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Country of Red Azaleas
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From the moment Marija walks into Lara’s classroom, freshly moved to Serbia from Sarajevo, Lara is enchanted by her vibrant beauty, confidence, and wild energy–and knows that the two are destined to be lifelong friends. Closer than sisters, the girls share everything, from stolen fruit and Hollywood movies as girls to philosophies and even lovers as young women. But when the Bosnian War pits their homelands against each other in a bloodbath, Lara and Marija are forced to separate for the first time: romantic Lara heads to America with her Hollywood-handsome new husband, and fierce Marija returns to her native Sarajevo to combat the war through journalism behind Bosnian lines.
In America, Lara seeks fulfillment through work and family, but when news from Marija ceases, the uncertainty torments Lara, driving her on a quest to find her friend. As Lara travels through war-torn Serbia and Bosnia, following clues that may yet lead to the flesh-and-blood Marija, she must also wrestle with truths about her own identity.
Told in lush, vivid prose, Country of Red Azaleas is a poignant testament to both the power of friendship and our ability to find meaning and beauty in the face of devastation.
Table of Contents
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the town, the street,
something called past
better than the unbleached sun,
the broken sounds
sit down angel, I am desperately alive."
From "heart, heart, heart" by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu
Sarajevo, My Love
I started out in life under a Communist leader and a Hollywood name. I was named Lara, like the heroine from the story of Doctor Zhivago. "It's going to open doors and conversations for her when she grows up, darling Petar," my mother was heard telling my father after my birth. "Beloved Anica, it will be a burden carrying the name of a famous heroine," my father was reported having told my mother in return. My parents always called each other sugary names and diminutives even when they were having fierce arguments. "It will distract people from the person she really is and always force comparisons. Do you know anyone called Cleopatra, my precious love?" "As a matter of fact I do, darling Petka," my mother apparently answered unfazed. "The daughter of my boss." "Exactly my point, my precious dove, and she is the strangest girl I've ever known. She has a snake for a pet." "That's because Cleopatra is the wrong name to give. Lara is perfect for our little jewel—just look at her!" And the story goes that the second my father took a look at my scrunched-up face from a thirty-hour delivery with three blond hairs stuck to my round skull, he melted and called me Lara and Larinka.
Those comparisons would indeed disadvantage me, for who could compare herself to that vision of luminous beauty, grace, and quivering passion that was Lara from Doctor Zhivago? Even in Communist Yugoslavia, people knew the story of Doctor Zhivago better from the mega Hollywood hit with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif than from the original novel by the Russian author Boris Pasternak. My father's vote of no-confidence of course added to my onomastic embarrassment once I was old enough to hear and process for the millionth time the story of how I ended up being called Lara Kulicz. Why hadn't my father said something like: "This girl will shine and outshine all the Laras in the world," or: "She will be smarter and more beautiful than that Lara from the movie." My father was a realist and my mother was a hopeless sentimental who cried even at the sound of the Communist tunes that were played whenever President Tito made his appearance in some public place, a factory, a school, or on television. Once I saw the fateful movie myself, at the fragile age of seven, Julie Christie's Lara filled my dreams and nightmares alike. Not only did I want to look and act like Lara, but I wanted Lara to look and act just like me. I didn't just want Hollywood stars to be branded on my physique and psyche forever but I fiercely wanted to brand myself onto Hollywood. I wanted Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, or Elizabeth Taylor to be me, Lara Kulicz, as revenge for my having to own for the rest of my life the character name that a stunning Hollywood star carried in one of her shiniest roles. I wanted to impose my grayish-blue eyes onto the famous mauve eyes of Elizabeth Taylor and my thin ash-blond hair onto the undulating golden waves of Julie Christie. In the Yugoslavia of my youth and in our family, Hollywood was more important than the Communist Party. It was our refuge and our guilty delight that made up for some of the boredom of the uniforms we had to wear, the lack of pretty clothes, the monotonous sound of the Party language we heard in school. However, unlike the surrounding Communist countries, we had the special fortune that our own President Tito was in love with Western movies and saw himself as a rugged leftist version of John Wayne who had fought the Nazis instead of the Apache Indians. His love of movies drove him to create the mega film studios Avala in the middle of Belgrade in a utopian hope that someday they would match Hollywood. In that hope, he even had Richard Burton play him, Josip Broz Tito, as a war hero valiantly standing up to the Nazi invasion in The Battle of Sutjeska. The educated Yugoslavs like my family, however, scoffed at domestic movies and greedily swallowed the real Hollywood features with all their irresistible glamour and magnetic stars. I didn't care either way but was guided by my parents into the cult of American movies from the age when I should have been rolling hula hoops with the neighborhood children.
