Stillness and Other Stories by Courtney Angela Brkic

The ugly truth of war in gritty prose
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The Independent Culture

"We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is," Susan Sontag says in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others. Perhaps she is right; but while photography may fail, great fiction can still transport us into the heart of battle and loss. For proof one need only pick up Courtney Angela Brkic's debut collection about the Balkan wars.

Brkic's stories depict all parts of the conflict. She brings us hardened soldiers and UN peace-brokers, snipers who take aim at former classmates and mothers hovering around mass graves, hoping to glimpse missing relatives. Read in its entirety, Stillness and Other Stories presents a prismatic view of this bloody war, bringing home its cruel ironies. Helping a forensic pathologist sift through graves in one story, a man hired to wash corpses remarks: "Those people wanted to get out ... And now it is too late."

It may seem that war is a force greater than Brkic's characters, but some perpetuate it. To appease his conscience, a sniper in "The Angled City" constructs a code of conduct. He does not fire at "men in tan coats, red-haired women, or groups of three". While aggressors obscure their God-like ability to take life, victims fight for a reason to stay alive. A mother in "Suspension" believes her son is at large long after he has disappeared, cooking his favourite meal on his birthday.

Other characters adjust in more practical ways. They learn to run fast and zigzag across intersections, to communicate by tapping on pipes, reading lips, or passing notes. Scavenging is a must. Impromptu graves are constructed from exploded concrete, chipped glass and tiles: anything is better than the indignity of seeing one's dead rot in the open air.

It's tempting to read these stories as journalism; a temptation that Brkic, who worked for the UN War Crimes Tribunal and Physicians for Human Rights, encourages by including a three-page prologue in her own voice. But there is too much artistry here to permit such a misreading. Even the best journalism draws a demilitarised zone between there and here: we read about what happens to people, not about how it feels.

Stillness beautifully dramatises how conflict warps inner life. The narrator of "Canis Lupis" believes he is a zoo animal in a cage. The narrator of the chilling title story has forgotten his past. "I had a name," he says, "but have misplaced it now."

Still, all too often nostalgia sneaks up on Brkic's characters and eclipses reality. A man in "Passage" escapes to New York City. While his sibling adjusts to American life, this man remains an outsider, haunted by his childhood. He decides to return to his island in the Adriatic Sea. "What do I have to be afraid of?" he asks his brother, "I'm going to die faster here."

Tales like this put an immense strain on prose. They have a way of fracturing it, of reducing it to cliché or worse. Except for a few instances, Brkic's prose never wavers. It is exact, brutal and grittily poetic. It does not allow us a place to hide from its ugly truth.