Željko Kocaj: Nebo iznad Lijeske (The Sky above Lijeska)
In Croatian literature today there are books which receive far too easily all kinds of awards, and their authors are given lots of media space. Before us we have a book that most likely will not be seeing anything of the above. However, this book will be a lasting one, outliving by far the mentioned books. Without hollow exaltation it has cut deep into the Bosnian reality revealing all its layers. Those who are not from there everything might seem exotic, and to those who have shared a similar experience everything will appear to be as a reality which they too often have failed to see. Kocaj is an expert in writing, and he skilfully leads the reader through the labyrinths of events, through seven layers of one and the same, reality.
The idea to write a novel, according to the author himself, came to him one day as he was sitting at Cvjetni trg (the Flower Square) in Zagreb. A refugee from Bosnia is begging him to describe the place Lijeska and the people living there. In a somewhat Aralicaesque style Kocaj describes the very meeting and his decision to get down to work. His process of thinking about everything he found out later, he summarises as follows: "... in all those stories about people and customs, about good and evil, there was also a lot of love. And we must never abandon love" (p. 7). These words speak a lot for themselves, and if one fails to notice them, one will not be able to grasp the message the author wishes to convey through this book.
People of different religions and civilizations live in Lijeska. However, all of them were born there and strive to remain living on that patch of land. Very slowly we begin to realise that the place in question is really Central Bosnia, and therefore the author's efforts we start to perceive as a journalist's work. He listens to the stories, adds his observations and writes all that down with his steady hand. Without the coarse support of his own he accepts that we are different, but still need to live together. His words cannot even be compared to similar words of various peacemakers who were passsing through the area and are even today still involved in it. History simply flows down the backwaters, while the river is always the same one, regardless of the quiet or rough backwaters flows.
The plot is divided into three different periods: before the last war, during and after. The war is not given a specific name, it just comes and passes, ant people remain facing all the consequences. A factory remains there too. That factory has torn apart the community which has been living a sleepy everyday life. Suddenly, it becomes important whether the factory workers will be ours or theirs, and whether it will be run by us or them. It soon becoms clear that what was good for us was not good for them and vice versa. The similar differences existed before too, but then less was said and more was done to create mutual coexistence in spite of all the differences. And the factory, one must not forget, was introduced by the Communist era. It did not spring from that environment, but was simply thrown into it. Out of necessity in the end everything started revolving around it.
Although we call this Kocaj's work a novel, it could also be called a collection of short stories as it is comprised of them. I believe that it was Kocaj's wise choice to do so. He arranged the stories like small mosaic stones in order to show us the whole picture in all its colours and shades. In the manner of a good director he leads the plot towards a meaningful closure. That ending is when a cloud above Lijeska leaves and a weather with more sunshine and natural beauty appears. People will be born again, they will die again, and leave again, but Lijeska will always be the cradle from which they are all presented to this world.
Definitely this is also an anti-war novel. However, it does not go along the lines of the levelling of responsibility, but along the lines of having a responsible attitude towards reality. At those times people of Lijeska showed their real faces. There were some tragic detours, as well as some impressive altitudes. Kocaj hides nothing and he is perfectly honest simply revealing all the diversity of opinion and actions that were and still are reproduced at a place like Lijeska. It can be noticed that he values them all and does not want to bring them forcefully together. He is aware that such an action would have tragic consequences. He believes that Lijeska belongs to all of them, and that in each individual the human factor needs to be overwhelming one, and only then the differences arising from different ways of living and everyday life interpretations will be buried for ever. I do not believe he was wrong!
The stories from this novel could be related to many other places in Bosnia, Herzegovina is mostly different, and there lies a key for unlocking it. Therefore, the homeland literature, where we could definitely place this novel, is given a special meaning. An individual becomes a generality and teaches us that there are no big and small things, but only good and bad things. If one knows how to love and cherish his/her homeland, one will know how to love and cherish the wider one, the whole Earth.
In today's words he/she will become a representative of globalisation, but that would mean something different from the meaning that the word carries today. Therefore, it would be a good idea for everyone to read this novel, for those who wish to speak, and especially for those who wish to be involved in decision-making process concerning Bosnia and Herzegovina. Finally, it would be natural for them to come to understand that three different nations live their three different realities at the same time, I repeat, belonging to the same river. Are they capable of understanding that? According to the present course of events, it will be a very difficult task. The protagonists of Kocaj's novel are much wiser, although they will be seen as primitive provincials.
The sky above Lijeska or above Bosnia and Herzegovina, the same thing, will continue living through the changes. Kocaj speaks through friar Krešo when saying how things should function: "There is nothing disgraceful in working and being wealthy, but if you do not feed your soul money will corrupt you. May the spirit be your food and you will be rich" (p. 139). Let us believe that friar Kreso and the other "uncles" will not be the only ones to place their trust in these words. The responsibility lies upon us all. And Kocaj knows it.
• Published by Matica hrvatska, Zenica 2005, 143 pages, ISBN 9958-9449-6-0
Most (The Bridge), 3-4, Društvo hrvatskih književnika / The Croatian writers’ association, Zagreb, December 2006, pages 68 – 69