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New Series no.13/14 December 1999 - February 2000
War in the Balkans
by Ines Sabalic

Review of my war gone by, I miss it so, by Anthony Loyd, Doubleday, London and New York 1999, 321 pp.

In 1993, when Anthony Loyd arrived in Sarajevo, the city despite its troubles presented a crazy scene: an American, playing out a magic ritual of his own invention, each day stuck bird feathers into the foot impressions of Franz Ferdinand's assassin Gavrilo Princip, after which he would set them alight; a fascinated Annie Leibovitz took photographs of life in the city for Vanity Fair; the still famous Sister Magnificat danced naked in a cellar before the local Franciscan community in order to drive out evil spirits from Sarajevo. Susan Sontag came to seek new inspiration, Bernard Henry-Levy to prove he was an engaged intellectual, while outside Sarajevo various groups of peacemakers, activists and religious sects waited to enter the city. A part of this bizarre procession were boys like Anthony Loyd, who came to that war of ours, beneath our bombs, in search of themselves and the meaning of life. These to us were the most irritating of all: apart from the fact that we from the Balkans were somehow more likely to die on the same spot from the same shell than those Westerners, their presence reduced us to a Cinemascope backdrop, massed extras behind a few Western fates in the foreground. Their visits to our hell produced books which we were too lazy to write, articles and films. For the most part these failed to please us, back here.

Practically all books on the war in the former Yugoslavia express their authors' unconscious cultural racism, but that is not true of Loyd's. It fortunately also contains none of the arrogant empathy common to such books, which of course is merely an inverted sadism.

When Anthony Loyd set off from London for Bosnia in order to find himself, I had left Croatia for London for the opposite reason. One evening at Bush House, while I was preparing an early morning broadcast, I found in The Times what must have been Loyd's first text as a war correspondent. He was reporting from central Bosnia and it was not exactly top-class journalism. I vaguely wondered where they had found such a fool. But his articles nevertheless got better as time went by and My War Gone By is, I think, the best book written about the war in the Balkans. It shows both from the outside and from the inside the Bosnian war as it really was. From the outside, in terms of the facts, his description is both accurate and balanced, while from the inside, as experience, it is just right. It affected me so deeply, in fact, that I am tempted to put it on the list of my favourite books of the 20th century which I have been asked to send to a Croatian cultural weekly.

In genre Loyd's memoir of the war is a Bildungsroman. The young hero undergoes picaresque adventures which form stages of his growing up. The starting point is his life in an artistic circle in West London, boredom, smack, his departure for Sarajevo and acquisition of a substitute family, his first dead bodies, return to London, smack, return to Bosnia, an encounter with mercenaries who initiate him into the Croat-Muslim war, then alcohol, and after that more dead bodies. He stopped being a `war tourist' and got his break as a war correspondent `at the expense of a mutilated girl, one dead prisoner, probably two, and a wounded journalist', he was in the neighbourhood of Ahmici and Stupni Dol, developed a strange friendship with a war criminal, who is a demonic variant of the boy on the block whose friend all the other boys want to be. This charming thug amazes him with his war iconography made up of stolen Mercedes, teenage moll, reckless firing of pistol and Heckler-Koch simultaneously on the front line - Loyd's description is almost homo-erotic. (Incidentally, I too met the leader of the `Jokers' and remained entirely impervious to his charms - I wonder whether any woman found `Darko' attractive, apart from the `teenage moll' who was found one morning in Kiseljak, face down in the mud with a bullet in her head. Also incidentally: Darko Kraljevic never reached Australia, but instead met his end near Vitez, having driven his white Mercedes into a gorge at two hundred km per hour.) In the book, the picaresque hero resists temptation and there follows a semi-comically surrealistic scene called a Bosnian barbecue, in which an idyll among neighbours in a garden is blown sky high like in some Chagall painting, then girls, exhaustion, reporting, melancholia, London, smack, return . . .

When he wasn't on heroin he was in Bosnia, and the other way round. That kid had really been spun round on life's merry-go-round and naturally had the problem of how to get off, which is why his Bildung, his coming of age - which was precisely the whole aim of his journey to war, his plunge into the Dionysian Balkans - was for now postponed. Or perhaps it couldn't happen at all in the Balkans, which according to some theories got its name from Baal, god of war, violence and rape. But I very much liked the picaresque hero `Anthony' with his sweetness, his grace, his candour, his youthful commitment and his innocence. Thanks to which he would emerge from the Bosnian war almost unsullied.

I very much liked the shade of Loyd's famous military ancestor Adrian Carton de Wiart which can be glimpsed throughout the book, a soldier who leaves the impression of a puppet-theatre general. During his illustrious military career, Adrian Carton de Wiart too landed up in the Balkans, as member of some official mission; he even found himself in Tito's vicinity and greatly admired Tito's firm handclasp. At the end of the century, his grandson retraced his grandfather's journey as a parody.

In Loyd's book the episode with Darko, the war criminal from Vitez, is the only one with the aroma of mingled attraction and repulsion that is dominant today in writing on the former Yugoslavia. Fascination with the Dionysian Balkans, a place where everything can be done that cannot be done in the civilized world, was first introduced - in his films so greatly admired by intellectuals - by the current president of the Venice film festival jury, Emir Kusturica. Thereafter the phallic kitsch spread like a virus from books to essays in Vanity Fair or The Spectator.

In this sense Loyd's book is wholly against the trend and is for that reason unique. It is the kind of book I wanted to write myself but didn't, since we from the Balkans seem to lack the necessary discipline.

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