Lodgers by Nenad Velickovic, Paperback | Barnes & Noble


by Nenad Velickovic

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A comic novel of war from a teenager's point-of-view

Published as the siege of Sarajevo ended, Lodgers is a hilarious, unsentimental report from the front lines of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Detergent mixed with flour, museum relics sold to U.N. peacekeepers, the magic power of laminated accreditation-all of the folly and the horror of that time are


A comic novel of war from a teenager's point-of-view

Published as the siege of Sarajevo ended, Lodgers is a hilarious, unsentimental report from the front lines of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Detergent mixed with flour, museum relics sold to U.N. peacekeepers, the magic power of laminated accreditation-all of the folly and the horror of that time are revealed in the sarcastic report of the novel's teenage would-be authoress.

Maja lives in the basement of a Sarajevo museum, enduring with equal annoyance Serb artillery and vegetarian meals that taste like fried sponge. Her father, the museum director, zealously guards the treasures upstairs while their aged co-lodger Julio plots to trade them away. Maja's mother copes with yoga while dour stepbrother Davor endures the endless crying and cravings of his pregnant wife. Floating amidst it all is Maja's grandmother, blind and deaf, yet drawn to any conversation involving food.

Need and crisis propel Maja and her companions from one humorous situation to another. Yet her pitch-perfect gallows humor makes it clear that the brutalities of war penetrate these small moments of life-and even the self-centeredness of a teenaged girl. A best seller in the Balkans and widely translated in Europe, Lodgers is an uncompromising novel about a modern tragedy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"More literarily convincing and existentially urgent than numerous current-affairs books, newspaper reports, and travel writing, Lodgers stands out as a poignant document of a turbulent era." --World Literature Today

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Writings from an Unbound Europe Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


Copyright © 2005

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2242-0

Chapter One How we became lodgers. The Zone of the Fourth Dimension. First indications of a plot: a pocket mortar, Granny's little suitcase, a bet.

UNTIL APRIL OF THIS ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND NINETY-second year, Sarajevo was known in the world for three things: the Winter Olympics; the assassination of the Archduke; and kebabs, coffee-shops, new-primitivism, football, Makarska, burek, and the folk who live here. Since April it has been known for just one thing. War. Although no one agrees when it began (I remember a conversation in Davor's Yugo. Davor said that the army was at the border, Sanja asked which army, and I which border?), the official date is the fourth of April. That day we were in our flat in the Dobrinje district. Mother, Granny, and I were alone. Dad had spent the night in the museum, believing the popular saying that the captain should be the last to leave his sinking ship. However, since the museum was not burnt down, and our flat was, in panic and at the last minute we moved in with Dad and became lodgers.

Then the telephones stopped working, and I lost contact with my friends. Our district was cut off; no one could go in or out. It was also divided. One part was occupied by Serbs. My literature teacher stayed in that part. The last time I spoke to him, when I told him I didn't know what to do, he had said: Write.

So, I'm writing.

In the museum we found my brother, Davor, and his expectant wife, Sanja. Their story is simple. In April planes had taken away people frightened by the war, which had already nestled down around Sarajevo. They were military planes without seats; people traveled in them sitting on the floor. Most of the planes went to Belgrade. Then the airport was closed. Then my brother stopped trying to persuade the expectant one that they should transplant themselves to another part of the planet. She didn't want to leave her doctors. Later she would discover that her doctors had left her. One was wounded, one flew away, and the third stayed on the Serbian side. The young married couple came to the museum, because their landlord had moved into their little basement room. Basements had suddenly become the most sought-after living space, because of the shells that were then being scattered over the town like confetti.

They brought with them their first child, their dog, Sniffy, a two-year-old aristocrat of the Dalmatian race. I say aristocrat because Mother had once observed that more was known about his ancestors and predecessors further back than about all of us in the museum put together.

Apart from our family, about whom I shall be writing some more in the following pages, two other people registered in the lodgers' club: Brkic, the porter, and his friend, Julio. Both of them had been Partizans in the previous war.

My name is Maja. What I am writing will be a novel in the form of a diary, or perhaps a new form-a diary in the form of a novel. I haven't decided yet. I'm writing it because there's nothing else for me to do. We don't go to school, we don't watch television, we don't leave the cellar. We don't leave the cellar because the war is up above us. The war is being waged between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. Davor says that the war is being waged because the Croats have Croatia, the Serbs have Serbia, but the Muslims don't have Muslimia. Everyone thinks it would be right for them to have it, but no one can agree where the borders should be. Dad says that Davor is a dunce and that the war is being waged because the Serbs and Croats want to divide Bosnia and kill and drive out the Muslims. I don't know what to say. There are some things I don't get. For instance, why do the Serbs call armed Muslims who wear red fezzes green berets? Or, why do the Muslims call Serbs who wear red berets white eagles? What's the difference between Ustashas and Chetniks? (Chetniks have beards, which they wear like bibs. They look exactly like Orthodox priests, except that priests have bigger bellies. And Ustashas look like chimney sweeps.)

