Saturday, 18 October 2014

Who Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature These Days?


The hiatus is over. After two years of awarding the Nobel  Prize for Literature to non-Europeans, the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature is awarded to an European; a Frenchman. Quelle surprise!

The Nobel Prize went to a cuddly Chinese, Mo Yan, in 2012, who was derided by some as an apologist or a puppet of the dictatorial Chinese regime; therefore, presumably, not worthy of the award, which, in the years bygone, was awarded to such luminaries as the Nazi apologist Knut Hamsun. Herta Muller, the 2009 Nobel Laureate, was moved to publically declare that she felt like crying when she heard that Mo Yan had won the award (not because she had anything to say—at least not in the interview she gave—about the literary merits or lack thereof of Mo Yan’s novels, but because of his political leanings; that Mo Yan was not outraged enough (or not at all)  to publically express his outrage of the outrage of the Tiananmen Square in 1989, which outraged many Western intellectuals—and avoided certain incarceration, was unacceptable). One hoped that the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan helped Muller to sympathize with many in Rumania, the country of Muller’s birth, who no doubt felt like crying when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for what many in that country regarded as her unreadable paranoid rants against the Communist regime which she passed off as fiction (her rants, that is; not the Communist regime, which was very real). In 2013 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Alice Munro, a short story writer of meagre talents who elevated monotony to the level of art. The menu of your local Tandoori will have more variety than Munro’s short stories.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded to one Patrick Modiano. Why was Modiano awarded the Swedish award?  According to the press-release by the Swedish academy, Modanio got the Nobel

for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”.

What in the name of Allah does this mean? Art of memory   . . . most ungraspable human destinies . . . life-world of occupation . . . Who writes such lines? Does the Swedish academy employ someone on the verge of thought disorder (or has taken long distance course in writing like a patronizing tw*t) to do the press releases? If you search through the entire awful vocabulary of clichés, you’d struggle to come up with something as nonsensical as this.

When I first read this I interpreted “occupation” as activities people do to earn their daily living, to keep themselves occupied etcetera. I was wrong. “Occupation” , here, refers to the occupation of France by Germany during the Second World War. An understandable mistake, you will agree, I hope, if you have not read anything by Modnio, or, for that matter, never heard of him until the Nobel committee decided to confer upon him the award, using barely decipherable language.

An article in The Guardian (after Modanio won the award) informed that Modanio delights in mystifying his readers. Is it a short-hand for wooly writing? I wouldn’t know. As I said, I have not read any of Modanio’s novels.

What might increase your chances, these days, of being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Firstly it will help you enormously if you were European or Scandinavian. A glance at the Nobel Laureates in the past twenty years will show that 13 were European (including British & Irish). Of the remaining seven, one is Turkish (Orhan Pamuk), another is Naturalized British of Indian descent who was born in the Caribbean (V.S. Naipaul), while a third one is naturalized French of Chinese descent (Gao Xingjian). Kenzaburo Oe (1994) who is Japanese; J.M. Coetzee (2003), who is South African; Mo Yan (2012), a Chinese; and Alice Munro (2013), who is Canadian, are the only authors in the last twenty years to have won the Nobel, who can be said to have no European connection.

Have you heard of J.M.G. Le Clezio? I thought not. He won the Nobel in 2008. He is the author of “new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy”. He is the “explorer of the humanity beyond and below [but not above or sideways] the reigning civilization”. I bought, on an impulse, three books of the “author of new departures”, hoping to find the promised sensual ecstasy. I am sorry to say that I couldn’t find it despite using the most powerful microscope, in the only novel of Le Clezio (his debut novel) I have read till date. Would I find it in the other two novels which I bought? Possibly, but I am not going to risk it. I am thinking of flogging the novels on the Amazon. 

Herta Muller, who won the Nobel the year after Le Clezio, is a writer “who with the concentration of poetry and frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”  (What is “concentration of poetry”?) The two novels of Muller which I have read (one of which I have reviewed on this blog) were almost as unreadable as those of Le Cleizo, but less abstruse in their themes. Muller is a writer (both the novels dealt with the plight of ethnic German in Communist Rumania after the Second World War, so Muller does write about the dispossessed) who takes boredom to unheard of levels. This is a writer who will give you an eye-witness account of the Crucifixion and can still put you to sleep. 

Imre Kertezsz, who won the award in 2003 has had a 3-4 of his novels translated into English, of which I have read a couple. Fateless, Kertesz’s autobiographical work of fiction (? A fictional memoir) was outstanding, but the next one I read, Kaddish for an Unborn Child where an unnamed narrator explains why he chose never to have children was a masterclass in abject misery and self-pity. When you finally reach the end of this 80-odd pages novella, the only reason you don’t strangle the moaning whingeing, self-obsessed narrator is because you are too  exhausted by the ponderous style (either of the translator or Kertesz) to do anything other than totter into a dark room and wash down some paracetamol with Jack Daniel's and lie down for the next five hours.

This brings me to the second criterion. In addition to having some connection to Europe, you must make efforts to write on subjects no one is interested in, and in a style that is a cure for treatment resistant insomnia. Your novels cannot, under any circumstances, be accused of having a story or a narrative structure.

The third, and most important, criterion is that you are not allowed to be American. If you are an American novelist hoping to be considered for the Nobel, just forget it. It’s not gonna happen, at least not any time soon. The last American to win the Nobel was Toni Morrison, who won the award in 1993. There were those who thought Updike ought to have been awarded the Nobel. Well he wasn't. The trouble with Updike was that for the best part of his career he wrote novels that were accessible, enjoyable, and which people took the trouble to read. He tried to make up for this shortcoming by writing a series of novels, in the later part of his writing career, which were about nothing in particular and not particularly easy to read. But that was not good enough (too little, too late); he was never going to be on par with the likes of Le Cleizo and Muller. Not surprising, really; you can’t expect a toaster, after a life-time of making crunchy toasts, to become a washing machine; it might try, and you might applaud the effort; but it is not going to be good at it.  Updike died unawarded.

These days I read, from time to time, how Philip Roth is thought by many (mostly Americans) to be a worthy Nobel winner, and how it is a shame that he continues to be ignored. Well Roth is not European; so tough luck. He also suffers from the fatal flaw of having written countless novels which were funny, extremely readable, thought provoking, and, mostly, of high quality. He might consider (like Updike) changing his writing style and attempt writing something that would inspire the hacks at the Nobel committee to describe his writing as something that depicts the universality of myth (richly and inventively, I hasten to add), imbued with poetic intensity, and showing deep awareness of the human condition. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. (Indeed Roth has declared that he is through with writing novels. Nemesis, his 2009 novel is going to be his last novel, Roth has announced.) And, as a Philip Roth fan, I would not have wanted him to do it anyway. Would you ask your favourite chef who specializes in making mouth-watering, succulent, rich (and fattening)) roast beef to make a tofu dish, which, nutritional it might be, will have the taste and texture of office furniture?


