Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Zagreb, Exit South

As I mentioned in my last blog, my next destination was Zagreb in Croatia, with "Zagreb, Exit South" by Edo Popović. This was another country impacted by the Bosnian War and the wider Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. However, for this leg I travelled not just between countries but forward in time... to 2005, for an account of lives in this Balkan state several years on from the war:- lives which are nevertheless still impacted upon by those recent conflicts.

Firstly, I have to say that I am really pleased that I came across Popović as a writer, I loved the realist approach that he takes in depicting Zagreb through his main protagonist, the failed writer Baba - both in terms of addressing difficult personal issues, and in his depiction of the wider social problems of the city of Zagreb. Whether these issues are a product of the past conflict or the current commercialisation of the country (or a mix of both) is never made clear - and to be fair to Popović this is not really his concern.. I would put him more in the genre of social commentators such as Bukowski, Selby or Salinger (who sadly died today: 28/01/10). What he is detailing is the minutiae of a set of personal lives which are bound by a shared youthful past but which are now slowly disintegrating - largely through the ravages of the recent social and political upheavals of the country - but also on an individual level due to alcohol abuse (a common theme in many European works which I am using as stopping points on my world trip; including those in the UK).

In terms of narrative: I can offer no better detailed account than the publisher's synoposis of this work:

"Zagreb, Exit South masterfully illuminates the lives of diverse, colorful characters adrift in postwar Croatia. Through bleary, middle-aged eyes, stymied writer Baba takes readers on an amusing, thought-provoking ride as he circles the streets of Zagreb bemoaning the dying out of domestic beer, Kancheli's ridiculous musical lighter, and the fear of going home. His wife Vera, facing wrinkles and an alcoholic spouse, discovers that e-mail is cheaper than therapy as she reshapes her life. Reflective insight, biting humor, and life-changing experiences combine to revive hope in the shadows of Zagreb's city buildings".

And so I move on to the neighbouring state of Montenegro... I had planned to visit this country after my trip to Bosnia & Herzegovina as it shares more of a land border, however there were Visa problems (okay: in real terms my Montenegrin book didn't arrive on time!)

Of all of the major countries and tiny states throughout the world - including those tiny island-states in the pacific with no literary history - I found Montenegro the most difficult country to find a book for. I toyed with an idea of a history book about Montenegro in the past 100 years; but this would have been a compromise as it would not have been about the PEOPLE and the CULTURE of this tiny, yet strategically important, country.

And so I was delighted to find - at a late stage - a wonderful work entitled "A Stranger's Supper: An Oral History of Centenarian Women in Montenegro". This book consists of interviews with about a dozen Centenerian women (all of whom were between 101 and 114 years old!) in Montenegro. One woman is a Serb muslim, the other a Catholic Albanian and there's a Muslim Albanian and the rest are Serb women.

In being written post-1990 and featuring current recollections of these women in the last decade of the twentieth century, this book fits my travel criteria well:- I feel that this work forms an invaluable addition to my trip and a unique perspective on the conflicts that have beset this region throughout (and beyond) living memory...

And so I take my leave of Croatia, via Croatia Airlines at Zagreb Pleso airport... I advise you to shop around if you are making this journey: I was quoted up to €948 for this one-way trip but ended up paying €109 in total including taxes and admin!

I leave Zagreb Pleso at 14.10 and arrive in Montenegro at Podgorica Golubovci airport at 15.20. I look forward to updating you on this leg of my journey soon...

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Views of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Following on from Serbia, I have just spent six days in the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina: Sarajevo.

In line with my rules for my 'Round the World' trip, this book was written post-1990 (in 1994), and this makes it all the more shocking in its depiction of the graphic horrors of a war-torn European country in the very recent past.

