STILLNESS AND OTHER STORIES
by Courtney Angela Brkic. Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 208 pp., $23.
Stories From a War Zone
By John Freeman
John Freeman is a writer in New York.
April 27, 2003
STILLNESS AND OTHER STORIES, by Courtney Angela Brkic. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., $23.
'We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is," Susan Sontag argued in her recent book, "Regarding the Pain of Others," a meditation on the failures of war photography. Perhaps Sontag is right; perhaps until a bullet has grazed one's temple or stolen one's mother, war remains an academic dilemma.
Still, while photography may fail, great fiction can transport us into the heart of battle and loss. For proof one need only pick up Courtney Angela Brkic's astonishing literary debut, "Stillness and Other Stories," 16 tales about the Balkan war.
Brkic's stories depict all parts of the conflict. She brings us hardened soldiers and jaded U.N. peace brokers, snipers who take aim at former classmates and mothers hovering around mass burial excavations hoping to glimpse their missing dead.
Read in its entirety, "Stillness" presents a prismatic view of this bloody war, bringing home its cruel ironies. While helping a forensic pathologist sift through mass graves in one story, a man hired to wash the corpses remarks, "'Those people wanted get out' - he held up a hand with splayed fingers - 'four years ago. They could not. Only now. ... And now is too late.'"
It may seem that war is a force greater than Brkic's characters, but some of them perpetuate it - whether they can admit it or not. A sniper in "The Angled City" preserves his righteousness by constructing "a code of conduct ... He does not fire at men in tan coats, red-haired women or groups of three." In the end, his guilt gets the better of him and he finds his conscience in the crosshairs.
While aggressors try to obscure their god-like ability to decide people's fates, victims fight for a reason to stay alive. A mother in "Suspension" believes her son is still alive long after he's disappeared: "[S]he insisted that the boy was alive. She marked his birthday this year, cooking the sarma with cream as Edin liked it." A wife in "Remains" weathers her husband's nightmares and alcoholic rages: She has to believe things will get better.
Other characters in this book adjust in more practical ways. They learn to run fast and zigzag across intersections. They communicate by tapping on pipes, reading lips or passing notes. Scavenging is a must. Impromptu graves are constructed of exploded concrete, chipped glass and tiles: Anything is better than the indignity of seeing one's dead rot in the open air.
It's tempting to read these stories as journalism - a temptation Brkic, who worked for the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal and Physicians for Human Rights, almost encourages by prefacing this book with a three-page prologue in her own voice. But there is too much artistry here to permit such a misreading. Even the best journalism draws a demilitarized zone between there and here: We read about what happens to people, not about how they adjust.
Many characters in "Stillness" adapt in ways that would be considered abnormal in regular life but are essential to their self-preservation during war. The narrator of "Canis Lupis" believes he is a zoo animal kept in a cage, while the narrator of the chilling title story has forgotten his past. "I had a name," he says, "but have misplaced it now. I had an entire history, once. A wife, children, perhaps, but in the cellar I am alone."
All too often, though, nostalgia sneaks up on Brkic's characters like a wave of nausea, looping back and back again, until eventually it eclipses reality. One man in "Passage" escapes the conflict by immigrating to Queens. While his sibling adjusts to American life, even falling for a young woman from the Midwest, this man remains a fish out of water. He is haunted by his childhood and decides to return to the Balkans. "What do I have to be afraid of?" he asks his brother, "I'm going to die faster here."
Tales of this magnitude put an immense strain on prose. They have a way of fracturing it, of reducing it to cliche or worse. Excepting a few instances, Brkic's prose never wavers. It remains stalwart, exact, brutal and grittily poetic. It does not allow us a place to hide from its ugly truth.
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