Pushcart 2013: Jennifer Percy, “Azeroth” (Non-fiction) from AGNI #74, 2011

Photo by Velija Hasanbegovic

Photo by Velija Hasanbegovic

He wrote a book, a novel. I read most of it, or I tried. It is about a boy forced to leave Višegrad because of the war. He told me he didn’t like it when people asked what was true and what wasn’t. And he especially didn’t like it when I asked. For three years, I felt I only knew about him – his childhood, his parents, his interests, his loves – from a novel.…
I told him I wanted to visit Višegrad but I didn’t tell him it was because I wanted to know the truth about his past or because I thought he was hiding something from me. No. I told him I needed to travel to former Yugoslavia to research a group of Serbians who write satirical aphorisms about the war. “We might as well go to Višegrad too,” I said.

AGNI warns it’s readers right up front: ” What we print requires concentration and takes some time to digest, but it’s worth that time and effort: writers and artists hold a mirror up to nature, mankind, the world; they courageously reflect their age, for better or worse; and their best works provoke perceptions and thoughts that help us understand and respond to our age.” What they don’t tell you is that you can go from the remnants of a war-ravaged town to educational hilarity to video games in the space of a single essay.

Author Percy (sister of Benjamin Percy, whose fiction also appears in this volume; wouldn’t you hate to be the slow kid in that family), who may or may not have actually had the assignment outlined above (the aphorisms, however, by the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle, are very real) has convinced boyfriend Aleksandar to visit his home town of Visegrad in Bosnia, where relatives, friends of relatives, friends of those friends, tell stories of the war. It’s a bit hard to follow, with a constant stream of people and events, but above all, war stories. Soldiers pacified by the smell of roasting corn. A photo gallery of war criminals (including, by the way, both Clinton and Bush, which confuses me). A communal picnic in a graveyard. If that sounds depressing, don’t worry, there’s plenty of sex worked in. A coworker Aleksandar was sleeping with. His first sex in his home town. And then, just to keep things interesting, a blood-curdling blend of sex and war:

Seven kilometers southeast of Viegrad is the Vilina Vlas hotel. This is where the Serbian army brought detainees from Viegrad to be raped, tortured, and murdered. Its most famous for the rate.
Down the road from the hotel, in a small stone building covered in moss, is a Turkish bath. It uses water from Hot Springs in the mountains. In the heat, in the sickly light filtering through the stained-glass, we undress.…
When he kisses me I’m drinking water from the mountains. When he fucks me I’m thinking of the women being raped and whether they were allowed to drink the water for healing.

Sudden shift: medical pretenders. What? Percy returns to the states – she and Aleksandar frequently spent months apart like this, leading her to suspect additional affairs – and finds work as a medical pretender: one of those people who is trained to explain symptoms of a disease to test student doctors. Now, that’s very interesting, but I had to check and see if I’d missed a few pages somewhere. No, this is how the article progresses. From atrocity to pretending to be one of six Hannahs, a woman with seizures caused by conversion disorder linked somehow to her father falling into a grain silo when she was a child… wait, this can’t be right. I’m all for comic relief, and this is great comic relief, but is this a misprint?

No, because Aleksandar returns to the narrative, and confesses what he’s been hiding: not an affair but an online game addiction. He plays WoW.

I wonder when he played if he imagined he was at war – the war he had fled – now, virtually, slaughtering Serbian soldiers himself. I wonder if it was an act of revenge, a way to return to a world and rebuild it, concrete on his own.

Initially it felt … disrespectful to juxtapose the medical pretender bit with the heartbreaking war section. But, as AGNI warns, it takes time to digest. I like the underlying theme of pretending. A teenager runs away from his war-torn country, writes a possibly semi-autobiographical novel about it, then loses himself in virtual wars. A woman who pretends to be someone else, and feels jealous that five other women are pretending the same thing. The shift in the middle gave me the psychological bends. But maybe, overall, it pays the ultimate respects. Maybe it forces us up against the question: Who are you pretending to be, and why?

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