In my workroom I have posted a photograph of the place I was born. It was taken in 1986, the year of my birth. ‘The past is a foreign country’, goes the opening sentence in the novel "The Go-Between", ‘they do things differently there.’ When I look at the photograph I invert this idea, it makes my present foreign, and the past is home, albeit a lost home in a lost country and a lost time.
I have just revisited Sarajevo, my lost home, country and time, after an absence of almost half my life. It was an eerie experience. I felt as if I was being claimed, or informed that the facts of my faraway life were illusion, and that this was the reality. Then I went to visit the place I had lived and stood outside it, neither daring nor wishing to announce myself to its owners. I was overwhelmed. My memory, feeding on black and white images, where monochromatic and since the colors of my memory had seeped away, my eyes were now assaulted by a riot of colors. The vividness of the red tiled roofs, the greens, and grays of the vegetation and the unimaginable variety of the blues of the water the whole universe in glorious Technicolor.
Bosnia is a region built, claimed, and re-claimed by many foreigners. I who have been away so long qualified for the title. I too have a history to reclaim.
It may be that exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. If we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge that it will give rise to profound uncertainties. Our physical alienation almost inevitably means that we will not be able to reclaim precisely the thing that was lost. In short, we will create fictions, imaginary places of our minds.
Writing this now, looking out the window on to a garden that is similar to the one I remember, I am re-thinking this. I am preoccupied, as I was on the flight and drive back, with the task to make clear in my mind that, in spite of my ambition to unlock the gates of lost time so that the past reappears as it had been, what I am actually doing is a story of memory and about memory, so that my Sarajevo is just that: ‘my’ Sarajevo, a version, and no more than one version of all the hundreds of possible versions. I tried to make it as imaginatively true as I could, but imaginative truth is simultaneously honorable and suspect, and I know that ‘my’ Sarajevo may be one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by leaving never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was willing to admit I belonged.
It may be argued that memory is a place from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity.
The loop-de-loop Festina Lente pedestrian bridge in front of the Academy of Fine Art. Credit Todd Heisler/NYT