Jasna Šamić, born 1949 in Sarajevo, writes poetry, novels, short stories, essays, and theatre plays in both Bosnian and French. She studied oriental languages and literatures (Turkish, Arabic and Persian) at the University of Sarajevo and wrote her postgraduate thesis in General Linguistics and Turkology, obtaining her PhD in 1977. She continued her studies at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle where she completed her Doctorat d’ Etatès Lettres on Sufism and History in 1984.
Šamić has won numerous prises for her writing, among others the Stendhal French Literary Prize (Lauréate du programme Missions Stendhal) in 2008, the Gauchez-Pillippot Literary Prize in 2014, and the Fundations of Bosnian Publishers’ Award. From 1977 she was living between Sarajevo and Paris, mostly in Paris since the war in the Balkans, and is now a freelance writer.
The Countries of Wandering Souls
THREE WOMEN AND ONE LONG CENTURY
Nobody wander without reason
Einstein believed that the world would not be destroyed by human crimes, but by people who would observe these crimes, and would do nothing to stop them.
On a TV broadcast I heard that there were two million empty apartments in Paris, which served manipulators from the entire planet for their speculations!
It is a sad picture of modern Paris where Alyosha and I definitely settled in the 1990s, an image that does not stop haunting me.
Beauty is a riddle, Dostoevsky wrote, convinced that it was saving the world. Was he right? I am at the age when everything is called into question, when all is reviewed and relativized, until you feel dizzy.
What to say about ugliness and barbarity? Are these also riddles? Or about evil? The evil has always awoken dark and confused feelings in me. Probably the best is: not to try to understand this phenomenon.
I note the words of nowadays philosopher in my notebook, thinking of Alyosha, but also of his family. When I say “his family”, I have on my mind three women who left their testimonies, written in a mixture of memoirs, intimate diaries and letters sent to Alyosha. Living in the era that the Westerners denote by the term the “long century” they found themselves at one point in the maelstrom of history. Their stories are both different and similar, like so many other fates inundated with blood.
The truth is that Alyosha works a lot and suffers a lot, but for me it has became annoying to attend every evening the ceremonial drinking of cheap wine, mixed with Coca-Cola, wrapped with the same cheap beer, with a powerful smell, as the last Balkan drunkard. When I met him for the first time – the whole eternity since then – he looked like a Chekhov’s hero, endowed with the same Russian, aristocratic elegance and noble laziness, which have the author’s heroes. He was one of the most elegant young men in our city! In fact, it reminds me of some of my favourite writers, as if he had just popped up from Platonov, not just because of his sentence: “Drink or not drink, we will surely die! So, let’s drink! »
He, however, does not consider himself an alcohol addict. To my remark that “people are not alcoholics because they drink, but drink because they are alcoholics”, he says it is a non-witty game of words. And then he gives me documents, which he found after the death of his relatives, and that he, who is very muddled and messy, carefully classified.
I knew only episodes from the lives of these women earlier, but then, very young, I did not get deeper into their fates, even not into Alyosha’s fate, which was part of their lives. I did not pay attention to his suffering, which was also the result of their suffering. At that time, our lips, full of freshness, were obsessing me, and, by joining them, all thoughts from the head were erased; it was the time “when we were making one body with our city”.
After reading hundreds of pages of testimonies from these women, I decided to tell, as short as possible, their stories. It is my desire, first of all, to raise the veil of the mystery that they are wrapped around by, and to clarify the riddles of their own, and therefore Alyosha’s life, and then to leave a trace about it to our son in a language that he will understand as an foreigner, born in a country that is strange to me and Alyosha. Let him know the truth, which I have recently discovered.
Today, after studying a number of letters, diaries, memories, birth certificates and deaths that swept through my arms, everything looks like Ninth Wave by Ivazovsky.
I feel that I myself have become a detainee of a great enigma. “Like a feather dipped in an obscure mixture of memories”, I seek confirmation for my own act:
The peace that gives me this job (…) lies in the fact that here and only here, in the silence characteristic of the painter and writer, reality can again be created and can find the true meaning.
Although from the perspective of the eternity, everything is hopeless, as Danilo Kish says.
