Monday, 5 November 2012

In Europe: Novi Sad

Dutch journalist and writer Geert Mak travelled throughout Europe looking for traces of 20th century history. Based on these quests Mak published in 2004 a bulky book called In Europe, Travels through the twentieth century. Mak also visited Novi Sad; the first time in March 1993 and the second in December 1999, during the wars in Yugoslavia.

In Novi Sad 20th century history had also been written: during the Second World War, for instance, and even recently. During spring 1999 NATO-fighters bombed Novi Sad for three months at a stretch, destroying all bridges across the Danube. These attacks turned out a traumatic experience for the inhabitants of Novi Sad. See my post To survive a bombing.

In Novi Sad Mak met with, amongst others, Sarita Matijević, a former television journalist, Želimir Žilnik, a movie and documentary maker, and Aleksandar Tišma, the well-known novelist from Novi Sad who died in 2003. Sarita Matijević takes Mak along to café Sax to meet local intellectuals, to her family, where it turned out that daughter and father had different views about political reality in Serbia, and to hairdressing salon Pramen where Mak asks the hair stylist and her customers about their plans and wishes for the future. Mak walks with Želimir Žilnik along the Danube in which the bridges reduced to ruins earlier that year still lay, and talks with a woman who, living next to the Danube, had experienced the bombings personally. With Aleksandar Tišma Mak discusses the political situation in Serbia and Serbia’s position within Europe. Tišma tells Mak an anecdote in which he compares the position of Serbia in Europe with that of his dog on an ice floe in the Danube. Mak used this anecdote for his Dutch language publication De hond van Tišma (The dog of Tišma), about the consequences of a possible European collapse.

Some parts of his chapter about Novi Sad Mak published more extensively in the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, for example the story about Saša and Miša, two war resistors, who Mak met in Amsterdam. Mak’s story of their lives in Amsterdam did remind me of the story of Filip in Borislav Čičovački’s novel called Sleutelkruid in Dutch and Raskovnik in Serbian.

In his report Mak writes about the consequences of the Yugoslavian wars for the people of Novi Sad and about the causes of these wars. Four wars of independence were waged: about the separation of Slovenia in 1991, about the separation of Croatia in 1991-1992, the war for Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 till 1996 and finally the war for Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. Mak shows that these wars had a complicated and long-time past history. Mak refers in this also to the views of such prominent writers as Ivo Andrić, György Konrád, and Mark Mazower.

Mak also refers to a book, written by the Vojvodina-born writer Danilo Kiš, called Hourglass. In this book Kiš presents a long list of persons who lived and worked in Novi Sad during the thirties and forties. Mak uses this list as a prelude to his description of the Novi Sad raid in 1942. Aleksandar Tišma gives in his The Book Blam a similar list: about the fate of citizens War who worked in the same street in the centre of Novi Sad during the Second World.

Mak didn’t write a historical study about Yugoslavia; Mak wrote loosely connected journalistic stories. Perhaps this is the reason why I think his chapters on former Yugoslavia to be interesting, informative and very readable. If only because of these chapters, the expense of In Europe is worth the buy.

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