The Book of Blam

The Book of Blam

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by Aleksandar Tisma

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The war is over. Miroslav Blam walks along the former Jew Street in Novi Sad, and he remembers. He remembers the hunchbacked watchmaker, the lamp merchant, the stove fitter, the grocer, and the lawyer who was a Communist. All dead.

Blam lives. He stays with a wife who repeatedly betrays him, raising a daughter fathered by the collaborator who seduced his


The war is over. Miroslav Blam walks along the former Jew Street in Novi Sad, and he remembers. He remembers the hunchbacked watchmaker, the lamp merchant, the stove fitter, the grocer, and the lawyer who was a Communist. All dead.

Blam lives. He stays with a wife who repeatedly betrays him, raising a daughter fathered by the collaborator who seduced his mother and saved his, Blam's, life. After the war, he seeks no revenge, no retribution. Life of a piece, but only half a life -- made all the more agonizing by the clarity with which he sees the events around him.

Blam is in the end a book about violence, set in a part of the world that has repeatedly been violated. Blam speaks to the human condition, as much under ordinary circumstances as in extreme situations.

Editorial Reviews

Larry Wolff
First published in Yugoslavia in 1972, now powerfully translated by Michael Henry Heim from the language that used to be called Serbo-Croatian, The Book of Blam offers a literary memorial to the former Jews of the former Yugoslavia.
New York Times Book Review
Der Spiegel
In Tisma's hands Novi Sad has become a European literary presence on a par with Joyce's Dublin, Svevo's Trieste, and Grass's Danzig....The timidity of first love, the awkwardness of dancing lessons, the moving attempts to reconstruct feelings, are portrayed with the same weight, the same poetic gravity as the rage of the firing squad and the indifference of murderers.
Before Albanians in Kosovo and Muslims in Bosnia, Jews were purged from Yugoslavia in World War II. And, as this novel about the family of Blam reminds us, from Alsace in 1812, Serbia in 1820, and Germany in 1848. In postwar Novi Sad, Miroslav is the last male Blam. His father, mother and sister have been betrayed and killed. Now Blam watches and waits, puts in time at a travel agency, frets over his (possibly) cheating Christian wife, walks the former Jew Street, goes through the motions with his young daughter, and imagines conversations with his murdered boyhood friend, Cutura.
Originally published in Yugoslavia in 1972, this book is repressed, rather than suppressed, fiction. Beset by survivor guilt, Blam does nothing, not even rant like Job. Communist comrades could overhear and turn into fascist exterminators. What Blam tries to repress, Tisma inserts: family history, letters from Blam's former lover, and finally, in what amounts to suspense in this static story, the execution of Miroslav's parents.
Tisma's book recalls the fiction of the noted Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld, who often treats the Holocaust indirectly, from odd angles. Tisma's translator gives us a tone in which quiet wonderment constantly collides with the cartoonish sound of the word Blam, suggesting the witless eloquence of Samuel Beckett's murmuring exiles. The refugees we now see on television would not hope for the post-ethnic "cleansing" life Tisma describes, but many will be lucky to live and, like Blam, wonder what happened.
­Tom Leclair
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One morning in 1942, in the Serbian town of Novi Sad, Vilim Blam and his wife, Blanka, are visited by a detachment of the Hungarian Arrow Cross; although their papers are in order, the soldiers walk the old Jewish couple down the street and machine gun them alongside 1400 others. The events of that raid, recounted with a cool detachment that paradoxically heightens the horror, are the historical facts around which Tisma has produced a complicated narrative of infinite regret. Their son Miroslav, the novel's protagonist, survives because he is protected by the wonderfully ambiguous Propadic, his mother's erstwhile lover and the man who takes over Vilim's post as a reporter at the Novi Sad paper after Vilim is fired for being a Jew. Tisma has made Novi Sad a microcosm for the most painful developments of 20th-century history. It is a city of tiers, one tier the actual city in which Miroslav survives, the other filled by the possible lives of those who perished. Yet life on the edge of the abyss is surprisingly normal. Except for the fact of the massacre, this could be Svevo's Trieste, or a provincial town in a Chekhov story. Miroslav is that familiar creation of the great middle European writers, the city intellectual whose whole bourgeois existence is devoted to making up his mind. The intersection of this high intellectual refinement with the most brutal incidents in history gives the novel, which has been published to acclaim in France and Germany, its great, eccentric pathos. (Nov.) FYI: The Book of Blam is the third book to appear in English from Tisma's "pentateuch" of Novi Sad novels, including Kapo and The Use of Man.
Library Journal
Miroslav Blam is a man living a lie, an inert observer equally terrified of life and death. Walking through Novi Sad, his native home in Yugoslavia, he vividly recalls the people who once shared the city with him--family, friends, acquaintances--now all dead, victims of the war and the bloody Hungarian purge of 1942. Blam alone is left to mourn their suffering, reflecting on his shameful reluctance to share their fate and gathering the strength for one final act of truth. Award-winning Serbo-Croatian writer Ti sma (Kapo, LJ 8/93) experienced the Holocaust himself in Novi Sad. Addressing the subject of human suffering in simple, vivid prose, he offers a powerful psychological portrait of a man traumatized by humanity's inhumanity and by his own timid nature. This is a wonderful addition to world literature collections in public and academic libraries.--Sister M. Anna Falbo, Villa Maria Coll. Lib., Buffalo
Jaroslaw Anders
Blam cannot decide beween life and death, waking and dream. He is attracted and repulsed by both....[Exemplifies] the sort of literature and restores the human complexity that nationalist cant always seeks to obliterate...[Provides] some moral comfort, even if...mostly from the peripheries or from the past.
The New Republic
From the Publisher
“A startling, extraordinary creation."—The New Yorker
“Tišma is unrelenting in his quest for truth yet compassionate in his judgments of individuals."—The Wall Street Journal

