by Adnan Mahmutović

Refugee Books
First Collection

"Her 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

I 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.

These 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.

The 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 easy.

Almasa's 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.

She 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 corridor.
Mahmutović's 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.


Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson's short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and pulp.net, among others. She is currently working on a radio play for the BBC.
Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"

Tom Bissell "God Lives in St Petersburg"

Nora Nadjarian "Ledra Street"

Andrew McNabb "The Body of This"

Willa Cather "The Bohemian Girl"

Deborah Sheldon "All the Little Things That We Lose"

Alta Ifland "Elegy for a Fabulous World"

Paul Magrs "Twelve Stories"

Jay Merill "God of the Pigeons"

"Lost in Translation: New Zealand Stories" edited by Marco Sonzogni

Polly Frost "With One Eye Open"
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Adnan Mahmutović is a Bosnian Swede who teaches English literature at Stockholm University in the daytime, and works with people with mental disorders at night. His other works include Thinner than a Hair, Washing and Illegitimate.

Read an interview with Adnan Mahmutovic