Where You Come From
by Saša Stanišić (trans. Damion Searls)
Jonathan Cape/Penguin Australia
Published November 2021
When my housemate comes across my copy of Saša Stanišić’s latest book, Where You Come From (2021), lying on the kitchen table, he tells me a story: One of Stanišić’s books was part of the German literature final exams in Hamburg and so he decided to take the test alongside his teen readers. He got a B+. Of course, I immediately look this up and find that Stanišić has tweeted about it – apparently he’d taken the test under a pseudonym and got thirteen out of fifteen points for an exam on his second novel, Before the Feast (2014). I don’t know if this story is true; it has an apocryphal whiff. But Stanišić isn’t the kind of person to be overly concerned with the truth. Or with this kind of truth, anyway.
I like this story because it’s an iteration of that old refrain, The author is dead (and by extension, go for your life, reviewer), and because it gives a launching point for a review of a book which, itself, has an interesting relationship to truth. Where You Come From is a semi-autobiographical account of Stanišić’s experience of the Bosnian war and his escape to Germany. In this, it’s similar to his first book, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (2008), which circles the same themes. Both are scattered with make-believe, though the latest cleaves more closely to Stanišić’s real life, even as it also steers much further into fantasy. Both contain key aspects of his autobiography – his parents’ religions, their escape from Bosnia to Germany, his relationship with his Grandma Kristina (or Katarina, in his previous novel). But in Where You Come From there is no uncle who joins the Republika Srpska army, no nationalist relative threatening a family gathering with a gun, no Muslim girl who Stanišić’s stand-in befriends and claims as his sister. This time, his protagonist goes by his name.
But the same tensions exist, the same hairline fractures between here and then, us and our past. There are photos of the Serb war criminals Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić in the living room of his relatives’ home, hanging there in 2009, fourteen years after over 8300 Muslim men and boys were massacred by order of these men just two-and-a-half hours away. Although there is no gun-wielding relative or genocide-happy uncle, their shadows remain.
Stanišić’s books play with time as much as they play with fantasy, which are more entangled than one might suspect, but perhaps understandably so for someone like Stanišić, or someone like me, that is to say: children born into Yugoslavia and made refugees by the genocidal war that followed its fracturing. Time, in Stanišić’s books, does not proceed so much as it glances off itself, or becomes hopelessly knotted. In his first book, as in his latest, it is both thirty years ago (or near enough) and it is now. In Before the Feast, it is a single long night in the life of a village in eastern Germany, and in that long night are all the nights that have happened before – nights four hundred years ago, five, dipped into only briefly but worked into the fabric of village life. Though he doesn’t enter them, these nights, four hundred years ago, five, are present in Where You Come From, unavoidable as air.
Let me tell you a story about this now and then: the massacre of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica started on 11 July 1995, but it also started on 15 June 1389. In 1389, on the eve of the Battle of Kosovo, the Serbian Prince Lazar received a vision from the Prophet Elijah who came to him in the form of a falcon. The Ottoman Empire was expanding west and in the centuries that would follow, they would dominate and oppress the Balkan people. But on the eve of the battle, Prince Lazar was given a choice: win the earthly war and secure his people freedom or lose it to secure them a divine place in heaven. According to the songs, he chose the latter, and the Serbian people became celestial.
This priča has become part of the national(ist) mythology of Serbia and so it surprised no one when, over 600 years later, Mladić and the forces of Republika Srpska entered the Srebrenica enclave – which had, until that moment, been an UN-designated ‘Safe Area’ – and declared that the time had come to take revenge against the ‘Turks’. Over 40,000 Bosnian Muslims had fled to Srebrenica, seeking safety from a genocidal war in which men and boys were brutally murdered in concentration camps and tens of thousands of women were raped as part of a systematic campaign of genocide. The ‘Turks’ that Mladić referred to were these Bosnian Muslims, people whose ancestors had converted to Islam after having been caught in the Great Schism between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East centuries before, and people who had converted much later, as people do over centuries and geographies.
In Stanišić’s books, now and then, fact and fiction blur into a disputed oneness, just as they do in Balkan history. But Stanišić does not indulge in this kind of overt historical fantasising, the grand, nation-building kind. He does not mention this particular story. But he winks at it through his own historical fantasising, his identity-building which is neither grand nor nationalist but which scratches persistently at our inability to tell a (hi)story that is entirely true, our memories somehow always getting in the way of ourselves. The past is full of make-believe.
