Tony Harrison

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What is the summary of Tony Harrison's "The Bright Lights of Sarajevo"?

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In "The Bright Lights of Sarajevo" Tony Harrison depicts the horrors of daily life under siege. During the Bosnian War, Sarajevo was besieged by Bosnian Serb forces, who caused widespread death and destruction.

Harrison shows us how the siege is affecting people. They are forced to wait in line for rations, and even then they are in constant danger from sniper fire. Yet despite this, there is hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

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If there's one overriding message to "The Bright Lights of Sarajevo" it's that there's always light at the end of the tunnel. And at night in Sarajevo that light is provided by hope that the people of this multiethnic city will one day learn to live together in harmony.

At night, the various ethnic groups in this besieged city—Muslims, Croats, and Serbs—can get to know each other without being harassed. Such nighttime meetings provide an example of what ethnic harmony might look like once the war is over and people can go back to some semblance of normality in their lives.

But for now, that's a long way away. Harrison sets out in detail the horrors that the citizens of Sarajevo are forced to endure on a daily basis. They have to queue in line with "empty canisters of gas"; they also have to queue for "the precious meagre grams of bread / they're rationed each day." All the while they have to dodge snipers's bullets.

At night, the city has a different look and feel to it. Ironically, in the dark, there is light, the light of hope, as young people from different ethnic backgrounds emerge from their battered homes to socialize with one another. Two such young people, described by the speaker as a "dark boy-shape" and a "dark-girl" shape, share a coffee in a candlelit cafe, holding hands until the curfew. There is hope of a better future here, but reminders of the war are not far away; the two young lovers hold hands behind flour sacks filled with sand.

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The poem "The Bright Lights of Sarajevo" describes the city of Sarajevo under siege. The entire "plot" of the poem takes place in the darkness of the city, which is enjoying a brief reprieve from the siege. People are massing in the streets, walking calmly and happily in the darkness. Ironically, the city is colorless and black as the citizens mingle together; however, the bright lights are not the true sources of illumination.

The poem describes flirtation occurring in the darkness between a boy and a girl, unnamed, who sneak away from the crowd. The poet remarks on all the destruction they pass—mortared buildings and shattered pavement, with foreign aid supplies littering the streets and dead bodies scattered around. However, in the darkness and depression, hope and joy are found as the two hold hands through the night, hiding from the masses behind the flour sacks after they share coffee and enjoy each other's company. Their joy represents the undying light of Sarajevo, as do the masses in the streets, showing that their light, that of their hope, shines brighter than the destruction around them. This illuminates Sarajevo even though it is veiled in darkness.

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At night, after the hours when residents of Sarajevo line up for gas or bread, the speaker suggests that one might think the streets would be deserted. People may have had to dodge snipers or struggle up many flights of stairs to bring water home, and they must be exhausted. However, this is not the case. The young people come out at night, and it becomes difficult to distinguish any of the differences by which people usually judge others. Although they have no flashlights, the youth don't bump into each other, except, perhaps, when a boy is trying to get the attention of a girl he fancies. He must take his cues from her voice to see if she's interested in him (since it is so dark), and then he might light a cigarette to see what her eyes are saying. The speaker sees such a pair, and they seem just about to hold hands. There are holes in the ground where bombs were dropped some years ago, and those holes have filled with water that reflects the night-sky stars: these are the bright lights of Sarajevo now. It is as though these young people, with the hope and optimism of youth, see only the stars at their feet rather than the holes made by mortars, and the boy leads the girl away to a coffee shop lit by candles.

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In writing about the “bright lights,” poet Tony Harrison ironically references the dark environment of a city under siege. Still, he suggests, there may be more than a glimmer of hope for Sarajevo, as its young people find romantic connections that may be more than pleasurable distractions from the hardships of war.

The poem begins by describing many of those hardships, such as breadlines, lugging water up stairs, and even dodging bullets. People spending their days that way might well stay home at home, but no. All kinds of people—Muslims, Serbs, and Croats—go strolling in the dark, all looking black as all lack even flashlights (torches). Sound is a better guide when there is so little light, and flirting boys or girls even bump into each other on purpose. If they want to find out more about someone they encounter, they strike a match. The narrator indicates their presence, observing

I see a pair who’ve certainly progressed

beyond the tone of voice and match-lit flare test.

As he is about to lead her by the hand, the scene is marked as one where violence was inflicted on the breadlines in the 1992 Serb massacre. The narrator switches from the present boy-girl encounter to the past blood and death of war, describing the damage to the city such as holes in the pavement caused by mortar shells. Today it had rained most of the day, leaving puddles in those holes but now in the clear sky the Pleiades shine and their light is reflected in the puddles. The city is under curfew, the streets are protected with sandbags formerly filled with food-aid flour from the United States. The boy and girl hold hands as they make their way to a candlelit café for a coffee.

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