In June 2003 I traveled to Mostar to visit my friends as I did almost every 4 or 5 months. I was then part time sharing a house in the Cernica neighborhood. I adored this house, I was in love with Cernica, hypnotized by the Fortica hill I spent hours staring at from our terrace.
A terrace with a view.
Every time I was travelling I’d chose a book to go with the trip. Not randomly chosing a book. Never. Where am I going, when, why ? and according to all of this and my mood, then I would chose a book.
This time, a friend had offered me, 4 months earlier, « The Pathseeker » by Imre Kertész. I had already tried to read « Fatelessness » but didn’t quite get into it. There are some books like that, some authors who either intimidate you or are just simply not for you. Today, I am still struggling with Pessoa, one of my biggest litterature frustration. I simply don’t enter his world. Sometimes it makes me feel not cultivated enough to get him. I had this impression with Kertész and so, I never tried again to read him. The friend who had offered me the book knows me very well and told me « this book is for you ». I understood « there is something inside of it for you ». So, I took the book to Mostar and decided to confront Kertész, again, at the risk to be left out, again.
At that time, my relationship to Mostar was not very clear. I mean, I loved the city, in the true meaning of being in love with the city but Mostar and me were not friends just yet. That’s the least I can say. I was always happy to go to Mostar. I couldn’t wait to see my friends. The trip was very long from Lyon to Zagreb by bus and then another bus from Zagreb to Mostar were altogether 24 hours of travelling. There was always a sort of anxiety growing along the approach to the city to finally sometimes enter Mostar with a real stomach cramp, anxious to discover the state of the city, the news, the atmosphere. I still have this anxiety passed Bijelo Polje, my stomach goes nuts and I wait like a kid behind the window of the bus to see the first glimpse of Mostar. Sometimes, I am truely on the verge to applaude when we enter the city.
I was certainly not ready for the heat that hit us in the days after my arrival. The house was offering some shelter although the sun was hitting the terrace and the bedrooms in the morning but the rest of it was quite protected. For days, I had tried to wake up early and to go out before it was not possible anymore to breath outside. A real shock. I knew the mostarian heat from before but that year, it turned out to be complete hell and one day, I decided I would stay inside all day. I was almost in panic at the idea to go out. I had everything I needed for the day, I thought I would read and try to sleep a little. The sofa at that time was close to the huge windows of the lounge and I had a poor view on our gate, shrudded by bullets, in a terrible old orange colour. A strange scenery.
« The Pathseeker » is a small book of a hundred pages or so. I took it with me in the lounge, sat down for a coffee and stared at the book for quite a long time before starting to read. I was thinking « what will happen if I can ‘t read it, or don’t get it ? » . I call it « the Pessoa syndrom ». I started to read, a bit nervous. I can’t remember exactly how long it took me to finish it. I just remember I didn’t even light a cigarette or left it for a minute. I read it from the beginning to the end, in a row.
It’s the story of Hermann, a man coming back to a place he knows to write a report about this place where something terrible happened. You never get to know who is this man, who is he is working for, where is this place nor what happened. You just know what happened was terrible and presume that Hermann is either a witness, a survivor or a perpetrator. Hermann is looking for traces. The whole book is about a man who looks for traces in the wrong place actually. Pays more attention to walls than to people and fails in his mission to write a report because reality doesn’t fit his expectations. He is not able to face reality, disappearance of material traces and has a total inhability to face people’s trauma.
I was blown away by the book. How in heaven was it possible to write such a complex story in a so small book ? While reading, images from Mostar and its surroundings were coming instantly to my mind. The transposition was so easy, it was scary. Entire descriptions of the city, of hills, of streets, of people were matching Mostar. I was speechless. A scene was particularly amazing to read. Hermann and his wife finally reach the place were « the terrible thing » happened and instead of finding ruins or any kind of traces, they end up facing a huge meadow occupied by groups of tourists, led by a guide, waving signs, directions, seeming to draw in the air how the terrible thing took place.
I knew this scene. I was always amazed by the thirst of tourists for ruins in Mostar. Regularly meeting lost people looking for Šantićeva street or watching at tourists guides in the Old City, crossing on the wooden bridge replacing Stari Most while it was being rebuilt, making this strange choreography showing Hum and the left bank of the river, Hum and the left bank of the river, miming the destruction of the bridge, moving their hands around their ears to figure the noise of the bombs probably. Looking at them from afar you could instantly tell they were talking about the war. These images stayed with me until now and I still think to this day they should be turned into a contemporary danse creation.
Lights in the ruins of Šantićeva, July 2004.
At that time, my biggest fear in Mostar was its ruins. I was so afraid of them. But there was also this woman that we called « Duh »1. Dressed all in black with an outrageous make up, exagerated around the eyes and the lips. She looked like a character escaped from a sinister cabaret. She didn’t speak, at least, I never heard her speak. She could stare at you a really long time and leave. She was walking around the city, in silence. Whenever I met her my heart stopped beating. Not from fear but from sadness. I heard that she had lost her mind during the war. I saw her as a sign of something I couldn’t translate, a pain I was cut from, a reminder from something I never knew. The hostility from people towards her was very violent to witness and yet very easy to understand. Reminders of tragedies are often rejected when you try to forget them. In « the Pathseeker » there is a woman who could have been our « Duh », a witness of the horror that comes to talk to Hermann and then kills herself.
So here I was with all my love for Mostar, blocked inside by the heat and by my anxiety of the ruins, the possibility of meeting Duh in the streets while trying to look completely at ease with my environment. A complete stranger not fitting anywhere, not knowing why, a part from seeing my friends, I kept coming back in a place that was constantly punching me in the stomach. I spent a lot of time on the sofa with the book in my hands after I finished it. The book had given me something which I didn’t know how to name. Not an answer, not an explanation but a tool to walk out in the streets of Mostar and to feel free to observe, to scrutinize, to record every detail I could. « The Pathseeker » gave me a different compass to read Mostar and rearranged its geography. Suddenly, I fell free to walk in the city, still afraid of the ruins but with the right to be. It activated a fearless curiosity of every corner of this city. Mostar became the place where I love to walk like nowhere else. Like a sort of transe, an adventure whose interest is never lost. Being deprived from walking Mostar, because of the rain or because of the heat is a punishment. I feel like a grounded kid who has been naughty and can’t go out to play with its best friend.
Everytime I pass by Cernica, I give a look at Tutina street where the house is at number 3 and the name of Imre Kertész comes to my mind with a feeling of gratitude and a smile.
Tutina Street, December 2003.
Imre Kertész died on the 31st of March 2016.
1 : Duh = Ghost, Spirit.