Travel writing about ex-Yugoslavia exploded in the 1990s as the country disintegrated in violence. The lessons the author of the first such account, Brian Hall, learned when he traveled through then-Yugoslavia in 1991 resonate today more than ever. Next, Marija Krivokapić from the University of Montenegro helps place Brian’s book and those about Montenegro in the context of travel writing as a genre. At the end, a story of a rare breed of travel writer: a former Yugoslav.
The New York Times editors, an Irish cyclist, and a legendary sportscaster also make an appearance.
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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 host Peter Korchnak.
One of the media for Remembering Yugoslavia is a travelogue. Not just through collective memory of former Yugoslavs, but also through their land. In my travel writing I document my journeys along the route of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics torch, from Dubrovnik via two routes to Sarajevo; more on that another time. Portions of my writing, fragments of first drafts if you will, appear as captions on some of my Instagram posts; most of the narrative is evolving in draft form on my computer. Soon, friends, soon.
In the meantime and in today’s episode: travel writing about former Yugoslavia.
First some definitions. The Oxford Dictionary defines travel writing as “A genre of writing in which the author describes places they have visited and their experiences while travelling.”
Indeed, travel writing is as much about the place as about the traveler visiting it.
Jonathan Raban expounded on the genre thusly: “As a literary form, travel writing is a notoriously raffish open house where different genres are likely to end up in the bed. It accommodates the private diary, the essay, the short story, the prose poem, the rough note and polished table talk with indiscriminate hospitality. It freely mixes narrative and discursive writing.”
According to Rolf Potts, “A good travel book doesn’t just mix reportage and memoir; it might blend geography with gastronomy, history with humor, sociology with spirituality. At its best, it’s about a perceptive author using a mix of narrative strategies to make sense of both a place and of herself as the person experiencing that place.”
Quoting Christopher Isherwood, Pico Iyer wrote, “The ideal travel book should be perhaps a little like a crime story in which you’re in search of something. And it’s the best kind of something, if it’s one that you can never quite find.”
The best definition of my search for Yugoslavia’s memory, if there is one.
Writing about travel through the region dates back some 250 years. I, of course, am most interested in accounts after the second Yugoslavia dissolved. The author of the first such account, Brian Hall, traveled through then-Yugoslavia in the months just before and just as it was disintegrating in 1991.
BRIAN HALL: I wanted to basically go on a long sort of hiking tour around Bosnia-Herzegovina, and go to all the various ethnic parts in the mixed villages.
PETER KORCHNAK: I spoke with Brian who lives in Ithaca, New York just before the 2020 US election, in which he found some parallels with Yugoslavia thirty years before.
His book The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia is one of the better examples of travel writing about the region. In the 1990s travel and writing about it was inspired by the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution and it contributed to the construction of the image of the Balkans as Europe’s trouble spot.
PETER KORCHNAK: Later on in the show Marija Krivokapić, from the University of Montenegro, will help place Brian’s book and those about Montenegro in the context of travel writing as a genre. And at the end, I’ll share a story of that rare breed of travel writer who is from former Yugoslavia.
The New York Times editors, an Irish cyclist, and a legendary sportscaster also make an appearance.
Travel Writing About Ex-Yugoslavia: Brian Hall’s The Impossible Country
PETER KORCHNAK: Brian Hall’s The Impossible Country provided an early inspiration for my own work. The Impossible Country was actually Brian’s second travelogue, following in the footsteps of a book about Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. That book in 1989 landed him a commission from the New York Times Magazine for a piece about the rise of Slobodan Milošević. That piece actually never got published. But they asked him to do another one and he went back the following year.
BRIAN HALL: By that point, I knew I wanted to do a book about Yugoslavia. And so I’d started to learn the language. And so I went in for two months during the multiparty elections in Croatia and Slovenia in 1990 and did a much better job, wrote a piece that I thought was a lot better, a lot more informed, and ironically, this piece they didn’t even accept, because they thought it was too complicated, that there was too many foreign names in it and people couldn’t keep track. My thought was if, yeah you don’t, if you don’t want foreign names, I don’t know, sending someone to Yugoslavia is not such a great idea. So they never published it.
