Last week I had the pleasure of interpreting for the Berlin writer Nicol Ljubić at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Luckily they paid in advance, because Ljubić actually speaks very good English and there was little for me to do. But I did read aloud a short extract from his novel Stillness of the Sea, capably translated by Anna Paterson.
There's a reason why there seems to be an article missing in the title. The book opens with a short and clever prologue explaining the historical context behind the massacre of Muslims in the ex-Yugoslavian town of Višegrad, related in the voice of a lawyer at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. But it kicks in proper with a very short scene between two lovers by the sea, in which a young woman tells her boyfriend about a word that only seems to exist in her language - bonaca means literally "sea stillness".
Robert is in love with Ana, very much in love. He's a young historian in Berlin, where he meets a literature student and is instantly bowled over. But all along, he defines her by her national identity - Ana is Serbian, while Robert has a Croatian father but only speaks German and has no strong connection to the country. He tries to cook regional dishes for her, gets hold of a pebble from her favourite beach as a gift, and asks her all sorts of questions about her former home. She had to leave Višegrad as a young girl and later experienced the bombing of Belgrade, but remains tantalisingly vague on certain subjects. In a sense, Robert seems to be trying to create his own Yugoslavian identity through Ana, despite her obvious reluctance. And it is the secrets Ana keeps from him that ultimately mean the end of their relationship.
But Ljubić intersperses scenes from his love story with others describing Robert watching a court case in the Hague. It soon becomes clear that the defendant is Ana's father, a man she adores. He's accused of luring 42 Muslims to a house and locking them in, only for them to later be burned to death by a relative of his. A sole witness survived and is now testifying against him.
The book, Nicol told us in Edinburgh, was his attempt to address a complex moral question: what would happen if you fell in love with the child of a war criminal? The father character is closely based on a real-life professor of English literature and Shakespeare expert, who also wrote ultra-nationalist political tracts. Like his character Robert, the writer himself went to Bosnia and met people who knew him in an attempt to understand what might make a man of letters turn war criminal.
Ljubić has clearly put much of himself into his protagonist, as emerged at the event in the capable hands of chair Serena Field. Half-Croatian, he doesn't speak Serbo-Croat either and had never been particularly concerned by the wars in the Balkans beyond watching the news. I have to admit I found the court scenes more convincing than the love side of things, which became a little insipid after a while. The structure is well done though, and a close reading turns up hints at a possible motivation for the crime. Plus Ljubić - and the court - fails to clear up the issue of innocence or guilt, making the novel a very intelligent and though-provoking read.
It was interesting that Ljubic was partnered with the British writer Penny Simpson, whose novel The Deer Wedding is set in Croatia. Where Ljubić focuses on one individual case through the eyes of a very specific individual, Simpson's book apparently spans several families and generations to take a very broad look at the historical context. I'm wondering whether that's a particularly British approach to take, converting even relatively recent events into sweeping historical fiction, but not having read the book I don't think I can really comment. Interestingly, the subject of authenticity was raised, and Simpson had to defend herself by referring to her involvement in human rights work, research trips, etc.
Now while one reviewer in the Scottish Review of Books seemed to think Stillness of the Sea had been translated from Serbo-Croat, Ljubić too comes at the subject slightly obliquely, as a German rather than as someone directly involved. Yet he clearly got bonus points in the authenticity stakes at the event, because he put so much of his own experience into the book. Another German-language writer, Saša Stanišić, comes from Višegrad and reworked some of his experiences into the novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, which also went down terribly well in the UK. So it seems a shame to me - as you might expect - that British readers don't have access to more authentic writing in the form of translated fiction.