Saturday, November 3, 2012

Guest Post: The Monkey House, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and Writing on War by Kim Willington

Kim Willington, a freelance writer, stopped by to share with us a piece she wrote.

The Monkey House, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and Writing on War

by Kim Willington

I won’t mince words: I’ve never quite understood the Balkans. Nations’ names seemed to change with every geography test I was given in school and various ethnic designations and divisions that were, in my insular circumstances, irrelevant and unknown had me tongue-tied. Vague recollections of my conservative father commenting on radio show hosts’ commentary on the Bosnian War are all I had to go on for an embarrassingly long time.

That began to change when I picked up a copy of John Fullerton’s The Monkey House from the public library (a pitifully deserted place compared to the nearby Barnes and Noble, but that’s a rant for another time).

Superficially, Fullerton’s book is a detective story set in war-torn Sarajevo. The tormented “good guy” cop, Rosso, finds a police informant drowned in a building which rarely has running water. His wife cowers from the conflict and clings to the bottle instead, while their goddaughter runs with a damaged and dangerous warlord (who also happens to be the only defense the city has in light of Rosso’s understaffed police force).

But The Monkey House is more than the sum of its parts. It is a delicate if simply worded composition with subtle shades of gray. Rosso is a Croat. His wife is Serbian. Tanja, their goddaughter, is Muslim and fights alongside Croat thugs while Serbian mortar and artillery fire sing the citizens to sleep at night. What is one more murder in light of war?

Those of us who’ve seen Angelina Jolie’s directorial and screenwriting debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, have a vague understanding of at least some of the ethnic tension of the Balkans in the ‘90s. While the beautifully understated film tells a tragic tale needing telling, it does so while neglecting to depict the atrocities committed by all factions of the war.  Mujahideen fighting in Bosnia against the Serbs mutilated and massacred Croats in various villages. Croats slaughtered women, children, and the elderly in Ahmici.

In Jolie’s defense, this simply wasn’t their movie; it was a movie for the innumerous women sexually abused and murdered in war. But it’s undeniable that Blood and Honey has an agenda, however justified it may be.

But that’s the remarkable thing about Fullerton’s work. As a former Reuters correspondent, Fullerton saw the madness of Sarajevo himself, but rather than trying to make sense of the war through his own gospel, he simply puts the reader on street level in a harsh Sarajevan winter, where children and stray dogs know better how to dodge sniper fire than do U.N. personnel and American journalists. There is no moral point to be made, no victim to swathe in a multi-national blanket of pity or shame. There is no black and white, no heroes in shining armor to expel the dark forces of evil from a blameless citizenry. In Sarajevo, decency took a backseat to survival.

That’s really all war is to everyone not holding a pamphlet.

The problem then rises for those holding guns or, the arguably more powerful weapon, the clich├ęd pen. Writing on modern war is nearly always personal. Some of my favorite books on war aren’t told from a single author at all, but from real people—citizens, soldiers, politicians, widows—who shamefully admit what they did to survive. Japan at War: an Oral History by Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook and Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker are two favorites worth a glance.

The challenge for readers is to pick up books on war with an open mind, to vow to ourselves that if we don’t read a book from the opposite perspective to at least remember—in moments when we bark half-baked factoids gleaned from selective sources—that, somewhere out there on a dusty shelf in the library or in an obscure link on the all-knowing Web, there’s another story to be told.

About the author:

Kim Willington is a freelance writer and researcher for, where she has recently been researching free help desk software. In her spare time, she enjoys antiquing and taking long walks with her retriever, Spencer.


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