Chernobyl Strawberries, by Vesna Goldsworthy
Josh Lacey is captivated by Vesna Goldsworthy's account of a life divided between former Yugoslavia and England, Chernobyl Strawberries
Saturday April 9, 2005
by Vesna Goldsworthy
290pp, Atlantic, £14.99
When Vesna Goldsworthy's son was two years old, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and decided to write a memoir, allowing him to know who his mother had been. Most families have a typescript or two, written by a relative, leaving something of themselves behind. Three qualities make Goldsworthy's memoir stand apart from these ordinary accounts: her honesty, her skill as a writer and the fascinating circumstances of her life.
Born in Belgrade, Goldsworthy emigrated to London in the 1980s to live with her British husband. Like most smart, well-educated Yugoslavs, she spoke excellent French and a little English, and had been prepared for British life by a childhood spent in the company of Maggie Tulliver and Oliver Twist. Having grown up under communism, she was comfortable inside a monolithic state-run institution, and so worked happily at the BBC, reading the news for the Serbian section of the World Service. Now she is a lecturer at Kingston University, and runs a department that could hardly sound more English: the Centre for Suburban Studies.
The key experience of her life has been this transition from one culture to another, rebuilding her personality in a new language, while watching the obliteration of the place she came from. The Yugoslavia in which Goldsworthy was born no longer exists. Serbo-Croat has been divided into Serbian and Croatian, and hundreds of new words invented to erect a barrier down the middle of the language. Living in Britain, Goldsworthy can never quite decide whether her new home has entirely accepted her, or how much she wants its acceptance. She writes evocatively about the experience of being caught between cultures, belonging to neither, and describes how illness finally allowed her to fuse the two different personalities between which she had felt divided, one speaking Serbo-Croat and the other English.
Goldsworthy's first book, Inventing Ruritania (1998), examined the fictionalised versions of the Balkans created by Anthony Hope, Bram Stoker, Evelyn Waugh and other British writers. Although written with a wit and passion often absent from academic literature, that book was still, perhaps necessarily, dry and a little dusty. Chernobyl Strawberries blows away the dust; Goldsworthy writes well, often beautifully, rarely lapsing into the awkward constructions that you might expect of someone using their second (or third) language. The two books comple-ment one another very neatly. In Inventing Ruritania she dissected British attitudes to the Balkans, and the way English literature created a stereotype of fiery, primitive Slavs, generating a string of clichés that were gratefully recycled by lazy journalists during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. Chernobyl Strawberries describes what Serbs think of the English: "perfidious and treacherous"; "English sex was an oxymoron"; the English were "on the whole, ugly"; England had "the worst climate in the world" and "perhaps the strangest cuisine".
Tactfully, Goldsworthy does not explain how these attitudes developed after Nato bombed Serbia and Montenegro in 1999. Instead, she relies on evocative descriptions of small incidents: a friend whose home was literally broken open in the middle of the night, when a huge crack fizzled down one of the walls; phoning her father in Belgrade as he watches bombs fall on an oil refinery that survived the Germans in 1941 and the Allies in 1944. "'Third time lucky,' Father says," as the refinery burns, drenching his curtains in black soot. Still divided between cultures, Goldsworthy mourns both the bombed and the bombers.
In an afterword, she writes that "an autobiography is a doubly edited life. Memory edits the first run, the writer edits the second, as she imposes provisional boundaries on her recollections." Memory provides her structure. Rather than writing chronologically, she leaps back and forth in time, following threads - love, music, family, war - that send her zigzagging across her life. This has the magical effect of bringing forth unexpected connections. Between her father-in-law's colonial exploits in India, for instance, and her own ancestors, the bishop-kings of Montenegro, who fought ferociously against Ottoman colonialists. From the grim blocks of Kingston University where she now works to the identically grim blocks of Belgrade City Transport where her mother worked. And, most movingly, between the bombing of her birthplace and the cancer in her breast: "The outlines of the hills, rising from the murky conflu ences of the Sava and the Danube, were as well known to me as the curves of my own body. It might not be an accident that the two were wounded and disfigured so soon after each other." Goldsworthy's ability to find unexpectedly subtle connections in the pattern of her own life elevates this absorbing memoir into something extraordinary.
writer's life: Vesna Goldsworthy
Jasper Rees discovers how cancer inspired an émigré to recreate a lost world for her son.
Chernobyl Strawberries is, on the face of it, a narrative that has frequently been written before: intellectual grows up under communism before making new life on cushier side of Iron Curtain. Its author is conscious that she has none of the usual horror stories to offer the Amnesty diehards and Schadenfreude junkies who form the genre's traditional fan base. "I have never seen the inside of a prison cell," Vesna Goldsworthy warns, "never been tortured for any beliefs. I didn't escape to the West under a train or through barbed-wire fences. Much though I would have liked to, I've never had to memorise any poetry."