The day I was made a pioneer and had to wear the red scarf and the navy-blue hat called Titovka from the name of the president of our country himself was also the day when my parents took me to their friend who worked at the Kinoteka, the special movie theater in Belgrade that showed classic foreign movies, and asked him to give us a private showing of the Doctor Zhivago movie. We went late after the theater closed down and my father's friend gave us indeed a private showing of that mythic movie that freaked the hell out of me. After the movie my father's friend and my parents had the greatest time comparing Lara from the movie with my own seven-year-old puzzled self and calling me all the nicknames and diminutives derived from that cursed name—Laricka, Larinka, Lari, Larika—until I would have rather been called Bob or Josip instead of the fated Lara. At the end of that day I decided that having become a pioneer had been a more cheerful experience than seeing the movie Doctor Zhivago at a private showing with my mother sobbing hysterically through most of it, and my father whistling the "farewell my love" tune all the way home.
The age of seven was also when I fell in love with Marija, "the girl from Sarajevo." Her parents had moved to Belgrade because her father was a flute player and had gotten a position in the Belgrade philharmonic. Her first day of classes, she stood in the doorway with a mischievous smile and dark waves of hair that fell smoothly onto her shoulders. She was both self-assured and dreamy. I was stunned by her beauty, and the second I saw her I wanted nothing more than to be friends with her for life. I felt that as long as Marija was in my life, everything was going to be all right. I would even get over my name hang-up if she were the one to pronounce it. I went straight to her and asked her to share my school bench with me. I was always seated by myself because the teachers said I disrupted my desk mates with my constant talking. But I was not going to let go of Marija. She looked straight at me with a clear smile and followed me to my desk as if it was the most obvious thing in the universe: that we were going to be desk mates and friends for life. She carried almond sesame and honey desserts in her backpack and little sparkling trinkets, some jewelry, some simply for the fun of the jingle and the sparkle. She put some on our desk and suddenly we were no longer in the drab classroom with the picture of President Tito hanging on the wall in front of us, but in an enchanted castle in Persia or Morocco, somewhere with orange trees, sparkling beaches, and flashy belly dancers. One day she pulled out of her backpack a miniature pair of Turkish toy slippers made from fake gold and red velvet. Whenever the lesson became too boring, Marija told me to take one slipper on my pinkie; she would put the other one on her pinkie, and we imagined we flew away to an enchanted place in Persia. There were suspended gardens and fountains sprinkling crystal-clear water and we were belly dancing. She directed our fantasies and I went along.
We made the most feared team in the school at everything: reciting patriotic poetry with an undercurrent of irony, playing volleyball in the school yard, getting ahead of everybody in the cafeteria line to get the fresh slices of bread before the stale bread was brought in surreptitiously by the kitchen workers, cheating on math tests, getting away with making faces behind the teachers' backs, being first at reading and writing contests. We were always both first. We didn't want to use the expression a tie, but we always said: "We are both first." The only area where Marija was the real first was running. Until she came into the school, I thought I was the fastest runner around. At first Marija let me think so for a while, until one day in physical education class when she took off like a flash on the track field in our school yard and my mouth opened wide in awe. She was faster than any of the boys and girls and even faster than the teacher herself. Her hair opened up like a set of wings when she ran and it made you think she might have been a creature of a different kind, supernatural or magical, a witch of sorts. At least I thought so all through our school years.
When Marija and I learned about the process of parthenogenesis in our biology class we were ecstatic: Some birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even bees could reproduce through asexual reproduction, by a process of cell division that did not involve the sexual act between a male and a female. That meant, said Marija stuffing her face with one of her delicious honey almond desserts and giggling at the same time, that she and I could have children together without needing a man. All we needed was the love and willpower to divide our own cells and produce offspring. If frogs could do it, so could we, said Marija triumphantly. We were nine years old and everything was possible, producing children through asexual reproduction, battling villains with our sleek shiny swords, and living in a tiny castle at the very top of a snowy mountain somewhere in a place called the Wild West.