No! I don't think I'll be able to explain objectively and impartially to an average foreign reader why war is being waged here. Probably, like all wars, it's about taking territory and plunder. But I can't think of a probably for why a city of half a million inhabitants should be bombarded day after day from the surrounding hills. Why would anyone (in our case the Serbian artillery) destroy houses, burn libraries, and shatter minarets and the poplars planted around them?

Why, this spring, instead of cherries, are children collecting shrapnel and swapping it like marbles, picture-cards, or badges? Why, since we are, after all, already living in the museum, are we sleeping on civil defense stretchers, in the cold, damp cellar instead of on the beds of beys and wealthy Sarajevans? (I know the answer to the last question: because Dad has used our mattresses and quilts to stuff into the windows, with the aim of protecting the lodgers in case of sudden shelling.)

My dad is fifty years old and has one of the broadest partings in the city. (Stylistic figure: euphemism.) He is a historian by profession and the director of the museum. He has broad and slightly stooped shoulders. He has lost weight, and his clothes flop and hang around him. This makes him look untidy, although he is one of the rare men in this war, and the only one in the museum, who shaves regularly. (Maybe he has time to spare, because he rarely combs his hair?) In the first days of the war, he traveled through the whole town, to our house, and to the museum, hunting for fire-engines and dust-carts, to carry him, together with bunches of other crazy pedestrians, through the crossfire and smoking shell-falls. Thanks to that, I imagined the beginning of the war as a First of May parade of monuments that had come to life, in which bronze and marble Partizans with their legs and arms spread wide strove not to fall off their pedestals.

Another interesting personality is my mother. She is a vegetarian of the macrobiotic variety, although she sometimes sins by smoking over a coffee. She is slim thanks to yoga. (Yoga is the custom of saluting the sun before it appears by scratching one's ears with one's toes.) She gets up first and goes to bed last. (In fact, I only presume that she does actually sleep.) Over these last few weeks? months? years? she has made the museum begin to behave like a home.

The third interesting person is my brother, who is my mother's son, but not my father's. That is to say, my mother married more than once and less than three times. My brother, Davor, works for the Radio, as a director of radio plays, despite his degree in film direction. Radio plays are what you can hear on the radio when the television isn't working and when the first program is broadcasting classical and the second serious music. Of everything he has directed, I liked best a show called Phantom, when he himself appeared on the program and talked nonsense. For instance when he launched a campaign for the introduction of newly composed folk songs into school readers. I've even remembered one: One day when I was sad, I met a handsome lad, He offered me a ring, And lovely white clothing, I was clothed by Raif, In silk and kadaif.

I quoted this in order to mention one of his character traits, namely irony. He is always negatively inclined, finding something ugly, stupid, or primitive in everything. That's why he's sometimes tedious. He's tall, thin, wears glasses, and when he's not working at the Radio, his job is to serve his wife and annoy my father.

Since I've already mentioned my sister-in-law: she's in the fourth month of her pregnancy. That happened like this: As a graduate architect, she got a job at a garage, where one lovely sunny day she lifted up the windscreen wipers, wiped off the dead flies, and saw the face of her future husband, who was at that moment handing her his spectacles to clean as well. Afterward she admitted that she had fallen for his cow-like eyes. (I would have said ox-like.) That was also the last time that she washed and polished any glass in his presence.

Mother's mother, Greta, looks much older than she is, but she behaves as though she were much younger. This is mostly seen in the way she behaves at table, when she serves herself first, slurps, fights over the crust although she hasn't got any teeth, and always chooses the best bits although, in fact, she can hardly see. This gives her the right to stand at the table and poke her nose into every dish placed on it. She will not be parted from an old suitcase, which is in fact not a suitcase, but something between a chest, a tin cash-box, and a postmodern woman's vanity-case.

So, Granny can hardly see, but she hears virtually nothing. That's why she talks in a way that only practiced listeners can understand. The sentence "Today I went to buy a newspaper," in her interpretation would look like this: "Went paper, went buy buy paper today." (For my audience I shall give a simultaneous translation of her remarks.) It is strange how, nevertheless, when she thrusts her face right into yours, she understands everything you say to her perfectly.

My Granny is not the oldest of the lodgers in the museum. Brkic and Julio are older. Both of them are bony, gray-haired, and tall. Brkic wears a sweater and windbreaker, Julio a suit and coats. Brkic neglects his beard and mustache, Julio tends his. Brkic says little, Julio lots. Brkic has been in the museum since before the war, he worked here as a night porter. Julio came after a shell pierced his refrigerator, three rooms, and his doctoral thesis. The thesis was entitled The Skoj Movement and Postwar Youth.

I still haven't decided whether this is going to be a novel or a diary. In case it's a novel, I ought to start describing some events. Our literature teacher told us several times that you can't have a plot without events, and without a plot you can't have a story. Today two things happened that could be the beginning of a plot. (A plot is a series of events connected by causal-consequential relations and presented in chronological order.)

