Translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth
Over a glass of beer, two students are discussing their national identity, ironically. One student is Czech while the other is a Bosnian who has come to Prague to study at the Film Academy.
This is a scene from a novel of mine written some time ago. The key question the novel asks is: ‘What have you given the world apart from that shot in Sarajevo?’
The novel, The Sign of the Rose, was translated some time ago into French (Sous le signe de la Rose) and German (Im Zeichen der Rose), and it has been quoted in the past few weeks by journalists searching for words to evoke the Sarajevo assassination.
It’s hard to resist the imperative of an anniversary. I myself have been led by the centenary of the assassination to leaf through the pages of books I have already read: Zweig, Canetti, Borges, Ehrenburg… I have even read Nabokov, who exhibits an idiosyncratic contempt for the evocation of historical events in literature. But what I have found interesting is that Czesław Miłosz – a writer with an otherwise marked sense of history – does not mention the assassination in his writing about the first days of the Great War. And I have been struck by a page in the book The Labyrinth of the World. Its author, Marguerite Yourcenar, does not mention the name of the dead Crown Prince. Or the assassin. She simply remarks that an Austrian prince was killed in Sarajevo.
Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so strange if Marguerite Yourcenar had held to the principle of nomina sunt odiosa or ‘naming no names’. But she does not. In the same book, she refers to another assassination. This time she mentions the name of the victim, the Swedish king Gustav III. He was killed at a masked ball.
This makes the fact that the Austrian Crown Prince (who was not masked when he was killed…) is not named all the more unusual. But when you consider the whole sentence referring to the assassination, it becomes clear why the wise Marguerite Yourcenar omits the name of the Austrian Crown Prince (reducing him instead to ephemeral anonymity):
An Austrian prince, whose hunting trophies I later saw with revulsion in his castle in Bohemia, was killed in Sarajevo, just like one of the wild animals he was used to hunting in expeditions arranged for him to pursue red deer or bears.
Elsewhere in the book, Marguerite Yourcenar evokes the stormy night when the news of the assassination was carried along telegraph wires. When the news was just spreading, when Gavrilo Princip was in prison and Ferdinand and his wife were in the mortuary, the twelve-year old Margarite Yourcenar happened to be in town. What she remembers of that night is that she returned from the balcony where she’d been, feeling like ‘a straw in the sand’.
In re-reading that phrase, I was reminded of Pascal’s famous words ‘man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed’*. The idea that a person is just ‘a straw in the sand’ resonates with me more than ‘a thinking reed’. That’s how I feel now. Do I owe the feeling to my life experience, which includes one day at the Siege of Sarajevo, and much more besides? Perhaps. But I also owe it to my experience of literature and the role of the writer.
I live in Sarajevo. I went to primary school, secondary school and university in Sarajevo. I attended one of the oldest secondary schools in Sarajevo, in which Gavrilo Princip, who killed Franz Ferdinand, had once been a pupil. Our teachers did not take us to his grave and in history classes I learned as much about Gavrilo Princip as I did about any other historical event. We learned that he belonged to the secret ‘Young Bosnia’ organisation. He killed Franz Ferdinand. That was the trigger (but not the cause) of the First World War.
Almost every day I pass the cemetery with the chapel containing the mortal remains of Gavrilo Princip. To be honest, I would find it hard to describe the chapel. People pass it by as they would any other building in their hometown. All lost in their own problems and thoughts.
I bought my first pair of high-heels as a student from the street corner that Princip had stood at the moment he was about to make history. Footprints were later pressed into the concrete at the spot where he’d stood. Were I to let my mind wander on the theme of the Sarajevo assassination, I could write a story in which I try out my first high-heels by stepping into the footprints of Princip’s feet. But I didn’t do that. Nor did I ever see any citizen of Sarajevo paying any attention to those footprints. Only tourists. Did I ever enter the museum dedicated to the Sarajevo assassination? You know how it is with museums. You visit foreign museums, but your own rarely, or never.
On 7 February 2014, I finally set out to look more closely at the chapel containing Gavrilo Princip’s remains and to take photographs of it. The centenary of the assassination was on my mind. I spent two hours taking photographs and it was only on my way home that I realised that there had been a demonstration in the centre of town. Demands for a change of government, social unrest, etc. Part of the Government building was even on fire.
The unrest lasted into the late evening and became a global news story. That evening I stumbled upon a fiery scene and when I tried to take photographs a policeman grabbed my little camera and trampled on it. All those pictures of the chapel containing Gavrilo Princip’s remains were lost. I regret losing the camera (it cost a lot of money!) but the whole experience felt like a warning to me as a writer. One should write and take photographs for more profound reasons than anniversaries.
And one should talk for more profound reasons than chatting over a glass of beer. That is why, in my book, the character to whom the question is addressed, ‘What have you given the world apart from that shot in Sarajevo?’ gives no reply.
NB. I owe the title of this piece to a story by I. B. Singer. He is one of my favourite authors who writes about the individual in relation to history.
*Blaise Pascal c.1654-1662 Pensées, no.347 (translated by A Krailsheimer)