How do war, displacement and dislocation change a person? How can someone gain a foothold again where he has arrived now? What remains, what plays on one’s mind and what can never be forgotten again? What helps to process the experience? These are big questions. In his major novel Phantome, Robert Prosser has posed all these questions and he hasn’t simplified the answers. Questions were also at the very start of his work. In 2013, during a short visit to Sarajevo, he had to admit that he hardly knew anything about Bosnia. He then began to interview a couple who were close to his family, and this was the start of an increasingly intensive analysis of what is known as the Yugoslavian war. More than two decades have elapsed. Meanwhile, the victims are ready and willing to talk about their destinies and Prosser collected these stories. As an outsider and having deliberately not learned the language, he could be a good listener.
Part of the novel is set in 2015 and part is set in 1992. First, we get to know a graffiti artist and his girlfriend Sara. Then, the focus is on the story of Sara’s mother Anisa. These parts differ linguistically. So, the same approach should also apply in this review.
Firstly, regarding the part set in 2015. Prosser’s prose has momentum. The hero with the Bosnian girlfriend, a past spent with radicals and the present as a graffiti artist. Tuzla and Vienna. Sarajevo and Banja Luka. The story is about the country and the people. Atrocities in 1992. Atrocities in 1938. Guys in Tuzla. Parties in Tuzla. People who went and people who stayed. An adrenalin kick and boisterous life. Touring around Bosnia, and for the German-speaking newcomer Sara is the entry ticket to society.
This all sounds wonderfully young and part of the trendy scene, not too nerdy or superficial. Facts are conveyed in concentrated form. Insights are granted into trendy scenes that you don’t usually read about in this way. That makes you want to read more. Then, there is a break in the book. We are catapulted back to the year 1992 and confronted with new characters.
Now, everything focuses on the lives of Anisa and her boyfriend Jovan. The action flashes back and forth with deftly placed cuts. This is the main part of Phantome. Who are the phantoms? For Jovan – after he deserted and Anisa escaped – his girlfriend Anisa (and vice versa): “Jovan has no idea how he should get this phantom onto the wall. What were the colours of her eyes, her lips, her skin, he wonders, how did these colours change when they were furious, happy, lost in thought?” (155)
Jovan searches for and finds stability in drawing, and after he was picked up again in Belgrade and transported to the mountains and had to serve in the Bosnian-Serbian army, he finds stability singing traditional Sevdah Bosnian folk songs in remembrance of his non-Serbian friends. Anisa, who made it to Vienna, likes to wander through the Kunsthistorisches Museum to think of other ideas and to process her thoughts. She still doesn’t feel as though she has arrived in Vienna: “Speechlessness makes it possible to maintain distance, and learning German seems to her like the voluntary admission of not believing in her return to Bosnia.” (138)
Both their stories are narrated in parallel and reach a climax. Of course, what they gravitate towards is not revealed. But the novel has a new twist in store, which is gratifying and skilful. In Phantome, Robert Prosser succeeds in shedding light on the major themes of today and of the recent past in our former neighbouring country. This light is a search light focused on Bosnia, Serbia and Vienna, on the everyday lives of refugees and those who served in the war. It is a pleasure to follow this because of the narrative’s linguistic and formal accomplishment. And it’s fitting that Robert Prosser and his novel Phantome, which shows more than just commitment, made it onto the long list for the German Book Prize 2017.
By Markus Köhle
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
Robert Prosser, Phantome. Ullstein fünf (2017)