Rereading Alice in Wonderland a few years ago, Lana Bastašić had a flash of recognition: growing up as a little girl in 90s Bosnia was like growing up in Wonderland.
“You think of Wonderland as this beautiful place where magical things happen, but it’s an incredibly dark book,” Bastašić told me, “heads being cut off over nothing, people throwing things at each other. Alice is constantly under threat. She’s trying to figure herself out but people are mocking her because she doesn’t understand the rules.”
“This is Bosnia,” she thought.
In a realm of nonsense, violence, and paranoia, children “had to accept the mad logic of adults,” Bastašić said. “Education felt useless to understanding the world around you, and everywhere you went people would ask you who you were and where you were going.”
This realisation serves as the inspiration for Bastašić’s new novel, Catch the Rabbit. Where James Joyce had The Odyssey and Dublin, Bastašić has Alice in Wonderland and Bosnia.
The novel explores the complicated relationship between two women from Banja Luka. After 12 years of estrangement, the narrator Sara receives an unexpected phone call from her childhood best friend, Lela. Sara has been living in Dublin for years but, Lela insists, she must come immediately to Bosnia, so they can drive together to Vienna. There, Lela’s brother, Armin — who disappeared early in the war almost two decades ago, and whom everyone assumed was dead — is waiting for them. Sara immediately books a ticket.
This unwelcome return to Bosnia is a descent down the rabbit hole, forcing Sara to confront a past she thought she’d left behind. In alternating chapters, she recounts her childhood friendship with Lela and the disorienting road trip to Vienna many years later. Throughout, Sara struggles, and largely fails, to recognise her blindness to the mad logic of her childhood, at a time when Banja Luka’s Muslim population and architecture was targeted for destruction. Only subconsciously is she able to reflect on the fact that her since-deceased father, the city’s wartime police chief, might have known more about Armin’s disappearance than she ever let herself suspect.
For Bastašić the solution isn’t to choose just one identity, but to accept them all at once
At the centre of the book — standing as a damaged embodiment of Bosnia — is the character Lela Berić, or, as Sara persists in calling her, Lejla Begić. Lela’s Muslim birth name became a dangerous liability amid the Serbian nationalism of 90s Banja Luka, and her mother Serbianised the name when Lela was 11. In quiet shame at her childish lack of understanding, Sara later recalls how jealous this had made her—perhaps, she thought at the time, she could be renamed after Janet Jackson to take back the spotlight.
Though Bastašić’s novel has received significant critical attention within former Yugoslavia, its reception outside the region has reached even greater heights, and to date it is being translated into 13 different languages. Much of the buzz surrounding the book has focused on the female friendship at the centre of the story, and with that have come inevitable comparisons to Elena Ferrante. But such analysis says less about the book, and more about a publishing world that continues to undervalue female narratives and narrators.
“I know that we don’t have a lot of female friendships in our literature, so I do think that part is important,” said Bastašić, “but I didn’t sit down thinking, ‘I’m going to write a book about female friendship.’ It honestly never crossed my mind.” What was more important to Bastašić was “the way in which the person who is telling the story is privileged in comparison to the person about whom the story is told.”
With the relative privilege of being a Serb in Banja Luka, Sara is able to disregard the war, and never once mentions it directly. As the novel progresses, this narrative gap calls into question other conclusions and assumptions Sara makes about Lela. As a narrative where the question of who gets to tell the story is central and the narrator’s intelligence conceals moral failure and self-justification, comparisons to Nabokov’s Lolita might be more apposite than to Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.
Bastašić’s personal background gives her a unique vantage point on conflicting narratives and questions of identity in former Yugoslavia. Born in Zagreb to a Serbian family, her family was forced out of Croatia near the outbreak of the war. “My grandma lived her whole life in Zagreb,” Bastašić said, “but suddenly in the 90s people were calling her telling her they would set her on fire.”
“When we moved from Croatia I had a pure Zagreb accent, so when I arrived in Bosnia, I was seen as a Croat, I was seen as the Other,” said Bastašić. “It would be so easy for me to write a book about a poor family that has to leave Zagreb. But then in [Banja Luka], I saw the other side, that it’s really good to be a Serb there. And here’s what happens if you’re not.”
Bastašić felt the need to address acts committed in her name. “My book is set in Bosnia,” she said, “my book is set in Banja Luka, where they demolished this beautiful mosque, one of the few landmarks that we had.”
Born in Croatia, growing up in Bosnia, spending seven years in Barcelona, and now based in Serbia, it can be hard to label Bastašić. “If I just say that I’m a Serbian writer, a lot is lost. Like the fact that my family comes from Croatia, that we were not welcome there, or the fact that I spent 25 years in Bosnia and that the language I actually speak belongs to Bosnia,” she said. “If I just say I’m a Bosnian writer, other things are lost.”
For Bastašić the solution isn’t to choose just one identity, but to accept them all at once. “Now some translations have come out, some say ‘translated from the Serbo-Croatian,’ some say ‘translated from Bosnian,’ some say ‘from Serbian.’ Then this article came out in Switzerland, where I was a Croatian writer,” she laughs, “I love it.”
“For some people, this liminal position, always being in between places, might be difficult,” Bastašić said, “but it’s good for the writer. It makes you question everything.”
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