New Order: Tony White on the Sharp-Edged Culture Emerging from the Young Balkan Republics

Article excerpt

In town and city squares across the former Yugoslavia, the territory now known as the "western Balkans", stands a host of distinctive statues sculpted by the artist Ivan Mestrovic. In the early 20th century he was compared to Michelangelo and Rodin. Now he is largely forgotten. A shepherd boy raised in Dalmatia, he became a leading international cultural figure and played a part in the movement to create a unified southern Slavic state (Yugoslavia) from the fallout of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Mestrovic's sculptures fused expressionism with art nouveau and neoclassicism and he saw his art--monuments to historical and mythic figures from Slavic history--as a means to create a unified culture for a people who had been riven by conquest.

Now that Yugoslavia no longer exists, Mestrovic epitomises the worst problem for artists and writers in this part of the Balkans: that they and their works can be held hostage by their own history. Some contemporary artists have tackled this problem directly. A photomontage by the Bosnian artist Sejla Kameric, entitled Bosnian Girl, has become an iconic representation of the international prejudices that the wars of the 1990s exposed, and it has lost none of its resonance. Published around the world, as well as fly-posted or reproduced on postcards, the work uses the familiar visual language of magazine advertising, but combines a photographic portrait of the artist with a highly offensive, semi-literate graffito left on a wall in Srebrenica by an anonymous Dutch soldier: "No teeth ...? A mustache ...? Smel like shit ...? BOSNIAN GIRL!" That such a statement could have been written, as it seems to have been, by a member of "Dutchbat", the battalion charged with protecting the refugees at Srebrenica and Potocari prior to the genocide of 1995, almost beggars belief.

Writers in contemporary Croatia have spoken with frustration of an international expectation that they should write about war, but artists and writers face new challenges in all the Yugoslav successor republics. These young countries are in differing stages of reconstruction and reintegration with mainstream Europe, making cultural exchange between them (let alone with the outside world) very difficult. Books published in Croatia, for example, are prohibitively expensive in Serbia and therefore impossible to import, while works by leading contemporary Bosnian authors are almost unknown outside their own borders. In Serbia, there is a popular saying: "Govori Srpski da te ceo svet razume" ("Speak Serbian so the whole world will understand you"). However, as the Belgrade-based author Zoran Zivkovic wryly suggests: "When you write in Serbian, you don't write at all." Zivkovic is a science-fiction writer in the mould of Stanislaw Lem or Italo Calvino whose novel Hidden Camera has just been published in the west by Dalkey Archive. With most books in Serb having a print run of no more than 500, the pressure is on authors to increase both their audience and their income by publishing in translation, especially into English.

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After a decade of sanctions, there is an acute hunger for new foreign literature in Serbia (and, to a lesser extent, in Croatia, which is more rehabilitated internationally), but this is an appetite that is hard for the cash-strapped domestic publishing industries to satisfy. …