Transatlantic Mail

Miljenko Jergović and Semezdin Mehmedinović

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Dear Sem!

These days, more often than usual, a quote comes to mind, which I've been carrying around for twenty years now, and it seems that it's quite important to me. It's from an essay by Susan Sontag, in which she talks about Walter Benjamin. I don't remember the essay itself, and for all these years I've been trying rather hard not to read it again. I'll tell you why later. None of it has stayed with me except for that quote that's not even a full sentence, but rather something along these lines: "a time in which everything valuable was the last of its kind." I can no longer be sure what these words meant to me in 1986 or 1987 or the following year, when I read them for the first time. But obviously they were very important to me, otherwise I wouldn't have remembered them. I don't have to tell you what they meant later, you know that. When I think about that never-written novel of mine I told you about, in which I'd tell our story of the summer of 1991 in Sarajevo, and for which I've been preparing, spiritually rather than practically, for about ten years, that phrase by Susan Sontag is a thesis of sorts, understood almost literally. If I ever write that novel, that is, if the reasons for writing it don't disappear first, maybe these words, however pathetic they may seem to be all by themselves on white paper, will be the motto of the book. Of course, "a time in which everything valuable was the last of its kind" comes to mind, more often than usual, because of Radovan Karadžić. When I watch him on TV, though he has a beard now, it's as if I see him on the other side of the mirror, where everything that was the last of its kind in the summer of 1991 remained.

But let's go back to why I shrink from rereading Susan Sontag's On Photography and Illness as Metaphor, books that meant a lot to me back in those days. I've reread almost everything else that mattered at the time, but not her. (That, too, I guess, is the exile's complex, the reading of the things that you had read back home, in your own world. Some people told me how they recreated their CD collections in Canada or America, how they bought music they used to listen to, although they knew they wouldn't listen to it again. That's probably the same complex.) Now, the reason I don't read Susan Sontag is silly, somewhat ridiculous, but I enjoy it, in a way. Although she came to Sarajevo in 1992 or 1993, and we all took a picture with her in the Dani newsroom (I have that photo), it always seemed to me, every time I met her during her visit, that she didn't see us as human beings similar to herself. As if the same shell couldn't have killed both her and us. Maybe that was just my impression. Now, after I'd left Sarajevo, it would've been round early 1994, a very rough time for the people in the city, Susan Sontag came to visit my mother in her office at the Academy of Dramatic Art. I suppose someone brought her to talk about the war with a common Sarajevan woman who had no artistic aspirations and no need to fictionalise her lot. So Susan sat in front of Javorka, took out a packet of Marlboros from her handbag, and lit up. Of course, she offered one to Javorka, who at the time smoked now tobacco, now bearberry, because tobacco was in short supply, and so of course, Javorka eagerly seized the offering. She was smoking and was prepared to talk about anything, while Susan Sontag kept putting out half-smoked cigarettes. By the time Javorka finished one, she had already put out three. After that she opened another packet and started anew. So the ashtray was filling up with half-smoked cigarettes and my mother was hoping that, when Susan Sontag left, she could take all those butts from the ashtray, unroll them, and there would be Marlboros for three days at least. But then, at some point, Susan decided to play host, as if she were at home among her own, like someone who realises she has to do as the others do, no matter how little she was obliged to do so in her life, so she got up, took the ashtray and emptied it outside in a bin full of snow and rubbish.

My mother doesn't remember what she told to Susana, or what Susana told her. She forgot everything, for nothing, nothing at all mattered to her except those half-smoked cigarettes thrown in the bin. Fifteen years later, she is prepared to talk about it and blame herself for not grabbing Susan by the wrist and taking the ashtray from her. In this story Javorka finds nothing she should see as a humiliation, which is good, of course. It makes her story pure and almost funny. But the story tells me that Susan Sontag didn't know certain important things without which there can be no life and no poetry. I don't read her lest I should get disappointed after all these years. Lest that ingenious fragment should evaporate from my mind: "a time in which everything valuable was the last of its kind."

I'm off to watch the game. Dinamo are playing against some Irish amateurs. It's bad football, but this doesn't take away from the solace of green grass with white lines.