In Stanišić’s past, there is a horned viper in the tree in the graveyard of Oskoruša, but perhaps there isn’t since, pages later, we learn that horned vipers are actually rather bad climbers. The horned viper appears again, this time in the chicken coop in a more distant past, and is killed by Stanišić’s father, only his father has no memory of this and insists it can’t be true. Instead, he offers his own implausible story: of running and flying away from a nest of the vipers that he had accidentally uncovered in the mountains near his home. Much is undermined or cast into doubt as the book progresses, but not everything. Grand-aunt Zagorka might have taken her goat to the Soviet Union on her quest to become a pilot. The goat might have gone to space. Who’s to say?
Time and truth slip over themselves in this narrative as they do in the Balkans, but they reflect, too, Grandmother Kristina’s dementia. She is the fulcrum around which the book pivots, the door through which Stanišić can explore what used to be the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia, and a metaphor for it, her dementia a parable of the madness that overtook us. In describing her deteriorating condition, Stanišić writes: ‘A veil of The Past has covered her Now. Fictions are woven into it,’ and ‘It’s impossible to tell if she’s really remembering something or making up stories.’ Is it possible to remember 600 years ago, without making up stories? ‘It is March 7, 2018, in Višegrad, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Grandmother is eighty-seven years old and eleven years old,’ Stanišić says on the opening page. Like his grandmother, he is different ages at once in this book, his younger selves nestled inside an authorial voice that does not mind sharing space with them. He is, at different moments, a 31-year-old man visiting his healthy grandmother in their ethnically cleansed home town; a 14-year-old boy, escaping genocide; a young man becoming home in a new country; a 40-year-old man picking up the pieces of history as his grandmother, his last living grandparent, begins to both forget it and live inside it. Towards the end of the book, when Saša asks his grandmother what day it is, she replies prosaically: ‘Every day.’ This is something people in the Balkans know. Today is 18 March 2022, but it is also 28 years ago at Markale market in Sarajevo. It is 8 February 1943 and the 17-year-old partisan, Lepa Radić, is hanged by the Germans as her Serb comrades are rounded up into concentration camps by the Croatian Fascists – the Ustaše – and over 320,000 of them are murdered. It is 15 June 1389. It is 11 July 1995. Saša Stanišić is 17 years old and 44 years old.
Stanišić was 14 when his family fled to Germany in 1992, the year the war began. It had started earlier in Slovenia and Croatia but in 1992 it came to us. They say the war officially started on 6 April but I know it started on 29 February, the day my sister was born, the day Bosna i Hercegovina was born. First Stanišić and his mother left and then, six months later, his father followed, arriving with insomnia and an unexplained scar on his thigh. Saša does not ask about the scar. There are many things children of the Bosnian war do not ask their fathers.
Saša’s mother is Muslim, a Bosniak, and his father is Orthodox, or Serb. Before the war, this wasn’t unusual in big cities. In Sarajevo, for example, a third of children came from mixed marriages. Višegrad, where Stanišić’s family is from, is not so big as Sarajevo but it was a city and many people – Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Romanis and Jews – lived beside one another, sometimes fell in love with one another (admittedly, this happened much less with Roma people, who have a long and enduring history of discrimination and ostracisation in Bosnia, as in the rest of Europe). This does not happen so much anymore. Which is not to say that it never happens. My mother, for example, remarried a Serb-Croat man after we came to Australia (like Stanišić, I left Bosnia without my father, unlike him, my father stayed behind). Years later I took my dad’s last name and rendered this ethnic mixing patent: Dženana is a Muslim name, obviously so, and Vucic (really, Vučić) is so Serb as to be shared by the current Serbian president.
My country was born by referendum – Are you in favour of a sovereign and independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, a state of equal citizens and nations of Muslims, Serbs, Croats and others who live in it? – to which 99.7 per cent of 63.6 per cent of the population replied yes. Many Bosnian Serbs boycotted the referendum, not wanting to be separated from Serbia. Since the late eighties the Serbian government had been running a propaganda campaign that pitted Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs against one another and instilled fear in our stomachs. The Ustaše and the ‘Turks’ were raised as spectres of evil that threatened the Serbian people. Although no Muslims had actually been feeding Serb babies to the lions in Sarajevo Zoo, not all of the propaganda was groundless: Croatia had become independent and was growing progressively more nationalist. Serbs had been murdered and ethnically cleansed from many areas in which they lived. Even so, thousands of Serbs protested the brewing war, and thousands fled the country so as not to be conscripted. It was common for young men to sleep in different beds each night to avoid being caught if officers burst into their homes to take them to the barracks. Thousands upon thousands deserted after they were.