Vesna Goldsworthy - née Bjelogrlic - grew up under the Tito brand of laissez-faire totalitarianism, which stopped some way short of sealing borders and decimating bookshops. She lived with all the bearable stuff - the kitsch of flags, parades and stadium poetry readings - but without the privations forced on the Czech intelligentsia. That's only half of the story Goldsworthy is not in a position to tell. When Tito died and Yugoslavia torched itself off the map in a firestorm of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, the author wasn't there to witness it. She had long since met an Englishman and emigrated.
To miss out on one story looks like bad luck. To miss out on two looks like carelessness. How do you conjure a memoir out of that?
The clue is in the title. The summer she left Belgrade, Goldsworthy made jam from berries she soon discovered may well have been irradiated by nuclear fallout borne on the wind from Chernobyl's exploded reactor. A couple of years ago, she discovered she had breast cancer.
Although no direct link can be proven, Goldsworthy decided that "a metaphor is as good an explanation as anything else. I was very ill and there was a point where I thought I was dying. I realised I had this four-year-old boy who mainly speaks in English, whose father is English, who is growing up to be almost completely English, and whose mother has all these strange memories from a world which has now disappeared. There is this whole history that suddenly seemed as distant as the First World War. As I thought I might not be there to tell that story in the future, the impulse to tell it now became very strong. I thought I could write a book that you could pick up 50 years from now and somehow hear my voice."
The result - a memento mori from mother to son - is a work of benign narcissism. It takes the form of a patchwork, a bit like the now-defunct confederation, sewn together (in her eyes, harmoniously) out of disparate elements. Memories of her comfortable upbringing in Belgrade jostle with tales of colourful forebears who lived through the century's previous Balkan ructions. Working the night shift for the BBC World Service's Serbian arm, she watches old friends and old haunts flit across her war-torn television screen. Through it all, Goldsworthy reports dispassionately on her own war against the malignancy within.
This is more than enough material for a memoir, and her book is deftly, beautifully done. Chernobyl Strawberries is suffused with a longing complicated and deepened by the eradication of the Yugoslav state. "It is probably because I left while Yugoslavia still existed that some kind of severed limb still twitches there in my imagination. People ask me, 'Where are you from?' and I say 'Yugoslavia' and then I have to step back and say 'Serbia' and it feels artificial. I used to madly romanticise those 1920s Russian exiles with their old passports, and suddenly I find myself having documents from a country which no longer exists."
She remembers her country "with a strange mixture of disgust and nostalgia". She enjoyed a gilded youth - top of the class throughout school, she presented a hip radio show and travelled widely. Life was, effectively, bourgeois. "You saw yourself as very different from the rest of the Eastern Bloc," she says. "I grew up with the Western perspective that struggle against the totalitarian regime was somehow very beautiful and heroic, whereas in Yugoslavia it wasn't an imperative. Our dissidents were less appealing because they tended to be nationalists." (Radovan Karadzic, from a Montenegrin clan linked to Goldsworthy's on her mother's side, used to attend the same family functions. She doesn't remember him.)
Goldsworthy now teaches at Kingston University in Surrey. Its brutalist 1970s architecture puts her in mind of pre-Westernised Belgrade. Her first book was Inventing Ruritania, an absorbing critical study of the ways in which British literature and, latterly, film, turned the Balkans into an imaginary Wild East. There are four copies of the book, in different Balkan languages, on the coffee table in her sitting room in Chiswick. "The Bulgarian translation was, to my utter amazement, in a list of the top 10 or 15 foreign books," she says. "Don't ask me to explain."
Chernobyl Strawberries should find a far wider readership, though Goldsworthy has been told that it will be harder to translate. "A couple of my colleagues from the World Service said that it's a very, very English book. `How is it going to be translated into Serbian?' I've been asked. 'You have become so English.' " Not that she necessarily wants the book to appear in her homeland. "Discussing one's breasts in public is highly improper, particularly in my part of the world," she writes. "I certainly hope this book is never translated into Serbian."
In spite of her background, Goldsworthy thinks of herself as English. "You know the end of Homage to Catalonia, where Orwell returns? At a particular point I started feeling nostalgic for England when I went away. The plane circles over Kent and Sussex and it's beautifully green." Her Englishness is harder to spot in the writing. She has an outsider's eye when it comes to the changes wrought on London in the two decades she's been here, and the passing of the Raj generation to which her father-in-law belonged. "My own generation lives in a very different England. I almost caught these two empires - the Eastern and the Western one - as they were seeping away."
Chernobyl Strawberries began as a final testimony, but Goldsworthy now has other books in the pipeline: a critical study of travel writing, with her own peregrinations woven in; a book about cancer, "which I feel I ought to write"; and a novel. "For the first 40 years of my life I kept thinking there was plenty of time. Now, whenever I start something, I have this sense that I won't necessarily be there to finish it. Last year I was given odds and the odds in my case are 76 per cent in favour of me being around in five years' time. Can you deal with those odds? I can't. For all I know I am well, but I may not be. Eventually someone declares you well, but you might not be even then. What I have learnt really well is to live with things being provisional. It's not something that worries me at night."
