The world knows that the former Yugoslavia boasted numerous good writers, in the same way that it produced remarkable films and, recently, even more notable ethnic demagogues and frightful wars. And, as in Russia, South Slavic authors are widely known and read in their own territories, although in the decade following the disintegration of the country they considered theirs, those alive today have lost most of the public influence they once enjoyed. Yet the fact persists; among Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians, and Kosovar Albanians, writers of the past and present often count as much or more than politicians, pop singers, or sports stars.

Living in Sarajevo, I can cite considerable evidence for this claim. I have frequently heard people who survived the 1992–95 siege of the city describe with nostalgia the hundreds of days they spent reading in basement shelters. Sarajevo is also strewn, on fair weather days, with impromptu sidewalk businesses where scavengers in destroyed houses offer books for sale. And even under Communism, the school curriculum included challenging classics so that virtually every basically educated individual can discuss the main South Slav authors.

In the former Yugoslavia, literature matters.

The importance of literature in the region was well illustrated at the end of 1999, when Sarajevans were treated to a series of arguments in mass-circulation weeklies over who deserved recognition as the greatest Bosnian writer of the century. The scandal sheet Dani (“Days”), which appears to pride itself on its lack of journalistic ethics, led the way for several issues, finally settling on the 1961 Nobel laureate Ivo Andric (1892–1975), a name certainly recognized, if not very well known, among foreigners. Dani contributors identified Andric’s novella Prokleta Avlija (“The Damned Yard”) as the outstanding Bosnian work of fiction. The runner up was Derviš i Smrt (“Death and the Dervish”) by Meša Selimovic (1910–82), who is largely unknown outside the former Yugoslavia.

As is often the case with Dani and other Bosnian journals, however, this discussion had little to do with the merits of the writers. Rather, the two authors, and their works, were symbols of something else, immediately obvious to all local readers. Andric, a Bosnian Croat who redefined himself as a Serb, has been virulently attacked by certain Bosnian Muslim intellectuals for his perceived hostility to Balkan Islam and its adherents, both Bosnian and Albanian. In upholding Andric over Selimovic , whose very name bespeaks Muslim influence and whose main works feature Muslim protagonists, Dani’s editors sought to make a point about politics in Sarajevo today—that they would defend the quality of literature against the nationalist criteria allegedly imposed by the Bosnian Muslim political leadership.

This game is a popular one in Sarajevo, where people can instantly indicate their political orientation by the use of literary banners. For some young intellectuals, including Muslims, the defense of Andric really does mean an insistence on writerly independence. And for many other people, to be for Andric involves a stand for tolerance toward Serbs, as well as affection for the dead Yugoslavia, socialism, and Tito. To be for Selimovic is, then, ostensibly to be a Muslim chauvinist.

In fact, such considerations involve a considerable dose of bad faith, for although the main boulevard in Sarajevo is named for Selimovic, and his memory is treasured by Bosnian Muslims, he, like Andric, also wanted to be remembered as a Serb. After all, Belgrade, the Serbian capital, was also the capital of Yugoslavia, with the main literary scene in the country. But sadly, Selimovic, all of whose work bespeaks an obsession with the independence of the individual and the autonomy of conscience —themes barely present in Andric—ends up being treated as an Islamic apparatchik, while Andric, whose career included at least one undeniable fling into extremist Serbism, is honored as a hero in the cause of artistic integrity.

The main competition for Dani is another weekly, Slobodna Bosna (“Free Bosnia”). Slobodna is viewed with considerable irritability by many older Sarajevans as a sensationalist rag virtually indistinguishable from Dani. But where Dani offends by attacking religion and accusing prominent politicians and intellectuals of outlandish crimes, Slobodna provokes more by its sense and taste, which involve offering substantive political reporting alongside columns on punk rock, in a format dominated by screaming headlines.

In any event, Slobodna won the competition for literary seriousness. Rather than insulting Islam and the Bosnian Muslim leadership under the pretext of literary criticism, Slobodna offered a balanced appraisal, not just of Bosnian fiction but of all South Slavic writers in the twentieth century. In arguments summarized by the outstanding critic and journalist Ozren Kebo, Slobodna offered a list free of demagogy, in which the real Bosnian spirit was evident. In its pages, the best Yugoslav novel of the century was identified as Grobnica Za Borisa Davidovica (“A Tomb for Boris Davidovich”), by Danilo Kiš (1935–89), a writer of Serbian and Hungarian Jewish origin who is widely read and appreciated in the rest of Europe and the United States. Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish was ranked second, followed by two volumes of Andric, Na Drini Cuprija (“The Bridge on the Drina”) and Travnicka Hronika (“Days of the Consuls,” also translated as “Bosnian Chronicle”). Next came Povratak Filipa Latinovicza (“The Return of Philip Latinovicz”) by the Croatian author Miroslav Krleza (1893–1981), and a book by the Serbian writer Miloš Crnjanski (1893– 1977), Roman o Londonu (“A Novel About London”).

