A Tough Crowd in Doboj

Carlo Rotella on the Lecture He'll Never Forget

By  Carlo Rotella

I once gave a lecture in Doboj, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Like the names of the other cities in which I spoke on that tour—Tuzla, Mostar, Banja Luka, Sarajevo—Doboj was familiar to me because it had been in the news a dozen years before, during the Bosnian civil war of the early 1990s. The names inspired a vague recall of acts of cruelty at once rudimentary and baroque, of bland denials of culpability by men who had tortured and murdered people from around the corner or across town and dumped their bodies in mass graves. I had shied from the details of these stories in the newspaper, not because the massacres and rape camps and other elaborate horrors seemed like the work of impossibly evil monsters but because it seemed to me that the perpetrators were probably just like anybody else, except that they had been imbued with a toxic dose of purpose and efficacy by a terrible confluence of the forces of history. They no doubt understood themselves to be regular folks pushed by circumstance to do what had to be done to look out for themselves, their families, their people. And the unjustifiable, unforgivable things they had done, they had done to their neighbors.

In the car on the way from Sarajevo to Doboj, my hosts from the US State Department explained that the mayor of Doboj was trying to get them to establish one of their American Corner outposts in his second-tier city. When we arrived we found that in order to impress them with a heroic turnout he had temporarily shut down city government and sent the municipal work force en masse to hear me speak. The civic auditorium was packed and latecomers were being turned away at the door, but there was little of the excited hubbub of fellow enthusiasts greeting one another and settling in for a shared good time. It was eerily quiet in the auditorium.

The receding, ascending ranks of impassive faces before me conveyed the distinct impression that many of those present had no interest in my subject—the literature and music of Chicago—and would perhaps prefer to be hoisting a midafternoon Nektar beer and snacking on cevapi, the tasty minced-meat treats that all sorts of Bosnians eat with ecumenical gusto. Just before a local functionary stood up to get the proceedings underway, my translator, a formidable Bosniak Muslim woman, leaned over to me without taking her eyes from the waiting assembly of Bosnian Serbs before us and muttered something I didn’t quite catch but was very probably akin to “Ouch time.” The public speaker’s primal fear of an unfriendly, unengaged audience descended on me in a hot-and-cold wave.

Having already lectured in other cities in Bosnia, I knew that in addition to the dragooned city workers there would likely be all sorts of people in the auditorium: academics from the local university and teachers from the schools; people who came primarily to test or enjoy their command of English; devotees of Culture, wearing a scarf or bowtie or some other excessively dapper accessory as an identifying ensign, who would turn out for any event that had a cosmopolitan intellectual tang; young fans of American movies and music; the simply curious; at least a few people who were interested in literature for its own sake and might even harbor a passion for the works of Theodore Dreiser or Gwendolyn Brooks; and some who had family or friends in Chicago, one of the great diasporic Eastern European cities of the world. Even some of the unwilling attendees might conceivably come around and warm up to the occasion.

Article continues after advertisement

I’d managed to get through to tough-looking audiences in Bosnia. An initially forbidding Serbian university crowd in Banja Luka had surprised me with a lively q and a, detaining me for an extended round of one-on-one conversations after the formal event ended. A crew of 60 Bosniak teenagers from a madrasa who had trooped en masse into the room in Sarajevo two minutes before my talk began, causing me to junk my prepared lecture and wing it, had proven to be good-natured and eager to engage, even as they diverted the q and a into a discussion of America’s use of power. I had run into one of those teenagers in a bar several hours after the talk, and, with the sleeves of his sport jacket pushed up his forearms in vintage 80s Hall and Oates style, he had told me all about his dream of attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I live. The likelihood that he’d followed me and engineered this seemingly chance encounter in the hope of enlisting my help in making it to Boston only reinforced my confidence that I could find common ground with whoever showed up at my lectures. I’m from Chicago; I don’t automatically take offense at being worked, and realize that it can even be a form of respect.

