“Where do you come from?
Is there any such country?
No, but that’s still where I come from.”
Yu is for Yugoslavia; the country where the book's author (and my wife's parents), Dragana Jurisic was born. The problem is Yugoslavia doesn't exist anymore. It got split up into thousands of tiny pieces (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzogevnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and FYR Macedonia) following wars in which hundreds of thousands of people died, massacres on a scale that ISIS have come nowhere near matching were committed, and a flood of refugees appeared from Europe's own doorstep.
The problem for Jurisic is the place she comes from is now a country called Croatia. But Croatia is a very different place to that where Jurisic was born. Jurisic left Croatia in 1999 after she became disillusioned by the situation she found the new country in, a country that was not Yugoslavia, the place she was born. Yu is her search for the spirit of Yugoslavia, a book made on a journey 'originally conceived as a recreation of a homeland that was lost, It was a journey in which I would somehow draw a magical circle around the country that was once mine, and in doing so, resurrect it...'
It was a journey Jurisic took after 10 years of exile from her place of birth. She had grown disillusioned with the new Croatia (especially after she discovered her phone was tapped and the police had a thick dossier on her) and left to live in Ireland.
But by 2009, it was time to return. Off Jurisic goes on her journey. But because she feels a stranger in her own land, because what was once home no longer exists, she needs a map of some sort. So she follows the trail taken by Rebecca West for her epic book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, so adding a literary hook into the narrative pot. I haven't read the book so whether it adds anything I couldn't say. There is an interweaving of texts but I did feel that the West elements added an unnecessary layer. The voice of Jurisic, smart and snappy and cynical, was enough for me.
The book starts with pictures of 'Yugoslavia'; a map, a sign, another map, and then we are off. It's pictures and text. The words of West in red, the words of Jurisic and the words of the people she meets.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The corner where Franz Ferdinand met his end.
The pictures are quiet and melancholic. The words bring death and tragedy. A man picks a dandelion near the spot where a boy is killed by a car, the 'corner where Franz Ferdinand met his end', and there is devastation everywhere. Burnt buildings, old army jackets and, in a muslim cemetery near Sarajevo the shaven heads of men who look like 'professional hitmen' (they're discussing how beautifully the birds are singing).
There are blood-soaked 'fertility stones' in Macedonia, border guards in Kosovo who are hostile to Jurisic's 'fine Serbian name' and a tourist from New Zealand who stuns Jurisic by telling her that 'she envies the Balkan history.'
Govedarov kamen, Macedonia. It took a long time to find the fertility stone. Through the orchards and vineyards. And there it was. I mounted the rock, amazed to see blood in its crevasse. Last years’ sacrificial blood, with cigarette butts thrown in for good measure. I squatted over its bloody hole and watched the fertile landscape in the distance.
All through the book, Jurisic finds bad sculptures, bad shops and bad memories that linger through into the present. The pictures are sometimes sunny but nearly always sad, infused by the words that weigh them down. It's a small book but a thoughtful one. Jurisic never rediscovers Yugoslavia, her country of birth, nor does she manage to find peace with what has taken its place. Instead she finds a corpse rotting by the roadside, one that will never be resurrected or buried or forgotten.
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I remember thinking it all must be some sort of a joke.
I remember being excited and scared at the same time.
I remember how I put all my LP’s into the hallway so they wouldn't get damaged by the crossfire.
I remember that my father and my brother were out that afternoon.
I remember bullets spraying the front door of our building.
I remember hearing what sounded like someone trying to get in.
I remember my mother thinking ‘it's them’ and running towards the door.
I remember grabbing onto her until all my nails broke.
I remember meeting my neighbours for the first time in the basement of our building.
I remember thinking 'pity I met them only now when we are all about to die'.
I remember the building burning above us.
I remember being sad about all those books my parents brought through the syndicate and never read... only consumed by me and the fire.
I remember being pissed off that I would die a virgin.
I remember when they came to pull us out.
I remember how I learned to zigzag run in order to escape sniper's bullets.
I remember taking shelter in the local supermarket.
I remember falling asleep on bags of washing powder, next to a boy I had a secret crush on (he was our local basketball star).
I remember him waking me up at 3 am and whispering: "What can I get you, Madam?”
I remember asking for ice cream and champagne.
I remember captured Yugoslav army soldiers sitting scared shitless opposite from us.
I remember Croatian soldiers handing them box of sweets.
I remember walking into our burned down apartment the following morning.
I remember feeling relief that all the mess was gone and I would not need to clean up my room.
I remember that everything melted except for a big orange gas bottle, laying in red
crackling 'coals', waiting to go off like some post-apocalyptic witches cauldron.
I remember the soles of my red converse shoes melting.
I remember walking out.