Essay: `That new world order you told me about is soaked in blood'

If you want to understand the Balkans, read a novel from the region. Richard Gott offers a beginners' guide

Some people choose to travel to distant lands, but most of us still enter foreign worlds from the armchair, through the imagination and experience of foreign writers. We learn easily about the United States through its myriad brilliant novelists who use our own language; we understand more about Latin America through the inventions of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We know about the frustrations of being Portuguese from Jose Saramago, and the difficulties of being Egyptian from Naguib Mahfouz.

In the same way, our most useful guide to the Balkans, and to the lives of the people who live there, comes not from the television screen but from the writings of novelists who have turned their fiercesome history into the raw material of fiction. Tony Blair has said that we have a responsibility for Balkan events because the countries of the former Yugoslavia lie close to the holiday destinations of Greece and Italy; but it's a pity he did not hint that the Balkans themselves are readily available to us any day of the week through translated fiction in the library.

The fiction of Balkan writers is very different from our own. They write from deep political experience and involvement, and with a tremendous sense of responsibility. Their novels are about dislocation and exile, about dictatorship and oppression, about refugees and moving frontiers, and - always and inevitably - about myth, and recorded memory, and the ever-present legacy of the past. The age-old clash between Catholic and Orthodox, and the dramatic conflict between Christian and Muslim, is never far from the surface.

Ivo Andric was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. Born in Bosnia in 1892, he died in Belgrade in 1975; The Bridge on the Drina, his most celebrated novel, was written in Belgrade during the German occupation in the Second World War. "No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists," writes the critic William McNeill, "nor do I know of any work of fiction that more persuasively introduces the reader to a civilisation other than our own." The bridge at Visegrad, carrying the road from Muslim Turkey to Christian Europe, becomes a thread on which Andric hangs a chronicle of Bosnian history.

Andric himself was a student revolutionary, a diplomat and an academic historian. He does not shrink from the bleak conclusion that change in the society he is writing about seems to come only from outside. A passage that would gladden the heart of Paddy Ashdown, ardent advocate of "an international protectorate", describes the posters pinned up by Austrians in 1908, asking the inhabitants to welcome the forces of intervention: "The King-Emperor could no longer [bear to] see how violence and disorder ruled in the neighbourhood of his dominions, and how misery and misfortune knocked at the frontiers of his lands. He has drawn the attention of the European States to your position and, at a Council of the Nations, it has been unanimously decided that Austria-Hungary shall restore to you the peace and prosperity that you have so long lost."

The image of the bridge over troubled waters has also been used by the great Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare. In The Three-Arched Bridge, written in 1978, he recalls the arrival of the Turks six centuries earlier. Born in 1936 in the Albanian town of Gjirokastra, Kadare lived and wrote in Tirana throughout the isolationist Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, only leaving for French exile in 1990. His hero-chronicler, "the monk Gjon", describes the building of a bridge between Europe and Asia that keeps falling down. Unaware of the wider world, he has an enigmatic conversation with the foreman builder who tells him how "the lineaments of a new order that would carry the world many centuries forward had faintly, ever so faintly, begun to appear in this part of Europe".

People in the town come to believe that only by walling up a man within its piers will the bridge be able to stand firm. A man is murdered, and his body is plastered into the stonework. Horrified by what has happened, the monk Gjon seeks to upbraid the foreman. "That new world you told me about the other day," he imagines himself saying, "that new order ... which is going to carry the world a thousand years forward, it too is soaked in blood." At the end of the book, the monk has another vision: "I saw whole plains awash with blood, and mountain ranges burned to cinders."

Broken April, also by Kadare, evokes the tradition of the peasant blood feud. The description, as Gjorg moves out to a mountain ridge at nightfall to avenge the killing of his brother, has a contemporary ring: "Slowly the gun barrel swept over some patches of half-thawed snow towards the wild pomegranates scattered through the brush-covered space on both sides of the road."

Back at the village, people recall the rules of "the code" by which their lives are governed. "They remembered persons punished by their own families, whole families punished by the village, or even whole villages punished by a group of villages ..." Later, going through the historical records, they note that it was only during "years of revolutions or wars against foreigners" that "the number of blood-feud killings fell." Public battles take precedence over private quarrels.

In Kadare's The File on H, first published in 1981, two Irish scholars travel with a primitive tape-recorder along the Kosovo frontier in the 1930s in search of an area where epic Homeric poetry might still be in production. Their movements are followed through the reports of Dull Baxhaja, the secret policeman detailed to shadow them.

Soon they understand the implications of their research. They are trying to prove that Albanian epic poetry is "Homeric in origin". Yet, as one of them explains, this would not be possible "if the Albanians had not been here since classical times". He knows that what arouses "the jealousy and anger of the Serbs is precisely the question of historical precedence in the occupation of the Balkan peninsula."

Later, the scholars meet Dushan, a Serbian monk from Kosovo, who argues fiercely that the Homeric epics in Albanian also exist in Serbo-Croat, and then apologises for his outburst. "I am Serbian, and I support my nation's cause. It's unavoidable, especially here in the Balkans." Dushan soon stirs up the Albanians to smash the Irishmen's tape-recorder and thereby destroy their dangerous discoveries.

Kadare and Andric were writing before the collapse of the old Yugoslavia, but Dubravka Ugresic, a writer born in Croatia and now living in the Netherlands, turns her anger upon the contemporary scene, sometimes in fiction, sometimes in essay form. "In all the former Yugoslav territories," she writes in The Culture of Lies (1995), "people are now living a post- modern chaos. Past, present and future are all lived simultaneously ... Like the flash of a hologram, segments of former times appear, fragments of history; from the faces of today's leaders there often gleams the hellish reflection of some other leaders, in such a gleam the swastika is linked to the red star ... We are also living simultaneously the future, the post-apocalyptic one, the one that for others has yet to come."

Dubravka Ugresic, who was driven out of Croatia just as many others have been driven out of Belgrade or Kosovo, fears that war has destroyed literature in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Yet one of Kadare's Irish scholars, searching for traces of Homer in the hills of Kosovo, reflects that "it's war that gives birth to epic poetry". That, sadly, may be true too.

Ivo Andric, `The Bridge over the River Drina' (Harvill, pounds 9.99). Ismail Kadare, `The Three-Arched Bridge' (Harvill, pounds 9.99); `Broken April' (Harvill, pounds 6.99); `The File on H' (Harvill, pounds 8.99). Dubravka Ugresic, `The Culture Of Lies' (Harvill, pounds 9.99).

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