, destined to be taken, either by intruder or fire.

“Then again, war is not the time to become a salesman,” he said, looking at the ground. In my mind was a clear image of the things he had in front of him that day.  Chosen things – things of value: a sewing machine, a typewriter, some oil lamps, a few books piled one onto the other. Theology and philosophy mostly. Recognizing the names of the authors as important was enough to give me a good feeling. 

The image was very appealing to me. Looking at the professor’s face, I could tell that the same image appeared in front of his eyes too.

“I thought that you would go for the guitar.”

Guitar? Only then did the guitar appear in the image. “I remember you playing at your dad’s bar,” he added. 

I asked him why he had not left. He said that a reunion with his wife would not happen. Could not happen.  

I asked if she was doing okay, and he said he did not know. Perhaps he really didn’t. 

I took the books out of my backpack and laid them in front of him. 

“I did not think that I would see these again,” he said with a mild smile. “The fire has not reached them yet.”

“Yeah…I would say that I’m glad my home has not been caught on fire in the meantime” I said, jokingly. 

The professor kept his mild smile. A couple of sentences rolled fast over his tight, stretched lips. He was glad about that, too. He expected people would start setting their own homes on fire soon. He thought that there would be, perhaps, certain honesty in that act. He was, by having these books back, much more tempted to set his flat on fire. 

Adults and their bizarre words. During the war, their previously used filters when talking around kids disappeared. “My mother said that the body was almost completely dissolved when they brought him” is what one could hear coming out of an eight-year-old’s mouth. Not extraordinary, still, there was something so bizarre about his words that stuck with me.

Not a singular case of a faithful man losing his faith; not the only witness to the fall of foundations of one’s faithful life. 

This book was not among the books I layed down in front of him that day. I had left it at home, not exactly on purpose. On my way back home, I seemed to have come to a decision – I was keeping the book. And I did, for a few months.

A theologian that lost faith, and a musician that saved the books. 

Sunny days at the beginning of April, for us living in the valley, are the most hopeful days of the year. The fog that stretched between the surrounding mountains for months had suppressed the hope of sunlight touching our skin. In the early spring, sunny days bring a revelation—the Sun returns. 

Carrying the gratitude that one has only when something has been taken away, I was on my way to my aunt’s. The safest route to get to my aunt’s neighborhood was explained to me by my mother and repeated every time I was about to go. Most of the time, the route was followed. But then again, from time to time, the air would feel clear and still, the birds and dogs relaxed, the image of the blossom waiting to be seen only a couple streets away to the East was tempting. What can I say? I was easily tempted. Perhaps it was not so much about the blossom as it was about the Library, only a few steps further down the street. I would always find myself checking, with certain unease, if it was still there.

No signs of fire.

That day I saw the professor on the other side of the street. He was thinner—not a shocking image at the time. In an oversized suit and with a hat, he was standing, facing the library. I remember waving at him. It took him some time to register my moving hand, and some more time to recognize my face. I crossed the street.

“It is still here,” the professor said, keeping his eyes fixed on the building.

I tried to grasp his facial expression, but his head was very high up. He was a tall man. 

“Someone told me that they moved the books elsewhere; in case…”

“They did, a long time ago,” the professor responded. 

“Oh, I did not know it for sure.” 

That was relieving. The library—the content that made the library—will be saved from fire. “Good,” I said, ready for us to continue walking, but I was pushed back by the stillness of the professor’s static body. He was still looking at the Library, with his head tilted slightly down. Over his face I saw, for a moment, a trace of sorrow, and then the next moment, a peaceful expression; a kind of very mild happiness. As if to himself, he stated that the Library was still there, one more time.

Thinking about it, if I was a bit older at the time, this would have been enough for me to understand that something in the professor had changed since our previous encounter. Perhaps I could even have guessed that in that very moment, the sight of the untouched library was significant to him. 

I joined him on his walk,  preparing myself to offer the professor his chance of “remarking.” He talked a lot during that walk. He responded to all of those questions that I wanted to hint at but not vocalize on the other end of  “those” stretched months. A kid like me could not have the answer sheet, but was guided by the principle of what felt right. The professor passed my test that day. So did my interrogative skills, as I know now. The next week, in my backpack, I brought him his—this—book. 

The story of this book belongs to the one that kept it.

“The soup first,” said my mom, already pouring it into the bowl. “Here.” 

Things like this are not a matter of choice in my family. 

A sixteen-year-old. I am not sure how much of this is the result of informed decisions. Even saying that I relied on what felt right does not seem like a proper explanation. We were confused. I was confused. The pre-war “can I have some sugar? I ran out of it” stayed as a custom in our building. A 3rd of a cup filled with sugar; two tablespoons of oil. A cigarette here and there and light—always. But then my mother’s close friend left without a word and the other left only a few bitter words to be passed on by a third, common friend. People swore to never return. My favorite band fell apart. Disappointment is not an appropriate word to describe these experiences. 

“It seems like I put too much salt in. Age, my dear…” 

I look at my mom—she is about to go on about old age and how it brings more absurdity and craziness into the aging person. And she does; I laugh and tease her as usual. Reaching the point at which one cannot not see the aging of one’s parents is not easy.

The table is already covered in food. In the middle of it, a chicken rice dish. It has been a couple of years since I have seen rice on my mother’s menu; not even a grain of it had an appearance on this table for years. If one had to predict in 1993 whether or not rice—on a plate, in a bowl, or a cup—would ever leave their memory, one would surely say no. But the image of rice, soaked in water and milk powder, vanished from mine. It is hard to point at the exact date on the calendar, but it did. 

The story of this book belongs to the one that kept it – a kid, who was not only able to recognize the fire we adults were ready and capable of setting, but also recognize themselves as one to take responsibility for protecting it.

Even if they had lost their faith and lost their ways, a couple of adults, my friends, must have quickly regained it. Their names can be found on the first page. The story of this book belongs to them too, and so should the gratitude of yours, the reader.

The book’s stories are my wife’s.

If you knew her, there is no need for me to suggest anything to you. For those who did not: my wife’s humour can be described only in contradictory terms: greatly personal and unbelievably general. 

She wrote the last pages of this book a week after the City Hall turned to ashes. Among everything that aimed to be at least partially fictional, these purely autobiographical, unmasked pages appear as the most fantastical nightmare-like creations of my wife’s imagination. She was an imaginative and creative being, but her last sentences put it simply:

“It is all ash. My throat is full of ash and the idea of choking prevents me from laughing. It is hard to live without laughter. Maybe it is because of asthma.”

Some of the readers will definitely recognize themselves—the characters they were during the 1980s—and recall some of the good or bad jokes they made on some of those cheerful summer days we spent on the streets of our Sarajevo.  

April, 2002

Jergovic, Miljenko. Sarajevo Marlboro. 1st ed., Archipelago Books, 2004.

Elma Talić is a second year HAST student from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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