In a 2005 article in the Boston review, Natasha Radojcic-Kane describes the genesis of her first novel, Homecoming. Several years into an MFA program, working on a prospective fantasy series, she realized her literary experiments had grown disconnected from her life. In the first grim half of the 90s, her mother’s family had been trapped in besieged Sarajevo, and four years later, after the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by Serbian forces, her uncle in Belgrade lived through NATO bombings, making nightly calls from a neighbor’s apartment to confirm he was still alive. (The phone lines in Sarajevo had been cut at the start of the siege.) One night, in 1999, during the 7-week war, she sat down at her desk, and wrote a particularly memorable sentence. It described a soldier on a bus, returning to his hometown, wearing an uncomfortably hot sweater. He couldn’t take it off, because his scar would disturb the other passengers. The returning soldier became the protagonist in her first novel.
Halid joined the Bosnian army in 1992, and fought in the defense of Sarajevo; after a bullet entered his shoulder he was sent to a crowded hospital, only to be evicted to make room for more urgent cases. In 1995 when the Dayton Accords ended the war, he had been in the surreal position of hiding from the Sarajevo police, who were forcing former soldiers to return to their own hometowns. Sleeping in half-destroyed buildings and carrying his father’s pistol, his increasing nervousness led to the grimmest scene of the novel. Seeing a person’s shadow, he had instinctively opened fire. “How he regretted that shot”.
A certain colonel from Halid’s village, in solidarity with his troops and the besieged population, had moved his entire family to Sarajevo at the start of the war. His teenage daughter, “defiant like her father”, had personified the spirit of resistance by walking, in bright colors, through the otherwise deserted streets- “tempting fate and the snipers” with her own fearlessness. Now, when the war was over, she died because of a fatal mistake.
But Halid’s moral reckoning- and his fear that his crime will be discovered- is only a marginal theme in the novel. Of much greater importance, to the author, is the comparably normal village to which Halid returns. An unnamed town surrounded by the Dinara mountains, where a communist-era irrigation plan had gone woefully wrong, we are told it was one of the only towns in Bosnia not conquered by Serbian forces- who in early 1992 had occupied 2/3 of the country’s territory. It is this remarkable anamoly that the novel is built around.
Halid’s former girlfriend is a Serb named Mira, who was forced, in the weeks before the war, to marry his childhood friend Momir- who was then killed by a mine while fighting on the outskirts of Sarajevo- on the Serbian natioanlist side. Halid has learned of his death, and is tormented by a grim possibility- that the mine that killed Momir was one of the ones his unit planted. So Instead of going home, he pauses at Mira’s window, watching, unnoticed, as she washes dishes and plays with her son. A night later, they meet in secret in what used to be his grandparents’ apple orchard, confiscated by communist authorities and now effectively ownerless. Mira is still in love with him, but is bitter and suspicious. A few days before her (forced) wedding, she had tried to contact with Halid, but he had gone out of his way to avoid her. Her marriage to Momir, he felt, was inevitable, and seeming to obstruct it would have had disastrous consequences. He’d have been seen as a member of one community, intruding in the affairs of another. And it is as a member of one community that each of the protagonists will be introduced, in a narrative where communal identity is situated in a rigid social order.
What Radojcic-Kane presents is a place where time has stood still. The hierarchy of the Ottoman empire, with Muslims wealthy and prominent, Serbs uniformly destitute, and the ‘cigani’, the Roma, oppressed by both- appears impossibly insulated from both Tito’s socialism, and the genocidal war that followed. The owner of the town’s bakery, Rade- who gets surplus flour from a state-owned company, thanks to his brother- is a “clever, crafty” businessman with few scruples. That we are told, is why he gave Muslim names to his children: “around here, people still remembered when Muslims owned everything.” Mirna’s family the author writes, were “great-grand-children of the serfs”, their kitchen sink was a giant basin, formerly used by cattle; the most prominent local family, the Vejzanics, are described with subtle sarcasm, they “ruled over the local Serbian peasants in the name of the Ottoman empire…with generosity and wisdom for over 300 years.” Halid’s parents had mocked his infatuation with Mirna; she wore plastic barrettes, they joked, because she was too poor to afford anything else.