The TLS n.º 5324 April 15, 2005
290 pp. Atlantic. £14.99
1 84354 414 8
Many good books are travel books in one sense or another, and this one charts a more complex journey than most. At the simplest level, Chernobyl Strawberries takes the reader from Belgrade to London — but more than that, in her journey from a life as Vesna Bjelogric to a new one as Vesna Goldsworthy, the author moves from simple, dishonest Communist days in Serbia before Yugoslavia disintegrated to the slightly smug and self-conscious world of the BBC and British academia; she leaves behind one family, and finds another; and she travels from a world filled with flirtatious physical self-confidence to one where she lies patched and scarred on a hospital bed and wonders if she is going to die .She remembers with an awed affection how her Montenegrin grandmother smiled as she told gruesome bedtime stories of Muslim invaders beheaded on ancient battlefields, and looks quizzically at the imperial mementoes of her English husband’s-family. In some ways, perhaps, her journey is not as long as it seems.
Members of Vesna’s family, she mentions in an aside that highlights the apparently random savagery of the Balkan wars of our own time, have been murdered by soldiers of at least five different nationalities in the last hundred years. In a wry twist to that story, she makes nightly telephone calls from London to her old family in Belgrade as the aircraft of her new nation drop bombs on them - and agonises over how she will pass on the news of the cancer that threatens to kill her.
This is a book written, as it has to be, without an ending: however successfully cancer patients are treated, they know better than to tempt fate by talking about being cured. Written entirely without self-pity -- “I faced both my demons and my gods alone”, Vesna says, as she descrthes the start of her fight against her illness -it is a message from a mother to her young son about where she came from and what half of his heritage is. “Mine is in no way an exceptional story”, she says, but this is an exceptional memoir. If there has been a more honest, calm, and profoundly moving one written in the last few years, then I’ve missed it.
Found in translation
Mar 23rd 2005
From The Economist print edition
Chernobyl Strawberries: A Memoir
By Vesna Goldsworthy
Atlantic Books; 290 pages; £14.99
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
By Marina Lewycka
The Penguin Press; 304 pages; $24.95.
EXILE is one kind of literary rocket fuel, life under totalitarianism another. Put the two together and you get some big books: Milan Kundera's “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Engineer of Human Souls” by Josef Skvorecky, both from what was once Czechoslovakia, or Eva Hoffman's “Lost in Translation” from Poland. They were good guides to the move, in cold-war years, from the lost half of Europe to the pampered West.
Since the collapse of communism and Europe's reunification, there has been nothing to match those offerings. But two new books try to fill the gap. A heavyweight and rewarding offering is “Chernobyl Strawberries”. These were the contaminated fruits of the summer of 1986, the year that Vesna Bjelogrlic (that's not a spelling mistake—Slavic languages use consonants where lesser tongues have vowels) decided to leave her stagnant but peaceful Yugoslav homeland and move with her English fiancé to London. Her book echoes with the chimes of the continent's common history, divided by a century of wars and totalitarian rule. What could seem farther apart than the British empire on one hand, and the agglomeration of ex-colonies, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and others, that made up the former Yugoslavia on the other? Yet her father-in-law, a veteran of the North-West Frontier, instantly identifies with her forebears from mountainous Montenegro, a handkerchief-sized Balkan theocracy defined by its military prowess: “just like Pathans”, he concludes. Britain and Balkan ex-monarchies, she notes, both like uniforms, crowns and stirring tales of valour.
Ms Goldsworthy's treatment of her adopted homeland is masterly, using irony and self-deprecation to evoke affection, respect and clear-sighted criticism. How lucky, she thinks, to be British in the late 20th century, unplagued by the nagging historical dilemmas about collaboration, resistance and suffering that in less fortunate countries mean sleepless nights for the thoughtful. She is equally sensitive but fair-minded as she considers her native Serbia, perpetrator of atrocities, but bombed by the country she now calls home. It is easier, she notes wryly, to be like the Czechoslovaks or Hungarians, attacking the invading tanks of a foreign power, than to have to worry about what your own country's tanks are doing.
No less thought-provoking, but also uproariously funny, is Marina Lewycka's first novel, “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”. The post-war east European emigration in Britain has scarcely featured in fiction—William Palmer's “The Good Republic” is almost the only example, ably linking the British Baltic diaspora with moral dilemmas at home both past and present. Ms Lewycka's book deals with Ukrainian émigrés, painfully respectable after 40 years in Britain, confronted with the alarming presence of real (and painfully unrespectable) Ukrainians from the newly independent but largely forgotten homeland. The sluttish, rapacious figure of Valentina, determined to marry the narrator's elderly widowed father for heaven knows what ulterior motive, brings a raw blast of reality from a bit of eastern Europe that makes Ms Goldsworthy's middle-class Serbian background seem no scarier than an outer suburb of London.
