Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2021

Death in the Museum of Modern Art, by Alma Lazarevska, translated by Celia Hawkesworth

Half way through August, and this is my third title for #WITmonth celebrating the work of women in translation.

I’m not sure how I came to buy this collection of short stories… Marina Sofia reviewed it for Necessary Fiction in its year of release in 2014 and Tony reviewed it at Messenger’s Booker.  The following year in 2015,  Stu reviewed it at Winston’s Dad  and so did Joe from Rough Ghosts.  But I haven’t commented on any of these reviews and I didn’t buy it till 2019.  Maybe I saw something about it in Chat at Twitter for #WITMonth 2019?

Anyway…

The blurber from the Irish Times on the front cover has this to say, and I think it’s true:

Nothing, not even history itself, prepares the reader for the paralysing beauty of the images that emerge from these stories written by a Bosnian survivor of the siege of Sarajevo.

The first story, ‘Dafna Pehfogl Crosses the Bridge between There and Here’, features the vivid image of Dafna, cursed since birth, poised on the bridge which separates the besieged city from safety with her family on the other side.  Although the prose is restrained throughout the collection and there is very little description of the savagery of this siege, the sense of horror is held only in abeyance.  The story begins with Dafna’s faith in the arrangements for the prohibited crossing which her family despite their petty cruelties have arranged and then segues to her unhappy birth, her failure with suitors and how the modest book of expectation closed over the girlhood of Dafna Pehfogl and an old maid’s cards were laid out on the table.  There is a ghastly inevitability about the finale.

In ‘Greetings from the Besieged City’, a mother reads a story to her child, a routine that is for many of us a normal part of childhood that we maintained for our own children.  But this mother, well aware of the fragility of life, changes the ending of a story because she wants to shield her child from the moment when the main character dies.  Even though she knows it is futile to try to shield him from the inevitability of grief.  There is also some ironic banter about postcards in this story, forcing the reader to imagine the cheery tourist postcards that we’re all familiar with, juxtaposed against the scenes of destruction and death that we saw so often on the television news.

The residents of an apartment block in ‘Thirst in Number Nine’ do not know each other until the day they flee to the cellar on a night when red-hot balls were falling onto the besieged city.  The image that sears into the reader’s mind is of the little boy who is thirsty:

So this was it.  What was meant to happen.  You went down into the cellar, you felt desperately thirsty while upstairs, above you, in the fridge, inaccessible, were plenty of cartons full of milk.  Plenty of jars of fruit juice.  In this cellar there were only a terrible thirst and an ugly satin dress.  (p. 74)

And the cold, bitter winter…

The first terrible winter in the besieged city began.  It arrived early, during the autumn months.  The heaps of snow were as high and heavy as the ones Galina Nikolaevna remembered from her childhood.  And there was no power or fuel.  Parquet was used for firewood throughout the city including entrance number nine.  Old paper was burned.  Furniture.  Books.  Someone even burned the only tree in the courtyard without seeking the unanimous approval of all the tenants in number nine.  Besides, the caretaker had already abandoned the besieged city, with all three of his children.  That was at the time when it was still possible to leave the besieged city,  Soon a terrible, impenetrable ring was drawn tightly round it… (p.77)

I see from Goodreads that this author has published at least one other book but it’s not available in English.

Death in the Museum of Modern Art was awarded ‘Best Book of 1996’ from the Society of Writers of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It was translated by the award-winning Celia Hawkesworth (short-listed for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize & winner of the Heldt Prize for Translation, for Dubravka Ugrešić’s ‘The Culture of Lies’).

Author: Alma Lazarevska
Title: Death in the Museum of Modern Art
Translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth
Publisher: Istros Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781908236173, pbk., 122 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond


Responses

  1. This sounds fascinating. Vishy has also reviewed this today… he’s written a few reviews of Bosnian literature recently which has made me realise that I haven’t really read anything from that part of the world before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Vishy’s blog has been a real eye-opener over his last few reviews:)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A book that still lingers in my mind and deserves to be better known, I think. Thank ypu for the kind mention.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds excellent. I don’t read a lot of short stories but I find they’re suiting my brain quite well at the moment, so I’ll add this to the list!

    Like

  4. Wonderful review, Lisa! It is such an amazing coincidence that we both reviewed this book on exactly the same day :) Loved all the passages you have quoted. The story where the mother changes the ending of the story she is reading to protect her child, was very beautiful. I’m glad you liked it too. Wish more of Alma Lazarevska’s work gets translated. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

    Like

    • Thanks, Vishy:)
      I admire the way she focusses our attention on the ordinariness of this life while the madness goes on around them, it gives the stories a universality.

      Like

  5. If I did see this on Rough Ghosts, I’d forgotten when I was reading Vishy’s review; in all, it sounds like a volume I’d appreciate, and I can see why you would have felt drawn to look for more of the author’s work.

    Like

    • Yes, hopefully Istros Books will publish something else, and one of us will review it and then we’ll all rush off and get a copy!

      Like


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