The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo.
As his keynote address to the International Hemingway Society conference in Stresa in June 2002, the writer Tobias Wolff gave a reading from a work in progress, a richly comic novel about a young man at a fictional prep school visited by both Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway. Torn between two writers he admires, the young man ultimately decides that he prefers Hemingway because of Hemingway's compassion for human suffering. It is that compassion for human suffering that makes Hemingway's work so attractive to the students in the Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, an informal gathering of ethnically Albanian students learning English in the city of Prishtina. (The author notes, incidentally, that the students prefer the Albanian spelling of Kosova for their native country.)
Paula Huntley, the author of this memoir, is a 56-year-old Californian and self-professed "ordinary American woman" (213) who travels to Prishtina with her husband, an American attorney who, as part of the American Bar Association's Central and Eastern European Law Initiative, is in Kosovo to create a modern legal system and teach attorneys and judges about the rule of law. At loose ends, Huntley agrees to teach an intermediate class for students learning English as a second language at the Cambridge School. Her memoir is written as a journal, with entries running from 23 August 2000, three days before their departure from the U.S., through 18 June 2001, almost two months after their return home (plus an epilogue written in 2002). Altogether, she spent about eight months in Kosovo. The book apparently evolved almost accidentally from observations she made during her stay there; as she explains in a prefatory note,
Throughout those eight months, I kept a journal and e-mailed parts of it occasionally to friends and family. When I returned to the U.S. I found that my journal had spread through e-mail and had captured the interest and imagination of many Americans I didn't even know. Soon, to my astonishment, I had a book offer. (ix)
While not exactly like Hemingway's (and it is not intended to be), her prose does have the merits of being relatively simple, direct, and emotionally spare; she shows us what she sees and does not impose her interpretations too excessively, except, perhaps, in the book's epilogue.
Occasionally the book slips into an annoying alphabet soup of acronyms denoting the various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in reconstructing Kosovo--including ABA-CEELI, KFOR, UNMIK, OSCE, and CIVPOL. While these are probably unavoidable for anyone living in a country that is being rebuilt and rehabilitated, the reader is advised to either pay very close attention or start a running list to keep track of which acronym is which. But the book also offers some intriguing extras, including an appendix of international volunteer opportunities; the review copy's back cover indicates that a special reading group guide is available for the book (published online at <http://www.penguinputnam.com/static/ rguides/us/hemingway book_club_kosovo.html>), and there is a separate website for the book at <http://www.hemingwaybookclubofkosovo.com/>.
Huntley's students are Albanian, so she acknowledges that her perspective is biased; she herself concedes that her story is incomplete since she has not so much as met a single Serb during her stay in Kosovo. Although she occasionally alludes to atrocities committed by Albanians (such as the murder of a Rom, or gypsy, family for their supposed collaboration with the Serbs, or the bombing of a bus filled with Serbian families), she describes the sufferings of the Albanians at the hands of the Serbs in much more detail. It is difficult to argue with her perspective given the Serbians' choice to engage in "ethnic cleansing" of the Albanians and the fact that the Serbians held political power. Despite profound discouragement at the overwhelming odds against her students' success, she chooses to remain optimistic and decides, with her husband, that their most important role is to encourage the young people they are trying to help.
Although life-affirming, this book is not a sunny work, and sometimes it is self-accusatory, asking whether she really worried much about the sufferings of the Albanians in Kosovo before she arrived and condemning Americans for their willed ignorance of much of the world. The book offers an informal crash course in the recent history of Kosovo and Serbia for those readers who have only a hazy understanding of the travails of Eastern Europe. Because it is written from the point of view of a compassionate teacher, it is perhaps more palatable than a dispassionate historical work and more accessible to those of us who also teach. In reflecting on her students' indiscriminate hatred of all Serbs, she recalls her own upbringing in a segregated small town in Arkansas in the 1950s. She concludes that she has outgrown many of the prejudices she was raised to hold and attributes much of that growth to a liberal education. While she admits that books can teach hate as well as understanding, she shares the idealism Of many teachers in believing that education is the best way to begin to combat racism and hatred.
Hemingway and his work do not feature nearly as prominently in this work as the title might suggest. Huntley does mention that she locates a stray copy of The Old Man and the Sea, which she duplicates for her students and assigns as reading. For the first time, she invites the students to come to her home, which seems to initiate a breakthrough in their willingness to learn from her and approach her with questions. As they discuss the work with her, she (like any teacher) explains the terms they find difficult and asks them questions to ensure that they comprehend what they are reading. But then she asks them whether they know anyone like Santiago in their own lives, whether they know anyone who has survived hardship and remained cheerful.
I see light coming into their eyes as they begin to understand that the old man's struggle, his endurance, describe their own lives, the recent history of their country. Will they come to see that they are the heroes of their own stories? These young people know about "undefeated." They live it every day. (90)
Huntley shows her mostly teenaged students the 1958 film of The Old Man and the Sea, starring Spencer Tracy in his Oscar-nominated performance as Santiago. "I can imagine that many American kids would find it dated and boring," she says. But the students in her class are absorbed and find the film very moving. "They understand, as many students in my own country could not possibly understand, just what Hemingway is talking about" (167). She hopes, a little desperately, that her students will take courage from the old man's story.
Huntley finds parallels between Hemingway's prose and the short, simple sentences her students write about the violence of their lives:
Leonard writes of seeing a television interview with local families whose sons/brothers/fathers/husbands are still missing--either dead or perhaps in Serbian jails somewhere. "I cried to listen them," he writes. "Their words attacked my heart." Granit 2 writes that the road in front of his house "looked like a snake, moving." When he and his family joined the exodus, he looked into houses along the way where he saw "people in the middle of fire." (153)
Huntley speculates that the simplicity of their language is owing partly to their inadequate vocabularies and partly to the utter impossibility of describing their horrific experiences in any words in any language. "There are times when we can only speak in fragments," she concludes. "People in the middle of fire. Simple, clear, vivid. Hemingwayesque" (153).
--Lisa Tyler, Sinclair Community College
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
|Previous Article:||Marketing Modernism Between the Two World Wars.|
|Next Article:||Hemingway in Cuba.|