Monday, December 03, 2012

Mama Leone by Miljenko Jergovic

Displacement of people by conflict is a thread running through Mama Leone, a collection of stories written in the 1990s by Miljenko Jergovic, newly translated from Croatian by David Williams. The conflicts vary but they almost always result in what characters hope to be a temporary change of address. Some of them move to other cities in the states of the former Yugoslavia as they break apart. Others even flee to Spain, Israel, Canada, and the United States.

In the case of twenty-one related stories grouped under the title "When I Was Born a Dog Started Barking in the Hall of the Maternity Ward," a family separates and neither the mother or father feels capable of raising their son. He spends most of his time with his maternal grandparents in Sarajevo with annual trips to summer homes. He is also sent to live with uncles and aunts on some occasions. When his mother joins whatever household he is in, she seems as much a child as he does. He is a precocious child who claims to remember everything, including his birth, a great gift for a narrating character. Like the grandmother, most readers will find him a source of troubling amusement.

The remaining unrelated stories are grouped under the title "That Day a Childhood Story Ended."  In most of these short pieces, characters are uprooted by the Balkan Wars. As rival forces attack new cities, family move in with relatives in other regions and draft age men hide or immigrate. Survival in new places often requires taking unfair advantage of others. Some even pledge love for the sake of refuge and a stake in a new place.

I enjoyed how Jerovic told these unfamiliar (to me) stories, balancing hope with despair, sympathy with revulsion, while giving me a peak into a culture different from my own. Mama Leone belongs in libraries with a demand for foreign or literary fiction.

Jergovic, Miljenko. Mama Leone. Archipelago Books, 1999, 2012. 351p. ISBN 9781935744320.

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