The stories of Yesterday’s People are torn between war and peace, and between Goran Simić‘s native Bosnia (specifically Sarajevo) and his current residence, Canada. The centerpiece of the collection, ‘Minefield’, tells the story of two sides in the Yugoslavian war who are entrenched on either side of a 50-meter-wide minefield. Left to their own devices, and with little possibility of movement on either side, the enemies pass the time by insulting each other, drinking, and using pages from the books they’ve brought to the trenches as tobacco rolling papers:
The bags of shit we threw at one another piled up on the battlefield. By mid-summer it stank so badly that each side agreed to stop. The arsenal of verbal obscenities, however, continued to escalate. As we could not see each other, each side nicknamed the other from what could be guesses by the sound of their voices. The most vocal on their side we called Ass, Cock, Cretin and Guts. They, in turn, christened us Bastard, Vulture, Lamb and Turd. I was called Sickness, probably because of my endless coughing, caused by too much smoking.
As time went on, no one reacted to the cursing of mothers and sisters any more: that was something that only younger, denser soldiers reveled in. Originality became the order of the day, the assaults by which we earned our stripes. We came to know, over time, who on their side was the easiest to provoke, as well as the relative intelligence of each by what they reacted to. They knew just as well who among us had the weakest nerves.
Perhaps the most moving story in the collection is ‘The Story of Sinan’, which tells the story of two men, Sinan and Jovan, who are trapped in their apartments during the siege of Sarajevo. Afraid to go outside during the day for fear of being killed by a sniper—or being recruited into the army and sent to the front—the two men pass the time by combining their meagre foodstuffs into meals and talking, and Sinan sneaks out at night to gamble. Their uneasy equilibrium is broken when Sinan brings home an orphan.
‘A Story about Soil’ tells of two brothers who fought on opposite sides in the Second World War, influenced by their father who wanted to guarantee that the family would be able to side with whoever won. And ‘Another Bear’ recounts the story of Kanada, a woman who befriends dancing bears that live in a zoo, and the fate that befalls them when the war starts.
These stories have been translated by numerous different translators (the stories themselves have appeared in numerous different journals), and sometimes this results in an unevenness in the language between the individual stories, but these minor distractions don’t diminish the power of Simić‘s voice, nor the emotional impact of his storytelling.
In Yesterday’s People, Goran Simić looks at war, and its aftermath, from the ground level. His characters are everyday people who rarely seek to understand, and have no power to influence, the larger forces that have trapped them, either in the war-torn present or long after the war has ended and they have moved halfway around the globe; they’re too busy trying to make sense of their own shattered lives.
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