I found an old photo recently. Three girls sitting on a lawn in front of a grand country house. It is 1986 and shoulder pads, big hair and coloured tights are all in evidence. The house is my ancestral home and the girls are my sister and two of her friends. They are all at a prestigious international school. The Prince of Orange (Crown Prince of The Netherlands) is a classmate. They are part of a week long house party.
How very Edwardian, you may think. How very 1913 and how extraordinarily old fashioned. Well, yes. How irrelevant to today’s world. 1913 was the year before the Great War, whereas 1986 was the dawn of Francis Fukyama’s “End of History“? The start of the triumph of western liberalism. The beginning of the end for communism. Surely, the girls in the 1986 photo must all have lived happily ever after.
It started well enough. My sister and one of her friends go and stay in the friend’s home town a few months later. They have innocent adventures, such as getting ‘trapped’ in a cable car. They laugh about it. My sister’s friend even suggests that my sister buy property in the home town. How very 1990s and how unlike 1913. The name of the home town? It was Sarajevo.
Now we move forward a few years. My sister’s friend, a totally westernised nominally Muslim girl, has got fed up with running through “snipers alley”, under fire from the hills. She has got herself pregnant by a Serb Doctor and is leaving on an aeroplane to Serbia. She is last heard of in the Serb countryside. Her final telephone call to my sister relates two facts. She is finding it hard to get milk for the baby and the Serbs are resentful of a Muslim girl working in their factory. Then silence. Silence which has never been broken.
My mother is standing in a cemetery in Zagreb. It is near the end of the Serb - Croatian War. She has joined her Croatian friends in the weekly trek to the cemetery. She is consoling them whilst they complain how changed their husbands are, because of fighting at the front. Does my mother think of my sister’s friend to whom she offered sanctuary to so long ago, when the war in Sarajevo started? An offer which was politely refused.
The wars in Yugoslavia are over and I am standing in the hills above my mother-in-law’s country house, about one hour from Sofia, Bulgaria. It is the summer after Clinton and Blair bombed Serbia and Autumn is early that year. A fact that is attributed, by the locals, to the bombing in nearby Serbia. I wonder if my Orthodox in-laws are capable of finding my sister’s friend. Or is it too late?
There is no happy ending to this story, for this is real life. No miraculous discovery and tearful reunion. Just a slow forgetting and a memory jogged by a photo. Ostensibly so different from those photos of country house parties in 1913 but similar in one respect. The horror of war was shortly to affect one member of the group in that photo.
The “End of History” was an illusion shattered long before 9/11. The U.S. had seemed to be in touching distance of it but, in truth, they were no nearer it than any other nation in history.
I am reminded of the final paragraphs in “The Great Gatsby”. That American hero had thought he would capture his great love, Daisy but the narrator sees this quest as the illusion it was fated to be. He writes as follows :-
“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
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