By Miljenko Jergović
Translated from the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian by Jen Zoble
The first newspaper I ever saw was called Oslobođenje. I was three years old and, even when I would clutch the paper with my arms spread as wide as they could go, it still would be only half-open, half-closed. I didn’t know who Oslobođenje was meant for, but every morning, my grandpa would sit in his armchair, glasses on his nose, peering at the paper, leafing his loooooong fingers through its pages and nodding his head meaningfully. While he read the paper, I would get the urge and announce, “I have to poop!” These words were addressed to my grandma, who was in charge of the potty and related matters, but Grandpa would chime in: “The little one always poops on my paper.”
The second newspaper in our house was Nin. Grandpa never called it the paper, though—instead he would say magazine. The difference between the paper and the magazine resided in the fact that Grandpa read the paper in the morning, in his armchair, whereas he read the magazine in the afternoon, in bed. After finishing Nin, Grandpa would fall into deep contemplation that culminated in snoring. Fortunately, I never had to poop in the afternoon.
I was seven years old when my hands could finally open Oslobođenje. Our neighbor Posnikov, rather than reading that publication, would buy the Sarajevan newspapers Večernje and Politika. “The large format bothers me,” he explained. That was how I learned the word format. By that time I’d already perceived some distinguishing features, for instance how Politika’s masthead was printed in black, while Večernje’s was red, and Oslobođenje‘s, blue. Only on November 29th, May 1st, and April 6th—Sarajevo Liberation Day—would the masthead of Oslobođenje, which means liberation, turn red.
A few years later, every day became a holiday for Oslobođenje, every day its masthead was red, and so too was introduced the custom of printing one page in Cyrillic type, the next page in Latin type, the third page in Cyrillic, the fourth, in Latin, etc. In this way, it would alternate until the final page, where it was announced that the paper had been awarded the Order of Merit for the People. By then I’d become a devoted reader.
In our house Oslobođenje was never bought from the tobacconist, but rather by subscription, so it arrived every morning at six. While Grandpa was still alive we also had a subscription to Nin, but later we canceled it. It probably sounds pathetic now, but breakfast in my childhood meant cocoa, bread with apricot jam, and Oslobođenje.
As a boy, I wondered who was leaving the paper on our doorstep at six in the morning. This question, like most questions, I could never answer. Who knows how or why, but I believed in the magic of the morning paper as other children believed in Santa Claus. I never believed in him—he seemed too fake. Newspapers were real.
From an early age I was terribly nostalgic. Actually nostalgia began to grip me as soon as I had something to remember. Yesterday would always be better than today. It was because of nostalgia that in the summer of 1983 I set off for Oslobođenje to work as a morning paper boy. I awoke at 5:30, got my stack of papers, and headed out to my delivery area, which included King Tomislav Street and part of Koševo. I learned the three rules of newspaper delivery. First rule: If a building without an elevator has five floors, and in the entire building only one person gets the paper, then that person inevitably lives on the fifth floor. Second rule: If the building has an elevator, then the lone newspaper customer lives on the ground floor. Third rule: If in an elevator building the lone customer lives on the fifth floor, then the elevator is out of order.
I delivered Oslobođenje for a full two months, until the beginning of the school year. During that time I became more closely acquainted with one Sarajevan district than I had been with the whole of the city over my entire lifetime. I learned some things about life, newspapers, and people, and I fulfilled a personal promise to honor my vision of childhood. I believed there existed a family, one just like ours, that repeated every morning the newspaper ritual I remembered from a time when everything was simpler because morning and afternoon were distinguished one from the other like the newspaper and the magazine.
Delivering Oslobođenje was my first and most serious newspaper job. Everything that followed shattered my illusions about newspapers and journalists. To me it seemed that if God existed, when he descended to Earth to fix things between people and assign each person’s real, deserved role, He’d point his finger at me and say: “You will deliver the morning newspaper.” I would not need to ask which one. The word newspaper means Oslobođenje, of the large format, and the festive, red masthead.
Croatian author Miljenko Jergović is one of the most significant writers in the region of the former Yugoslavia. He was born in 1966 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and lives now in Zagreb, Croatia. He is the author of more than thirty novels, short story collections, and poetry volumes, and has received numerous national and international literary awards, including The Erich-Maria Remarque Peace Award (1995), the Italian Premio Grinzane Cavour (2003), and the Angelus Literary Award for the best novel in Middle Europe (Poland, 2012). The essay featured here comes from the two-volume collection Historijska čitanka (A History Reader; VBZ, 2006), compiled from a column the author wrote for the newsweekly Dani, in which he sought not only to chronicle history but also to interrogate its construction.
Jennifer Zoble translates Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian- and Spanish-language literature; co-edits InTranslation at The Brooklyn Rail; co-produces the international radio drama podcast Play for Voices; and teaches writing in the interdisciplinary Liberal Studies program at New York University.