We were inseparable. We cried at the end of school on Saturday because it meant we wouldn't see each other until Monday. And when she first invited me to her apartment on a Sunday afternoon one April after Easter, I thought I must have entered the gates of heaven through some unheard-of miracle. Her apartment smelled divine, like the desserts she always brought to school and shared with me alone. Their apartment was in the Dorćol area near the Belgrade Fortress at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, near open parks and old ruins. It seemed like a different city, a different Belgrade to me, with its old elegant residential streets compared with the drab area near the Square of the Republic where we lived in a grey modern building, made of cement blocks, cold steel, and clamoring glass. Her father's flute music rose in such delicate melodic trills that it made you want to slide out of your body and glide through the open window and into the blue ether. Her mother moved around the house effortlessly wearing a brown velvet dress and offered us orange preserves. For some reason nothing seemed polluted and drab any longer, and the world suddenly had a tangy delicious taste.
Marija fed my family-induced obsession with Hollywood movies and stars, only in her own humorous and enveloping way that made you want to follow her to the end of the earth. Her parents were able to miraculously obtain videotapes of classic foreign movies that sometimes we all watched sitting on the edge of the bed in her parents' bedroom where the small black-and-white TV and the enormous video machine were placed. Next to Marija I loved absorbing the teary-eyed shimmering faces of Julie Christie, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, or Vivien Leigh to the point where it was me, Lara Kulicz, on the screen being embraced or kissed passionately by Clark Gable, Alan Bates, or Cary Grant. Marija and I held hands throughout the movie and smiled at each other at all the romantic scenes. Sometimes after the movie was over, if it was too late and if it was a Saturday night, her parents would invite me to stay over. Staying over at Marija's and sleeping in the same bed with her was another delicious slice of heaven. Marija's mother made the bed for us, tucked us in, and kissed us both good night as if we were both her beloved daughters. Sometimes Marija and I tried to kiss each other like we had seen the actors in the movie do it. Marija's lips were velvety and tasted bittersweet like the desserts her mother made. We fell asleep holding hands and I traveled to colorful sugary lands where Clark Gable was the president of our country and the First Lady was none other than Marilyn Monroe. The president and his wife lived in the Beli Dvor, which was where President Tito normally resided, but now it was occupied by Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Marija and I were ladies-in-waiting for the First Lady and we wore poufy magic dresses with hoops that swirled and swished and that even made us swoop over the marble stairways and banisters of the palace like weightless balloons. In the morning Marija and I shared our dreams. Hers were always about chases and fights. She would save me from pirates and gangsters and Apache Indians while riding a wild stallion and swishing above her head a glittering saber that shone and sparkled in the setting sun and blinded all the enemies into submission. She carried me off on her stallion and we rode into the sunset.
In the summer she invited me to her grandparents' house in Sarajevo, together with my younger sister, Biljana. I didn't really want my sister to come along because that meant I had to share Marija and babysit Biljana and worry about her stupid pranks and whims. But it was the only way my parents were going to let me spend part of the summer in Sarajevo. My parents were high on sisterly love and wanted us to be together all the time, because "when we are dead and gone, you'll have each other," they always said. I didn't know why I had to drag my sister with me everywhere I went in preparation for the times when my parents were going to be dead and gone, but I decided I was going to go along with anything, just to be able to spend the summer with Marija in Sarajevo at her grandparents' house.
