The international literary festival Bookstan in Sarajevo was recently held for the third time. What is the current state of literature in Bosnia, twenty-three years after the end of the war?
For years something odd seemed to be going on with Bosnian literature, and with Bosnian culture in general. There were some impressive successes. In 2001 Danis Tanović was awarded an Oscar for the best foreign film for No Man’s Land, and in 2006 Jasmila Žbanić received the Golden Bear for Grbavica, released in the Netherlands as Sarajevo, My Love, in the UK as Esma’s Secret: Grbavica, and in US as Grbavica: Land of My Dreams. Authors including Aleksandar Hemon (writing in English), Semezdin Mehmedinović, Miljenko Jergović, Igor Štiks and Faruk Šehić succeeded in reaching a readership beyond the boundaries of their own languages.
Yet there was and is a sense of ongoing crisis. Aleksandar Hemon, the main guest at this year’s festival (in which several authors from the Netherlands and Belgium took part under the curatorship of Geert Mak), once went so far as to claim (admittedly eighteen years ago now) in one of his columns for his blog Hemonwood that Bosnian literature is a bizarre phenomenon: a literature without publishers, without critics, without readers and without books. Most Bosnian novels and poetry collections are published abroad, and if a novel ever got published in Bosnia, according to Hemon, then it was more by luck than judgement.
Geert Mak, Frank Westerman, Dennis Gratz and Chris Keulemans (left to right) during one of the panel discussions
The truth lies somewhere in between. Bosnia as a nation state is in fact non-existent, corruption prevails at all levels of government, it is hard for young people to leave the country and the economy is weighed down by mass unemployment. This naturally has consequences for the cultural sector. The chronic lack of resources and funding makes inventiveness indispensable. Bookshop Buybook, in a side-street near the Miljacka River, was set up shortly after the war by Goran Samardžić and Damir Uzunović (initiator and director of the festival), and it has held its own ever since as both a shop and a publishing house. In fact during this year’s festival, Buybook managed to publish eighteen titles in translation. How? Through tenacity, perseverance and a deep understanding of the value of literature and reading.
Is this festival, and the city’s literary culture, proof that duh Sarajeva, the spirit of Sarajevo, is alive and well? During the war it was a much discussed topic. Sarajevo was said to be a place where ethnicity and origin were irrelevant, with a unique urban mentality that helped to pull the residents through the 1,425-day siege. Or is this nostalgia, and therefore a false representation of the past? Under the leadership of Chris Keulemans (who enjoys a modestly heroic status in Sarajevo on account of his visits during the siege, laden with money and cigarettes for local writers), we debated nostalgia as a way of dealing with history, one that in today’s Europe is indeed often the excuse for a false representation of the past, using the political language of nationalism and populism. If the debate previously seemed relevant only to Central and Eastern Europe, it now needs to take place in Western Europe too. Furthermore, Dubravka Ugrešić pointed to the dangers of commercialism; her legendary project ‘Yugo-Nostalgia’, which focuses on the trivia of the former Yugoslavia as the basis for cultural memory, suddenly turned out to her dismay to represent financial value.
There were guests from Europe (David Mitchell gave a wonderful interview), the US (critic John Freeman on the art of ‘reading writers’ – the art of interviewing, in other words), and discussions about translating and being translated, and the importance of literary festivals. We almost seemed to be at a festival like any other, until one of the panel members, historian of religion Amila Buturović (who is carrying out important research into the role of religion in dealing with the vast human losses the city has suffered) let slip that on precisely the same day years ago, her father was shot dead by a sniper. It made me realize how fragile the city is; the war seems a quarter of a century behind us, but the loss and pain are everywhere. Bookstan is therefore a festival to cherish, to support, and above all to go back to next year.