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20th century horrors, exhumed

The Stone Fields An Epitaph for the Living Courtney Angela Brkic Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 318 pp., $24

August 15, 2004|Peter Maass | Peter Maass, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, is the author of "Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War."

It used to be that a young American, seeking adventure or enlightenment, would join the Peace Corps and, after two years in a distant locale, return home with an abundance of exotic memories and intestinal parasites. Sometimes a life's passion would be born -- a devotion to a continent or a cause that would lead to decades of overseas wandering. Other times, the hunger for challenge would be sated, giving way to a life in Sarasota rather than the Serengeti. Either way, an existential turning point is reached. Everything is tested when you are transplanted into an alien land -- your physical and emotional strength, your preconceptions and prejudices and notions of human nature.

In these days of globalization, if a foreign epiphany is desired, there are as many options to choose from as cable channels: become an aid worker in Africa, work for the American embassy (or military) in Baghdad, write for a local newspaper in Phnom Penh, consult on privatization in Eastern Europe or teach English in Beijing, to name a few. The world has become a Wal-Mart of self-discovery, vast and accessible.

In the 1990s, the Balkans lured Courtney Angela Brkic beyond the shores of America. The daughter of a Croat who fled his native land so that he and his offspring could have a secure life elsewhere, Brkic had joined her father on occasional visits to Yugoslavia, which Croatia was a part of during her childhood. But in 1995, in her early 20s, she went to Croatia to work with refugees and later worked in postwar Bosnia, briefly, in a gruesome project -- exhuming corpses of murdered Muslims. She was an archeologist by training, and with her knowledge of the local language, she was of use to a forensic team from Physicians for Human Rights.

Brkic is a talented writer too -- the author of "Stillness," a collection of short stories that was published in 2003 and won the Whiting Writers' Award. When the time came to write a nonfiction account of her Balkan sojourn, she was at a literary turning point of sorts. Would she focus on her angst in the aftermath of war, or would she write of her family's stoic ordeal during the 20th century? The surprising thing about "The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living" is that it is both of these things.

"I was not seeking experience or adventure," Brkic writes. "Part of me did not even know why I had come." Indeed, who in their right mind would choose to spend a summer on sunbaked hillsides that contained, in addition to corpses with rotted hands tied behind their bullet-riddled backs, the occasional land mine? There is something noble yet unsettling about Brkic's on-the-ground enterprise: It is part Mother Teresa, part Liza Minnelli, self-sacrifice as emotional cabaret.

This problem may crop up when anyone who is not a saint (almost all of us) goes to a torn nation in the hopes of not just healing the sick or exhuming the dead but of learning more about life or humanity or oneself. This need not be problematic; it's an understandable motivation that many well-meaning people have when they do good work in war zones or postwar zones. But if the motivational blend is even slightly lopsided, the journey verges on existential voyeurism, seeking enlightenment amid the misery of others.

Living in Zagreb, after two months of exhuming in Bosnia, Brkic gets involved in a relationship with a troubled Croatian war veteran. When she learns that he is philandering, and he blames it on the aftereffects of combat, she responds, "You think you are the only one with pain?" She explains what happens next: "He began to say something about the war, but I had stopped listening. I thought of Bosnia. Some of the bodies had been of young boys, I wanted to tell him. 'Children,' I interrupted him. 'I held the bodies of decomposed children in my hands.' "

This might go over well with Oprah and crew but can evoke cringes in many readers. Ghastly as her work was, she sought it out, abandoned it relatively quickly -- nothing wrong with that, of course -- but then she seemed to brandish it as a morbid status symbol of suffering. It would seem the dead and wounded and homeless of ex-Yugoslavia, whose involuntary and years-long traumas were of far greater magnitude, are supposed to tip their metaphysical hats to a co-equal in pain.

Yet the book is saved by a second narrative: Brkic also writes of her family's history, particularly her grandmother Andjelka, for whom she is named. The dual story lines of "The Stone Fields" weave between present (Brkic's) and past (her family's). In the hands of an unskilled writer, the chronological and thematic flip-flopping would not work, but Brkic handles it with a deft touch; her talent with the language of fiction brings on a nonfiction narrative with true softness. The telling of her grandmother's life is exquisite. Its reach and intensity delve into the 20th century history of her ancestral lands and of human nature -- its cruelties and its kindnesses, its betrayals and sacrifices.

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