Plants Are Something Else


Alma Lazarevska was already an established writer at the start of the Bosnian war. During the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996), she published Sarajevski pasijans (Sarajevan Soltaire, 1994), U znaku ruže (The Sign of Rose, 1996), and Smrt u muzeju moderne umjetnosti (Death in the Museum of Modern Art, 1996). The latter work received the award for “Best Book of 1996” from the Society of Writers of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As the well-respected Bosnian writer Abdulah Sidran observed when asked to comment on whether Bosnian literature at that time was politicized: “I say that one writer is already great, and if not [already] great, will be great—Alma Lazarevska. The book Death in the Museum of Modern Art is 5-6 stories that occur against the backdrop of besieged Sarajevo. Now an accomplished, or amateur, or politically practical view of that book might be that it is “l’art pour l’art,” for where are her Chetniks, there is no mention of them anywhere; while in two or three places she says only ‘And that one who shoots from above has the eyes of a fox.’ With a few metaphors, tremendously powerful ones, she says it all, for there is a difference between literature and that for which the goals of literature are irrelevant….To use literature is to misuse it.”1

It is worth noting that the recognizably female consciousness in Death in the Museum of Modern Art presents as her most salient identifying traits her roles as a writer and an intellectual under siege. As we might expect, the stories in Lazarevska’s more recent collection, Plants Are Something Else (Biljke su nešto drugo, Sarajevo: 2003), allude less to the particulars of the war. But as we find in literature written ten or more years after the war, the events of 1992-1996 still inform most Bosnian writing. At the same time, we can often identify a shift in emphasis in these stories. The female narrator or author persona (not all stories are told in a female voice) suggests, as in Lazarevska’s earlier prose, a biography similar to her own. The woman, a mother, is a university-trained writer, well versed in Western European literature. Although the profile remains the same, we sense that the experience of war and the mindset of the intellectual receive less scrutiny in these later stories than a life lived as a woman.

The eponymous story of this collection, “Plants Are Something Else,” is emblematic of this shift in saliency. A short, though dense, narrative at the end of the collection, it leaves a lingering impression. Emanating from the husband’s vantage point, the story conveys little information about the present. Rather, it implies. The reader senses the war’s continuing presence, both overt and subliminal. It is likewise left to the reader to determine the source of tensions or the meanings of cryptic communicative acts.

We do not know the reason for the tension between husband and wife. She is distant and judgmental; he is confused, defensive, though still desiring. He attempts to connect with her interest in her plants and comments that her creeper is “slow,” knowing, as he says it, that it is incorrect, not the way one talks about plants. He imagines her response: “Animals are slow or fast. Plants are something else.” He imagines as well that as she waters her plants, she repeats, like a mantra, its Latin name, and that she does this so as not to recall the body counts that are imprinted on her memory. (Is this just his projection? As he ponders the reason for her behavior, he experiences his own flashbacks.) The husband feels further indicted by his wife for their son’s “experiment” with a piece of paper. He has learned that by holding it just the right way, the sharp edge can serve as a knife. With his newly fashioned implement, or weapon, he cuts a leaf of new growth from “mother’s” plant. Although the reader has no access to the woman/wife/mother’s thoughts, and she speaks only a few lines, she, and what her husband—and we—imagine her thoughts to be, dominate the story. The atmosphere is charged with haunting memories and unresolved concerns. It is crucial that the husband wants to understand his wife, values his intimacy with her, and fears, we sense, losing her. Strangely, the story thus offers hope for the postwar and postsocialist Bosnian woman.

                                                                      -- Cynthia Simmons

Plants Are Something Else

Suddenly it was very quiet. There was only the rustling of the newspaper in my hands. That sound had begun to divert my attention from reading. I stopped at the headline “13 killed, 10 people injured,” folded the newspaper and put it down on the chest of drawers under the mirror. I went toward the bedroom. She went in there before the silence fell. Passing by me, she had paid me no attention. She hadn’t even hit the paper with her hand as she does when she can’t see my head and face behind it. I only heard the door closing.