Sarajevo was an enchanted garden that shimmered and sang. With Marija in Sarajevo I fell inside a fairy tale, the movie that hadn't yet been made, the Balkan-Hollywood film with Marija and me as the costars. The creamy white mosques with the half-moon on their towers looked like wedding cakes as we chased each other in and out of their coquettish gardens until a bearded man disturbed from his prayers would come after us and threaten us with bodily harm like a scary ogre. The Ferhadija mosque in particular with the honeyed glow of its illuminations at dusk sparked in my mind fantastical images in dreamy pastels. In the old center the copper pots glinted with reddish sparks in the sun, and red azaleas and geraniums cascaded from balconies and fences everywhere. Marija was a brave and knowledgeable captain who knew her way around every back alley and knew more people than there were letters in the alphabet. Here is the bread store of Mr. Novic, the fat man with a huge mole on his nose, here is the big house of Mrs. Drakulic the crazy widow who feeds the pigeons in the big square, here is the coffee shop of Mr. and Mrs. Moravic who could never have children and always gave coffee beans soaked in honey to children who stopped by. "Let's go in and see." The Sarajevo around the times of the Winter Olympic Games seemed to have escaped the Communist rules and flags; everything was dripping with red azaleas, honey, coffee, and apricots, and the silks in the store windows undulated lusciously. Sarajevo of those years was a delicious secret nestled in the cradle of the heavy wooded Dinaric Alps. The bus that had taken us into the city seemed to be hanging on a hairpin road flirting with the rocky edges on one side and the dizzying drop on the other. We flew recklessly on the road, but I didn't care, Marija made everything look both magical and safe. Even dangerous things felt safe next to Marija, little more than a suspenseful game; you had the thrill, but nothing bad ever happened. You didn't fall over the immense drop at the edge of the road, you weren't beaten up by the angry man in the mosque. You just kept on playing and playing until twilight enveloped you.
Our favorite game was stealing fruit from the open markets in town and running away as fast as we could. On some days Marija was Robin Hood and Biljana and I were her army of thieves. Marija would whistle or wink and we would all rush toward the stands with apricots, pears, or cherries and pick as many as we could while on the run. The vendors yelled after us but before they had a chance to come after us, we were already on a different street, in a back alley, devouring our spoils. Stolen fruit tasted delicious. In true Robin Hood spirit, we gave some to the Gypsy children in the street who were adding them to their own stolen foods of the day. All the tartness and sweetness in the world was gathered in our puckered mouths as we crouched against the stone wall of a hidden house in an alley in Sarajevo. We were our own little Yugoslav girl movie and had yet to be discovered by the real moviemakers in America. With Marija I often had the feeling I was in a magical yet very important reality that was going to one day become immortalized on screens all over the world. At the end of the day, we ran back to Marija's grandparents, elated and queasy from all the fruit.
Marija always ran ahead of us like a firebird. We raced up the hill without stopping. She would run faster than Biljana and me with her raven-black hair that moved in waves and she never stopped until she reached her grandparents' house. Biljana who had comparably rich waves of curly red hair came in second, and I was always last. My best friend and sister were the striking Amazons I was never going to be.
"Wait for me, Marija! I'm tired and thirsty!"
"Come on, Lara, give it another push, you can do it," Marija always said.
"Yes, Lara, run faster!" my sister Biljana would add.
Marija would stop for a second to catch her breath, tidy her dress, and grab my hand. She was a vision of unparalleled beauty as we stood on the hill above her native Sarajevo, in front of the white stone house with the red azaleas in the window, her face flushed from the run, her green eyes sparkling like an emerald fire, her hair a dark wavy crown framing her face. But mostly it was the deep raspy voice and laugh that gave me a jolt of joy and melancholy as she would tell me to go in and not tell her grandparents we had been stealing apricots from the neighbors' yards and the city markets. Biljana danced her way into the house behind Marija and supported all of Marija's lies and stories, which she spilled out with unbridled passion and trickles of irrepressible laughter. Then Biljana would start dancing for Marija's grandparents and go through all the ballet poses she had learned in ballet class as they would both go "ooh" and "aah" from their worn-out peachy velvet armchairs, setting their rimmed glasses straighter on their noses. I was in the shadows, panting and embarrassed for something I hadn't done.
