Daily Round Up
One of the themes in the book is to “write everything.” What does that mean?
I took a class with Raymond Federman on [Samuel] Beckett, and he said that the difference between James Joyce [and Beckett] is that Joyce wrote everything. In Ulysses, you take one day and expand it to every different aspect of life. And then Beckett did the opposite thing. He took everything away, until there’s just bare bones.
I was a theater artist for so long. When you engage with that kind of art, it’s easy to get things out of your system, because you’re onstage and you’re sweaty, you’re getting it all out, and then you feel good for the next day, so you do it again. When I came to America (I stopped doing theater in 2004), I missed that way of expression. Then all of that trauma, all of the things that I survived and endured,were building inside. I was trying to find a way to get it out. So I would sit down and take that kind of experience and write it out. I didn’t have money to get a shrink, so I would tell it to the paper. Which is a dumb way to write a novel, because it takes you seven years.
The War Is Dead, Long Live the War is Vulliamy’s attempt to grapple with the personal and historical legacy of Omarska. It is a strange and haunting book, not easily pigeonholed. Part survivor testimony, part history, part memoir – Vulliamy tells an uneasy narrative that has, he writes, “reached no destination”.
At the heart of the book are the survivors. Vulliamy is interested in how the Bosniak men and women who endured the concentration camps at Omarska, Trnopolje and elsewhere have continued their lives accompanied by so much pain. What he finds among the Bosniak communities he visits – from Missouri to Chorleywood and Bosnia itself – is a people still in mourning. “What time does is sharpen the worst memories,” says one survivor. “But if I were to have too clear a picture of the details, I would kill myself or go mad.”
Some of the violence was, Vulliamy acknowledges, too disgusting for words. The manner in which some prisoners were killed would have taxed the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch. But the author gives enough details for the full horror of the camps to make itself apparent. One prisoner who was forced to kill another prisoner by, effectively, biting him to death, was found by a friend shortly after his ordeal. “I asked him what happened,” remembers this witness. “He answered, ‘don’t ask.’”
These stories are disturbing, but never feel gratuitous, in part because of Vulliamy’s stated wish to create a historical record of the horrors inflicted in the name of “celestial Serbia” during a “hurricane of violence” in Bosnia. Details are important, and the author uses them as a weapon to obliterate the arguments that soften the aggressors’ crimes by claiming that “atrocities were committed by all sides”.
It is, he argues, “undeniable” that Serbs suffered. But their suffering was on a different scale to the violence “inflicted on the predominantly Bosniak civilian population by the Serbian nationalist enterprise”. By equating one with the other, you deny the Bosniaks a chance to reckon with their plight. The best example of this “erasure through equation” is the fact that there is no monument to the some 2,000 killed at Omarska – the site of the worst concentration camp in Europe since the Third Reich.