Letters From The Fire / June 20, 2018
Sydney Morning Herald, 24 December 1999
If the West is to escape John Ralston Saul’s accusation that it is the ‘unconscious civilization’, the civilization that doesn’t want to know itself, it seems imperative to evaluate seriously NATO’s bombing of Serbia early this year.
It will prove to be a watershed in the history of international relations, with disturbing implications. For example, the interim report of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia suggests that claims of a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo before the bombing and of mass murders of Albanians were, to say the least, exaggerated.
Letters from the Fire makes an important contribution to our understanding of the Kosovo crisis, bringing it back from the abstractions of international relations to the minutiae of ordinary life, and in the process undermining common assumptions about the West’s first ‘humanitarian war’.
The book operates on many levels: as one of a new breed of ‘Internet novels’; as an exposition of the ‘other’ point of view; as a story of intense suffering; as a love story; as an infotainment on a serious subject.
Alma Hromic, one of the co-authors, returned to her New Zealand home one day in March 1999, about an hour after the evening news, and was greeted by her white-faced mother. ‘They bombed Belgrade.’ Thus started a hellish vigil for Hromic and her family, as they watched the bombs falling onto their home city of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, where their family still lived.
Hromic posted messages decrying the NATO war in misc.writing, an Internet discussion group of which both authors are members, sparking a raucous debate about the war, following which Hromic and Deckert decided to write this novel.
The novel consists almost entirely of e-mails between Dave Barker, a liberal American, and Sasha, a Serb living under the bombs in Novi Sad. A web site (http://www.keep-in-touch.org/) about the book tells us that the authors each assumed the role of a character and wrote the book by exchanging e-mails.
E-mails may give this novel a supercool cybergroovy air, but strip away the headers and you have the most ancient form of novel, the epistolary novel. The first fully-developed novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, was an epistolary novel, as was Jane Austen’s posthumously titled Lady Susan.
This is not the first cyber-novel. Nan McCarthy’s light suspenseful romance in three parts of, Chat, Connect and Crash (the titles of which give away the plot) predates it. Letters distinguishes itself, however, by using the lightness of the cyber-epistolary form as a vehicle for sophisticated political comment.
The e-mail format can make for artless writing. E-mails are neither formal letters nor conversation. Sometimes you wish the authors had polished harder. Other times, it is powerful indeed. When Sasha explodes with anger or dissolves in despair over the senseless bombing of the bridges in her city, hundreds of miles from Kosovo and by no stretch of the imagination military targets, she draws us into her world:
‘My river looks naked to me, and almost ashamed; I have gone to see them all, the three dead bridges in the Danube, and the river’s whispers are quiet and subdued. Sometimes it runs through the metal skeleton of the old bridge, the first one to die, and wails like a small child in distress, and it tears my heart as though the child were mine.’
The exchange starts out bitterly confrontational: ‘The bombs have started falling on my country’ v ‘NATO acts at last’. Dave puts humanitarian arguments for the bombing of Yugoslavia with liberal detachment. Sasha’s responses are biting.
Sasha’s historical perspective stands in stark contrast to the ahistorical liberal morality of the American. The limitations of such morality in a vacuum become clear when conflicts are stereotyped as ‘ancient hatreds’ with little analysis of complex contemporary influences and interests.
Despite the conflict, a friendship develops and ‘catches fire’. The two fall in love at Internet speed. The love story is mawkish at times, partly because of the sheer realism of the communications between two people in love.
No such criticism can be made of the later correspondence, in which Sasha intimately relates her experiences of the war. Here, intense writing lends insight into what bombing does: a girl in a refugee camp; Sasha’s sister and her children escaping Yugoslavia; Sasha and dozens of others shielding the last remaining bridge of Novi Sad with their bodies, night after night.
This book is not the final word on Kosovo. It is a readable, thought-provoking introduction to one of the most important international crises of the late twentieth century.
FILED UNDER : Letters From The Fire