Book: When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo

Waterman, Ruth.  2008.  When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo.  Norwich: Canterbury Press.

“When Swan Lake comes to Sarajevo, it will mean we are getting back to normal (203).”

“War is always with us, and so is peace. This book is about the peace that comes after a war. It is one woman’s account of her experiences in the new country of Bosnia as guest conductor of a remarkable little orchestra, the Mostar Sinfonietta.

“I had never been to a post-war country before, though I’d often wondered what happens after the guns are silenced and the media moves on. Encountering Bosnia as a musician rather than as a diplomat or social historian or journalist, I didn’t know how to understand the long uncharted path away from the days of violence.

This is an account of my personal journey, of my experiences and thoughts in the order in which they happened, with all their incompleteness and contradictions and misunderstandings. In a chaotic country, one experience after another piles up, feelings sometimes follow facts at a remove, and the sense of it all emerges only gradually, if at all. In choosing to write without the benefit of hindsight, I have attempted to give a flavour of what it was like to walk in the aftermath of war, to breathe the Balkan air.

At first there was a vague thought of making a radio programme (which was in fact broadcast on BBC Radio 4), so I took a tape recorder in case people wanted to tell me their stories. I was startled, and touched, by the number of acquaintances and strangers who, without invitation, started to talk of their experiences both during and after the war. It seemed part of a deep need to speak, to have someone hear them, especially an ‘international’ as I was called. What they said was so extraordinary that I continued to record them during my subsequent visits. So this book honours the victims and survivors of the Bosnian War by having them speak in their own words, opening an invaluable window onto how a people survive catastrophe, and by inference, how we all survive and live our lives.”  (read more)

I read this book in a few sittings at the local music library, and enjoyed it very much.  I like the “diary” set-up; Waterman’s writing really made me feel like I was there too (maybe the use of present tense helped), and I liked reading her impression of the different cities she visited, and the effect she felt their music made on their audience and the performers.  Waterman even includes Bosnian, Croatian, and Chechnyan vocabulary she learned each day!

The Mostar Sinfonietta is a multi-ethnic orchestra, made up of musicians from the former Yugoslavia, as well as from other Eurasian countries such as Russia and Chechnya.  Waterman intersperses snippets about the reconstruction of the Stari Most, the bridge that is the symbol of Mostar, built by the Ottomans, destroyed in the war, and rebuilt through the cooperation of several countries.  Likewise, the Sinfonietta is a bridge, allowing people whose compatriots had recently been fighting to work together, and to bring these ethnic groups together in one audience.

For me, Waterman’s account of the performances and the other musicians’ impressions of them really stand out.  She points out that King Lear may have had the impact it did on the Croatian and Bosnian audience because of its content, namely the fighting of the three parties.  One performer actually told Waterman that he was uncomfortable showing the murder scenes in Lear, or even showing a play in which they take place.  A focus of Medea is the title character’s isolation and loneliness, and this was accentuated by the lone Chechen in the group, who played Medea, singing her part in Chechnyan, even though the rest of the play was in a different language (Croatian, I think).  I don’t have much background in Western classical music and opera, so there were some things that went over my head, but I loved the book!


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