When war broke out in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, French novelist Jakuta Alikavazovic was a teenager living in Paris. Her parents had emigrated from Bosnia and Montenegro in the 1970s and settled in France. “I was brought up bilingual,” she tells me, “with close, loving ties to my relatives in Bosnia and Montenegro.” As a child, she and her family made frequent trips back home until the conflict broke out; Alikavazovic would have to wait 10 years before she returned.
“Today,” Alikavazovic admits, “I can say – quite serenely, as I’ve finally come to terms with it – that I, too, have been shaped by the war… For a long time I thought I was unharmed and, in an eerily remote way, I felt almost unconcerned; until I was made to realise that this is precisely how trauma manifests itself, especially in younger people who, in trying to shut out searingly painful events, end up just shutting down.”
This continuation, or perhaps contamination, of the past is the central question in Alikavazovic’s book Night As It Falls, published in France in 2017 and translated into English this year. Trauma and dislocation haunt its protagonists, Paul and Amelia, two students who fall in love in a Parisian hotel. Amelia’s mother was a poet from Sarajevo who becomes burdened with the task of transforming the war into poetry, “to find a way to transport this reality somewhere else.” Amelia inherits an “instinct for catastrophe”, one which leads her back to Sarajevo in search of traces of her past.
Alikavazovic describes the book as both “semi-autobiographical” and “speculative fiction”. “Many events of Amelia’s childhood are borrowed from my own: the poet mother, the isolation experienced as an only child, and of course the war seeping in, tainting the most harmless situations,” she says. But their stories cleave in significant ways: whereas Amelia loses her mother to the war, Alikavazovic’s “renounced poetry, not motherhood”. It was a “symbolic form of death” for her mother, says Alikavazovic, a death that conversely becomes real for Amelia in her fiction. The fear of what might have been, however, has stuck. After the war, Alikavazovic’s world became “an unintelligible, dark and frightening place in which the worst was possible – if not certain”.
“That is precisely how trauma manifests itself, especially in younger people who, in trying to shut out searingly painful events, end up just shutting down.”
Unintelligibility, bewilderment, derealisation are the raw elements of Alikavazovic’s prose. There is a slipperiness to reality, a sensitivity for its dizzying recursiveness, its shapeless form. In their search for stability, both Paul and Amelia come up painfully short, recalling Joseph Brodsky’s assertion that trying to grasp the meaning of existence makes one feel “like a baby clutching at a basketball: one’s palms keep sliding off”.
But Alikavazovic chose to tell this story through fiction, as opposed to memoir, precisely because of this: “fiction allows ambivalence,” she says, “and even draws strength from it; it allows you, as a writer, to vaporise, to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.” Fiction also allows for multiplicity, a natural home for the multilingual Alikavazovic. “As any bilingual or multilingual person knows, you’re not quite the same in all your languages.”
It was only in the early 2000s – and with the example of other authors – that Alikavazovic allowed herself to write into this polyphony. “It was difficult then (perhaps it still is) for a young woman with a distinctly non-French sounding name to dream of becoming a French novelist in her own right,” she says. “In this respect, [Kazuo] Ishiguro, [Hanif] Kureishi – the writers I affectionately thought of as ‘the in-betweeners’ – helped a lot.” In winning the Prix Goncourt for her debut novel Corps Volatils (Volatile Body in English) in 2008, which also revolves around a man and a woman in a beguiling Parisian landscape, Alikavazovic could not have “become” a French novelist any more emphatically.
How narratives take shape is of equal interest to Alikazovic as the stories themselves. Amelia seems both the teller of her own story and a character in someone else’s, caught between the competing forces of self-determination and the long shadow of history. In the style of an Austerlitz (in W.G. Sebald’s book of the same name), her path seems laid out by the ashes of dead souls. “I believe that silence, secrets, buried events and feelings can be passed down,” says Alikavazovic, “and that they shape us. Haunt us. Strange as it may seem, we can inherit someone else’s ghosts.”
This idea is central to Night As It Falls, and lends Alikazovic’s writing a palimpsestic quality, as if Amelia and Paul’s words are merely the surface layer of thousands of hidden texts, each one buried in the sediment of the past. In one memorable scene, Amelia tells Paul that “you can be contaminated by what you know, but also by what you don’t know”.
How then do we protect ourselves from the second-hand scars of language and silence both? Alikavazovic believes there is a line of enquiry – if not a resolution – in writing. “Literature always strives to take on what most strongly seems to resist it. As a writer, how do you account for such silence? How do you unravel it – without betraying the strange, dark, compelling force of things that have been left unsaid for so long? That’s one of the main themes of the novel, and one of my main concerns as a writer.”
Get your copy of Night As It Falls here.