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Book of the Month: Flight Behaviour (Barbara Kingsolver)


Climate change is the leitmotif of Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel, Flight Behaviour.

When the novel opens we meet Dellarobia Turnbow, its feisty heroine, walking up the pasture behind her house in Southern Appalachia. Dellarobia is a Southerner, born and bred in Appalachians. She is married into a sheep farming family, and has lived with her husband Burley junior—Cub—Turnbow, and their two children—Preston and Cordelia—on the family farm, with her parents-in-law, Hester and Burley senior (appropriately called Bear), living a stone’s throw away. (Dellarobia is in no doubt that her stern, austere and church-going mother-in-law has never warmed up to her.) Life, it would be fair to say, has not exactly been a bed of roses for Dellarobia. Born into a poor family she falls pregnant when she is seventeen. Giving up her ambitions for college education Dellarobia marries Cub (the culprit), and has spent ten years on the farm owned by her parents-in-law. Cub, the only child of his parents, has neither the intellectual wherewithal nor the initiative to strike it out on his own, and is uncomplaining about being treated as a glorified liegeman by his parents. “Bear” is a ship- farmer. He also runs a business of farmyard equipments, while “Cub”, helps his father out, and in his spare time works for a gravel delivery firm as a manual labourer. The Turnbow family, in other words, is a poor Southern family that is not acquainted (or interested in) matters of wider culture or debates; for example, climate change. Stifled, unhappy, disenchanted and adrift, Dellarobia seeks escape from the daily drudgery by seeking out affairs. She has committed mental adultery—falling of the marriage wagon, if only in mind, as she puts it—on a few occasions. And now she has taken the inevitable next step: she has allowed herself to be flattered by the attentions compliments paid to her by a much younger man, a “telephone man” (whose interest in her lies strictly south of he border), and is trudging up the mountain to a secret spot for a secret tryst with the man, knowing fully well that she is risking everything on an impulse; that the affair would be unlikely to remain a secret in the small town, and spell the end of her marriage and ruin her reputation. Is it, then, a stroke of good fortune Dellarobia does not reach her rendezvous? As she is walking up the mountain path Dellarobia notices that brownish clumps, like fungus, are hanging from the branches of the fir trees in the forest; the branches themselves seem alive and writhing. When the path reaches an overlook and Dellarobia looks across the valley to the mountainside in front of her, the landscape suddenly intensifies and brightens, as if the forest is “ablaze with its own internal flames”. The spectacle is strangely moving and fills Dellarobia with an inner joy. She abandons her plans of meeting the telephone man and turns back.

What Dellarobia has mistaken for a forest fire are in fact millions and millions of Monarch butterflies, of unearthly beauty, with their glowing orange wings, who have come to rural Tennessee, instead of Mexico, their customary home for the winter. And the area of the mountain range where the butterflies are clinging to the trunks and branches of the trees in their millions belongs to the Turnbows. Dellarobia does not mention what she has seen upon her return, being not sure what she has seen. She is nevertheless forced to cajole Cub to make a strand and insist that the family should at least have a look at what is happening in that part of the wood when Cub informs her that his father was thinking off logging off all the trees in the wood to a firm in order to pay the debts on his heavy machinery. Cub is also falling behind the mortgage payment on his house. That is when the family discovers that millions of butterflies are roosting in their part of the wood.

The discovery of the Monarch butterflies unleashes events no one in the Turnbow family could have imagined. For a start it catapults Dellarobia to a celebrity status. She is hailed in the local church, enthusiastically proposed by the credulous Cub and agreed (with different degrees of enthusiasm) by other parishioners, as a visionary. The sudden appearance of the Monarch butterflies in Appalachia attracts the usual suspects from different parts of America and world: the environmentalists, curious tourists, hippies, media, the scientists (and the Brits). Pressure begins to pile up on Bear Turnbow when the news leaks that he is planning to sell of the trees for logging which would mean certain death of the butterflies. The entomologist, the “Monarch specialist”, who turns up at the Turnbows’ doorstep with his assistants is one Ovid Byron (who, needless to say, is handsome, sexy, urbane, and, despite being all of this, is not at all condescending towards the Southern hicks; and on whom, needless to say, Dellarobia develops a crush the size of Texas). Different explanations are propagated to explain the sudden appearance of the Monarch butterflies in Appalachia. Why are they here? The general consensus is that whatever the reason behind the Monarchs giving up their natural winter habitat (in Mexico), it is a spectacle of indescribable beauty. Some are inclined to think that it is an act of god; others see an opportunity to develop the area as a tourist centre which would also help the ailing economy of the region. This is the angle exploited by the media who descend on Dellarobia with their questions and, later, edit her replies to suit their agenda. The scientists beg to differ. Ovid Byron and his boffins are unable to share the sunny view and see sinister portents in the arrival of the Monarchs. The Monarchs have flown into Appalachian woods (and possibly other parts of California), they contend, because their natural winter habitat, in Mexico, is no longer suitable because of rising temperatures. The cause? Climate change and deforestation. Far from being a beautiful act of God the flight behaviour of the monarchs is a harbinger of things to come. Byron employs Dellarobia in his makeshift lab as an assistant. The reader traces Dellarobia’s journey towards self-awareness and awareness of wider ecological issues, and her self-discovery. As the six hundred page novel comes to an end Dellarobia takes the inevitable step towards actualizing her potential.

As in Lacuna, her award winning 2009 novel, Kingsolver combines the quotidian with the wider issues confronting our planet with an ease that takes your breath away. The natural phenomena (which provide the ideological theme of the novel) are blended effortlessly with the experiences of the characters (which provide the backbone to the story). The plight of the monarchs, which, for reasons entirely beyond their control, find themselves where they are not supposed to be, is counterpoised superbly with the predicament of Dellarobia who is not at a place where she wants to be and, as adrift as the Monarchs, is searching for moorings. In Flight Behaviour Kingsolver takes on the still amazingly contentious issue of climate change and global warming (amazing because there should be no contention about it; the climate is changing and planet is heating up), and their devastating consequences for our planet. Kingsolver nails her colours to the mast straightaway. The reader is left in no doubt as to where her sympathies lie. Kingsolver does not pussyfoot; she is not mealy-mouthed; the time for subtleties has long since past; as Ovid Byron informs Dellarobia at one stage, the canary is dead. The message the novel delivers is loud and clear; and very persuasive. The wider issue of climate change is combined with the personal story of Dellarobia, which, clichéd and predictable it might be at times, is equally riveting. The poverty, the difficult life led by people in places like Feathertown (the setting of the novel), the limited life opportunities available to them, the patronizing and condescending way in which “the hicks” are often portrayed and viewed by the cognoscenti—it’s all depicted in a series of set-pieces, which, while they are a tad overlong at times (such as Dellarobia’s visit to a “dollarshop” where she is left open-mouthed at the cheap, second-hand tat on display), manage to be convincing and even funny at times. Slightly disappointingly, the ending appears a bit rushed. While the reader does not question the decision Dellarobia takes—indeed the reader may even will her to take that step—it is not explained how she finally plucks the courage to escape the life on the farm with a well-meaning, caring but dull and uninteresting husband.

