Let go of the Rabbit (Lana Bastašić, Catch the Rabbit)
Written by: Milena Ilić Mladenović
Translated by: Lena Ninković
“The telephone was getting warmer in my clenched fist. Bosnia. Leila. It wasn’t like a two weeks’ holiday after which you come home and lie into bed with Michael. It was like returning to the heroin use. I had already stained myself with my mother tongue.”
Catch the Rabbit is the first novel by Lana Bastašić in which the author, as she says, tried to depict the life of the heroine from her childhood to adulthood. Critics hold general opinion that Lana is “the Balkan Elena Ferrante”, and this opinion not only hints at the story of a complex friendship, but also at the fact that it is possible to create a high-quality work of literature that would have a wider (bestselling) span. Sara and Leila have known each other their whole lives; they shared the students’ desk since their first day of school; they lost their virginity under the same tree on the same day; they studied literature together; and finally, not having heard from each other for twelve years, they go on a trip together. Sara lives in Ireland, but after Leila’s call, their trip to Vienna becomes inevitable.The reason for this, as Leila says, is that her elder brother Armin who was lost during the war is there. In Catch the Rabbit, the theme of war is filtered through and depicted from the perspective of the heroine who, technically, didn’t even feel all the horrors of the war. We are unable to hear Leila’s voice, even though she suffered a lot more; we hear her as much as the narrator wants us to, so we have to gather and assemble the pieces by ourselves. Sara will reluctantly accept the utter darkness on their way through Bosnia, but she won’t dwell much on it. Leila, on the other hand, has been living in this darkness for years.
While reading Catch the Rabbit, we don’t fear clumsy ending that could make a mess of everything good that was previously written. On the contrary, the novel has extraordinary composition –the author conscientiously develops the structure without adding or subtracting anything unnecessary. There is no place for impatience – either the author’s or the reader’s, despite the fact that we are placed in medias res and that we stumble upon the climax of the plot at the very beginning. Still, we are not in the hurry. We enjoy it. We immerse ourselves in it. Images progress in a sequence, sometimes unexpectedly and in non-linear manner. It is clear that the author took upon herself a difficult task – both at the level of form and content – and conscientiously completed it. The readers have a slightly less demanding task; even though the narrative flows and photographically lodges itself into our consciousness, Lana Bastasic expects us to follow (and remember) all the details, since every detail has its place, and every bullet will fire when needed. And where needed.
We started from the end. Now let’s return to the beginning. Or to what preceded it. It’s a quote from Alice in Wonderland in which Alice says that she cannot talk about her adventures that preceded that morning,and adds: “It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” Let’s assume both heroines might say this. Let’s begin from Sara. When does her change begin? Is it at the moment of Leila’s call? No, her change stems from further into the past – the first time she spotted Leila on their first day of school. Leila – who hypnotizes her with her look and doesn’t let her relent to the collective cry of the children separating from their mothers and going to classes. “I haven’t even met you, and yet, I feel as if you changed me into something different, a better version of myself. I’ll have to pretend to be a girl which doesn’t cry, as long as you and this school are here.” And so we see Sara – “divided”, or whole-heartedly surrendered to a different version of the world – the cruel world, not the colorful one in which she would aim to fulfill her mother’s dream of “the little girl in a pink dress.” It is only later in the story that we see Sara going through this change on her first day of school which is depicted in retrospection. What comes after (or before – in the syuzhet) is Sara who is more or less the same. Or she would like to be. When Leila is absent, she may look away and start crying. Which, of course, isn’t a bad thing, but we cannot overlook the mystical power of the “queen of darkness” who managed – with just one look, to determine a great part of Sara’s personality as we come to know it in the story.