But the climate felt different in Doboj than in Banja Luka and Sarajevo, where the audiences had been dominated by fellow tribespeople in the world-spanning community of School. Now, awash in flop sweat brought on by the prospect of crickets, of bombing, I feared that the furloughed patronage workers had arrived early and claimed all the seats in their eagerness to skip out of work and show their boss that they were following orders. This would leave my natural constituency, the nerds who I imagined these city workers had picked on back when they were all kids at school, to be turned away at the door when they arrived at the normal time. And so far in Bosnia I had done my own talking, in English; this would be my first experience with a translation delay. I suddenly realized how much I rely on tone, inflection, cadence, and joking around to engage an audience. None of that was going to help me here, and it was far too late, with a translator to accommodate, to toss the prepared lecture and wing a revision expressly designed to work with a translation delay. All at once I felt myself to be marooned among coldly distant strangers I wasn’t equipped to reach. As little forking flickers of panic began to spark inside me, those strangers seemed to congeal into an annihilating stone-faced mass impervious to my pathetically inadequate expertise and charm.

[/pullquote]“No matter where I go, I catch flashes of Chicago. World-spanning flows of people and money and ideas link my hometown to everywhere else.” [/pullquote]

Launching into the talk, I enunciated each sentence with great care and then paused to let the translator pass it along to the audience, which offered no reaction at all. A typical lecture audience will meet a speaker’s eye, nod, smile, grimace, but this crowd just stared straight ahead like my Sicilian ancestors posing for a family portrait, suspicious of the ordeal and waiting for it to be over. I retreated into a detached mental recess—a bomb shelter, you might say—where I encountered the memory of a newspaper story I had read as a child about a streaker who died in a freak accident. Having nerved himself to strip down and display himself in all his glory to gaping bystanders, he somehow didn’t see the plate glass window of a bowling alley and ran right through it. Gushing blood and in deep shock, he locked into the mechanical impulse to finish what he’d started, racing on through the bowling alley in a kind of traumatized fugue state until he crashed out through a second plate glass window in the back, sealing his fate.

As I soldiered through the talk, my commitment to being a pro about it and seeing it through waged a running fight inside me with the urge to start cutting whole pages at a time to get it over with as soon as possible. I wondered how, were I to decide to cut and run, I might go about signaling these revisions on the fly to the translator, who was working from her own marked-up copy of my notes. I wondered, too, if my State Department handlers, who had otherwise done a creditable job of managing my little crosscountry road show, had chosen a Muslim translator for this stop in Serb territory as a matter of principle or had screwed up. She was a competent translator, as far as I could tell, but the disinterest and hostility that palpably flowed through the room, combined with the stop-and-start rhythm imposed by the translation delay, narrowed to nothing the aperture through which I was trying to convey to the patronage workers of Doboj my practiced enthusiasm for Carrie Meeber’s entry by train into Chicago and Buddy Guy’s rendition of “Five Long Years.”

Article continues after advertisement

The translator’s identity and the mayor’s mandatory attendance policy weren’t the only likely causes of resentment. Their mayor might want an American Corner, but the Bosnian Serbs of Doboj could not possibly have forgiven the USA for NATO’s and the UN’s decision, faced with the problem of taking action amid the many-sided complexity of grievances in a three-way civil war, to bomb the Serbs and not the Bosniaks or Croats. As an American talking about American things on an occasion orchestrated by the money and influence of the State Department, which wielded outside clout potent enough that even their strongman boss must concede to it, I was rubbing all that in their faces. The crowd did perk up, though, when during the final part of the talk I segued from Chicago to Bosnian cities. They grew especially alert when I talked about Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina, a novel that, while it’s not by a Bosnian Serb (Andric was a Croat), does decry the centuries-long train of outrages perpetrated on Bosnians by Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian overlords. Ostentatious disinterest became general once more, however, when I moved on to Semezdin Mehmedinović, the Bosniak who wrote Sarajevo Blues.

While I talked, and in the pauses while the translator talked for me, I kept an eye on the mayor, a blocky guy with Fred Flintstone-like five o’clock shadow. He sat heavily in his blue suit, tieless, his face set and stoic, and in my distress I read his posture as indicating, without benefit of a flicker of movement, that while he might be obliged to play ball with the State Department he wasn’t about to put up with any foolishness from some pointy-headed outlander who didn’t know what was what around here. I learned later that the mayor had been chief of police in Doboj during the war and had tried to maintain some kind of cagey arm’s-length distance—as follower or dissenter or bystander, or some murky combination of them all—from local ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Bosniaks and the Croats. The Doboj I visited appeared to be a militantly Serbian city, and my natural inclination as an American visitor to the Old World was to assume it had been that way for time out of mind, but before the war Bosnian Serbs had been in the minority there, outnumbered by Bosniaks. Maybe, instead of listening to the lecture, the mayor was brooding on the lethal consequences of impossibly thorny moral compromises he had or hadn’t made.

