When it comes to travel writing and the Balkans, the vast majority of literature is by Western authors; travel writing about the Balkans. What’s much less known is a significant body of travel writing literature authored by people from the Balkans, including the former Yugoslavia. In fact, Balkan (and ex-YU) writers have been traveling and living to tell the tales for some 150 years now. What’s all this travel writing from the Balkans about? Who are these Balkan travel writers, where do they travel, and what do they have to say about it? And how do they fit into the whole travel writing genre?
With Wendy Bracewell.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your tour guide Peter Korchnak.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Time Travel” by Ketsa]
If you’re a regular listener of this podcast you know I’m very interested in travel writing, as a reader, as a traveler, and especially as a travel writer. I’m not talking about guidebooks or travel blogs containing descriptions of locations and instructions how to get there and what to enjoy. I’m talking about the “genre of writing in which the author describes places they have visited and their experiences while travelling,” the writing about the place and about the traveler visiting it, about making sense of both a place and oneself as the traveler and author.
Now when it comes to travel writing and the Balkans, what you’re most likely to find is accounts of travelers from the so-called West, mostly English-speaking countries, documenting their journeys in books published in their homelands. Travel writing about the Balkans. Take a listen to Episode 22, “Travel Writing About Ex-Yugoslavia,” for more on this topic.
What’s much less known is a significant body of travel writing literature authored by people from the Balkans, including the former Yugoslavia. In fact, Balkan and ex-YU writers have been traveling and living to tell the tales for some 150 years now.
WENDY BRACEWELL: There’s a lot of travel writing from the region.
PETER KORCHNAK: So what’s all this travel writing from the Balkans about? Who are these writers, where do they travel, and what do they have to say about it? And how do they fit into the whole travel writing genre?
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: travel writing from the Balkans.
Before we set out, let me introduce you to a few of my traveling companions. Anita from Australia recently listened to the Remembering Yugoslavia podcast on her road trip through the former Yugoslavia. And thanks to the podcast, she discovered a few places to add to her itinerary.
Anita and travelers like her have something in common. They support Remembering Yugoslavia not just with kind words but also with their hard-earned dinars, I mean dollars. Thank you for your contribution, Anita, and thank you Billie, Roberta, Sebastian, and Szymon. And thank you and welcome new Patreon sustainers Mary, Natasha, and Srdjan.
If you care about the stories you hear on the show, join Anita and other travelers and chip in for the gas or snacks or museum tickets. You don’t even have to pause the podcast, simply go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and contribute today.
[SOUNDBITE – “Time Travel” by Ketsa]
PETER KORCHNAK: I’ve invited two guests to talk about travel writing from the Balkans.
Miroslav Krleža was one of the greatest, if not the greatest writer, to come out of what’s now Croatia. Born in 1893 in Zagreb, he is mostly known for his fiction, in various genres, and essays. He was big in socialist Yugoslavia as well, until his death in 1981.
In 1924 and ‘25, Krleža traveled to the Soviet Union and wrote about the trip in Izlet u Rusiju, published in 1926. Last year, Sandorf Passage published that book in English translation for the first time, as Journey to Russia. Sandorf Passage kindly provided me with a review copy of the book. Purchase your own copy at sandorfpassage.org, that’s S-A-N-D-O-R-F-passage.org.
The book’s description says: “The sprawling country was still coming to terms with the events of the 1917 revolution and reeling from Lenin’s death in January 1924, and the celebrated Croatian writer was there to figure out what it all meant. During this period of profound political and social transition, Krleža opened his senses to train stations, cities, and villages and collected wildly different Russian perspectives on their collective moment in history. Krleža’s impressionistic reportage of mass demonstrations and jubilant Orthodox Easter celebrations is informed by his preoccupation with the political, social, and psychological complexities of his environment. The result is a masterfully crafted modernist travelogue that resonates today as much as it did when first published in 1926.” End quote.
Let me give you a little taste of Krleža’s dense prose. Halfway through the narrative, Krleža wonderfully expounds on the one sense that gets overlooked the most in travel writing and why photographs fall way short of capturing reality in any significant depth.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Suburbs of Moscow 2” by VK]
“Sadness manifests itself…”
We’ll hear from Krleža throughout the show.
