Sarajevo was burning, and there seemed to be no way to stop it.
The bitter smoke left Goran Simic’s nostrils flaring as strongly as the sparks that brought about all that ash from all that was. The bookshop owner, and budding wordsmith in his own right, especially grieved for what he considered to be the Bosnian capital’s chief landmark- The National Library, the books inside smouldering until their embers snapped like when their spines had cracked upon first being opened and read. It was a burden that threatened to break every local writer’s back, as they chose to defy the advancing Serbs and work to salvage what was left from the library`s basement- unknowingly sparking fresh inspiration amongst all the smouldering rubble.
“I think the library is a house of our memories, and it was somebody trying to kill our memories,” Simic says of the Serbs that brought a siege upon his city in 1992 and shelled several buildings across town, including the library that sat a mere 300 metres from his house. “I was the one who organized a group of writers and friends to save the remaining books in the national library… it was burning for days and days, and we saved 500 pounds of books.”
The rescue effort was soon tainted. While Simic joined his friends to recoup the country’s most treasured texts and volumes, his own book shop was looted. But that loss tore him toward something new- Simic soon realized he wanted his customers to become his readers, to write them something far more compelling than a simple receipt.
“When you’re selling the books you can’t reach the metaphor… When I’m writing I’m trying to rescue the ghost of the past, or trying to put myself into the words. It’s the most pleasurable period and once a book hits the shelves it becomes stuff for sale. I think it then belongs much more to the readers than it does to myself.”
That gift to his readers was just one of the many offerings Simic felt the siege demanded of him- aside from coordinating the rescuing of burning books he also organized readings in his basement and lugged hefty jugs of water home to his family, who were left with arid pluming thanks to the tank fire that had erupted across town. In between those mounting duties, the verses he had time to scrawl soon grew as parched as the cindered landscape that surrounded him.
“During the war I didn’t have a need to fight for the surreal pictures (once considered to be my trademark) because surrealism through the horror happened to me.”
Since that thinning shift in style, Simic has nimbly plumbed Sarajevo`s aching depths with poems like “A Scene After the War,” which describes his schoolmate who:
“ … had twenty pieces of shrapnel
that remained deep under his skin after the war.
He wrote me how at the airport he enjoyed
having upset the customs officials who couldn’t understand
why the checkpoint metal detector howled for no reason.“
It all became very surgical, as Simic wielded his pen like a suture, trailing after such scraping shrapnel to jot down a healing stitch. That sentiment laced his poetry and in turn helped him nab the international PEN Freedom to Write Award. The benefactors of that prize helped Simic fast track his immigration to Canada and settle into a position as Senior Resident of Massey College, University of Toronto in the mid nineties, just after the Bosnian conflict climaxed and the death toll in Sarajevo reached 11,000.
Simic’s depiction of the Bosnian tragedy garnered acclaim and was soon translated into nine different languages so that his poems could be published around the world. One thing kept him from worrying that his message wouldn’t become muddled in those interpretations, that his mantra would remain unchanged as it was sent across lingual borders.
“Every single poem written, every single good poem, can be translated in any other language without any problem. If you have a clear message a good poem is ready to live in other languages as well.”
But after all that international success, Simic was still left with one crippling question- even if the poems were good enough to withstand such lingual turmoil, what if the poet wasn’t? After immigrating to Canada he found his grasp of English came only as quickly as his Bosnian tongue slipped away, a newly subtle struggle that he worked to capture in fresh poems like What I Was Told, from his latest book, 2010`s Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman, which peaks with lines like:
“… while I listen to the wind riffling the sheets of my empty bed,
leafing through the pages of my father’s notebook.
In this very moment I would happily exchange
my glory and my golden crown,
for someone who would teach me to read.”
Sunrise isn`t the only recent work that casts Simic under a whole new shade- more than a decade and a half after immigrating to Canada he has settled amongst the locals in Edmonton, conquering culture shock, fitting in and focusing on a number of upcoming projects including the script of a puppet show and a book of love poems. But his most noted forthcoming work is a collection of poems dubbed When You Die as a Cat, which bares the same title as his unflinching 2009 biographical documentary directed by Zoran Maslic that details how the siege still plagues the poet.
Simic hopes all these artistic ventures will help him express the toils he faced, both in his homeland in years past and abroad to this very day.
“It’s every writer’s nightmare to be forgetting your own language… language is alive, and if you don’t practice it you just lose it,” he says of his latest trial. “But Sunrise was entirely written in English… to see how comfortable I am in English and how much I can express myself… (Because) I belong to those (groups of) artists who believe when you jump in the river you don’t say ‘I’m not swimming, I don’t swim.’ Once you jump into river, you have to swim.”