Lana Bastašić: Uhvati zeca (Catch the Rabbit)
Our narrator is Sara, a Bosnian woman who lives in Dublin. She lives with her boyfriend, Michael. She is a translator and he is a computer programmer. When she first met him, they had sex lasting five minutes and then, in good male fashion, he turned over and went to sleep. Not for the first time, she was preparing to phone for a taxi and go home, without leaving her phone number. While considering what to do she looked at his bookshelf and saw that he had a copy of Treasure Island. That changed her mind. She crawled into bed beside him and they are still together. We will see why Treasure Island changed her mind later in the book.
This is not the only time she makes a major decision based on what seems to us a trivial issue. At the beginning of the book,s he is out buying curtains. They have decided to invest in curtains as the new neighbour had a habit of wandering round his flat stark naked, just opposite their flat. Apparently it is not an appealing sight.
Before making the purchase, her phone rings. It is a call from Lejla. Lejla was her best friend at school. However, there has been no contact between the two of them for twelve years. Lejla wants Sara to give her lift – to take her from Mostar to Vienna. Mostar is in Bosnia, quite a long way from Dublin. Sara is naturally reluctant, not least because she feels Lejla could get someone else to give her a lift. Lejla pushed her case. You gotta come get me as soon as you can. I gotta go to Vienna and these morons took my license and nobody gets that I have to …
Sara hangs up but Lejla calls back. Lejla then tells Sara that Arnim is in Vienna. Sara immediately buys a plane ticket for Zagreb, another major decision made seemingly on a trivial basis. The two decisions, however, are very closely connected.
The book is about Sara – she is the I-narrator – but it is also about Lejla and, to a lesser extent, about Arnim, Lejla’s brother.
Sara and Lejla met at school when they were seven. They became friends. However, Lejla was not, as we have seen, an easy person to be friends with. She is self-willed and, indeed, selfish. For example, they had been friends at school and agreed to go to university together. Once they are at university, Lejla essentially broke off with Sara for no apparent reaosn. She suddenly contacted her out of the blue at graduation time – three years later – because her pet rabbit had died. Again there is some significance to the rabbit in their story.
While at university Sara, like the author, had become a published poet. She had a reading. Lejla came with her boyfriend, looked at but did not buy the book and walked out with the boyfriend without speaking to Sara. There was, when they were younger, a certain amount of rivalry between the two. Though eight months younger, Lejla menstruated well before Sara. Though Lejla did not make a big thing out of it, Sara felt Lejla had won. Sara gets a boyfriend first but feels she is trumped when Lejla tells her about her erotic dream about the maths teacher, who kissed her down there. In short, Sara always feels inferior to and, indeed, often scared of Lejla.
Lejla had a difficult childhood as the family was Muslim and the Muslims were both criticised and abused but also blamed for things that went wrong. For example, several dogs were poisoned and the Muslims were blamed, particularly Arnim, and the body of one Muslim teenager is found in the river. Indeed, Lejla’s mother, now widowed, changes her name and indeed Lejla’s (to Lela).
Sara had been attracted to Arnim, though, as he was much older, nothing happened between them. It was Arnim who, indirectly, introduced Sara to reading, with his copy of Treasure Island and it was Arnim who disappeared when accused of poisoning the dogs. He never returned. Had be fled or had he been murdered?
While we are following the back story, we are also following Sara’s journey to Mostar. When she arrives, Lejla does not greet her (after no contact for twelve years) nor welcome her but merely asks her if she has her driving licence. Lejla is married but he seems as indifferent to Lejla’s imminent departure for Vienna as Michael was to Sara’s journey to Mostar.
The journey is difficult as the two women quarrel the whole time, Sara once again feeling inferior even when she has a smart phone and Lejla only an old-fashioned flip-top phone. They slowly make their way to Vienna, quarrelling, making up and discussing the past.
The key issue in this book is both the character of Lejla – her complex nature, partially caused by her difficult childhood, which makes her very much her own woman, indifferent to what the world (and Sara) thinks of her and determined to do what she wants, albeit often struggling to stay afloat. Sara, however, is frightened of her, in awe of her at times, and clearly unable to understand her, both as a child and as an adult, yet wanting to but unable to be like her. I wanted to reach for something inside you, suck your essence out through your mouth, like a parasite. That was all.
Sara is a fairly conventional girl and woman. I was unprepared. Not just for death, but for anything out of the ordinary. Lejla disrupts her ordinariness. This disruption her, leaving, at times out of her depth but at the same time admiring her friend. I’m the queen,’ Lejla said.‘Lucky us,’ I answered. But Lejla is the queen. People pay attention to her. After graduating from high school, the pair go off to an island for a holiday. There’s nothing special about you. The beach is full of longer legs, bigger breasts, and other, equally overrated miracles of human symmetry. But you carry a promise of a different world, a uniqueness that all those average beggars crave. You carry a story. Yes, Lejla carries a story which Sara, despite her success as a writer and her escape from Bosnia, does not. It is this story that makes this book.
First published in 2018 by Booka
First English translation in 2021 by Restless Books
Translated by the author