BOOK REVIEW / Those Balkan blues again: Hugh Barnes reports on the creative riches of a war zone

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The Independent Culture
IN A recent interview, the Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugresic described imaginative writing as 'a luxury of a culture of peace, not of a culture of war . . . the only way you can describe the war (in ex-Yugoslavia) - if you can do that at all - is to use fragments'. Various fragments have been collected by Joanna Labon in Storm: Out of Yugoslavia (Carcanet pounds 7.95), whose appearance is timely. No longer a front-page story or headline on the television news, the war in Bosnia has become a long-running fait-divers, easily forgotten. By including work by writers from each of the new republics, this anthology shows literature beginning to deal with the experience of war in the region, thereby providing its own commentary to set against the negative and self-conscious attitudes of the international media.

'Balkan Blues', the introductory piece by Ugresic, is a series of fragments describing the popularity of folk songs among 'Yugozombies' - that is to say, people who have been 'crushed by the amnesic steam-roller of war and thoroughly rinsed in national brainwashing machines'. Other writers share her pessimistic view of ex- Yugoslavs as damaged goods. Bogdan Bogdanovic, however, a former mayor of Belgrade, casts his inventory in a whirl of ideas and language. In 'The City and Death' he ponders the bombardment of Sarajevo, the awful destructiveness of the Serb military campaign. 'Sooner or later,' he writes, 'the civilised world will dismiss our internecine butchery with a shrug of the shoulders - how else can it react? - but it will never forget the way we destroyed our cities. We - we Serbs - shall be remembered as despoilers of cities, latter-day Huns.'

In 'Portrait of an Inward City' by Dzevad Karahasan, Sarajevo is a metaphor for the world, a place where different peoples, religions and interests come together. Odd images recur - microcosms and monotheisms, or the laws of optics - yet this Bosnian writer displays a kaleidoscopic virtuosity: 'Like the fortune teller's crystal ball, which contains all events, everything that any human being might experience, all things and all phenomena of the world, just as Borges's Aleph displays in himself everything that has been, that will be and that could be, Sarajevo contains everything that is the world to the west of India.'

The prevailing mood of Storm: Out of Yugoslavia may strike the reader as being rather traditional, and at times reminiscent of Danilo Kis, the most subtly talented novelist of his generation in Central Europe. Kis, a Jew who died in exile in Paris in 1989, made of his Yugoslavia an instrument at once universal and deep-rooted in the brutality of Serbian and Croatian idioms. His last story, 'Apatride' or 'A Man of No Country', was written before the disintegration of Yugoslavia - it was inspired by the life of Odon von Horvath, the Hungarian-born playwright of Tales from the Vienna Woods - but it appears in Storm for the first time in English. Here, as elsewhere, politics, war and landscape are indissolubly wedded, the beauty sustains the suffering, the suffering deepens and gives dark new meaning to the beauty.

(Photograph omitted)