In 1994 the Bosnian War was at its height - an international armed conflict that took place between March 1992 and November 1995, involving the neighbouring states of Croatia and the (then) Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Sarajevo was in the heart of this conflict and so, unlike my trip to Kosova (which took place after conflict had ended) and Serbia (where the protagonist was dangerously close to, but somewhat removed from, the conflict around him), here we find ourselves in the horrifying and bloody midst of war.

The book starts with an almost elegiac and nostalgic recollection of a bus trip to a scenic waterfall at Jajce, as recalled by a young boy. Whilst there is a degree of trauma here (a fatal road accident is witnessed), this vignette is in stark contrast to the collection of short stories that follow...

The overriding theme of this collection of short stories is that of ordinary lives suddenly interrupted - and often cut short - by shocking violence, usually in the form of heavy shelling on the city. The format is often similar in each work, a purposefully mundane description of ordinary urban lives - and then a cataclysmic moment of violence - often retold in the same mundane, matter-of-fact tone as the preceding part of the story. For instance in an excerpt from "The Gardener"... "We were coming home with our water when the shells began to fall, so we ran into the nearest building. The hall was already full of people. Ivanka leaned against the wall and put her canisters down, but I didn't let go of mine. She lit a cigarette, and then the place just exploded. People fell to the ground, and then one by one they stood up again. All except Ivanka, that is - she didn't stand up."

And the author, Miljenko Jergović, does not limit his observations of the conflict to the somewhat detached use of shells on civilian cities, he also describes with great insight and pathos the way in which personal relationships and communities were torn apart by the ethnic divisions which shaped this conflict. Stories such as "Beard" illustrate the heart-breaking instances where neighbour was turned against neighbour in this conflict, and the spectre of ethnic cleansing - in this instance at the hands of 'Chetniks' (Serbian paramilitaries) - infuses many of these accounts with brutal realism ("Beard" opens with the line... "Juraj's head lay in the mud like an empty dish into which the raindrops fell. But the soldiers marched past without giving him a second look").

All this is not to say that there is no room for humanity - and even humour - in this collection ("Beetle" is a poignant story - at first seemingly written to a lost loved one but which, as it turns out, is actually a requiem to a beloved VW Beetle Car owned by the narrator - itself a metaphor for the loss of normal life in post-war Bosnia & Herzegovina:- and the irony of the Beetle being a car designed by the Nazi regime of World War II is not lost on the author).

In striking such a balance - and in the sheer descriptive and emotional quality of the writing - Jergović shows himself to be a writer of real quality, one whom, like so many other writers I have encountered in this part of Europe, is deserving of a much wider audience in the Western world. When my ‘Round the World’ trip is eventually over, Jergović is a writer whom I shall return to and whose other works I will seek out.

If I have one criticism it is this - the constant format of normal lives destroyed by conflict in each successive story has the effect of numbing the reader to the impact of these stories by the end of the book. However, in achieving this effect - perhaps unconsciously - Jergović effectively demonstrates how us readers in the relatively peaceful West reacted to the Balkan Wars on the 1990s at the time... horror at first, sympathy, and then a sense of numbness at the repetition of the atrocities played out on the news each night... and even, eventually, a tragic disengagement with the plight of our neighbours in Southeastern Europe.

And now it is time to leave, and to make my way to Zagreb in Croatia, with "Zagreb, Exit South" by Edo Popović. This is another country impacted by the Bosnian War and the wider Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. However, for this leg I am travelling not just between countries but forward in time... to 2005, for an account of lives in this Balkan state several years on from the war, lives which are nevertheless still impacted upon by those recent conflicts.

The trip between these two cities is a long one (8 - 9 hours) so I decide to take a night train from Sarajevo, leaving at 9.20pm. I opt for a secured berth on the couchette car, meaning I am able to get a few hours sleep on the journey. The train itself has seen better days, but the couchette is clean and comfortable enough and worth the extra 10EURO - although there is an inconvenient ticket and passport check at the Bosnia/Croatia border crossing which means you won't get an uninterrupted night's sleep!

