Getting ready for travel can be almost as much fun as the actual traveling. Actually, given the issues with airline seats, airborne infections, and jet lag, the travel part isn’t that great. Visiting is great, for sure. But traveling to the area to be visited? Maybe some people are masochists and enjoy the armrest struggle of the middle seat, but for most of us travel is the necessary evil we put up with to experience the glory of the lighted Eiffel Tower at night.
Knowing something about the intended destination is always a good idea, and reading while traveling helps with distracting from travel discomfort and imparting destination information. It’s win-win, really.
Luckily the Balkan area has had quite a lot written about much of its long, long history. And the history of the Balkans is very long, it is literally everywhere visitors look. Knowing what is being seen above and beyond the standard tourism spiel adds volumes to the visit and a deeper understanding of the culture in general. Some understandings come with more than a little bit of discomfort, though. Balkan literature is Slavic, and Slavic literature very rarely features a happy ending. It really never features a happy ending. Slavic novels are just not happy.
The Balkans Under the Ottomans
«Bosnian Chronicles», by Ivo Andrić
Set in the early 1800s in the Bosnian Ottoman capital of Travnik, the novel shows the machinations of foreign powers and local Bosnians.
Andrić is the most acclaimed Balkan author of the Yugoslav era, and a Nobel Prize recipient. He has several other books, and all of them are excellent portrayals of Balkan culture.
«The Palace of Dreams», by Ismail Kadare
Although the exact time period is never given, this novel of a man working in a shadowy government ministry in Ottoman-occupied Albania not only uses a historical background, but manages to shade it with the nuance of the totalitarianism of the twentieth century.
Charged with gathering and interpreting the dreams of the people of the empire to decipher the future, young Mark-Alem climbs ever higher as he discovers more and more bloody secrets which lead to a final showdown between rival powers.
Kadare managed to sneak the original short story by the censors of Stalinist Albania, but was called out and condemned by the state’s writer’s union. Although threatened with dire consequences, the state was reluctant to purge Kadare as he had already generated so much international attention.
«Cross and Crescent in the Balkans», by David Nicolle
A shorter non-fiction description of how the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans came to be. Although the focus is the Ottoman conquest, there is quite a bit of regional history touched upon for a book of this length.
Sweeping Balkan History
The Balkans has too much history to contain in one book, but several people have attempted the task with varying degrees of success. Readers need to remember that there are at least seventeen sides to every Balkan story, however, and the truth is never entirely true.
«Imagining the Balkans», by Maria Todorova
“If the Balkans hadn’t existed, they would have been invented,” Count Herman Keyserling in his book Europe.
“The Balkans” are as much a literary invention as truth according to Todorova, and this book sets out to separate the reality from what has become the myth that everyone accepts as truth.
«The History of Serbia», by Čedomir Antić
Although not a history of the entire Balkans, it still includes history of most of the Balkans. Antić himself is a Serbian academic, educated in Belgrade and Great Britain, and a founder of the Progressive Club political NGO in Serbia.
«The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers 1804-1999», by Misha Glenny
Going into many of the various national groups in the Balkans, Glenny also offers historic events and historic personalities. There is also a thread of interventionism running through the history of the Balkans that makes for disturbing reading when juxtaposed with current history.
The Balkans and the Habsburgs
It’s one thing to dislike the colonial overlords, but quite another to be the responsible party for the assassination of the heir to one of the largest European empires and the start of a world war of unparalleled destruction and death. As Otto von Bismarck is famously credited with saying, “Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal. I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where. Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.”
«Folly and Malice: The Habsburg Empire, the Balkans, and the Start of World War I», by John Zametica
This book turns the accepted narrative of the start of WWI on its head, redefining motives and historic personalities. The events themselves, however, are unchanged, and that is perhaps the best take-away from this rather large tome, and it certainly provides a basis for further discussion.
«A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of WWI and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire», by Geoffrey Wawro
A historical whodunit, complete with footnotes to bolster an evening of delightful argument.
«The Southern Slav Question and the Habsburg Monarchy», by Robert Seton-Watson
A look at what contemporary academics thought of the Balkans and the Habsburg Empire.
