Boyd Tonkin: How to quench the book-burners
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 24 February 2012
Heinrich Heine put it most pithily: "Where they burn books, they will in the end burn people too." Many readers know those words; fewer, perhaps, that they refer to burnings of the Qur'an by the Spanish Inquisition, and appear in his 1821 tragedy, Almansor. On 10 May 1933, when the Nazis lit their first big bonfire of Jewish and "degenerate" works on the Opernplatz in Berlin, Almansor (along with the rest of Heine) duly fed the flames.
We are approaching the 20th anniversary of the post-war world's most systematic exercise in book-burning, one carried out as a conscious attempt to destroy the culture, history and memory of a people. The first skirmishes in the three-year siege of Sarajevo took place in March 1992. By 5 April, Serb forces on the hills encircling the Bosnian capital had begun to subject a modern European city to a drawn-out medieval ordeal of collective punishment and almost-random slaughter. Only almost-random, though: some targets were chosen with premeditated care.
In August, sustained grenade bombardment set alight the buildings of the National and University Library, with its 1.5 million volumes and 150,000 rare books and manuscripts housed in the neo-Moorish old town hall. Citizens saved perhaps 100,000 items, but most of the collections perished. Other libraries were also set ablaze. The Oriental Institute lost its priceless holdings of Jewish and Islamic manuscripts. That was the point: to eliminate all traces of a tolerant, multi-faith past, and the treasures it had brought to Bosnia.
One stirring story of resistance is told in Sam Hobkinson's deeply evocative film The Love of Books: a Sarejevo story. Screened this week on BBC4, it remains viewable on the iPlayer: catch it while you can. It shows how Dr Mastafa Jahic and his colleagues – including a cleaner and a nightwatchman from Congo - put their lives on the line to rescue 10,000 books and manuscripts, under sniper fire, from the library of the Gazi Husrev Beg mosque.
Two decades on, have the book-burners of the former Yugoslavia learned their lesson? Although she writes, as always, with wit, mischief and an unflagging sense of the absurd, one of the region's most important - and most readable - writers doubts much has changed. The novelist and essayist Dubravka Ugresic fell foul of nationalists in her native Croatia as war erupted in 1991. Branded as a traitor and a "witch", subject to a ferocious media bombardment of abuse and harassment for her refusal of "patriotic" pieties, she began a long journey away from the nation - both as a place and as an ideal.
From her exile in Amsterdam, she remains one of the funniest, shrewdest, most uplifting writers that Europe can boast. Her new collection of essays, Karaoke Culture (Open Letter, £10.99), ought to find its way onto the desk of every pundit and politician who rushes to pass judgment on the ex-Yugoslav inferno. With its deadpan humour just this side of heartbreak, the 50 pages of "A Question of Perspective" – which recounts her heresies, persecution and flight from the madness of Croatian nationalism - counts as a classic testimony of our times. ("Here and there bonfires burned," she notes about the local "bibliocide", "often initiated by local librarians, teachers and pupils".) But then so does the title piece. This extrapolates the plastic, phoney "freedom of a game" (or a karaoke night) of pop culture into a broad diagnosis of our era's ills, undercut with self-deprecating humour: "I'm joining the ranks of this rhapsodic Complainers Internationale".
When it comes to book-burning and similar barbarities, Ugresic reckons that most of the chauvinistic ogres from the grim but profitable years when "the homeland was a goldmine" have survived. They have lain low, swapped roles and re-invented themselves as harmless reformers or entertainers: karaoke patriots, perhaps. So you can imagine what jet-black comedy she extracts from Dr Radovan Karadzic, the blood-stained Serbian warlord found hiding under the beard of new-age healer "Dragan David Dabic".
Thanks to Ugresic (and not forgetting her nimble translators, David Williams with Ellen Elias-Bursac and Celia Hawkesworth), we can appreciate that the best minds and bravest hearts of former Yugoslavia never succumbed to the "collective trance" of murderous nationalism. Still, they can tell us vital truths about why so many did. If you wish to shame the book-burners, wherever they next light their bonfires, Ugresic will put mighty weapons in your hands.
Kiss, tell, fret: a messy aftermath
Authors, beware the serial deal. And, if you do bank the cheques, don't whine at the results. Rachel Cusk sold two extracts from her marital break-up book Aftermath to newspapers. That meant the usual paranoid and belligerent legal letter from the publishers (Faber) to folk like me, with dire threats of courtroom torments unless I respected her embargo. Now, in a lofty interview with one of the serial-buyers, Cusk (right) regrets that the extract in their pages "consisted... of lines taken from all over the book and compressed into something I could barely recognise as my own writing". The offending piece has vanished from the website. So she'll be returning the fee, then?
Our barbarian bureaucrats
In Britain, we don't burn books; we merely allow councils to shut beloved public libraries. It has much the same effect. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the plan to close Friern Barnet Library in north London, the beautiful little branch where my life as a young reader properly began. Apologies for returning to its plight, but it (sadly) stands as fairly typical of the national scene. On Monday, Barnet council confirmed the closure of the branch and future sale of the site. They seem to have refused any serious consideration of the carefully-costed rescue proposals put forward by local campaigners. A new library is, in due course, promised at an arts centre elsewhere, but the timetable is clear as mud - again, par for the course with so many authorities. Polite, resourceful and eminently reasonable, the Save Friern Barnet Library campaigners justly feel that the council has treated them with scant respect. They certainly had no joy this week from Barnet CEO Nick Walkley, who earns £200,976 pa from public funds.
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