Boyd Tonkin: How to quench the book-burners

The week in books

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.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...