by Adnan Mahmutović
small flat is empty like her place of birth. Srebrenica, the town of
ghosts. A nearly manless community. It now exists in the minds of its
female inhabitants, who live scattered all over the world, as if they
are shiny dots you can see in those satellite photographs of the
Earth at night.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson
should confess straight off that I am no fan of titles with so much
punctuation you’re left unsure how to pronounce the words. The play
on the different meanings of refuge and refugee here foregrounds the
tension between the two, but how do you say it out loud? So it is a
testament to the authenticity of Mahmutović's writing that by the
end of the first story, this prejudice had evaporated.
are war stories or, more accurately, the stories of those who survive
and the world in which they are left. Nothing is stable in this
world: the truth of what happened, the boundaries of a country. The
mood of [Refuge]e
fits this: fragmentary and dreamlike, the
pieces veer unpredictably from short stories to poetic fragments.
Always there is this sense that some things are too awful to be
examined head on and that language itself is unreliable. Perhaps that
is why Mahmutović – a Bosnian living in Sweden – chooses to
write in English. His especial gift is to revitalise words that have
become clichéd through overuse and to make you consider them anew.
"Home" is one – what this means, especially when you no longer
have one. Srebrenica is another. Mahmutović's stories make you
understand anew the reason that this town's name has become
shorthand for terrible war crimes; how things too appalling to
properly comprehend actually affect this man, that woman.
majority of the stories centre on Almasa – a Bosnian refugee whose
family were killed in the massacres. In Une Femme Déjà Moins Jeune we learn of her rape – not through any direct reference,
but through the vicious manner in which she attacks a fellow refugee
telling jokes. It's an interesting way to introduce a central
character and ensures that Almasa is not straightforward or easy to
like – she is too damaged. War does that, leaving no easy answers
or clear sides.
As the collection moves on, Almasa does change and,
to some extent, heal. Never escaping what has been done to her, her
past becomes a part of her. The awkward sense of release and the loss
that this brings is dramatised in The Ring on an Island, where
Almasa loses the ring her father once gave her:
Ever since I came
to Sweden, my fingers have normally been clenched … That evening, I
was relaxed and it slipped down into the flowers that grew from a
little turf there. I must have been amazed by something. In The
Missing, she is able to find temporary relief from the haunted
bleakness of her Stockholm flat in the female community of Aziza's
home – where news from Srebrenica finally lays some other ghosts to
rest. The collection ends with the sexual frankness of The Name.
It would be facile to describe this as any sort of happy ending,
but it is a transformation and like most is neither painless nor
journey is echoed by the fact that nearly all the stories here are
meditations on distance – from here to there across mainland
Europe, where boundaries are defined by words and subject to change.
And from then to now – when everything was different. They also
look at male and female – how the violence of the Bosnian war
affected men and women differently.
Looked So Cheerful – one of the few non-Almasa stories –
adopts a male, first-person narrator and an elliptical style of
conveying information. I suspect that this is not because Mahmutović
is trying to be mysterious, but rather because this was the
experience of learning news during the war.
Rumour was the only
free-floating medium in those days. But rumour was a living thing,
and volatile … One day it tells us they are all dead, that the door
on their house was nailed before it was set on fire. Another time,
that they escaped to the free zone in the south, through a forest
stories remind us of the reality of things that it might be easy or
preferable to forget. But they do not merely memorialise a terrible
moment in history. By returning over and over again to the character
of Almasa – from a traumatised victim fleeing her homeland, to the
calmer lacuna of life in the refugee camp, to building a new life in
an adopted country – he gives us different snapshots of the same
character to show how the legacy of war changes those who survive it.
Yet at the same time, by returning to Almasa's continuing life,
Mahmutović shows us that she is more than simply a rape victim, or a
female refugee or any of the other easy labels she might attract. She
is a character who continues to evolve and, ultimately, to be more
than the things that have been done to her.