Personal Narratives in Opposition to Mythologised Historical Narratives.

 

Neil Griffiths

 

Historical narratives that influenced the former Yugoslavia in recent times played on cultural (collective) memories of events that individuals in society were often unable to remember personally. This temporal and physical distance from the event makes it difficult for the individual to disprove or oppose the memory, which leaves the obvious choice for society’s members being to follow the collective memory. But the role of memory between the individual and the collective is a two-way process: ‘If individual memories are constructed within culture, and are part of cultural systems of representation, so cultural memories are constituted by the cumulative weight of dispersed and fragmented individual memories’[1]. As such, the collected individual memories within society are the resource collective memory draws from, which suggests that mythologised historical narratives can be opposed by active participation of individual memories (both through experience and passed on by word of mouth) within society. Although individuals may not be able to disprove a particular collective memory, they can oppose the influence the impression of the memory has on a community’s identity with the impressions of competing personal memories.

 

This essay will examine a small selection of personal narratives, from the conflict of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, to see whether individuals within those societies were completely subsumed beneath the mythologised historical narratives promulgated by the political leadership of the time, or whether, in these personal accounts, lies a competing narrative which seeks to reassert the social voice of people living in the present, over the historical voice of the past.

 

Evidence of a lack of opposition to the official line is significant. As Bette Denich points out: ‘The population at large must share with their leaders the blame for the disaster. Even foreseeing civil war, people cohered into ethnic blocs, supporting leaders who pursued increasingly aggressive policies toward each other.’[2] But seeking security in the familiarity of one’s ethnic group does not signify the absolute adherence to the historical myths that foreshadowed this separatism.

 

There is evidence to suggest that society in general, despite clearly being influenced by this lead, maintained oppositional or competing narratives during this period – ‘During the war Yugoslav literature has become reduced to two genres: open letters and diaries.’[3] An example of the latter is Elvira Simić’s The Cry of Bosnia: A Personal Diary of the Bosnian War. The diary initially seems simply to be about her family’s survival as the conflict enclosed their village, yet there is much more to the text than reflections on dwindling food supplies, lack of water and the destruction of telephone lines. Writing down details almost as they happen enables the reader to get a more accurate picture of what was happening than anything written with the benefit of hindsight (and perhaps an ulterior motive). Specific events lead the author to reflections on the overall Yugoslav conflict itself, such as her understanding when a group of Serbian men were taken prisoner in the village. While the official line was that these men were trying to annex Bosnia, Simić maintained a more balanced view based on her memories of life in the multi-ethnic community: ‘Among them were some people who were genuinely inspired by ideas of a Greater Serbia but there were also some who were confused and were just hangers on.’[4]

 

Simić also finds time to examine the complicity of society, and herself, ‘It is hard not to feel a traitor. I am one of many who did not speak up and who did not do anything to try and stop the madness.’ (p. 28) While critics might say this is an easy, almost self-flagellating statement to make, it nevertheless documents the knowledge and feelings of elements of society, and also how these changed. Simić later notes: ‘More and more often I have to keep my disapproval of things to myself.’ (p. 47) As the situation worsened, mythologised historical narratives became more dominant and dissenting minds lacked a place to make their voices heard. In writing this diary Simić found a private outlet for her thoughts. In reading her story, the audience makes her voice public once more.

 

Communities can, after all, display their ethnic pride without using it as nationalist provocation. In her study of folk ensembles, Lynn Maners highlights the case of an ethnic Serbian dance being received positively by a Bosnian Muslim audience. Although such a performance was not possible during the early and mid-nineties, post-conflict, the mutual respect for culture has been restored.[5] This suggests that the conflict was not based on dislike of others’ ethnicity, rather, the nationalist mythological fervour constructed using that.

 

Cynthia Enloe posits the notion that nationalism is a masculine process, and highlights the contrary efforts of the Serbian Women’s Party during the 1990-91 period: ‘The Women’s Party called for respect for cultural diversity within Yugoslavia. It reached out to non-Serbian women.’[6] Clearly, that particular movement failed to subdue the ethno-nationalist fervour that heralded the country’s disintegration, but it may be indicative of women in the former Yugoslavia’s early attempts to find a socio-political voice. It is possible to see the same universal values embedded in the texts of the diaries written during the conflict; and the predominance of women as authors of these diaries.

