Where Belief Is Lost and Found and Lost Again: Vedran Husić’s ‘Basements and Other Museums’

Every once in a while, a short story collection comes around that requires slow sipping—stories that silence you in the lamplight or make you pause, watch the outside daylife without really seeing it because you are still immersed in the world of the book. Such is the spell that Basements and Other Museums by Vedran Husić weaves. Winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press, Basements cycles in and out of the tumultuous history of the Balkans—more specifically, Husić’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he was born. But the writer doesn’t overwhelm the reader with complicated backstory of the region’s past. Instead, we are often tossed into the middle of the anxieties of war or the unsettling peace that follows. These are stories rooted in place and the loss of that place, stories anchored in the wars of the 1990s as much as in the Bosnian diaspora, where characters live in the present day in places like suburban Phoenix, Arizona, and wrestle with their inherited histories of violence. These stories interrogate borders and ethnicities, how a person who lives on the other side of town could be an enemy just as soon as they could be a friend, whether Serb or Croat, Christian or Muslim, Jew or atheist. From the very first page, Husić’s stories come at you with the rushing velocity of the bullets that fill his collection. The opening “A Brief History of the Southern Slavs,” a micro-story, does excellent work to shape the rest of the collection not just by introducing the writer’s skillful lyricism but also by framing the overarching narrative. These are stories driven by characters who become “prisoners of ideas, then arrogant like all nonbelievers, then violent like all who regain their faith.” Ultimately, each story is a test tube in which the characters wrestle with ideology—whether religious attachment, nostalgia, romantic longing, or some other powerful force—and the stories end with a full embrace or rejection of what was first felt at the outset. The characters we meet, such as Ivan Boric, a fictional Serbo-Croatian writer, are often consumed by an idea that morphs into something else entirely, characters who come face to face with profound loss. Boric, for instance, in “Witness to a Prayer,” is described as a writer who seeks to “[i]mprison beauty in a padded sentence,” to illustrate the “overlooked miracles of life.” Yet Boric, according to a narrator telling the tale in the style of a biography, is “embarrassed” by the sentimentality of his writing vocation, as if it is incomplete. The story shifts—surprisingly, as Husić often does—into a second section that reads more like lyrical fiction and less like biography. Here we see the character Boric from another side, a man who has fallen in love with the quiet of the world, who is consumed by the small beauties of life with his wife Vesna and daughter Mila. But as a Boric’s mind cascades through memories—glimpses in which he watches “Mila sleep in the candlelight”—the dark violence of trauma inserts itself until he must confront the truth that Mila has been killed by a “fragment of a mortar shell.” The miracles of life that he had tried to capture have evaporated, memory only dancing in the shadows of war. The narrator speculates at the story’s end that instead of sentimentalism perhaps Boric has been “trying to capture beauty and raise the dead.” In this story and in others, Vedran Husić uses form to constantly destabilize the reader, to recreate the effect not just of war but also of exile, of longing. The story “Translated from the Bosnian” is written in the form of letters exchanged between a deceased father and his living wife and son. In the silence and white space between each exchanged letter, the longing and disconnect between characters is amplified. Another story, “Documentary,” cycles through linked first person monologues, as if each character was being interviewed as they try to describe Dario, the central figure in the story who is unable to be content in a changing world, to move on from love, to truly value the lives around him. Time also is a character in these stories. Husić uses the slippages of memory combined with the complexity of point of view shifts as each character quests for truth. Central to these narratives, however, is a city that seems strangely unaltered by time and war, despite the many violences that happen in and around it. The city of Mostar acts as a constant place of physical as well as psychological return, bordering on the spiritual. Take this beautiful passage from “Deathwinked” when the narrator elegizes the city of his past: Mostar, my city, you are far from me now, but I peek through the spyglass and you appear so near. In my third-floor apartment, in the neverdesperate America of my childhood dreams, at my desk, armed with pencil and paper, sensitive as a landmine, fumbling similes like live grenades, I, the young, triple-tongued poet, write down the name of my birthcity like the name of a former lover. Mostar. Mostar, my city, stunned quiet. Husić invokes writers that similarly channel form for cerebral effect—from the poet Paul Celan to novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard—and any reader who might be a fan of these heavy lifters would certainly do well to pick up Basements and Other Museums. Among contemporary writers, Husić reminds me of Orhan Pamuk, who in books like Snow similarly questions how a fractured present can somehow be traced back to a more intact past. Vedran Husić’s Basements and Other Museums is a collection where absence is felt acutely, where characters become strangers to themselves. A monk at a Greek monastery in the book’s final story vocalizes what is perhaps the book’s central idea: “A man in doubt is therefore a man in perpetual exile.” This is a collection, after all, where belief is lost and found and lost again.

