The Book of Blam by Aleksandar Tišma translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Michael Henry Heim NYRB Classics (2016) Originally published in 1971 226 pp
Aleksandar Tišma was born in 1924 in what is present-day Serbia. He did his grammar schooling in Novi Sad, where, on January 23, 1942, when Tišma was seventeen and in his final year of school, Hungarian police rounded up — seemingly at random, from businesses or homes and even weddings — over 1,000 Jewish and Serbian citizens, drove them to the frozen Danube, and opened fire. Though his father was a Serb and his mother was a Jew, Tišma’s family was spared. This massacre was part of a three-day raid that ended with approximately 4,000 citizens (Serbs and Jews) dead. Danilo Kiš includes the massacre on the Danube in his novel Psalm 44. Aleksandar Tišma looks at the empty aftermath of the massacre in his horrific novel The Book of Blam, out this week from NYRB Classics.
In November 2014, NYRB Classics released another of Tišma’s books, The Use of Man, which also deals with the aftermath of the war as a character returns to Novi Sad to find that surviving doesn’t always mean one goes on living, other than in the strict biological sense of the word. The protagonist of The Book of Blam is also a reluctant survivor named Miroslav Blam. He lives in Novi Sad following the war, but all he sees around him are the ghosts of all of the people who disappeared in the massacre on the Danube and in the course of the war. He roams the city, and business seems to be going on as usual. However, as he walks these streets, and in particular the street formerly known as the Street of the Jews, he sees another city: he sees those streets going on as if the massacre had not happened.
To build up both worlds and the chance that separates them, Tišma goes all the way back to the 19th century to show how Blam’s parents migrated to Novi Sad, where they would eventually be murdered after answering their door. Tišma brings their lives to the forefront, shows us the work they did, the happiness they felt, before suddenly they’re killed, just like that. This city becomes a nightmare.
The physical map of Novi Sad is important in The Book of Blam. Blam will not only be wandering the streets but will also be stopping in at certain addresses to let us know what happened there. To him, all roads lead to the Danube:
Look at a map of Novi Sad, and you will see a kind of spider’s web intersecting on one side with a broad ribbon in the form of a half circle but extending in all other directions. The ribbon, usually colored blue, is the Danube.
Landmarks also play an important role in the novel, underpinning the alternate worlds. The book begins by looking at the area surrounding the Novi Sad synagogue, a building constructed in 1909 for the small but present Jewish population. In 1944, many of the city’s Jews convened in the synagogue to await deportation. At the end of the novel, seemingly in an alternate universe, Blam sits in the synagogue attending a concert of the Novi Sad Chamber Orchestra. To this day, the Novi Sad synagogue is used for cultural, not religious, events.
The strangeness of attending a concert in the synagogue, which is valued for its acoustics, is not lost on Blam. He sees two worlds anyway, and he just cannot believe that he’s part of this one. It’s as if he himself is some kind of phantom in the underworld. Though the book mostly keeps a modicum of clinical dispassion, there are moments when it veers to the nightmarish or fantastical, such as when the dogs are watching the Jews awaiting deportation in the synagogue. Tišma hesitates not a second to give us their befuddled sensations. Such details underscore just how wickedly bizarre this world can be at times.
Tišma wrote a trilogy of Novi Sad novels, including The Book of Blam and The Use of Man. I’d love it if NYRB Classics had the third, Kapo, on their release slate. I have a feeling we’ll see it from them sometime in the future. These are important books that had a good life in English when they were first released in the 1990s. I’ve heard little of them or Tišma in general in the past several years, though. Tišma’s work is important, so these reissues are particularly welcome.