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Jag var precis som du Negra Efendić, Jag var precis som du (I Was Just Like You)

Natur & Kultur,  2016.

Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 2017:1

Review Section: Non-fiction

Negra Efendić is a naturalised Swedish journalist who escaped the war in Bosnia in the ’90s. Her book is not so much a work of art or a ‘novel’ for review; rather, it is to be read as a comment on the human condition (‘ett mänskligt dokument’). So this is not the place for conventional literary criticism. As a document, however, it has both time and place when we join Negra Efendić as a child in Tito’s Yugoslavia. She feels happy and secure within this ‘Socialist Federal Democratic Republic of Yugoslavia’ under the father figure of Tito. Efendić’s account is free of any polemics. She introduces us to her Muslim-majority village, Brezovo Polje, in Bosnia. The villagers know each other as friends. They are all of different origins: Bosnian, Croatian, Serb, Slovene, etc. They help one another bring in the harvest, and all share in bringing up their children.They have different religions: Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox Catholic – and there is even one Jehovah’s Witness, who is very helpful when needed. It is poignant that these conscientious, happy villagers even share in one another’s religious festivals, such as Christmas (Serbs), the celebrations after Ramadan (Muslims) and the Orthodox Easter. It seems, in the face of such unity on the ground, that the civil war must have been engineered from the top.

Violence breeds violence. This is a truth we can see on our screens every day, more than 20 years after the civil war. Efendić has had to endure violence, both as a war victim in Bosnia and as a refugee in Sweden. The book works partly as autobiography. She also provides a chronicle of the war in Bosnia, strategically documented with contemporary media reports. Finally, she returns to her roots as a journalist for one of the leading daily Swedish papers. She manages, with some difficulty, to give a level-headed account of a devastated Bosnia. She discovers ‘horrors so acute that it is difficult to imagine that it can be actual human beings who carried them out.’

Efendić traces her progress as a child refugee on benefits. She is finally granted Swedish citizenship, together with her parents and brother. The theme of violence and the human condition continues in Sweden. Efendić is threatened both physically and psychologically by outrages in her school, carried out by pupils with neo- Nazi sympathies who rule the roost.The headmaster and teachers fail to maintain order. When the school authorities and parents are summoned by the police for an inquiry, they give lame excuses. The parents turn a blind eye, and the school authorities are either unwilling or unable to provide leadership. Efendić struggles to get the education she needs to make a go of it in Sweden.

It is damning that this gifted girl should have had to fight all the way. Efendić’s Swedish is magnificent. She chooses to present her experiences in the present tense, which makes them more immediate. Her language is purposely clear and simple. She mocks the simple language of racist propaganda not through argument, but through her own ironic simplicity, succeeding where propaganda fails. Behind her words there is a true knowledge of Swedish that no- one can dispute. In fact, her command of the language seems never to fail. Her imagery is a particularly effective aspect of her writing. Efendić says language has always been her forte. In this war- torn world, she shows our capacity for language as a means to cope.

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