Life Stories and Hi-Story: Weaving Fact with Fiction
Kin by Miljenko Jergović, trans. Russell Scott Valentino. 877 pages. Archipelago Books, 2021. $25.
At the beginning of Miljenko Jergović’s novel Kin, the narrator soberly reflects: “If there had been no Austro-Hungarian [E]mpire, I would never have been born, the parents of my grandparents would have never met . . . In this sense my birth was, from before the beginning, a political project.” This reflection sets the tone for the novel, which unfurls across the twentieth century, following a multi-generational family whose lives were largely conditioned by the fall of empire, the rise and fall of states, war and its attendant tragedies, and migration. World-historical events—or “the political”—merge seamlessly with “the personal” in a saga that borrows from several genres, including autofiction, historical fiction, and biography.
Moving back and forth in time, the book employs a grab-bag of presentations, operating less like a conventional novel than a postmodern fictionalized family memoir—meandering and slow-going in a way that seems to mimic the ebb and flow of a lifetime, with a series of minor characters who step in and out. There are frequent flashbacks, a novel within a novel (the second section, titled “The Stublers: A Family Novel”), anecdotal characterizations, surviving personal correspondence, a beekeeper’s journal, and captioned photographs, all of which demonstrate the narrator’s partiality for minor histories, or microhistory: a mode that makes use of the concrete, specific, and minor to reveal a broader web of interconnection. Each element serves as an entry point into another facet of a life story.
The novel opens with the author’s maternal great-grandfather Karlo Stubler, patriarch of the family tree, an ethnic German from the Banat region (specifically a small town in today’s Romania), educated in Budapest and Vienna, whose job as a railway official brought him to southeast Europe. His resettlement in Bosnia, then a part of the empire, and marriage to a woman born in Slovenia who didn’t speak a word of Slovenian meant that neither ancestor fit the established ethnic categories of the new country of Yugoslavia—and that Jergović, in turn, would be a particular kind of Croat. By his own admission, the Croats were “that tribe to which I belonged by an unfortunate tangle of circumstance, because my forebears, like dolphins caught in fishermen’s nets, hadn’t known how to extricate themselves.” He reminds us that contingencies and coincidences are the stuff of history and inheritance.
The opening chapter, “Where Other People Live: A Presentation”—previously published as a stand-alone essay in 2007 under the telling title “The Ideal Yugoslavian”—serves as a compelling frame for the author’s family history and introduces several broad themes, among them hybridity, heterogeneity, and what historians have called “national indifference”—a counterpoint to nationalism, and the phenomenon by which individuals flout fixed categories of national affinity. It is also, however, an investigation of the more situational, fluid, and changeable identities that mark Jergović’s ancestors.
Upon being verbally assailed as a “Bosnian piece of shit” at a film festival in Croatia, the narrator considers the radical distinctions between his own and his great-grandfather’s life trajectories—which masks a sneaking irony, namely that both would ultimately come up against hostility and prejudice of the same kind, though by a different name. Karlo comes under fire for his German origins despite not identifying with Germany, nor ever wanting to leave Bosnia. Jergović, by contrast, left Sarajevo to settle in Croatia:
“I left and am still going, a happy man, because unlike Opapa Karlo I’m not being led away by two men with a third prodding me in the kidneys with a rifle. This is an important nuance of our identities—why we live where we don’t belong to a majority. Happiness keeps us in this place, and happiness—I really believe this—has often cost us our lives. Reconciled to being who we are, while carrying inside us the idea of who we are not, we represent identities that cannot be defined by a single word, passport, identity card, entry pass. The masses know who they are from a coat of arms, a flag, a name, and then they chant it out, but we are left with winding, uncertain explanations, novels and films, true stories and invented ones; left with the need to visit a village in the Romanian Banat where—although now without Germans—the horizon is the same as when Opapa Karlo was a boy.”
Descendants of the so-called kuferaši—from the word kofer, the German-derived term for suitcase—who settled in Bosnia under Franz Joseph, Jergović’s family stands at the imperial borderlands, impossible to fit neatly into today’s categories.