My second guest, Wendy Bracewell, is a recently retired professor of 37 years at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London. You may remember her from a recent Remembering Yugoslavia episode about Yugoslav food. But her major contribution to Balkan scholarship is the study of travel writing from Central and Eastern Europe. She and a team of scholars recently compiled not one but three volumes about it: an anthology of writings, an edited volume of analyses, and an extensive bibliography. She has also written a number of journal articles and book chapters on the subject. The topline findings:
WENDY BRACEWELL: The first is, there’s a lot of travel writing from the region. Sometimes you get told that the East is silent, that others must speak for it. But if you look at travel writing that is by no means the case it’s more like how do you get them to shut up. There’s really, really a huge quantity of material there.
That huge quantity of material goes in lots of different directions, as you would expect. It covers a huge range of reactions to travel, to the discovery of the self, the discovery of the world.
But there is a very interesting tendency in a good proportion of this writing to use travel accounts and especially travel accounts of Europe to think about the relationship between Europe and Eastern Europe or Europe and the Balkans. And it can be either a neuralgic relationship, it can be a relationship of superiority to the West, it can be frivolous, it can be serious. But it’s a common thread that runs through a great deal of this writing.
PETER KORCHNAK: And not just thinking about Europe but also helping to construct it, both as such and as one divided into Western and Eastern Europe. Just like writers from the West do.
WENDY BRACEWELL: How are Westerners writing about the Balkans and people from the Balkans writing about Europe in general, how are they similar and how are they different? There are a lot of similarities that come out of simply the genre of travel writing. So travel writing is something that thrives on difference. You don’t travel someplace to describe something that is familiar, you go someplace to describe something that is novel. It thrives on drawing boundaries and crossing boundaries, on a very unstable mix, I think, of reporting, of objective observation and subjective feeling, how that observation makes you react.
In some ways, it’s useful to look at travel writing as a genre that stretches right across Europe and indeed the world.
But there are also really very interesting differences. Some of them, I think, a minor but characteristic: West European travelers go to the Balkans expecting and picking out things that are alien and exotic, right. You know, that’s why you go there.
But it doesn’t work the other way around. People coming from the Balkans and going to the west of Europe. Europe is not unfamiliar territory to most of these travel writers. They’re treading very much on already familiar ground. And this is something I think that comes out of travel writing. It’s travel not just through places but also through pre-existing texts. And so our Balkan travelers already know through their education, through their readings of literature, through all sorts of media, what Europe is, what’s important there, what there is to see.
I think it also works if you’re talking about travel to the Orient, if I can use that term, to a point that is farther east than you. Westerners expect the unfamiliar, they have a very clear notion of what the exotic is that they’re going to find in the Orient. But quite often, when you have people from the Balkans going further east, they expect the exotic, they expect to see something stereotypically Oriental, but they end up finding it all too familiar as though it’s something that they know already. And it’s not just going to the Levant, say, but also going to places like Southern Italy or to Spain, which they can often find disconcertingly familiar because of its eastern characteristics. And you get some really interesting reactions when people do this, whether it’s the discovery of something that you might call a Mediterranean-Levantine cultural community, these things that we, Orientals, share in common. Or slightly differently, because we have a familiarity with the East, say our Balkan travelers, we can exercise a cultural cosmopolitanism that isn’t really available to West Europeans for all their sense of superiority.
These, I think, are fairly minor specificities about Balkan travel writing to the west and also to the east, but there’s one really overarching one that I think is interesting and important. And that is that people from the Balkans often go west not only knowing it already, you know, through education or whatever, but also with a sense of themselves already being known and defined in advance by the people among whom they’re traveling. They are seen and they see themselves being seen, often in ways they don’t really like or accept. It’s a feeling of self consciousness or defensiveness.
PETER KORCHNAK: That notion of observing and being observed manifests in the most fascinating way in self-balkanization. They say we’re crazy Balkan people, we’ll show them how crazy! The films of Emir Kusturica are a good example of this phenomenon in film.
WENDY BRACEWELL: I’m always fascinated when I see that going on in the travel accounts. I think you can see it very often, in travel accounts of the Balkans, you know, people traveling relatively close to home, where they talk about the Balkans, where they use that concept, it’s not just that they’re traveling to Bulgaria or something they traveling in the Balkans. And that does something in itself, it constructs the Balkans, you know, in heavy quotation marks, as a place, as a recognizable entity. And it’s interesting that they usually travel to the Balkans and not to southeastern Europe. That doesn’t seem to me often to exist in Balkan travel writing.