And I went back in 1991, in May, this time, with the plan of doing the book, and fortunately then I already had contacts there for my first two visits.
PETER KORCHNAK: Brian went to Yugoslavia with a sense of urgency. As he writes on his website, “if I didn’t get over there soon, there wouldn’t be a Yugoslavia to write about.” He wrote The Impossible Country in 1992.
BRIAN HALL: My original idea was to come back and just travel in Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, just focus on that, I imagined that it would still be in a peaceful condition. I knew, of course, that there was a history of ethnic conflict. But I wanted to basically go on a long sort of hiking tour around Bosnia-Herzegovina, and go to all the various ethnic parts and the mixed villages. And just write a book about the people that I met and their different beliefs and how they managed to get along even though they had all this conflict.
And then, of course, as I continued to learn the language, and it got closer to my real trip in ‘91, I realized that wasn’t going to work.
There was a fair number of people who assumed that I must be CIA, because I was clearly not a native and yet I did speak, you know, a rudimentary form of the language, and it seemed inconceivable to them that any nor any just regular freelancer would do that. I had very few unpleasant encounters, but I was being often made aware of the fact that people were awfully curious about what my agenda was, how is it that I could sort of speak this language?
So being alone in Bosnia, just in the middle of nowhere, you know, 1991 was a bad idea. I instead went back to Zagreb, did a part of the book on Zagreb, went to Belgrade, did that, went to Sarajevo… I knew I needed to do Kosovo, because that was so important to the way the Serbs thought about everything. And then as you know, from having read the book, I do a little bit about some of the towns in Bosnia like Travnik and Jajce.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Impossible Country is Brian’s single oeuvre into the region. Considering how deep it goes in terms of history, how many people he met and friends he made, the kind of adventures he had, most people would be hooked. In fact, before we spoke he actually cautioned me that he hadn’t kept up with Yugoslavia in the nearly 30 years since his traveled there. So I had to ask, what’s the story here?
BRIAN HALL: I’ve always moved from subject to subject. One of the reasons that I like so much being a writer and a novelist is that it allows me, in every book, to dive into something completely new.
When I was younger, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, And anything that I liked, the thought of devoting my whole life to it seemed very daunting. And then I realized that as a writer, if I could get away with it, I could sort of live different careers, you know, briefly. And so when I’m working on a subject, I try to dive completely into it, and I swim around in it for two, three, four years. And then when I’m done, I look around for a different thing to dive into.
Especially with Yugoslavia, I’ve always felt a little embarrassed that I didn’t keep up with it. You know, the other subjects that I have done, haven’t been matters of life and death the way Yugoslavia is and was and is. And the fact that I kind of just completely walked away from it slightly embarrasses me. But it is sort of the way my professional life has always worked.
I did see some of the people when I went back in ‘94 that I had met before, you know, when a lot of destruction had happened. And I tried to catch up with everybody. I tried to keep in touch with some of the people in Bosnia but when all the disruptions happened I lost track of a lot of them.
PETER KORCHNAK: The title of the book is representative of the school of thought that holds Yugoslavia was never going to work, that it was destined to disintegrate. Was it your idea to call the book The Impossible Country or was it the publisher’s?
BRIAN HALL: It was mine. And I knew when I called it that, that it would sound, legitimately, that it would sound like a political statement. And so I was a little uncomfortable about that title. But I had, rightly or wrongly, but honestly, on my part, or sincerely, I had come to the conclusion that this, this federation of peoples had always been very, very precarious and had always been held together mainly through a strong central power, like, you know, the king or of course, then Tito. And that given their own choice, that the people would end up somehow, you know, it didn’t have to be nearly as bad a breakup as it was, but actually hanging together as a federation was going to be very difficult.
Some people don’t like the title because it can be conflated so easily with the easy Western idea of, “Oh, you know, they’re a bunch of Balkan savages and they are always killing each other, da-da-da,” which is like any centuries-long generalization like that is a dumb thing to say and is much more wrong than it is right. But when you call it the impossible country, some people think that maybe that’s what you’re saying, which is unfortunate.
