IT ALL BEGINS with a call. Sara is living a happy life in Dublin, Ireland, or a good enough semblance of one, when her childhood friend Lejla phones to ask for help. Lejla’s older brother Armin, missing for years, has now turned up in Vienna, Austria, and Lejla wants Sara to drive her there. Bosnia is not much of a draw for the émigré Sara. She has abandoned her language and her family, finding some measure of comfort in the civilized blandness of Western Europe: an Irish boyfriend who spends all day dribbling crumbs over his computer, an unthreatening nudist neighbor, a pet avocado plant that grew almost by accident. When Lejla calls again, the formula demands that Sara will answer. Despite her desire to escape Bosnia’s traumatic past and her own family’s complicity in it, the pull on her is too strong to refuse.
Lana Bastašić’s road trip novel Catch the Rabbit, originally published in Serbo-Croatian as Uhvati zeca (2018), won the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature and is now available in a generally capable English translation by the author. The book is billed as a cross between Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (2011–’14), and indeed, Catch the Rabbit is a sensitively traced story of female friendship that recalls the troubled bond of Lenù and Lila in Ferrante’s novels. Lejla, like her namesake Lila, is cool, chimeric, and charismatic, an independent soul trapped by her economic circumstances and the brutal history of her region. Sara is ostensibly the good girl, whose education allows her to escape and ultimately write the story of their friendship. Their rabbit hole is a Bosnia filled with empty tea parties, erotic quadrilles, imperious queens, and quite a few actual Leporidae.
Writing in Vienna after their adventure is apparently over, Sara juxtaposes the linear quest to find Armin with scattered memories of her friendship with Lejla. The novel is a letter to and about Lejla, a composition that seems to be at once an act of love, a complaint, and the fulfillment of a promise. Sara recalls a friendship so close, so achingly erotic, that at times it is not clear where one young woman begins and the other ends. There are small intimacies, moments of comfort and envy, decades of wordless messages communicated through mere looks. As schoolgirls, they complete one another’s homework, Lejla covering math and Sara writing compositions in Serbian, each changing their handwriting as necessary: “I imagined I was you as I wrote[.] […] It was during those rare, precious moments that your story really belonged to me and my pencil alone.” On the evening of their high school graduation, the friends orchestrate the simultaneous loss of their virginities to two awkward but convenient teenage boys on a riverbank. It is one of many games that test the borders dividing them.
To the rest of the world, Lejla has not existed for years. When she was 11, her Muslim Bosnian parents changed their surname and their children’s given names to Orthodox-sounding ones. Armin Begić became Marko Berić, and carried that name into his mysterious disappearance. Lejla became Lela. To Sara, “Lela” remains a mask, a snake, an intruder she thinks Lejla must be trying to destroy through her increasingly reckless life. But often enough, it is Sara who longs to unravel the person Lejla has become: “[S]ometimes I imagine that I’m ripping her skin off[.] […] I’m sitting on top of her, tearing her face off in vain. There’s always a new one underneath.”
For all its similarities to the work of Ferrante and Carroll, Catch the Rabbit is threaded through with ominous hints and a sense of disintegrating reality that recall, if anything, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962). Sara’s attachment to her friend has a Kinbotean quality: she wants to understand Lejla, become her, and annihilate her all at once. Bastašić develops this undercurrent masterfully, exploiting the double sense of lines that seem casual at first sight. When Lejla forces their car to swerve into a cornfield because she needs to pee, an injured and scared Sara wanders through the field alone: “Where had she gone? Perhaps if I laughed out loud, showed her I got the joke, no hard feelings. Completely normal. Then I could murder her later.” The reader begins to wonder where the joke begins and where it ends.
The pleasure of Catch the Rabbit lies in the way Bastašić fuses delicate scenes from a passionate friendship between girls with surreal elements that convey unspoken pains and tender aggressions. As in the best examples of magical realism, the unreal feels true here. This is partly due to the intrinsic mystery of any human relationship: Sara’s attempts to pierce through her friend’s many faces will feel familiar to anyone who has recognized how little we know about those closest to us. But the effect is also due to the unsettling experience of living through traumatic historical events. Bosnia is this novel’s Zembla, a kingdom undone by war, a lost paradise that never existed.