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    The Mercury is the most prominent building in Novi Sad. Not the tallest, because it is overpowered by the steep glaciers of the high-rises and the sturdy wreaths of apartment houses that the postwar population explosion strewed over the fields at the edge of town. Nor the most attractive, because its builder and first owner, a prewar businessman, viewed it as a commercial venture, making the most of every square inch and avoiding costly ornamentation. And yet the Mercury, jutting into Main Square, one corner rounded like the stern of an ocean liner, running along broad, straight Old Boulevard in all its four-storied glory (and with its somewhat narrower decklike mansard) and boasting a continuous row of ground-level businesses, including a department store, a cinema, and a hotel with a restaurant and bar, is unquestionably the city's focal point.

    Miroslav Blam, who lives in the Mercury's mansard, understands the exceptional, almost lofty status of the building and of himself as a part of it. He is proud of his status, though secretly, reticently so, not having come by it on his own merit. When he writes his return address, he does not use the generally accepted "Mercury Building" (the name comes from the name of the original owner's company); he uses the official though more complicated "I Old Boulevard," which he also uses when giving his address to acquaintances, and only if they slap their foreheads and say, "Why, that's the Mercury!" does he nod hesitantly, as if yielding to the unofficial, slightly wanton designation, while in fact concealing his pleasure. Or, rather, vacillating between pleasure and annoyance, because he dislikes being pigeonholed, even in so minor a detail.

    Actually, the reason he is so fond of his Mercury mansard is that it is in the center of things yet remains a hideaway. Lift your eyes from any point in Main Square or the boulevard and you'll say, "That's where Blam lives." But try to make your way there and find him. First you have to be let into the building or slip past the janitor keeping an eye on the courtyard from his kitchen. Then you have to climb stairs and stairs--four flights' worth, each with dozens of doors and more than dozens of people living behind them, meddlesome people constantly lolling on the balconies--and only then will you come to the mansard level. And are you willing to knock at every door and ask for him? If you're too loud and conspicuous, he may hear you before you find him and thus remain eternally hidden. Yes, even if you do locate the door to his apartment. Because the mansard deviates unexpectedly from the pattern of the other floors, narrowing as it does to the width of a footpath, which path, protected by an iron fence so people will not fall to the street, looks like a ship's promenade perched on what is entirely residential space.