 

However, mythologised historical narratives can influence personal narratives. Problems of representation can be discerned in Dr Vahida Demirović’s book of stories on the suffering of Bosnian people. It seems churlish to criticise an attempt to give personal accounts of war-suffering a wider audience, but it is impossible to get beyond the subtitle of Visages from the Wasteland: A Collection of True War Stories from Bosnia, without taking issue. The fictionalisation of the accounts in this book, apparent in the one-dimensional characters and unrealistic ‘dialogue’ the author prescribes them, belie the use of the word ‘True’ in the title. Moral judgements are made as to the way people are portrayed in the book, turning Bosnian Muslims into pure, innocent victims and Serbs into intrinsically bad aggressors. This example is simply a general description of the society in a village two decades before the Yugoslav conflict: ‘The Serb population was unfriendly [...] The Muslims did not respond to the hostilities. They just retreated.’[7] Such generalisations are hardly likely to encourage inter-ethnic cooperation. Moreover, the clumsy treatment of these accounts does disservice to the very people it aims to help.  The removal of authorship from the person involved in the story to the interpretive ‘other’ also results in a lack of specificity and motifs with which the reader can identify; resulting in generalisations: ‘The enemy was killing people from a distance. They had no courage to come closer. The heroic defenders were protecting the town and everyone in it.’ (p. 159)

 

Jasmina Tesanovic manages to cover aspects of life readily identifiable by general society in The Diary of a Political Idiot: Normal Life in Belgrade. She goes beyond discussion of the practicalities and war humour of the conflict itself (‘The café in my neighbourhood isn’t called New York anymore but Baghdad Café’)[8], and reflects on how it affects families: ‘My mother, as a communist, refused to acknowledge the life of her father, whom she considered a kulak. I refuse the culture of my mother, whom I consider a fanatic. My child is burning bridges with me because I am a traitor and she believes in national values.’ (pp. 41-42) Rather than incorporating mythologised historical narratives into her diary, Tesanovic makes public the expression of contemporary personal issues, such as family conflict, that connect people across the divide. In doing so, she is creating an alternative narrative that challenges the mythologised historical narrative.

 

Slavenka Drakulić’s Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War is a less typical personal historical narrative, but bears the same trait of representing feelings and reception of events almost immediately. ‘“The Serbs must be slaughtered,” says a twelve-year-old child from my neighbourhood playing with the bread knife. His mother slaps his face while the other grown-ups around the table lower their eyes, aware that they are to blame for his words.’[9]

 

While part of her work deals with the practicalities of living through conflict, what distinguishes Drakulić’s account is her relative freedom of movement. Indeed, it is the reflections she has outside Croatia that provide a different perspective on the war’s influence on public consciousness. She recounts her experience as one of three Yugoslav strangers sharing a train compartment in Austria, afraid to talk to each other: ‘If we speak up, our language will disclose who is a Croat and who a Serb, which of us is the enemy. And even if we are all Croat (or Serbs) we might disagree on the war and yet there is no other topic we could talk about.’ (p. 37) Drakulić depicts society’s communication breakdown in her personal account; writing it becomes an attempt to restore this.

 

But even if personal narratives prove that imposed historical narratives are not all conquering, can something so individual influence the collective? One advantage of personal narratives is the way they communicate with the reader. Personal histories often tend to include things with which the reader identifies, such as the mundane routine of daily life. In portraying imagery as a visual form of emotional experience, Francesca Cappelletto suggests that ‘Visual memory lends the narrative a realistic tone, since it is a perceptive-sensory memory.’[10] In the case of experiencing the Yugoslav conflict, the sound of gunfire, the darkness of the house when the power was cut, the struggle to prepare daily meals, all resonate with the reader by recalling their sensory associations.

