A wet dog. A rainy city square. A moment grabbed from life, a trigger for imagination.
A bit of back-story on this pic: The wet pooch is a homeless dog in Sarajevo, 2011. Sarajevo and many other Bosnian towns have a large resident street-dog population. Most of these creatures are tan-to-taupe, conforming to a local shaggy mutt look and body type. Black dogs are rare.
This soggy guy (in the uncropped pic he’s clearly a boy) was not zoomed in on. I saw him, he stirred me, and I crouched and took a few shots. His indifference to me was supreme. Still, something is going on behind those eyes. We can only imagine what it is.
A big black dog comes with associations: danger, feral aggression, primal fear. Ian McEwan wrote a good novel about the figurative black dogs of war and depression.
Dogs, like us, can be scary beasts or loving friends. And, like people (Rene Descartes be damned), dogs suffer and hope for comfort. Which brings me back to Sarajevo.
Fiction for me is primarily about bridging worlds. Raymond Carver said it: “Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another.” My favourite novels are the ones that link my self to other selves that in real life I would otherwise have no connection to. I want fiction to take me out of my self, put me into worlds I’ve not inhabited. I don’t mean SF/fantasy-type worlds, but simply earthly coordinates and human situations that are not normally within my experience.
Of the two novels I’ve completed (the second now with my agent, seeking a contract), both divide their main story/setting between Canada and the territory of what used to be Yugoslavia. I’m hooked on the human face(s) and recurring fierce turmoil of that corner of Europe, in part because I’m the creator of my own connection to it. Over the past 20 years I’ve visited often. It has become a large part of both my imagined world and my real world. I’ve come to know the people there, especially Sarajevans, and people from there who now happen to live in my hometown, Toronto.
Further down this page, you can find an excerpt from my first novel, Drina Bridge. Researching it and writing it was a process of immersion in a place and its history. Perhaps the best moment was at a reading I did from the manuscript in Toronto. The evening was hosted by a gifted poet from Sarajevo: Goran Simić, a man whose family survived the siege and made a new life in Canada. After I read, Goran said to the small crowd, “I thought I was listening to a Yugoslav writer.” I nearly kissed him. He’d banished my worst fear — that maybe I was only faking it. Goran, and many others, helped me to build that bridge.
The black dog from Sarajevo seemed right as my blog header. At the time, his calm acceptance of steady rain and one more foreigner with a camera seemed right. But his depth of gaze is the real reason he’s there. This dog has seen it all.
The wet citizens of Sarajevo respond to the dog in Sebilj Square much as they do to the pigeons. They acknowledge him only to the extent that he slows their progress as they recede from the busy tram stop behind me. It’s morning, and I have just had two strong coffees in a kafana (cafe-bar) off-camera to the left. I’m on my way to see a film at the Sarajevo Film Festival. The film will be about the war, the one that Sarajevans and Bosnians fought and endured for almost four years in the 1990s.
The trams run freely now, the dogs and people are not too thin and the days reliably pass without danger of snipers or mortar fire. But the people receding across the square (that is, any beyond their teenage years) still do not find their wartime receding so easily. The dog with the long gaze — part stolid endurance, part ordinary hope — reminds me of friends and of the darkness and light, and the need, in each of us.
I’m not quite a stranger in Bosnia, but I’m still an outsider. I’m the distant man just above the black dog’s ear, in the rumpled white suit, with the camera. And I’m also the dog: the dark in me considering the light in me.