Driving through Bosnia, Sara is surprised by a black fog that settles over the country, making it impossible for her to see the road. Sara’s narrative carefully skirts around the 1992–’95 war, but like the murkiness that covers Bosnia, the conflict is inescapable: “That darkness I could almost touch in Banja Luka, taste its fibers on my tongue — once it enters your bloodstream and spreads to your lungs, liver, brain, you can never be clean again.” If Sara cannot forget history, it is not for lack of trying. She has abandoned her language “like one would a violent husband,” refused to attend the funeral of her hateful police chief father, and broken contact with her cold, controlling mother with the Cheshire-cat smile. “[I]t was so easy to leave,” she writes, “pronounce my own name differently, pretend that somewhere far away, in the dark heart of Europe, you didn’t exist.” Lejla must be forgotten too, for it is Lejla who calls her back, insisting she face the past — and herself.
A road trip is the quintessential hero’s journey. Bastašić deliberately hits the marks one might expect if one has read Joseph Campbell on the monomyth, or watched any contemporary Hollywood movie. Dwelling unremarkably in the ordinary world of Dublin, Sara is called to adventure, refuses the call, then finally heeds it. The thresholds in this novel are literal and wry: at Zagreb, Croatia, “the airport sign reads Welcome to Europe, in case someone forgot.” Adventures of this type confront their heroes with tests, supply them with allies and enemies. Lejla plays both of these roles for Sara. Crises follow in the appropriate places, and, true to the template, Bastašić even produces a horrific “meeting with the goddess,” a scene in which she discovers the grotesque monster her mother has become.
But the hero’s journey was traditionally just that, a narrative arc for great men. Catch the Rabbit is a story about women, and the masculine pattern does not suit. Despite all the clues that the story is hurtling toward a revelation — an atonement, an apotheosis, some elixir that will heal the heroines’ shattered home, the great orgasmic conclusion — Catch the Rabbit moves in circles. This is clear from the first line, which begins mid-phrase, completing the book’s final sentence. The novel is a loop, but so are Sara’s memories, which obsessively return to evocative images from her friendship with Lejla: the burial of their white rabbit, their first sexual intercourse on the riverbank, Lejla’s magnetic “black hair floating on the surface of the Adriatic” during the vacation that split them forever.
Sara’s compulsive repetition of the past is traumatic, but not only personal. Driving fast toward Vienna, she muses on the way her home country follows its own rules of time and space:
There’s no finish line in Bosnia, all roads seem to be equally languid and pointless; they lead you in circles even when it looks like you’re making progress. Driving through Bosnia requires a different dimension: a twisted, cosmic wormhole that doesn’t take you to a real, external goal, but into the gloomy, barely traversable depths of your own being.
Pulled by Lejla back to the Balkans, a skewed Wonderland where the dreamer never wakes up, Sara is forced to recall other secrets: her father’s refusal to help in the search for Armin, or her own propensity for thoughtless violence. In a memorable scene that takes place when Sara is eight, a group of schoolboys finds a baby sparrow with a broken wing. They toss the fragile animal around until it is half dead, then hesitate to take the next obvious step. Lejla wants to leave, but Sara “longed to stay, to be part of the gang.” She crushes the bird with her boot.
The horror in this novel percolates in a slow drip. Most of the time Sara (and Bastašić) shy away from confronting it directly. Catch the Rabbit is a funny story, fast and gripping despite its diversions, filled with observations of Bosnian society that are both tender and incisive. In this carefully crafted labyrinth, Bastašić even manages to weave a thread of hope, though one unsullied by idealism. Sara lacks the mentor so many heroes have, but late in the day, the Slavic trickster Baba Yaga makes a cameo appearance, a witty nod to the strong women of local folklore and the work of Dubravka Ugrešić. She gives Sara a magnifying glass, a useful tool for a writer.
Lana Bastašić seems to suggest that fairy tales — and, more broadly, literature — provide guidance for living with an unbearable reality without being oblivious to it. This difficult art is encapsulated in a dream Lejla has near the end of the book, in which she falls down the toilet and finds a cheerful party in the sewers — a Bosnian version of Alice’s Pool of Tears: “[T]hey were all having a good time[.] […] You know, well-dressed, suited up. And shit was floating all around us. And no one seemed bothered.”