It was not enough, of course.
Stanišić does not dwell on details about the war. He gives little context, few specifics. When he does, they enter the text like casual asides and are made all the more potent for how starkly they sit against their surrounds, as when he describes a barbeque outside a health spa near Višegrad. Lamb on a spit dripping fat to be mopped up with bread, children playing in the woods, two mothers giggling over wine, and then the knife slicing through the moment: ‘Two years later dozens of Muslim women would be taken to the Višegrad health spa, raped and killed.’ It is galling for the sensual pleasure the scene evokes, which casts the ugly sensuality of rape into stark and horrifying relief. The turn is sudden and decisive, the butchered meat instantly dry in our mouths as Stanišić forces us to see the butchered women. And they were butchered, although Stanišić does not come out and say it; his brevity piques curiosity, invites further research. The knowledge that the body of one woman was found in three separate mass graves, for example, is only a Google-search away. This is knowledge that Stanišić leaves the reader to discover on their own, sit with on their own, without the comfort of the happy ending that his narrative offers.
When his grandmother is taken to an old-age home, Stanišić describes it as in ‘a small town surrounded by mountains. The mountain panorama is beautiful.’ The reader has barely a moment to enjoy the idyllic setting before Stanišić adds: ‘During the war years, a farm at the edge of town was turned into a concentration camp for the non-Serbian population. On 15 August 1995, Dragoje Paunović Špiro’s unit took twenty-seven prisoners to the front as a human shield. They survived the battle and were then shot by Špiro’s men. Armin Baždar was fifteen years old; he survived with two bullets in his arm.’ The blunt force of these pronouncements is familiar to me: it is the same feeling as one gets in Bosnia, walking through fields and suddenly coming across a sign reading PAZI MINE or the ruins of a house, still shuddering from impact. It is the feeling one gets standing on the bridge in Višegrad and looking into the river Drina where so many bodies were thrown, or driving by a road sign where the Cyrillic has been graffitied over, or the reverse (depending on which part of the country you’re in). Bosnia is a beautiful country, sometimes astoundingly so, but there are blunt shocks everywhere.
When he turns his attention to the here and now however, Stanišić can sound pat: ‘Today is August 29, 2018. In the past few days, thousands of people in Chemnitz, Germany, have demonstrated against open borders. Immigrants are being demonized and the Hitler salute hangs over the present,’ or ‘Today is September 21, 2018. If there were a national parliamentary election in Germany this Sunday, the far-right AfD Party would get 18 per cent of the votes.’ The frankness of these statements lacks the impact of similarly blunt asides about the Bosnian war, though I understand that there is a parallel being drawn. I’m inclined to think that these straightforward pronouncements are no small part of the reason that Where You Come From, published in Germany as Herkunft in 2019, won so many awards there, including the prestigious German Book Prize/Deutscher Buchpreis. It is popular in Germany, as elsewhere, to celebrate tolerance and to decry racism, no matter how little action is taken in the direction of either. In some cases, just reading someone else celebrating tolerance and decrying racism qualifies as taking action. Awarding a book that does so – now that’s revolutionary. Perhaps this is why Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains (2018) has seen such critical acclaim in so-called Australia; it allows newspapers and governments to pretend at tolerance even as they otherwise peddle fear-mongering and Othering. But perhaps I’m being cynical; this too, is profoundly Balkan (although not exclusively, a similar point has been made elsewhere).
Where You Come From is a book about trying to reconcile what it means to be part of the diaspora of a country that no longer exists, and a book about reckoning – with the impending death of a family member, and with the dying connection to a place that used to be home. ‘I think there’s almost nothing worse than knowing where you belong and not being able to get there,’ Stanišić writes, a sentiment that at once encompasses the former Yugoslavia and his particular slice of it: before the war, Višegrad had a population of over 21,000, over two-thirds of whom were Muslim. Višegrad is a different place now, a city that carries in its soil the ethnic cleansing of its Muslim population, including the murder of 3000 Muslims in some of the most brutal acts of violence committed during the war. Today, the population of Višegrad is 12,000 people, and of that, 12.5 per cent are Muslim. Today, Višegrad is a city in whose centre stands a monument to the ‘Defenders of Republika Srpska’ and on whose outskirts a former sports centre-turned-concentration-camp is being renovated into a literary theme park. It is a city that refuses to establish a memorial to the 120 Muslims – mostly women, children and the elderly – who were burned alive in two different houses, or to the women who were detained in rape camps, killed in them. It is a city in which perpetrators walk free, and do not say sorry.
