top of page

Is it Too Late? + Sarajevo Book of the Dead

Article on the task of ending the end. From Josip Osti's book of the Dead to today's morbidity of capital.

Algerian War > Bosnian War > Ukrainian War >> ...

February 1993. Photograph: Laurent Van Der Stockt/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The Sarajevo Book of the Dead,[1] a collection of poems written by Bosnian-Slovenian poet Josip Osti, is one of the most valuable documents of this suppression, of a disappearing reality that clung in its condemnation and its poor finality to the letters and words of a poet who turned by necessity into a witness of this reality, and whose verses could only have echoed a deep silence. A silence about the vanishing city that changes its image from one minute to the next, about teenage butchers breaking into homes, robbing, killing and massacring families, about corpses that cannot be buried because it is too dangerous outside, so they are kept in their homes, lying in beds next to the living, the dead and the living maintaining their coexistence, the living-dead together with the dead-living, about the blond blue-eyed girl who took refuge in a hall during a sniper attack and who claps merrily at the sight of people on the street jumping on one leg, exclaiming, “Mom, I would also like to play hopscotch with them,” about gangs of obnoxious minors playing with hand grenades and blowing up Albanian confectioneries at night, so that baklavas, shedentiles and tulumbas rain from the sky, but children cannot pick them up because they sleep behind lowered blinds, about lovers meeting in parks that have become cemeteries with felled trees, which were cut down to be used as firewood, kissing ever more passionately in the face of snipers, about kids who turned into old men overnight, sitting motionless and pensive as sages, and old men who turned into kids, constantly asking questions to which children cannot give satisfactory answers. Today, this document is itself almost forgotten.[2]

[1] A bilingual publication in Bosnian and Slovenian, with the original title Sarajevska knjiga mrtvih. Cf. Osti 1993. [2] The translations of excerpts from The Sarajevo Book of the Dead into English are provisory, made by B. Kolenc.

'Sniper Alley', Sarajevo, August 24, 1993 (AFP / Gabriel Bouys)

In yet another poem, Osti deals with the topic of fire in the theatre, a popular motif of both poetry and theory. But the limits of conceptual curiosity are once again transcended with a sort of blow of the real: watching the Sarajevo National Theatre burning, Osti remembers how he was in this theatre for the first time as a kid with his grandma, pulling her by the hand and wanting to leave because there was a fire performed onstage (they were playing a dramatization of the notorious Slovenian novella The Bailiff Yerney and his Rights, written by Ivan Cankar). He asks himself: “did I then / forty years ago / want to run from the fire in which / these days / burned down the building of the sarajevo [sic.] national theatre?” (Osti 1993, pp. 82–83).

In this book of the dead, something happens with time: the clock spring cracks and the pointers spin back in a flash while children turn into old men and old men back to children. Time is running backward and forward, exploding at moments or lingering like mist over the river Miljacka, in which people are catching fish with bare hands. The fire in the theatre traverses not only the border between fiction and reality, which young Osti is unable to discern, but also the border between the past and the present. The fire is spreading from the memory of a poet to the unsurpassable reality that surrounds him, from sparkles in the performance to the fireworks of the spectacle of war.

Sarajevo, August 23, 1993 (AFP / Gabriel Bouys)


bottom of page