Flight Behaviour is like a slowburn. The anger and the frustration of Dellarobia build up gradually, and, when Ovid Byron tells a vapid television presenter some hometruths about climate change, the reader fully shares his sense of anger and outrage. This is powerful writing.

One of the many pleasures of reading Flight Behaviour is its sumptuous prose, adorned with caustic wit and pithy observations. Kingsolver gives the reader an authentic feel of the regional language without resorting to writing in the dialect (like most of Faulkner novels, which would have made the experience excruciating for me). 

Flight Behaviour seems like a novel written primarily to disseminate a message of vital importance to our world. The message comes wrapped in an absorbing story-line which engrosses the reader slowly but completely.




Monday, 22 September 2014

Hilary Mantel's Plot to Assassinate Maggie Thatcher

There is a growing body of opinion, which is gaining momentum in the right wing press, that the double Booker Prize winning novelist, Hilary Mantel, has gone bonkers. There are those who are prepared to concede—never let it be said that the right wingers cannot be reasonable—that Mantel might still have some links with reality, but (imagine them nodding their heads sadly) the connection is faulty. Mental illness can strike anyone, and being a talented artist does not make you immune from succumbing (it’s a strange word, succumbing; it denotes that it is somehow the fault of the succumbee that they have succumbed, say, to cancer or to alcoholism; and only if they had the strength of the character, more will power, they would have seen the threat off) to mental conditions. Indeed some might argue that being a genius might even make you vulnerable to losing your mind. It is always sad when a once talented artist’s once talented mind disintegrates into lunacy, but these things happen. When the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung analysed James Joyce’s daughter when she was beginning to lose her marbles, Jung felt compelled to diagnose schizophrenia in not just her but also in her father. There was that mathematician—I forget his name; you know whom I mean; the one on whose life the Oscar winning film Beautiful Mind was based—who was an absolute genius and also a schizophrenic. Perhaps these things are related. (I should point out that the reverse is not necessarily true: just because you are a schizophrenic, you are not a genius.)

Is Hilary Mantel a genius? I think she is. And I say this not having read either of her Booker winning novels. A friend of mine told me that Wold Hall, Mantel’s 2009 Booker winner, was one of the worst books she had ever read. (My friend, that is, not Mantel. I do not know what Mantel thought of her own novel, but I doubt very much if she thinks it is one of the worst novels she has read, although I have also read that many authors choose not to read their own novels; so I don’t know.) She could not go beyond the first ten pages, apparently, my friend. However, since my friend’s literary appetite is more than adequately assuaged by the free Waitrose kitchen magazine, I am not sure that her withering verdict of Wolf Hall is necessarily a reflection on the quality of Mantel’s novel. Why do I think Mantel is a genius? I have based my verdict on two (non-Booker winning) novels of Mantel I have read, both of which, I thought, were superb.

So we agree that Mantel is a genius. This, we also agree, makes her more vulnerable to developing a mental illness than Mr. Shabuddhin, who owns a corner-shop round the corner from my flat. Mr. Shah (as he is known in the area) has not written any book to the best of my knowledge. He once told me that he had never read a book in his life, as he could not see the point, and considered the activity to be a waste of his time which he would rather spend in his shop. (Although I have not directly asked him, I don’t think Mr. Shah would consider himself a genius. While there are downsides of not being a genius, if it protects you from going mad, it has got to be regarded as a plus.)

In addition to Mantel’s (deserving) claim to being a genius, are there any other vulnerability factors that make Mantel more prone—than Mr.Shahabuddhin—to succumbing to mental illness? I have heard that those who go doolally are frequently remembered by their friends as always being a bit weird. Is Mantel weird? She might be. I have read a non-fiction book of Mantel entitled Giving Up the Ghost , which I thought was very readable; but I also remember thinking, when I finished it, that, no offence, but the woman was a bit weird. (Mantel describes in the book a childhood experience—which has stayed with her all her life—when she encountered evil in the back-garden of her house; and she is not talking metaphorically).
Who has diagnosed mental illness in Hilary Mantel? A chap called Timothy Bell—who is a Lord—is convinced that Mantel is a dangerous lunatic. Lord Bell—a friend and a former PR advisor to Margaret Thatcher, according to Independent (and to a number of disgraced celebrities, dodgy companies and third world dictators, according to another article in the Guardian) thinks that Mantel should (a) be investigated by the police and (b) see a therapist. Why is Lord Bell moved to suggest such drastic measures? Lord Bell’s (unsolicited) advice to the police (that they should investigate Mantel) and to Mantel (that she should see a therapist) is in response to a short story Mantel published on line in the Guardian this month, entitled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, which is one of the short-stories which will be published in a compilation at the end of the month (also titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher). The short story depicts a scene in which a Scouser (a bit of a regional stereotype here; why couldn’t the would-be assassin be from Berkshire?) enters the house of an ordinary woman whose kitchen window looks on to the back-garden of the hospital where Thatcher has come for a minor procedure on her eye. In an interview given to the Guardian Mantel admitted that she had a “boiling distaste” for Thatcher. The kernel of the story, she also revealed, occurred to her more than thirty years ago when she spotted an unguarded Margaret Thatcher from a window in Windsor and apparently thought that if she (Mantel) were someone else she (Thatcher) would be dead. (In other words Mantel lacked the guts to kill Thatcher or, like Gandhi, decided that violence does not solve anything.) So Thatcher survived (only to succumb to Alzheimer’s decades later, but not before she had brought ruination on working class communities); but it did not stop Mantel from fantasizing about murdering Thatcher, and she decided to sublimate her murderous instinct through the creative avenue open to her. She wrote a story. Mantel said that it took her more than thirty years to complete the story, a case of a very long writer’s block, although we can’t really say that, seeing as the woman published several novels (two of which went on to win the Booker) and non-fiction work in the intervening decades while she was wrestling with the technicalities of the story.