They do do this little self-Orientalizing act sometimes that you talk about, but it’s not always self Orientalizing. And here maybe I should have a little digression and say they often do that also in traveling in Western Europe in order to benefit from a sort of cultural exoticism. I might as well, you know, play the Balkanite. This is something that that is really familiar to me, I’m Australian, grew up in California, and now I’ve spent more than my life in, in the UK, but I frequently find myself playing up to cultural stereotypes of Australians.
So that goes on, but there’s also the phenomenon of, you know, the nesting Balkanism or nesting Orientalism that Milica Bakić Hayden identified so, so sharply. So you go someplace and you see what you construct as Balkan and interpreted as something to be ashamed of and something that you need to distance yourself from. So that also is a sort of self-Balkanizing but it’s projecting it on somebody else.
Or you use it as an explanation. People are like this, or things like this happen, because they’re Balkan. So the point is that Balkanism is not solely a Western projection, it’s a two way process.
PETER KORCHNAK: Orientalism, as used here and generally in Balkan studies, is a concept developed and popularized by Edward Said, a Palestinian American scholar, in the late 1970s whereby scholars, authors, journalists think about, talk about, write about, represent the so-called East, or the Orient, as a separate, distinct place that’s foreign, uncivilized, primitive, barbaric, mystical, dangerous, inferior in opposition to the familiar, civilized, progressive, rational, safe, and superior quote unquote West, or the Occident. It’s the discourse that works to perpetuate the dominance and domination of wealthy, powerful West over its colonial East.
Nesting orientalism is a variation of Orientalism, a concept developed by the Serbian American scholar Milica Bakić Hayden, whereby a culture or country considers as its oriental, that is inferior, Other the place that’s to the east or south of it. In the European Union this is the Dutch or the Germans orientalizing the Greeks; Northern Italians orientalizing their compatriots from the south; Czechs orientalizing the Slovaks orientalizing the Romanians; and so forth. In Yugoslavia, this is the Slovenes and Croats orientalizing the Bosnians or the Serbs orientalizing the Turks, and so forth. Basically, though only very generally speaking, when Balkan travel writers go East, they end up orientalizing the place just like Westerners orientalize them.
Krleža begins his Journey to Russia in Berlin, where he asks, “Where does Europe begin and Asia end? That is far from easy to define,” he answers.
WENDY BRACEWELL: You have to give Krleža credit, because I don’t think actually he draws that boundary quite so clearly, because he sees also Asia in Berlin, Asia, in Vienna, Asia is in Zagreb, on the other side of the railway tracks, you know, the Hotel Esplanade is European, but Asia is just right there next to it. So for him, Europe and Asia do not seem to be fixed to geographical places, they’re cultural habits, they float free of being tied down to the ground. It’s fascinating, it completely destroys, destabilizes this notion of a clear cut boundary between East and West. For me, he’s very, very good at this sort of destabilizing maneuver and making you think of that, do we have to think about the Balkans or Asia or Europe as being pinned to a place? Is it not a set of cultural habits or a set of assumptions or a set of discourses about dominance and subordination or inferiority-superiority that can appear anywhere?
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Suburbs of Moscow 2” by VK]
PETER KORCHNAK: “As evening approaches…”
Now Krleža isn’t simply documenting his impressions about the place. He goes to Russia to see what the revolution is all about and tell the reader all about it. Like other travel writers, he doesn’t just speak to the average Joe, he speaks specifically to the average Joža back home, the same way the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West, addressed her own compatriots to make points about what they’re doing wrong and what the cultures she’s visiting are doing right. A great portion of Krleža’s book goes beyond a pure travel account and delves into the politics of the Soviet Union, of Leninism, in almost lecture-like style. Travel writing as a political project.
