“I lit the spark that burned the world down”, declares Oliver Yellop’s Gavrilo Princip, before a dying trumpet slide suggests the spark may have been, in fact, rather more of a damp squib than anything more reverential.
Yellop shows us a man as complicated as any of us
And so begins the story of one of the most destructive men in history: still lauded by some as a hero, reviled by others as an extremist, amusingly portrayed as a lucky bungler by others, but forgotten by most. It is this fear of perpetual oblivion which seems to drive the narrative, with Princip – now lingering in a purgatory of discordant jazz – seeming to be rather less bothered by his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand than by the misunderstanding and invisibility that have dogged his name for a century.
In 1914, Princip – named for the Messenger of God – and his comrades from the Black Hand terrorist group travelled from Serbia to Bosnia Herzegovina with a view to disrupting the visit of the heir presumptive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sick of being ruled from afar alongside other disparate conquests with whom they had little in common, their aim was to force out their Habsburg overlords and unite the Balkan states into one country.
The brief, catalytic assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28th - which did indeed lead to the burning of the world - was not slickly-executed. The combination of a devil-may-care Archduke, an open-top car to afford crowds a better view of their sovereigns, sloppy handling of the incendiaries, a poor security detail and a driver who took an impromptu detour meant that Princip was relatively ‘lucky’ to find himself face to face with the cavalcade when he did.
During a visit to Sarajevo, I stood at that unremarkable corner, on the wide boulevard, at its junction with the Ottoman bridge and expected the weight of history to shiver my timbers… but of course, it didn’t. It never does. Wherever you go, the ghosts remain silent and remote however much one tries to conjure their presence. And it is precisely that which haunts us… the human ability to forget and move on; for sites to rebuild themselves; and for the sun to go on rising with scant regard to those who have died.
It is this refusal for time to pickle itself in aspic and venerate, remember or even judge Princip which keeps him lolloping around the Purgatorial cell of his own making. Yellop brings the pathetic yet purposeful Princip to life with a disarming mix of charm and neediness, fusing his jumpiness and absurdity with decision and determination to create a wholly three-dimensional character who nudges us - luxuriant in our nuanced pool of moral relativism as we are - to reconsider our ethical allegiances.
As he recounts Princip’s life and death, Yellop shows us a man as complicated as any of us: he is hard to pin down, tricky to love but harder to hate. His sheer ordinariness; that spare, restless energy; the blazing sense of having been wronged drive him towards brief celebrity and then - nothing. The emptiness that cloaks the piece moves in on us as we realise we are as helpless to stop the infamous chain of events as the grimly stout Orthodox icons that peer on. And even when the man who set in motion a century of suffering on an untold scale shuffles towards his own grubby end as a six-stone, imprisoned shell eaten away by tuberculosis… the melancholy plunks and whistles of Benji Hooper and Luke Benson’s musical punctuations suggest that the circularity of alienation, marginalisation, conflict and repair is just preparing to start all over again.