The right wing, Tory-loving, press has gone nuts after the Guardian published the story. Lord Bell felt—and he should know—that the story was “unquestionably in bad taste”.  Another Tory MP, Nadine Doris—who I believe has written a novel which she is flogging for 77 p or some such price on Amazon Kindle—is “gutted” and “shocked”.  Why? Because the publication of Mantel’s short story is so close to Thatcher’s death. Thatcher, Doris reminds Mantel, still has a living family. Doris concludes—to make this issue absolutely clear—that Mantel’s story has a character, Thatcher, whose demise is so recent.  (Would Doris have minded had Mantel waited for ten more years to publish this story? She had waited for thirty years already; would ten more years have been such a disaster?) Another Tory MP, someone called Stewart Jackson, is convinced that Mantel is a weirdo and her “death story” is “sick and deranged”. A Conservative activist called Tim Montgomery is disappointed that the Guardian chose to promote Mantel’s story full of hateful words about Mrs. Thatcher, his hero.

Is writing a short story about a recently diseased former prime minister of the country who—shall we say?—a divisive figure in the history of twentieth century British politics, in which the author depicts a scenario of the impending assassination of the said prime-minister suggestive of a mental illness in the author? Is it a criminal act? That depends, one would assume, on what is written. I read the short-story on line. Now I am no psychiatrist; neither am I columnist in a right wing, Labour-bashing broadsheet; nor a champagne swigging, minority-hating, homophobic Tory supporter; but Mantel’s short story struck me as a very well written piece with glimpses of Mantel’s trade-mark dark humour. You might accuse Mantel of bad taste or of sick mind but not of a criminal act that would have police arrive at your doorsteps with a search warrant for your mind, or social workers and psychiatrists wanting to put you on a community order unless you accepted antipsychotics. Mantel may be ideologically diseased and suffering from incurable hatred of Maggie Thatcher on the dubious grounds that Thatcher was a disaster for the country, but mad and a criminal? 

Everybody has a good and bad side. However, when one is judging a dead person, I see no good reason why only the best self-manifestations of the diseased should be the basis of the final judgement.

I am currently in the midst of writing a couple of short stories. The premise of the first one is as follows: David Cameron gets kidnapped by an army of cockroaches which tickles his privates with their hairy legs and giant antennae until he either agrees to recommend the cockroach-chief as the next leader of the Tory party, or dies of laughter-induced exhaustion. The second one, which is still in the conception phase, is an erotic fantasy revolving around the love affair between Teresa May and a giant cucumber.  However, I am worried now. I should perhaps wait until Cameron and May are six feet under for twenty years before I attempt to publish it.


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Book of the Month: The Betrayal (Helen Dunmore)


In 1952, an ageing and paranoid Joseph Stalin decided that it was time to put the doctors in Soviet Union to the sword. The deaths of high-positioned Soviet apparatchiks convinced Stalin that doctors were agents of the Western powers, out to assassinate Soviet leadership by poisoning it. (The truth, of course, was more prosaic. The men died from natural—and in some cases self-inflicted—reasons such as advanced alcoholism and heart failure; and nothing that the doctors could have done would have saved them.) The last grisly and gruesome episode of Stalin’s “terror” was unleashed, which ended, mercifully, after only a few months with his death.  Innocent doctors—several of them Jewish (Stalin was not anti-Semitic for religious reasons, but he considered Jews to be potential Fifth Elements), were arrested, and confessions were obtained from them by Stalin’s usual tactics (beat, beat, and beat some more). The numbers, initially small, quickly swelled up to hundreds.  Public opinion against the arrested doctors was mobilised; preposterous articles were published in Pravda about the “doctors’ plot”—uncovered by the vigilance of the loyal party members—designed to kill top Soviet leadership including Stalin himself. (The headline of the article, which set the tone of the article, was: “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians”). The idea was to build up public fervour, leading to show trials. The arrested doctors were lucky in comparison with the millions who perished in Stalin’s ‘terror’ of the 1930s (which probably inspired Mao Tse Tung’s “Cultural Revolution”  in the 1960s) because the dictator died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in March 1953. (According to Simon Sebag Montefiero’s excellent Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Stalin was alone in his study at night when he suffered a “cerebrovascular accident”, and his death was perhaps hastened because no medical help was immediately available.)  The new Soviet leadership quickly distanced itself from Stalin’s last, mostly pointless, act of vengeance. The trials—set to start in March 1953—were cancelled, and the doctors released.

The short-lasting episode against the Soviet doctors, in the last days of Stalin’s dictatorship, is the inspiration behind the Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore’s 2010 novel The Betrayal.
Dunmore, who won the inaugural (1996) Orange Prize for A Spell of Winter, enjoyed success of another sort with her 2001 novel The Siege which was commercial success. The Siege tells the story of the first (and the harshest) winter during the three-year siege of Leningrad by the Germans during the Second World War.