Although Krleza and Crnjanski are known in the West mainly among transplanted Croats and Serbs, all of the foregoing books except the last have been translated into English and are in print. And while Crnjanski’s Novel about London, a highly idiosyncratic work, will probably never see the light of English translation, his most famous book, Seobe (“Migrations”—actually the first volume in a series of the same title) has been published in the United States and Britain. Thus the lists can be evaluated, even if one knows nothing at all about the Balkans aside from what appears on the television news.

One crucial fact must be stated: none of these five authors saw himself as a local nationalist. Kiš addressed himself to the world. Selimovic and Andric, as noted, were non-Serbs who adopted a Serb identity. Krleza treasured and defended Croat linguistic traditions, and Crnjanski wrote about a quintessential Serb hero. But all five saw themselves as Yugoslavs first, and it is inconceivable that any of them would have lent his talent to the ethnic polarization that has inflicted so much pain and horror on the country in which they lived.

Danilo Kiš’s work has gained the largest international audience of these five writers —and to give the devil her due, Susan Sontag was instrumental in introducing Kiš to English-speaking readers. He has frequently been compared with Jorge Luis Borges, to whom he explicitly admitted a debt. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich,1 the lead novella in the collection of the same title, is unquestionably a Borgesian work. But it is also much more.

The narrative describes the life of a Russian revolutionary and victim of the Stalin purges, Boris Davidovich Novsky. In what might seem an authentically Borgesian fashion, the tale begins with a reference to a book, the Granat Encyclopedia, said to include “246 authorized biographies of great men and participants in the Revolution.” But Novsky’s name, we are told, is missing from this source. Further, Kiš writes, “in his commentary on this encyclopedia, Haupt notes that all the important figures of the Revolution are represented, and laments only the ‘surprising and inexplicable absence of Podvoysky.’” But even Haupt, we are told, ignores Novsky, “whose role in the Revolution was more significant than that of Podvoysky.”

Here, in a manner undetectable to the great majority of his readers, in Yugoslavia as well as the rest of the world, Kiš trumped Borges. For unlike the noted “Tlön encyclopedia” invented by Borges, the Granat Encyclopedia is real, the biographies are real, Haupt is real, and Podvoysky was, as Haupt noted, inexplicably omitted from them. The Granat Encyclopedia was a reference work famous in the Russia of the 1920s. Its biographical essays of the main Bolsheviks have been translated and published in English under the title Makers of the Russian Revolution: Biographies of Bolshevik Leaders, edited by Georges Haupt, a French historian. (In reality, N. I. Podvoysky was obscure but not unimportant; he was a member of the original committee that organized the Bolshevik insurrection in St. Petersburg in 1917, later serving as an assistant military commissar under Trotsky.)

The Granat biographies are known today only to the most assiduous researchers on the Bolsheviks, but they are extremely vivid, thorough, and fascinating to read. Kiš, who seems to have stumbled on them, was obviously charmed by their literary qualities, for his invented protagonist, Novsky—and, rest assured, there was no such person—is assembled out of details drawn from the Granat profiles. In this way, Kiš arrived at an extraordinary creation: by “lifting” the most characteristic details from the lives of the Bolsheviks, he created a collective memorial for a whole generation of radicals who were utterly destroyed by the regime they had brought into being. Virtually every significant aspect of the life of Novsky is based on fact, making a continuous counterposition to Borges. As Kiš seems to be telling us, the inventions of Borges are nothing compared to the conceits of verifiable history. While Borges is occasionally unnerving, Kiš is, finally, terrifying.

Thus, Kiš’s Novsky uses pseudonyms employed by the actual Bolsheviks, such as “Parabellum,” named after a pistol and made famous by the Polish Bolshevik Karl B. Radek. He becomes “a functionary of the powerful union of Jewish hatmakers in Paris,” an item borrowed from the life of the Soviet trade unionist Solomon A. Lozovsky. His lover is a beautiful woman revolutionary, Zinaida Maysner, based on an easily identified personage, Larissa Reisner. Larissa Reisner was the companion of a Soviet diplomat, Fyodor F. Raskolnikov, while Kiš’s Maysner falls for A. D. Karamazov, as the author’s method becomes increasingly explicit.

It would be unfair to Kiš and to readers to expose all the underpinning in this tale. Suffice it to say that Kiš knew exactly what he was about. Reisner, a kind of Bolshevik amazon, died young (as her double, Maysner, is said to have expired before thirty, of disease in a faroff place). But Radek was a victim of the show trials of the mid-Thirties, Lozovsky was killed in the anti-Jewish purge of 1952, and Raskolnikov, who defected to France, was probably murdered by Soviet agents. The fate of Boris Davidovich Novsky is appropriately dreadful.