WENDY BRACEWELL: Yes, Krleža is speaking to a Croatian, rather bourgeois readership that he despises. He’s provoking it, isn’t he? The whole title of the book is Izlet u Rusiju. Will Firth translates it as Journey to Russia, but I think a better translation, the Excursion to Russia, Outing to Russia. You know, who goes on an outing to Russia in the 1920s? He’s thumbing his nose at the expectations of his readers. And he keeps on doing it. He insists on being an individual, he insists he’s not going to go visiting museums or looking at places of high culture. He despises bourgeois tourism where you have to go and see the sights. He insists on being interested in the everyday. You know, he quite clearly voices his disgust with his provincial stagnant, backward Croatia (you know, this is not my view of it, this is Krleža’s view of it). And he sets out to seek models for change, just as travel writers from the east of you of Europe have been doing for ages. But he thumbed his nose again at is readership by not going to look for it in the West when it goes to Berlin, that’s not what he finds. He sets off eastwards to Russia. So he’s very clearly got in mind a particular readership that he wants to shock–and maybe shock into doing something.
That’s a reasonable observation that most of these travel writers are writing back to a domestic audience. There is a subset of people who are writing in languages of international communication, who are trying to do something different, who are trying to reach a wider audience for different purposes. But your common or garden travel account written in a local vernacular has a particular audience in mind.
And there are lots of things that you can use travel writing to say to a domestic audience. People reading travel accounts that particularly from the 19th century, and maybe the early 20th century that go to the West, and see things that are done better there than they are done at home and lament about it, you know, “Oh, woe, oh, alas, look how backward we are compared to this place or that place.”
That’s sometimes been read as a sort of trauma, the effect of coming into contact with modernity from a backward or provincial society. I think we can read it much more strategically, as trying to provoke shame in one’s domestic readership, to get them to do something. It’s a very good way of pressing a program of domestic reform, taking Western Europe as a normative model and saying, we should be measuring ourselves by those standards. “Come on, you know, let us reform our political system, let us pave some roads, let us you know, build a casino or whatever.” So I think those sorts of texts can be read much more usefully through that sort of political lens if you like.
That’s true of lots of travel writers who are not so much simply recording what they see, you know, they’re not a camera, but they’re selecting what they see and shaping it in order to produce a reaction back home.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Suburbs of Moscow 2” by VK]
PETER KORCHNAK: “Eight days before Easter…”
Balkan Travel Writing: A Little Known Cannon
I was quite surprised to discover just how big the Eastern European and within it, Balkan, cannon of travel writing is. It’s as if it were hiding in plain sight. I wonder why that is.
WENDY BRACEWELL: I think there’s a couple of reasons going on here. And it needs to bring in the prestige of travel writing as a genre, domestically in the country of origin as well. It’s not usually a prestigious genre, it’s not understood as being particularly literary.
There are isolated works that are very important for national literary cultures, in the Balkans and in all of Eastern Europe, that tend to get singled out and studied as particular examples, but the whole mass of travel writing, you know, as a whole, even within a national literature, usually hasn’t been studied all that well.
That’s also true in the Anglophone world, that travel writing is only occasionally and for some authors understood as having literary quality. So I think that does have something to do with the number of translations that are available and the particular books that are chosen for translation.
But it’s also worth saying, I think that the importance of travel writing in a national context can wax and wane. Sometimes it’s very important, particularly in the 19th century, as a sort of nation-building technology. Traveling around and writing about creating imaginatively your nation, writing about its boundaries, writing about the people who are not members of the nation, writing about sites of memory, writing about landscapes. That is one of the ways in which, I think, the nation is constructed through travel accounts of that sort. And travel accounts outside as well you know, traveling beyond the boundaries of the nation, so that you know what you are not. That was an important genre in the 19th century. And you see that in some of the national literatures. Think of Dositej Obradović, for example, who is you know, that iconic person in Serbian cultural history, who goes to the West and discovers Enlightenment, even if, to tell the truth, he already had these ideas before he left, but he becomes a sort of icon and everybody knows about him. And he’s called by his first name, because of his importance in the literature. That’s true elsewhere as well but it becomes less important as you have other technologies for reproducing the nation.
At that point, it becomes a space where it can be used for literary experimentation, where people who are serious literary writers use the travel account as a place to play around a little bit. And I think that may have been what Krleža was doing. Dejan Duda who’s written a very interesting discussion of Krleža sees him using the travel account in Izlet u Rusiju to play with the notions of literary modernism. But you can see it in other people’s writings as well.
Because it’s not high prestige, you can play and experiment without putting your reputation on the line.
PETER KORCHNAK: Travel writing as nation-building technology, I like that turn of phrase. But I’m also mainly interested in the period after World War II, in socialist Yugoslavia and beyond.
