by Ivan Lovrenovic
Gojko Beric could claim to be the true doyen of literary journalism in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For many years, indeed over two decades, before the former Yugoslavia broke up, readers had taken unfailing delight in the vignettes and reports on cultural life he used to send back from Dubrovnik to his own Oslobodjenje or other Sarajevo papers. War caught Beric in his Sarajevo home. From the first day of the city’s apocalypse he opted for the only authentic solution in professional, moral and intellectual terms, but the hardest existentially: through his texts and his personal presence to bear witness to the truth. The truth to which Beric bears witness emerges from the gaze of a lucid individual observer, sworn to maintain his distance from any kind of collectivism - ethnic, political, confessional or patriotic. The sole fixed points in his value system are: fidelity to good writing as the basis of his profession; aversion to nationalistic barbarism; acute and studiously fostered sensitivity to human suffering.
The author flags his anti-nationalist credo unambiguously from the outset, dedicating the Bosnian edition of his book to ‘all people repelled by nationalism’, and in the foreword here adopting as a kind of watchword Adam Michnik’s insight that: ‘the sense of belonging to one nation is most powerfully experienced through shame’. An equally explicit message is conveyed by the precise address so ironically articulated in the book’s original title: ‘Letters to a Celestial People’. For all denizens of the former Yugoslavia, this sarcastic allusion - ‘celestial people’ - is crystal clear: the reference is to the nationalistic apotheosis of the Serb people, produced in propaganda laboratories and serving as one of the most powerful psychological means for preparing a war of conquest.
Just as nationalism repels him, so too does intellectual conformism. The fierce, unadulterated authenticity of his anti-nationalist commitment rests upon a conscious choice: not to avoid the fact of his own Serb ethnic identity, but on the contrary to use it (too) to unmask the full monstrosity of Serb nationalism - and then, logically and very persuasively, also of all other nationalisms in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the former Yugoslavia, which are anyhow entirely akin and perforce mutually reinforcing.
This would already be enough to recommend Gojko Beric - one of the few significant chroniclers and commentators of this period in the whole former-Yugoslav area who have had the human courage and intellectual integrity to uphold a life-affirming truth against a life-destroying discourse - to a readership anxious to know something more, and more reliable, about the bloody and sinister final decade of the twentieth century in Yugoslavia and in Bosnia.
But beyond this explicit ethical and political significance, Beric’s texts have a further quality that alone stamps them with the unique identity of a true literary author. This, inevitably, is his style. Beric never for a single moment ceases to be aware of the inexorable (and paradoxical) imperative of all writing: the fact that its meaning and conviction, its victory over the proverbial ephemerality of newsprint, can be based only upon a deft turn of phrase, vibrant tonality and well-structured narrative form.
The texts included in this book are the best possible testimony to the integrity as a writer of Gojko Beric, an author whose classic technique allows him to combine the morality of his stance and the aesthetics of his literary achievement into a unique authorial voice. In our common Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian literary heritage there exists a paradigmatic title: Miroslav Krleza’s famous 1939 work ‘Dialectical Antibarbarus’, in which the writer polemically settles his accounts with a rigid ideological Stalinism in culture. It would be possible, in a very accurate paraphrase, to call Beric’s book, and his entire journalistic and intellectual stance, a ‘Nationalist Antibarbarus’.
This text is the introduction to Letters to the Celestial Serbs, by Gojko Beric, just published by Saqi Books (London) in association with The Bosnian Institute