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Last Updated: Monday, 4 August, 2003, 23:41 GMT 00:41 UK
Sense of the City: Sarajevo
The BBC is asking novelists who have a profound understanding of the city they live in to reflect on the fiction it has produced and the various works of literature set there.

Sarajevo in the mist
The essence of Sarajevo is the city itself
Aleksander Hemon is a writer and journalist from Sarajevo. He was visiting the United States at the outbreak of war in 1992 and was stranded when the city came under siege.

Strangely there are not too many older novels that deal with Sarajevo because in the early 19th and 20th Century a lot of novelists wanted to claim their relation to their people or their nation.

One of the things in the nationalist imagination is the belief that the city spoils the purity of the people who come to live in it, which is exactly what I liked about Sarajevo.

Cities make people encounter, they make them get in touch, as it were. They make them face each other even if that means a conflict.

So they are spaces of exchange.

There are a few books or stories that are set in the old Sarajevo, and what I like about those books is the same thing that I like about later books, and the things that I like to write about in my book.

And that is this urban space - the urban geography which makes people exchange things - exchange words, exchange emotions, exchange experiences, and exchange whatever it is they have to give to other people.

You cannot keep cities pure ethnically or in any other way. They cannot be clean.

Graves in Sarajevo
These people lived together, now they are dead together - I always loved that
Sarajevo, in that sense, was very impure, both because it had the biggest percentage of so-called mixed marriages, and because throughout history a lot of people ended up there.

There is a book that I really like. It is a recent book, and it was written and published during the time of the siege of Sarajevo.

It's called Sarajevo Marlboro, and one of the stories is about a gravedigger who is digging a grave and then he points around the city at different cemeteries and talks about people who are buried there.

And somehow, strangely and beautifully, this person - whose job is death, as it were - starts extolling the life of the city, and the life that is recorded in cemeteries, recorded in death.

In other words, these people lived together, now they are dead together. I always loved that.

This is exactly the beautiful thing about Sarajevo. There is no fixed essence that you can reach and capture. It's uncapturable.

And in fact if one were to capture it that would make it vulnerable.

Sarajevo changes. Sometimes it changes for the better, sometimes it changes for the worst.

But cities don't die unless they are completely levelled. But even the levelled ones still exist, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Villages vanish and suburbs vanish - not enough of them! But cities don't die.

So the essence of Sarajevo is the city itself. In the same book, Sarajevo Marlboro, there is a lovely little story about a rock and roll singer and his story, the way he lived in the city - the way he existed before the war and the way he existed during the war.

And a lot of those stories, if you are from Sarajevo you know who these people are.

Workers repair a house in Sarajevo
Sarajevo is now facing the challenge of rebuilding
So there is a retained memory of that in literature.

Around the time of the war literature from Sarajevo in the wider sense dealt with the war.

And in strange ways it had more hope than the literature might have today.

Because the war was a struggle, in a sense, and to write books and to write about Sarajevo was to protect it, or defend it, in fact.

Whereas now, the city is in bad shape. It's a different story.

But I think there will be more remembering. There will be more attempts to try to remember what it is that was good in the city.

You could describe that as nostalgia, but only in the sense that it would be a sort of utopian memory - trying to remember what it was like when everything was together, when Sarajevo was a definable whole.

Now it's not so much of a definable whole. So in some ways it will be more redefining the city both retroactively and, I would hope, proactively.

Sense of the City can be heard on the BBC World Service programme The World Today until Friday 8 August, and includes Orhan Pamuk talking about Istanbul, and Romesh Gunesekera on Colombo.

Aleksander Hemon
"There is no fixed essence that you can reach and capture"


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