WENDY BRACEWELL: I suppose the easiest way to talk about it is in terms of continuities and discontinuities. So, already in the 20th century there’s a strong strain of travel writing his social critique, going especially to the West and not seeing it as a model to be followed, but rather as a horrible example that we ought to be careful about, looking at the evils of industrialization or modernization or secularization, proletarianization, urbanization, I mean, I could go on and on, saying, this is bad, and we should avoid it. And you see very much that same strain of social critique and political critique being picked up, post-45 on and becoming a part of established discourses about the West. And that’s true, you know, not just of Yugoslavia, but right across socialist Eastern Europe. You only travel to the West in the most strict regimes of representation of capitalism, in order to say how horrible it is and to rip off the veil of false glamour and consumption that capitalism covers itself with.
There’s quite an interesting literature, not frivolous, though into the 70s and 80s it becomes a bit more lighthearted in its critique in Yugoslavia. But there are other strands as well. There’s simply the reportage. Travel writing becomes maybe institutionalized as a less subjective form of encounter with the world where the point is not, you know, how seeing a great site may make you feel but what it can tell you about contemporary society. Reportage is maybe the best term to use for this. And it takes place not just in travels to Western Europe, but travels also within the bloc or travels within the non-aligned world. And there’s some fascinating reading to be had from Yugoslav travels in the non-aligned world with that sense of both exoticism and fraternal unity, an attempt to to work together.
The continuities that I was thinking about was this vein of social criticism but the discontinuities, I think, really have to do with, with that sort of sense of socialist fraternalism that we see, but also the way in which value signs get reversed in early travel writing in socialist Yugoslavia. Whereas in the past, it might have been, you know, the West was the model, and we are the backward ones, it’s now as socialism makes us the model for the rest of the world and our leadership of the non-aligned movement makes us a model and self-management makes us a model, and the West is really falling behind. You could see that simply as a reversal, but I think it’s a very interesting discontinuity in the way that travel writing is used for a political project in the post-45 period.
Especially with Yugoslavia, you see travel writing again, becoming a much more open space for writers. It loses its role as important, you know, socially-committed reportage, I think maybe in the 70s, early 80s, and again, it opens up as a space for lots of different things. And you see people, particularly people who are writers or people who are prominent in other fields, using travel writing as a way of saying something that they maybe couldn’t say in their professional lives, or that they could use as a space to experiment a little bit with.
I have in mind in particular, a couple of the people out of the anthology, who who produce some really interesting travel accounts, but I wouldn’t think of them primarily as travel writers. So Ivan Kušan, who is primarily known for his children’s books, right, so really interesting account, semi autobiographical, it’s presented hovering on the boundary between autobiography and fiction, which the publisher, Znanje in Zagreb, had a wonderful term for: globetrotterotica. So it’s all about his sexual experiences and the way in which he is reworking the trope of Western superiority and Eastern inferiority through his intimate encounters with people, with women, across Europe and America, it’s really very interestingly done, maybe a little bit icky.
PETER KORCHNAK: You said a couple, who was the other person?
WENDY BRACEWELL: Milica Mičić Dimovska, who’s a writer, well-known, writes a really interesting account in 1989, when Yugoslavia is starting to feel as though it’s really falling apart, on which takes the pillars of Yugoslav self-esteem, you know, the ability to travel abroad, prosperity, superiority to, you know, those Eastern cousins in the rest of the socialist bloc, and tears them apart. She goes– she describes going on effectively a smuggling trip across the border to Czechoslovakia and to Vienna, with eight kilos of Vegeta that she wants to flog off, with all her companions doing the same thing, in order to get in order to get not even just Western currency in Vienna, but even, you know, Czech crowns so that they can buy material goods that they can no longer get in Yugoslavia in the conditions of economic chaos. She does a really wonderful job of that. It’s a fascinating little text.
I suppose another person would be Alexandar Tišma, who is a serious novelist but who writes a series of short travel accounts, including one called “Meridians of Central Europe,” that he publishes in the 80s in a journal and then and then collect it all together with that with other travel accounts, which well before the issue of Central Europe was becoming a hot topic with people like Kundera or others in the West, he is analyzing the notion of what Central Europe means to him through the experiences of traveling through Hungary and Poland and then Vienna in a in a very personal and autobiographical way. R ather different from his usual writings.