 

Personal narratives thus create a communal consciousness through allowing the remembering of similar experiences. Interacting with such narratives then permits the manifestation of impressions, feelings and understanding that exists outside the imposed historical narrative. Pierre Nora notes, ‘History has always been in the hands of the public authorities, of scholars and specialized peer groups [...] Memory has acquired all the new privileges and prestige of a popular protest movement.’[11] In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the suppression of history under the communist regime undoubtedly assisted the arguments of certain political leaders who wished to demonstrate that their particular ethnic group had been unfairly repressed.

 

The legacy of this suppressed era was the inability of individuals within society to make their voices heard. Clearly, the lack of communication within, as well as between, ethnic groups was crucial in the manipulation of memory to split ethnic identities before and during the conflict. It appears that it was not that the mythologised historical narratives inveigled their way into everyone’s thoughts and narratives, but that the existing oppositional narratives were not vocal enough in their exposition. Mythologising nationalism could be resisted on an individual level, but society had no collective method for opposing such narratives.

 

                                                                                                                    Neil Griffiths

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Cappelletto, Francesca, ‘Long-term Memory of Extreme Events: From Autobiography to History’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9, 2, 2003, pp. 241-260

Demirović, Vahida, Visages from the Wasteland: A Collection of True War Stories from Bosnia, trans. by Ralph Bogert, [London: Genie Quest, 1999]

Drakulić, Slavenka, Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War, [London: Hutchinson, 1993]

Enloe, Cynthia, The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War, [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993]

Halpern, Joel M., and David A. Kideckel (eds.), Neighbors at War: Anthropological Perspectives on Yugoslav Ethnicity, Culture and History, [University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000]

Kenny, Michael G., ‘A Place for Memory: The Interface between Individual and Collective History’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 41, 3, 1999, pp. 420-437

Nora, Pierre, ‘The Reasons for the Current Upsurge in Memory’, Transit, 72, 2001 <http://www.eurozine.com/article/2002-04-19-nora-en.html>

Simić, Elvira, The Cry of Bosnia: A Personal Diary of the Bosnian War, [London: Genie Quest, 1998]

Tesanovic, Jasmina, The Diary of a Political Idiot: Normal Life in Belgrade, San Francisco, CA: Midnight Editions, 2000]

Ugrešić, Dubravka,  Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream, trans. by Celia Hawkesworth, [London: Viking, 1995]



[1] Michael G. Kenny, ‘A Place for Memory: The Interface between Individual and Collective History’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 41, 1999, 3, pp. 420-37 (p. 5).

 

[2] Bette Denich, ‘Unmaking Multiethnicity in Yugoslavia’ in Joel M. Halpern and David A. Kideckel (eds.), Neighbors at War: Anthropological Perspectives on Yugoslav Ethnicity, Culture and History, University Park, PA, 2000, pp. 39-55 (p. 41).

 

[3] Dubravka Ugrešić, Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream, trans. by Celia Hawkesworth, London, 1995, p. 4.

 

[4] Elvira Simić, The Cry of Bosnia: A Personal Diary of the Bosnian War, London, 1998, p. 20.

 

[5] Lynn D. Maners, ‘Clapping for Serbs: Nationalism and Performance in Bosnia and Hercegovina’ in Joel M. Halpern and David A. Kideckel (eds.), Neighbors at War: Anthropological Perspectives on Yugoslav Ethnicity, Culture and History, University Park, PA, 2000, pp. 302-315 (p. 314).

 

[6] Cynthia Enloe, The Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War, London, 1993, p. 249.

 

[7] Vahida Demirović, Visages from the Wasteland: A Collection of True War Stories from Bosnia, trans. by Ralph Bogert, London, 1999, p. 145.

 

[8] Tesanovic, Jasmina, The Diary of a Political Idiot: Normal Life in Belgrade, San Francisco, CA, 2000, p. 77.

 

[9] Slavenka Drakulić, Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War, London, 1993, p. 9.

 

 

[10] Francesca Cappelletto, ‘Long-term Memory of Extreme Events: From Autobiography to History’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9, 2003, 2, pp. 241-260 (p. 251).

 

[11] Pierre Nora, ‘The Reasons for the Current Upsurge in Memory’, Transit, 72, 2001 <http://www.eurozine.com/article/2002-04-19-nora-en.html> [accessed 18 February 2004] (para. 22 of 31).