Elizaveta Nikolaevna Kazanskaya
The seventies of the 20th century
Snow covered the city when Elizaveta decided to write something about her life. Through the fogged window, she was watching the snowflakes falling lazily, while the neighboring hills turned into artistic canvas of a naive painter. The day also was falling. In a few moments, hills and houses would turn into a gem.
Her own image in the mirror scared her, reminding her of the other world that would soon become her only homeland. She had blue circles around her eyes, while her body became like a bag of broken bones. Her hand stiffened by the swollen veins trembled above the paper on which the pen was slipping, making the manuscript difficult to read.
In her notes, Elizaveta wanted to talk about her childhood, her father, and her family, but also to remember towns where she had lived. Her style was sometimes simple and sometimes quite pleasant, while the whole story was rather nostalgic. Her past seemed sometimes like travelling in the opposite direction, sometimes as open wound, while her days, – those which reminded her – looked like the cry of a drowning man who was grasping for a straw: memories!
Misfortune had struck her as she was reading Kreutzer’s sonata. Right leg, which was folded under the left, suddenly stiffened by spasm, what Elizaveta realized only when she tried to lift it. As a foreign object that no longer belonged to her, it hung and swung in the air. She lost consciousness and fell.
When she woke up at the hospital, they told her that she broke her hip. Since she could not undergo surgery due to sick heart, she was forced to stay chained to the bed and to wait for what she did not dare to name.
She will probably never go to the downtown market, never go to the city’s bazaars! The children of the Ferhadija street, where she used to live, will no longer laugh at her large, broad-brimmed hats, shouting behind her: Šeširdžija! local name of a character from Alice in Wonderland, to laugh at these ladies who still weared hats in Sarajevo. They will no longer throw stones against her old-fashioned outfit.
Her desire to see the forests of her native Russia is nothing but a barren dream.
They taught me what it meant to say goodbye, in unbreakable nights filled with cry…
Farewell – who can say, saying this word, that it means an irrevocable separation?
Elizaveta noted poems by Russian writers that she loved all along her life, but also her own poems. When the physical pain invaded her, everything was vanishing around her. Mostly locked up in this dead end tunnel, she also knew moments of respite, and the memories resumed.
Like swans on the icy river,
Float my images of yesteryears,
Memories glide and murmur
Moscow, Saint Peterbourg, Kazan,
On my death bed
The accordion moans and the night vibrates under its notes
The pristine snow covers my cities with familiar warmth
Flakes like sparrows fly towards my window
Like the bell of the Kremlin rings the whiteness
The violin song melts in the icy wind
While the fire feet of a gypsy girl
Covered with ruffles
Tambourine on the snowy place
Late 19th and early 20th centuries
On life one can only write with a feather
soaked in tears.
Elizaveta – whom her family called Liza – was born in Omsk, Siberia, in the end of the 19th century, when the roses of the garden begin to close their petals, where everything, sky and garden, shines at dusk. This was the time when the date of birth did not matter.
Her father worked in this area after studying law in Saint Petersburg. Liza did not keep any souvenirs of this place. Her city has always been Kazan.
The old district of Kazan was “a huge pearl set between the hills where are scattered temples of all religions, while around Kazan extend forests, as dense and dark as the nights of Sarajevo”! Guessing from her bed the Seven Forests – the name of a Sarajevo neighborhood, suspended on a hill – she saw the nature around her Russian city, and more than nostalgia, it was her deep love, the Russian love.
The image of a horse-drawn two-wheeled car parked in front of Ivan’s Monastery also resurfaced; close to it, in front of a small chapel, peasants, dressed in long Russian shirts, and kneeling women, scarves covering their heads, were absorbed in long prayers. The Tatar mosque remembered the Magribija mosque of Sarajevo, where the little minaret looked like a chimney. In the Voskrsenskaya ulitsa, cavalry officers passed fast, ladies passed in their carriages, and there were also some servants carrying baskets filled with food. Sometimes the river got out of bed and turned the houses into islands, only accessible by boat.
Kazan was the birthplace of her father, as well as her grandfather, a city where both served as judges, and where most of her twelve brothers and sisters were born.
Her father, Nikolai Sergeyevich Kazanski, met her mother during a boat trip across the waters separating Russia from the country of hundred thousand lakes, as he called Finland. She gave birth to all her children at home, assisted by their nanny, Katia, but it was the peasant women who offered them their breasts. (…) Yulia became her Russian name, but Nikolai Sergeyevich called her Hamina, named after a city in her former country. In her spoken Russian, Liza’s mother kept a special accent, and never really mastered Tolstoy’s language.
