The Book of Blam by Aleksandar Tisma

I suppose I should be used to it by now, but I’m not; that is, the fact that even after decades of reading, I’m still able to discover wonderful new books and authors! A case in point is this one, published today by NYRB ( who kindly provided a review copy) – and it certainly is a powerful and original work.

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Author Aleksandar Tisma was a Serbian novelist; his father was also Serbian and his mother a Hungarian Jew. Much of his early life was spent in Novi Sad, site of a notorious massacre during World War 2, and it is this setting and event that informs “The Book of Blam”.

Blam is Miroslav Blam, a Serbian Jew living in Novi Sad. The war is over and he is one of the few survivors – possibly helped by having married a Christian, and also being protected by a colleague of his father. He carries the memory of the town and his populace with him; wandering the streets, his can recall the former owners of the shops he passes, and he sees the footprint of the former occupants everywhere around him.

The memory of the family that emerged from the car to act out a scene of their life for him is still fresh in his mind; he goes over the way they moved and gestured. But the houses he is passing also claim him – their proportions and materials, the stains and scratches so long familiar. One side of the street is the past, the other the present. He can’t get at the present, he knows he can’t, though he feels it, feels it bodily, on his skin, like the sporadic gusts of air from the boulevard that lash him and move in, carrying off group after group of people like those he has just seen.

As Miroslav wanders, his thoughts flash back to the past and we learn of his life and how it developed; of the loss of his parents and sister and friends; of the occupation by enemy troops and of the tortures and massacres; and also the personal failures. For Blam’s life is itself something of a disaster; his marriage is unsuccessful, his job a dead-end one provided by a contact, his wife’s child is probably not his, and his main function seems to be to carry the memory of the lost Jewish population with him.

“The Book of Blam” is a startling work in many ways, because it takes a subject that’s been much written about – the holocaust, the fate of Jewish people under Nazi occupation – and gives it a twist. It’s a very nuanced book, capturing brilliantly that sense of guilt and unreality that seems to be felt by survivors of anything cataclysmic; in fact, that survivor’s guilt was something I remembered reading about in Primo Levi’s magnificent books, that sense of unworthiness – why did I survive and not the next person.

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The structure of the book is clever, with the narrative slipping backwards and forwards in time, reflecting Blam’s state of mind. He is unable to forget the past and move on, and so is therefore trapped by it; in fact, the past seems more real to him than the present. And yet despite all the horrors he’s seen, and his sadness about his loveless marriage, he clings onto existence even though (as he realises at one point) it would be very easy to end things here and now.

Death is terrifying no matter where and when it comes, and life, though it brings us closer to death with every instant, is wonderful.

“The Book of Blam” is a compelling work and beautifully written; it’s translated by Michael Henry Heim, who also worked on books by Danilo Kis, a friend of Tisma. The writing is lyrical in places, despite the often horrific subject matter, and there is a sense of yearning for the past. TBOB doesn’t seem to be as well-known as other literature about the Holocaust, and it should be; it’s a powerful book, opening the door on an area of WW2 I wasn’t aware of, and I certainly want to explore more of Tisma’s novels.

*****

Many thanks to Emma at NYRB for kindly arranging a review copy.

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