The Ottoman empire, at its height, stretched from Bosnia to Iraq to Algiers, and like every great power before and since, it was not particularly benign in its treatment of conquered peoples. The Serbs were really oppressed, and Slavs who converted to Islam enjoyed relative favor. That fact, when it was still a contemporary fact, was essential to understanding Bosnia in the days of the Ottoman empire. It is even useful, as a matter of context, in explaining events in the 1990s. No account of the Rwandan genocide omits the origin of the Tutsis – they were lighter-skinned Rwandans preferred by Dutch colonial administrators, who gradually came to be regarded as a distinct people. But
Kane emphasizes one history while ignoring another.
The emphasis on class, linking social status exclusively to religion, turn Halid and Mirna from individuals into prototypes- Mirna is not just poor, but is poor, presumably, because she’s a Serb. Halid’s encounters with Serbs and Roma, and especially his relationship with Mirna, is defined on nearly every page by reference to inherited privilege- privilege in turn that is presented as a function of his religion.
Midway through the novel, Halid’s friend Shukri drags him along when he visits a prostitute. Shukri starts beating her and Halid demands that he stop- to which he replies, “she’s a darky Christian. Half human.”
Anti-Roma racism is a problem throughout Europe, as much so in Hungary and Bulgaria and even Ireland, as in Bosnia; but Shukri did not insult her because primarily she was a Roma, but because she was Christian.
Shukri’s hatred is not presented as a vulgar outlier, but as a casually expressed assumption; when Halid challenges that assumption he’s met with incomprehension and suspicion. “What are you a saint, a traitor? What is the matter with you?” Bigoted opinions can be readily found in any society, the important question is how common they are, and why. Implicit in this confrontation is a claim about Bosnian society as a whole: that Shukri’s comment, far from a bizarre aberration, must reflect a continuing truth about how Bosnian Muslims view Christians.
If the poverty of Christian peasants has been explained through reference to the Ottoman past, this revealing scene is portrayed as a modern extension of it. Enough assumptions of supremacy remain in Muslim discourse, based on the former social structure of the Ottoman empire, that dehumanizing Christians is a normal feature of conversation. That is what Kane implies. Yet the predominant narrative of the Bosnian government, and of the mainly Muslim party, the Democratic Action Party, suggests the opposite. Bosnian nationalism, since 1992, has meant a belief in a pluralist state and opposition to ethnic nationalism. If Bosnian Muslims viewed Christians as inhuman, they wouldn’t have elected a government committed to those ideals.
Yet these different visions of Bosnia- as an appendage “greater Serbia”, or as a tolerant state- make no appearance in the isolated world of Homecoming. The political origins of the war are conspicuous by their absence. The Bosnian army, in which the main character fought, included thousands of Serbs and Croats as well as Muslims; its second highest ranking general, Jovan Divjak, was an Orthodox Christian. This was possible because, from day one of its existence, the elected Bosnian government had been vocally committed to pluralism; as late as 1994, during the battle of Mostar, a British reporter would ask a Bosnian commander what he was fighting for. Do you want a Muslim state? “No, we are fighting so we can live as we did before”, in a multiethnic society. Serbian ultra-nationalists wanted to destroy that society, because it stood in the way- literally, geographically- of a greater Serbia. The war was sometimes presented as one between warring communities, but such a portrayal ignores the political visions on both sides: ethnically exclusive nationalism, or tolerant pluralism. Since the plot is effectively quarantined to a nameless town- which was not conquered, or cleansed, or even fought over- the author is able to discuss the war as one between Serbs and Muslims, omitting the complicating details that show it was nothing of the sort.
