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Crisis in Yugoslavia

War's Spoils Revive a Land's Literature

Culture: Yugoslavian strife is inspiring a sales boom for Balkan books. Interest has rejuvenated effort to restore titles lost in a fire started by Serbs.

April 24, 1999|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For most Americans, the region where war is raging is known for obscurity, intractability and--harsh but true--irrelevance. "Balkanization" is code for a quagmire, a state of fragmentation.

Well-informed Americans will confess when pressed that they know next to nothing about Albania. What they know of Yugoslavia dates from the history of World War I, or from the splendor of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

But while struggling to comprehend a strange war in a little-known part of the world, Americans are discovering a surprisingly strong body of Balkan literature, both by Westerners who have visited the region and, in translation, by native writers who include a Nobel Prize winner, the late Ivo Andric. For years, these books gathered dust on publishers' back lists.

Now, with the escalation of NATO bombing in Kosovo and the prospect that U.S. ground forces will be deployed, Balkan books are experiencing a sales boomlet. Publishers are hastily reprinting titles that until recently went forgotten. To capitalize on interest in the conflict, the publication date of at least one book on the region has been moved up four months.

1.5 Million Works Ruined by Bombing

At the same time, the heightened interest gives new hope to a group that has been working feverishly to restore the literary heritage of Bosnia. In a 1992 fire that burned for three days, Serbian nationalist bombs destroyed the National and University Library of BosniaHerzegovina--and with it, 1 1/2 million books, documents, maps and manuscripts containing the written record of centuries of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, Bosnians and Serbs.

NATO's bombs and Serbian troops may be the devices of destruction in this odd, unsettling war, but books, these scholars say, could be the weapons of restoration. Amila Buturovic of Toronto's York University and Harvard's Andras Riedlmayer and Irvin Schick have organized the Bosnian Manuscript Ingathering Project, a worldwide effort to locate copies of the written material eradicated when Sarajevo's largest library, as well as smaller repositories of important documents, were razed. The Internet-driven effort links a loose network of Balkan experts who regard the annihilation of a country's literature as cultural genocide.

They also see a powerful connection between the burning of Bosnian libraries seven years ago and the systematic stripping today of refugees in Kosovo of license plates, birth certificates and other tangible traces of personal history. "What is going on in Kosovo is exactly the same thing," Buturovic said. "They are obliterating memory."

As a geographic bridge between Europe and Asia, the Balkans have been outshone by both. Yugoslavia is remembered perhaps as the last outpost of good communism. Albania is viewed as an enigma, a primitive culture with an indecipherable language. The entire region is seen by many Americans as a political black hole, where borders are constantly shifting, and no one can keep track of who is in power.

Undergraduate history classes whisk past the Balkans, and graduate programs seldom emphasize the region. At the University of Chicago, professor emeritus William H. McNeill, a specialist in modern Greek history, said it fell to him to lead Balkan studies seminars because no one else wanted to teach them.

'The Illusion of Complexity'

As a Balkans correspondent for the Financial Times, Laura Silber said Westerners complain that the area is incomprehensible. Rather, she said, "it has the illusion of complexity. One thing is that the last names are longer than ours, and they all end in 'ovich.' " She recalled one friend who told her there were just too many "viches" in her book, "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" (Penguin), co-written with Allan Little.

"It turns people off," she said. "The average citizen of the U.S. or anywhere else is not willing to go the extra mile to understand."

Written as a tie-in to a BBC documentary, the Silber-Little book recently has gone back for two reprints of 7,000 copies each. Penguin also has ordered reprints totaling 12,000 copies of Misha Glenny's "The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War." At Viking, Robert Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts" has just gone back for a 10,000-copy reprint. By mass market standards, none of these figures is enormous, but for backlist titles, the numbers are impressive.

But it is the sudden sales success of a lush travelogue first published by Viking in 1941 that best reflects the appetite for information about the Balkans. "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" is a period piece of sorts, Irish writer Rebecca West's rich, romanticized account of her journey from Serbia to Macedonia in 1937.

"It's a $20 paperback, published more than 50 years ago, and suddenly we're having a difficult time keeping it in print," said Michael Millman, editor of Viking's titles on the Balkans.

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