Was it the reason that made her write her memories in French, although she finished them in Russian?
Their Kazan house included many rooms. One of them served as office for Liza’s father. The mother, Yulia, who did not have her own room, wandered all day from the living room to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the living room, столовая (stalovaja), from the living room to the kladovaya (the storeroom, where fresh food is kept). She never spoke to her children in Finnish, did not evoke her parents, and rarely sang the melodies of her childhood. As an amusement, she sometimes recited regions of her homeland, which Liza and her father found poetical. It was not surprising that Nikolai Sergeyevich called his wife sometimes my Karelia, sometimes my Kotka, or Hanko, or Kuopio, Saimaa, not forgetting to joke that Hamina was the most beautiful Russian name.
Before settling permanently in Kazan, Liza’s parents lived in Saint Petersburg, a city that Yulia liked as soon as she saw it from the ship. (Liza also admired this city and wanted to say a few words about it, but all she wrote in her notebook was that since the October Revolution, the city was named Leningrad, by the name of the Demon Ulyanov, who, she will call like that until the end of her days.) Yulia, alias Hamina, had blond hair like bleached, a complexion as white as the Russian mountains in winter, and the hard look. Small and thin, she was a « quarter of a woman ». As a child, Liza was indifferent to her intimate thoughts, not even close to her. In her hospital bed, she tried to figure out her mother’s life.
Did she believe that it was her duty to give birth to children so that life, above all that of men would be prolonged? If it was so, it was not very original, because it was the fate of so many other Russian women. Did she worry about her home country? False question! The important thing was that girls find a good match to get married.
As if to reassure her, smiling, his father was whispering to Liza (in order the others could not hear?): “Our family is not decadent, we do not get married between cousins like other Russian families. Your mother, while a false Russian, brought fresh blood to our family, which is more precious to me than all the Russian princesses I had the opportunity to see when I was young. If, however, we refer to the historical facts, if we look closely at our History, we will say that the Finns, without being Slavic, are more Russian than other inhabitants. The Russian word comes from Finnish and refers to the Scandinavians from the south of the Baltic.”
In this “humorous” way, her father commented on “their family genealogy”. But in this way of seeing History, there was also some pride, or a kind of this famous Russian superiority what Liza would realize much later. (…)
Her life in Russia, especially the Kazan period – or this dream, as she called it in her memories – was imposed on her by tradition: a rich childhood, in an environment of culture, where music and literature – their literature and their Russian classical music – held a prominent place. It was a lifestyle of what is called a large Russian family that was not very prone to reflection and deepening.
Sarajevo often reminded her of her seven-hill town, as it was equally undulating on green waves that stretched as far as the eye could see, but Kazan was much larger. In fact, the Miljacka River that cuts Sarajevo in two is not a dwarf, but an earthworm, compared to the Volga and even the Kazanka, both of which cross the city of Kazan.
Whether we like it or not, we all come from our childhood as we come from our country. Motionless in her Kosevo hospital bed in Sarajevo, Liza was convinced of it.
Sitting in the Troika with her brothers and sisters, she listened to the screeching of the snow under the sleigh and the tinkling of the horses’ bells:
We are covers up in fur blankets, hands slipped into sleeves, sled to Malmyj, south of Kazan, where we spend holidays in our dacha. The fir trees and pines look like long white candles, making the sky invisible. The path is like a thread that stretches to infinity. Finally, Malmyj appears to us like a huge snowball. Our estate is shining under the whiteness; our servants already warmed our house. We rush to the hearth. My favorite cat, Mourka, sleeps on the top of the stove and purrs. We stall goose grease on our faces, so that they do not crack in red patches like cracked dry earth, we pour ourselves some samovar tea where the water has boiled for a long time, and then, like our peasants, we climb on the stove alongside our cats. Through the misty windows where the frost has drawn crystal flowers, I see our peasants coming out of the chimneys to leave their houses, literally buried under these tall white tombs.
I take out my textbook, Dobroe slovo. To learn the letter “k”, I read: “Elena kataet kuklu”, Elena walks with her doll. (…)
Translated by Jasna Šamić