The first event occurred last night. Davor brought a tape recorder home. We all assembled in the porter's lodge, which was the most secure ground-floor space in the museum, because then we were separated from the shells by at least two thick walls and at least two concrete blocks. Davor had been given the task of making a radio program about us in the museum. Brkic immediately refused. He said that he didn't like microphones, even if he could see them while he was talking. Davor's wife said nothing, but you could see from her face that she resented the fact that her husband had chosen the radio, which was not in a position to convey all the difficulties she was having to put up with on her journey through her pregnancy. Granny said that other pregnant women were having a hard time as well. My sister-in-law replied that the fact that other pregnant women were having a hard time didn't make things any easier for her.

I also refused to participate in this tape-recording project. I made it quite clear to him that he could no longer count on me as a symbol of youthful views of the world, because, ever since the war had cut deep scars into my soul, I no longer considered myself, or felt, young. Besides, every day some pensioner or poet published an appeal in the name of hundreds and thousands of children, so why not ask them for assistance. In order that her son should not be left without a program at all, Mother offered to point out the detrimental effect of meat in the nutrition of human beings, the length of whose large intestine made them herbivores, but Davor begged her with a glance to stop before she had even begun.

That left Dad and Julio.

Dad is one of those people who even before going into the lavatory considers all the circumstances which determine whether this rather than that newspaper deserves to go with him. He would first sketch out what he wanted to say. Write a plan.

Davor would like to hear something about the first days of the war. When Dad opposed the local armed groups who burst into the museum to take exhibits of weapons as trophies.

They took only a Partizan machine-gun and a pocket mortar. All in all it wasn't worth talking about.

And so I got the opportunity to hear Julio. (Davor turned the tape recorder off after two minutes, because Julio talks like this: Us two was subtenants, and we pays two dinars, no, one dinar eighty, in rent, in advance, on the first of each month, and in those days our pay was seven and six that is thirteen, and five that is eighteen dinars and thirty paras, I knows because I remembers the list, like I can see it now, half in blue ink and half in red, there weren't any ballpoint pens then, people wrote with feathers, but there wasn't any ink, so people had to use their wits, I once squeezed the ink pads used for official stamps, and at that time we had stamps coming out of our ears. There wasn't a single desk without a stamp. Stamps for letters, stamps for contracts, stamps for certificates, stamps for entrance tickets, stamps for messages. If you're writing a love letter and don't have a stamp to seal it with, it's no good. What do you expect, a bunch of illiterates, so they likes to see official stamps. Where was I? Oh, yes, the two of us are subtenants. In Belgrade. After the war all the Partizans comes to Belgrade, that's routine, like a snooze after lunch. Anyone who didn't come to Belgrade after the war had problems later proving that he ever was in the war at all. And so, the two of us subtenants, in the center, the street's called, it's called ... what's it called ... Number seven, and it's named after some writer ...)

Needless to say, for my readers I shall extract the essence. Julio and Brkic have known each other since the war. They were both Partizans. In Belgrade they fell in love with the same girl. She was suspected of having collaborated with the aggressor. (Germans at that time, so-called Krauts.) That meant she had given herself to them. Together they helped her get a passport and leave the country, and that got Brkic put in jail. Julio continued his career, and was a successful civil servant and diplomat, and when Brkic was released, he looked after him. He found him a job at a printer's, maintaining the machines. Then Julio became ambassador and Brkic made a barge and lived on it. Then Julio came back and settled in Sarajevo. Brkic's barge and everything on it were burned in a fire. Then Julio invited Brkic to join him and found him a job as porter at the museum. That was ten years ago. Now, at the end of their lives as at the beginning, both of them are proletarians.

... The street was named after Sima Matavulj, the Sarajevan.

Davor asked (you could see he was my brother) did they know what had happened to the girl, but then my sister-in-law came in and asked whether they were going to take much longer.


Because he had promised that morning that he would beat Sniffy's molting hairs out of the blankets and rugs, and clean his shoes. She would do it, but she couldn't, since she was protecting her pregnancy and had to rest. (In other words she shouldn't keep clambering up from the cellar every few minutes to ask him to come down.)

At times I am deeply touched and disappointed by the realization that my brother is shedding his talent in the form of hairs from blankets. And I am driven to despair by the thought of how many artists, as they made their way through the world, had been obliged to exchange their paintbrushes for shoe-cleaning supplies.

My brother then got up, turned off the tape recorder that had been off for an hour already, and went down to his married quarters.


Copyright © 2005 by Northwestern University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Nenad Velickovic was born in 1962. He is the author of one other novel and three books of short stories as well as numerous TV scripts and radio plays. From 1992 to 1996 he served in the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He lives in Sarajevo.

Among Celia Hawkesworth's numerous published translations are Ivo Andric's Damned Yard and Other Stories (Dufour, 1992) and The Days of the Consuls (Dufour, 1993), and Dubravka Ugresic's The Culture of Lies (Penn State, 1998) and The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (New Directions, 2002). She is also co-translator of Ugresic's In the Jaws of Life, published in 1993 by Northwestern University Press. She lives in the United Kingdom.

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