By Scott Simon (Random House, 345 pp., $25)
The author will read from and sign copies of his book at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Aug. 1 at 6 p.m.
I missed a flight while touring Eastern Europe in the fall of 1990, forcing me to spend 24 hours in Belgrade before catching a train to Budapest. At the time, Yugoslavia, like the Soviet Union, remained a single nationbut just barely. I occupied my surprise wait in an unexpected city with long walks past brooding statues of Tito, pausing at outdoor cafes where pigeons strutted among the tables, poking my head into garish discos where heavy metal music blared at all hours.
But the moment that stands out from my fleeting experience of Yugoslavia came when I followed the sound of a man shouting through a megaphone. He stood before a kiosk displaying posters of what appeared to be torture victims. Then, as now, one could see such protests in almost any large city, but what struck me about this one was the growing crowdclearly divided in agreement with the speaker, both sides clearly angry.
I didn't know if the atrocities had occurred in Croatia or Bosnia, whether they had been carried out by the Yugoslav army or by one of the many separatist militias that would soon become the armies of Slobodan Miloevic or his various opponents. But what I saw in the eyes of the crowdold women in babushkas, businessmen in pinstripes, and metal-studded young people in purple haircan only be described as blood lust. I couldn't understand a word, but a scary heat radiated from these otherwise ordinary looking people. Unmistakably raw emotion broke from their voices. I got out of there fast.
The following month, Slovenia declared independence; the first of the three major Yugoslav wars erupted six months later. Back home, as I tried to make sense of the many layers of conflict, I couldn't help but believe this war was what that crowd on the sidewalk had been shouting for. A marriage of cultures forced by World War II and socialism was ending in messy, bitter divorce. The last, longest and bloodiest conflict was the siege of Sarajevo, from 1992 to early 1996. While the mainstream media paid lip service to the growing body count, I was best able to follow the war from the detailed reports of National Public Radio. Now, Scott Simon, an NPR reporter who covered Sarajevo, has written Pretty Birds, an elegant and touching novel of the Bosnian conflict.
The urban war was almost postmodern in its mixture of daily horror and pop music, of ancient ethnic hatred and cross-ethnic personal friendships, of petty villainy and selfless heroics in the rescue of household pets. Simon captures the strangeness of the war and of the cultural identity crisis that accompanied it by focusing on a main character at an age fraught with questions of identity: a middle-class teenage girl. Pretty blue-eyed Irina Zaric is a fan of Sting and Madonna, owner of a precocious parrot named Pretty Bird, a star on her high school basketball team, and a Bosnian Muslim. Although she would probably rank her important life associations in that order (her best friend, after all, is Serbian), when war breaks out she is among a number of athletic young women recruited as snipersgiven high powered rifles and taught how to sneak through ruined high-rises, finding human targets across the Miljacka River in Serbian territory.
If a Deighton or a Follett had created a lithesome teenage assassin, astute readers would roll their eyes and brace themselves for the inevitable Hollywood assault. But in this case, real life created a cadre of deadly high school girls. In the hands of a seasoned reporter and gifted writer (Simon garnered critical acclaim for his two previous books, a memoir and a biography), the unlikely reality becomes at once wholly believable, by turns darkly comic and horrifying.
Simon, now host of NPR's "Weekend Edition with Scott Simon," interviewed a teenage sniper named Irina, who coincidentally had a Serbian best friend. He insists that the Irina of the book, like other characters who bear the names of individuals he met in Sarajevo, is entirely fictional, given the name of a real individual in "tribute." Yet Irina's girlish charm and deadly vocation are both realized through small, telling details only a reporter on the scene could gather. Simon's sparse dialogue and evocative descriptions recall the war-reporter-turned-war-novelist Ernest Hemingway (and perhaps the war-novelist-turned-war-reporter Stephen Crane). As in their works, scenes of actual battle are fleeting and often confusedthe majority of the story focuses with disconcerting precision on the problems of daily life amid armed conflict.
"In every great story I've covered, I've learned that even the most intimate journalism can penetrate only so deeply into the lives of others," Scott recently told an interviewer. "I wanted to use my imagination to write a book that might burrow beyond that."
By so fully realizing the character of Irina Zaric, Simon has done much more than explicate a complicated war. Like Hemingway and Crane before him, he has touched on what it means to be human when confronted with the chaos of modern conflict.
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