PETER KORCHNAK: Aleksandar Tišma, who died in 2003, was the father of Andrej Tišma, the mail artist you heard in Episode 31, “The Lost World of Yugoslav Mail Art.” That’s mail as in postal mail.
One other person you called out by name in our communication was Borivoj Radaković. What about him?
WENDY BRACEWELL: If you want to talk about more recent travel writers. He’s a great example and I think also maybe Vesna Biga.
Borivoj Radaković does some wonderful accounts of traveling to England. He’s friends with Tony White, who himself wrote a terrific travel account of The Balkans called Another Fool in the Balkans, setting himself up a little bit. And Radaković in his one semi autobiographical novel and one straight-down-the-road collection of travel accounts, does this great post-punk refusal to take the world seriously, a certain amount of play with what the notion of the West means to him. Some of which is relatively familiar: he plays around a lot with the notions of his Balkan inferiority, but basically also shows us himself having a riotous good time as a as a football fan and taking apart football culture. It’s fascinating work–fascinating for sheer physical enjoyment of the world.
PETER KORCHNAK: All of that said, travel writing has actually been in decline in recent years, particularly in the U.S. Last year, the publisher of the Best American Travel Writing compendium announced 2021 would be the annual anthology’s final volume.
“The move is based not on a drop in travel writing’s quality or even quantity but rather its increasing inability to attract a large audience,” wrote Thomas Swick at Literary Hub. Charges of neo-colonialism and cultural appropriation delivered one major blow, ironically just as authors from communities marginalized in the travel writing genre–black writers, women, writers from South Asia or Central and Eastern Europe–were on the ascendant.
But, continues Swick, “a greater contributor to travel writing’s drop in popularity is of course the Internet, that infinite, ever-expanding archive of everything. Google your destination and it appears on your screen, in words and pictures. Who needs travel writers, one might ask, when hundreds of bloggers are typing their findings, thousands of tourists are posting their videos, millions of vacationers are sending their tweets?”
The biggest contributor to the decline in travel writing, concludes Swick, is “the decades-long trend of America turning inward. The general feeling among publishers is that most people would rather identify with what they read than learn about something outside their own experience. And in a country where less than half of the population owns a passport, this means concentrating on the personal and the parochial.” Hence, memoir has eclipsed travel writing.
I ask Professor Bracewell what she thinks about travel writing as a genre today.
WENDY BRACEWELL: It seems to me to have become a much less important vehicle for talking to a wide audience. It seems to have much less social oomph behind it. I wouldn’t want to generalize too far but the things that I have seen have been relatively trivial, touristic, rather than people using travel as a means of coming to grips with what is happening to themselves and to their countries and to the world. I think that’s true of of, of the Balkans. I will be delighted if you can come up with examples that I should read that will show me differently. I think that’s also true of, of Western travel writing at the moment. I think there was a real interest in using it maybe 10, 15 years ago, that has somewhat waned. And maybe in the face of the kind of literary and political analysis that it’s been subjected to. People may be a little more hesitant and uncomfortable about using travel writing, because they know they will be caught up short.
21st Century Balkan Travel Writers
PETER KORCHNAK: And it is in fact in memoirs by two Balkan authors, incidentally both Bosnian refugees, that I found great recent examples of travel writing.
In her debut book, Bluebird, Vesna Marić documents her journey from Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to England. And The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return is an account Kenan Trebinčević wrote about his and his family’s surviving in, fleeing from, and going back to his hometown Brčko. A chapter from the book made it to the 2012 edition of the Best American Travel Writing.
And finally, there’s Anja Mutić. You may remember her from that year-ago episode on travel writing about Yugoslavia. Now I rarely repeat myself on the podcast but in this case I’ll make an exception.
“A travel writer raised in war-torn Yugoslavia goes back to search for her lost country two decades after it fell apart,” goes the teaser of Mutić’s wonderful 2018 article at BBC Travel.
She was born in Croatia in 1973, grew up in Zagreb, and had what she described as “a perfectly normal childhood.” Except perhaps that her father was a legendary sports journalist who took the family on some of the work trips. While her friends went shopping in Trieste, Mutić went traveling in Yugoslavia and abroad. She told me, “Traveling was the biggest gift my parents could give us, their children.”