«The Fortress», by Meša Selimović
There is no happy ending, and this book is taught in Bosnian Middle School. Non- slavic readers may find they need to take notes to keep it all straight, however.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia
One time, before he became King of Yugoslavia, Prince Alexander of Serbia slapped a seven- year-old girl Macedonian girl for saying she was Bulgarian. Then, in 1934, he was assassinated by a Bulgarian revolutionary. It might just be a coincidence, but is anything in the Balkans *really* a coincidence?
«A Coffin for Dimitrios», by Eric Ambler
Shadowy intrigue written in the 1930s and spanning the Balkans, a region renowned for shadowy intrigue and also burek.
«The Scent of Rain in the Balkans», by Gordana Kuić
Set between the World Wars, Kuić tells the story of an ethnic community no longer existing in Sarajevo – the Sephardic Jews. The story is not limited to the Salom family, however, but also tells by extension the stories of a multi-ethnic community and the cycles of history.
«Black Lamb and Grey Falcon», Rebecca West
Unprecedented in its time, West’s travelogue of her Balkan travels examines areas that are still undeniably exotic to those outside the region today. Her discussions with locals may not explain the region (nothing can really explain the region), and there are quite a lot of discussions about whether West’s observations are actually insightful. However, as the first widespread travelogue of the region, it still holds value
World War II
At the end of the movie Walter Defends Sarajevo, the Nazi occupier von Dietrich tries to explain why he could not defeat his nemesis Walter, “You see that city? That’s Walter!” Although the movie was trying to inculcate feelings of brotherhood among different (and opposing) ethnic groups during the Yugoslav era, the truth is that the Partisan movement during the war was one of the fiercest and most dedicated fighting groups in combat. Ustaše run concentration camps were so depraved that even the Nazis were horrified. And all of this creates enough history and background that no book could ever begin to cover even a fraction of those five years of war.
«Terror in the Balkans: German Armies and Partisan Warfare», by Ben H. Shepherd
An attempt to answer questions about why the war was so fierce in the Balkans.
«1941: The Year that Keeps Returning», by Slavko Goldstein
In 1941, Goldstein’s father – a Jew in Croatia – was deported to the Jadovno Camp by the Ustaše and murdered. Goldstein traces what most likely happened to his father before his murder, and then tells the story of how he, his mother, and his brother made their way to the partisans and joined the fighting at the age of 14.
With the violent dissolution that was to come in the 90s, Goldstein’s description of his integration at the Partisan camp, “…from the first moment I felt free. After a year of persecution, hiding, escaping, in danger for my life, at once we were in a surrounding where people didn’t ask me if I was a Jew, Serb, or Croat. It was a movement without ethnic controversies.”
This section should probably be titled “Tito”, because in true Slavic leader fashion – Tito was the state, and the state was Tito. There will never be a book about Yugoslavia that doesn’t mention Tito, because that is impossible. It’s like reading the New Testament without Jesus, and there are a lot of people who don’t think that comparison is ridiculous at all.
«Tito and His Comrades», by Jože Pirjevec
In a history that didn’t set out to portray Tito as either saint or demon, Pirjevec shows a remarkably nuanced portrait of the entire picture of a man who was the state.
«April Fool’s Day», by Josip Novakovich
From mid-Tito through the war of the 90s and beyond, the quintessential tragicomic life of one man in the Balkans.
The War in the 90s
“The history of the twentieth century began and ended between two bridges in Sarajevo,” one Bosnian author said, and the truth in that statement is hard to dispute. The world was shocked to see such horror unleashed in what had complacently been seen as a Europe beyond conflict and still giddy from the end of the Cold War.
«Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo», by Zlata Filipovic
Eleven-year-old Zlata goes from a normal childhood of piano lessons and birthday parties to sheltering in basements, shortages, and the deaths of friends.
«Made in Yugoslavia», by Vladimir Jokanovic
Friends who grew up in the united Yugoslavia find themselves on opposite sides of the break up.
«The Hired Man», by Aminatta Forna
A British woman purchases a rural Croatian house and brings memories back to a community.