Barefoot, beaten, in rags, on his knees. The laying of the anguished father’s reassuring hands on his son. This is Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I pictured myself in the painting when I used to sneak into my room in my parents’ house after days and days of roaming… It is no longer the case. My country was ravaged by the war, and my mother died in the war. In my parents’ house there are new faces. The image of home is at times made feminine, as a symbol of shelter and refuge, then at times it is an image of patriarchal authority, to which one has to subjugate or from which one has to detach oneself. The stories about “domicile”, “going home”, “place of birth” and “hearth” were told by those who came from the rural areas to my city. Returning home became a pastoral theme for me, the idealised image of the village whose offspring do not go back. I am not one for returns: I parted with my friends once and for all, I did not go back to old flames, not even to once finished texts…
“Before I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death…” (Job, 10, 21). One leaves for a foreign land, adventure, exile… From the legend of Job through Hamlet until the present day it has been repeated over and over again that there is no return. Nevertheless, there is a famous epic about a return – Ulysses. (Luko Paljetak wrote that he hates Ulysses “only because he returned”, to which my always high spirited friend commented: “And I hate Penelope because she was waiting for too long”.) The return to the familiar is an end to an adventure, voyage, and sometimes it is a sign of a defeat. In my required reading I learned that returning is not the best outcome. Such was Krleza’s The Return of Philip Latinowicz. I myself have experienced that it was not the wisest decision, that “home is just further and further away”.
Stay here, and if you go away do not return – thus one can sum up the poetics of nostalgia (homesickness) sprung from the country of my origin. One goes back to something that one has left. Just as there is no such thing as “return to philosophy” to the one who is obsessed with philosophical issues, who lives with philosophy, so there is no return to the home for those who physically left home, but never left it within themselves. “Back to basics” is a Hegelian concept of foundation. One cannot leave something that is the personal foundation of one’s being. It is with you, overt or covert. The past is the shadow of your being. At times a phantom you are trying to run away from, at times a refuge. There are more than few of my fellow countrymen who still say things like “I haven’t got a dinar to my name”, “I am on my way to carsija”, “I see my raja”, they speak to the confused officials in their mother tongue, and all this is happening in London. I used to say to myself, filled with Benjaminian melancholy, that I go back home in my books, in my language, in my memories. I used to say that I have never left myself or my home, that I come back to myself and everything that is mine through introspection, I used to believe that there has something fatal in leaving, and something touching in returning.
My fellow Bosnian is driving me to the airport. “First, we said we would never go back. Then, when the going gets rough over here, we’ll go back. Now some are going there to gather whatever is left of their possessions, others go to funerals. Almost everybody tells me that their friends were happy to see them, whereas their colleagues gave them a frosty reception. I would also like to go and visit the place, but I’d like to see no-one.” Then he changes his mind: “No, I ain’t going back, I left once…” A life changing decision is full of oaths , life is full of its negations.
“So. You’ve come to visit…” a fellow traveller asks me on board the plane. “After how long?”
A woman I know boasted how welcome they made her feel in Sarajevo. “It was fabulous. I know the people there are having tough time, though, and I myself could not go through it any more…” as if she is trying to convince others and herself that they still like her, that she has not been cast out by them (a fear of rejection is always two-way), while at once she justifies leaving her hometown, so she hastily adds that now “she is much better off than they are, I have not made a mistake by leaving. I’ll go there again, but only for a short visit…”. Again to gather the superficial impressions, akin to a carefree visitor. Truly back are those whose lives are completely back in the place of return, those who have restarted everything all over again. And whoever went back had their reasons. To continue with their career, to be respected, to find a better job (position), to be with their own, to avoid battling with the tricks of a foreign language’s grammar, to help his own people, to be on his own soil, and some were expelled too…
At the Sarajevo airport a customs officer greeted me in English and I automatically replied also in English, then corrected myself quickly. I was shown the counter for foreigners. I was filling out a form. “Place of birth”: “Sarajevo”. No-one is waiting for me. My flat was declared “vacant”, I am not carrying a key around my neck. I am used to being relieved from the burden of possession either by my relatives or by the state. I live in London, my sister is in Vienna, my son in The Hague (when I mentioned that in a bar, a fellow jumped, and I hastily added “oh, he works there”), my relatives either died or scattered. We are trying to preserve closeness via the internet. I am no longer surprised to hear that I am a guest in my own home town.