More than anything, Where You Come From is a book about fractured identity and fracturing, and being someone throughout that. Its form reflects this. Stanišić recounts anecdotes, memories and biographical details in simple, matter-of-fact sentences, at times resorting to lists or WhatsApp conversations, parsing observations in sometimes unconnected images and incomplete narratives, looping back and forward throughout in an unfolding that is very much like memory itself. There are many short chapters, often episodic, with blithe titles that hint at what’s to come (‘Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People’; ‘Miroslav Stanišić Shows His Sheep How It’ll Be’; ‘A Party!’). There are many digressions. It is not so much a coherent narrative of selfhood as numerous snapshots of that selfhood and of that which makes it up – the people and places and histories that refract within it. This is, I think, what the book’s English title refers to. ‘Where you come from’ marks less a place than all the things, the people, the moments in it. Where Stanišić comes from is ‘Grandmother. And the girl on the street invisible to everyone by Grandmother.’ Where his mother comes from is ‘the flinching when someone in her hometown shouts her name.’
In answering the question, Stanišić negotiates longing for a national home and his distrust of nationalism, and does so adroitly when writing of his youth and of Bosnia today. I do not recognise the Bosnia that Stanišić describes from his childhood (my childhood in Bosnia was brief and entirely lived in wartime), but I recognise his longing for it, and the conflict that he feels moving through Bosnia today. The bullet holes and empty houses; the friction of ingrained sexism in older male relatives and our wincing acceptance of it; the nationalist graffiti sprayed along roadsides; our mothers’ tense waiting in the presence of certain men of a certain age; the guilt of our luck when we speak to friends and cousins who stayed behind; the guilt of leaving our families behind; the feeling of everything slipping away. Stanišić’s ancestral village has thirteen residents left, almost all of them elderly. Mine is hardly different. In my mother’s village, there is only one child: my cousin’s daughter. She is three. Before the war there were 4.5 million people in Bosnia. By the end of it there were 3.7. Today, there are fewer still and demographers predict that in 2050 there will be only 1.5 million people left. Everyone is leaving, everyone searching for what Stanišić and I were so lucky to receive. This is where we come from.
Yet Stanišić also comes from ‘the boy with [his] last name in Hamburg. He is playing with a toy airplane.’ He comes from Germany, as much as from Bosnia. It is probably true, too, that the accolades the book received in Germany have something to do with the neat and comforting integration/assimilation story woven into Where You Come From. Maybe that’s cynical too. But it is also true that in Germany, as elsewhere, the white majority prefers their immigrants well assimilated and grateful. Unfortunately my cynicism can only go so far because the parts of the book that deal with his integration into German life are actually really good. His early years, spent in the immigrant neighbourhood of Emmertsgrund, are filled with details particular to refugee life: the shame of living in over-crowded homes, the shame of second-hand street furniture and the shame of our unassimilated families. The first time he invites a friend to a family gathering, Stanišić notes that the friend ‘saw sweat suits and T-shirts from C&A with pictures of things on them. Granny was wearing one with a surfboard and the words California Dreaming Waves Diamond on it.’ It is a detail entirely innocuous except to anyone who has been poor enough to live the embarrassment of such T-shirts.
But Stanišić’s interest is not awkwardness or grief or fear; these details are there because they were there, part of a complex and joyful tapestry of immigrant life. This is his project and he sketches the scenes and people in it quickly, but with love: Ines, a speed demon driver who almost got caught without a ticket on her way to an interview to become a ticket inspector. Krzysztof, who stole Fatih’s chrome tire rims and everybody knew it and who one day returned them and accepted Fatih’s punishment honourably with ‘But Fatih. Please, not with the feet.’ Rahim and his family who let each other finish speaking at the table. Dr Heimat, who repaired everyone’s teeth even when they didn’t have health insurance and took Saša and his grandfather fishing. Dedo who escaped Bosnia by riding a tractor over a minefield and who can only get to sleep by first violently shaking his head. Perhaps some of this isn’t true, it has that whiff again. But that’s hardly the point.
