BOOK REVIEW / Gnarled peasants and cans of pure Croatian air: The impossible country - Brian Hall: Secker & Warburg, pounds 8.99

Click to follow
'WHEN a war starts Croats reach for their pens and Serbs for their guns.' Fortified with this and other snatches of folk wisdom, Brian Hall made a brisk trot around the former Yugoslavia in 1991, watching Serbia's creaking empire fall apart at the seams.

In Zagreb we meet old women who wax lyrical about Croatia's brief experience of fascism in the Second World War and hawk cans labelled 'pure Croatian air'. Belgrade brings us to the morbid apartment of some faded, chain-smoking relic of Serbia's pre-war bourgeoisie and, in Sarajevo, to Sanala, who almost too predictably has a Muslim name, calls herself a Croat, and goes to a Serb Orthodox church.

At the seat of the former Ottoman governors of Bosnia in Travnik, the author learns that Slovenia and Croatia have finally had enough of Serbia's psychopathic antics and seceded. Hurtling back to Belgrade on a railway line that is soon to be blown up, he criss-crosses golden fields of corn that are about to be drenched in the blood of colliding Croat and Serb armies.

There are evocative and lyrical passages in this book. One of the most memorable is of Croat peasants holding torches aloft as they toil up the Apparition Mountain at Medjugorje in south-west Bosnia in the dead of night, going to meet the Virgin Mary. But there is only so far you can go in portraying a country through the medium of snatched conversations on buses and park benches, and frankly the genre leaves something to be desired. It has a patronising edge - would anyone write a book on London based on conversations with fruitcakes at Speakers' Corner?

Yugoslavia's ghastly implosion and the subsequent wars of independence have spawned a school of these books, many written by journalists at speed. This is better than most but it does not take us very far. There is more to the ancient Triune Kingdom of Croatia than batty people selling cans of clean Croatian air and gnarled peasants greeting each other with shouts of 'Thanks be to Jesus and Mary.'

As for Serbia, it was a progressive country, profoundly distrusted by the Russians in the 19th century for its pronounced pro-Western tilt, and with a vibrant radical and libertarian tradition. Bringing out some of the history might have cast an interesting light on Serbia's descent into the weird country of today, where the poets write odes to Mother Russia and intellectuals wear strings of garlic round their necks to ward off vampires.

Unfortunately, Brian Hall has eschewed the complex side of the peoples he describes and the result is a bit of a caricature. Pea-brained nationalists banging the table with meaty fists as they slurp plum brandy are neatly counterpoised against tiresome Mitteleuropa intellectual clones in black polo- necks who think it is clever to despise your own country, be it Serbia, Croatia or Bosnia. Surely there is more to the southern Slavs than this, just as there is more to England than Cockney sparrers and stiff upper lips?

And if missing out Macedonia was just a pity, leaving Slovenia out of a journey through the last days of Yugoslavia is a strange omission. Perhaps the burghers of Ljubljana did not deliver the right kind of mad and gross comments to warrant a chapter of their own. It is not as if they did not have an important part. After all, it was the quiet Slovenes who surprised us by bolting from Yugoslavia first. And it was the humiliation dealt out to the Serb-run Yugoslav army in the Slovenes' brief but successful campaign which unleashed the fighting that has continued to this day in the other, less fortunate, republics.