In The Betrayal we meet some of the characters in The Siege. It is almost ten years since the siege of Leningrad. Stalin, apparently immortal, is still ruling the Soviet Union. Andrei is a young paediatrician (with special interest in arthritic conditions) working in Leningrad’s hospital. His wife, Anna, works in a children’s nursery. Andrei and Anna live together with Anna’s younger brother, Kolya. We learn that Anna’s mother (also a physician) died in childbirth while her father, a writer and poet who fell out of favour in the 1930s and was ostracized (but was lucky enough not to have been sent to Siberia), died, together with Marina—a woman who probably became his partner after his wife’s death—, during the siege of Leningrad. Andrei and Anna are slowly building their lives from the wreckage of the Second World War, in Stalin’s Russia, taking care—as most under Soviet dictatorship did—not to do anything that would make them conspicuous. Then one day Andrei is approached by Russov, a highly positioned doctor in Andrei’s hospital, for a second opinion on a ten year old child who has been admitted with a swelling under his knee. The child is the son of a high ranking KGB officer named Volkov. Andrei senses a trap. Years of living under Stalin have taught Andrei that he should do his utmost to steer clear of anything that has to do with the party officials. He suspects that the child’s condition is potentially serious and Russov is trying to pass on the buck. Anna advises Andrei to call in off sick on the day he is supposed to see the boy. Andrei declines (did I forget to tell you that he is a conscientious doctor?) and examines the boy. His suspicions are confirmed. The child, he reckons, has a tumour growing on his bone. This is not his area of expertise at all and he decides to tell Russov who—Andrei knows—must have known this even before he asked Andrei for an opinion.  What the boy needs, Andrei thinks, is a good surgeon. However, any hopes Andrei might have had of wriggling out of the case are dashed when he is summoned to meet Volkov, the boy’s father. Volkov informs Andrei that his son has taken a liking for Andrei and he, Volkov, wants Andrei to be the doctor overall in charge of the case, never mind that he is not an expert in the field. Andrei recommends a biopsy of the swelling, which, he tells Volkov, is most probably a tumour. The biopsy is performed by a Jewish female surgeon called Brodskaya. The biopsy shows that the tumour is of a particularly malignant variety (called osteosarcoma) with poor prognosis. The only option which has a chance of saving the boy’s life is amputation of leg. Which is what Brodskaya—another conscientious, hard-working doctor—recommends. Andrei conveys the “expert opinion” to Volkov and suggests that in Leningrad Brodskaya is the best surgeon to carry out the operation (thus unwittingly doing to Brodskya what Russov did to him). Volkov is not happy. He is not happy that his son is going to lose his leg; and he is not happy that the surgeon who will carry out the operation is Jewish. In the end he agrees, threatening vaguely that there would be hell to pay if anything goes wrong. The operation is carried out; the boy is discharged; and Andrei thinks his ordeal is over. But it is not (we are only half-way through the novel). Within months the boy is back with symptoms that strongly suggest that the tumour, despite Brodskaya’s extensive surgery, has spread to lungs. The boy is going to die. Volkov is incandescent with rage. It is doctors’ fault; indeed it is more than just incompetence; it is a conspiracy, and the Jews are involved. His son is dying and the doctors will have to pay. Thus begins the nightmare for Andrei and Anna.  I shall not reveal how the plot develops for not wanting to give away too much, but anyone familiar with the “doctors’ plot” will have an idea the direction the novel is going to take.

The Betrayal is not an excessively complicated novel. Dunmore leaves the readers in no doubt as to which side she wants them to be on. It is a novel in which the characters are either black or they are white; there are no shades of grey. It is a battle between those who are beyond reproach and those who are ignorant, paranoid and vengeful. (Vulkov does show some promise at being more than just a two-dimensional, stereotypical KGB monster, but only fleetingly). Andrei and Anna are so perfect—hard-working, idealistic, conscientious, so very understanding of each other (Anna “understands” why Andrei would want to get involved with the Vulkov case even if that means trouble), and so much in love with each other—that you wish at times for them to have at least one good fight, or, failing that, unsatisfactory sex life; but no!, these two enjoy brilliant sex-life. The supporting cast of characters, like the protagonists of the novel, are neatly divided into good (Andrei and Anna’s friends) and weaselly (Russov who lands Andrei in trouble, and Maslov, the professor who refuses to stand by his protégée after Andrei’s fall from grace). As you read the novel, you do feel sorry for the plight of Andrei and Anna, but not excessively—and you feel guilty about it—because you find—there is no kinder way of saying this— them a bit dull.

The Betrayal is a novel of two halves. The first half of the novel is brilliantly paced. There is a sense of urgency and foreboding right from its first sentence (“It’s a fresh June morning without a trace of humidity, but Russov is sweating”) and the tension builds up from there on. Dunmore has done her research thoroughly (there is a page-long bibliography at the end of the novel and the reader is urged, in case he wants to know what other books Dunmore researched, to read the bibliography of The Siege) and she conveys superbly the atmosphere of oppression, suspicion, mistrust, and antagonism that many characters in the novel find themselves in the midst of, and which no doubt engulfed the Soviet society during Stalin’s dictatorship. The mindless drudgery, petty bureaucracy, and obsession of small-minded officials with numbers and statistics (which, they hope, will further their careers) that seem to have been endemic to many a Communist dictatorship, are described very drolly. The exhortations of Anna’s boss (at the children’s nursery) to collect more pointless data and deluge the mothers—tired by the daily grind of hard-work—with simplistic advice and information provide the only light relief in a novel which is grim almost till the end. 


By comparison, the second half of the novel drags a bit. As Dunmore describes, with obvious relish, Andrei’s ordeal in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow (where he is transferred), when he is interrogated, the reader can be excused for feeling a tad impatient, wanting to know how it all ends for him. While there is no doubt that the descriptions of Andrei’s torture in Lubyanka are authentic, they do tend to slow down what until then is an exquisitely paced novel. The end, when it comes, is a bit anti-climactic, but is probably in keeping with the resolution of the historical doctors’ plot. The ending also suggests that the reader shouldn’t at all be surprised if in due course a third novel featuring Andrei and Anna and their child(ren)—Anna gives birth to a daughter when Andrei is in prison— appears.


Thursday, 14 August 2014

Book of the Month: The Last Runaway (Tracey Chivalier)


The protagonist of Tracy Chivalier’s 2012 novel, The Last Runaway, is a twenty year old Quaker woman named Honor Bright.

The name of the protagonist and her Quaker background are clues as to the course of the heroine’s life in the novel. Whether Honor Bright is bright can be a matter of opinion; what cannot be doubted are her honourable intentions. The woman is more upright than Gandhi and more honourable Mother Teresa.

