Fax from Sarajevo

By Josephine Berry, 10 January 1997

A strip cartoon account of the seige of Sarajevo

John Kubert's book Fax from Sarajevo is not just an account of the plight of one family during the siege of Sarajevo drawn as a strip cartoon, it is also a polemic on communication technology - its liberating and frustrating potentials. John Kubert's recent publication is drawn (in both senses) from the faxes sent to him by his close friend and fellow cartoonist Ervin Rustemagic whilst trapped in Sarajevo for 12 months between March 1992 and May 1993 with his wife and two children. During this heinous time faxes provided him with a life-line to the outside world; to both friends and people in positions of power. They functioned both as a conduit for information and a therapeutic instrument, a means of providing hope and preserving sanity whilst living through the unrecognisable reality of war.

The absence of reality is a crucial point both in terms of what was experienced by Rustemagic and when addressing the implications of war's representation in cartoon form. On first picking up this book one feels instinctively uncomfortable with the idea that the raw experience of civil war is being converted into a medium traditionally associated with entertainment and fiction. It is true that this observation could equally well be applied to literature, but the comic's traditional relationship with childhood, fantasy and pleasure is a far more exclusive one. At first glance there seems to be something distinctly distasteful about seeing real human tragedy turned into the clichéd forms usually reserved for super heroes and mice in hot pants. But, in spite of Kubert's conventional drawing technique, or perhaps because of it, the book creates a very moving account of war; its total dislocation from reality, achieved by the use of conventional comic book tropes, is befitting of the 'surreal' quality of war. In the comic Rustemagic, a cartoonist himself, is portrayed as becoming unable to distinguish between reality and cartoon fiction during one particularly hair-raising episode of his long struggle to get his family out of Bosnia. During his drive along 'the Gauntlet', a road running between Dobrinja and Sarajevo under constant artillery fire from the Serbs and only partially barricaded by abandoned trucks, Rustemagic mutters, 'I have become a comic-book character. Maybe...I am Superman!' This comment allows for the full resonance of the books formal means to sink in; war's own positioning on the threshold between reality and its disintegration in tandem with the book's intermittent inclusion of reality fragments in the form of Rustemagic's faxes creates a constant alternation between fact and fiction, experience and its conversion into narrative, and fiction's own influence on 'real time' events unfolding as history.

The story of Rustemagic and his family's attempts to survive the incessant attacks by the Serbs and secure their escape from Sarajevo is broken down into bite size episodes, each accompanied by copies of the faxes that Kubert received from Rustemagic. This device creates a beautifully stark schema for experiencing both the first person, 'straight from the horses mouth' account and witnessing its rewriting; its conversion into history. The friction generated by this dual narrative technique forms the centre of the book's appeal. One's eye is constantly arrested during its cursory fight across the drawn sequences by the insertion of faxed material. However closely these drawn sequences have been based on historical fa(x)t their heavy reliance on the (often flagging) imaginative powers of the author and their flatness of tone are off-set by the faxes' subjective narrative and breadth of emotional range. Interestingly, the author's own role in Rustemagic's plight (as friend, recipient of faxes and representative of the external world) is highlighted in the Rustemagic's shifting emotional relationship to him. The faxes express by turns his gratitude and sarcastic frustration towards the concerned group of international friends with whom he remains painstakingly in touch. At a particularly dark point, after having been hugely let down by a French minister who had confidently assured Rustemagic and his family of safe passage out of Sarajevo and then typically reneged on this promise, he comments, 'And that embrace was only part of a show...Nothing else but a circus show! Anyway, I find it useless and ridiculous now wasting time and satellite faxes in discussing it over and over.' In contrast to the cartoon's uniformly urgent tone, the faxes provide a sense of the inevitable fluctuations of Rustemagic's mood, the heights of optimism and pits of despair.

The fax as such also serves to emphasise the unbreachable gap between the experiences of those inside and those outside the siege; its ability to skip between the two spheres mocking the restricted mobility of the Bosnian civilians. This very ease (albeit contingent) with which the fax moves between geographical zones renders it a site of longing, of hope and of resentment. What at times provides a window of hope at other times becomes a symbol for the impotence of the besieged individual's position. Its dependence on an at best erratic electricity supply and on the machinery itself (which is constantly threatened by bombings, confiscations etc.) and perhaps most importantly its tendency to be ignored, crumpled up and tossed in the trash lead to its functioning as a symbol for Rustemagic's dependence on the whimsical decisions and actions of others.

Despite Fax from Sarajevo's provision of a provocative and open-ended discourse on the personal experience of war, its conversion into history and historical representation as such, one can't help feeling that Joe Kubert's own powers of imagination and empathy are at times sorely wanting. Although this interpretative lack is compensated for by his inclusion of the amazingly affecting 'source material', one could at times do without Kubert's attempts at soliloquising the insanity of war. In response to what was almost certainly a real incident in which a Bosnian was shot dead by Serbs while attempting to grab some cigarettes from a UN aid consignment, Rustemagic is pictured in acute close-up, his hands clutching at his temples in desperation with a speech bubble that reads: 'His life...was worth no more...than a cigarette. Who would believe it if they did not see it themselves?' and in the adjacent bubble he resolves: 'I need to get my family out. I will do anything to get them out...Anything!' At moments like this I found myself laughing out loud at the trivialising crassness of Kubert's depiction, but equally found the tone sickly appropriate to the cruel triviality of the incident that occasioned it. If war is beyond the scope of representation, then representation itself cannot be held responsible for this impossibility - any attempt at verisimilitude would be pointless. Fax from Sarajevo avoids such an error and in this respect succeeds; the results do not satisfy but why should they?

Joe Kubert // Fax from Sarajevo // Dark Horse Comics, Inc // 1996

Josephine Berry <josie AT>