Thursday, 29 April 2010
The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo: Paula Huntley
It’s an irresistible title, and it’s a much better book than I expected. Paula Huntley went to Kosovo with her husband when he was posted there after the Croatian war, as part of the rebuilding process. She lived among the Albanians of Prishtina, teaching English as a foreign language, and it exposed Paula to the harrowing life stories of her young students. Some of them had been in concentration camps, or hidden in bombed out buildings in order to survive the Serbian death squads, others had watched relatives executed or raped, most had eventually become refugees in neighbouring countries before returning to what was left of their homes. They are all desperate to learn English in order to better their lives and help to support their families.
Among the squalor and the dereliction, the violent reprisals and the black-marketeering, Paula begins to run a book club, obtaining material from America, and their first book is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. At first she wonders if the book is too culturally alien to be understood, but the students identify with the old man’s struggle against adversity and the book club becomes a great success. Paula kept a journal of her daily life to send back to friends and family, and the journal eventually became the book.
It’s interesting to watch Paula’s perspective changing with her experiences. The view of the world that she had learned in America becomes radically different. Soon she can write about
‘...the ignorance of Americans. We are, by the world’s standards, wealthy, and we have virtually unlimited access to news and books and magazines. We can travel, we can learn. But we are an island, cut off from the rest of the world not so much by geography as by complacency, by a lack of curiosity, by arrogance, perhaps. We are worldly, but we know little of the world.’
I’ve been reading quite a lot of Balkan history recently, because I’m thinking of using it for a narrative I’m working on. The story of what happened in the old territories of Yugoslavia is so appalling, it can hardly be credited in modern Europe, or that we allowed it to happen - not once, but again and again. It’s no coincidence that both the first and the second world wars were triggered by events in the Balkans. Its history is one of reprisal and counter-reprisal, conquest, colonisation and division. The nineteen forties was a particularly terrible period, yet, despite what was learned in Europe in 1945, our governments stood back and watched genocide, and we allowed them to. That is going to be a big blot on twentieth century history.