One of these books is fact, the other fiction, but both share common themes. You may think you are living in Britain, but when you have roots in eastern Europe, there is no escaping history or geography. Ms Lewycka's narrator, Nadia, unscrambles her miserably sour relationship with her sister only through poking into the most hideous, long-forgotten corners of their family history. The author's imaginary world lets her explore the sort of problems that other east European émigrés in Britain often fear but seldom confront: chiefly, what to do with people we are supposed to like but don't trust or understand. Her dialogue, conducted between educated people who lack a common language, is a comic feast.
The cerebral Ms Goldworthy's memoir is amusing too, although in delicate watercolours rather than Ms Lewycka's riotous oil painting of senility, lust and greed. Both books are a help to understanding the European continent's past woes and current muddles.
March 26, 2005
An elegy for Yugoslavia
Strawberries: A Memoir
The title of this charming book refers to the last summer the author spent in her native city of Belgrade in 1986, just before she married an Englishman and emigrated to London. Twenty-four-year-old Vesna Bjelogrlic, as she then was, picked berries in the hills near her home to make jam. Nearly two decades later, when she discovers she has breast cancer, she imagines that her illness had been caused by poisoned fruit. Ukrainian winds had borne fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor to her favourite strawberry fields.
As a medical diagnosis this may lack scientific rigour, but Goldsworthy could claim minor celebrity as a teenage poet and she makes the idea work effectively as a literary device. She uses a similarly visceral metaphor to compare the ravages cancer wrought on her body with the agonies of war and ethnic cleansing suffered in her homeland since she left it. This works less well -not least because Goldsworthy is thankfully still with us writing interesting books, and the country she grew up in has ceased to exist.
Goldsworthy was born and bred in Belgrade during the fag end of the Tito period. She had a privileged upbringing in a middle-class home, went to the best schools, did well at university, held a job briefly as a radio presenter before falling for her English husband-to-be. While at high school she had joined the Communist party as an act of rebellion, so out of fashion had party membership become except among 'ditzy girls from old familes who had fallen for the hammer-'n-sickle chic and a good third of the basketball team'. She lapsed, due to non-payment of fees, but it was de rigueur to 'put it about that you had been expelled for saying this or that.'
She writes with wit and nostalgia about the vanished country in which she grew up. Even now, when asked where she comes from, Goldsworthy answers instinctively 'Yugoslavia' before realising it is no longer there. Only then does she step back and respond 'Serbia'. It is clear she doesn't altogether like what her homeland has become as the result of petty nationalism. Some of the most moving passages describe her time during the Kosovo war. She worked the night shift on the BBC World Service at Bush House when she would read new bulletins on the Serbian Service about Nato bombing raids on Begrade, 'the city that once I knew as well as I knew my own body', where her parents and other close relatives still live.
Goldsworthy wrote this book against the clock and occasionally it shows. When she thought she was going to die, she wanted her English-born son, then aged four, to know something of his origins. At times her patchwork style, the hectic jumps in time and place, are annoyingly hard to follow. At others it is beautifully written an elegy to a world that now seems so far distant that it is difficult to remember that it began to vanish just half a generation ago.
Vesna Goldsworthy's memoir of her native Yugoslavia, Chernobyl Strawberries, deserves to find a wide audience, says Tim Judah
Sunday April 17, 2005
Chernobyl Strawberries: A Memoir
by Vesna Goldsworthy
Atlantic Books £14.99, pp304
It never ceases to amaze me how many books about the former Yugoslavia and its wars continue to roll off the presses. I am tempted to say that most of them are pretty boring but that wouldn't actually be true. Lots of them are great but, as with any 'specialist subject', they are of interest to a small and, in this case, dwindling number of readers.
Of course, the same is true of thousands of subjects. But just occasionally one of these books breaks cover and runs for the big time. It somehow manages to escape its given ghetto and strikes a chord. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Teheran springs to mind. Vesna Goldsworthy's Chernobyl Strawberries deserves to do the same. Shame about the title, though. It makes no covert, sexy allusions and, indeed, the book has nothing to do with Chernobyl or strawberries, except (and it is a big 'except') that Goldsworthy suspects that the rains that watered the fruit in her native Serbia in 1986, having blown down from the north, are the ones that bequeathed her cancer.
Cancer? Serbia? OK, bear with me and, as Goldsworthy says in her relentlessly amusing account of growing up during the 'golden age' of Yugoslav socialism in the 70s and 80s, expect no Gulag Archipelago either. 'The closest I ever came to conflict with the communist power machine is a heated argument with Yugoslav customs officers over some LPs I was bringing back from Paris in 1980, shortly after my 19th birthday.'
As it happens, Goldsworthy, who, a few years later was to marry an Englishman (hence her name), shared her birthday with no less a figure than Princess Diana. With her marriage and move to London, the Serbian and English parts of her lives began to weave themselves together. Fate meant that it was Goldsworthy who happened to be on the night shift and hence the one to announce Diana's death on the BBC Serbian Service the night she died.
