The news from Spain and Catalonia this week has made my blood run cold. Plebiscites, exuberance, declarations of independence.  The flags in the streets of Barcelona seem like a carnival. Who can’t celebrate freedom? But  there are precedents.  Other trains have run on the same tracks and the journeys have not been happy ones.

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Scanning the tables of books in translation — fiction, poetry, memoir, history — at the recent convention of the American Literary Translators one in particular nudged its way into my hands:  Croatian War Nocturnal, translated –could it be true– from Esperanto?  I’d known of Esperanto since the late days of my youth — the language created in the hopes of world peace.  From my  American-Internationalist perspective it seemed to have eddied into some backwater of the tumultuous river of world events.  It turns out there remained, and still remains, a devoted community of speakers, and believers.  Spomenka Štimec, once of the Republic of Yugoslavia, now of Croatia, was one of them, and fluent enough to write in it. Croatia, where I spent three lovely weeks last year, still shimmers in my mind – beautiful people and friendly, Roman ruins, Italianate ambiance.  But 25 years ago, it was not so.

The story she tells, from her memories and inventions, begins after the bombs have begun falling, months after the heady days of voting on May 19, 1991 to separate definitively from Yugoslavia.  Overwhelmingly the voters chose complete independence after being a minor part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for 400 years, and of war-cobbled Yugoslavia for 73.

Independence  was declared and then frozen for three months, along with separating sister Republic of Slovenia. On the evening of the end of the freeze, October 8, the Yugoslav Air Force began bombing the main government building in Zagreb.  The  war was on — of independence, of fighting secession or of civil war, depending on who was speaking. Continue reading »

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