The BL’s first ever ‘Balkans Day’ conference for academics, writers, students, translators, journalists and publishers from Britain and the Balkans was created to stimulate discussion and celebrate the literary and cultural achievements of the Balkans. But 25 years after the divisions in Bosnia emerged, 100 years after World War 1 was ignited in Sarajevo, here we were arguing over which countries today called themselves ‘Balkan’ and whether our esteemed participants were ‘Balkan’ or ‘post-Yugoslav’ or just plain Croatian, Serbian etc. No one had a problem with the label ‘European’, although no one was sure about the EU – but we’re used to that in the UK. It was all very amicable, no physical injuries, ‘time’ was called and success proclaimed. I am, ofcourse, talking about ‘Balkans Day’ not Brazil.
The sad fact was that, on that hot June day, 1000s more people were interested in distant Brazil than the culture and current affairs of our close European neighbours. Our BL team played to a small, dedicated crowd of 100s, not 1000s. But ‘Balkans Day’ was a significant event, hopefully an annual one, and however variously we define the region today, all of us agreed: we must not forget the Balkans.
After I joined the BBC 25 years ago, in September 1989, I took to the road for several months covering events in Yugoslavia, Poland and Hungary, followed by Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania. For the populations of those countries, for all those who protested, fought and died, and in a different way, also for those of us observing and reporting, these were life-changing times which none of us can possibly forget.
So, here’s something for all you World Cup drop-outs: a few things we discussed in London on June 13th .
First, the names of just some of our very distinguished speakers:
Vesna Goldsworthy, novelist and Professor of English at Kingston University, UK;
Milan Grba, Lead Curator of Southeast European Studies at the British Library;
Dubravka Ugrešić, novelist and essayist, Holland/Croatia;
Vladislav Bajac, novelist, translator and publisher, Serbia;
Andrej Nikolaidis, novelist and journalist, Montenegro;
Muharem Bazdulj, novelist and journalist, Bosnia and Herzegovina;
Igor Štiks, novelist and senior research fellow at Edinburgh University, Croatia/Bosnia;
Nebojsa Radic, Director of the Cambridge University Language Programmes;
Dragan Kujundzic, Professor of Jewish Studies Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Florida;
Alex Drace-Francis, Associate Professor, European Studies, University of Amsterdam.
And this is a taster of what they said:
Vesna introduced herself as a Serb-Yugoslav-British resident-Balkans person; Dubravka called herself ‘Balkan, Croatian, female and post-Yugoslav’ etc – all the introductions continued wittily and wisely in this way. Then came the keynotes and panel discussions. Addressing the audience, the brilliant Dubravka, one of the few Balkans writers to have broken through in English translation, said:
‘I am a traumatized literary personality; our mother tongues and national literatures are our homes; translation into foreign languages is a refugee shelter. I write in a language split into 3: Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian; translators keep me alive. It is a marriage. My admiration for translators is immense. I often feel invisible too, like translators. Only literature written in major languages enjoy borderless travel. Others travel on dubious passports.’
She continued to a captivated audience: ‘Literature today knows no borders – that may sound like a platitude but it’s important and a problem: my homespun industry, my shop, is doomed to close; my freedom has been eaten by democracy since I exited the national zone and entered my own zone. But a literary life makes no sense lost in the marketplace of ideas. The struggles today are for commercial success. Take the example of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ as demonstrating corporate culture.’
Dubravka was asked if she’s seen differently ‘at home’ and ‘abroad’: ‘I am seen as more exotic abroad. I am not read the same way in the USA and Croatia. In Croatia I am interpreted via the new politics and in the US I am seen as an exotic global writer. Here in Europe writers are often asked to wear folk costumes and ‘perform’ their national cultures.’
Next up was Belgrade author and publisher Valdislav: ‘There are many cliches connected with the Balkans,’ he smiled, ‘One being that “the Balkans are full of history”. At the end of our Yugoslav existence publishing was in great shape. I was a journalist – the first of many professions at the time to betray its ethics – so I became a publisher and saw books as my weapons. We saved publishing in Serbia. But today there’s a paradox: books and publishers are too commercial, fixated on bestseller lists; profit is king, authors produce manuscripts that conform. Before, Yugoslavs read widely and world literature too; there were also more bookstores. Today we only have 2 main chains in Serbia.’
And, finally another gallant attempt by all conference participants to nail down that Balkans identity: ‘From the time the name ‘Balkans’ stuck, since 1848,’ Alex explained, ‘Being Balkan meant being independent as a region but also being European; in other words, being one of us while also being exotic and keeping Balkans culture at a comfortable distance.’
Eloquent Igor said: ‘Today the hope of many is that ‘the Balkans’ will cease existence and become ‘European’. And in answer to the question, ‘can you write about the Balkans and not write about history and politics?’ Igor replied: ‘No. In the UK that may be possible. I live in Scotland now and am grateful for the Scottish Referendum issue because finally they talk about politics. We are so marked by history, we are stuck in identity politics. I long for a Balkans book or a film which is a simple love story, but I’d be suspicious of it! I am suspicious of any culture that doesn’t include politics.’
Muharem reminded us of Churchill’s famous phrase: ‘The Balkans produce more history than they know how to consume’. But, he said, ‘That’s not the main problem in the Balkans, it’s the lack of continuity. Each time something happens there it is seen as a total break and it’s difficult to keep starting up over, reminding people not to forget our long history and culture.’
But the final goal was played by Andrej, the great wit, novelist, journalist and provocateur:
’I don’t know a thing about the Balkans’, he quipped, ‘I just live there!’
So, Brazil or the Balkans? I wonder which team Andrej Nikolaidis supports.
Montenegro, I suspect.