What is amazing about Goldsworthy's tale is how she brings to life not just her upbringing in middle-class Belgrade, complete with extra French lessons and boyfriend tales with which many a fortysomething in the west London she comes to settle in could identify, but how completely that whole society has simply vanished. 'Could it really be,' she asks, 'that I grew up in a world behind the looking glass, which had no more substance than the painted backdrop on a theatrical stage?'
This book is not about the Yugoslav wars. It is about Goldsworthy and it is all the more interesting for that. For it is a clue as to how so many like her, good, well-educated and well-intentioned people, suddenly found themselves overwhelmed by wars they had no idea were coming. Goldsworthy was already in England by the time they began, but she speaks for a whole Yugoslav generation when she says: 'I had hauntingly beautiful memories of that country, yet it appears that it was also, and for so many people, an ugly, doomed place.'
As war rages, she writes: 'I often returned home from work just in time to watch the landscapes of my childhood burn on the early evening television news. Every now and then, I saw familiar faces.'
So Goldsworthy's story becomes, at one level, a tale of exile even though she had had nothing to run from during the 1980s. If it was just that, it would have had no hope of breaking out of its allotted book ghetto. Much of it is just incredibly funny and fantastically well written. Travelling with her former Indian army, Eton-educated father-in-law to his stamping grounds on the North West Frontier, she writes of how she is immersed into 'an Islamic version of Tolstoy's novels' among Pakistan's 'martial, equestrian, latifundia-owning' officer class.
Between the ages of four and 24, Goldsworthy tells us, she wrote poetry every day. Later, she says she realises that this had 'something in common with lactation'. The poetry comes as if from nowhere and, if not written down, engorges a swollen chest to the point of unbearable pain, then it dries up completely.'
But breasts and pain are more to this book than just anecdotes. In fact, they are its source. Goldsworthy loses a country and then she is struck by breast cancer. By now, she has a small son. He is the reason for this funny, painful and brilliant memoir. Fearing death will rob her of the chance to tell him, she writes down her story for her son.
Lucky for those interested in the former Yugoslavia, but I, for one, hope that the strawberries of Chernobyl will soon take their place alongside the Lolitas of Tehran and booksellers of Kabul, who broke cover and escaped the fate that might have been theirs.
Sun 13 Mar 2005
fruit of an unusual background
THE title of this memoir is somewhat misleading. Yes, there are Chernobyl strawberries in the book (and whether they caused the author’s cancer or not is really not important) but this is a story - beautifully written, complicated and life-affirming - of a mosaic-like (though not actually fragmented) identity that starts in Yugoslavia and continues in Britain, and in which Russia only provides two things: poisoned strawberries and communism.
The author was born Vesna Bjelogrlic - her family name meaning "sons of white throat", which she says, "sounds somewhat Sioux-chieftainish in English but is quite OK, even a soupcon distinguished, in Serbian".
Her childhood, in Tito’s Yugoslavia, was close to idyllic. This is the kind of communism that we all like to hear about: the way of living that doesn’t seem much different to the good bits of our own 1970s; a world in which children wore Pioneers uniforms, composed poetry for important celebrations, received an excellent free education and respected their families.
Vesna’s mother worked as a transport official, leaving home at 5.10am every day, while her father worked as a code-breaker for the army. They were Belgrade ‘yuppies’ who provided French, English and piano lessons for their daughters but whose own backgrounds contained a breathtaking amount of war, adventure and poverty. As Goldsworthy puts it: "My family moved from being shepherds to skiers in three generations."
This is not a linear narrative, for reasons that become clearer as one reads on. Memory does not often stand up to the precise sort of plotting that has its narrator born in chapter one and pretty much dead by the end, and this is as much a meditation on memory and memoir as it is a story of a life.
In one chapter we learn of the various oaths Goldsworthy has made, and learn exactly how you can go from being a communist (voluntarily) to being a Thatcherite (also voluntarily) before settling into a more conventional liberal kind of Englishness as an academic at a new university.
In another chapter, Goldsworthy describes her relationship with poetry, and explains how she came to be reading a poem for a crowd of 30,000 people, wearing not the jeans and T-shirt she would have liked ("My mother prepared to commit suicide"), but an outfit lovingly created by a family friend called Olga involving silk, chiffon, patent leather and pearls. Other chapters tell of motherhood, love affairs and England - each delivering not quite the content you would have expected, but something rather more profound.
Among many wonderful characters, we meet Goldsworthy’s paternal grandmother, who "spoke ‘Granny’, a unique Montenegrin-Central European dialect in which Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian layers of vocabulary blended into a singular concoction". Granny also apparently told bedtime stories involving beheadings, and loved tablets so much she would swallow any that were lying around.
However, what resonates most about this narrative is the charisma and charm of Goldsworthy herself. Most contemporary memoirs leave you feeling cheap, like you’ve been a fly on the wall at a particularly horrific therapy session. This one makes you feel like you’ve just come back from a wonderful, slightly drunken tête-à-tête with a new friend.