I arrive in Zagreb's cathedral-like train station at 6.42 in the morning and on to my new destination, the novel: "Zagreb, Exit South" by Edo Popović.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

A Picture of Serbia

It is now the 10th January and I am taking my leave of Serbia, having spent my time in the personable company of Aleksander Zograf (a pseudonym of Sasa Rakezic); a comic strip writer from the industrial town of Pančevo, about 12km from Belgrade.

It was interesting to read this book immediately following the 'Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo', just to get a different perspective on the tragic events that were happening in this area at the end of the millenium.

As with Paula Huntley's book, this book takes the form of a journal - spanning the years from 1993, during the inital Balkans conflicts, through to the UN bombing of Serbia at the end of the decade and ending with the death of Slobodan Milošević in 2006. The key difference here is that - Aleksander being a cartoonist - much of this account is made up of comic strip / graphic novel format (with a strong visual influence from US cartoonist Robert Crumb), with the middle section being a compilation of sporadic emails that he sent to his international friends during the 'crisis in Serbia'.

The visual aspect is an interesting one, as is the perspective of this individual who is well placed to represent the 'ordinary man in the street' in Serbia during this conflict. After the demonisation of Serbs in the previous book - this brings a needed balance (Paula Huntley herself admits to having no contact herself whilst in Kosovo, with the Serbs who remained there under KFOR protection).

Indeed Zograf himself - certainly no supporter of the regime that he finds himself under - takes a laudably balanced approach to the conflict: equally concerned for the innocent victims of the UN bombings in Belgrade as for the Kosovan Albanians suffering at the hands of Serbian paramilitaries. He even finds time to sympathise with the UN pilots who are bombing his home-town ("It must be a really hard job...I guess every land, viewed from the air, looks beautiful, and the pilots have to drop bombs, right on the towns and people below, and risk their lives for some reason that is more or less abtract to them...In a way, they are the victims of this war, just like those tiny little people down on earth.")

What really comes across here is the sheer frustration of an ordinary individual who just wants to go about a normal life, and who cannot understand the madness unfolding around him; in the form of Serbian propaganda and aggression in Kosovo, seemingly random UN bombings of his home town and Belgrade, and the slow disintegration of the social structure within which he has lived.

That said, Zograf - whilst no doubt psychologically traumatised by the circumstances he finds himself in - is somewhat removed from the full horrors endured on both sides of the conflict. The bombs that drop on his hometown shake his building and invade his dreams but he is never directly impacted upon by an explosion at close range (his one injury incurred during the narrative is a broken arm - a result of falling off his bike), and he is able to travel abroad to the US and Italy at times during this time period.

That is not to trivialise what must have been a terrible experience, and certainly one which I could never comprehend, it is just to say that the true value of this work is to show that - for many people during times of conflict - life simply has to go as normally as possible. Also, this approach (and I am getting ahead of myself a little here) made the graphic, immediate, descriptions of the horrors of the Balkans conflict featured in the next leg of my journey ('Sarajevo Marlboro') all the more shocking and visceral.

To sum up then, this book is highly recommended in that it gives a view of an ordinary Serbian - rather than the Serbian extremists - and reminds us that all sides suffered terrible innocent casualties during this conflict. I would also recommend that you least read an overview of the context of this conflict before reading this, and the previous book, as it really will add value to these legs of the world trip. Indeed the next few ports of call on my journey are all former Yugoslavian states which were badly affected by the conflicts of the 1990s.

And so, I move on from Serbia to Sarajevo, the capital of neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is back onto the 'Beograd Centar' commuter rail line into Belgrade and from there I make my way across the city to the Lasta Bus Station (I walk as I have some time to spare - the one bus from there to Sarajevo does not leave until 4.00pm).

I embark on my journey in a pleasantly clean and comfortable Lasta bus which stops frequently over the next hour until our last port of call in Serbia, a picturesque-looking village named Jarak. From there it is direct for several hours (I resist the urge to snooze in order to enjoy the amazing scenery), until I am deposited in Sarajevo's main bus station at 10.45pm.