Although, on one hand, there is a first person narrative – already manipulative in itself, there is also another instance of manipulation in the text, which we find out through the narrator.Even though Leila is the one to whom and about whom it is being written, she dominates the novel in various ways.he is capable of taking away somebody’s “mother tongue in two seconds”, she twists within the text itself; she is “subtly violent”, “untameably careless”, “the queen of darkness”, “a lethal virus”. Leila will give a call to Sara after twelve years. Everything stops. The streets become different; Sara looks at her living room as Leila would; her long-time boyfriend Michael becomes somebody else as he is being seen through Leila’s eyes. Their mother tongue is awakened with one call like a beast that has slept in a dark cave for a long time. Sara is forced to recall that language, she feels filthier and knows there is no turning back. Although she believes she is contaminating Dublin’s air with a foreign language whose words wiggle and catch on to her trench coat like burdock burrs, Sara chooses to continue further into uncertainty, into the same thing she has once (seemingly successfully) escaped from.
What did she escape from? From Leila. Bosnia. Their mother tongue. However, many years she has spent in Ireland failed to lessen their presence in Sara’s life. We are always in Bosnia. We carry our homeland with us – or, at least, some part of that darkness. Impenetrable darkness spreads throughout Bosnia, but Sara drinks her black Bosnian coffee without any feeling of distance between the grains passing through the filters and herself waiting for them on the other side. She needs a new skin for Bosnia, something like a uniform to pass through all this darkness. Yet again, right in this darkness, in these catacombs in Jajce, she feels peaceful, she can be what she really is in this place – where there is only her, Leila, and the underworld. Home.
Just as she carries Bosnia and her mother tongue, Sara also carries Leila buried deep within herself. Sara will say: “I brought along tiny pieces of Leila, the tiny insects that slipped into my bag, my pockets, under my trousers, and which hid their true nature in front of Michael.” Sara will try to reach Leila’s perfect carelessness; she will use Leila’s phrases; she will rotate her wrists the same way Leila does completely unconsciously (or quite consciously). Through Sara, Michael will fall in love with these trivialities, with these little details which most remind of Leila. Thanks to Sara, Leila got a Michael whom she never even met.
Similarly, Sara will try to get Armin through Leila. Armin is Leila’s elder brother – the one who is depicted through absence. The one whose absence strengthens the relationship between Sara and Leila, making it more complex and connected. The idea of Armin who is to return some day is woven into this relationship. The idea of Armin who is alive, not a mere memory. This is why they have to stay together, to foster their friendship until he shows up. “It was as if his whole life was woven into the material our friendship was made up of. He was no longer anywhere else but here.” It was logical that the link between them would break the moment one of them says that Armin was no longer alive; as it was expected that the connection would be re-established with the idea of Armin who was in Vienna – which leads them to follow an unpromising path to the promised Vienna.
Leila departs in order to look for her brother. But whom is Sara looking for? The idea of a young man she was once in love with? Was it love? Or did she see in him the ideal version of Leila? The gentle one and the less wild? The one she could accept and understand?
There is an interesting scene at Leila’s seventh birthday when Armin and Sara talk to each other while playing a game of summoning spirits. In this darkness,there is Leila– “the queen of darkness” and a connection with the other-worldly and unfathomable – summoning the spirits, while Armin invokes Sara’s spirit to materialize so as to turn her into a person. He asks her questions from their friendship book and it seems like she comes into being while answering them. She is formed. “I am a person. Someone who has a favorite book and tree. Who has a favorite form – good, not bad. I was filled in by those answers like a blank house in a coloring book. Since then, she would always look for something favorite in everything so as be ready for Armin. To prove herself to him. This is why Armin is important and has his formative role, maybe even more than Leila. He is a purified version of his sister, an ideal guy, both island and treasure, incomprehensible and unreachable. This is exactly why the only ideal setting, the only possible locus amoenus is in Armin and Leila’s backyard – the scene where Armin and Leila are so close to each other that she can feel the fresh smell of his washed shirt. He lets her hair down because it looks a little better, and she is being reborn again, like Venus. Leila interrupts the moment with her arrival,shouting they are Adam and Eve and, ironically emphasizing the idyllic atmosphere, breaks the illusion. However, Sara believes this memory is important and she will always evoke it; and, interestingly enough, Leila will be there every time.
