I’m a sucker for a bargain and free is as good as it gets. But if my Kindle experience had taught me anything it’s that books are free for a reason. Unless the copyright has expired and they’re classics, I think I’m better off not even going to the trouble of downloading them. There is a lot of rubbish out there, pasted between two covers and sold in the name of fiction. That said, I’ve had a lot more luck with books in translation. I make a point of visiting bookshops when I travel and doing my best to get hold of local authors in translation.
When I was in Istanbul last year, I happened across Ayşe Kulin – a Turkish novelist who has four books in English translation. I picked up a copy of Sevdalinka, which carries the English title of Sarajevo of Love and War. Google translate doesn’t recognise the word but a little digging reveals that sevdalinka is either a woman’s song or a genre of music for women. [Any Turkish speakers out there?]
It tells the story of a love affair during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1996, an era still very much in living memory. Both the lead characters are journalists – she’s married, he isn’t. I know very little about what happened during that time and my paltry effort to understand it all while I visited Sarajevo a couple of years ago was drowned in the realisation that greater minds than mine have yet to make any sense of what happened.
While I prefer my love stories not to be so blatantly branded, I have a thing about Sarajevo – it’s a city that left an indelible impression on me, one I’d like to spend more time in. That said, the book has languished amidst many other not-yet-reads for months and it’s only lately that I finally got around to reading it.
It ticks all the irritants I find with translated text. Sentence structure isn’t great at times; the phrasing is off; colloquialisms don’t quite work as well as they might; and the proofreader seems to have thrown in the towel about half-way in. mmmmm… that goes for a lot of English originals, too. And yet I was sucked in from the start.
The graphic depiction of the atrocities on all sides, situated as they are in everyday relationships, is unreal. If only 1% of it is true or even based on something approaching fact, that’s too much. I had some idea of what went on but could never have imagined it so bad. And yes, I know it’s a work of fiction, but even fiction has its base in something. It’s clear which side the author was on but even that didn’t take from the story. The reviews on Goodreads suggest that Kulin’s depiction of the politics of the day was well researched and accurate (if a little biased at times but I wouldn’t know). If you’re travelling to the region and are interested in its all too recent history, it’s worth a read.
Kulin’s book is a stark reminder for me of how cosy my own world is; of how blessed I am to have had the upbringing I’ve had; and how little I know of what happens outside my immediate environment. From my current vantage point, I can’t begin to imagine what I’d have done were I born into that region and lived through that war – but then again, I may well have done what everyone did – tried my damnedest to survive.