Lana Bastašić 2023. Mann im Mond. Erzählungen. Aus dem Bosnischen übersetzt von Rebekka Zeinzinger. Frankfurt/M.: S. Fischer. 208 pp., ISBN 978-3-10-397153-8, € 24.00.
This collection of stories by Lana Bastašić, published German in 2023 (original title Mliječni zubi, “Milk Teeth”, Belgrade/Sarajevo, 2020; no English translation available as of yet), will leave many readers speechless. Where does the evil come from in these dark childhood memories in which (mainly female) children aged 8 to 14 talk about toxic family relationships? Much like the American short story classics that created this genre, these 12 stories are mostly unspectacular and minimalist, often consisting of just one scene from everyday life that is then suddenly interrupted.
Lana Bastašić’s (*1986) breakthrough was her novel Catch the Rabbit (original title Uhvati zeca, 2018) which was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2020. This story is about the suppression of guilt and war experience in the memories of Sara, a Bosnian Serb from Ireland who makes her way “back” to Banja Luka, Mostar and later Vienna. Sara is driven by the promise of her then best friend Lejla to find her childhood crush Armin, a young Muslim who disappeared at the beginning of the war—when her own father had been chief of police in Banja Luka. The journey back to the Balkans is a kind of exposure therapy, but the novel’s main topic is in fact the failing friendship between the Muslim rebel and the conformist Serb.
The new stories under scrutiny here strike a different note: they are not tied to space and time, and the reader has no idea when between 1950 and 2020 they are set—the locations, a music school, a supermarket, an ice cream parlour and PE lessons, do not give any hints. There are no reminiscences of a Yugoslav or socialist reality and much like in the Theatre of the Absurd, the characters move around on a stage without props. At first glance, all the stories tell of neglected and unloved children—and the motto taken from Georgi Gospodinov’s book, “[a]t the beginning […] stands a child thrown into the basement” (from The Physics of Sorrow ), also points in this direction. In Gospodinov’s novel the sociological analysis of the socialist nuclear family creates empathy for the child mutating into the Minotaur and their expression of yearnings and loneliness. Bastašić’s basement children, however, turn into real monsters: structural and domestic violence against women and children and their reproduction of violence is a recurrent theme. The first story starts with the following sentence from the ten-year-old first-person narrator: “It took me a pretty long time to strangle Dad. He was a thin man and always ill” (“Forest”, 9). The motif of revenge for a disenchanted childhood is central and sometimes even opens the door to horror fiction: ten-year-olds do not stop at killing fish and tadpoles, they also poison a psychologist who is only able to use her precious fountain pen, or refuse to render first aid to a suffocating and consequently dying PE teacher.
Only the last short story, “Dad Coming Home”, is an exception which thus grounds the entire volume when the Serbian father returns from the war “with the Muslims” (196). In this way, the collection is given a second, concrete level of interpretation, namely the Bosnian War of 1992–1995. Much like Michael Haneke’s 2009 film “The White Ribbon. A German Children’s Story” is a contribution from the history of mentalities to explaining war crimes and the Holocaust from the German perpetrator’s perspective, Lana Bastašić offers a psychogram of the generation of Bosnian Serb war criminals from the 1990s. Haneke describes the “poisonous pedagogy” and repressive sexual morals that generated the sadistic, dishonest and subaltern children who would become the generation of perpetrators in Nazi Germany. Like in Haneke’s fictive village of Eichwald, Bastašić’s characters also suffer psychological and physical violence, as well as emotional neglect, at the hands of their religious parents.
Let us take a closer look at this collection: generally, the stories told by boys deal with brutal and aggressive fathers, while girls tell of their hysterical mothers. The fathers tell sexist jokes, beat their sons to a pulp (“Man in the Moon”) or humiliate and insult them for lacking athleticism (“A Day at the Pool”). The only thing the mothers care about is keeping up appearances. The intrusion of unwanted advice and collective pressure from the village locals for children to look and behave perfectly is referred to as “face-threatening acts” in pragmatic linguistics. These “acts” are especially brutal when they demand sexuality and strict body ideals from prepubescent girls (“She finds it annoying that I eat Čokolino, she says I’m too old for baby food, that crap is full of sugar, made to fatten babies, did I want to become a fat girl?”, “Blood”, 168).
The picture painted of what the reader knows to be the last decades of Tito’s Yugoslavia is anything but nostalgic. In all the stories, the children suffer from their parents’ shattered marriages or missing fathers; there is a lot of aggression towards the Other (a strict Christian mother calls an affluent elderly Jewish neighbour a “witch whose people killed Jesus”, “God of Honey”, 67). Girls and boys are not only sexually harassed and abused by strangers on the street (“Bread”) but also by the aged rich aunt (“The Last Supper”) and the father who creeps up to the child’s bed at night disguised as the tooth fairy (“Tooth Fairy”).
The depiction of the children’s perspective and mindset is done masterfully, for example when the older sister rebels against the strict gender roles when her mother needs help killing a cockroach in the basement: “For some reason he did not find that strange. He—in his small baseball jacket and the Superman slippers, he who was still picking his nose and inspecting his snot, when he thought I was not watching. He who still did not know the Hail Mary off by heart, the easiest prayer. He found it perfectly normal that she chose him. A head shorter than me” (“Dad Coming Home”, 197).
Placing the blame for the violence of the war on the parents’ generation is a new trend in post-Yugoslav literature that we are already familiar with from Goran Vojnović (Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, 2011) or Marko Dinić (The Good Days, 2019). Lena Bastašić takes this to the next artistic level: her socio- and psychopathic characters topple both the idealized image of Yugoslavia of the 1970s–1980s as well as her co-nationals’ ethnocentric narratives of victimization.
© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter on behalf of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies
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