Invoking Mother Courage
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky/Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Courtney Angela Brkic
Today's New York Times carries the following review of Courtney Angela Brkic's new
book, which is now available in bookstores....Katherine Rosich
BOOKS OF THE TIMES | 'THE STONE FIELDS'
On the Killing Fields of Bosnia, Invoking Mother Courage
By RICHARD EDER
Published: August 6, 2004
In the stony fields of Herzegovina the peasants are as horny-skinned, seamed and sun-darkened as farmers in the photographs from our own Depression years. Caring precariously for her frail baby, Courtney Angela Brkic's Croatian grandmother, Andelka, was instructed by a village neighbor to put a pine cone in his cradle. To acquaint him with hardship.
She hardly needed the advice. She could remember a little sister holding a china cup decorated in a rose pattern — perhaps the only delicate thing in their mother's rough cottage — and asking, "Are we like roses?" Soon to die, their mother threw open the door and gestured at the hills outside. "We're the brush that clings to the rocky ground."
Andelka clung. Orphaned and raising her sisters, widowed young when her husband died of typhoid, moving to Sarajevo, living a brief idyll until the war, when her Jewish lover was taken away and killed in a notorious concentration camp run by the Germans' fascist Croatian allies. Then losing her sons, grown and in trouble with Tito's Communists, to emigration. Through all this she clung like the brush, or a Balkan Mother Courage, until her grasp weakened and courage failed.
"The Stone Fields" is a pine cone that Ms. Brkic (pronounced BER-kitch) has rolled into our cradle to acquaint us with hardship. Not Andelka's hardship; in fact the grandmother's story, written with lyrical precision, provides much of the buoyancy and lovely evocation in a memoir that knows a darker pain and darkly denounces it. It is the genocide that took place in Bosnia in the early 1990's, whose most atrocious example was the elimination by Bosnian Serbs of an estimated 7,000 Muslim inhabitants in the town of Srebenica.
As for the cradle: with most horrors at a distance, the world has pretty much gone back to dozing, in this case after a few years of undoubted outrage and effort. Ms. Brkic does not tolerate sleep; she wars against forgetting. Yet if it were simply denunciation and recounting of what was so amply recounted at the time, her book would lack its unique quality.
Contemporary accounts of a tragedy are like temporary grave markers. Instead, the author has carved a funeral monument, its artistry marred sometimes but in the main enhanced by the rough cuts of her chisel.
She has thrust herself into the present of a past that dates back 10 years. What is the present of an old massacre? Two things: the dead and missing and the bereft. What Ms. Brkic did seems obvious yet it surprises.
First she spent time with refugee wives, mothers and siblings of the 7,000 — undoubtedly dead yet mostly unable, even when disinterment and identification got under way, to offer the one consolation a dead person can leave behind, the certainty of the corpse. One mother insisted that each time the telephone rang and there was no voice (common enough to that rickety phone system), it meant her son was alive, captive and sending her a message.
After that Ms. Brkic, who had worked in the United States as an archaeologist, joined the forensic and excavation teams to help dig up the victims from their mass graves and examine them.
She made herself a bridge, that is, from silence as crippled hope to silence as the end of hope. She restored the victim to its mourners. And, to the heaps of bones and decaying flesh, she restored the mourners. For their own sanity the excavators could only treat the remains with professional abstraction. (Try not to look at faces or hands, one advised her.) The mourners alone could manifest the reality and dignity of what lived once and was so hideously cut down.
Of course it's symbolic restoration. Ms. Brkic could not materially connect the dead with the bereaved. She was only a small part of the operation, and she couldn't bear to stay more than a few weeks. She failed to imitate her co-workers' indispensable objectivity; her outrage puzzled and even angered them, and all the more because when she wept some of them did too. What she succeeded at was something different.
For readers it is as if by connecting two disconnected electrical poles she released a fulminating current of pity, terror and outrage. Ms. Brkic's wiring can be shaky; her current sparks and sputters. Her passion is unquestionably real, but we may feel she turns it a bit to catch the light better; at times we get the sense of an actor moving into position so as to declaim from it. Yet it hardly matters.
Atrocity lives on in the mind not by the ugliness of the violation but by the fairness, or at least wholeness, of what was violated. It is here that the life of Andelka, with its moments of beauty as well as suffering, plays its part: a notion of human dignity held up in the background while the author tries to disinter the inhuman.
There is, besides, Ms. Brkic herself, displaying marks on her own wholeness. From the excavations she flees back to Zagreb, where her great-aunts live. She examines her face in the mirror, inventorying it for what lasts — the bones, that is, and eliminating eyes, cheeks, lips. She writes down a scar, then erases, "when I remembered that skin was unlikely to survive."
She takes up with a Croatian army officer, veteran of the brutal war between Croatia and Serbia. He is a man of extraordinary sweetness, and it is a while before the darkness emerges. A Roman Catholic, he goes to confession frequently but never takes communion. God — to translate — forgives him, but he can't forgive himself. Neither, finally and after other twists, does the author. Meanwhile, lying beside him — "the flow of his blood was like water singing through rock" — she conjures up what will last:
"Beneath the warm skin were the plates of his cranium, the sutures where entire continents met in his childhood and fused over the ocean of his mind. The gentle, breakable bones of his face were like china, or the hollow bones of birds. They were as fragile as calcified breath."