OBITUARY:Slobodan Selenic

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Slobodan Selenic was one of the greatest literary talents in Serbia of recent times. His novels such as Prijatelji ("The Friends") and Ocevi i oci ("Fathers and Forefathers") and plays such as Ruzenje naroda ("Spiting the Nation") and Knez Pavle ("Prince Paul") have dominated the last 15 years in Belgrade.

His chief preoccupation concerned the coming to power of the Communists in 1945 and their destruction of the economic, political and cultural life of his country. Describing the fabric of Serbian society before the Second World War he painted a picture of a fledgling democracy struggling to emerge in Europe and leave behind the legacy of Balkan primitivism. His Belgrade of the 1920s and 1930s is a city in development. Paved streets are taking the place of mud and cobblestones, while men educated in Western universities are striving to replace the notional myths of the largely peasant population by more rational ways of thinking.

Always a realist, both by intellectual constitution and in his narrative designs, he never lost sight in his fictional world of the fact that these changes are difficult; and his characters frequently bear the imprint of two worlds. They are caught between the European future and the weight of the Balkan past, trying to balance them. His works present the need to confront the truth of history and to build an honest patriotism which respects the patriotism of others. He sees this vision destroyed by the arrival of the Communists in whose collectivist ideology there is no room for the kind of individual integrity on which his characters construct their goals.

In the last few years he witnessed the re-emergence of similar powers in his native country. As he blamed the Communists for blocking the development of civil society, so he blamed the present Serbian nationalist forces for a return to a false ideal of a "folksy" culture.

More than this, in his last novel, Ubistvo s predumisljajem ("Premeditated Murder", 1993), he presents the irrationality of the present wars. The narrative is set at the end of 1992 in Belgrade under sanctions, with student demonstrations against the government and its policies. He juxtaposes these scenes with scenes from 1944 with which he sees unmistakable parallels. The work closes on a battlefield in Croatia at the beginning of 1993 and the recovery of the corpse of a Serbian soldier from the Krajina region. His meaningless death says it all.

Selenic studied drama at the University of Belgrade, including a stint as a postgraduate student at Bristol University in the 1950s. He was later appointed as a lecturer and then professor of his subject, posts which he combined with his literary activities. He was politically active in the Depos organisation supporting the candidature of Milan Panic against the incumbent Slobodan Milosevic towards the end of 1992. Disappointed by the collapse of the opposition movement in Serbia, he refused to wallow in despondency, believing that there would be a better future for his country.

Selenic's general outlook and his easy tolerance made him many enemies amongst nationalists at home and in Croatia. It also made him many friends amongst like-minded people. His company was sought by diplomats and other foreigners arriving in Belgrade trying to understand the present Balkan situation.

It is ironic that his early death from cancer came at the time when his literary reputation is about to spread. The publishing house Harvill is planning the publication of his last novel in English translation for next year. The author both as a human being and as a writer, in himself and in his fictions, offered a ray of hope otherwise absent in these evil times.

David Norris

Slobodan Selenic, writer: born 7 June 1933; died Belgrade 27 October 1995.