Editor's Note

Mass massacres; the lives of survivors; the places where memory won’t go. 

We don’t publish novel excerpts, but we had to make an exception for the present piece, from Aaron Carpenter’s translation of Marica Bodrožić’s German novel Kirschholz und alte Gefühle (Cherrywood and Old Feelings). The novel is about a woman’s escape across the Danube during the Bosnian War (1992-95). It is also about how such a story might be told—in a zigzag pattern; or like a circle circled over and over, the centre a void. The excerpt illustrates this second aspect acutely, with a willingness to stay with what we return to when we tell a traumatic tale rather than what we fail to describe.

The Danube is called a ‘border river’ here, running through many old and new countries, many old and new conflicts. The limbs of the corpses dumped in it in Slavonia (now Croatia) may scare a fisherman downstream in Novi Sad (now Serbia), or horrify another man further downstream, a man who could be a survivor from another history, who might have (who is to say) ‘just escaped the Romanian thought police.’ The river, made a carrier of corpses as well as a witness to the massacres on its banks is, like the rest of the natural world, indifferent to human projects. But what do we do if the same river’s banks are also a bank for our formative sensory experience? What do we do if we can’t forget the sand, the bushes, the birds, the dragonflies, the colour of the water and the sky, even as we find it impossible to speak of that which is too enormous to behold, which also happened to us right there?

A challenging work for these challenging times.

— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Translator's Note

During the Bosnian Civil War, a young woman tries to escape across the frozen Danube, but a Serb militia group catches her. How does she escape? That’s the story Silva tells her friend Arjeta, a fellow Bosnian, sitting in a café in Paris. Silva leaves out many details of her story, but Arjeta isn’t concerned. For her, gaps in a narrative bring it closer to what Silva wants to tell rather than what the listener wants to hear. The narrative of the novel jumps back and forth between events, starting from the middle, moving on, and then returning to the beginning with information, all the while vaguely referring to real historical events and people – like Bomba’s Tigers. In this, it resembles how someone retells what happened to them, conveying information as they remember it, or as they process it.

— Aaron Carpenter

Propagating worlds. And their shifting into individual ones. Through words. Through languages. Through the soothing counting of Berlin swallows. (Today there are forty; a few barn swallows, bright blue, are also there, and next summer maybe they will be living in Munich, Paris, Moscow, or Tokyo.) Through my memories. Through my thoughts hidden in my old notebooks that had already become old through my writing them down. Through questions. The space in between remains, Nadeshda said, because it changes. She told me that she had learned that from her grandparents who had emigrated to America. Although Nadeshda has never met them. With their entry onto Ellis Island, those two old people said goodbye to their Dalmatian names. On the boat they were still called Ivan and Milena; now they were John and Marilya. It didn’t bother them. Their new names preceded them in everything.


Silva also spoke with me about transformation when I sat with her in Sophie’s restaurant on the Bastille. But she never used Nadeshda’s word (transformation), which always converted her feelings into thoughts. Everything that Silva told me about herself was about how she came to her new life after her city fell. At first, she believed that she could simply forget the last few years, that she would use the holes in her memory until over time something would replace them. But the images of the city on the Danube kept coming back to her. First the shimmer of the water. Then the frozen river in some icy December. The uncanny silence afterward, a silence, out of which, like in a time loop, she saw the legs of a man in uniform in front of her. She cowered in a bush, at the mercy of the loud beating of her traitorous heart. The other men, whom she now discovered along the river and who all called each other Tiger, called him Bomba. He barked out an order. Now she stood before him. She knew that in his eyes she was a witness. But Bomba didn’t do anything to her; Bomba, whom everyone on the other side of the Danube called a hero, let Silva go.

She didn’t tell me why, didn’t say why she stayed alive when all the others were killed, why Bomba didn’t do anything to her. In Sophie’s restaurant, Silva only spoke about her childhood at first, about the Pannonian Basin, the butterflies, the dragonflies, about the shimmer and whirr of the Danube wetlands, and about bathing in the long summers on the river. It reminded me of Istria, on those bright days in the light, which always held us in happiness like in an old, firm saddle. Back then, the leisureliness of the afternoons under the fig trees seemed infinitely safe, because everything about them was timeless and we were spared the losses transience brings with it over the years. We didn’t know that what was passing by was exactly the most precious thing in life, and had no idea that transience only hurts if you didn’t know about it or fight it. At the same time, we experienced something that transcended pain; we knew the calm stability of summer and that was and remained a joy that was inscribed in us forever. Rarely did someone look at the clock. We ate when we were hungry and went swimming when we craved the cool water. Silva knew this tempo too, whoever grows up in the south, knows the slowness with which our bodies moved in the summer, especially under the bright sun of the dog days of summer, during which only children who will later have everything given to them are born, as the old women in my grandma’s Istrian village said, because they have the courage to send their souls to the earthly world on the hottest days of the year.