Thus begins my next leg of the round the world journey... 'Sarajevo Marlboro' - a collection of short stories by Miljenko Jergović, written in 1994 (in the midst of the 1992-1995 'Bosnian War') - and thus giving a perspective of life in the epicentre of this violent period.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Kosovo and some reflections on my journey so far....

And so, as the year draws to a close, I take my leave of Kosovo; the last book of 2009 on my ongoing 'round the world' trip...

Before I discuss my Kosovan sojourn, this seems like a good time to reflect upon my journey so far, which started way back in May of this year. The concept of travelling around the world through literature was one which I had been toying with for some time, and a six-month period of unemployment (now gladly resolved) gave me that opportunity... I was also fortunate that I was able to use the Internet to plan, plot and share my thoughts on my visits - and indeed without the use of the Internet as a resource to identify key works, I would not have been able to get close of my aim of visiting all official (and several unofficial) states in the world.

I had originally only planned to identify my trips three or four countries ahead, but tracking down representative works of each country has been such a fascinating exercise that I have only another 15 or so countries on my itinerary to track books down for! Of course, I am aware that this journey may take some years and that more relevant books may appear for certain countries, so I shall be constantly reviewing my choices... and any suggestions are more than welcome! The help and assistance that I have had from authors, academics and readers from across the globe has been overwhelming, and I am truly grateful for all those who have taken the time to contact me, respond to my emails and - in some cases - even sent me books...

In reviewing my book choices I am also acutely aware of the importance of identifying native authors where possible; and I am pleased that I have only had to resort to four non-native authors on my journey so far. That said, the next leg of my journey "The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo" is written by an American, Paula Huntley, who journeyed to Kosovo in 2000 as part of a UN-led restructuring programme. However, given the sensitive and polarised nature of the recent conflict in Serbia and Kosovo, it could be argued that an outsiders' view is perhaps beneficial here in providing a less subjective perspective on the situation in Kosovo....

The premise then, of this book, is that it is culled from a series of journal extracts and emails written by Paula during her year-long stay in Kosovo where she travelled with her husband, teaching English at the University in Pristina. Indeed Paula herself calls this "an accidental book", and whilst the diary format has no doubt undergone a degree of rewriting prior to publication, the format does give an immediacy and honesty to the narrative: Paula questions her own innermost motivations in journeying to Kosovo:- as well as making interesting parallels of the prejudice she sees around her with her own previous racial intolerance whilst growing up in 1960s America.

However, this is not an introspective work, and indeed one of the most effective elements of this book are her vivid descriptions of a war-torn Kosovo desparately trying to get back to normal within the artificial confines of UN administration. The physical descriptions are particularly telling:

"Prishtina is a city of fragments. There are few whole things here - few intact surfaces, few complete buildings, few functional systems. Concrete sidewalks are split and buckled, stuccoed walls are crazed and stained, roads are gullied and pocked with holes big enough to swallow a small car, steps are crumbling, ragged-edged. Turbid, smelly gray-water seeps from every crack and pit. And everywhere, everywhere, garbage."

Defying these grim conditions are the key characters: the Kosovan students who attend her English lessons and the titular Book Club. These students provide fascinating insights into the psyche of this region, and their optimisim and fortitude is universally humbling given that they are effectively suffering a double tragedy - a scarred past of death and displacement at the hands of Serbian paramilitaries; and an uncertain future in a country still devastated by war and reliant upon the fickle Western powers for support. All see themselves as 'lucky' (they are, after all, still alive) and see the learning of English as a ticket to a better future. Whilst some achieve their dreams of escaping their situations, to varying degrees, Paula is acutely aware that she may well be raising unrealistic expectations among her students; a heartbreaking prospect for both writer and reader.