Dear Miljenko,

Your letter reminded me of two photographs. One shows Leni Riefenstahl. I stumbled upon it six or seven years ago on her official web site, when Granny Riefenstahl was still alive and active, although a hundred years old. It just so happened that she survived, at such an advanced age, a helicopter crash in Sudan, outside Khartoum, and the photograph exhibited on her web site showed, and perhaps still shows, her body after the crash. And her body was a sheer wound, her face, covered in livid suffusions, peaceful, as if she were asleep, or dead. However, she, Leni Riefenstahl herself, asked that the public be shown a photograph that shows her in such a state. Now, this choice of hers is important. It's a form of erasing the past—leaving an impression of a wounded body in the memory of others that will overshadow the beauty of that body in its youth. Let us assume that it is about a haughty pride in one's own strength and health at the age of hundred; still, there has to be a certain kind of emancipation behind it for one to be able to show one's body in that state to the whole world. The human way is different, the moments of greatest weakness, as well as the moment of death itself, are restricted to the closest family circle, to those who are most concerned, probably the only ones concerned. I was moved by her decision to make the photograph public, but to be honest, I was also unable to define my position toward her pain. That's one photograph; I will describe the other a bit later.

In the last days of December 1992 I met Ladin in the street, amid large snowflakes, and I said to him, "Ilija, Susan Sontag is in Sarajevo . . . " He cocked his head in his own peculiar way, aligned it with his smile, and said, "Has Ms Sontag brought oranges?" When you visit someone in prison or hospital, he explained, you bring oranges. Ilija's reaction, like the reactions of all of us at the time, required those who came to town to define their position toward our pain. That was the natural order of things, as it were, though I remember one person, you know him too, who visited quite frequently in the first year. He would come and go and come back again, and then, when he got a clear picture of us captives in the city, he said angrily, "They revel in their suffering!" I think that was a dangerous and almost accurate diagnosis, and I often had it in mind, especially when I'd sit at my small orange UNIS TBM DE LUXE typewriter, as a healthy warning that one might go astray. This is why I addressed events like your episode with Susan Sontag; our stories had the strength of credibility only when they were emancipated from the shades of pathos and claims to compassion.

Of course, I remember our meeting with Susan Sontag at the Dani newsroom, but I don't remember what the conversation was about. On her way out, in that little anteroom by the door, she talked about—a colour. Actually, about a new discovery: scientists had installed a source of blue light in a room—an inconspicuous blue pulsation—and then talked with different people in that room. As a rule it turned out that these people said the word "blue" in their first sentences, although they talked about things that had nothing to do with colours. That's the only thing I remembered. And I forever visualised that grey lock in her hair that, with its deliberate design, looked more like a visual symbol. Her obsession with photography—and it is precisely about photography that she probably wrote her most solid essays—to me seems rooted in this narcissism. However, Susan Sontag was a beautiful woman. Most photographs of her I've had the opportunity to see were black and white, but it is true that she looks like a black and white detail even in those in which there is colour. Her physical presence turned colour photographs into black and white, in a way. Now, I must say I respect this sort of focus on oneself, one's body and appearance, because it is more than an expression of will to communicate with the outside world.

Since that day, since our meeting with her, sixteen years have passed. In the meantime, Susan Sontag has died. Interestingly enough, her last book published during her lifetime is titled Regarding the Pain of Others, and it is entirely about the phenomenon of wartime photography, but also about the problem you broached in your last letter. Her essay is excellent, I think, and it is almost like a sublimation of the Sarajevan experience expressed in the question: What do we feel and how do we feel regarding the pain of others? There may have been no poetry to her way while she was alive, but: in 2006, Annie Leibovitz published a very personal photo-book that featured photographs of Susan Sontag, with whom she had maintained close friendship for a number of years, and they visited Sarajevo together once. This is where the other photograph I mentioned earlier was published. When Annie Leibovitz's book came out, it provoked the reaction of cheap American moralisers, mostly because of that photograph, which showed a dead Susan Sontag on the hospital bed. The publication of that photograph most certainly couldn't have happened without her consent, obtained while she was still alive and surrounded by the colours of the world. I don't know how you see it, but to me, this decision finally to show herself in that state, to close the circle, is an expression of the sort of emancipation that is nothing if not sheer poetry.

There, now I am off.

Oh, I've just seen in Slobodna Bosna, that S.A. fellow concerns himself at length with my questionable moral character. It seems they have written more empty words about me than about the freshly arrested Radovan Karadžić. And it's a perfect summer day outside.



translated from the Bosnian and Croatian by Mirza Purić