Yugoslavia is dead, and the dream of a multi-ethnic nation for the Balkan people seems tenuous at best. It seems more tenuous than ever today, as Republika Srpska, 49 per cent of the legal fiction that is Bosnia and Herzegovina as created by the Dayton agreement on 14 December 1995, grumbles with nationalist rhetoric, as men with guns take shots outside mosques, as they sing nationalist songs in the streets and call for more death, as Milorad Dodik (the Serbian president of the tri-president country) wrestles his ethnic group away from its neighbours, separating his judicial and tax systems from the rest of the country, separating his army. And it is made more tenuous by the prevaricating of Europe and the US who worry about the possibility of a ‘Muslim island’ in Europe, much as they did during the war. This is a worry, by the way, that many believe played no small part in Bosnia being denied arms aid and having to make do with whatever could be stolen or won. It is a worry that, some say, led the UN forces guarding Srebrenica to step aside and allow the Serb soldiers in, to stand back and watch as thousands of men and boys were murdered.
The situation is tenuous, it has been for many years, but it is not hopeless. Perhaps this is why Stanišić ends the memoir with a sudden and resounding twist: the final fifty pages are a choose-your-own-adventure fantasy, a journey up the mountain Vijarac to help Grandmother Kristina find her (long-dead) husband, Saša’s grandfather, and to find dragons. It is at once a paean to Stanišić’s relationship with his grandmother and to the past, and metaphor, almost absurdly playful, for our current moment – whether in Bosnia, Germany, or so-called Australia. What myths will we follow, and how will they guide our decisions? Who will we be on the other side of it?
It might seem glib to unravel the book like this, but Stanišić is not glib; his style is not dissimilar from that of many Bosnian writers who deal in the war – Alexander Hemon, Miljenko Jergović, Alen Mešković, for example. He is witty and sincere and dry, blending humour with writing that is, at times, impossibly tragic. This, too, is profoundly Balkan. Our jokes run dark. By way of example, here’s one that became popular during the war: A Croat, a Serb and a Bosnian are talking about the Olympics. The Serb says, ‘We’re the best in team sports, like basketball.’ The Croat says, ‘We’re really strong in individual sports, like tennis.’ The Bosnians says, ‘Well. We’ll soon be very good in the Paralympics.’ It is not so much glib as it is darkly pragmatic. While watching a game of sitting volleyball with my father recently, he informed me that the Bosnian team was not as good as it used to be ‘since there are less amputees these days.’ I’m not sure if this was a joke.
Stanišić’s previous books were translated by Anthea Bell, and although Damion Searls’ translation of his latest is surprisingly consistent with what has preceded it, Bell strikes a different tone – drier, sharper, yet blunter somehow. I prefer it because in it I hear an echo of my cousins: boisterous voices raised over sarma; spoons pointed in accusation; someone demanding daj mi sok; threats to kill one another and a constant peppering of ne seri, jebem ti majku and pička ti materina. In Searls, I hear myself, translating my cousins to my partner, softening their words into English politeness. Something is lost in translating a language like Bosnian into German and then English. German might be able to express some of the directness of Bosnian (my German is poor at best, so I don’t say this with any authority), but English struggles. There is something to this, though. That the English translation of a German book written about Bosnian-speaking people would miss something is both unavoidable and, for this story – which turns so much on how memories are formed, transmitted, and distorted – it is perhaps also necessary.
Stanišić comes from is this distortion, as do I. We come from generations of stories that precede us and live alongside us, the gaps in those stories, the misremembered moments, and all of the historical revising in between. The myths, the propaganda. The attempts at translation. In this, there is nothing special about being Bosnian; anyone faced with a national identity – and hence, everyone – is faced with its mythos. Stanišić, writing out of the carnage that super-charged national identity left in its wake, asks only that we remember that, remember that our histories are no more inviolable than our memories, that both are liable to distortion. Stanišić writes in German, for an audience in whose mind the Holocaust is vivid and near and who might reflect, or not, upon the resonances between one genocide and another, between one kind of exclusion and the others. But the reverberation carries far and implicates many of us, particularly in the imperial and colonial West, nations that, like so-called Australia, have built their identity on a foundation of genocide and dispossession and that, like genocide-denying Republika Srpska, are yet to reckon with what they’ve done.