"Here is fruit from the garden, have some, girls. You must be thirsty after all that running around," Marija's grandmother Farah would say and tidy the colored scarf she always wore on her head, tied underneath her chin like a babushka. Marija and Biljana would burst out laughing because our stomachs were already full to the limit with the apricots, cherries, and gooseberries that we had stolen and eaten from every garden in that neighborhood facing the Muslim cemetery with its white stone columns and tombs. The house stood on a slanted narrow street like many on the hilly neighborhoods of Sarajevo, and I invariably experienced a sense of joy at the sight of the overlapping red tile roofs and the entanglements of fences and gardens that led to the house. My embarrassment knew no bounds once I was confronted with Farah's hospitality. I was the only one who actually went ahead and had more apricots and more watermelon and cherries from Farah's fruit bowl, only to become miserably sick in the next half hour. Marija and Biljana laughed in big gulps at my stoic fruit gorging and then kissed and tickled me. Farah would scold them and ask them to stop tormenting "the poor girl." I loved Farah and my heart always melted with gratitude and self-pity every time I heard her call me "poor girl." That was the best vindication from the shame of always lagging behind Marija and Biljana, of being too scared to steal as much fruit as they did, even though I still ate just as much only to keep up with them.
Farah smelled like cinnamon and something else sweet and spicy that I could never figure out. I buried my head in her bosom when she hugged me and I wanted to be there for a long time smelling her and being called "poor girl." To me that sounded almost like "beautiful girl with beautiful curls." Kemal would get up from his chair with a slight bend of his back and walk across the room to look out the window and check on the sky and the weather. Then he took his pipe from the little table next to the window and smoked it, producing a fragrance that was to me at least as delicious as Farah's spicy sweet smell. It never smelled like that in my parents' apartment in Belgrade, it always smelled sour and heavy, like burnt cabbage, and then sometimes my mother's heavy perfume got mixed in with the smells coming from the kitchen making the air even heavier to breathe. I always felt our Belgrade apartment was a temporary thing, something we would get over and move to our "real" habitation, some kind of a utopian spacious and luminous apartment in Sarajevo overlooking rolling hills, tile roofs and white stone houses.
My return to Belgrade and to my parents' apartment was wrought with a wrenching sense of yearning and a growing repulsion for the smells in our kitchen, the sounds of people fighting in the apartment next door, or of the folkloric music that our other neighbor felt compelled to play at its highest volume, filling me with a lifelong dislike of traditional Serbian music. The only thing worse than that was when my parents played the music from Doctor Zhivago on their reel-to-reel tape player for the millionth time, smiling knowingly and sometimes dancing with each other and shuffling their feet on the kitchen linoleum. I fantasized of Marija and me galloping across velvety fields sprinkled with blood-red poppies, the sight of snowcapped mountains looming in the distance, and a small castle built just for us out of white stone and red tiles on the exact top of the highest peak. At the height of my fantasy my mother would barge into my room to remind me to do my homework or write the letter to President Tito that we were supposed to write in our civic education class. Or my sister would burst in practicing her pointe walking and pirouettes to my mother's great amazement and admiration. At least one of us was always admired by our parents and it wasn't me. Biljana was going to ballet school and talked of little else but becoming the greatest dancer of the century. My mother was in awe at every one of her turns and agreed that one day she would become the Serbian Ginger Rogers. I didn't care as long as I was admired by Marija. We wrote to each other daily letters in which we complained about the inanity of our school and the stupidity of our teachers and analyzed various characters from the films we had seen together the previous summer. Sometimes we mailed them to each other and at other times we exchanged them in school, or left them on each other's side of the bench like a secret and sacred ritual. In our letters we counted the days and the weeks that were left until our next vacation when I would go back to Sarajevo and when life would start all over again in the cinnamon and cumin smells of Kemal and Farah's kitchen and in the wild races for tart fruit from the orchards and gardens on the sloping alleys of my beloved city.
All throughout my college years in Belgrade, throughout my later years on a different continent, throughout the years of the war and after the war, the image of us racing through the back alleys of Sarajevo with our mouths puckered from stolen fruit, our hearts booming out of our chests, the cupolas of the mosques glistening in the sunset, and the hills of Sarajevo sprinkled with white houses and red azalea bushes like a huge colorful and throbbing nest of life was always with me as a reminder that I had once held a corner of heaven in my hands. Even the afternoon, years later, when I saw Marija emerge from her red Corvette convertible, strangely and disturbingly beautiful, completely changed and yet still Marija, proud and desperate, touched by an indelible sorrow in front of the white hotel inundated in red azaleas on a sunny and quiet Los Angeles side street, that image of us running in the Sarajevo of my childhood flashed through my mind with dizzying vividness. It wasn't like a memory but more like a persistent clip of our past that refused to be erased and that encrusted itself stubbornly into our present. It was a sliver of life that kept rolling through the years and the many wrecks of our lives. That sliver that I carried with me throughout the years emerged in my conscience at unexpected moments with clusters of scarlet flowers and a taste of apricots that shifted the past into the present.