Jilted by her Quaker fiancé in England who decides to abandon not just Honor but his faith in order to marry a non-Quaker woman he has fallen in love with, Honor decides to leave the bad memories and the Quaker community of Bridport, Dorest behind, and travels with her more enterprising sister, Grace, who is set to go to Ohio, America to join her Quaker betrothed, an ex-neighbour of the Bright family. Upon reaching America Grace swiftly (and conveniently) pops her clogs and Adam Cox, the man who is set to marry Grace (and does not know of Grace’s death) ,is faced with Grace’s younger sister, who, he doesn’t know, has travelled with Grace to America. After spending a few awkward weeks in the Cox household—Abigail, Grace’s would be sister-in-law, recently widowed herself, and, as subsequent developments show, having marked Adam as a possible replacement for his dead brother, does not take kindly to the uninvited guest, possibly marking her as a rival—Honor, not keen at all on returning to England, although in her letters to her friend back in Bridport she moans endlessly about the brash Americans who lack subtlety, because of her horror of sea-sickness (!), marries into another Quaker family in the community, after making love with her would be husband, Jack Haymaker, in a cornfield (a very un-Quakerish behaviour, if you ask me, although I am no expert on the mores of the nineteenth century Quakers). Honor starts her new life with the Haymakers, with her husband, Jack; mother-in-law, Judith; and Jack's unmarried sister, Dorcas. At this stage Honor is faced with a moral dilemma that threatens to break her marriage (and which gives the novel its title). Soon after she reaches Ohio Honor becomes aware of the so called Underground Railroad, a network of liberal minded Americans who provide shelter and food to slaves who are escaping from South, towards freedom in Canada. Indeed soon after her arrival in America, while awaiting Adam Cox to fetch her, Honor spends a few days with a feisty alcoholic (no cause and effect relationship, here) named Belle Mills, who is heavily involved in the Underground Railroad. Her half-brother, Donavon, on the other hand, is an egg that is bad (and not even trying to be good). Donovan is a slave-catcher, and has the law on his side. Herein lies Honor’s moral dilemma. As a Quaker she is vehemently against slavery and wants to do what she can to help the escaping slaves who are passing through Ohio; at the same time, as a Quaker, she is also expected to obey the law. Her in-laws are in no doubt as to what course of action the family should follow: obey the law and steer clear of the runaway slaves. The slaves have obviously enough wits about them that brought them all the way from the South to Ohio; and the same wits would see them make their way to freedom in Canada. And if they get caught, well, it’s too bad, but what can anyone do about it? Honor Bright begs to differ. She wants to hide the slaves from Donavon, and give them water and such comestible as can be gathered. (Donavon seems to be the only slave-catcher in the area who, for reasons best known to him, has taken into his head that stalking the Quaker community, in particular the Haymakers, would greatly enhance his chances of catching slaves.) The situation in the Haymaker family is fast reaching what the hostage negotiators describe as impasse. Honor Bright refuses to back down, and, even though Jack has managed to put her bun in the oven, decides to leave the marital home to stay with Belle Mills. Belle is not best pleased with this development, not because she does not wish to share her alcoholic beverage (although that could be a reason; the recidivist alcoholics have been known to be notoriously selfish in these matters), but because she is worried that Honor's presence in her house might put her secret activities linked to Underground Railroad in jeopardy. And she is right. Donovan the rapscallion begins visiting his half-sister's house with worrying frequency, giving signals that are hard to miss (and ignore) that while he suspects Honor of harbouring sympathy for the runaway slaves he also finds the pregnant Quaker woman a trouser-stirrer. The end, when it finally comes, is as predictable as it is formulaic. It all ends well for Honor, you will be pleased to know. Donovan meets his comeuppance; and the person who sends him packing to his meeting with his Maker is Belle, who can't be prosecuted for murder as she herself is dying having drunk her way to liver cirrhosis.

Tracy Chivalier, an American novelist who lives in England (and probably has a Quaker background), has built for herself a formidable reputation as a novelist of historical fiction. In The Last Runaway she attempts to combine historical narrative with romance. The result is a strangely unconvincing and anaemic novel. Chivalier, as the afterwards of the novel informs, has undertaken a lot of historical research for this novel. (The Underground Railroad system, for example, was an actual system run by the whites that helped slaves on the run from their masters.) To Chivalier’s credit, for the most part, she does not allow the painstaking research to sit heavily on the novel, and avoids the temptation of showing off. The first half of the novel is full of what can be described period details aimed at conveying the minutiae of the daily life of the nineteenth century Quakers. The readers can be excused for feeling a tad weary after being subjected to a detailed account, that runs into pages, of how quilts are sown, accompanied by a scholarly discourse on the relative merits of the American and English styles (the English type is more intricate and requires more skills, in case you want to know).

The problem with the novel is that the plot does not really go anywhere. There is no drama. It is almost as if Chivalier is too much in awe of the central character. Honor Bright has the conviction of her beliefs that one can expect in the self-righteous. The moral uppitines, combined with the fact that Honor, in reality, is doing not a great deal to ease the afflictions of the runaway slaves (leaving water and dried meat outside of the house must have been of help, but it would stretch the limits of credulity to think that the slaves, who have managed to travel several hundred kilometres, would have been unable to survive without the meagre food rations; and did they really need the Haymakers when the there seems to be only a solitary slave-catcher in the region, Donavon, whose attentions and energies are divided between getting drunk and casting lustful glances at Honor’s loins?) makes Honor Bright, for the most part, more irritating than a kidney stone. The latent sexual attraction between Honor and Donavon remains just that; this strand of the novel remains frustratingly underdeveloped. The main the characters are either two-dimensional or cartoonishly implausible or both.

The strength of the novel is its prose. There is a soothing quality and an understated elegance to Chivalier’s prose that makes The Last Runaway an easy enough read despite its rather lame story that is neither a romance nor serious historical fiction. Not one of Chivalier’s best, I am afraid. 


Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Event that Sparked World War I: Time is A Great Equaliser

The first monument to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand went up in 1917. It was raised in the honour of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.

The monument was erected across the road where the Archduke was assassinated, at the corner of Appel Quay and Latin Bridge.

                                            Latin Bride, Sarajevo

The monument lasted two years.

In 1919 the monument was pulled down.

At the end of the Great War the Austro-Hungarian Empire disappeared, and Austria lost control of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Bosnia instead became integrated into a new kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

In 1929, King Alexander dissolved parliament, declared Royal dictatorship, and renamed the country Yugoslavia—Land of the South Slavs. Gavro would have nodded with approval.

After the Great War, Gavro was not celebrated across the Kingdom of Serbia (as it was called then). The new rulers were not overly keen to celebrate Gavro in Belgrade; they wanted to keep it a local, Sarajevo, affair.  He had not yet become a national hero.

In 1920 the remains of Gavro and his co-conspirators (who had died) were brought back to Sarajevo with a great deal of ceremony and pomp. The plan to bring back Gavro’s body and those of the other dead plotters arose in the town of Hadzici, where Gavro’s brother Jovo had once lived. It is not known however whether Jovo took any active part in this. He was not part of the committee that was formed and he did not go to Terezin. Only one relative amongst all the conspirators went out to Terezin to bring back the bodies. That was Nedjo’s younger sister Vukosava, whom, their father feared, Nedjo had influenced with his anarchist ideas. Although he did not go to Terezin, Branko Cubrilovic, the brother of Veljko and Vaso (Vaso, by this time was released from prison and was most probably living in Sarajevo, but does not appear to have taken part in the proceedings) who had become the leader of an organization called Yugoslav Academic Youth, petitioned that a memorial be built for the plotters in Sarajevo.

Thanks to Frantisek Lebl, the Czech prison officer at Terezin where Nedjo, Grabez and Gavro had died, the locations of their graves were known.

By this time in Austria a new Socialist government had come to power, which cooperated with the disinterment of the bodies of the men who had died in the prison in Mollersdorf, Austria (Jakov Milovic, and the father and son Mitar and Nedjo Kerovic), and bringing them to Terezin.

Only the remains of Lazar Djukic were not found, and would never be found.

