As some readers may remember, a few months ago I took a trip to the Balkans, where I travelled through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia (very, very briefly), Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania. During that time I met and interviewed the writers Faruk Sehic (author of Quiet Flows The Una – my review at Open Pen) in Sarajevo, Aleksandar Prokopiev (Homunculus) in Skopje and Andrej Nikolaidis (The Coming, Till Kingdom Come and The Son) in the charming Montenegrin coastal town of Ulcinj. Sehic’s book, which we discussed in a lot of detail – see video interview at the end of this post – is a novel based on his own experiences fighting in the civil war of the 1990s. Though Sehic was the only one of the three writers I met who had taken part in the fighting of the war, the lives of all three men1 – as well as most places I visited – had been heavily affected by it.
Dubrovnik – where I started and ended my journey – may have had its old town cleaned up into a touristic paradise, but it’s not hard to find evidence (including, tbf, a museum) of the assault and seige on the city that happened two and a half decades ago. Once over the border into Bosnia, I visited Mostar, where there are still many unrepaired buildings that were damaged in the war. I later crossed the Serbian-Kosovan border and drove through one of the few parts of Europe that the Foreign Office advises to avoid (whoops). I passed signs warning of mine fields, I passed monuments and recent war graves throughout the countries I travelled and always – whenever I spoke to anyone for more than a couple of minutes – they would bring up the war. Its evidence – and its effects – are unavoidable.
The shadow cast by the war is long in the region, but I’ve found Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia an unpleasantly prescient text to have been reading this week, while the Spanish – paying no need to recent history – clamp down on Catalan separatists with alarming aggression. Maybe the rest of Europe tries to forget what happened in the Balkans on purpose, because we don’t want to admit, or acknowledge, how close it was, how recent it was, and how like us the people involved are. Let’s be honest, if you’re based in Western Europe and reading an experimental, self-indulgent, literary blog, you’ve probably been to AT LEAST Croatia at some point, right? And they’re not so different from us, are they? No, not at all, and maybe that’s why this war is easy to forget, because it wasn’t long ago and far away, it was the opposite of both those things.
Misha Glenny was the BBC’s “man in Yugoslavia” when the war broke out, and with his firm grasp of Serbo-Croat he is well-positioned to travel throughout the warring region, reporting what he sees and the reasons why it is happening. With his BBC credentials he is able to speak with very senior figures on every side (of which there are many), but this BBC vibe does occasionally translate into quite anachronistic-feeling asides about the best hotel bars for securing good whisky in, etc. Though Glenny is able to mingle and chat and learn, there is a distinct vein of stereotypical “our man in the Balkans” style writing that does, gently, detract from the readerly experience. Actually, that’s not true, because it’s hard to know how to judge The Fall of Yugoslavia. Because there is no way to deny that Glenny’s huge wealth of knowledge, contacts and direct personal witness combine to make a detailed and thoughtful evocation of this terrible war, but there is a certain dryness throughout that – dare I say it – means that this book doesn’t feel like literature, it instead feels like journalism.
Is this a valid criticism to make? I suppose the boom in non-fiction texts we’re currently living in makes it feel so, yes. This isn’t a literary book – it is descriptions of things with an immediacy and a knowledge that lends them power, but as this was written in the midst of the conflict (first edition 1993, expanded later including an epilogue in 1996) there is a lack of distance: this is not the definitive book of the conflict, even though it goes some way towards being that. But nor is it a deeply personal text – Glenny is worried, drunk, scared and nervous from time to time, but his emotions never take centrestage, and the drinking – which does kinda creep up and eventually seems to be used as the primary means of connection with lots of people he interviews – isn’t the story here. The story is the war, but the fact that the book was written before the war was over, before the numbers involved in the “ethnic cleansing” was exposed, before the Hague war crime trials began and before, really, Kosovo became a major issue in the region, there is something absent. There is no real conclusion, no real ending, other than the fact that events continue and maybe they will never properly calm down. This is perhaps appropriate to journalism, but as a work of non-fiction it means there is something missing. This hasn’t been structured like a complete text, a complete narrative: it has been structured like reportage. And that’s fine, it’s valuable, it’s important, but it does feel like reading a book-length newspaper article, which is what it is. And with the acronyms and names that appear throughout, it can often be a confusing experience.
When I began reading the book, I was worried my knowledge would never catch up – Glenny starts by mentioning names and places with a presumption of readerly knowledge, which – obviously – at the time, would have been appropriate. This was the news, back in 1993, and though some of the names – especially Slobodan Milosević and Ratko Mladić – have echoed through the decades since, there are a lot of people, factions and major events of the war that I had no idea about before. I’m 29, so all my knowledge of this conflict is half-remembered phrases from my childhood and things I’ve learnt separately as an adult. Srebrenica is probably the single most weighty place on my conscious related to this war, but when Glenny was writing, the true magnitude of the events there had not been uncovered. It’s an interesting and important read, sure, but it’s a description of the events as they happen, covering why they happened, but not what they mean, because it would be impossible to write with hindsight in the present tense.
Maybe my judgement of The Fall of Yugoslavia is damaged by comparison. The last non-fiction book I read about the Balkans was Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which – if I was never going to die – I’d reread every year of my life, and the previous non-fiction books on war I’ve read include Joan Didion’s Salvador and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In fiction, I’ve read evocations of this war more recently in Sehic’s aforementioned Quiet Flows the Una (buy it here) as well as in Mathias Enard’s glorious Zone. I haven’t read much journalism, especially not book-length journalism of this weight, but it’s strange reading about torture and murder and rape and destruction without deliberate attempts from the writer to evoke an emotional response. I’m struggling to know what to say about it, to be honest.
It’s an interesting read, but it’s not the all-encompassing explanation of the Yugoslavian conflict that I’d hoped for. But, is it ever really possible to understand properly the past?
No. I think I was expecting too much.
Interview with Faruk Sehic:
1. I approached a selection of male and female writers and sadly it was only three men who were available and keen to be filmed while I was in the Balkans. ↩