Through the eyes of a child: Diaries show war as thief of youth Zlata's pain has ordinary face

April 03, 1994|By George L. Scheper

The diary of a not very unusual 11-year-old schoolgirl would not normally be subject to publication, let alone reviews in the international press. The fact that this diary -- which begins with the quintessentially ordinary and desultory remarks about picnics, pizza, MTV Top 20 and "LONG LIVE SATURDAYS!" -- suddenly becomes the record of the hellish 18 months that this schoolgirl, her family and her neighbors lived a bomb-shelter existence during the savagery of the siege of Sarajevo still does not make it a fit subject for that luxury we now of as the "book review."

What would be the point of analyzing Zlata's "style," her "narrative voice," her descriptive devices and character portrayals? They are banal and, indeed, why should they not be so? Hannah Arendt has taught us to be mindful of the banality of evil, but is there not also a banality of ordinary goodness? Zlata did not ask to be a witness to genocide, but this Bosnian child who kept a diary now is part of our record of something that was supposed never to happen again. So this is not a book to "review" but an artifact of remembrance.

Many people will cringe at using a word such as "genocide" or, especially, "holocaust" in references to the tragedy of Bosnia. We must be so wary not to make analogies lightly, because we are charged with carrying the memory of unique and unutterable events cupped in our hands like a flame that must not be allowed to blow out.

But those with the most authority to do so have unequivocally and prophetically called out that these events, of just this year and the last, these events we know about and can claim no ignorance of, are a holocaust: Elie Wiesel proclaimed it so to all the world at the dedication of the Holocaust Memorial last April, and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal says flatly: "This is genocide, absolutely."

Though Zlata's story is at the geographic center of the conflict, Sarajevo, her narrative, mercifully, is actually not at the mouth of the oven. For that, one would have to turn to the reporting of her countryman Zlatko Dizdarevic in 1993's "Sarajevo: A War Journal" or the definitive anthology "Why Bosnia?: Writings on the Balkan War," or to Roy Gutman's book of last year, "A Witness to Genocide." His Pulitzer Prize-winning dispatches on "ethnic cleansing" take us to the geography of hell, the death camp at Omarska, the systematic raping of Bosnian Muslim women in the vicinity of Tuzla, and scores of Muslim towns whose people have been killed, maimed and driven out, and whose culture and personal histories in the forms of schools, mosques, markets and bridges have been erased.

So "Zlata's Diary" deserves attention because of what it is, a palpable record of horrific events that took place, and are taking place, as we pursue our lives, struggle with our work, celebrate our birthdays and graduations, tend our gardens -- as we should. But here is this other reality -- not a Holocaust Memorial, not a "Schindler's List" to goad our memory, but a present reality, a call to mindfulness here and now.

As Neil Postman has said, we, especially in America, entertain ourselves to death, and even tragedy can become the most perverse kind of entertainment. But Zlata is no Steven Spielberg, and she is no Anne Frank, though her publicists have ensured that "the Bosnian Anne Frank" will be her inescapable sobriquet.

There is nothing of literary pleasure in it, and to be honest there is even an off-putting self-consciousness in its latter pages, as Zlata writes knowing that the world has taken an interest in her diary, knowing, even, that it will be published: "they want to publish a child's diary and it just might be mine, which means -- YOU, MIMMY. And so I copied part of you into another notebook and you, Mimmy, went to the City Assembly to be looked at. And I've just heard, Mimmy, that you're going to be published! You're coming out for UNICEF week! SUPER!" This is hard to take, and it gets worse, when Zlata herself says, "Some people compare me with Anne Frank."

But, once again, the point really is the banality of goodness. The real tragedy would be to make of Zlata something she is not and thus strip away from this diary its real value: the reminder that these catastrophes have happened, are happening to the most unexotic, most ordinary people, as I write, as you read.

As Robert Bly said in one of his anti-war poems, about the napalmed children of Vietnam, "If one of those children came near that we have set on fire/came toward you like a gray barn, walking/ . . . you would tear at your shirt with blue hands./you would drive over your own child's wagon trying to back up/ . . . it would be two days before I could play with my own children again."

Dr. Scheper is professor of English and humanities at Essex Community College.

Title: "Zlata's Dairy/A Child's Life in Sarajevo"

Author: Zlata Filipovic; translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 200 pages, $16.95

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