A temporary podium was erected in the cemetery in Terezin and thousands of Czechs had gathered to accompany the carts carrying the coffins to the railway station. Here the coffins were loaded on to a special carriage decorated with flowers.

The train stopped at the Bosanka Brod in Bosnia for a few days while the bodies of the three men who were hanged (Veljko Cubrilovic, Danilo Ilic, and Misko Joavnovic) were exhumed and displayed.

The original plan was apparently to carry the coffins in the last part of the journey to Sarajevo on a goods- wagon. However, the transport workers’ Union complained: ‘If a diseased tyrant [Franz Ferdinand] could be transported out of Bosnia in a luxury car, why couldn’t the diseased heroes be transported in the same manner?’ A special train was prepared and travelled slowly from one station to the next, with silent crowds waiting at each station.

As the coffins were transferred, in Sarajevo, to a tram that would take them to the Judicial Hall, the crowd roared, ‘Glory to the Vidovan heroes.’

All the coffins were carried out in a procession to the cemetery where a large plot had been prepared. The coffins were lowered one by one, allowing Gavro’s a slight elevation in deference to his role in the assassination.



In later years, a chapel was built at the sites and the names of all the conspirators were inscribed in an arched plaque of black marble.



The newly created kingdom of Serbia was plagued right from the beginning with internecine hostility amongst the different ethnic groups. The Croats were unhappy about the arrangement right from the beginning. The seeds of discontent were sown which would bear bitter fruits a couple of decades later in the Second World War, and again in the bloody, multi-ethnic conflict in the 1990s, as Tito’s Yugoslavia disintegrated, proving also that Gavro’s vision of the unification of all the South Slavs was only going to be an ephemeral dream.

In 1930, the first memorial in honour of Gavro was erected. It was erected on 2 February 1930 (the day three of the conspirators, including Gavro’s friend Danilo Ilic, hung from the scaffold 15 years earlier). It was erected on the wall of the delicatessen, above the spot where Gavro Princip had stood waiting for Franz Ferdinand. 

A black marble plaque was erected. The plaque proclaimed: ‘Here in this historic place, on St Vitus Day, the 28th of June, Gavrilo Princip proclaimed freedom.’

The plaque was erected in a religious ceremony presided over by the Orthodox Archbishop, The relatives of Veljko Cubrilovic, Misko Jovanovic and Trifko Grabez attended the ceremony.

Years later Vaso Cubrilovic would observe to writer Albertini that the Slavs carry with them the cult of hero worship. Gavro was a Serbian hero associated with the final liberation.

The Latin Bridge was renamed Princip Bridge. Later in 1930 a road in Theresienstadt (the prison where Gavro was initially placed; it was used as a concentration camp by the Nazis during the Second World War) was renamed Principova Aley in Gavro’s memory.

Even at the time when the plaque went up in Sarajevo, there were those in Western Europe who disapproved of the celebratory mood surrounding its erection and the elevation of Gavro to a cult hero.

Winston Churchill, the imperialist future Prime Minister of what was still then Great Britain, was piqued. In his book, The Unknown War: the Eastern Front, Churchill observed bitchily: ‘Princip died in prison, and a monument erected in recent years by his fellow countrymen records his infamy and their own.’

For Churchill Gavro was not a freedom fighter; he was a terrorist who in cold blood had killed a man and his wife in pursuance of his political aims. Never mind that the empire, during the years that it controlled the region, had oppressed the people ruthlessly and reduced them to the level of cattle.

Yugoslavia, as King Alexander had named it, remained unstable. Alexander, who had got ridof his enemy Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Apis) in 1917 by falsely implicating him (Dmitrijevic) in a non-existent plot to assassinate him (Alexander), was assassinated in 1934. An underground Fascist Croat organization, Utasa, was implicated in the murder.

Throughout the 1930s Paul, Alexander’s brother who had become Price Regent, employed repressive policies in a desperate bid to keep the kingdom together. During this decade Communism grew steadily in influence in the region. And the Communist had a charismatic leader: Josip Broz, who adopted the sobriquet Tito.

Tito, who became the leader of the Communist party, as the Second World War broke out, called for armed resistance when Paul allied his country with the Nazi Germany. Paul was deposed by the Communists and the Nazi invaded Serbia (or Yugoslavia as it had come to be known) after bombing Belgrade (the capital would be bombed again decades later, this time by the NATO forces determined to remove Slobodan Milosevic from power). German troops occupied Belgrade and the country was chopped up between the Nazis and their allies: the Italians, the Bulgarians, and the Croatian Fascists, Utasa.

The Utasa took control of Bosnia and Hercegovina and, over the next few years, carried out systematic genocide directed against the Serbs, the Jews, and Romas. It is estimated that Utasa exterminated 750,000 Serbs, Jews and Romas.

The cottage in which Veljko Cubrilovic had spent happy years with his wife and new born daughter when he taught in Priboj, was set on fire by the Utasa Fascists, not because they knew Veljko had resided once in the cottage, but because they wanted to murder Serb teachers who were hiding in the cottage.

Surprisingly, the Utasa left Gavro’s memorial in Sarajevo untouched.

In 1945 Tito’s Communist party won the elections and a Socialist state of Yugoslavia was created, comprising Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina. Kosovo, in the South of Serbia, became an autonomous region. Gavro would have been pleased. His dream of unifying all the South Slavs, free from the control of the imperialists, had come true.

For the Communists, Gavro’s assassination of an imperialist was an act of utmost bravery and his subsequent ordeal a supreme sacrifice of a man for his ideals.

During the thirty odd years of the Communist regime in Yugoslavia, what Churchill would have described as a cult of hero worship around Gavro Princip, encouraged by the Communist regime, increased.

A set of footprints was cemented in the pavement opposite the delicatessen shop where Gavro had stood on that morning of 28 June 1914. It was symbolic and had no real historic significance, as, by that time, no one knew the precise location where Gavro had stood.



In the 1950s, the old delicatessen was converted into a museum of Young Bosnians. The museum was centred around Gavro and had displays of old artefacts and photographs. 

It seemed that, years after he met his awful end in a prison in Bohemia, Gavro Princip’s fortunes had changed. He was being hailed as a national hero. And his act—of killing the heir of an empire—which was considered high treason by the imperialists was now being hailed as supreme bravery that liberated oppressed people. No one remembered the dead heir of a dead empire while roads were named and museums opened in memory of the man who, with two shots, had terminated two lives and triggered off the Great War.

Not so fast.

Marshall Tito, by sheer force of his personality, kept Yugoslavia from self-imploding. Before he died (in 1980),Tito, in an attempt to prevent the breaking up of the Land of the South Slavs, put in place a power-sharing model where the presidency would revolve annually amongst the member states of Yugoslavia.