Travel Writing About Ex-Yugoslavia: Lessons Learned from YU
PETER KORCHNAK: Towards the end of the book you criticize that whole ancient hatreds thesis, which holds that people in the region have always been at each others’ throats, that it’s always been and will always be a powder keg, so there is very little, if anything, anyone can do to prevent or stop ethnic conflict there. Robert Kaplan has of course been the most prominent promulgator of that debunked theory, and unfortunately the most influential in terms of US foreign policy.
At the same time, you back up many instances you witness or experience of animosity between different peoples with extensive, detailed history, head-spinning tales of tit for tat going back centuries. So based on your account, one might easily conclude that things are the way you end up saying they actually aren’t.
For 300 pages I, the reader, learn these people dig out old history whenever they can to rekindle their conflicts and then you tell me the ancient hatreds theory is “condescending trash,” a description which I find both apt and awesome.
BRIAN HALL: If I were writing this book today, I would reformulate it a little bit. And I would say, “Okay, let’s say that there’s a lot of truth to the idea that people’s pasts have a lot of control over the way they think about themselves. And that it, unfortunately, is often easier to, you know, hate other groups than it is to love other groups or however you want to term it, that that’s an ancient, very genetically encoded part of the human psyche is to hate the other and fear the other.” All right, let’s concede all of that. And here we see it out in play in Yugoslavia.
The mistake we make anywhere is by pointing to the people of Yugoslavia and saying, “Oh, yes, look at the way they are.” That’s another example of otherizing. And instead, it’s to recognize that okay, that may be true, but all of us have this problem.
And here’s where I would segue into what’s going on, has been going on, in the United States, in the last few years, and the legacy that we can’t get out of in this country, one related to slavery and all of the consequences that have come from it. And we still can’t get away from it. And it makes it quite easy for manipulative political elites to locate the fault lines that they can then drive the wedge into and turn people against each other.
In Yugoslavia, yes, people had ancient resentments against each other, but what caused the actual break into bloody conflict—one can argue and I believe it—were political elites who deliberately fomented this for their own ends: to maintain power or to gain power.
You know, we’ve seen this in the United States. I think the Republican Party has been pursuing this strategy for 50 years now. And now that they have Fox News, which is like our version of the state media, you know, when I was there, Croatia had their TV, Belgrade had their TV. And you saw this stuff, which was very tendentiously, you know, forming people’s opinions. And this is now what we’re dealing with here.
So it’s not Balkan savages, it’s human beings and their problems, their issues.
Even though in the book, I don’t go to Kosovo until toward the end of the book, for me as an organizing principle, it’s kind of the heart of the problem that ended up with the entire country falling apart. And there, you could see in its sort of, I guess, starkest terms how difficult it is for people of different cultures to get along very well, how easy it is to, to feel distrust of another culture if they do things somewhat differently.
The black comic aspect of the Croat-Serb thing is how, in many ways, how similar a lot of their culture is, the language they speak is very similar, so much of the material culture is similar, obviously there’s a religion difference. But a lot of fairly fancy footwork has to go in to explaining why the enmity is so entrenched and so bitter.
And with the Albanians of Kosovo vis-a-vis the Serbs you don’t have to, you don’t have to get into that fancy explanation. The language is totally different, the culture is enough different… It’s hard enough to get along with your neighbor when you argue over where the driveway is supposed to go. And then when you’ve got people that you think, you know, have more children than we do and they’re taking over and they live in these houses that look like this and they don’t follow rules, da-da-da.
I think back you know, the United States we’re such a heterogeneous country and it is unfortunately, so easy to get people look at cultural differences and foment this fear and dislike. It turns out to be very easy to do.
“Mito Bekrijo” by Gogofski (Part I)
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: Hi there, it’s me, Peter Korchnak, the creator and producer of Remembering Yugoslavia, with a quick peek at the making of the podcast.
I interview people across the Balkans and beyond and spend a good amount of time and energy writing and recording and editing to bring you the stories, interviews, and analysis two to four times a month.
It is your support that makes this reporting possible. Ensure I can cover the next important story and keep the memory of the country that no longer exists alive by supporting me on Patreon. Please go to Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia and donate today.
Alright, back to the story.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: Brian Hall’s The Impossible Country and my future book belong to a voluminous corpus of Balkan travel writing. For some 250-plus years now, British and American writers have been visiting the region and telling their tales. I say British and American because the bulk of travel writing about the Balkans, in fact pretty much every other place, is by English-speaking authors. I’m of course from Slovakia, so my English-language book will be a bit of a rarity.
