This is Serbia Calling, by Matthew Collin

How radio's idealists made normality subversive
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The Independent Culture

The subtitle of This is Serbia Calling, "rock'n'roll radio and Belgrade's underground resistance", sounds wonderfully abstruse. It appears to hint at an obscure branch of Balkan knowledge. This book is, however, far from obscure. On the contrary: it goes to the heart of the strangeness of Serbia in the past decade.

In recent weeks, the mainstream Belgrade media have begun to gnaw at the subject of crimes committed at the behest of Slobodan Milosevic, including complicated plots to hide the bodies of murdered Albanians. Horrible though the stories are, the fact that these crimes are now so widely reported is a hopeful sign. Normality is at last returning.

In Milosevic's Serbia, control of the media was complete; and yet there was no formal censorship. Matthew Collin's opening lines are accurate: "A city where everything is permitted, and nothing is permitted. Where anything is possible, and everything is impossible. Where everything seems normal, but nothing is as it seems."

Most recent books on the Balkans have concentrated on the nightmares unleashed by Serbs against non-Serbs. Rightly, millions of words have been written on the brutality of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo; and an equally large number on the diplomatic conflicts. Some authors argued, by contrast, that criticism of Serbia was unjust; that the world had ganged up on the innocent lambs in Belgrade.

Between the documentation of nightmares on the one hand, and apologias for Serb brutality on the other, one subject too often got lost ­ the sane Serbia, the people who understood the lunacy around them, and bravely acted to make others understand it too. This book fills that gap. It is about those who "tried their best to resist the whirlpool which dragged their lives relentlessly downwards into darkness", and focuses on the "courage, foolhardiness, and a sheer bloody-minded refusal to give in" of the group of idealists at one Belgrade radio station, "who simply wanted to play rock'n'roll and tell the truth".

It is a heartwarming theme, and more likely to make the reader feel sympathetic towards Serbs and Serbia than all the manic attempts to remove responsibility for Milosevic's crimes. The independent B92 station, named after its FM frequency, began as a student outfit while Communism was still alive. It gained the loyalty of Serbs who rejected the madness that Milosevic stood for ­ and, crucially, which too many of their fellow Serbs were ready to accept.

Loyalty to B92 was an authentication of sanity. Collin carefully interweaves his twin themes: "[B92] chose the international call-signs of techno and rock'n'roll over the parochial, folksy paeans to nationalism: the music of life over the music of death... while all around them Serbia looked inwards, gnawing on its own bones."

This book focuses partly on the lifestyle of the B92 people, who lived on the edge and yet never seemed to be as stressed as they should have been. B92 was a beacon for those who sought any kind of alternative. In Collin's words, "Although they attempted to reclaim the ordinary, they were anything but." Veran Matic, founding boss of B92, makes a similar point: "To be normal meant to be subversive." All of which makes it sound as though this book is full of over-clever contrasts. But it is not. In Serbia, the paradoxes leap out at you.

The musical subplot is oddly charming. One Belgrader describes listening to B92 as "a pleasure, like giving and taking. It sounds like a love relationship, which for many people like me, it was." The references can descend into the anorakish, though there is a offbeat fascination in the appendix which lists B92's top 10 records through the 1990s. Through The Verve, Massive Attack and Super Furry Animals, Serbia is linked once more with the rest of the world.

Above all, the musical thread helps the quirkiness of this book. Serbia Calling does not seek to impress. But it helps the reader's understanding by avoiding cleverness. It smells of Balkan chaos. And you can't say fairer than that.

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