I didn’t know about these aspects of the mayor’s or the city’s history while I was delivering the lecture. All I knew was that the mayor seemed intensely familiar because he reminded me of the politicians who ran Chicago in my childhood, a flash of recognition that leavened my profound feeling of alienation. He had the same sort of hardpan Old World face as those traditional Chicago bosses; the same thickness of body suited to displaying his dominance by picking up the jukebox and dancing with it; the same foursquare manner of a man who puts his confidence in leverage, connections, and other applications of the eternal principle of force.

The whole country, in fact, reminded me of Chicago: its bitter differences between factions an outsider had trouble telling apart, differences often of a recent and practical nature but dressed up in the dignified robes of ancestral sorrow; its local potentates who deployed their henchpersons in packs to shout down the cosmopolitan theorists produced by the universities; its violent tribal successions, displacements, and turnovers; its rich variety of ways to make a serious mistake by saying or doing or being the wrong thing in the wrong neighborhood. Traveling the two-lane highways from one town to the next, watched from horizon to horizon in my passage by people who had paused in their daily round to register an alien presence, I passed clusters of old houses still pocked with bullet holes and also fresh-plastered churches and mosques that spoke of the selective intrusion of big-time outside money from Saudi Arabia or Russia or the Vatican. I felt as if I were passing through some kind of other-dimensional extension of Chicago—like the half-strange neighborhoods in which I find myself half-lost in dreams.

No matter where I go, I catch flashes of Chicago. World-spanning flows of people and money and ideas link my hometown to everywhere else, and it’s also my template for human endeavor of all sorts, from settlement to destruction. Every railroad or streetcar track in every place I’ve ever been connects back in a branching tangle to Bryn Mawr Station, my childhood stop on the old Illinois Central line, at 71st and Jeffery. Leeds and Lu’an and all the other factory cities I’ve visited are neighborhoods abutting Chicago in a single Rust Belt megametropolis that extends all around the planet, and I can only understand San Francisco or Osaka as a city on a lake, though the lake is a great deal bigger than Lake Michigan, salt rather than fresh water, and on the wrong side of the city. Once I happened to call my brother Sebastian, a foreign correspondent, while he was pinned down in a complicated, fluid standoff between Palestinian protestors and an Israeli tank. His voice was breaking up on a bad connection, so that it was hard for me to tell whether he was saying West Bank or West Side. Either way, I got the picture.

During the q and a after my lecture in Doboj, a trim grandmotherly woman in the front row raised her hand to declare that the governor of Illinois at the time, Rod Blagojevich, was Serbian. His mother was a Bosnian Serb, in fact, and his father from Serbia proper. (This was a few years before Blagojevich was impeached, removed from office, convicted on corruption charges, and sentenced to a 14-year prison term, making him the fourth governor of Illinois to do federal time.) The woman didn’t have a question, nor did she frame her comment in any further context, but she had been waiting with visible impatience for me to stop talking so she could say this thing that had to be said. There was nodding and exclaiming all around after she spoke, as if something had been settled by subordinating the subject of my lecture—and, therefore, any authority I might imagine myself to command—to the authority of a man of Serbian descent with a heroic pompadour.

My instinctive response was Who gives a rat’s ass about who’s governor way down in Springfield? I’m talking about Chicago here, people. I allowed that thought to come and go unarticulated, opting instead to say something less confrontational about Blagojevich’s political apprenticeship under Alderman Eddie Vrdolyak, a son of Croatians from the industrial East Side, and the strong representation of people of Eastern European descent in Chicago’s politics, arts, and letters. The woman looked at me blankly, as if to say, Croatians? “Eastern European”? I’m talking about Serbians, you punk. The parochial rancor radiating from her brought on a rush of intensely nostalgic feeling so strong and so Chicago-familiar, rising up in me of a sudden in this faraway land, that I felt for a moment as if I might lose my grip and do something crazy—weep, laugh so hard I couldn’t stop, tell the woman to go fuck herself. But the rush crested and receded, and she and I were left looking at each other in a bristling silence that felt a lot like home.

Carlo Rotella
Carlo Rotella
Carlo Rotella's next book, forthcoming in spring 2019, is The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood. He is a professor of American Studies, Journalism, and English at Boston College.





More Story
On the Adventuresome Dane Who Drove Across North Africa in the 1930s The art of translation requires an element of unpredictability. Although in my twenties I made my living translating poetry...