Though there are some precursors in the 17th and 18th centuries, Balkans travel writing launched in earnest in the 19th century as the Ottoman Empire declined in the East and nationalism accelerated in the West. Travelers from the West, mostly Britain, fanned out across the region seeking to assert their nation’s superiority and others’ inferiority.
In the second phase of Balkan travel writing, roughly between the Balkan Wars and World War II, more travel writing emerged in 25 years than in the preceding 250. Travel writers shifted from describing Balkan savagery to idealizing the Balkans. Rebecca West’s masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a perfect example of this.
The third phase started during the Cold War and is ongoing. The superior gaze returned, particularly as communism collapsed and the wars of dissolution ravaged the region.
Travel writers helped construct a certain image of the Balkans in the Western minds and spawned a special genre of literature analyzing that process. Travel writers helped to invent the Balkans in a discourse that teems with stereotypes, misrepresentations, and simplifications. The Balkans is a periphery, a place where civilizations clash, a perpetual powder keg. In other words, Othering at its worst.
By the way, if you hear me talk about the Balkans more than Yugoslavia here, it’s because the former country is mostly written about as part of the region. Because the construction of its image has a much longer history, the Balkans holds a much stronger position in the Western imagination. Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution sparked in the 1990s an explosion of works recounting and analyzing it from historical, political, and economic standpoints. But because it’s much easier to write about a place from a distance than, you know, actually visit it, travel writing is but a fragment of the discourse about former Yugoslavia. But some of the titles underscore the image the Balkans continues to hold, say Fracture Zone or Through the Embers of Chaos.
What holds for the Balkans overall holds for one tiny part of it, Montenegro.
Travel Writing About Ex-Yugoslavia: The Case of Montenegro
MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: The image of Montenegro essentially didn’t change a lot.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s Marija Krivokapić, associate professor of English literature at the University of Montenegro in Nikšić. She studies travel writing, with a particular focus on her country. Though travel writing about Montenegro is just as small a body of literature as the country itself, it exemplifies a lot of the issues the travel writing genre suffers from.
MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: [The] Landscape would always be described as a sea of rock. That’s a metaphor that predominates this writing, the sea of rock, that people are huge, simply giants.
There’s a tendency of just looking at Montenegro as a region as if we have never been real in the eyes of the outsiders, you know. There is always a fantasy about it. Montenegro was always the Other, a primitive Other, an inferior Other in the eyes of Western travelers. So Montenegro would always be historically placed in the past.
PETER KORCHNAK: Similarly, when it comes to travel writing about the Balkans—
MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: —great books of travel through Montenegro almost end with Rebecca West.
PETER KORCHNAK: West documented her trips through Yugoslavia in the 1930s in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, perhaps the most authoritative (and the longest) book of travel writing on Yugoslavia, a must read for every student of the region.
MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: Then, nothing happened, when it comes to travel writing. Almost nothing.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the 1990s a number of writers and journalists, including Brian Hall you heard at the top of the show, traveled to former Yugoslavia and wrote about their experiences in the newly disintegrated lands. Most of them—
MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: —were not at all interested in Montenegro because no atrocities happened here.
PETER KORCHNAK: Bill Bryson does visit Yugoslavia in Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe but I couldn’t get past the snide asides he slings like dollar bills at a stripper. Bryson’s American superiority is on full display everywhere he goes—everything is dirty and nobody speaks English and the food is bad—and as soon as he enters Eastern Europe, he turns the condescending trash dial up to eleven. Marija tells me he’s mostly frustrated by how difficult it is to get around former Yugoslavia. Bill Bryson is not funny, people!
What Marija calls his “hegemonic stand” and I his hideous snark are both on full display in Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean. He alights in Slovenia and goes down the Croatian coast; he then skips Montenegro on the way to Albania. Everywhere he goes, he litters condescension. It’s a short distance from describing the place as dirty and thinking of its people as such. At some point he even asks himself, as he does in “such places, What if I had been born here?” Enough said. https://amzn.to/3poD8KL
On the analytical end of the travel writing spectrum, you can’t talk about former Yugoslavia, without mentioning Robert Kaplan’s 1993 book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History. If you’re having a Kaplan deja vu right now, well, the book’s impact on the ground was enormous; Balkan Ghosts was Bill Clinton’s primer on the region. But even though Kaplan’s ancient hatreds thesis has been debunked so many times over the years it should have no chance of finding a place to rest, its ugly head keeps on rearing.