After defining the war in communal terms, exactly what the Bosnian government resisted doing, Kane, as narrator, makes an even more astounding suggestion: that the Muslims, as a community, won the war, and Serbs suffered a collective defeat. Rade, the ‘clever’ baker, has always refused to sell his flour; but when Halid orders 10 bags delivered to Mira’s doorstep, he immediately agrees. He cannot afford to endanger his store, we are told, by offending the victors. Halid, the wounded veteran, “was the authority around here”. Mirna, early in the novel, is described as a “widow of a man who had fought for the losing side.”
In this fictional context, it can appear plausible that Halid is returning as a victor; that local Serbs, outnumbered and disadvantaged, could feel vulnerable and defeated in the boundaries of a specific town. A novel is a self-contained universe, with its own, ahistorical rules. But the notion that Muslims won the war is, well, fiction.
The Dayton accords divided Bosnia into two entities, the Muslim-Croat federation and the Republika Sprska. the former was the political heir of the wartime Bosnian government, committed to the twin realities of democracy and civic nationalism; the latter was the continuation of Karadzic’s dream, consisting of the very areas that had been ‘ethnically cleansed’ throughout the war. Srebrenica is in the Republika Sprska. So is the town of Foca, the site of a prison camp where thousands of women were systematically raped. The legitimization of the Republika Sprska, an entity forged in attempted genocide and led, for three years, by indicted war criminals, made the Dayton accords a victory, and a reward, for Serbian nationalism- and a painful defeat, not merely for Bosniaks who suffered genocide, but for all those committed a united, tolerant Bosnian state.
The novel’s climax occurs when Halid is gambling with a Roma named Ghurge, who owns a former military barracks converted into a bar; by the end of the night Halid has lost all his money. Ghurge is ecstatic. “Balija lost” he starts shouting. He few years earlier, we’re told he had deliberately lost to “those Hajji bastards”; today he had “dared” to “beat the master”, “the hated Muslim landowner.”
“Balija” is the Balkan equivalent of the n-word, or the Russian insult ‘yid’. A man named Momir Nikolic is serving a 20 year prison sentence, for his role in the siege of Srebrenica and the genocide that followed. He served as an intelligence officer in the Bratunac brigade, assisting in the operations that led to the fall of the enclave. At his trial he mentioned a comment made, in an official meeting, by two of his military superiors. It was a simple explanation of their plans for when the enclave fell. “All balijas must be killed.”
‘Balija’ is uttered, in Kane’s novel, as an expression of gleeful triumph, celebrating the collapse of the hierarchy that has governed the world of the novel, converting Halid’s bad luck into a reversal of historical roles. Halid’s humiliation is the symbolic humbling of the great. By conflating these words with a scene of climactic release, the author obscures the actual meaning, literal and historical.
In a review of the German novel The Reader, whose protagonist is a former SS guard, Cynthia Ozick discussed the moral dilemmas of a novelist- especially when deciding to work with a historical theme. The fictional SS guard was a former factory worker, who had been conscripted after turning down a transfer to a different factory, because, being illiterate, she had not been able to read a letter from the head of her company. Her membership in the SS, though indefensible, could not be seen in the usual manichaen terms, she was less a criminal than a victim of poverty, which had prevented her from attending school. Yet the vast majority of SS members, and Wehrmacht soldiers, had enjoyed the full benefits of state education instituted by Bismark. The Reader, Ozick concludes, told a completely plausible story, but one that relied on a clear anomaly to deflect attention from a larger truth.
Kane’s nameless village, with its Ottoman social structure preserved like a fly in amber, is no more implausible than a German woman’s illiteracy. It is an exception, but a realistic exception, and makes for a fascinating story. But a novelist’s literary freedom is not an exemption from the basic rules applied to historians: facts can be circumvented to fit a certain storyline; but they cannot be openly contradicted to fit a revision of history. Homecoming opens, and concludes, in the aftermath of a hellish war, in which Bosnia’s Muslim citizens were ‘cleansed’ from large swathes of the country, imprisoned in concentration camps, subjected to torture, rape, and a deliberate policy of genocide. Yet the universe constructed in Homecoming, none of this has happened. It is not denied, it is just ignored.
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