Review of Shubigi Rao’s Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography of the Banished Book (Singapore: Rock Paper Fire, 2018)
by Diane Josefowicz
In July 1995, in the north-east corner of the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina, eight thousand Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslim) men were rounded up and executed by Serbian irredentists. As news of the massacre dispersed, diffused outrage coalesced into sharp condemnation, and the event was eventually ruled a genocide. But Srebrenica was not the first atrocity of the Bosnian War. In the preceding three and a half years, Serbian forces had attacked noncombatants by means of mass rape, human shields, concentration camps, and the destruction of cultural sites.
Starting in the winter of 1992, the Serbians shelled Sarajevo, the ethnically mixed city in the heart of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Among the targets of the shelling was Sarajevo’s municipal library. Established in 1945, the library was housed in the iconic Vijećnica building, identifiable at a glance thanks to its striking Moorish-revival architecture. Eighty percent of the library’s holdings—nearly four million volumes, including many Islamic texts—were lost in the bombardment. The phosphorous shells burned so fiercely they melted the lead in the building’s masonry and filled the sky with blackened leaves of books. What the Srebrenica massacre literalized with the bodies of human beings, the destruction of the Vijećnica library accomplished in symbolic form.
In Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography of the Banished Book, the writer, artist, and filmmaker Shubigi Rao reacquaints us with the history of destruction of the Vijećnica library. Pulp II is the second volume of a projected five dedicated to the history of book destruction, which Rao calls “libricide.” The first volume in the series, reviewed here, was an overview of libricide in history and an erudite work of mourning for the loss of a beloved childhood library. With this new volume, Rao sets her loss of that private childhood library in another context, widening her lens in order to suggest “[t]he ugly truth of what it means to destroy and unhome a public library” (my emphasis). With these two volumes, Rao suggests that our attitudes toward books can be deeply self-serving and even destructive. If we cannot do without libraries, public or private, as places to store traces of our existence, it also seems that we cannot avoid destroying them when they contain traces of existences we value less than our own.
Pulp II consists of a brief introduction followed by interviews with scholars, librarians, and others involved with the loss and rebuilding of Sarajevo’s library. A section titled “An Imprecise Indexical” presents reproductions of card-sized, Rorschach-like images, some as simple as a stroke of paint. The more calligraphic of these evoked, for me, the Arabic typography appearing in photographs scattered throughout the book. A final section, consisting of reflections and bibliographic material, rounds out the work. Rao accompanies her textual material with sensitive photographic portraits of her interview subjects and their books. Although Rao’s paintings in the section “Imprecise Indexical” at first mystified me, I came to see the section as a poignant attempt to grieve the loss of the library on its own terms. The card-sized paintings recalled, for me, the blackened pages falling over Sarajevo as its library burned.
As moving as I found the “Indexical,” the interviews really are the heart of the book. Each of Rao’s interviewees played a role in efforts to save or reconstruct Sarajevo’s library, and Rao has elicited their first-hand accounts of these experiences. Among Rao’s informants is the poet Goran Simić. After the first night of shelling, he commandeered a military van and organized a group of friends to retrieve books from the burning library, which they did despite thick smoke and bursts of sniper fire. According to Simić, they saved more than a million books and successfully hid them through the rest of the war. “You can replace buildings, you can build new bridges,” Simić reflects, “but with the library, it’s like they tried to kill the memory of Bosnia, of Yugoslavia, of the world. When you burn books, it’s like you try to kill the imagination of the world.”
As a symbol, the library can attract both reverence and hatred. Early on, Rao makes the disturbing yet disarmingly simple observation that “Libraries have made easy targets throughout history.” This is true but not complete. Libraries are not only easy targets but also distinctly attractive ones. After all, public libraries gather material traces of a collective identity in a single place. Wipe that out, and the documentary buttresses for that identity disappear. But as stories of the slow reconstitution of the Vijenića library demonstrate, the library is more than just a symbol. So long as it exists, a library lives inside the minds of those who care for, use, and enjoy it.
Rao makes this point indirectly, by elaborating on the present fate of the Vijećnica library’s rescued books. Although the building has been reconstructed, the rescued books remain apart, stored in distant stables. According to one of Rao’s informants, the city council is blocking movement on this front by continuing to occupy the building. Until this snafu is cleared up, the library’s financing and governance remain in limbo. A lawsuit is pending, and so Sarajevo waits. Meanwhile, the stables are crumbling, the books are stacked beneath drainage pipes, and the library’s defenders are fighting to realize a fragile dream of restoration. Despite the solid reality of the rebuilt Vijećnica structure, the library’s situation could not be more precarious.
Alone with the books, Rao senses the difference between the library as a mere symbol, easily attacked and destroyed, and the library as a repository of vital labor, the enduring product of a community. “All the exertion of so many—scribes, writers, poets, printers, students, scholars, smugglers, librarians, translators, and all those who had loved and read these books, gathered in the library’s reading room, all those histories, connections, serendipitous discoveries, experiences, lives, and memories—all gone,” she writes. “To stand in those decrepit stables, was to be as far from the glorious Moorish edifice of Vijećnica as you could imagine. And yet it was here, in this unloved building that had housed the refugees of that lost library for the last twenty years, where I was hit by the immeasurable magnitude of collective loss.” Working through the loss of her family’s library, the indefatigable Rao has ventured into the larger world to produce a moving and impressive memorial to another, similarly terrible loss.
Images used by the kind permission of author. All rights reserved.
Diane Josefowicz's writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Fence, Dame Magazine, and Necessary Fiction. She lives in Providence, RI, with her family.