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Potential market, no buyers

The paradoxes of the Ex-Yugoslavian bookmarket

Only the greats of pre-war literature – like Ivo Andric – have readers in all republics.

It does happen that a bookstore in Montenegro orders two or three books from his publishing house, says publisher Nenad Popovic from Zagreb. "But for those two, three books I spend the whole day at the customs office filling out all the forms."

When culture becomes commodity, exchange in former Yugoslavia remains limited, even twelve years after the last shots were fired. Not only among the successor states, but also on the new national markets there is nothing but dead air. "Before we used to measure the success of a book by the number of copies sold," says Popovic, who made scores of authors famous through his publishing house Durieux. Today success is measured by the number of times the book is borrowed from the library. Not what one could really call a market. The publishers can only print what is subsidised, but the successor states have hardly any funds available, and not only since the financial crisis.

However, former Yugoslavia could potentially have a market for literature, which could have long grown back together – like the ex-Yugoslavian film industry, which now has to rely on international co-productions due to a lack of funds. Probably "more is being written than being read," says Croatian author Sladjana Bukovac, referring to the flood of manuscripts washing over the publishing houses – and this is no wonder given the weight of the experiences from the past turbulent twenty years. Most bear titles such as "My Life", "My Views", "My Journal". The Croatian literary society alone has between five and six thousand members. Anyone wishing to join must have published two books, in whatever form. "The people here want to reassure themselves," says Bukovac. This can that the form of self-searching, aggression, religious sects, strange hobbies, or even producing literature.

The attempts by national politicians to erect language barriers between readers have all failed. Just as before, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Montenegrins form a single speech and thus potential reading community consisting of 15 to 16 million people. Nothing has to be translated, and if something is to be translated, one simply runs it through a Google Translate programme in order to replace a few nationally incendiary terms. A simple test reveals how laughable the theory is that the languages have split apart or are in the process of doing so: for a translation from Serbian into Croatian, Google ends up replacing only four words of 185 from a two-paragraph text in the Belgrad Politika on the poet and philosopher Dositej Obradovic. For another eight words, the programme makes minor spelling changes. In texts of fiction, where stylistic nuances are important, one completely forgoes any translation.

Nevertheless, a Croatian publisher generally prefers to make a licensing agreement with a Serbian one than sell its books directly in Serbia – not only because of the import duty, but also because production is cheaper in Serbia. The number of national editions is correspondingly low, and book prices correspondingly high. The most successful Croatian book of 2008 "Nas covjek na terenu" (Our Man in the Field) by Robert Perisic, sold exactly 1,904 copies. Macedonia does have its own language, but it hardly has an independent book production. The few existing bookstores are full of Serbian books, which anyone can read fairly smoothly. Only the richer Slovenia can afford a generous funding program for its small language community of two million. Even illustrated books and cookbooks are translated into Slovenian.

Where culture is able to cross borders freely, it does: in the arts sections of the newspapers. The literary scene has found a kind of common Marcel Reich-Ranicki (more here) in the figure of the Belgrade critic Teofil Pancic, who writes for the weekly Vreme (the time). Whatever Pancic praises catches on, even in Croatia. The Bosnian Croat Miljenko Jergovic has become a multi-national star with his novels. Also his essays and political opinions are read throughout the language community. When the political satirist Boris Dezulovic resigned from his national writer's association, he justified this step on the Serbian Internet portal E-novine. But no one any longer feels the need to accuse him of being a traitor because of it.

The channels of readership show to what extent the contradictions of the war years were merely politically motivated or actually have a cultural basis, what is growing back together and what remains separate. It is much easier to promote a Croatian author in Serbia than the other way around – in Croatia there is a deep-seated aversion to all things Eastern and Balkan. Readers in all the republics still cherish the major figures of pre-war literature, the Croatians Slavenka Drakulic and Dubravka Ugresic, the Serb Bora Cosic, the Montenegrin Mirko Kovac, the Bosnians Dzevad Karahasan, Zeljko Ivankovic and Semezdin Mehmedinovic. Classic authors, like the Yugoslavian Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric, like Danilo Kis and Miroslav Krleza "are considered common cultural heritage.”

Politically, the new sense of community in the intellectual life of ex-Yugoslavia may be gratifying, but for the literary scene such gratification is limited. Although there are no longer national poet-kings, who speak for their people with every word they write, the children of the war treat each other gingerly. Jergovic finds favour in Serbia when his writing stays nice. His war novella "Sarajevski Marlboro" sells relatively poorly. Sladjana Bukovac fears the same fate for her new novel "Rod avetnjaka" (the sex of ghosts). "People don't like to read difficult things about the war," she says.


Norbert Mappes-Niediek is a freelance correspondent for Austria and Southeastern Europe. He has written for Die Zeit and Financial Times Deutschland, among other publications.

This article originally appeared in Frankfurter Rundschau on 24 June 2011.

Translation: ls - let's talk european