    Blam often visits this walkway, this place of celestial freedom, slipping out of his apartment through a passage tucked between the laundry room and drying room. Parading thus along the building's edge, he has a bird's-eye view of the Main Square's spacious rectangle and the narrow pointed spire of the cathedral that dominates it, or of the broad trough of Old Boulevard with its endless processions of cars and pedestrians, or of the ravine of narrow Okrugic Street, perpendicular to the boulevard, and the tables in front of the hotel. True, he is so accustomed to these sights that he scarcely notices them, his eye resting rather on an uncommon detail, a lone, dark, pillowlike cloud that seems anchored to the cathedral's spire, or a pedestrian, or a pretty woman who keeps returning to the same place. He pauses at the railing, leaning his elbows on it, eager to take part, to merge with the crowd. He becomes the pedestrian, he becomes the waiting woman. He knows nothing about them, yet for that very reason he can string together images of facts and possibilities. The image of an accident that once took place there, the image of two beaming faces meeting for a tryst. The screech of brakes, a cry of horror that overcomes the crowd like a wind. She is married, but her husband is in jail for corrupting minors and she has phoned an old admirer and asked to see him. The pedestrian hit by the screeching car was Aca Krkljuš's father. Aca himself showed Blam the spot when he gave him his drunken account of what happened. His father's leg was amputated and he could no longer manage his leather workshop, so Aca had to take over and give up his own work and calling. As for the old admirer, he is probably frightened by the responsibility involved--after all, he has remained a bachelor (if he hadn't, the beautiful woman would never have asked to see him): he senses she wants him to replace her husband in the performance of certain familial duties as well as in bed. Aca, or the pedestrian whose choice of position on the street reminds Blam of Aca, seems to be surveying the terrain; he needs to make a sketch of it, a legal drawing, to support his indemnity case, which he has also told Blam about, while the man the woman has asked to see may have got the time and place wrong, mixed things up, because his memory is so poor. But the two people who are actually there waiting will in fact exchange a few glances and hastily thrown-together words; they will grow closer, realize their common bond in the losses they suffered on the same spot. They will begin to trust each other, and he will invite her for a drink or even (because he might well be Aca) suggest they take a load off their feet by going up to see Blam, Miroslav Blam, an old school friend, a friend also of my brother Slobodan, who died a tragic death in the war, Blam always comes to hear my band, my new pieces, he's the one I told about the accident two months ago, the accident that cost my father his leg and me my freedom, he lives right here and he has a wonderful wife, don't worry, I'll introduce you, he's very understanding, and a lawyer, well, kind of, and maybe he can give you some advice about getting your husband off, it's right here, right in the Mercury ...

A FAR-OFF RING, a knock on the door. Aca with his sagging cheeks, sagging nose, apologetically sagging shoulders, and listless expression suddenly looks amazingly like his dead brother. He pushes the pretty stranger in and introduces her with a quick smile.

    "Is Miroslav in?" he asks, winking as if referring to a secret agreement.

    "He's around here somewhere," Janja answers, giving him a curious look. "Gone for a walk ... I'll call him."

    "No, no. Don't bother. We'll find him. Just point us in the general direction. We need some legal advice. You see, the lady's husband ..."

    Now they are out again, squeezed together in the passage, because Aca wants to let her go first but also needs to show her the way, and she is rather heavy and afraid the wind will mess up her hair or lift her skirt.

    The wind slams a door shut somewhere. Otherwise nothing happens. The two of them are still downstairs in front of the building; up here there is no one but Blam. His fellow tenants avoid the walkway. It is hot in summer and windy at all times. Should they feel the need for fresh air, they go out on the courtyard terrace, where they can drowse, shaded and sheltered, in deck chairs, where they can chat with a neighbor, read the papers, or take the children to play so the children won't disturb afternoon naps. The reason Blam likes the walkway is that he can count on being alone there, at least until someone comes looking for him. Only until then. Because if Aca were in fact to come up with his lady friend, determined to find him, or if there were a search warrant out for him (and eventually there has to be--he cannot imagine living his life without one, without another war), the very fact that the mansard was secluded would turn it into a trap. He would not be able to double back to the terrace: an armed patrol would keep the passage covered. Nor would he be able to duck back into the apartment except through a window: in case of a manhunt, search, raid, or blockade, all windows are closed, all curtains drawn. Those are the rules of the game and have been from time immemorial. All the tenants can do is peek through the blinds, stare wide-eyed and trembling at him out there while a man with a pistol appears in the doorway. Where can Blare turn? His heart is pounding; he presses against the railing, clutching it convulsively, his head bent over the side, his only way out. He refuses to let them corner him again, let them force him to await their orders and to comply; no, he'll jump, he'll swing his body into the air and plunge headfirst into the street as if diving into a swimming pool. He feels a cold stream of air rushing through his mouth, a void enveloping his shoulders, a lack of support, the vanishing borders of space. His legs flop as freely as a rag doll's, they come undone, his whole body loses its shape, its conventional solidity, his blood runs in all directions, everything falls apart, the whole world, the street he is about to crash into.

