Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Book Craze that's Got a Hold on Belgrade

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
Whether from a nostalgia for its existence as an imperial centre or as an escape from reality, the literary obsession of the Serbian capital grows with every passing season.

If a 24-hour bookstore is ever opened on the Balkans, the place where this is likely to happen first is Belgrade. While in Rome nightlife is based around the fountains, in Amsterdam – around the beer locales and in Southern France – around the bistros, in Serbia’s capital the night begins and ends among books.

At 6pm, when the work day is over and stores start to remove their temporary signs from the sidewalks, the freed-up space gets occupied by the chairs and tables of cafés, bars and restaurants. At least, that is what happens in most European cities.

Not in Belgrade. On the central pedestrian street Kneza Mihailova, at that moment the windows of dozens of bookstores light up and crowds begin to gather inside.

People enter, pick up the new, ink-scented books, and sometimes read them for hours, standing around the displays. At the cash registers, queues of about a dozen people form, new editions run out and those who want to look through them have to wait.

The bookstores’ lights flood the street until 9, 10 or even as late as 11pm. Though they usually stay open until there are clients, some readers end up being asked to leave with the fall of night.

This curious city mania has its roots in Serbia’s past as a centre of the erstwhile Yugoslav federation. When the new state structure was established at the beginning of the twentieth century, Belgrade ended up grouped together with several different cultures, each having its own strong traditions. The competition with Croatia was the fiercest.

Through its distant history, shared with the medieval trade and cultural centre of Venice, and its more recent one, connected to the classical finesse of Austro-Hungary, Zagreb brought into the federation the only Renaissance literary traditions on the Balkans.

The literary scholarship that – since the early Middle Ages, served Croats as a way to preserve their national identity, was developed in many forms, including institutionally. The cultural association Matica hrvatska, for example: an institution created to guard and develop Croatian writing and literature that – at the beginning of the twentieth century, already had a history of over 70 years (since 1842).

While Belgrade had its own academic institution since 1826 in the face of Matica srpska, it was based outside of the country’s territory, in Hungary, until 1864.

So, when in 1918 the first Yugoslav federation was formed, the Serbs had to exert some serious effort into convincing their partners that Belgrade needed to be the academic and literary centre of the new state formation.

Later, it was precisely Matica srpska that was among the initiators of the 1954 Novi Sad Agreement for the Serbo-Croatian language, as well as a leader in the creation of common orthography rules. In that way, in Tito’s Yugoslavia, the prototype of the Serbian Academy of Sciences turned into the most courted and spoilt institution in the country, along with all of its members and representatives of Serbia’s literary life.

The literary cult, deserving respect because of its goal, yet suspicious because of its motivation, is preserved in Serbia until today.

The Demonisation of Serbs: this is the title of a new release displayed in a bookstore window in Belgrade

Claiming that Belgrade’s book craze is a result of Serbia’s currently rich spiritual life would be a pleasant delusion.

Three contemporary Serbian authors worth reading:

Milorad Pavić.
Though accused of being nationalistic in recent years, Pavić remains one of the most brilliant authors of modern Serbian prose. His novels Dictionary of the Khazars, Landscape Painted With Tea, and Last Love in Constantinople offer one of the most original and intriguing views on Balkan culture found in contemporary literature.

David Albahari. Having worked in Canada over the past decade, this writer authored several excellent novels translated in English: Words Are Something Else (1996), Tsing (1997), Bait (2001), Gotz and Meyer(2003, UK) (2005, US) and Snow Man (2005). In the late 1980s, he lobbied for the legalisation of marijuana use in Serbia, but some of his novels have a similar effect without any of the harmful effects on the health.

Alexandar Hemon. He is one of the Western world’s favourite Serbian authors. When he emigrated from Sarajevo to Chicago, he spoke quite primitive English. Eight years on, his short stories have been published in The New Yorker and the prestigious Best American Short Stories anthology. The first book he wrote in English, The Question of Bruno, was published in 2000. When his novel Nowhere Man came out, an American literary critic admitted that he had to check the dictionary 35 times while reading the book.
It is true that many leading European books are translated and published rather quickly and local authors’ production is prolific and visually attractive. Many of the newly-published titles, however, continue to pay dues to the isolation, the post-war depression and the nationalist and anti-Western societal attitudes.

Beside simply bad literature, there are also examples that chill to the bones – one of the centrally-located bookstores until today specialises in the sale of books oriented against various ethnic and religious groups on the Balkans.

Serbia’s good contemporary authors either wrote their masterpieces immediately before the war (Milorad Pavić) or they work from abroad – mainly the United Kingdom and Canada (David Albahari, Alexandar Hemon).

If Serb nationalist and war crimes suspect Vojislav Šešelj needs a defense, it can be done best by publishing a book on injustice, afflicted to him by the international community

Thus, the explanation for Belgrade’s book craze is not connected to the perfect cultural life in the city. It is motivated by a mixture of nostalgia for the erstwhile splendour of the federal capital and of the yearning for a different reality. The “most delightful habit in the world, the habit for reading” would, according to W. Somerset Maugham “provide [one] with a refuge from all the distresses of life.”

Furthermore, Serbia’s capital today seems addicted not only to the books themselves but rather to the literary world in general. For years, the most popular restaurant in town has been the otherwise nondescript Writers’ Club. Eating lunch there is a way of life, even when it means drinking warm beer and food that isn’t fully cooked.

Another place possessing cult-status is the restaurant in front of the Philosophy Department of the University of Belgrade. It sprung up underneath the pillars in front of the department’s bookstore, in a cross street of the pedestrian Kneza Mihailova, and free seats are seldom found. Reasons for its popularity are both its location and its decent food. There, people sometimes spend hours on end, leaning against the book-covered window displays over a cup of slow cappuccino.

In recent years, more and more cafés, little restaurants and bars are catching up with the mania. Along every step of the way, one comes across places named Branislav Nušić, The Library, Putujući glumac (meaning The Travelling Actor) – to such an extent that seeing a place called Idiot immediate brings Dostoevsky to mind, while Zorba could be nobody but Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek.

Underneath the portrait of Nušić, pensive over a pint of beer, or holding a glass of whiskey on the rocks in front of a shelf with a local philosopher's latest title Is there any point in democracy? cracked open, the important thing is to be somewhere else for a while.

When, how and why to travel to Belgrade? For answers to these and more questions about Serbia's capital, visit the Route Planner section of




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