I don't know who first came up with it - the idea's been hugely exploited by so many writers and actors, movie makers etc. The question is - what difference would it have made if something in our lives had gone in one direction rather than another. Or to rephrase it – who would you be now if something significant in your life had turned out differently?
What effect would it have had if particular episodes in our lives had had a different outcome? Would anything have significantly changed, and how significantly? And who would you be now, and where, if that had happened?
Steve Buscemi made the movie, a very funny but at the same time depressing film about a guy from a small American town. In an interview he confessed that he was basically portraying himself and the life he would have had if he'd not taken the decision to leave the small town where he was born.
And Paul Auster admitted in an interview he gave that one of the main characters in his renowned novel City of Glass (volume 1 of his New York Trilogy) was constructed on the basis of the circumstances of his own life that suddenly changed the moment when his father died and left him the substantial inheritance that gave Auster the opportunity to became a writer. Without that inheritance Auster's magnificent novels would probably not exist as we know them. Everything that happens involving the character is essentially Auster’s imagined idea of himself and the different road his life would taken without the money that saved him and allowed his talents to develop.
That's just a couple of examples.
I'm not sure why this has come to mind today. The thought came to me, not the other way round. And after all, this is the reason why I'm writing this. I have the experience of surviving a war and living in a city under siege.
Unlike Hilary Clinton I know what it's like to have a real sniper's bullet whistle past your head.
As a 14 year old teenager, one morning I heard the sound of shelling and explosions. That was the start of the war in Bosnia. The Serbian army had laid siege to the city, a siege that was to last almost 4 years.
Who was I back then? I was someone with a collection of comic books, about 1000 of them, my best friend and I were comic strip addicts and bold enough to produce our own strips and publish them in magazines. I played basketball with a local team and dreamed about becoming an NBA player. I painted, too. I was doing really well at school. The world lay at my feet. Some of you might remember the Commodore 64, one of the earliest home computers – I had my own.
Like most of the kids in Bosnia at that time, or Yugoslavia as it was, I was raised in a pretty secular way. In my family there are Bosniaks Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. Coming from a family of such diverse origins was both a blessing and a curse.
I never used to pay any attention to what you might call "medieval issues". However, medieval issues imposed themselves on me and my life back then. Comics disappeared; basketball disappeared, painting as well. People were forced to concentrate simply on survival and nationality and religion became significant issues. The brutality of the Serbian aggression made me aware that reality could be far more terrible than any fiction. Questions I had never thought relevant to me were screaming themselves at me now. The whole world had suddenly shifted and transformed itself into something else. I understood then how such a thing was possible. The world as we know it is a fragile thing and the possibility is always present of everything we take for granted simply turning into dust. And through no wish of our own..
I was talking with a friend the other day and we were reminiscing about those times and a couple of our friends who had been full of talent when they were teenagers. One of them spoke English fluently and even wrote rap songs, with stunning rhymes and rhythm. The other had similar ability. And there were plenty of other ways they demonstrated their unique superiority as kids.
And yet one ended up killing a man in an accident and the other became a junkie. The question we were pondering was this - Was it the war that changed these two individuals so fatally and unfortunately, so that they turned out in a way no-one could ever have imagined? Or conversely, might it have had something to do with their psychological make-up? That's more probable - being caught up in the midst of war can find out your every weakness, or on the other hand, it can bring out the best in you. Either way, it can never offer you the slightest insight into who you were meant to be. You are not allowed even to dare try and collect up the little pieces of mosaic that once made up your soul and have suddenly become fragments of an irreparable broken glass. Even if you somehow discover a piece of that glass, the face you see reflected in it will never be the same, complete. The only thing left will be the blurred image that was swallowed up for ever by the 20th Century.
During the first year after the war, my friend and I used to go down to the Croatian coast to spend a few days there. Two hours drive and we were at the seaside. I met a beautiful girl, and we stayed together for about two years. There was a guy I became friends with as well, a guy who owned a vacation house in that beautiful Croatian city on the coast. He lived in Germany but every summer he would come back to the same gorgeous place to enjoy the sea and have fun in his lovely vacation home, he and his girlfriend. I remember so many pleasant evenings spent there, me and my girlfriend, he and his girlfriend. The house was huge and my friend was kind enough to let me and my girlfriend have a room there, whenever we wanted, in fact he was always wanting us to stay there, every time. My girlfriend lived almost around the corner but she stayed and spent many unforgettable nights with me in that house. For me it was like paradise, because for 4 years I had no opportunity to visit the coast and enjoy the sea and the smell of the pines and the Mediterranean palm trees. I spent four years living the life of the one of the characters in Auster’s novel In the Country of Last Things.
And then suddenly there it all was – I was young, a beautiful woman at my side and a friend inviting us to drink another bottle of wine with him in the summer garden of his house. Like a piranha forced to live a vegetarian existence and suddenly encountering an opportunity to feast- I was grabbing it all.
And all those many evenings spent in my friend’s garden with our girlfriends are now among the sweetest memories of my life.
In the living room of the house was a sofa. That sofa was like so many others, with nice tiny brown straps, with nothing out of the ordinary to distinguish it. It struck me that I hadn't even noticed it was there until the second or third time I happened to be in that room.
- I used to have exactly the same sofa!! – I burst out one night in front of everybody, suddenly interrupting a conversation in full flow. They all turned and looked at me, puzzled. I repeated - I used to have that same sofa! And then I realized how my behavior might appear rather strange to the others.
It wasn't until later that night, when I was alone with my girlfriend, that I explained to her that back at home, in the house destroyed by shelling during the war – exactly the same kind of sofa, the same colour and model, had been the centrepiece of our living room. That sofa had been damaged when much of the rest of the furniture was smashed to pieces during the bombardment. By now my sofa had long since fallen to pieces. Pieces of wood and fabric, rotten and lost, like the pieces of so many of the objects that once made up my world. And now I was looking at it again, that very same sofa, the same as it always had been, unharmed, with my girlfriend and I sitting on it gently touching hands .