April 11/18 issue -2005
Chernobyl Strawberries By Vesna Goldsworthy
The title of this autobiography is at first misleading; Goldsworthy grew up not in Ukraine but in Tito's Yugoslavia. But after the author moves to London in the late 1980s, she later develops breast cancer and begins to wonder if it can be traced to strawberries she ate in 1986, when the winds from the Chernobyl nuclear explosion blew across Belgrade. Goldsworthy's poetic prose is beautiful, if convoluted at times. But she provides an affecting account of what it's like to have grown up in a country—and under a system—that no longer exists.
IT WAS right around the time that doctors advised her not to start reading any long books that Vesna Goldsworthy started writing one. She’d faced the diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 42, she now had to deal with the possibility that the disease might have spread. Physicians abruptly stopped talking about "treatment" and started talking about "care".
Afraid and unable to sleep, Goldsworthy began to write a book for her two-year-old son, Alexander, a "little legacy" for the boy who would grow up without her. Chernobyl Strawberries tells the story of her own childhood in middle-class Belgrade; of the surreal last days of Yugoslavian communism; of her marriage and move to London; of making strawberry jam as the toxic clouds from Chernobyl brooded over the Balkans. Could this, she wonders, 19 years on, have caused her cancer?
Further tests revealed that the disease had not spread. "Care" became "treatment" again, and Goldsworthy wrote the last pages of Chernobyl Strawberries in Charing Cross Hospital, recovering from reconstructive surgery. Though she still calls it "the book for Alexander", it has become much more than that. Shimmering and episodic, it follows the byways and cul-de-sacs of memory through a country which no longer exists, and follows the expatriate’s struggle to belong to two nations, even when they are at war with one another.
Goldsworthy is adamant that it is not a cancer story. "The illness is a marginal story. A frame story, but not the story itself. We don’t want to be remembered because of how we die. If you’re run over by a bus, you don’t want to be remembered mostly as someone who’s run over by a bus," she laughs.
She is bubbly, frank and articulate. Her English is flawless, her accent hard to pinpoint. She’s glowing with health, and upbeat about the fact that there are no guarantees. "The thing with cancer is that they always give you odds. So in my case, I’m 76 per cent not likely to get it again. You wake up on a good day and 76 per cent is, wow, overwhelming. On a bad day 24 per cent looms large. I don’t know how anyone deals with those statistics rationally, so don’t think about it. I could sit here every day and work out whether the glass is full or empty."
She admits the book is a kind of "remember me", though she claims her life is unremarkable. "It sounds vain, but I was trying to capture something about my personality, in the way that a portrait can sometimes tell you more about a person than a photograph. I thought by writing about the things that I went through Alexander would realise what kind of person I was."
And she wanted him to know about his Serbian heritage. Sitting in their comfortable family home in West London, surrounded by the history of the Goldsworthy family, she realised that if she died he would lose his only connection to her homeland. "There are all sorts of ideas that people have about eastern Europe which simply don’t represent my world. I became aware that these are the kind of ideas that he would have if I didn’t try to write something down for him."
As a result, she has given us a glimpse of a vanished society. She was born Vesna Bjelogrlic, in Belgrade in 1961, descended, on her father’s side, from Montenegrin nobility. They were part of a privileged middle-class who wanted for little; her mother headed the finance department of the city’s transport company, her father was a code-breaker for the Yugoslav National Army.
Bright and precocious, she wrote poetry avidly and went on to become a top student of literature at Belgrade University. Her greatest - and most surreal - honour was to read a poem before an audience of 30,000 people at the celebrations for Tito’s 92nd birthday (the fact that he had died four years previously did nothing to stem party fervour).
She travelled all over Europe, fell in and out of love, presented a hip radio show and edited a fashionable literary magazine. Briefly, she fell for "hammer’n’sickle chic" and joined the Communist party, although her membership quickly lapsed. Absent-mindedly, she pondered a glittered career. She was, she says, waiting for life to happen to her.
Then she met tall, blond, Englishman Simon Goldsworthy at a summer school in Sofia, Bulgaria. They married and she moved to Britain in 1986, taking the oath of allegiance which made her a British citizen in a little solicitor’s office above an electrical supplies shop in London. She never looked back.
When the war broke out in Yugoslavia, and she took a job with the BBC World Service broadcasting the news in Serbian, she found herself caught between nations. She watched the Nato bombs falling on Belgrade and recognised the streets and shops of her childhood. "You are in this situation where your two countries are at war with each other. I would ring my parents in Belgrade to see how they were, then go and broadcast news from the point of view of the BBC, which is the British point of view. There’s a whole knot that you get into."
She tried to distance herself, but sometimes an image would drive her, weeping, away from the studio. She continued to call herself Yugoslav, and her language Serbo-Croat, although both no longer existed.
It was only when she became ill that she began to unravel the exile’s tangled identity. "I started thinking about it differently. Yugoslavia was like a limb which had been amputated, but is still twitching. That country still existed somewhere in my imagination because I didn’t see it disintegrate at first hand."
