Bosnia war heavies become literary lions
by Nicholas Wood, Belgrade
Milorad Ulemek, a first-time novelist, has been a great success, according to his publisher. In just two weeks his novel about the war in Bosnia, Iron Trench, has sold close to 70,000 copies, a record in Serbia, according to the publisher, Mihailo Vojnović. While pleased with sales, Vojnović, the director of M Books, concedes that the novel's success may have less do with its content than with its author's notoriety. Milorad Ulemek is Serbia's most infamous paramilitary soldier, a man human-rights groups say was responsible for some the worst atrocities in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. He is more commonly known by his nom de guerre, Legija, and is also known as Luković, a name he took from his former wife.
As a nationalist writer he has some competition. Radovan Karadžić, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict and the man most wanted by the United Nations war crimes tribunal, has also written a novel. On Tuesday, another former president of Bosnian Serb republic, Biljana Plavšić, who is in a Swedish prison serving a sentence for war crimes, is releasing her book about the war.
While Plavšić's book is the only one that sheds any direct light on events of the war, it is the other two, the novels, that have prompted most acclaim here. Nationalist admirers of Ulemek and Karadžić have declared their works masterpieces of Serbian literature, comparable in style to the works of Albert Camus and James Joyce. Karadžić's The Miraculous Chronicle of the Night, published in October, was short-listed last year for Serbia's top literary award, the Golden Sunflower. Such comparisons have provoked indignation among more liberal commentators. Karadžić is widely regarded by diplomats and historians as the chief architect of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, while Ulemek is seen as one of the policy's principal executioners.
Most commentators are agreed on one thing: the acclaim received by both novels reflects the near mythic status still accorded here to the nationalist figures of 1990s, men who helped tear Yugoslavia apart in wars that killed more than 250,000 people. Both books, their publishers claim, were written while their authors were on the run. The war crimes tribunal in The Hague believes Karadžić has been on the move between Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. It is not clear how the manuscript was sent to the publishers. As for Ulemek, Vojnović says his wife passed on the manuscript shortly after her husband surrendered to the Serbian police last year in Belgrade. A former commander of the Serbian secret police's military branch, the Red Berets, Ulemek is on trial not for war crimes but for the assassination of prime minister Zoran Đinđić, who was shot and killed outside his office in March 2003.
Neither the accusations nor Ulemek's war record have deterred readers like Ljiljana Tanić from buying the novel. ‘It's a philosophical novel, quite similar to Camus' The Plague, that shows Ulemek's understanding of human suffering,’ said the bespectacled 67-year-old, who works in a Belgrade bookstore. The novel tells the story of a Serbian soldier lying critically wounded in a trench. While blatantly anti-Muslim in tone, it questions what was gained by the war in Bosnia. The dedication reads: ‘To all my compatriots, those who are gone and those who live questioning the meaning of their sacrifice.’ The book appears to reveal an intellectual streak in Ulemek hitherto unknown, although some critics have questioned whether the former paramilitary had anything to do with the novel's writing. ‘I think the last piece of writing Legija did was his school homework,’ said Zarko Trebješanin, a psychology professor at Belgrade University.
Karadžić's reputation as a writer is more firmly established. The Miraculous Chronicle of the Night is his fourth publication since he went into hiding in 1996. His other recent works include a children's book, a selection of his poetry and a play. This is his first novel, and is centred on Sarajevo in 1980-81. The hero is an engineer who, like Karadžić, is sent to prison at the time of Tito's death. ‘It's like Joyce's Dubliners’, said Momo Kapor, an artist who illustrated Karadžić's children's book, and a member of the Committee to Protect the Truth of Radovan Karadžić, a pro-Karadžić support group. ‘It is equal to the best pages in Serbian literature,’ said Kapor. ‘What makes me really happy is the he has kept his mental abilities. I am so glad that his persecution has not destroyed him.’ Kapor said he saw Karadžić as belonging to a long tradition of writers like Ezra Pound or Oscar Wilde, who were brilliant authors but were condemned by their contemporaries. ‘We would have lost many precious pieces of literature if we ignored condemned authors,’ he added.
Such praise has angered human-rights activists, concerned that almost a decade after the end of the war in Bosnia accused war criminals are being treated like heroes. Nataša Kandić, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre, a human-rights organization based in Belgrade, said that foreign publishers should have boycotted the Belgrade book fair in October to protest the venue being used to launch Karadžić's novel. However, for readers like Tanić, the two novels provide a view that echoes their own, depicting Serbia as the victim of international conspiracy. ‘People abroad don't know about us,’ she said. ‘They are representing us as wild people. They don't know who we really are. These books tell the truth.’
According to Kandić, those beliefs are unlikely to dissipate so long as the government refuses to confront Serbia's role in the wars of the 1990s. ‘We don't have a strong enough public opinion that will offer an alternative story, or politicians who can offer an alternative view of Serbia,’ she said. ‘Serbia is isolated,’ said Trebješanin, the psychology professor. ‘There are many people who are unemployed and who are not happy with the pace of transition from the Milošević era. They are the ones that are sustaining the myth about Karadžić.’ As for Vojnović, Ulemek's publisher, he believes sales of Iron Trench can only increase. ‘When he is sentenced there will be an even bigger demand,’ Vojnović said. Two more books by Ulemek will be published this spring.
This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune, 18 January 2005