Beyond the nuances of identity fashioning, the narrator’s relationship with his mother, above all else, anchors the story. Jergović is moved to tell the story of the Stublers precisely as his mother, Javorka, lies dying, and here he develops the theme of inherited trauma. Jergović’s uncle Mladen joined the Wehrmacht at his mother’s advice—his mother, Olga, believed he’d be safer there than in the Partisan ranks, which his father wanted him to join. For Olga, Mladen’s death gets tangled emotionally with the birth of her youngest child, Javorka. This child becomes the face of her mother’s “restless, horrified conscience,” a guilt too heavy to bear. Her rejection of Javorka then contributes to a distancing between Javorka and her son, Jergović, and is the reason why Jergović’s grandmother becomes the primary influence in his life. Mladen’s story and its aftermath ripple through generations, in the attitudes and values they come to adopt and reject, and in the traumas that stay with them, unresolved.
The relationship between the narrator and his ailing mother becomes ever more strained near the end of her life. Her constant accusation that he has changed his phone number, with the insinuation that he wants to cut his mother out of his life, becomes so chronic that the narrator eventually no longer bothers to deny it. In the fraught relationship between mother and son, and the narrator’s need to recoup the past through her, there is an unmistakable nod to David Albahari’s novella Bait (Mamac in the original), published in 1994 and translated from the Serbian by Peter Agnone. In Bait, Albahari reassesses his relationship with his late mother through tape recordings she has left behind, prompting a reckoning with his past and his place as a foreigner in exile. Even as Kin is a book about coming to terms with the death of a mother, one critic has noted the book’s seemingly explicit reference to One Thousand and One Nights, the original curiously clocking in at exactly 1,001 pages. The suggestion is not far off. This is a novel about storytelling as an act of resistance, revivification, and refuge—refuge from grief and from the cold silence and finality that death imposes. As Jergović writes, in telling the stories of his ancestors he “resurrected and extended their lives,” and gave them new life by “mixing reality with fiction”—the latter presumably allowing him to fill in the gaps between factual details, photographs, and anecdotes passed down through generations.
Mementos, heirlooms, and discarded items become touchstones of the past, enriched by the accrued experiences that Kin’s family members have attached to them. Like a museum, the Stubler home serves as a monument all its own, and purging functions as a kind of erasure:
The disarray of the Stubler house was composed of fifty, or perhaps more, complete and incomplete lives surrounding the figure of Karlo Stubler, our innocent patriarch. That house was never put in order or cleaned out. Every instance of cleaning, or dusting, or purging of old things is an act of violence on a person’s being and life. Every instance of cleaning is an accounting with one’s own biography and the biographies of those close to us. A moment of our death and a reminder that nothing is lasting and everything moves toward oblivion.
Oblivion and forgetfulness are exactly what Jergović warns against, and he presents his novel as a final act of self-preservation.
Jergović is best known in the Anglophone world for Sarajevo Marlboro, his landmark debut collection of stories—translated by Stela Tomašević and awarded the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize—that take place against the backdrop of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Kin, too, is as much about the fall of Yugoslavia as it is about the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—the fall of conglomerate polities and the aftermath generations on, in the everyday lives of those who come after. Some people “[go] away in a puff of smoke,” while others are resurrected in the cautionary tales and testimonials we leave behind.
This fluid, consistent translation of such a massive and complex work is a testament to translator Russell Scott Valentino’s sophistication and acuity. The English rendition respects the novel’s theme of “mixture,” as the translator has defined it. Valentino’s decision to use Omama (a regionalism used by Croats of German descent) and Opapa (a variation of the regionalism “otata”) to refer to great-grandparents, for instance, reinforces a linguistic hybridity authentic to the characters. With tonal and narrative nuances so beautifully captured by Valentino, Kin is a magisterial work that, by centering the family in the sweeping thrust of world events, provides a sense of thick, lived history—one stubbornly resistant, like the people it depicts, to facile categorization.