She likens coming to terms with her shattered homeland like coming to terms with her own wounded post-operative body. "The fact that I liked Yugoslavia as it was is now useless. So the fact that I remember my pre-cancer self is nice, but I’m now somebody else. The traumas that I went through forced me to accept things as they are in both cases.
"With cancer, you go through a period of ugliness. The treatment leaves you looking dreadful for a time. And similarly with Yugoslavia, I had to come to terms with quite a lot of ugliness there. I had to face this idea that people there were slaughtering each other, that my own nation, the Serbs, were in many ways seen as perpetrators. It’s a complicated tangle, but somehow by being ill I enabled myself to face those things and talk about them."
Now, she says, she is at peace with having two nationalities, as at home in London as in Belgrade, as comfortable with the nuances of English - as Chernobyl Strawberries shows - as with Serbian. Now 45, her life is almost exactly divided between the two countries.
"I’m not torn. Torn implies anxiety. I’m now completely at peace with belonging to two places. Somehow you can exist among these contradictions."
Her memoir is an exercise in making sense of her "fragmented" life: careers in publishing, journalism and academia, having a child at 39, a persistent restlessness, a sense of not belonging. "A strange thing happens when you think your life could suddenly be interrupted, that you could die at 42. You lead your life, most of us do, with this idea that you will achieve something next year or next decade. But when you have this kind of moment, when someone tells you you’re running out of time, you have to in some way make peace with what you’ve done.
"All of a sudden at the point when I thought I might be dying, that restlessness suddenly became beautiful. The fact that I did all these different things seemed suddenly okay, more full than if I had just become an academic and done that for 20 years. At that point I realised I wouldn’t have wanted to be that - I’d much rather do what I’ve done. By writing that memoir, I found that my life makes perfect sense."
Now she’s "chipping away at" a novel. In complete contrast to Chernobyl Strawberries - "which I wrote like a woman possessed, I didn’t know how much time I would have" - it’s going very, very slowly. "One thing about being at peace with yourself is that I’m not rushing anything. I’m taking it as if I’ve got all the time in the world. I might run out of time," she adds, brightly. "But, hey, the world can live without my novel."
Gone is the sense of confidence in her own good fortune on which she sailed through her early life, falling into ideal jobs in publishing, at the BBC, and her current job, teaching English at Kingston University. Even her decision to have a child "at biologically five minutes to 12" met with almost immediate success.
"Writing Chernobyl Strawberries made me realise how lucky I was. That’s why cancer was very strange, because that moment was the first time I’d really faced that idea that you could just be horribly unlucky. Before, I was like some kind of gambler, I just thought nothing could go wrong for me. Now I don’t take things for granted. I live with the knowledge that things can go wrong, that things are provisional, and not worry about their provisionality. And yes," she pauses and smiles, "I still feel very lucky."
May 08, 2005
Memoir: Chernobyl Strawberries by Vesna Goldsworthy
REVIEWED BY PAUL BAILEY
CHERNOBYL STRAWBERRIES: A Memoir
by Vesna Goldsworthy
Atlantic £14.99 pp290
The title of this engrossing memoir can be easily explained. In 1986, the year of the accident in the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, the winds from the north of Ukraine brought rain to the fruit nurseries in the hills southwest of Belgrade. Vesna Bjelogrlic, already madly in love with Simon Goldsworthy, the Englishman she was soon to marry, made and tasted strawberry jam. She was not alone in wondering how much the disaster had affected the fruit and vegetables everyone was eating. “The strawberries may or may not have been radioactive,” she observes wryly. When she came to England that June to meet her prospective in-laws, she left the pots behind in Belgrade, glistening on the kitchen shelves.
The author was born in 1961, in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Her mother, Nada, was head of the finance department of Belgrade’s City Transport Company and her father, Milos, was a codebreaker attached to the general staff of the Yugoslav National Army. By eastern European standards, the family was relatively well-off, until economic decline set in during the 1980s. Vesna and her younger sister Vera were privileged enough to be able to take French and ballet lessons in addition to their schoolwork.
Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Vesna was conscious that Yugoslavia was the most settled of the communist states, the one most open to western influence thanks to a thriving tourist industry. That country of disparate cultures and traditions coexisting in harmony seemed indestructible then. But the harmonious feelings that linked Serbs to Croats and to Muslims and the Albanians in Kosovo were revealed as fiction, an elaborate lie sustained by Tito and generations of chosen henchmen.
The conceit persisted in the years immediately following Tito’s death, by which time Vesna was living in London and married to Goldsworthy, whom she had met in the Karl Marx Institute at the University of Sofia, where both of them had gone to study Bulgarian.
She writes of her dual life as a Serb and an Englishwoman with refreshing candour. She remarks that just occasionally she thinks of the hammer and sickle, those symbols of a promised universal equality, with a certain longing. Like her industrious mother before her, she has to have an occupation that takes her away from housework, and ever since her arrival in England she has been gainfully if not always lucratively employed. She covered the war that brought Yugoslavia to an end for the BBC World Service, broadcasting in the middle of the night in her native tongue, but every so often breaking into English when she was overcome by tiredness.