I knew Silva’s city on the Danube before the destruction. In the mid-eighties, we often drove to Slavonia. The local grocery Kombinat was famous across the whole country. At first, when Silva hid in the bushes, she saw a few birds and storks in the Danube wetland. She imagined they were talking to her, wanting to tell her something. But almost all the birds flew away. It was a cold day. She had lost a shoe, but she didn’t look for it, because she was afraid someone would notice her. An icy wind blew up from the Danube. The sky was steel blue. All shadows stood like objects in front of her. Sharp as a knife. The contours, so tangible, so close, that it looked like you could just lean on the shadows. The birds that remained – just a small remnant, but it gave her hope – did it too. They leaned with their beaks against the shadows. The Danube glistened; in the morning it was a proud, old river. Now she was old and pregnant. Silva didn’t dare breathe. The river was full of corpses. A border river on which the events of the past repeated. Shovel excavators popped up out of thin air. The corpses were heaved into the water, she tried to look away, but she could only stare at the Danube paralyzed and think that the individual limbs were certainly in Novi Sad already, scaring a fisherman there, and horrifying someone in the underflow at the Iron Gate in the Banat Mountains, someone who, she thought, had maybe just escaped the Romanian thought police, who had spied on him over decades, who had pushed his wife off her bike, and who in the end had made him sign some piece of paper on which was written: chickpeas are meat. Silva remembered the course of the Danube, its wild tenacity, with which it ignored borders, languages, and countries, it kept on flowing as it had done since time immemorial. Silva lay in the bushes and heard the energy of the Danube. It carried its cargo on, didn’t care about her and this bush, not about her memories, not about her fear, not about the laughably loud beating of her human heart. Temperatures, thoughts, and illnesses didn’t matter to the river. The Danube flowed towards its destination, balanced its entrails up front, and was a tireless worker who let no one and nothing obstruct its way to the Black Sea.

When Silva told me about those cold December days, it suddenly became clear to me that the Danube had always been a border river on which a person could very easily be numbered as belonging to a different country, a different nation, a different passport within their own lifetime. Bomba fought so that his people would get a new passport. His voice cracked; the wind swallowed his roar. In the bush, something cracked. Silva’s leg had gone to sleep. She moved a little and fell like a log. She wanted to go. Just a few steps. It was like walking in cotton wool. Bomba heard. The cotton was too soft. He stood before her. She saw his white teeth and huge eyes that scrutinized her. He smiled at her. Bomba ordered her to come with him. She followed him as the men had just obeyed him. Are you lost, little girl, he asked her. She nodded, although it wasn’t true, and she wasn’t there by chance. When she looked to the left, she saw a pile of corpses. All men. Naked. No women. No children. The yellow shovel excavator took them to the grocery Kombinat. She noticed the name of the company on the shovel excavator. A German company. She felt dizzy. I don’t know what happened next. She broke her story off mid-sentence. The memory of the shovel excavator seemed to have completely derailed Silva. She left Paris according to plan.


In St Louis, she opened a restaurant right next to her relative’s bakery. We write often, she tells me what’s on her menu, what she got rid of, and what new thing she’s trying out. She says that she only ever dreams in English anymore, that she speaks her new language really well, and that she has no dead in her new language. On that day in Sophie’s restaurant, she didn’t tell me why Bomba let her go. This hole will always remain a hole. But she saw what happened to those corpses that didn’t land in the Danube. Bomba, whose subordinates called him Master, fed them to hungry pigs in the grocery Kombinat. I only found that out years later. It was in the newspaper when Bomba was shot in a hotel in Belgrade long after the war and his people had made an icon of him and his wife, a singer, who had become a millionaire in the 1990s.