Resistance Blooms in Nigeria

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim's Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel richly rooted in its conservative northern Nigerian context, yet it is a novel that asks universal questions -- is it possible to change someone you love, possible even to challenge the rules of who can be loved and why? On the surface, the novel is the story of Hajiya Binta, a 55-year-old widow, and her affair with a man 30 years her junior -- Reza, the so-called “Lord of San Siro.” Reza is a drug dealer who longs for a better life, but is kept back by his flaws, despite Binta’s best efforts to bring him up out of the criminal underworld. But the novel goes beyond a tragic love story and proves not just a biting critique of Nigeria’s political structures but also of its cultural, religious, and gendered norms, challenging what a woman can and can’t do within a conservative society. The novel unfolds with its focus on Binta, whom we discover has lost her domineering husband to the violent battles between Christians and Muslims in Jos. She longs for a love she has never had in all her years, for unmet desires both sexual as much as relational. With her husband, she “had always wanted it to be different;” she had always wanted “a license to be licentious.” When she makes advances toward her husband and tries to take control of the bedroom, she is punished -- “He pinned her down and without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned her face to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.” The moment Binta attempts to stretch the boundaries of female agency in her society is the moment she is pushed back into her supposedly proper place. In many senses, the novel is a cycle of transgressions and consequences for Binta, and as we follow her affair with the young Reza -- a thief who appears in Binta’s home and nearly assaults her, and with whom she falls in love -- we are left with a desire to see her circumstances change, and yet we feel a sense of dread knowing that the norms she fights against are too entrenched. Perhaps it is this common bond of transgression that unites the two lovers -- Binta and Reza. But it is the desire for bettering their circumstances that works against their relationship and ultimately pulls them apart. Binta wants to take Reza, the gang leader and fixer for a local politician, and turn him into the man she hoped her deceased son, Yaro, would have become had he not been gunned down by police years before: “She was inching closer to his redemption -- her redemption, to making him a better person.” Reza, at the same time, is trying his hardest to distance himself from his mother, who abandoned him in childhood and left his father to become the “whore of Arabia.” When Binta begins to remind Reza of his mother, he meets his lover’s motherly interventions -- when she pays his school admission fees, when she quells his temper -- with indifference (Freudians really would have a field day with this novel). And it is only when Binta and Reza free themselves from the attachments of who they want each other to be, that they enter the full throes of their sexual relationship. But these moments are only fleeting bits of passion before relational expectations re-enter their lives, exerting force once more over their attempted subversions. If the characterization of Binta and Reza at times stalls -- when Binta becomes an embittered observer of the scenes around her and Reza a temperamental, ineffectual leader obsessed with his own jaded outlook on life -- it is the characterization of many of the side characters that carries the novel through some of its slowest parts. Among these characters is Fa’iza, Binta’s niece who lives with her aunt after losing her entire family to the Jos religious riots. Fa’iza’s struggle to overcome this trauma, years later, is a major subplot in the novel, including a riveting moment when Fa’iza confesses that she can no longer remember the face of her deceased brother. Ironically, Fa’iza is more prepared than her aunt to face the further trauma that occurs toward the end of the novel, and her “disquieting” calm helps Binta realize there is “nothing quite like fighting against loss and, despite one’s best efforts, losing all the same.” Other strong side characters include Mallam Haruna, a suitor who perpetually invades Binta’s home life to sit near her, listening to his radio and providing a running commentary on the presidential campaign of Muhammadu Buhari as it plays out. The author wisely uses this character to weave in some of the strongest political criticism in the novel, a place where fact and fiction merge. At the same time, Haruna becomes a character the reader learns to hate because of his social maneuvering and rumormongering that ironically prove crucial to the plot of the novel. It is Mallam Haruna after all who first notices Binta and Reza’s trysts, and it is the same man who weasels his way into the presences of certain people of power who prove the catalysts for the novel’s climactic trauma. And it is also with Haruna that Binta exerts her strongest resistance to the gendered norms of her society. When Binta is repeatedly subjected to criticisms by neighbor women responding to rumors spread by the jealous Haruna, Binta shuts down her suitor’s advances with a bold declaration: “Just allow me to whore myself to whomever I please.” Sure, Ibrahim’s novel has all the tropes of a romance novel -- forbidden love, suppressed desire, sexual exploration (Danielle Steel even gets a mention in the novel) -- but what makes this novel so special is its rootedness and resistance to a place the author clearly loves and knows and yet feels frustrated by. Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel that questions the conditions of African women within an Islamic context just as Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter does while maintaining the same riveting plot points that could be found in a novel by Helon Habila, Ibrahim’s compatriot. We will be reading Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and his future work not only for what he teaches us about place, but for the ways in which the norms of that place are challenged, and the ways we create expectations for one other -- expectations that may prove helpful or tragic, or paradoxically the same.