Reviewed by Ellen Cassedy
To read Spomenka Štimec’s compelling new work of autobiographical fiction, Croatian War Nocturnal, is to be struck by multiple ironies. First, it’s heartbreaking that this gripping account of the everyday traumas of war has been written in, of all languages, Esperanto – the language invented to promote world peace. And second, how poignant it is that a language created to erase linguistic obstacles and unite people around the globe should need translation at all. But that’s what we have here: a spare volume offering information and insights that feel urgently necessary, written in a language of hope and rendered in a translation as clear as glass.
Esperanto was invented in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), a Jewish doctor, in response to the hardships of Jewish life in imperial Russia. The word “Esperanto” means “he who hopes.” The language comprises a mix of Romance and Germanic vocabulary, Romance syntax, and Slavic sounds. Zamenhof believed that his “neutral international auxiliary language” would promote unity among peoples. Today, it’s estimated that millions of people use it in one way or another – whether speaking, passively understanding, studying, or participating in the Esperanto clubs that exist all over the world.
Translator Sebastian Schulman came to Esperanto through Yiddish – also an international language, though not an artificial one. Founder of the ground-breaking Yiddish translation fellowship program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, he learned about Esperanto through his interest in Jewish language history. As he studied the language online, he was excited to discover a robust Esperanto literature, little known beyond Esperantists themselves. He told me he found its internationalist outlook “distinctive and refreshing.”
Štimec came to Schulman’s attention early on. Born in 1949 in the former Yugoslavia (now Croatia), she is a giant in the Esperanto literary world, the author of dozens of literary works in Esperanto and Croatian. Štimec told LiteraLab that writing in Esperanto gives her “a sense of liberation, of being unchained, of a kind of homecoming.” She considers the worldwide community of Esperanto readers to be an ideal audience for her tale of the “personal, lived experience of military conflict.”
Štimec composed Croatian War Nocturnal during the war that broke out following Croatia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. She wrote while hiding in a bathroom with the windows covered, as bombers roared overhead. Originally published in 1993 by a now-defunct Esperanto publishing house in Vienna, Austria, the book bears intimate witness to what it’s like to live through a war. The book’s ten interconnected episodes serve as bulletins – not from the battlefield, but from the daily experiences of people huddling in bomb shelters, pulling draft notices out of the mailbox, waiting in line for food, mourning the disappeared and the dead. “Why war?” Štimec writes. “This small book does not pretend to have the answers. It only endeavors to preserve the feelings of the ordinary people, those of us who found ourselves like grass growing underneath it all” (119).
The philosophy of Esperanto is on display in Štimec’s ability to see beyond nationalistic fervor, even while under attack from enemy forces. Alas, “this was a war in which the aggressor and the victim could understand each other very well. No interpreter necessary” (34). United by language, the opposing parties are nonetheless divided by hatred and violence.
Schulman’s translation felicitously renders Štimec’s haunting images – a small boy trying on his father’s newly-issued army boots, for example:
The youngest son put on the boots, covering up both his tiny little legs in their entirety. He brought the leather from one of them up to his nose and inhaled its freshly polished smell.
“It’s so brand new!”
He was right. These boots were fresh from the factory. They’d not yet been implicated in anyone’s murder (87).
The simple, unflashy prose doesn’t call attention to itself. It seems to convey the essence of Esperanto as a transparent medium through which to convey the desire for peaceful coexistence.
In the first of the ten episodes, young cousins from Belgrade (Serbia) and Zagreb (Croatia) have long enjoyed spending their summers together. “The kids carved out a special path between the currant bushes, which we jokingly called ‘The Avenue of Brotherhood and Unity,’ after the great highway of the same name that connected Zagreb and Belgrade” (3). But, with the breakup of Yugoslavia (another utopian project that sought, like Esperanto, to unify diverse ethnic groups), the high-minded slogan is gone, the highway blocked, the family split in two. Helicopters carrying wounded soldiers clatter overhead. Lines of military volunteers snake through the streets. Beloved family heirlooms – and beloved family members – are trapped beyond unbreachable borders.
In another piece, neighbors fill sandbags to barricade the basement windows of their apartment building. The air raid alarm sounds. “I was making a pot of tea on a Sunday afternoon when the sirens howled…My hands were shaking…In the doorway I turned and looked back, my heart tearing” (15). Before long, the sirens become routine: “The first siren, which invites us down to the basement, always announces that the world has come to an end. The next siren, which calls us back from below, announces that it has been saved” (20). Schulman’s translation conveys the staccato imperatives of the moment, as the narrator hurries to the basement: “Quick. Now. Go. Shut off the gas. Check the water. Put on the boots. Button the jacket” (21).
The poetic piece titled “René from Vukovar” tells of a young man who has disappeared after being rounded up, imprisoned, and tortured. Is he dead?
In February we celebrated his birthday without any hint of him.
Summer gallops closer.
At night, an uncertain idea awakens us.
The book’s cover bears the striking image of a clay dove. This turns out to be a representation of a famous Croatian national treasure, a prehistoric archaeological find, now packed away, waiting for the end of the war, “better protected than the citizens” of the heavily bombed cities (27). An echo of this symbol of peace shows up later in the book in a piece entitled “An Unmobilized Hand Towel.” After a father of five is drafted into the army, his children rescue a fledgling pigeon and shelter it while it learns to peck at seeds and protect itself from the hostile outside world. At the close of the book, after the father, a doctor, has died on his way to tend to the wounded, the mother speaks to the crowd gathered at his graveside: “I beg you…let us move forward. We shall not allow our children and grandchildren to go to battle once again. But it depends on us” (113-114).
“The wife’s parting request,” says the narrator, “lit a candle of hope in all of us” (114). With this book, Štimec and Schulman have lit their own candle of hope, one that will perhaps help to light the way for their readers, including those of us who are translators, as we work to build bridges across cultural and linguistic boundaries.
Štimec, Spomenka. Croatian War Nocturnal. Tr. Sebastian Schulman. Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2017.