With Their Backs To The World: Portraits From Serbia, by Asne Seierstad, translated by Sindre Kartvedt

From lipgloss to Milosevic, this is a portrait worthy of the Serbs
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The Independent Culture

Maybe Seierstad (the Norwegian journalist who wrote the bestselling The Bookseller of Kabul) just had a better translator, because I've rarely read a book that so faithfully renders the distinctive rhythm and feel of Serbian. But there is more to it than that. Partly it's because there is no agenda here, and because these Serbs are not actors in someone else's ideological drama. Partly it's down to Seierstad's warts-and-all approach to portraiture.

Her Serbs are garrulous and hospitable, doling out plum and apricot brandy to all comers. But Seierstad gives free rein to their loony side, without which you can't understand the mess that Serbia has got itself into. She is well aware of the flip side: the catastrophic longing for a fatherly dictator, the obsessive hatred for Albanians and Islam in general, the (often rather winning) self-delusions.

Readers of The Bookseller of Kabul will not be surprised to see Seierstad applying the same eye for revealing detail here, whether that's the lipgloss that accompanies the democracy activist to her rallies, the icons winking in the darkness of the stuffy refuge of an exiled family of Kosovo Serbs, or the picture of Milosevic hanging on the wall of an elderly farmer.

This character, whom we encounter first, is perhaps the finest-drawn of the lot. It's not hard to write entertainingly of Serbian "good guys" - all those bright-eyed students whom I well remember, with their neat haircuts and brave, noble thoughts. It's harder to worm yourself into the affections of the other side - the ranks of flint-faced peasants with cross-looking, headscarved wives who, when reporters tried to get near them, would start hollering: "I'm not talking to foreign spies!"

But Seierstad has done just that. Her portrait of the shock-haired, Milosevic-worshipping farmer is, perhaps, the most moving, although it is only one of many gems in this funny and affecting account of life among the stubborn, infuriating and - sometimes - delightful Serbs.

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