Igor Štiks – At the Sarajevo Market
“Writing is a losing game”, writes Bosnian author Igor Štiks, describing the conflicts of the protagonist from his second novel, Elijah's Chair. Štiks mentions that, while he was not personally involved in the Bosnian war (he left beforehand), he had been affected by it, and, one day in Paris, entirely without warning, had become convinced of the need to write about it. These writings would become Elijah's Chair, which has been translated into many languages and either won or was shortlisted for a number of awards. At the Sarajevo Market, taken from The Dalkey Archive Press anthology, Best European Fiction 2010, is an extract from this novel, though it reads as self-contained.
The Sarajevo Market of the title is understandable both as metaphor and reality. In the market, hawkers display their wares, which range from the ordinary (food, crockery, household goods, etc), to the increasingly astounding (exotic and rare works of literature, priceless works of art, furniture, statues, memories). Sarajevo has lost its ordinariness to the war, its sense of home and collective purpose.
...the noose is tightening. Soon they'll understand this, and then despair will set in. Maybe the looters, who profit from anarchy, who take things from abandoned apartments, already sense or know this. Wouldn't the old owners – refugees now somewhere outside Bosnia, or else on the enemy side – be shocked to see what low prices their stuff is selling for in today's wartime marketplace.
Among the treasures and the trash of Sarajevo is literature, a cacophony of it, uncollected, the names and titles pressing haphazardly against one another. One market seller has priced his books at a Deutschmark each, while teenagers sell a first Gallimard edition of Malraux's La Condition humaine, an old volume of Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie générale, and Enzo Strecci's songbook. They sell these books for food, of course, or perhaps fuel, or even the possibility of shelter – books, no matter their worth, their rarity, their peace-time value, cannot be eaten or slept underneath. Štiks' narrator's obsession with literature, particularly the esoteric and lost, indicates the author's frustration with literature in the face of war, and also its potential for personal rehabilitation.
He is disturbed by the fleeing of possessions that the market indicates. According to the narrator,
Cities inscribe their history on walls and in objects, not in the unreliable and corrupt memories of their citizens.
It is the accumulation that matters, the detritus and the knick-knacks and the collections of life and living. This steady outflow of things is what is really killing the heart of Sarajevo, not the deaths of its citizens.
Soon the narrator's girlfriend, Alma, finds a piece of jewellery.
[Alma] shows me a pocket watch on a chain. On the lid is an engraved picture of a girl next to a man in some bucolic spot...On the inside of the lid it said, in German “Dear Rudi, with every second the war comes closer to its end, and we to each other. Your Teresa, Prague, 1914.”
Here the story becomes sad and melancholy, and joyous and life-affirming. They take turns imagining the outcomes of Rudi and Teresa's life, aware that, if they were, then, in Prague, and the pocket watch is being sold in Sarajevo, then perhaps love did not in fact survive the 'close to ending' war in 1914. Their stories are alternately bitter and sweet, with dashes of both in each one – though they are careful never to kill the characters in the wars. Strangely, both Alma and the narrator are proud of this, as though to have their (mostly) imaginary characters killed would be too negative, that keeping them alive in their stories means that they themselves still have an essential spark work keeping alive.
At the Sarajevo Market is a sweet and sad tale that relates in an oblique fashion the effects of the Bosnian War, and more concretely the effects of all wars. The ending, which has not been revealed, is rather sweet and sad as well, and fits the story neatly. Štiks is a talented writer, able to convey melancholy without melodrama, and happiness without ecstasy.
At the Sarajevo Market by Igor Štiks is a short story from The Dalkey Archive Press’ publication, Best European Fiction 2010 (edited by Aleksander Hemon). This review is part of a series intending to examine each story from the collection, in an effort to broaden awareness of both the project itself, and the excellent array of authors contained within.
Other titles by Štiks under review include:
---A Castle in Romagna
Other titles under review from the Best European Fiction 2010 anthology include:
---Belgium: Toussaint, Jean-Phillipe - Zidane's Melancholy
---Bulgarian: Gospodinov, Georgi - And All Turned Moon
---Croatian: Ušumović, Neven – Vereš
---Danish: Aidt, Naja Marie - Bulbjerg
---Estonian: Viiding, Elo - Foreign Women
---French: Montalbetti, Christine - Hotel Komaba Eminence (With Haruki Murakami)
---Hungarian: Konrád, György - Jeremiah's Terrible Tale
---Icelandic: Bragi, Steinar - The Sky Over Thingvellir
---Italian: Mozzi, Guilio - Carlo Doesn't Know How to Read
List of title published by The Dalkey Archive Pressunder review