HIS HANDS TINGLE, his fingers burn, the bar of the railing digs into the bone. He spreads his hands, turns them, observes the red stripes slowly broaden and lose their intense hue. Meanwhile, down below, people keep strolling along the street, going about their business, stretching their legs. The stubborn pedestrian is still there, but the beautiful woman has disappeared; maybe the man she was waiting for actually came. They have no idea what is going on inside Blam; they cannot share it, they would not understand his fear, his terror, his certainty that the patrol will come for him and push him to the railing. What is wrong with him? Is he mad? Or is everyone mad but him? Though it amounts to the same thing. For if he is different from everyone, then he is a monster, a freak, an aberration, ripe for being split open and having his thoughts read, for being crammed into a cage and exhibited in an anthropological rather than zoological garden, exhibited naked, the better to be seen and poked at through the bars until he produces the incoherent howls and shrieks expected of him.

    The bars behind him rattle: someone is letting down the blinds. The noise comes from the left, which means it is either the retired woman with bad lungs or someone in his apartment. He does not turn to see, however; he fears the sight he would offer to the person looking out of the window: a twisted head on a body still facing the street, the abyss, with a face showing signs of an overactive imagination, an imagination more real to Blam than anything going on behind his back. Yes, he admits to himself with embarrassment though with a certain malice as well. That intimate world back there, so sure of itself--Janja doing some sewing, perhaps, his little girl doing her homework--is very much part of the manhunt, if not in its service. When passages are occupied, a home like that is disastrous. Any home is disastrous if it is alive, if you depend on it for your life's blood, if you cannot live without it. Then the bullets hit not only you, nor can you even fling yourself to the ground, take cover. There is no cover when you're burdened with love and the patrol is after you. There is no way out. You are being led to the altar to be sacrificed. They push you on, you can't turn back, your head hangs low.

    His head hangs low as he waits to hear whether the noise will develop into a challenge, a cry of surprise, a death command. But he hears nothing more, nor has anyone seen him. He slowly turns and, keeping his eyes glued to the asphalt walkway, goes back to the passage. If he can slip through it unimpeded, he will avoid the apartment, the home, the trap, and direct his steps in the opposite direction, the stairs. He will run down the stairs to the street and freedom. He may even catch another glimpse of the pedestrian or the beautiful woman.

Meet the Author

ALEKSANDAR TISMA was born in 1924 in Vojvodina, Yugoslavia, to a Serbian father and a Hungarian mother. He experienced the Holocaust in his native town of Novi Sad. After the war he worked as a journalist in Novi Sad and Belgrade, and later became an editor, writer, and translator. He has written sixteen works of fiction, of which the last five—what he calls a pentateuch of novels and stories—have been devoted to the subject of the Holocaust.

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Book Of Blam 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Aleksandar Kisma's 'The Book of Blam' has some stirring personal pathos in his portrayal of events in that historic basket case, called Yugoslavia. As a historical novel, it fails by turning a blind eye on the horrific Serb revenge atrocities committed on the many ethnic minorities of Yugoslavia at the end of world war II. While Kisma correctly enumerates the 1400 Serb and other victims of Hungarian fascist terror of January 21-23, 1942, he totally ignores the 43,000 Hungarian victims of Serb partisan genocide in October-November 1944. To get a balanced view of world war II atrocities in Novi Sad, interested readers should also read the title I recommend below.