I found her standing by the window, by the smallest of her flowerpots. She had brought it home at the end of winter. A thin little stem with three heart-shaped leaves. At the base of the little stem there had branched off something that looked like a tiny translucent cone. A thin bond of chlorophyll and air. She said that that was a leaf bud and that the plant was a type of creeper. She even knew the Latin name. It was two-part and long. I didn’t commit it to memory, but the sound of it seemed to me appropriate for some kind of crystal, older than any plant or animal.

She also said that from the stem a shoot would develop and that the next leaves, one by one, would grow from it. She planted a wooden stake 18 inches long. It was left over from the time when the boy collected paper flags. That was the time when the city was under siege and when foreigners were arriving, bringing food and medicine. From the city they sent out photographs and reports. Regularly mentioned in these reports were the numbers of the dead and wounded. One day there were 67 dead and 142 wounded. And only one shell had fallen. A 120 mm. mortar shell. I was only 50 meters away from that spot.

I remember the horrible explosion. It passed through my entire spine. I felt as though I was winding along a spiral that was devouring its own end. Nevertheless a minute later I was standing. And I was shaking the dust from my pants. I noticed the tear on the right pant leg, around the knee, only the next day. A list of the dead, although incomplete, had already been published. It turned out I knew three of them. She knew one.

The city is no longer under siege. Food and medicine are for sale again in the stores, pharmacies, and the market. The foreigners are still here, but in a different way. I hardly notice them anymore, even though there are now more of them. The boy no longer collects flags. Now he conducts experiments.

It was Sunday. In the afternoon. She was holding the watering can. Ordinarily she did that in the morning or the evening. She had to have heard me enter. But she didn’t turn around. I came a step closer and stood. And she continued to turn her back to me, and her face to the plant. It now had five leaves, but it still didn’t look like a creeper. Still nothing had wound around the stake.

I stood. Suddenly I felt as though I shouldn’t have come in. That she was soundlessly whispering that two-part Latin name. Stubbornly and soundlessly she repeated it. As she repeats that name, more appropriate for a crystal, the names of the dead disappear from her consciousness, all those dead for whom she has cried.

I could have told her that I was going out for a while and that she should lock the door. Or I could have gone quietly to the wardrobe and taken something from it. Then leave without saying anything. But I had been standing quietly behind her for too long. She had to have sensed that. I looked at her shoulders and the nape of her neck, the opacity of the back that excited and seduced me. If after that I had left the room, for some time in the apartment the misunderstanding would have hung over us. I would have found it in the arrangement of our slippers, her nightgown, my pajamas. If we had had an elevator, we would have, one across from the other, crowded, avoided looking at each other. We would have moved at the same instant to touch the button. And in the same instant would have pulled back our hands, not touching it. Maybe we would have, one of us, said, in English, “sorry.” That’s what the foreigners say. It would have been too long a trip from the top floor. So I moved, nevertheless, a step closer, with the intention of turning to her. To say something to her.

And I spoke. I said something without thinking. That sentence found itself on my lips, although I hadn’t previously been conscious of it. I said:

—That creeper of yours is slow.

The distance then between us wasn’t measurable in steps. It gaped in a short word.

The boy says:

This soup of yours is hot.

Or he says:

These socks of yours aren’t dry yet.

He says this to her. Meanwhile he eats the soup that all three of us are eating. Or he holds his socks, which he has taken from the line. She tells him to take them in because it’s already dusk. You shouldn’t leave socks outside overnight. The dark will settle into them. You should pull one into the other and make a hard ball. Put it in the basket by the wardrobe.

I say to her:

These slippers of yours are too small.

I show her the slippers on my feet. She buys them for me. I detest shopping. But she doesn’t get upset.

She says:

Give them to Cinderella. Buy yourself some different ones.

Or she says, not looking up from the book she’s reading:

Go tomorrow to the market. Maybe you’ll find softer ones.

This she says after I say:

These pears of yours are hard.

At home I’m the only one who eats pears. The boy doesn’t like it when juice runs down his chin. She eats an apple while reading. With her free hand she leafs through the book on her lap.