Compared with this idyllic part there is no scene by the lake in Austria that might lead us to a wrong impression that there would be bucolic setting; there is, however, the scene in the dark – an image of Sara’s old garden that she will stop by while passing through Banja Luka. On that occasion, standing in the rose bed, she will observe her disabled mother who will – like the Red Queen, hysterically and powerless lyre quire cutting off fish’s heads for the fish soup. This image is the proof that everything that used to represent home has finally become a lost idea. She will cry long after that. She was looking for a proof that something used to exist there, as Leila looked for that proof in the AVNOJ Museum.
The garden symbolizes the whole world. The museum, too. Paradise and Paradise Lost? Is she looking for another paradise to regain? Highly unlikely. Nevertheless, Leila isn’t present in Sara’s heavenly visions. But where is she present?
We mentioned at the beginning that there is a first person narration in the story. This is not quite right since there is another retrospective narrative flow in the chapters following the square brackets, and it is directed towards the second person. In any case, Sara is the narrator. Indeed, she directly addresses Leila and thus creates an illusion that this second person is equally responsible for the depiction. However, Sara is aware that she may use this superiority over Leila – she could kill her with a full stop (of course, she doesn’t do that, and the novel doesn’t even end with a full stop), but she is also superior over the readers and has the power to leave something out. Or to narrate it differently. Leila will ask her why she stole Bunny, even though Sara will describe it as Leila’s wish; Sara will always remember the floral dress of Leila’s mum on their first day of school, although Leila will try to deny it. After the incident on the island, Sara will turn to writing in hope that some of her published texts might reach Leila. She believes that Leila absolutely ignores her literary life, even though somewhere before the ending of the novel, the readers will see that this is not really true –Leila will actually make it clear that she has read the novel in which the protagonist reminds her of Armin. After burying Bunny, we know that Leila swore at Sara and chased her away; however, at one moment, Leila will ask Sara why she left the way she did and claim that she never drove her away. The way Sara depicts events may be true, but it is obvious that this is an instance of unreliable narration, which makes the story even more interesting and leaves us wondering what Leila would say if she were allowed to speak.
Leila speaks through dialogues. She speaks through silence. Through her bruises. Through many packs of condoms in her bag. She speaks while laughing loudly in situations where somebody else might cry. She speaks with a piercing look in situations where any other person might look down. She speaks as if giving somebody a slap in the face. She speaks through her excessive makeup, her blue contact lenses, her bleached hair. She speaks like a war-torn country. She speaks through her wish to visit the Museum of the Second AVNOJ Session so as to find the evidence she needs. In the moments when she is about to make a point about something important, although she doesn’t like making a point, she speaks in a calm voice: “You find this funny. You think people can choose everything in life. Just because you spent your whole life choosing everything. I have a fucking flip phone because it is the only one I could afford. And I work as a fucking waitress because it is the only job I could find. And now I’m here because it seemed like the only option left. So, if you are uncomfortable, or bored, or angry… I’m honestly sorry. But I don’t intend to act like a sophisticated little European lady just because you obviously forgot who I am.”
This is a crucial line for understanding their not-so-equal relationship. Has Sara forgotten who Leila is? Can she really understand her (and know her) from her privileged position?
We’ve seen the way Sara perceives Leila – as an untamable energy always ahead of her; as her hero and, in the same time, anti-hero; as somebody whom she both admires but also wishes to get rid of. Sara will admit that Leila is irreducible, she “twists and turns within the text”, and “expands indefinitely”. Sara will disapprove of the fact that Leila dyed her hair blonde, that she wears blue contact lenses, maybe even that she changed her name (she will, of course, never say it, but she will never call her Lela Berić; she will always be Leila Begić to her). Let’s return to the quote from Alice in Wonderland. When do Leila’s changes begin?
