Like Scotts or High Elvish, childhood is simultaneously both a real language and a totally made-up one. We all spoke it once, but in the time since we spoke it last we’ve forgotten enough that our own memories can seem, if not incomprehensible, then at least significantly garbled. Being adults—meaning, being creatures that pride ourselves on having ostensibly figured our shit out in the world—we don’t like to admit any of this. We tour our childhoods with regal condescension; but it only takes a single misstep to start us blustering like tourists in a marketplace, until finally all we can do is stutter here! here! and retreat to the embassy. Later, we blame our confusion on the fact that when we were children we thought like children, but now we have put away childish things—like eating entire jars of marshmallow Fluff. Except that even as we say this, we know it isn’t true and that nothing has changed: that the old hurts still hurt, and the Fluff is still sitting there in the cupboard, drawing us to itself like a rubbery star. All of a sudden we jump out of our chairs—Back! We want to go back! But if the past is really another country, then even the most childish of us must admit that we can no more go back “there” than we can go back to Middle Earth, or Ancient Greece, or any of the other kingdoms of the imagination. For we are not just tourists, but exiles; travelers whose visits to the old country, city, neighborhood, block, or bedroom must inevitably be suffused with the one feeling that we do not want to admit our childhood contained: loss.

Miljenko Jergovic’s Mama Leone is a book about loss, and about the hopeless and beautiful attempt to recover what has been lost. It begins in one child’s experience and ends so far away from it that it’s impossible not to see the shift as commentary not only on the fragility of childhood, but on the very act of loving recreation that makes the first half of the book so rich. If this sounds paradoxical, well, it is. It is also in keeping with the paradoxical criticism/embrace the narrator makes a few seconds after being born in a Sarajevo hospital:

I still didn’t understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn’t have others to compare it to, the world where I’d appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman.

The world called Yugoslavia (over which the memory and premonition of wars past and to-come hover continuously) is terrifying, but the narrator marries himself to it—an act of bone-headed generosity that marks him as one of those ugly ducklings that we have watched grow into a writerly swan over and over again, and yet never grow tired of. Why don’t we grow tired of him? For one, because we recognize his awkward emergence as something we ourselves have gone through. Human experience may be as varied as spots on a rug, but the patterns that our minds make out of these experiences have more in common with one another than you’d expect. Knowing this, Jergovic eschews the hammy over-exaggeration of exotic detail, instead building these stories around moments whose drama might happen just as easily in Detroit, the Urals, Mars. Despite—or maybe because of—their universality, the specific meanings of said moments seem both obvious and mysterious, so that all we can do when faced with them is wait and watch as the situation gets harrier and harrier, until suddenly an invisible line is crossed and it becomes not-hairy at all. The figures that only a moment ago seemed to be physically weighed down by their individual lonelinesses float free, hanging together in space like stars in a constellation. The effect of these breakthroughs is cathartic, sure, but also heartbreaking—for example, when the narrator’s young mother climbs fully-clothed to the top of a high dive as her son and ex-husband (who can’t swim) watch:

Nice diving board, said Mom, and then went and climbed right up to the top. Fully clothed, one step at a time, she walked slowly out along the board, which was trembling and wobbling under her weight. When she got to the end she looked down and spread her arms wide as if she was going to fly away, but then she slowly let them fall. Dad looked up at her, beads of sweat lining his forehead, he opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, and he did want to say something, but he didn’t know how, or whether to say it to me or to her.

The soft ventriloquism of this scene, in which the narrator seems for a second to be not just himself, or his mother, or father, but all three of them at once, reflects a further paradox of feeling—one so ordinary that I’d bet every kid has experienced it at one time or another. The diving board represents something different to each of the three figures around, under, and on it. And yet, it somehow represents the same thing. The distance from one person to the next is both heartbreaking and reassuring, since it is a distance the three of them experience together. And then, only a few lines later, the miracle is over, Mom steps back from the edge, life goes on.

Coming to terms with this last part is one of the aspects in which language helps the young narrator of Mama Leone do. He is aware of it painfully, curiously—the way other kids become aware of their tongues. This maladjustment brings with it certain benefits. As anyone who has tried to make himself understood in a foreign country will tell you, one of the underrated benefits of language learning is the understanding it gives of one’s native tongues. In a similar way, the developmentally bilingual voice of Mama Leone dabbles in adulthood without really being fluent in it. The particular sound of this flailing can be lyrical, funny, bizarre, naïve, and even, occasionally, wise. It can begin a story by saying that “Only words cause no pain” and then three pages later describe that most mythical of beasts, a grandparent, with casual surrealism:

“When he sweats, I can imagine a whole crowd of people building houses on his face, sitting in the dark and sweating like him; on Grandpa’s face lives another little grandpa, who also sits in the dark, lights a cigarette, rivers run down his face too, and next to them live even smaller people and even smaller grandpas, and they too sit in the dark, in blue and brown light, next to their grandsons, who on their faces see crowds of even smaller people and even smaller grandpas.”

As adults, we can call such Chagallian acrobatics beautiful; but Jergovic is careful to reminds us how pragmatic its wordplay is to the narrator himself. Grandpas are scary; so, like Perseus facing Medusa, the child makes an image, a mirror, replacing the vertiginous Grandpaface with a sort of linguistic Lego village, whose busy cuteness effaces its original’s freakish physicality while still not banishing it completely. The not banishing is especially important—for while words may be powerful tools for domestication, they are also spells, and require familiars. The house demon—that onetime staple of family life—must stay chained to the stove, or else it will wander off to make mischief elsewhere. Better, then, to create a grandpa who is still scary, strange, ugly—and all the more grandpa for it.

Compared to magic like this, the second half of Mama Leone, in which the narrative “I” is abandoned for a shifting third person that takes up a series of “unrelated” characters, is a bit of a letdown—but if anything, this is a testament to Jergovic’s honesty as a chronicler. Not just of childhood, but of memory—specifically, of the bittersweet memory of people who have left (or been thrown out of, or fled) their homes behind them. Sometimes these homes are actual countries, but more often they are states of mind: times before guilt, before heartbreak, before love, times in which everything seemed simpler because we thought it was. Losing is something that can happen to anyone, Mama Leone reminds us, which is one of the things that differentiates it from a book like Speak, Memory. For all its beauty, Nabokov’s tutor-and-truttle idyll emits a hagiographic reek, as if its ultimate meaning as experience was the exclusivity of its author’s suffering, and our necessary “we” before it. Jergovic avoids such grandiosity by breaking his hero’s childhood into shards—each of which nonetheless carries a tiny reflection of its source. We were all children once. Maybe we always will be: after all, if disappointment is all it takes to be an adult, then every one of us is born into it with our first breath.

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Mama Leone
By Miljenko Jergović
Translated by David Williams
Reviewed by Josh Billings
353 pages, Paperback
ISBN: 9781935744320
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