Paula herself proves to be an insightful guide into Kosovo here - she is always aware that her views of the country are tempered by a Western/US perspective and she shows a rare sensitivity in her actions - for instance, whilst attempting to encourage her Kosovo Albanian students to acknowledge that not all Serbians are murderers and aggressors, she wisely retreats in the face of obvious confusion and even anger. These individuals' wounds are simply too recent and too deep, although by the end of the book there are signs of hope here Paula says in a recent interview "Kosovo will be judged by how well the Albanian majority of some 90 per cent protects the Serbs, Roma and other minority groups. Are they up to this? I hope so. Everything depends upon it".

Ultimately, this is a story of a country and a people scarred and traumatised by recent war, who desperately require an autonomy and stake in their own future which they are unlikely to attain whilst they remain under international governance - a situation which remains nearly a decade after this book was written. As of 2010, the status of Kosovo remains unclear - of the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council the US, UK and France acknowledged a declaration of Kosovan independence in 2008, yet this has not been formalised due to the resistance of China and Russia.

On a personal note, I must admit to being shamefully unaware of the details of the Kosovan crisis and the Balkan conflict of the 1990s... as a twentysomething living in the UK at the time, I was aware of the conflict from the nightly news reports of NATO bombings and I recall being appalled at the UN's failure to prevent the Srebenica massacre in 1995, but the details never really struck home. To me, this was a conflict happening elsewhere, to other people, and I never really engaged with it. As a final thought, I have to say I would welcome an update from Paula Huntley on how these various individuals are doing, almost a decade on from her book's events.

In any case, I am grateful that my journey round the world - whilst inevitably limited - is at least giving myself, and hopefully followers of this Blog, a glimpse into the terrible real-life situations that so many of our fellow global citizens find themselves in.

With this in mind, I am setting out from Pristina, Kosovo, to its controversial neighbour, Serbia (Serbia itself still claims Kosovo as one of its own territories). The general populace of Serbia were not untouched by the wars of the 90s/early 00s themselves (or ignorant of the plight of the people of Kosovo) and my next account takes me to the industrial town of Pančevo, which was heavily bombed by NATO forces at the turn of the Millenium as a result of Serbian aggression in Kosovo.

The book in question is "Regards From Serbia" by Aleksandar Zograf, a resident of Pančevo (about 15km from Belgrade) during the conflicts. This is a mix of graphic novel (Zograf is a cartoonist) and email diary to his friends outside of Serbia during the bombing campaign. I will write more of this work when I have finished reading it, but suffice to say, as an ordinary individual, he expresses the same horror, bewilderment and frustration as his Kosovan counterparts during this terrible conflict.

To this day, direct travel is still not permitted from Kosovo to Serbia if the journey has not started in Serbia itself (there is talk of this ban being lifted soon for international citizens but not for Kosovan passport holders. The embargo will remain in place "primarily because of the [Kosovo] Albanian population’s crime links in Western Europe” according to Serbia's interior minister).

Thus I have no option but to make my way to the recently renovated Pristina International Airport and get a cheap flight from Pristina back to Tirana in Albania.

From there I get a 12.20pm connecting 'Alitalia' flight to Rome, leaving Rome at 2.30pm and finally arriving at Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Airport at 4.30pm (convoluted but - relatively! - cheap at $380).

From here I get a (surprisingly cheap) taxi - making sure it has the blue city taxi sign on the roof as well as the offical logo of the taxi company - travelling about 12km east of the airport into Belgrade proper where I catch the reasonably efficient commuter rail from 'Beograd Centar' direct to 'Pančevo Vojlovica'.

And so I arrive at my destination in Serbia - Pančevo - eager to see the other side of the conflict referred to in my Kosovan stopover, and also aware that this represents a significant gateway on my travels into the other former Yugoslavian states of Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia etc. I hope to find out more about this tragic conflict through this leg of my journey. However - above all - I hope to get a sense of the everyday lives of our fellow European citizens in this ravaged region; almost a decade after the conflict which has defined their lives for so long...