The search for a better life after leaving one’s own homeland because of war is a complex experience. Such an immigrant becomes a citizen of another place, yet he carries with him burdens of dreams and nightmares only a war can bring. Chaos, devastation, confusion, existential inertia—all of these are part of his interior life, even if he is relatively stable and happy. One can set aside all the painful memories, put them on a neat shelf or into a jumbled and scattered pile of old papers, but they are still there, tapping on one’s shoulder. Avoidance only works for so long, until there is a break.
Lana Bastašić’s debut novel, Catch the Rabbit, captures the uncapturable—the desire to know oneself in relation to friendship and country. Published in 2018 in Serbo-Croatian as Uhvati zeca, Bastašić translated the book into English herself. The story is told from a first-person perspective. Our narrator is Sara, a Bosnian woman who left behind Bosnia, and now lives in Dublin away from all the troubles that Bosnia tends to bring to the surface. Or so she thinks.
Things change when she receives an out-of-the-blue phone call from a friend, Lejla, to whom she has not spoken in over a decade. Without engaging in any chit-chat or explaining why she hasn’t been in touch for 12 years, Lejla makes an instant demand. She wants Sara to leave Dublin, pick her up in Mostar, and drive 600 miles to Vienna. It appears that Lejla’s brother, Armin, who has been missing for years, has resurfaced in Austria.
This “friendship,” we discover, has always been full of complications and empty of love. Lejla is a mean girl, who treats Sara poorly, as if she is disposable. For Lejla, their friendship is transient, but for Sara, there is something far more sinister at work. Lejla has a strange power over her, and no matter how hard she tries, Sara cannot say no to her. She agrees to the journey, but it doesn’t seem like she has much of a choice. The same, chaotic and destructive dynamic that was present in their friendship when they were younger has reappeared, and isn’t going away. Sara’s relationship to Lejla is a strange admixture of love and hate.
As the plot moves in linear fashion through the car journey, Bastašić intersperses the story with memories of life before and after the war. On the one hand, Sara addresses Lejla as you, especially when speaking about memories, and she when speaking of the trip. The book is both a pleading letter to Lejla, and an attempt to assert Sara’s own being. But Lejla has too much of a hold on her, even to the end.
Bastašić has created a story that is grounded in visceral reality—especially when it comes to bodily desires and functions—but is also often overtaken by the dream-like quality of memories. In this case, Bastašić breaks away from the usual narrative structure, and creates a poetic expression of a memory and a person that cannot be caught and frozen in time. Bastašić writes: “And just when I think I know how to narrate her [Lejla], I know how to deprive her of all meaning, just when it seems like some cars have thundered in the distance, and people are once again moving in the peripheral vision, and the wind is back in the top of that oak tree—she calls me again.”
The rabbit from the title is a dead pet that Lejla and Sara buried together as children. Of course, the title also serves as a metaphor. Rabbits are difficult to catch with bare hands, and in this case, so is the memory, another person, and a country itself. The friendship between these two girls is uneasy, and one wonders why they even speak to each other. But such is also the relationship between émigrés and their home country, and final happiness seldom arrives.
Despite this existential emptiness, and her new “European” as opposed to Bosnian life, Sara is judgmental toward those who have a more sentimental view of Bosnia: “I always found them unbearable—those silent nostalgiacs and the cocoon in which they go on living better, happier versions of their lives in some country where strawberries grow forever and rabbits don’t die. A country they could describe as perfect because they deprived us of the ability to test that claim.”
No matter how hard she tries to catch Lejla (“I thought, in fear, how I would always be lagging behind you in search of some sort of grownup, intangible knowledge, while you were disappearing into the distance”), Sara fails. But what is there to catch? A friend who repeatedly abandoned, controlled, and made fun of her? Sara may not admit it, but she knows that her love-hate emotion she feels for Lejla is the very emotion she feels for herself. At times, throughout the book, one wonders whether Lejla and Sara are the same person, and if this is simply the diary of someone going insane.
Lejla is a free spirit in every conventional understanding of the term: culturally, sexually, and every other way in between. But Bastašić reveals her as someone deeply imprisoned, too. She is immature, makes crass jokes, and hates the idea of “making the point” about something. To her, there is no point to anything. Although she is a Muslim (who changed her name to Serb Christian-Orthodox in order to avoid being rounded up and killed), she is nothing but a cipher. Unlike Sara who is grasping for her roots (even in her avoidance of them), Lejla couldn’t care less about Bosnia, war, peace, and memory itself. In some perverse way, there is almost nothing distinctly Bosnian about Lejla. Rather, she is a representative of Yugoslavia, a country that doesn’t exist anymore. She is unstable in every sense of the word, and a person who is moving from one thing to the next. Marriage has no meaning, country has no meaning, and ultimately, friendship has no meaning, either.
Although Bastašić has been compared to other great writers, such as Elena Ferrante, her voice is wholly her own. She has done something new and interesting in exploring the universal subject of memory, loss, and war. Part of what makes Bastašić’s book unique is that it isn’t written with any audience in mind—European, American, or Bosnian. Although it deals with clear cultural distinctions, in the end it is simply a story of two girls, caught in the cycle of their own messed up lives, trying to catch that elusive, metaphysical rabbit.
What drives Bastašić’s often tender exploration of the unreliability of memory and friendship is a sense of loss. There is nothing saccharine about this journey. It’s fraught with problems and no resolutions. Sara is trying to escape Bosnia, both physically and metaphysically, but it’s a futile effort.
As they drive through Slovenia, slowly approaching Austria, in a rare moment of honesty Sara declares: “We’re always in Bosnia. Now we were spreading her all over Europe. Our country with its irreconcilable borders, was, in fact, borderless. We had fought for nothing, killed each other over nothing. We were never inside that country—she is the one inside us like a phantom itch. Our skin bleeds from futile scratching.” If only we could “start from the beginning.”