Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Review: The Stone Fields

The Stone Fields
Courtney Angela Brkic

Politika Je Kurva!
Alas, those are the wise words (which translate to: Politics is a whore) of one of Courtney Angela Brkic's elderly relatives in her memoir/family history of life in Bosnia in "An Epitaph For The Living."

The book weaves together two seperate stories, through alternating chapters, the first is that of Courtney's experience helping to exhume and indentify the bodies of Eastern Bosnia; the second is the story of Courtney's Bosnian-Croat Grandmother, her youth spent in Herzegovina and her experiences with her Jewish lover in World War II era Sarajevo.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is little attempt to blend the stories together. In other words, one can read only the part about Courtney's current experiences, or only the part about her Grandmother's experience, and not feel as if they have "missed" anything.

I felt quality of the two stories also differed. The story of Courtney's Grandmother, a village girl in Herzegovina, who marries a young village boy and lives a very traditional village life; until one day, her husband dies prematurely; is much more tightly woven, concise and organized. It may also be because there is a strong narrative thread in the story. Her Grandmother is fully fleshed out, and we watch her struggle to be a single mother to her two young sons, move from her village to Sarajevo, and fall in love with a Jewish man. Something, given the Anti-Semetism that was ingrained into her village life, must have been somewhat unusual.
We also meet Courtney's Great Aunts, including one who is married to a high ranking Ustasha Officer, and teaches her nephews some Anti-Semetic ditties. This of course brings up a question that has confounded and will continue to confound psychiatrists for years, how do two people, who are raised in the same household, have the same influences growing up, and are treated the same way, end up so very differently?
I suspect the question, like the proverbial "nature v. nuture" debate will always be debated. And Brkic's book gives compelling anecdotal evidence to two sisters whose view on the world, or at least towards Bosnia's Jews are as different as night and day.

The "other" half of the book talks about Courtney and her experiences in Bosnia. The narrative is much less controlled and more free flowing, almost like a crazy quilt in places. Most of it describes Courtney' work exhuming bodies, but we also get her memories of visiting in Bosnian and Croatian relatives as a child (she was born and grew up in the US). Her experiences with her Croatian boyfriend, and her visits and caretake of some of her elderly relatives.
The "war" section of the book, although it is heavily featured on the inside jacket flap description of the book, is strangely "empty" throughout the book. Some of it deals with her relationship with her collegues (and you know you've read way too many books on Bosnia when you recognize the names of the forensic pathologists from book to book!). The most poignant story is that of a teen who works for the processing labatory in Tuzla, where he gingerly helps remove items from the victims' corpses. Despite the putrid smell associated with working with decaying bodies, he does his work without complaint. The local helpers do not know from what atrocity the bodies have come from (The bodies are from the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre). Courtney finds out that the young man's father went "missing" early in the war, and that he is searching for his father's body. Courtney painfully describes watching the young man working in the Morgue, never complaining about the work, being overly observant. It is that single image, that makes the narrative about her work in exhuming bodies powerful, even if the rest of the narrative is surprisingly weak. Breaking protocal, Courtney tells the young man that the bodies are from Srebrenica, therefore his father is not amongst the dead that are being exhumed. Yet that powerful singular anecdote has a let down, there is no follow up. We don't know, does he continue his work at the Morgue, now that he no longer has his "purpose" for working there? Does he ever find out what happened to his dad? Instead that narrative thread is just dropped. It is frusterating, because in that one page description, I (and I suspect others did to) began to care about the kid, only to have him "disappear" from the book.

Although most of the war narrative talks about her relationship with the other international workers, where they at times the sit around and compare atrocities with one another (Bosnia was bad, but not like Rwanda); there is also a few descriptions of the politics involved as well. One would hope that the sacred and important task of digging up bodies would be far removed the petty and brutal demands of politics, but alas that is not so. In fact, exhuming bodies. especially in the context of the Bosnian war is a very politicized process. No where is that more acute than in Srebrenica. According to Brkic in other cases the families are allowed to watch the exhumination of their loved ones. Yet, in the Srebrenica case, mostly for "political" reasons-namely some of the local Bosnian Serbs who are hired to help with the digging, they are not. Therefore, the families already victimized by being forced out of their villages and having their husbands killed, are victimzed again. It is just one example of how politics and pandering have overtaken the practice of exhuming bodies. Politika je kurva indeed!

Yet,the most memorable, haunting, image of the entire book has nothing to do with politics, war crimes, ethnic groups or any of that artificial barrier that we put up around ourselves. It was Courtney telling about her very elderly great aunt, now imobilized in her bed, unable to go to the bathroom or take a bath on her own. Courtney is visiting and is helping to take care of her. Struggling to hold on to some dignity, in a situation where she is rendered as helpless as a newborn, she covers up her naked body with hands, in hopes of preserving her modesty, as she allows Courtney to care for her. The situation, of being helpless, of taking care of one's family-is universal. As corny as it sounds, it shows our common humanity, and how in the end, regardless of our ethnic or religious background, we are all equally helpless yet at the sametime, equally capable of taking care of others.

Overall, I wish the story had more structure. While, as I mentioned before, her Grandmother's tale follows a very traditional narrative structure; the other tale, Courtney's tale is much more disjointed. There are some very touching anecdotes here and there, as I mentioned above, but over all one gets the feeling as if she is trying to cram in too much, history, past, present, political, personal, historical, biography, autobiography into one book. Nevertheless, there are many beautiful and haunting moments in this book.


Owen said...

It's disappointing when you feel the author has missed the opportunity to give you valuable information or insights. Maybe more pro-active editing would have helped.

It's an extraordinary profession and - as your comments point out - in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Guatemala one that's exercised in an environment heavily influenced by political and security considerations.

I've heard Ewa Klonowska speak. She's an intense thoughtful woman who commands respect. Her grandfather's body was exhumed from the Katyn Forest mass grave. There's an article by Paul Reynolds about her at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4669125.stm

Shaina said...

Thanks for the article, no doubt having her grandfather a victim of the Katyn Forest massacre probably makes her even more aware at just how important the task of recovering the bodies and giving them back to their families are.

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