This international bestseller is a sweeping portrait of motherhood, loss, and redemption in war-torn Sarajevo.
Filled with memories of the four-year siege of Sarajevo, Gemma reluctantly boards a flight from her native Rome to that war-scarred city with her sixteen-year-old son, Pietro. She hopes to teach her son about the city of his birth and about Diego, the father he never knew. Once there Gemma is caught between the present and the past, reliving her love affair with Diego, their determination to start a family, and their deep connection to Sarajevo even as the threat of war loomed.
In this haunting and sophisticated novel, Mazzantini masterfully probes the startling emotional territory of what makes a family-particularly what makes a mother. As the fate of Sarajevo converges with Gemma's all-consuming desire to have a child we see how far she is driven, in a stunning revelation that is both heartbreaking and cathartic.
Brought to life by an unforgettable cast of characters, Twice Born is a tale of the acts of brutality and generosity that war can inspire. A blockbuster bestseller in Mazzantini's native Italy, it has taken Europe by storm and will soon be published around the world.
After the rain, the snails come out. They push their slimy boneless bodies out of their shells as they move along. After the rain, the inhabitants of Sarajevo go foraging in the treeless fields amidst tangles of iron and fresh mounds of earth. They bend over furtively, excitedly, to pick up the shiny little creatures. It’s been months since they last ate meat. Then it rained, and today the women smile and unpack their treasure in their empty kitchens. The children smile at the sight of the snails climbing on and falling off the table. Like the others, Velida came home with a bag full of snails that she’d gathered secretly, in an isolated park, because she was ashamed for others to see her hunger.
We dip our bread in the pan. A slightly cloying odor fills the kitchen. Snails cooked in Turkish spices, Bosnian vinegar and broth from the humanitarian packages. A delicacy.
Later Velida will blame this too-good food for having restored a happiness they hadn’t felt for a long time, a misleading and harmful happiness.
Jovan’s eyes were shiny, and there was a bit of color in his cheeks after months of rough grey skin.
After he finished eating, he lit a cigarette from a package Diego had given him. Drinas that they wrap now in pages taken from books because there’s no more paper. Naturally, they started with books in Cyrillic. Jovan was sorry to see his culture going up in smoke, but how could he refrain from having a cigarette after a real luxury like a plate of snails?
Jovan went out when it was silent again, when Velida resumed chopping nettles and the good smell of the snails had disappeared forever.
He hadn’t been out for months. He dressed to the nines in his wool vest, a wide tie and his old kippah on his head. He picked up the bag he’d used as a professor and said he felt good and that he was going out for a walk.
Unreal words in that ghost city, in those houses without lights, without glass, the best furniture sold and the worst pieces chopped to bits for burning.
“Where are you going, Jovan?”
“I’m going to the university.”
Velida didn’t have the courage to stop him. She’d always respected her husband’s wishes, and it hardly seemed the time to treat him as if he were under house arrest. She simply tried to tell him that the university had been shelled like all the other important buildings. Jovan nodded.
“I’m going to go see if there’s anything to be done.”
He smiled and came out with an old Yiddish proverb. If a man is fated to drown, he may die in a teaspoon of water.
It was too late when Velida came to knock at my door, when it was already dark and past curfew and Jovan had been gone for hours. She wasn’t crying, but her head trembled more than usual.
She was worried but still courageous. She had done the right thing.
Today, on a mid-November day, after a meal of snails and two glasses of homemade brandy made with rice from the humanitarian aid packages, the elderly Jovan—a Serbian Jew from Sarajevo, a biologist whose field of expertise was freshwater species and who had spent his entire life studying the evolution of oligochaetes and of unicellular flagellate algae—went out to take a glance at the wreckage of his city, at the destruction of his species, the peaceful species comprised of the Muslims, Serbs, Croatians and Jews of Sarajevo.
The dark ate away at Velida’s memory lined face. She had no regrets. If Jovan had felt the need to go, it was right that he had gone.
