Belgrade February 2001

The Curse of Normalcy

Writers in post-Milosevic Yugoslavia discover that angst no longer sells
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Illustration by Marcellus Hall

The main exhibition hall in Belgrade is a visual curiosity. A concrete-and-glass dome designed during the Tito era by an architect of great imagination, the hall looks like a flying saucer that somehow landed in the Balkans. It was an appropriate setting for Serbia's annual book fair, held late last October—an event that had a decidedly out-of-body quality. The fair's official theme, chosen before pro-democracy protesters ousted Slobodan Milosevic from power, was "2000 Years of Christianity," but the real theme, of course, was the startling events of the previous three weeks.

For Serbian writers the lifting of political tyranny has brought a new and different tyranny: that of the marketplace. Nowhere was this more evident than at the signing booth manned by Vladimir Arsenijevic, one of the country's most critically acclaimed writers. In 1994 Arsenijevic burst onto the literary scene with In the Hold, a novel that tells the story of a young couple in Belgrade struggling against heroin addiction as they try to find meaning, or just a reason not to give up, in a nation of madness and murder. In the Hold is the sort of small masterpiece that tends to emerge from horrible times. It won the NIN prize, Yugoslavia's most prestigious literary award, in 1995, and has been translated into eighteen languages. The book turned Arsenijevic into Serbia's hottest young writer—its Dave Eggers, if you will, though a darker version, and without a movie contract.

At the fair Arsenijevic was plugging his new book, Mexico: War Diaries. I had imagined that he would draw a tremendous crowd: the book, which chronicles Arsenijevic's experiences during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and describes his friendship with an ethnic Albanian writer from Kosovo, had gotten excellent reviews. But when I stopped by his booth on the opening day of the fair, there was no signing going on; he had sold just half a dozen books in the previous four hours. Nearby, the Serbian translation of the newest Sidney Sheldon novel was selling briskly. Arsenijevic was a good sport about it all. "If normalcy means people reading Sidney Sheldon or Jackie Collins, that's fair enough," he said, shrugging.

It is an odd phenomenon that literature can be a casualty of liberation, but it's one we've seen before. Consider what occurred in Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall collapsed, in 1989. Writers and artists who had sacrificed and achieved so much under communism became, almost overnight, nonpersons (unless, as in the case of Vaclav Havel, they became politicians). Profound books that had been passed from hand to hand, often at the risk of arrest, ended up in remainder bins from Prague to Moscow. Readers did not want to be reminded of the bad old days, and the advent of democracy brought people much else to entertain themselves with, including American best sellers, the Muzak of literature. In Moscow today it is much easier to find a book by Danielle Steel than one by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose books are often out of print.

Under a dictatorship—whether in Communist-era Eastern Europe or in apartheid-era South Africa or in an Argentina run by generals—the mere act of acquiring certain books becomes a form of social protest. Yugoslavia had been no exception, as I learned when I met with Mileta Prodanovic, a prominent writer and artist whose publisher had a booth not far from Arsenijevic's. Prodanovic told me that many people had felt "humiliated in a psychological sense" by the hypernationalism and corruption that pervaded Serbian society under Milosevic. "You would enter a book shop and buy a book to prove to yourself that you were still an intellectual or still human," he recalled. "I think this motive is going to disappear."

As it does, the pursuit of economic success may well take its place. For prosperous members of the consumer society that Yugoslavia is destined to become, the acquisition of goods will be a priority. Among the middle-class intelligentsia, dinner conversations are much likelier to focus on the merits of vacationing in Florence or Nice than on the merits of a new play by Dusan Kovacevic, the country's leading dramatist. For the large number of people who will have a difficult time in the economic transition under way in Yugoslavia (prices for food and other staples, kept low by Milosevic-era subsidies, have already shot up), the struggle to put bread and slivovitz on the table will no doubt become the dominant preoccupation. Understandably, few in such situations will want to read about their own hardships. Being poor is much less interesting—even to poor people—than being oppressed.

Oppression provides writers not only with a sympathetic, even determined, audience but also with compelling material. Normalcy represents unknown turf for authors accustomed to writing under, and about, tyranny. "You do get better inspiration when times are rough politically, and probably literature does come out with better works, because there are more questions at stake," Arsenijevic explains. "You tend to question everything, down to very personal things. But when times are not rough, you just switch off part of your mind, in a way."

Of course, I did not find any writer who mourned the passing of the Milosevic era. Kovacevic has spent more than a decade writing plays and screenplays—including the script for Underground, an award-winning 1995 film directed by Emir Kusturica—that chronicle his country's agony. He's had enough of it. He was in one of his notoriously acerbic, whiskey-drinking moods when we met at the book fair. "In the old system it was good to be a writer but horrible to be a citizen," he remarked, pausing to enjoy the irony. "Now it's time to have a change. A boring life—that's my great wish."

But does a mundane life have to mean a literature of the mundane—more Cheever than Kundera? In hindsight, the ebb of political literature in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was somewhat predictable. Once communism fell, what more needed to be said about it? Communism was poison, and almost everyone knew it. In Serbia, though, the evil was nationalism, which is more a drug than a poison—and relapse is possible. Milosevic was ousted not because he led the country into four wars but because he lost the wars and brought economic ruin to his people. The atrocities committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo are infrequently mentioned in Belgrade—and for this reason Serbia's writers, more than their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, need to find a way to remind their compatriots of the evil in their past and the possibility that its roots live on. Selective amnesia is not unknown in the Balkans. As Prodanovic cautioned, "We are quick forgetters."

Arsenijevic is keenly aware of this need, and of the difficulty that writers who try to address it will face. "People are not into huge ideas, like ten years ago," he said. "They have matured: they don't vote for demagogues and support them no matter what they do. But hardly anyone thinks of sorting out the relationships among the ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. That is a boring subject. What they want to think about is foreign goods."

He believes that readers in Serbia will return to politically tinged literature one of these days. In the meantime, he has a backup plan. He recently decided that he didn't like trying to earn his daily bread from writing, which is almost impossible in Serbia, even for him. So he got together with a group of friends and started a publishing house. He plans to write on the side, as he did before he became famous, when he paid his bills by being a short-order cook and a tour guide. His publishing house is called Rende, or "Grater"—a name he hopes will convey a certain edginess. Its first titles are Mexico: War Diaries and a book of poems by Arsenijevic's Kosovar friend, Dzevdet Bajraj.

Publishing, of course, is a perilous commercial exercise in any country, let alone Serbia. Arsenijevic hopes to ensure Rende's survival through an imprint called Org. The imprint has nothing to do with the dot-com world and everything to do with commercial smarts; a certain irony also applies. When I asked Arsenijevic what "Org" stands for, he replied, "Like orgy, orgasm." The imprint's first book, which Arsenijevic hopes to release soon, is a collection of pornographic poems by a violinist at the Belgrade Opera who is also a stripper. After that Arsenijevic would like to translate and publish Macho Sluts, by the California erotica writer Pat Califia. Instead of being crushed by the new market in Serbia, Arsenijevic hopes to master it. "The book is really well written and it's, like, total porn," he explained enthusiastically. "And the title translates really well into Serbian."

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