First change: War. She changes her name. Name doesn’t mean much in war. It didn’t help her brother when he became Marko Berić. Thus Leila can be Lela, Leja, Lili, Lulu, Lala, and Lo. It is absolutely irrelevant in relation to who she actually is. The same goes for Bosnia. We can call it any way we want.
Second change: Armin’s disappearance. At that moment, Leila doesn’t truly change – she merges his personality with hers, she absorbs him – listens to his music, makes the bed the way he did. She hangs the big mirror onto the wall as some kind of hope that Armin is on the other side. She refuses to wear black. She makes a silent pact with Sara – they believe and know that Armin cunningly left and that he is somewhere safe.
Third change: The island. This may be the crucial change Leila undergoes. Throughout the novel there will be constant hints at the events on the island. The following sentence will change their relationship: “I was scared to death, Leila… first Armin, and now you.” It is very clear what Sara meant to imply with this after Leila pretended to have drowned. She’ll get a slap and also a much more serious blow – at that moment their friendship will break. The unbreakable link is cut. The braid is let loose – the factor that connected them is gone, and there is no other way for them to reconnect. Later on, Leila will dye her hair, become promiscuous; she will become somebody else. Sara finds this painful, but painful in relation to herself; although she protects Leila in other ways (she scrapes off the vulgar inscription in the school toilet, etc.), she doesn’t really try to protect her and win her back.
Hence, on their road trip, Sara will clearly keep quiet about the bruises she notices on Leila’s face. It will be enough for her to rely on her “right to silence.” She won’t talk about it anymore even though it’s possible that Leila is married to a violent man, and that this trip is actually her only way out of it. Sara will only selfishly want to drive so as to reach Armin – this idea of a man who once created her by asking her about her favorite color. And who showed her another Sara when he let her hair down. Sara still searches for the pieces of her identity and believes Armin will help her put them together. At the same time Leila knows something more, she has a goal – in some way similar to Sara’s. But she is the one being superiorly silent. She knows that, in Sara’s eyes, she is not just Leila anymore. “Sara was both Armin and Vienna, and that’s the end of the story.”
Leila is Bosnia. She’s also Bunny. Maybe even more than she’s Armin. It is clear that the rabbit symbolizes irreducibility, constant regeneration, and with it – chaos. Leila is the rabbit that keeps slipping away;not Bunny stolen at the market from Mr. Kraljević; not Dürer’s young hare that Armin and Leila will touch through the glass. Sara needs Leila to remind her that “chaos is the natural state of this world; our lives – which revolve around the effort to bring order into all that chaos – are in fact nothing else but a reflection of immense arrogance.” By the last chapter, Sara will realize and accept this. And it will be the best change she’ll ever experience.
This is why we will finish the novel by reading:
I only wanted us to start from the beginning
The first part of the sentence represents the end of the novel Catch the Rabbit. The second part is the beginning of it. It is as if Leila utters the first part from the other side of the window. Sara begins the narrative with the second part. Thus the whole is completed, and yet, when we reach the end – we are at the beginning again and we remain standing as silent witnesses of an irreducible, complex relationship between these two heroines. We let the rabbit run and read the novel from the beginning.
Milena Ilić Mladenović: Born in 1986. Graduated from and completed her master’s studies at the Department for General Literature and Literature Theory at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade. Writes short stories and long poems, incompetent essays, and competent recipes. Records stories of her sons.
Translator, Lena Ninković: Graduated from the Department of English language studies at the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Philology. In her free time, when she’s not busy contemplating life, she writes poetry, plays the piano, and reads books. She is interested in linguistics, literature, gender studies, and translation.
Translation edited by Dejan Mujanović
This article was published in March of 2019, within the Awakening topic.
Read the other texts published in the Book Review section.
This article was originally published in Serbian and you can read it here. Translated into English by Lena Ninković.