Twice Born was immediately a huge bestseller in your native Italy. How do you imagine it will be received here in the States?
Twice Born tells the story of a young couple's long journey into the rite of parenthooda universal theme. The thing that makes this child's entry into the world extraordinary is war, which, even as it kills, also creates life. Through the story of this family the book recounts the last twenty years of European history, which I believe will interest American readers.
What inspired you to write this novel?
I always start with some sort of handicap. All of my main characters have this in commonthere's always something missing, some emptiness, that compels them to move beyond the boundaries of their ordinary lives. They're looking for something. So I imagined a woman we all can picture: she's modern, intellectual, upwardly mobilebut she can't have children. She becomes fixated on what she lacks, blinded by her obsession. And in the midst of it she encounters war, which brings the darkness of real violence and deprivation. And that dark tunnel becomes the long voyage of rebirth.
The book shows a great familiarity with Sarajevo and the recent war that raged through it. How were you able to bring the city so vividly to life? And how were you able to delve so deeply into the acts of both brutality and generosity that war can inspire?
All wars are alike. All of them weigh heavily on the shoulders of innocent civilians. I wanted to talk about war as a metaphor. As absolute evil, a theater of human absurdity where love ends and horror begins. The war in the former Yugoslavia was a war in the heart of Europe, taking place just a few miles across the sea from our gorgeous beaches here in Italy. And yet at the time we viewed it as a foreign humanitarian crisis, as if it didn't really have anything to do with us. I'd just given birth to my first child in 1991, when the conflict began. I was nursing a newborn, feeling like I held the future and the hope of the world in my arms, and there were these horrific images on TV, images of the holocaust repeating itself. How was it possible to be happy?
Years later I got on a plane and went to Sarajevo. And I saw this city that was both Eastern and Western, a city that was multiethnic before the war, an example of civil cohabitation, of art, of beauty. And I saw the wounds, which were so visible everywhere. I met men and women still full of dignity and beauty. I wanted to tell about this citythe joy as it celebrated the 1984 Winter Olympics (where Diego and Gemma's love story begins). And I wanted to describe the city as it is today, now that the wars have ended, and the TV news and the journalists are all gone, and the survivors are stuck with their pain and without an audience. I wrote this book with the desire to capture the threads of beauty and human passion among the many wrongs they suffered. I wrote this book because we must not forget.
The story's fluctuation between the present day and the 1990s produces a dynamic sense of tension as we slowly comes to understand the events that led to the birth of Gemma's son, Pietro. We think we've uncovered the whole story, but as readers will see, there is heart-dropping shock in the book's final pages. Did you have the ending planned when you began writing, or did it unfold somewhere along the process?
I usually don't predetermine structure and I don't make outlines. For me, writing is a reckless act, a challenge. I give myself over to this unknown thing, something that only reveals itself as I write. I did, however, have an aim with this book. I knew that this child was going to come out of the dark womb of war. That was the real intuition at the heart of the book. Then, around this parable, I created the figures of an elaborate end-of-the-millennium nativity scene, if you willthese frantic young people who were stuck, but hungry for the future, for poetry and music, for love without limits, for missed opportunities. They were the ones who pulled me along. I followed the little wars of their daily lives.
The nature of maternal love is a central concern of the novel. Why did you choose this setting to explore the many questions and issues a mother's love can raise?
I'm a storyteller. I never like to repeat what I already know how to do, what I've already done. I like to challenge myself and begin from scratch, staring into uncharted territory. I envisioned an infertile Madonna figure and thought about how sterility informs our society. This is an intimate book, but it isn't navel-gazing. It's wide open, and I tried to encompass everyone in it. I didn't stand in front of the mirror to write itI looked out the window. I looked at the world, listened to it. I thought about our pampered Western society and our hard, post-Communist East. I thought about these distant destinies on the march, moving towards each other without realizing it, looking for each other so they could tend each others' wounds, find a cure for life's sadness, and together find meaning in the emptiness of war.
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