Mutić left Croatia in 1991 right out of high school after the war started there. “I come from a country that no longer exists,” she writes. She lived in the UK and the U.S. Almost naturally, she got into guide book writing–she and Vesna Marić were coworkers at Lonely Planet–then freelance travel writing for the likes of NatGeo Travel and New York Times.
“Since I left I had this wanderlust and restlessness, I’ve never felt I belong anywhere,” she told me. In 2011, she took a 6-week trip around the former Yugoslavia. In the article she writes, “having lived and travelled all over the world, I knew I hadn’t made peace with leaving. It had felt like suddenly, overnight, somebody pulled out the carpet from under my feet and I had nothing to stand on. All I had to balance on was a mishmash of memories of this almost mythical country, some of which I wasn’t even sure were real. Then an idea came to me one snowy evening in my Brooklyn apartment. I would retrace the borders of my former homeland. I wasn’t interested in diving into the politics of the past. I wanted to capture the emotion that the lost country and its demise left on its people, and on me.”
Mutić spent a week in each former Yugoslav republic and met people for coffee, listening to their stories. “A travelling therapist,” she called herself.
“Throughout the trip,” she writes, “I harboured hope that along the way somebody would say one thing that would crystallise it all–my own life of rootless drifting and the vicious and slow death of Yugoslavia that left an entire generation with a lingering feeling of displacement. I knew I was not alone in feeling lost, but I had to understand how others processed the same collective experience we had as a fragmented nation. Surely, somebody would say that one-line kicker I was after, with all the small wisdoms woven into it. I would set my eyes on a street, a village or a forest clearing, and all would click into place. I would finally get permission to move on. None of that happened. But something else did.”
She came to terms with the lack of belonging and discovered it was in fact a source of creative inspiration for her. “The trip ended up being [a] kind of therapy” she told me. She accepted that, quote, “home is a shapeshift thing, belonging is just as elusive, and the country that raised me is an imaginary land that once was, and is no more, except in our collective memory. And sometimes a journey is just that, a journey. Back to where you began.” End quote. “It was so long ago, the trip and the article,” Mutić told me in 2019. “That’s not to say I’m not going to pick it up again, I’m open to all possibilities. Maybe we all have one big life project we have to put out and maybe this is mine. And maybe it’s just my therapy.”
Meanwhile, Mutić’s compatriot, Miroslav Krleža, is sitting in the park surrounding the Institute of Chemistry in Moscow, pondering, well, all kinds of things.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Suburbs of Moscow 1-5” by VK]
“All of us suffer from the illusion…”
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Time Travel” by Ketsa]
PETER KORCHNAK: Both Vesna Marić and Anja Mutić found that writing about a country in Central Eastern Europe would corner them into a niche that’s too narrow for commercial success.
If the market for travel writing is shrinking, the stall that Balkan or Central Eastern European writers occupy is shrinking with it and the little kerchief on the ground filled with accounts of Balkanites writing about traveling in their own countries is becoming a postage stamp pushed way to the back where few people venture.
Part of it has to do with peace. “If it bleeds it leads” applies to travel writing too and it’s no surprise that the two books by Bosnian authors I mentioned both involve fleeing the war and dealing with its aftermath. Peace is the equivalent of good news: no one wants to see that.
Perhaps another piece of this has to do with geography and opportunity cost. We’re all interested in different places in the world. If you want to read about my travels in the former Yugoslavia, great, I’ll have a book to sell you at some point, but that won’t make the guy writing about his travels in the Yukon happy at all.
Maybe I’m being cynical. But hey, it gets quite cold in the Yukon.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
JASMINA TUMBAS: And Yugoslavia was such an exceptional place of socialism, where women, you know, had so much emancipatory power that they enjoyed more legal rights and social mobility, you know, including access to education and labor mobility than in really most other countries.
PETER KORCHNAK: “Jugoslovenka” (A Yugoslav Woman) is a famous song by Lepa Brena and a starting point for a story of Yugoslav women’s emancipation through art. On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Jasmina Tumbas and the Jugoslovenkas among us. And a book giveaway, too!
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
And don’t forget, Remembering Yugoslavia’s travel fund is always open for contributions. Come along! Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/donate to chip in today.
I am Peter Korchňak.