Kaplan’s tour de force rests at the pinnacle of reportage writing about former Yugoslavia. Simon Winchester’s Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans is both better and less prominent but he too does not escape stereotyping left and right. As Marija underscores, he frames his description of Montenegro through a 1918 National Geographic article.
Things improved at the turn of the millennium.
MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: And then comes Dervla Murphy, the Irish traveller. She bikes all across the region, from Slovenia to Albania, and also comes to Montenegro, stops in Nikšić. And then she says that she wasn’t—because she was a stranger—that she wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol in Nikšić, no one would serve her alcohol because she was a stranger now, just like what are you saying, everybody drinks here, who cares if you’re a stranger or not.
PETER KORCHNAK: Though I certainly sympathize with Murphy’s tendency to drink everywhere she went in former Yugoslavia, her 2002 book Through the Embers of Chaos is a plodding lesson in subpar writing. When she doesn’t come across as an uppity Westerner, the doyenne of travel writing sounds like she’s padding her word count with awkward constructions and misguided observations.
The one travelogue about former Yugoslavia that I can recommend is Tony White’s 2006 book Another Fool in the Balkans: In the Footsteps of Rebecca West. White doesn’t really follow or much refers to West’s itinerary but his focus is unique: he explores the region’s art scene and in the process art itself. More importantly, White is a much humbler traveler and writer than the usual lot. As Marija wrote in one of her papers, White is so “acutely conscious of his privilege…as a traveller through the former Yugoslavia…that he assumes a humble pose.” End quote. I mean he does call himself a fool from the outset. Marija again: “not only because he hopes he could reach the yet indiscernible truth about the Balkans, but maybe more because he knows that as hard as he tries he cannot avoid an opinion of [the] highly educated British writer [that] he is. Therefore, he cannot help asking himself, over and over again, what travel writing is: is it mostly fact, or mostly fiction, or, indeed, only fiction?”
MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: You know, this region has been so much written about. It’s very difficult to say something else, something different.
PETER KORCHNAK: So what does this writing say about the Western superior gaze, about how foreigners see former Yugoslavia and the Balkans overall?
MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: We cannot escape who we are. I mean, all these forms of thought that is [sic] built into us by our own culture, we can’t escape being cultural beings at all. So we must approach the Other in a certain way.
But you cannot expect a traveler to be also a historian. You would expect that they would always add something to attract the attention of the audience. And a lot of them are drunk on their trip.
PETER KORCHNAK: As for Montenegro—
MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: I think it’s very important to study travel writing really, especially now, because we aspire to join the European Union, to analyze these books in very detail and see how and why these travelers see us in this way. Because they are very often very good-natured people. I mean, we are poor, a lot of our people never traveled, people simply cannot imagine a world wider than is their hometown and maybe neighboring villages.
And we are very confused, because out of a sudden [sic] from a place which used to be Yugoslavia we just wanted to get rid of that past, like it’s not ours any longer, and we wanted suddenly to become Europe, you know, without having a real condition, without basis to become that Europe that we aspire to become. And so people get confused in that process, very much confused. What are really European values?
“Mito Bekrijo” by Gogofski (Part II)
Travel Writing About Ex-Yugoslavia: A Home-Grown Talent
PETER KORCHNAK: “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 a 2018 BBC Travel article by Anja Mutić.
The piece exemplifies a rare phenomenon: Balkan travel writing by the citizens of former Yugoslavia. Indeed, travel writing tends to be the domain of the foreigner, of a visitor to a place, a stranger in a strange land writing strange words about all the strange things that happen there for all the strangers who may or may not visit the place themselves some day. Travel writing about your own country, region, city, place is just not done all that much. Even less so about a place that has disappeared from the map.
“I come from a country that no longer exists,” Mutić begins.
