How many time had I pondered how the others could bear what we had done? I came to see it all from close-up; Cane had been the innkeeper, Pavle the mechanic, Branimir a farmer, and so on, then along came the idea of our great country and we did what we did. Now Cane is again the innkeeper, Pavle the mechanic, and Branimir is a salesman of Chinese goods, since it does not pay any longer to live off the land. And here I am. And was that all? Like a flu, as Cane had said, something came and infected us.
There was something escaping me that I wanted to find out before I went. Nikola’s second option; to forget. Was it possible?
What is justice? Is it accountability, punishment, rehabilitation, restitution? Is justice even possible, for some things? What of guilt, and forgiveness, where do they fit in? If the wrongdoer is remorseful enough, is the wronged required to forgive? And again, is any such remorse, such forgiveness, possible, for extreme wrongs?
This is not an easy story to read. First, it’s set in Bosnia, with all that bewildering history, countries splitting and reforming, enmities that erupted seemingly (to those of us snuggled safely between two oceans and with a fluctuating but tenacious agreement to live together as one nation) out of nowhere all of a sudden in the 90s and led to nightly reports of horrors and tragedy. And second, the protagonist is a war criminal, who turns out (to me) to be a very sympathetic character, for a mass murderer. But it was not my family, my nation, that was murdered. I was left feeling very uncomfortable with my sympathy, as though that sympathy itself was a betrayal of someone, something, somewhere.
He is called Boss, Chief, Commandant. While Sarajevo was being destroyed, he led a squad of ten or so men in his small village, aiding in the war effort by killing Muslims and burying the bodies in fields one winter. When spring came and the bodies were exposed by the thaw, he led the reburial. An American photographer happened by and caught this on film. Eventually he gave himself up, and went to prison as a war criminal, for eleven years. Now, he’s returning to his village.
He finds the members of his old squad, which is more of an informal group that just happened to cluster together to murder rather than an official military organization. A few are dead or gone. Nikola is drinking himself to death:
“Listen to me, boss, listen. Let me state it clear: the first option is to die. You can choose only the speed: fast or slow. The second option is to forget, like the others from our group did. But, boss, you said you can’t sleep, so you’re not like Cane and the others.” He gestured toward the inn, but in the wrong direction. “Why are you still alive? How will you kill yourself?”
I opened my mouth to speak but he didn’t let me.
“Boss, nobody wants you here. Nobody waited for you. You’re a ghost, a reminder. Please, do us a favor.”
He discovers the ruins of the houses of the Muslims – ruins he created, homes he burned – have been cleaned up, and some minor rebuilding has started. A wall here, a pile of bricks there. Cane, innkeeper and former crew member, tells him the Muslims have scattered to other, safer countries, but come back on their week-long vacations to work on the rebuilding. One of these Muslim families included Sead, a boy Boss went to school with, a friend, in fact. His father was their first prisoner.
…[W]e really believed they were spies for the Muslim army, and therefore traitors. But our belief was like a balloon, we had to pump it up all the time with shouts, with frenzy, with constant movement, never stopping, never thinking. Some of our neighbors confessed. Sead’s father didn’t. He died after three nights of interrogation.
Boss prepares to kill himself, and considers what Nikola has said, in the introductory quote above. He wants to check something before he dies. He asks the crew, sans Nikola, to meet him at the inn. They have a subdued but reasonable time, until Boss begins his exhortations, the one he still remembers from that winter eleven years before: “Will we let them trample on our heroic thousand-year-old history?”
The crew musters and is ready to tear through the doors of the inn, and start in all over again. Just as Boss feared, knew they would; many things had changed, but this basic thing, this basic mistrust, hatred just waiting for a concrete target, was still there. He blocks the door so they can’t get out, and looks them in the eye.
Cane was the first whose arms gave way; he began to scratch his waist. They quickly followed his example, scattering around the room, moving the tables about, straightening the tablecloths, picking their caps up off the floor – waiting for me to move away from the door.
Is this shame? Some kind of coming to terms with their own evil? I’m guessing, probably not. They’d probably do the same thing the next night, if Boss returned and played his part again. Boss has the guilt, the remorse, the sleeplessness. They have pretty much their lives as usual.
Boss goes home and readies the noose. But he hears a truck. It’s Sead. He’s brought a truckload of bricks. He’s here for his week of rebuilding what his family lost, what Boss and the others took from him that winter.
He was going to build a house in which nobody would ever live. A husk, a ghost, reminding the torturers that even if they forgot everything, somebody else would not….
I was merely a dead cell, a flake of dandruff that had fallen off and from which there would never come any benefit. I was insignificant. I coul kill myself now or later with a rope or with alcohol. However , something else… something else… There had to be something other than Nikola’s two options…. Was it really easier to kill again than to ask forgiveness?
The story ends with Boss prostrating himself before Sead, begging forgiveness, and he is rebuffed. Ignored, really. And that’s where the story leaves us – with a criminal who is changed, but justice still undone.
The implications for those involved in “justice” – and those who know generational warfare up close and personal – are scary. It’s also scary how easily we’re worked up into a murderous frenzy by the right words. It’s especially scary while the election rhetoric is ringing all around us.
It’s a powerful story. And I’ve left out many elements. Ecotone focuses on place, and this story includes the kind of descriptions and narration that makes you feel damp and cold while reading it. “A summer storm had just passed by, the wet hair of clouds still hung over a neighboring hill.” That’s one hell of an evocative sentence. Boss had a wife, who testified against him in exchange for a new identity for her and their daughters, toddlers when he left; he figures his girls are better off that way, and hopes she never mentions him to them. The destruction of Sarajevo, the hysteria that led to it, the burned out village, the field of bodies, Nikola’s drunken stupor, these are overwhelming. And of course the primary plot, which I’ve outlined. It’s sort of like a literary mugging.
Mazzini is a prolific Slovenian writer and filmmaker, though apparently little of his work has made it into English. I’m not sure if this is a translation or not. The story from a volume of short stories, Ghosts – “Ten stories, ten persons or objects that won’t remain in the past.” The collection is not available in English. But there’s no note about translation, and it doesn’t read like a translation. Or, maybe more accurately, like my conception of a translation.
The first few paragraphs are available on Ecotone, but not the whole story. Which is too bad. It’s a story that should be widely read. It has a lot to say, and it says it very, very well.