I take a seat in the empty room. Today it looks much bigger than the days back then. It seems to expand. But it might just be the sky. The blue that looks at me from the outside. The rays of sunlight that illuminate it. The beautiful, old hardwood floor shone. I think of the honey that Nadeshda brought me from her relatives in the mountains of Bosnia. Maglić. And Bjelašnica. That’s what the mountains are called. In the summer, the people move up into the mountains and take care of the bees. No one has to save the bees here. The war did nothing to the bees. They don’t need Hiromi’s petitions. They seem to be healthy, hard-working, untiring bees. The color of the honey seems fresher each time I dig the glass out and allow myself one or two teaspoons like I did as a child – as if I was secretly eating the honey.

Rather than thinking about nothing in the little room, as I had imagined, here I think about everything and everyone. I think of the Danube, on that December when it produced an excess of oxygen and became a dump, abuzz with entrails. Other layers came to bear the river. The sand of the Pannonian Basin. The hourglass that pays off something for everyone there, even for me, even now; because I know about it, this old clock repays something; that would never happen again and fall out of time forever, so I hoped when Silva told me about those days. The sand trickles away for the dead. But for the living too. And in all clocks the fingers move synchronously. Tick. Tack. Tack. Tick. In the following new year, when the ice broke up, the Danube squeezed its guts out of its pelvis. The river flooded its banks, and the dead became one with the land of their ancestors. I ask myself what exactly happened to Silva back then, what she saw in the gap left out of her memory before Bomba let her go. I imagine that the next day the frogs quacked in the wetlands again and the rooster’s morning crows were audible like always. Nothing stopped them. Only there was no longer anyone there who could have heard them. Maybe a donkey stood at the edge of the field, alone, abandoned, up to its knees in mud. It didn’t know where to go; knew nothing more. Its eyes were gummed up with sleep. Sleep, sleep, everything was ulcerated. There it stood, the donkey, it didn’t move from its spot, it didn’t have anyone it could be loyal to anymore. Cats. Geese. Cows. Clacking storks. Dogs snarling from hunger. Life on the Danube went on. Water didn’t ask you anything, Silva told me when we said goodbye sitting across from each other in Sophie’s restaurant one last time. Water just flows, she said, it just keeps flowing on, and carries everything away. She had put on a long, blue dress that day, her blonde hair fell far down her back, and she smiled. She’s so pretty, I thought, my God, in America, she’ll break the heart of anyone who looks her in the eyes, on the spot and for eternity. Maybe even save their lives.


I knew I would never see Silva again. In Paris, I had long gotten used to this painful state of constant farewells. No sooner had I met someone new, they were setting off again and flying away, to America, Australia, Canada, to start something new. At first, we all wrote to each other, but then it stopped, and all the letters broke off at almost the same time. I wondered at that and interpreted it as a betrayal until I understood that the others when they no longer wrote, must now have come into their new lives. Happiness filled me and I was thankful that they shared their transitoriness with me, let me gaze into their eyes, at that moment when they were just themselves: individuals on the way to their future – without the assurance of a fixed address, with a job, without nice clothes, I just saw them in their being, just their mouths, their cheeks, just the color of their eyes.


Image credits: Memorial to victims of the second world war on the banks of the Danube. Adobe Stock Photo. Standard license.

It is ironic that a memorial to an atrocity, intended to remind us that some things should never be allowed be re-happen, should be now filed as a “stock photo” but such is our world. There are other rivers and other atrocities to tend to. We trust this story and this “stock photo” speak for all victims of violence.


Born in 1973 in Dalmatia, Marica Bodrožić was brought up by relatives until she came to Germany at the age of ten, to join her parents who were already working there. Bodrožić writes in German, a language she describes as her new Heimat or home-place; she feels that writing in German gives her the filter necessary to explore traumatic or difficult experiences.  Her writing is characterized by a distinct, densely lyrical style in both poetry and prose as well as the complexity of the ideas she expresses.

Bodrožić is a prizewinner of the Literatour Nord in 2013 and won the Konrad-Adenauer-Literaturpreis in 2015. Though some of her prose has been translated into eleven languages, none of her work as ever been published in English and she is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world.

Kirschholz und alte Gefühle (2012) ist the second part of a trilogy together with Das Gedächtnis der Libellen (2010) and Das Wasser unserer Träume (2016)

Photo credit: Stephan Röhl. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license


Aaron Carpenter is a Ph.D. Candidate in German Studies at the University of Washington (Seattle). After obtaining his BA in German at Boise State University, Aaron went on to teach English in China and Austria. In 2013, he obtained his MA in Technical Communication before working as a technical writer at Hewlett-Packard. Aaron’s translations have appeared in such publications as Transit Journal and No Man’s Land.

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