“You and me both,” I thought when I read the sentence. As soon as I delved into the article, a lovely piece of travel writing I can’t recommend enough, I knew I had to meet the author. We met months before the pandemic at a cafe in downtown Zagreb.
Mutić was born in Croatia in 1973. She grew up in Zagreb, and had what she calls “a perfectly normal childhood.” With a tiny caveat of her father being a legendary sports journalist who took the family around the world on some of the work trips. While her friends went shopping in Trieste, Mutić went traveling in Yugoslavia and abroad. She told me, “I went to the Olympics in Sarajevo as a little girl and it was amazing. Traveling was the biggest gift my parents could give us, their children.”
Her parents both came from mixed marriages, mother from Croatian and Serb, father Bosnian Serb and Croatian; her grandparents fought with the Partisans in World War II. So, she told me, “In my family there’s also the legacy of fighting for Yugoslavia.”
In the BBC Travel piece, she writes, “While Yugoslavia collapsed in a vicious war that raged through much of the 1990s, the world shrunk around me.”
So she left Croatia, in 1991, right out of high school. She lived in the UK and the US. Almost naturally, she got into guide book writing, 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, the fact compounded by her frequent travels around the world for work. “So that’s a big reason I did this trip because I thought maybe it’s related to Yugoslavia, to this country that I grew up in and that fell apart. But I think it goes deeper than that, it has to do with my childhood, the way I grew up.”
She took the 6-week trip in 2011. 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, the ultimate social ritual, 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 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.
Judging from the response she received from all over the world, Yugoslavs and non, the article was therapeutic for a lot of people. “People were strangely touched,” she told me. “The topic speaks to so many people, I think in a way wakes up so many ghosts, in good and bad way.”
The topic is old news for her though. “It was so long ago, the trip and the article,” she said. “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.”
PETER KORCHNAK: Travel writing entails both an outer and an inner journey, and that was Anja Mutić’s. What about Brian Hall? Given The Impossible Country was a one-off in terms of Yugoslavia as a subject and given it’s been almost thirty years since he wrote it, I asked him what has been the book’s impact on his writing, on his career, and on him as a person. What’s incredible is how Yugoslavia’s lessons apply today.
BRIAN HALL: People in Croatia kept saying to me in Zagreb, can you believe—as the country was falling apart—can you believe this is happening in Europe in the 20th century. And as I finally explicitly acknowledge, you know, we’re talking if you’re talking Europe in the 20th century, it’s clear that any kind of savagery, butchery can happen, and it has nothing to do with being Balkan. It has to do with just being, unfortunately, humans.
As our politics have gotten more and more polarized, and that polarization more and more cynically abetted by certain politicians and by certain media, you know, I think my experience in Yugoslavia has sharpened my alarm that it’s happening, because I could see in Yugoslavia what it eventually got to.
But I guess at the same time, it’s also made me more aware that, you know, human institutions everywhere are fragile, norms are fragile. So much of society, as people say and, it is true, is built on norms, rather than laws. And even governments are built much more on norms than on laws. And when people start breaking the norms, you suddenly realize that the legal protection that you always thought was there isn’t really there.
And this, of course, was my urban friends in Yugoslavia, who had grown up in a more stable environment, wanting to just have a job, have an apartment to live in, and have enough food to eat, and have some kids that they could raise in security. They were going through the same stunned disbelief as they realized in Yugoslavia of 1991, that all of these structures that they thought were there to hold the country together, turned out not to mean anything, if enough people didn’t want to pay attention to them, that it all just fell like a house of cards. So I’ve carried that sense of fragility about human societies with me ever since.
PETER KORCHNAK: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves,” writes my travel writing role model Pico Iyer. “We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more. And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” End quote.
By that definition, I’m having the best trip of my life in Yugoslavia. Thank you for coming along.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
JELENA DJUREINOVIĆ: They come here into play as both victims of communism and as a movement constructed into a national antifascist movement.
PETER KORCHNAK: How do politicians, priests, and patriots rewrite history in a country that dominated former Yugoslavia? Why go through all the trouble? And what can be done about it? On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: historical revisionism in Serbia.
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PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening, wherever you are. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
I am Peter Korchňak.
- Brian Hall photo credit: Laurence Kim