In college, Marija studied world poetry, anthropology, politics, art, everything. She wore the darkest eyeliner in Belgrade around her green eyes, and big shiny jewelry. Not a lot of jewelry, just one striking pendant or a pair of long earrings, but it always looked like she gave new meaning and color to the piece of rock or metal wrapped around her neck or dangling from her ears. On some days she looked like an Indian deity or like Cleopatra. I had never stopped being in awe of her. When we were at the University of Belgrade in the late eighties and early nineties we competed with each other in every domain and even dated the same man for a while. I wasn't half as versatile as Marija at juggling different fields, disciplines, and brooding lovers but I shone at the social sciences and became a better runner than I had ever been in my childhood. In the fall of 1989 when Communism fell throughout Eastern Europe and our country was breaking at the seams and dividing itself into its many ethnic constituencies, Marija and I both shaved our heads as a sign of protest. We wanted to believe that the object of our protest was Serbia's growing nationalism against Albanians, Bosnians, Croats, everybody who was not Serbian Christian and sought their independence, but truly we just wanted to shave our heads and get attention in the restless atmosphere that was bubbling around us in those years. While everybody around us was deploring the breaking of the former "mother Yugoslavia," Marija and I cheered for the dissenting regions and provinces that claimed their independence and asked for separation from that utopian national mother. Tito's Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had been an untenable utopia of tying a nationalist ribbon around six different little nationalities and countries all crowded under the same flag and Party. Now they all squirmed and wrestled for their independence.
- "A moving portrait of humanity's best overcoming humanity's worst."—Kirkus Reviews
- "A tightly wrought, beautiful story of friendship...Radulescu creates images that lodge themselves firmly in your consciousness, giving you ideas to ponder long after you turn the final page. In the tradition of Elena Ferrante and Khaled Hosseini, COUNTRY OF RED AZALEAS prevails as a true testament to a bond that transcends the devastation of war."—BookPage
- "A compelling tale...Radulescu's prose is fluid and languid--even when she's describing the madness of war. Her pacing is perfect."—Associated Press
- "Filled with full-bodied, multifaceted characters... a profoundly uplifting and optimistic novel...a gripping story, important for its poignancy as well as its insights into the human condition."—Washington Independent Review of Books
- "This exquisite novel celebrates the bonds of female friendship and the spirit of women's resilience and self-invention. A riveting and beautifully written novel, COUNTRY OF RED AZALEAS sheds light on our transcendent human connections in the face of war, exile, and displacement."—Jasmin Darznik, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Daughter
- "Packs a lot into a swift, emotionally wrought chronicle...the novel wallops us with a horrible sense of humanity against humanity, redeemed by the gleam of Lara and Marija's genuine love."—Library Journal
- "A searing, powerful work of fiction...fluid and immersive. Radulescu's imagery is evocative, but the real triumph here is her characters...A fierce and beautiful novel that is in many ways an immigrant story, a war story and a love story all at once, it is one of the most unique and well-crafted of its kind."—BookReporter
- "A passionate novel of fortitude and friendship . . . With a poetic intelligence and an extraordinary sense of language and history, Radulescu has given us a mesmerizing work, a tribute to the human spirit and its resilience. I loved the novel and did not want it to end."—Marjorie Agosin, award-winning author of I Lived on Butterfly Hill
- "COUNTRY OF RED AZALEAS testifies to the resilience of women's friendships in the aftermath of one of the late twentieth-century's most horrific conflicts. Well-developed, complex characters, an opulent style, ironic humor, an exotic background brought to life on the page, all contribute to a moving, spellbinding tale of love and survival."—Linda Rodriguez, author of Every Hidden Fear and finalist for the International Latino Book Award
- On Sale
- Apr 5, 2016
- Page Count
- 320 pages