Today our tour of Prime Writers’ inspiring locations takes us to Croatia with Alison Layland.
Over recent years I have come to know and love Croatia. The region that springs to mind for most people – and at first we were no exception – is the beautiful Dalmatian coast, with its beaches and inviting islands against a backdrop of the limestone Dinaric Alps, its friendly, welcoming people, its Mediterranean climate and its wonderful towns with fascinating architecture and extensive Roman remains. Seen from this perspective, it is hard to imagine that, only a little over twenty years ago, war was raging here; that those mountains contained hostile forces and echoed to the sound of gunfire. But imagining such scenes was just what I needed to do while writing Someone Else’s Conflict.
In the novel, my main character, Jay, was involved in the Croatian War of Independence, or Homeland War as the Croats call it, and he returns to scenes of the war in vivid, all-too-real flashbacks. The actual location and events are fictional, but I researched extensively to make sure I got the wider facts and context right. That was an experience in itself: reading about atrocities and destruction occurring in places you have come to know gives even the driest political account a whole new, human perspective. But I also needed to see and feel for myself the landscapes in which the scenes of my novel took place.
We like to travel off the beaten track on our holidays, and this gave me added purpose. Early morning walks and drives in the mountains between the coast and the border with Bosnia-Hercegovina let my imagination run free. A few miles inland, signs of the war are still evident, a stark contrast to the beauty of the landscape and the vibrant life of a country that has moved on. In places I came across empty, roofless houses standing side by side with homes that have been rebuilt and reoccupied, and walked through thriving villages with telltale bullet holes marking the walls of houses and churches. I didn’t find a model for Paševina, my fictional village – and in a way I’m glad it has remained totally fictional – but I did see several places that could have been “Zora’s house”, where Jay and his friend Ivan lived during the conflict.
We also came across numerous museums which gave me a moving insight, especially the small ones tucked away in many towns and villages that are as much about providing an intimate memorial as giving information. Here, my knowledge of the language was not enough for me to fully understand the details, but the photographs of local people, and the surrounding area bristling with military hardware, had a forceful impact.
In a country that is moving forward and trying very hard to put its recent past behind it – and in my experience largely succeeding – it is nevertheless important to remember what happened, the human cost, and seek to ensure that it won’t happen again.