The Croatian reporters were allotted a separate studio, to avoid unnecessary conflict. As she recounts the terrible progress of the civil war, one is struck by the disinterestedness of her prose. This is, in every sense, a reflective book, the work of a fiercely honest and cultivated intelligence.
Chernobyl Strawberries is dedicated to her son Alexander, who recently celebrated his fifth birthday. The boy was only two when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, an experience she describes without self-pity. The memoir could be accounted her gift to him, in case the disease re-asserts itself. Here, she implies, is all he needs to know concerning his Serbian inheritance, presented in glowing detail; as well as his upper-class English one.
What is remarkable here is the combination of melancholy and absurdist humour, the captivating blend that is common to other races in Eastern Europe. Vesna is very funny about the British stereotypes so beloved of the Serbs: our disgusting cuisine (jam with meat), our weather (permanently raining), and our supposedly quaint attitudes to sex. Not that the Serbs are immune on this score: there are some who believe that a bride-to-be has to spend a night with her future mother-in-law to ascertain to the latter’s satisfaction that the girl’s feet are warm in bed. If they are, then her son is marrying the right woman.
But this unusual book is chiefly concerned with survival and loss, with two kinds of history — the history that led inexorably to communism, and that of the frequently complacent West — and with lasting love. Goldsworthy is an unashamed bookworm, and her comments on the authors and texts she admires are invariably sharp and idiosyncratic. She now teaches English at Kingston University in a building that reminds her of the educational establishments in Belgrade. She sometimes doubts, as she walks along those corridors, if she ever left the city of her birth, the city in which she prepared a jam with strawberries that were possibly contaminated.
May 14, 2005
Life after meltdown
Chernobyl Strawberries: a Memoir
By Vesna Goldsworthy
ISBN 1 843 54414 8
Vesna Goldsworthy’s life appeared to be a seamless and almost effortless success story; a middle-class Serbian girl who excelled at everything she attempted, from writing poetry to broadcasting for the BBC.
When she married a clever Englishman from a well-placed family with a large house in Sussex and moved to London, her voyage in life seemed set fair.
Except that 20 years ago she made jam from fruit which was probably contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster. Ten years ago she found herself watching her country — Yugoslavia — tear itself apart.
Then three years ago she discovered she had breast cancer — and began to wonder if fallout from the stricken Ukrainian plant might have been to blame. A classic example of what John Lennon described as life being what happens when you are busy making other plans.
Then, in one of the cold moments that all cancer victims face, Goldsworthy confronted the cruel fact that she might not see her two-year-old son grow up. To try to ensure that his memories of his mother would amount to more than fading photographs and that he could know something of the land of her birth, Goldsworthy set out to write about her life and the country where she grew up. Her story, Chernobyl Strawberries, is a lilting, lyrical and poetic musing on her comfortable childhood, her marriage and move to Britain in the mid-1980s, cancer, and what it was like to see her country disappear — bit by bloody bit.
The book also shows that the quintessential Serb in Goldsworthy was never diluted, even by many years of living in Britain. For the Western reader it is a rare opportunity to see ourselves as others — namely the southern Slavs — see us. I have worked in the Balkans on and off for more than 20 years — indeed I was also in Belgrade the day of the Chernobyl meltdown and I, too, have gone on to develop breast cancer. Yet even my frequent and close encounters with Serbs have not given me as clear an insight into what they think of the British as does this book.
Goldsworthy reminisces at one point about how the British were seen in the run-up to her departure for Britain in 1986. The broadly held view was that they were “perfidious and treacherous” and “on the whole, ugly”. She writes: “For every British-born Cary Grant and every Vivien Leigh there were literally hundreds who looked downright weird. Belgrade television, with its endless repeats of programmes such as The Benny Hill Show, Are You Being Served? and Hi-de-hi!, did not help. Neither did the fact that members of the Royal Family were somehow thought of as typically English.”
She is just as honest about the failings of the Yugoslavia in which she grew up, especially the economic decline which set in during the 1980s after Marshal Tito’s death and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the wars which went on to tear Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s, Goldsworthy displays more sadness than bitterness, noting for instance that in her own language she “knew more words for dying than the Inuit know for snow”.
Chernobyl Strawberries is an almost hauntingly honest account of Goldsworthy’s innermost thoughts. In her youth, she mockingly likened herself to the Nobel prize-winning Yugoslav author Ivo Andric. Although I have read Andric only in translation, Goldsworthy’s style of writing is sometimes uncannily similar in its highly poetic use of words and a deeply embedded sense of history.
It should be required reading for the myriad Western politicians, generals and UN workers who still work to bring lasting stability to the Balkans.
One Woman’s War: Life and Death on a Deadline by Eve-Ann Prentice is published by Duck Editions