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Interview with Aleksandar Brezar and Enis Čišić, Part Three

Alternative Realities

(Read Part One and Two here.)

JH: One of the things we’ve done in the Massachusetts Review blog—because we thought we needed to—is book reviews of other work that pretends to come out this period and this history. In particular, two novels were very successful in the US: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Sara Nović’s Girl at War. About the reviews we did, well, I’ll give you just the title of the one for The Tiger’s Wife: “Balkan Zoology.”

So that’s what I wanted to ask you two about. Ever since Robert Kaplan, and his horrendous book Balkan Ghosts, one of the main ways of representing the history of the ‘90s and the wars of the former Yugoslavia takes an exotic, primitive look from the outside. With the so-called West looking on, as if it’s civilized, at these strange animals doing subhuman things to each other. So, in light of that sort of history, when you do any kind of work that represents this period—and in this case you’re creating a new form of story for a story that came from that history—how do you avoid this kind of reception?

AB: We thought about that. We talked about it. And our decision was to situate the story in different periods of the city.

EČ: Different moments of its history. You have the Austro-Hungarian time, you have the socialist period, World War Two, and the overall look of the city—that could be Vienna, or any Austrian city.

AB: What we’re trying to say is that, we wanted to get past the idea that we’re just tribes, bloodthirsty tribes, always at each other’s throats. And maybe the easiest way to bridge that gap, without being too explicit about it, is to simply show that, “No, this is what this place looks like.”

JH: In that other form of representation, the idea is that other parts of the world are a Gothic horror show. And as long as you’re a safe viewer in a safe seat in the theater, it’s kind of fun. One way of responding to this distortion is to remember that what you’re watching is most of human history. If you think it’s confined to these years and this place, well, then it’s time for you to go back to the classroom and study a bit more.

Let me push farther, though, because we haven’t talked too much about the content of this story. We’ve mentioned that it’s about Tesla, and we’ve mentioned that it does different things in different places. But it’s also a detective story, or a thriller, and it involves Tesla’s experiments with a death ray, with harnessing something more powerful than nuclear weapons. And the story suggests that somehow the secret is still out there. Almost like an X-Files story. So it’s also true that that your genre is not that far away from the fairy-tale version of history that Téa Obreht uses, or the Hunger Games tale that Sara Nović imposes on history.

On the other hand, this was a tale that Karim Zaimović was telling at the time, in this place. But it still has this supernatural, fantasy content.

EČ: I think you could connect it to this place and that time, because everything is what we wrote, or talked about, everything is connected to this city, to Sarajevo, its center, its living past.

AB: There are all sorts of alternate realities. War makes a place into an alternate reality.

JH: When I was teaching here, I remember telling my students, as they were reading Thoreau, that they probably knew twenty-five or thirty Thoreaus. People who were taking notes about this strange separation from the rest of the world and the rest of history.

AB: So it’s no wonder that’s what appears in Karim’s stories. But if we want to talk specifically about this particular story, well, when you’re constantly being shelled, you might think that the very last thing you’d think about is this sort of ultimate weapon. It’s kind of absurd.

Now I don’t know if there’s a connection, but at that time Karadžić was talking about this vacuum bomb he was going to buy from the Russians. And this was widely publicized; it was quite well known. And he was going to use it on Sarajevo. To suck all the air out of the city, so people would suffocate.

JH: Yet part of the feel of this story, and part of the content as well, is a conspiracy theory: that “There’s somebody out there, and they’re controlling everything, and if you can just find them, and trace them. . .”

AB: Well, ask any person in Sarajevo what they would do if they had a time machine. I think there’s a list of people that they would go back and kill. It’s not like we would go back to the French Revolution to see it first hand, or go hang out with the Beatles.

JH: Or go to meet Columbus and tell him not to get on that damned boat. . .

AB: And I think conspiracy theory is interesting in the same sense. When war happens, and you want to get to the why. . .

JH: Everybody is telling all kinds of stories, trying to make sense of what can’t be made sense of, and a lot of it sounds pretty crazy. And then some of what sounds pretty crazy. . .

AB: Turns out to be true. And some of what sounds quite normal turns out not to be true. So I guess it makes sense. That’s the nature of Karim’s story, because that’s the nature of war.

JH: I think we’re done. Thank you, and congratulations once again.


Aleksandar Brezar was born and lives in Sarajevo. He has worked as a journalist at Radio 202 and a translator for several documentary films and other projects for PBS, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, AL Jazeera English, and the Sarajevo Film Festival. His translations have appeared in the Massacusetts Review, the Brooklyn Rail,, PešCanik, and Lupiga.

Enis Ćišić is an illustrator and comic book artist, working as a 3D animator at an advertising agency in Sarajevo. He is the creator of a number of music videos and album artworks for notable bosnian musicians and bands. His work, including large-scale drawings of famous film scenes as well as other illustrations, was exhibited throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, while his short comic books were published in various magazines throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Jim Hicks is the Executive Editor at the Massachusetts Review

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