War Through a Poet's Lens

Only the Nails Remainby Christopher MerrillRowman & Littlefield. 400p $27.95

After World War I, the victorious powers cobbled together a new kingdoma constitutional monarchyout of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire. It would later be known as Yugoslavia, or Land of the South Slavs. The new polity was a multi-ethnic state made up of subnational units of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. It also included Bosnia, a separate and mixed community of Muslims, Serbs (mainly Orthodox) and Croats (mainly Roman Catholic). In 1945, following World War II, Yugoslavia emerged as a Communist state under the charismatic presidency of Marshall Josip Tito, whose partisan guerillas liberated the Balkans from Nazi, Croatian and Serbian fascists.

Yugoslavia was now a federation of six republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia). Despite the condition of its creation and the artificiality of its borders, the federation represented a noble ideal, one premised on the benign view that a people marked by ethnic and religious diversity could live together in peace and security. With Tito’s passing, Communism’s breakdown and Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power, however, this noble ideal succumbed to the force of fanatical nationalism, casting the Balkans into an abyss of darkness.

Only the Nails Remain is a poet’s journey into the Balkan netherworld of brutality and suffering. The book’s title, taken from a poem by Tomaz Salamun, is an apt metaphor, for it denotes what is left after a community has burned for seven days and seven nights. Its author, Christopher Merrill, is a poet and critic who holds the Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at Holy Cross College. A specialist in Balkan literature, he toured the war-torn regions of the former Yugoslavia at various times between 1992 and 1997, witnessing, among other tragedies, the siege of Sarajevo and the devastation of ancient communities, churches and cultural treasures.

As the subtitle suggests, the book consists of a succession of scenes drawn from Merrill’s encounters with poets, journalists, filmmakers, artists and academiciansmany known to him personallywith whom he lived, traveled and dined on his sojourn through Croatia, Serbia, Dalmatia and other Balkan provinces. And so, along the way, we meet the sociologist fired from Zagreb University for being a Serb; the woman journalist who risked her life in support of "my boys" in Vukovar; and Radovan Karadzic, the "bad poet" who would be charged with crimes against humanity.

Through these encounters and testimony drawn from other literary sources, the reader witnesses the power that evil can do. Some of the scenes are from hell: neighbor shooting neighbor, the mutilated bodies of women and children, and other civilization-destroying deeds responsible for driving ethno-religious communities into enclaves of fear and mistrust. Some of Merrill’s friends eluded the tragedy by fleeing into drunkenness, mirth-making or absorption in art or literature. All told, these snapshots of life in the Balkans add up to a shifting kaleidoscope of tears, hatred, despair and revelry.

This book was not meant to be a scholarly account of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, or of its causes and effects. It is nevertheless an engrossing account of the Balkan wars, especially its human costs. It is also an informed account, for Merrill buttresses his vignettes with numerous asides into Balkan history and politics. In addition, he provides the reader with fascinating profiles of heroes and villains, past and present, whose biographies explain, or help to explain, Yugoslavia’s legacy of revenge, cruelty and bloodshed. Insanity should be added to this list. What else, other than madness, explains the siege of Dubrovnik or the remark of a Serbian biologist that ethnic cleansing is a "natural phenomenon"?

In a speech recently published in The New York Review (12/16/99), Vaclav Havel, the philosopher-president of the Czech Republic, asked where we are to look for guidance in the face of so much hatred in the Balkans and elsewhere. His reply: "There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meanings of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. Vigilance of spirit."

Such vigilance of spirit one might normally expect from the literati who interpret the world of affairs for others. But the most striking thing about the men and women of letters covered in this book is their complicity in the death of Yugoslavia. Merrill found several poets and artists morally outraged by the country’s internecine warfare. But many others, including prominent Serbian and Croatian intellectuals, helped to fan the flames of tribal passion and ethnic hatred. The Montenegrin poet Slavko Perovic is quoted as saying that Serbian politics is, in Merrill’s rendition, "a church organ Milosevic plays like an evil genius; the intelligentsia supplies the score." "Trapped in their [own] myths and folklore," another poet is quoted as saying, "too many Yugoslav writers refused to explore the middle ground of experience, the complexity of the human condition." So much for the vaunted independence of the intellectual class.

What is tragic about Yugoslavia’s disintegration is that it need not have happened at all. Ethnic hostility was not the root cause of Yugoslavia’s breakdown, as is often supposed. The Balkan wars, as some of Merrill’s companions suggested, is about the failure of political leadershipin Europe, in NATO, in the United Nations, in the United States and, above all, in Yugoslavia itself.

Anyone who wishes to understand the various dimensions of the human tragedy that is Yugoslavia should read Only the Nails Remain. It is an admirable travel book that will remind the reader of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and GreyFalcon, to which Merrill frequently alludes. It does not compare with the magisterial sweep of West’s classical study of Yugoslavian life and culture, but it is no less impressive in its geographical reach, literary quality and insight into the Balkan soul.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

Jason Blakely show that the very tools we human beings use to try to understand the world in fact end up constructing it, for better or for worse.
Patrick Gilger, S.J.October 21, 2020
Stephen Graham Jones's new novel creates an extraordinary portrait of sacrifice and costly reconciliation.
Eve TushnetOctober 16, 2020
The stories in Valerie Sayers's new collection are populated with characters who strive to hang on to something good.
Mike MastromatteoOctober 16, 2020
Sarah Ramey in her new book: "My case went unsolved for fourteen years because no one would listen to me and the reason they would not listen to me is because I am a woman.”