It was never going to work. The regional tensions got progressively worse in the 1980s; there were increasing debts from international loans and high unemployment. Croats were fed up with what they saw as the Serb domination of the federation while Slovenia wanted economic independence.

The inevitable happened.

In 1991 Slovenia, after a brief fight, attained independence. This was relatively painless. Next, the Croats followed. The Croatian separation was bloody with a right-wing ultra nationalist government in Croatia employing a policy of systematic terror against the Serbs in the region. More than 200,000 Serbs were estimated to have been driven out of Croatia into Serbia by 1995.

But the bloodiest of the battles was reserved for Bosnia-Hercegovina, the birthplace of Gavro and all of his co-conspirators.

It is beyond the scope of this posting to go into the details of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. In Bosnia-Hercegovina there was a more or less balanced population of Serbs, Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks).

Simplistically put, the Serbs wanted to stay with Serbia while the Croats and Muslims wanted to leave the influence of Belgrade.

There then followed one of the bloodiest battles in the Balkans, including the infamous siege of Sarajevo by the forces of Slobodan Milosevic, who insisted on calling himself the President of Yugoslavia (Montenegro and Macedonia were still in the Federation). The three-year siege of Sarajevo was commanded by General Ratko Mladic (who was arrested in 2011, sixteen years after he was indicted for war crimes, the killings of about 7500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebenica, alleged to be the worst single atrocity in Europe since the Second World War, being one of them).

The 1990s multi-ethnic bloody conflict between Serbians, Bosniaks (Muslims of Albanian origin) and Croats has left bitter ethnic divide and hatred. In the Serb majority Srpska regin in Bosnia, there were, until 1991, half a million Muslims. By the time Mladic’s forces were through them only 30,000 were left. In the rest of Bosnia, it was the Serbs who were at the receiving end and, by the end of the Balkan wars, only 20,000 Serbs were left in the rest of Bosnia.

It would be an interesting exercise to speculate what Gavro Princip and his co-conspirators would have made of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s that saw their dream of Yugoslavia—the nation of Southern Slavs, which existed for 40 odd years—disintegrate. Gavro and his friends considered themselves revolutionaries and were fired with the idea of freeing Bosnia and Hercegovina from the oppression of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time there is no doubt that they looked towards Serbia for inspiration—Serbia was the mother country. They wanted Bosnia and Hercegovina to be free of Austria, but linked with Serbia in Yugoslavia. One would like to think that when the inevitable fragmentation of Gavro’s dream country began in the 1990s and the ultra nationalist Slobodan Milosevic presided over the destruction of the region, Gavro would have disapproved. 

The Young Bosnian museum dedicated to Gavro Princip was closed in 1992. With the multi-ethnic conflict gripping the region, Gavro Princip, for non-Serbs, was no longer a symbol of revolutionary drive; he was just a Serb-terrorist.

The museum would re-open again many years later but many exhibits would be lost; and the museum would reorient itself to tell the story of Sarajevo under the Austrian rule; it would no longer be just a celebration of the assassination.  

During the three year siege of Sarajevo (1992 to 1995) when Ratko Mladic’s forces shelled the city every day, it was a common practice of many citizens (presumably non-Serbs) to spit at Gavro’s plaque and the footprints.

The footprints were hacked at too. Eventually they were removed.

The Princip Bridge was renamed Latin Bridge.

The Marble plaque disappeared. No one knows what happened to it. A new plaque has gone up since the war. It is neutrally worded and reads as follows:

‘From this place on 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.’

One hundred years after he assassinated Franz Ferdinand (which triggered the First World War, though that was not his intention), Gavro Princip is a divisive figure in Sarajevo and Bosnia. For the Serbs Princip is a heroic figure who stood against an oppressive empire; for the Muslims and Croats of Bosnia, Princip and his fellow conspirators brought to an end a golden era in the history of Bosnia and Sarajevo. For them Gavro is not a hero but a terrorist. The wounds of 1990s' ethnic conflict in Bosnia, in particular the 1425-day siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces, have not completely healed. As Sarajevo marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination, the city's biggest international moment since the end of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the ceremony was boycotted by the President and Prime Minister of Serbia. Bosnia, today, is a divided (for all practical purposes) country: the predominantly Muslim and Croat dominated federation, and the highly autonomous Serb-dominated Serb Republic (RS). The capital (Sarajevo) too is controlled by the Muslims and Serbs. The East part of the capital (Istocno Sarajevo) is under Serb control, and the two parts of the city are not even joined by public transport. The Serbs, in Istocno Sarajevo are highly resentful that an attempt is being made to what they see as changing of history. 

The graves of the most of the conspirators, a loosely bound group of hot-headed, single-minded young men, fired with revolutionary ideas, striking at the heart of an empire, hoping that their heroic act would trigger the building a of a nation, Yugoslavia—the union of Southern Slavs— and also that posterity would remember them for their martyrdom, lie neglected in a grey stone chapel in a cemetery in the middle of a residential area in Sarajevo. On the memorial stone at the back of the chapel are names of all of them except Cvjetko Popovic, Vaso Cubrilovic, Mehmed Mehmedbasic, and Ivo Kranjcevic. Mehmedbasic died in Sarajevo, but being a Muslim, he is presumably resting in a Muslim cemetery. Vaso Cubrilovic died in Belgrade, and although his dying wish was to be buried with his friends in Sarajevo, it was not fulfilled, presumably because of the beginning of the ethnic trouble between the Serbians and Bosniaks by the time of Vaso’s death. (Popovic died in Sarajevo in 1980; it is unclear why his name is not on the memorial stone.)

Above the names on the stone are the words: ‘Heroes of Vidovan’.

Along the line of the arch is the inscription: ‘Blessed are those that live for evermore.’



[The source of this plus all the previous posts in this series, beginning with the assassination; the profiles of the plotters (Gavro Princip, Nedjo Cabrinovic, Danilo Ilic, Veljko Cubrilovic, Vaso Cubrilovic, Trifko Grabez, Mehmed Mehmedbasic, Cvejtko Popovic, and the rest); conspiracy theories, the aftermath, the outcome of the trial, and how it ended for the conspirators (Veljko Cubrilovic, Danilo Ilic, Nedjo Cabrinovic, Mehmed Mehmedbasic, Trifko Grabez, Vaso Cubrilovic, Cvejtko Popovic, and, finally, Gavro Princip) is in the main two excellent books:Origins of the World War I (Joachim Remak), and One Morning in Sarajevo (David James Smith), which, I'd unhesitatingly recommend; plus a variety of Internet publications and blogs.]