, , , ,

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.


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.

Štimec’s  Serbian cousins were across the line. — lines that now had to be drawn thicker, she says, as federated republics of Yugoslavia became states of their own. Her cousins and siblings had played together during summers at their grandmother’s house.  The young boys ran around the house, chasing each other with lassoes and woke their napping grandfather.  Grandmother disciplined them  Now the boys were being drafted, turned into uniformed soldiers overnight and given guns to shoot each other with

“Will this battle between cousins begin again? Is it not possible to find a more pleasant way to celebrate their reunion?”

She tells us later

“… The last we heard my cousin went into hiding.  He won’t be found.  Others will shoot instead.  Not much consolation can be found in that.”

Originally written in Esperanto, for which she was a proselytizer and teacher, and translated by Sebastian Schulman,  Croatian War Nocturnal is a slender (123 pp) and moving account of those weeks that became years (peace was declared in 1995, but continued in Bosnia, Kosovo and from NATO bombers until 2001).  By turns expositional and lyrical she moves us into her memories.  “Farewell to Belgrade,” “René from Vukovar,”  “An Ordinary Day” “An Unmobilized Hand Towel” are chapter titles.

In Belgrade, once the capital of Yugoslavia, then becoming the capital of Serbia, alone, she has returned from a trip to Iran.  In September 1991, flights are no longer possible to Zagreb, the capital-in-formation of Croatia.  Her uncle has picked her up, her Serbian uncle, and taken her to the bus station.

“…he looked at me through the windows, sitting and waiting to go to the other side, to Croatia, … Now when I hear those declarations that we must throw bombs on Belgrade, I see that look of farewell on my uncle’s face.”

In “An Ordinary Day” a friend arrives at the office of the Esperanto club. Tell your story, everyone begs.

” … Two men in uniforms appeared at my doorstep.  They shoved me into the police car and took me to the station.  I spent the night in a cell where another prisoner was already waiting …. Then they interrogated me.  I knew all my interrogators by name.  We all knew each other well. We all lived in the same town.”

Were you raped, she is asked?

“Yes, I was raped.  But that’s not the worst of it.  Take a look here. Touch my ribs,  These two are broken … they beat us mostly from the back.”

She had seen the president of her political party in the same concentration camp,

“… just before they murdered him. I heard his screams coming from the interrogation room … They let him suffer for ten days before he succumbed to the wounds he received from their beatings”

The narrator is surprised to find her little cousin an expert on the difference between magnums and ordinary pistols, and what a magnum can do to the human body. Children are less impressed by their father being drafted than by the size of his new army boots. She finds her thoughts to be very selfish during a bombing raid: “just don’t hit me,” or “maybe death has found some other father of five, and not the one I call my friend.”

It is not all pure cruelty. Štimic finds images wonderfully appropriate to the story she is telling:

“As I turned out the light, I could hear how the clock hungrily gnawing away at the seconds, one by one.”

In a delightful passage, the she tells of her first love, a young man in Sarajevo, in the month of May. Even her alarm-clock had learned to say his name.

“She had an excellent memory.  Moreover it sounded like she’d been practicing the whole night.  She spoke very fluently now: Ke-mal, Ke-mal, Ke-mal.”

That was 1973

“Two decades later, Sarajevo is burning.  The city’s children, scrambling up the cherry trees to taste the fruits of may, are shot and killed.  In a world with many kinds of cherries, there are no others that taste as good as those you eat after coming out of a bomb-shelter.  The sunlight bursts with flavor; the air is nourishing and rich.  Cherries are a gift of heaven, and to heaven they will send you.”

Štimec is a pacifist, an activist in the Esperanto movement with friends around the world, all trusting that a common language will help common understanding. But holding on is difficult

“I have decided to survive this war.  That’s all I have to hope for.  The silent prayer that my pacifism might also survive seems, at night, a very selfish thought.  I am gripped by a guilty feeling  like those Croats who live abroad and can do nothing but send packages from time to time with medical supplies.

In a country that has taken up arms for self-defense, pacifism does not sound right,  Here, where everyone wants a rifle to protect themselves, the thought that guns do not solve problems sounds like treason.

… If only the bullets would come from far away people, but these bullets come from our closest relatives.  We speak a language close to theirs.  Our dearest friends live across their borders,  I studied from their books and lined up their Cyrillic script next to my Latin letters on the shelves.

…now, when a friend borrows a book printed in Cyrillic from my own library, he’ll take it quickly, stealthily and guiltily turning its title page.  He won’t read it on the tram.  Why provoke others?  THe hatred of the shooter has seeped into the books.”


As I finish reading the book, the news heaves again from Spain, from Catalonia.  The president of the break-away province has said that Catalans have earned their independence, but he will continue negotiations with Spain.

Please, El Molt Honorable Senyor Carles Puigdemont, please Excelentísimo Señor Mariano Rajoy, please Su Majestad Felipe VI, read Croatian War Nocturnal. Please understand that “solutions by gunfire” solve little,  bring pain. Please hear the widow of a father of five, a doctor, killed in an ambulance rushing to retrieve the wounded

“Friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues — now is the time to end this hatred.  It doesn’t matter who started it or how many times it has happened.  Our disputes are but petty things.  I am not angry with anyone that my husband has been killed.  We will not go on like this any longer.  On the remains of my husband, I beg you to forgive and forget all unpaid debts.  Let us move forward.  We shall not allow our children and grandchildren to go to battle once again.  But it depends on us.”