canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Between Mountains
by Maggie Helwig
Vintage Canada Edition, 2005

Reviewed by Faruk Myrtaj

For those of us from the Balkans and Eastern Europeans who now live in Canada the fact that we live far from our homelands allows us to get to know ourselves better. Enemies and friends after Communism’s downfall, we’ve been given the chance to lose our inhibitions and phobias about the past.

The artistic realism of Maggie Helwig’s novel Between Mountains helps us do it. Helwig’s characters live and fight and love during the absurdity of war. It’s about the Balkan of 1990s, with its former-Yugoslavia, and its nationalisms. And you can always look at this book in a wider scope. Haven’t similar events happened in all the former Communist states?

The events that take place between Helwig’s mountains are scrutinized by a third eye, a journalist from afar. Daniel meets Lili in the way that the West occasionally meets the East. Theirs is a special love, due to their past lives. They meet each other in peacetime Paris, and are deeply troubled because they are among the victims, murderers, judges, writers, witnesses located between the Past and the Future. Thus they have to suffer in their love what others suffered in their lives during the war years, because an absurd war can never end normally.

The author moves restlessly from Daniel to Lili, from the victims to their murderers, from one language to another, always looking for human beings overlooked in all the places of ethnic cleansing, and for the artists who represent them. Hence we find in Between Mountains such lines as "Are you from the same country as Milan Kundera?" and "Later she insisted that he take away English translations of Ismail Kadare and Danilo Kis. She didn’t need them, she said, she had the original versions…"

Lili tells Daniel that "My father was Serbian from Belgrad, my mother Albanian from Pristina…My father was a Stalinist. I grew up in this little self-contained communist world; we had a communist doctor, communist dentist, communist plumber…" In this kind of family "she believed, in a highly abstract sense that it might be necessary to kill for this future, but she preferred to imagine herself dying for it, on some elusive barricade."

Daniel, a Canadian journalist, has spent about ten years in the Balkans, always walking on the dynamite of awkward truths. As a war crimes court interpreter Lili tries to avoid having opinions. "I convey every person’s words with all the accuracy I can. I hope for the best." Both of them are in dilemma because in this environment love is impossible.

The novel isn’t simply about the repercussions of war. Read in that way it would remain a book about the Past. Between the Mountains describes the reasons that brought the war to the heart of Europe, bringing into our minds what communism caused in the Eastern Europe by pairing up with blind nationalism.

All of us who came here from that area can get to know each other better by reading this book. The truth is found in the facts: before a city was cleansed, its citizens needed to be cleansed first, which was the politicians’ object. One of the characters in "Between Mountains" says, "I killed some people, I tried not to, but if I didn’t they would have killed me" said he. Asked who "they" were, he explains that he is talking about his commanding officers.

Unfortunately, in the same fashion as some politicians in that region, some writers and intellectuals have and offered a terribly untrue view of Balkan history. "In every second person seems to be a writer, I mean a serious writer," Helwig says. "You have to question about the function of literature, when you think about that."

The dramatic figure of Markovic is colorfully portrayed with pain, wonder, and realism. He is shown as a victim of nationalist ideology and co-murderer in the same time; he and his family had by chance become victims. In such a land it is impossible not to be a disturbed eyewitness. Accordingly, he can’t bear to appear before the other witnesses who are accusing him of crimes against humanity. His blindness and the blindness of his daughter, the blindness of his dreams, are clearly depicted. Markovic thinks that Serbs were fighting for the Heavenly Kingdom, but he is not ready to answer Daniel’s question: "You are fighting in a war just now. And this was for territory on earth…"

Markovic is a victim of the Past: "It is not the question of my difficult childhood. It is a question of the history of the Serbian people. Always we are persecuted, always we are defeated, but never are we finished. You are familiar with Serbian literature?" Then he tells Daniel, "You are very typical North American. You have lost all of the presence of history."

In fact, Lili almost confirms Markovic’s words: "One of the things Lili didn’t admit, then or later, was that she sometimes confused between La Marseillaise and L’Internationale, both songs set to music that made her want to stand up and salute, both soaked in the imagery of history transformed, le jour de glorie, la lutte finale, debout les damnčs de la terre, marchons, marchons..." She knows herself and her father and mother, she feels her love, she knows Daniel and his love for her, but in the end everything is gone. The conflict and the war climate has compromised everyone. "An Illyrian girl, her grandmother said, her pale hair carried down from the earliest mythical Balkan people, but there were too many histories, and she couldn’t belong to them all…"

Among all of the tragic events, all the people declare: I wish I lived in some other time. All the characters in this book, the criminals, lawyers, refugees, journalists, the mad preacher and even the readers, are invited to forget the unforgettable.

The way to The Hague passes through Nuremberg, the novel suggests. All the people who saw the Nazis’ death camps would have liked to witness in Nuremberg. All the people that had seen Srebrenica during the Yugoslavian war and Sarajevo before the war could have appeared as witnesses in the court of The Hague. The hope is that there will be no more need for witnesses.

The danger exists. The terrible storm of the Millennium can rise and destroy even the old bridge of a large peaceful city like Paris. At the end of the book Daniel is in a bad mood because the first thing he saw in the New Year was a man being killed. He lowers his head before a priest and reaches into his memory for the proper sentence.

At one point Helwig describes a fish, the Human Fish, who lives in the darkness of caves for hundreds of years, a meaningful metaphor for a species that lives in an isolated area. "If they were taken out of the caverns, they would die…" Between Mountains is an open window on places where the Shadows of the Past still lurk.

 

 

 

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