Now she was holding the watering can. Her other hand was free. The water, I supposed, swirled into the cavity around the stem. She didn’t turn around. Her shoulders didn’t slump. Not a lock of hair moved on the bare nape of her neck. Nevertheless I knew that I had uttered an incorrect sentence. That it had taken root like a weed that will sprout even if you don’t water it. If at that moment we had been looking at each other, across the table or over that potted plant, she would have looked at me calmly. She wouldn’t have said anything. Or she would have said:


—Animals are slow or fast. Plants are something else.


And I would have felt like someone who has juice running down his chin. And I have to hurry to eat that pear because I am being watched by someone who is eating an apple and isn’t hurrying. And who even all the while leafs through a book. She reads. That feeling isn’t good either, but that day, in the bedroom while I watched her back, it was much worse.

The following day the number of leaves on the creeper had changed. Now there were four. The fifth was in the boy’s hand, forever separated from the plant to which it belonged. I looked at that leaf and wondered whether that Latin name applied to it any longer.

The boy was holding the leaf like a new flag. But the look on his face did not promise the existence of a country to which that flag would belong. In his other hand he had a sheet of paper. In a children’s supplement to the newspaper he had read that a sheet of paper, if held in a particular way, could be used like a blade. And apparently that was so. From the stem that no longer had a leaf there oozed a milky drop. The drop originated from the liquid that flowed toward the leaf. To nourish it. Now it trembled on the surface.

Boys often suck the blood from a skinned knee or arm. A plant is left to the decisions of others. I looked at that drop and felt responsible.

But, she too appeared. She stood right next to me. Now the matter was much more serious. He had carried out an experiment. I had to think up an explanation. A satisfactory explanation. He needed it for a herbarium. There aren’t any more leaves in the park. Just think. These days they assign herbariums to the children in the fall. We made them in the spring, didn’t we?

She kept silent and only straightened the stake that had bent during the experiment. I saw her face but this time it had the opacity of her back. I had to act quickly. I had to be convincing. I grabbed a book from the shelf. It was important to me that it be a book I love, but at the same time I had to be sure that it wasn’t slender. Benjamin’s One-Way Street, Musil’s Three Women…were useless.

I told the boy to bring a paper napkin from the kitchen. I put the leaf on its right half and covered it with the left. The boy had already offered me two pages torn from a notebook. I opened the book and in it I laid the twice-preserved leaf. Once the book was closed, I felt that I hadn’t been sufficiently convincing. Maybe I should have first used an iron. Turn it on? On cotton? Or synthetic?


A stranger to the iron, I reached for the first thick book on the shelf. I laid it across the one that already had the heart-shaped leaf. The boy joined me. I don’t know from which shelf, but he had already grabbed a book too. One of the thickest in the apartment. He even sighed, as though he wanted to prove its weight.

We tried hard, both of us, to make it look like work on a herbarium, but in fact we looked like those who approach an open grave and each throw into it a clump of dirt. For a moment I even thought that my shoes were on my feet and that after stepping on freshly dug earth, I needed to wipe them off on the grass.


—Plants really are something else, I thought and gave up on being convincing. My arms fell. I didn’t want to achieve any kind of impression.

I just tried to remember why, the day before, I had followed her into the bedroom. Out of habit, I had read the inscriptions on the spines of the stacked books:






I couldn’t remember any reason. No question. No desire. Then a scene older than the siege and the time when the foreigners arrived. My mother leaves the room. Not a minute later my father goes after her. He passes through the hall that smells of polished floor, opens the next door, stands in the doorway, looks out and says:

—Aaa, here you are. And I was afraid that you…were gone.


Translated from the Bosnian by Cynthia Simmons

Cynthia Simmons, professor in the Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages at Boston College, is the author of Women Engaged/Engaged Art in Postwar Bosnia: Reconciliation, Recovery, and Civil Society (2010), Their Fathers’ Voice: Vassily Aksyonov, Venedikt Erofeev, Eduard Limonov, and Sasha Sokolov (1993) and, with N. Perlina, of Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women’s Diaries,Memoirs, and Documentary Prose (2002), in addition to many essays and articles on literature and culture in USSR, Russia, Yugoslavia and its successor states.