||The Runoff Of War
by Matthew Fox
At a recent panel discussion at Toronto's Spoke Club, novelist Wayne Johnson decided to teach the local hipsters a few things. "There is no such thing" as a unifying theme in Canadian literature, he said. "In fact, it's going the opposite way. There's a global atomisation. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just the way the world works, and the world is working more and more that way."
Indeed. For proof, one needn't look any further than last year's list of Canadian releases: Hungarians exiled in Last Notes and Other Stories, the Odyssey revisited in The Penelopiad, Oji-Cree soldiers embattled in WWI in Three Day Road, and a Burmese protest singer imprisoned in The Lizard Cage. With so many books that are labeled "Canadian" without being expressly Canadian, it is easy to go back to the perennial questions about our literature and our national identity: What makes these books Canadian? Is it just that they were published here? Or is it that the authors carry Canadian passports?
One book that could easily join the above-given roster, and that offers some answers to these questions, is Yesterday's People by Goran Simic. This collection of eight short stories is ostensibly about war-either the Bosnian War or some fictional equivalent-and uses terse sentences to describe its horrors with devastating and compassionate aplomb. A Canadian reader might expect to be a literary tourist in such stories, and the stories themselves don't go out of their way to appeal to our national sensitivities, but Yesterday's People still manages to contribute to the Canadian experience. The reader just has to meet the author halfway.
Simic examines the dubious premise of national identity and questions the value of violent conflict-what Canadian has not done the same thing? Several characters in Yesterday's People are immigrants who moved from the Balkans to Toronto. Through them, Simic unapologetically gives us some negative impressions of Canada. "I was forced to exchange this small, familiar world for that of a big Canadian city," says the narrator of "The Game". He adds,
"I have lived here for months, and everybody who passes says hello, though I never get to really know a single person. My neighbours pass and smile at me, but with no more warmth than that shown by the attendants on my flight from Toronto. In their smiles I see my own transience."
This notion of transience speaks directly to what Johnson says about Canadian literature, since it is an underlying feeling for many immigrants and for urbanised people who call this country home. In other words, Yesterday's People doesn't manage to be Canadian by participating in a unifying theme, but rather by being as "atomised" as Canada itself.
Not everyone has caught up to this fact. There was a minor controversy last year when Simic's poetry collection, From Sarajevo, with Sorrow, was declared ineligible for the Governor General's Award on the grounds that parts of it were originally written in Serbo-Croation. Clearly, this is the sort of thing to which our awards system will have to adapt if we are to continue to attract writers like Simic to our shores. He came to Toronto from Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996. Best known for his poetry, of which there are twenty-one volumes, Simic has been prolific in a variety of genres-from essays to fairy tales to puppet plays. His work has appeared around the world and he writes in both his native language and English.
If nothing else, Yesterday's People confirms that Goran Simic is a poet. Many of these short stories seem to have been approached through a poetic sensibility, with narratives and prose alike stretching for density and resonance, creating mood, but not necessarily drama. Characters must emerge through the spare prose in the same way they must emerge from the war-blunted, with much difficulty, and with their core qualities exposed.
When it works-and it works most of the time-the effect is haunting. In "Minefield", the absurdity of war comes to life through insults shouted back and forth by two groups of young soldiers positioned on opposite sides of a minefield. The motion of the story is quick, but the details are so carefully chosen that they are gems: "It all seemed out of a movie until the day the student we called Rambo tried to use a bow and arrow to launch a hand grenade. We spent days scraping bits and pieces of his head off the bunker wall and the nearby trees." Just as the two enemy battalions grow emotionally closer through insults, it is the mechanics of death that ironically force the boys to act on behalf of life instead of victory. With the economy of a parable, Simic brings us close to the characters while debunking the pretensions of war.
When the poetic overtures fail, it is either because too much has been stripped away, or not enough. The story "Saturday" tells the tale of Josip, who sits in his window in Toronto, staring at the pub he once owned. Its regular customers-a cavalcade of hookers, friends, and lowlifes-come and go. The customers are described in a too-long series of many set pieces that becomes confusing and distracts from the more interesting part of the story-the history of Josip's marriage. When the two plot lines collide in resolution, the emotional power of the moment is compromised by the extraneousness of all those characters; it's diluted because the rest of the story isn't diluted enough.
Another aspect of the book's poetic foundation is the prose itself. Simic is careful with how the words appear on the page. He knows when to break a paragraph and visual cues are used expertly to govern the rhythm and pace. For many stories, Simic develops an internal language to represent the story's overriding feeling-not an original idea, of course, but Simic and his translators have done an excellent job of making it seem both intentional and natural. The craft on display is deceptive; the results are often blunt and immediate, but clearly there has been a great deal of refinement invested.
The order of the stories is also important: they compliment each other well, and the weakest, or oddest ones are stashed at the back of the volume. Two of these-"Saturday" and "The Game"-rely on the aforementioned episodic structure and end up feeling too programmed by it. "The Game" in particular is mechanical instead of wrenching or gripping-which appears to be Simic's intention. Divided into sections named after individual members of a youth soccer team, the episodes recount how each player excelled at different aspects of the game and how the war entered their lives, destroying their families or their chance at personal success. There is a novel's worth of tragedy compressed into eleven short pages, but the structure doesn't allow the author to pinpoint anything in particular. There is also the bizarre final story, "Adam the Frame", a seven-page magical realist tale about a framer who must literally contain whatever is painted on a canvass. The story is good on its own terms, but coming after seven tales of war and exile (themes not directly touched upon here), it feels out of place and tacked-on.
Certainly family is of huge concern to Simic, but not in any traditional way. Using strong familial language, the author, like his characters, must create families with what's there-with whatever the war allows. Such is the case in "Minefield", but also in "The Story of Sinian": Two neighbours caught in their Sarajevo apartment building during the war band together to help raise a young mute boy whose parents have disappeared. It is perhaps the best story in the collection-a true showcase of Simic's talents. With clipped sentences, a little humour, and a simple structure, the author builds his two central characters-a quiet cynic and an obsessive world-class gambler-and shows how they fall into provider/nurturer roles as they try to care for the orphan. The war operates as a type of bleak destructive power akin to the "Nothing" in The Neverending Story; as it spreads and gathers momentum, the stakes for the characters get higher, propelling them towards an ultimate gamble and an ultimate sacrifice. Though bookended by some obvious commentary about the nature of memory, the story exposes the sort of desperation that only war can produce, that compels people into makeshift families no less valid than ones forged by blood: "In times of hunger, everyone becomes as tolerant as a hooker."
Simic's war isn't comprised of the rough, cinematic horrors that dominate modern portrayals of combat; there is little gore here, no grisly battle scenes, no inhumane destruction. Rarely are political opponents identified; rather, the conflict seems to be between humanity and the malevolence of war itself-a darkness that threatens everyone. The stories represent the runoff of war, pooled into small reservoirs that are clear and reflective and still.
Yesterday's People is more than just the sum of its parts. Taken as a whole, an arc of experience emerges that links childhood to death, war to immigration, Europe to Canada-and it is all accomplished with masterly craft and restraint. These things may not fit into any neat understanding of Canadian literature, but that is the very reason that books like Simic's must be included on our national reading list. Without them, we deny that very real "global atomization" that makes a multiplicity of topics fair game because all of them deal with our humanity. ò
Matthew Fox's first book of short stories, Cities of Weather, was nominated for the QWF's McAuslan First Book Prize. He lives in Montreal where he works as an associate editor for Maisonneuve.