Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Best Books About Serbia (In English)

Prompted by an email from a reader from Australia who would like literature to understand his Serb parents better, here's a list of the best books I've found so far which are translated into English and fairly readily available outside Serbia itself.

Ottoman Empire Era:
Nobel prize winner Ivo Andric wrote several novels and short stories about Bosnia during the Ottoman empire which relates to much of Serb experience (same empire after all). Most famous is the Bridge on the Drina.

Roman empire-WWII:
Dame Rebecca West wrote 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon' at the outbreak of WWII inspired by a lengthy trip through Croatia and Yugoslavia. It's long, more than 1,000 pages. Called, "One of the great books of our time' by the New Yorker, it's brilliant writing worth reading no matter what the topic. And frankly, her deep insights into the characters and backgrounds of Serbs and Croatians are incredibly illuminating even - or maybe especially -- today. Should be required reading in Serb schools, probably isn't (my husband never heard of it until he moved to the West.)

Tito and post-Tito era:
Slavenka Drakulic's bestselling collections of essays, especially 'How we survived communism and even laughed' and 'Cafe Europa' are funny, sad, truthful, and brilliantly written. If you know any expats who left Yuogoslavia in the early 1990s, read Slavenka to understand where they are coming from ... and what's behind their obsession for bargain shopping and foreign travel among other things. Highly praised by the New York Times Book Review.

Search Amazon.com for books on why-the-civil-war-? and you'll see a virtual war of reactions to every single book available. Every book deeply offends one side or the other and is proclaimed lies and/or propoganda by one side or the other. It's nearly impossible for an outsider to figure out which title is at least slightly factual, not to mention well written.

That said, my personal favorite is Brian Hall's 'An Impossible Country:A Journey Through the Last days of Yugoslavia' -- written by an on-the-spot journalist from the UK who did just that... traveled through Yugoslavia just as she was falling apart and chronicled his experiences along the way.

Slobodan Milosevic Era & After:
Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad chronicles 14 Serbs from every walk of life (including a rock star, a top politician, an elderly farmer, a civil war refugee, etc.) who she met with personally and repeatedly during her trips to Serbia from 1999 to 2004. She doesn't seem to have any axes to grind or agenda. She just lets Serbs talk in their own voices. This book has helped me understand today's Serb citizens - the ones who never left -- better than any other. It's especially helpful when I am mystified by their political decisions.

Today's Serbia:
I read the blogs, columns and especially the comments, in English over at B92, my favorite independent national TV and Web channel in Serbia. In fact, I often learn far more from the comments expats and Serbs post on my occasional blogs there than I have from any book or conversation!


Anonymous said...

I second anything by Ivo Andrić (my favourites are "The Vizier's Elephant" and "Bridge on the Drina") and Slavenka Drakulić (anything really ...).

I also really loved Asne Seierstad - thought it was a nice take on what can be made a very heavy read.

I highly recomment Dragan Todorović's "The Book of Revenge" - It is not literature, but a biography of his life, which starts during the Tito-era and makes it up until mid-Sanctions in the 90's. Based in Kragujevac/Belgrade for the most part... it was a very good read, I couldn't put it down. Just finished it last week!

For other literature, I like Danilo Kiš and Dubravka Ugrešić

- A.

Jamie said...

I agree with the poster before me, Åsne Seierstad's book is excellent as well as Ivo Andrić.

A Serbian must-read: Momo Kapor's Guide to the Serbian Mentality. For anyone who has been to/lived in or even known a Serb, they will find this book hilariously accurate.

Though I've read many books from a Serb perspective books in the 1990s, I am currently reading one more from a Bosnian point of view, to give myself a better understanding of the situation. It's written by a UNPROFOR worker living in Sarajevo in the early-mid 90s, and I would highly recommend it. It's an inside look at the situation like no other: Sarajevo Roses, by Anné Mariè Du Preez Bezrob

Anonymous said...

I'm going to look up your two suggestions :)


- A.

Anonymous said...

I want to say I dislike what I've read from Slavenka Drakulic so far, including excerpts of the said book. I perceive her as sophisticated, shallow and affectatious.

(Even the very book title illustrates these points. Few people were in danger to not survive socialist Yugoslavia, a society where if anything was guaranteed, that was basic means of survival. And if she means cultural, spiritual survival - no, we quite evidently didn't survive in that respect.)

I second the advice: Go (for Rebecca) West!

Ivan, 33