I sit next to a peasant woman on the bus. “It’s nice you sat next to me, it is good to have company”. Shelled empty houses with broken windows like black eye hollows, broken fences, beehives turned over, burnt down schools, new luxurious houses, glitzy restaurants…
I order a meal in a small inn, “bring me a large portion”, I say.
The waiter measures me, “It’s gonna be too much for ya”. Oh, yes, I am definitely back.
I am strolling down the streets (ma jeunesse est finie…) some of which have the names of people I used to know. One of my acquaintances is surprised to see me: “I thought you were dead?” I almost apologise.
Many smiling faces, heartfelt greetings. “When did you get here? How long will you be staying? How’s things over there? How’s your lady wife? Well, you see we are kinda bearing up…”
I tell people that they have not changed, everyone tells me in return that I have not changed. We ‘d like to have everything as it used to be, that nothing has vanished. Then silence. The gap of different lives. Our present is divided by space, our lives are distant, we do not share common interests, worries, concerns, goals, but as soon as we sink into memories the void descends yet again. “Don’t tell me that you have come just for a few days, you’d better stay, so that you will be fucked up like the rest of us”, Nenad tells me.
Another acquaintance, a poet kisses me: “I haven’t seen you for a hundred years”, he yells, than lowers his voice: “Buy me a drink I am skint.” Some things never change.
I am asking about a friend’s daughter. “Oh, she married a Muslim.” Some years ago they would have commented on his profession, his birth place, his age, maybe even his family background.
I enter the University building where I spent many years working. I do not know one single student, and they do not know me. A slight unease. Then I tell my colleagues I have no intention of coming back, I will not ask for my position back, I will stay in England. “Wise”, agrees my colleague, and I nod, although I am not sure what he has in mind. I ask after absent colleagues. Dead, on pension, grew old…The ones “who went to the other side of the front” we hardly mention. I am more interested in my childhood friends (only childhood is indestructible) with whom I am linked by tender memories, closeness and a feeling of reliability, mates I talk to as if we were together only yesterday. One’s homeland is place where everything is of concern to you, the only place where you feel you have never left. And if I said that “everything is different” I would know exactly in what way.
One leaves for the unknown, for the new, and one returns to the familiar and predictable. Everyone returns to their home with some bitterness and a smile, with enormous grief and joyous anticipation. The dreamers would like to make a pompous melodrama out of their return, and so often they are met with reluctant scrutiny and fear of rejection. Many say that they expect nothing from their old home, and yet they hope for everything. Every one of us is what he has always been, and even more so what he has become in the meantime. One does not relinquish one’s identity in departure, it is in fact reinforced, but upon return it is re-examined: Do I still retain my original roots? Where are they now, which are mine? Both in departure and in return the difference is expressed and multiplied in identity. The real issue of return is the issue of the possibility of a true encounter – the encounter with one’s own self and with the Other. Can we achieve genuine communication and membership of our community once again? We would like to compensate for our loss and pay our debts on return, but we only confirm the losses.
The return is a twofold experience: the return to the perception of the familiar and to the inner measure of things. Everything has changed in relation to the cemented memory of all things past. The return is based on a desire for a repetition of things past, to locate the lost “sameness”. But you cannot step twice into the same rivers (Heraclites, Fragment 91). In each return we return to the old which is novel, we come back to the same old, which is no longer. Not the place, not the person. Therefore, every return is much more a poetic metaphor or a symbolic gesture, than a real experience. In terms of a real event, the return home becomes an echo of times past, re-enacted only through memories, which reveals the reality of the personal identity, identity in which to be home means to be with oneself, the identity which is shaped in the dramatic “In-between”: between home and the world, between memories and oblivion, between the restored and the lost. The returnee confronts himself and his world once more – confronts what still IS and what is no longer. That is why in all returnees there is sadness and joy, that is why in all returns there is so much sad joy.
(On the other side, on the bench, Svjetlana. She is adjusting her hair, smiling, she is in good spirits, but I dare not approach her, for I know that she died, it’s been a year now).