Kiš’s Boris Davidovich is a story about history, and its effect on Central and East Europeans, but it is also an examination of a life lived in the service of an esoteric philosophy. It is in this regard that Kiš is truest to his mentor, Borges, for Kiš, like Borges, was also obsessed with the kabbalah. But in the Western cities evoked by Borges, occult wisdom is benevolent; as others have noted, the “universal history of infamy” spun out by the Argentine genius seldom exceeds the criminality of pickpockets and petty swindlers. In Kiš’s half of Europe, which is also that of Lenin and Hitler, Stalin and Tito, the Croat autocrat Franjo Tudjman and the Serb tyrant Slobodan Miloševic, infamy was and is deeper and more lethal. These concerns also inform the author’s second best-known book, The Encyclopedia of the Dead. It and Boris Davidovich seem much weightier, however fragile their form as collections of short stories, than his more traditional novels, such as Hourglass, although the same issues still appear.

Meša Selimovic's Death and the Dervish,2 is also about esoteric knowledge. Set in Bosnia in the eighteenth century, it is the story of a Sufi, or Muslim mystic. But the parallel between the life of an Islamic spiritualist and that of a Bolshevik revolutionary is obvious to local readers of Selimovic’s work; just as the work of Danilo Kiš serves as a literary coda to the legacy of Lenin and his cohort, so too Selimovic’s is replete with references to the Sufi classics, such as the Spanish Muslim writer Ibn Arabi. This origin in ideology and its illusions is not the only element of Selimovicï’s work that bespeaks a similarity to that of Kiš. Both were experimenters with narrative form. While Kiš mastered the Borgesian art, involving the merger of history, essay, and fiction, Selimovic¯ refined the technique of the internal monologue, crafting a limpid discourse that makes his Dervish an exquisite poem in prose, if not a literal representation of the higher means of expression to which the Sufis aspire.

Yet the tale told in Death and the Dervish is hardly occult. Rather, it is a parable of injustice, power, and moral weakness in the face of both, drawn from the tormented experience of the author himself. The dervish of the title, Ahmed Nuruddin, must contend with the arrest of his brother by the implacable Ottoman authorities. Similarly, Selimovic’s own elder brother Sefkija was arrested in the aftermath of World War II. A Communist Partisan, Sefkija was found guilty of an exceedingly minor violation of “socialist morality.” Placed in charge of a storehouse of confiscated goods, he had borrowed some small pieces to furnish his own dwelling. He was accused of malfeasance of “the people’s property” and done to death as a warning to the masses.

In Death and the Dervish, Selimovic obviously wrestles with his own sense of guilt and cowardice in the wake of this terrible episode. But the greatness of the book, especially for foreign readers, resides less in its broader lessons about human personality, or even its marvelous evocation of Bosnia-Hercegovina under Turkish rule, than in its sensitive and elegant use of language.

Here is the beginning of Selimovic’s extraordinary description of the impact of a surviving pagan holiday—in which young girls, to celebrate the beginning of summer as well as to enhance their own fertility, bathed naked in rivers and millraces—on the pious Muslim mystic, a resident of the “kasaba” or settlement of Sarajevo:

Broken night whispered between houses as young people moved excitedly in the streets and courtyards. Giggling, a distant song, and murmurs were heard, and it seemed that on this Saint George’s Eve the whole kasaba trembled in fever. Suddenly, for no reason, I felt separated from all of it. Fear crept into me unnoticed, and everything around me began to acquire strange proportions—the people and their movements, the kasaba itself no longer seemed familiar. I had never seen them like this before, I had not known that the world could become so disfigured in a day, in an hour, in a moment—as if some demon’s blood had begun to boil and no one could calm it. I saw townspeople in couples, heard them, they were behind every fence, every gate, every wall. Their laughter, talk, and glances were not like on other days: their voices were muffled and heavy. A scream cut through the darkness, like lightning in an impending storm. The air was permeated with sin, the night full of it.

It would be difficult to compose a more faithful and eloquent invocation of the dangerous exhilaration of Sarajevo, a city built along a rushing Alpine stream, in which nature and civilization seem uniquely melded, and in which passions always seem held in check, but ready to erupt. Selimovic also possessed a unique ability to express the internal conflict in Bosnian Muslims, between the near wilderness in which they live and the rigors of the faith they profess. His work is obviously the best available for foreign comprehension of Bosnian Muslim identity, in the past and present, as well as in the future.

Ivo Andric, a Bosnian Croat by birth but a Serb by conviction, took the conflict between Bosnian wildness and Islamic discipline, or, as he always seemed to see it, tyranny, and the ensuing propensity, over centuries, for the country to suffer violence, as the major theme of his writing. The “damned yard” in the work of that title is the central courtyard of an Ottoman prison. Of the five authors under consideration here, he was the most traditional, and the only one who did not identify with a broader European modernism. His novels are purely descriptive and rather pedestrian in their composition—his defenders always praise him as a storyteller of the old school —with an undeniable sheen of nationalist ideology. They are very much a product of the Slav Romantic upsurge against the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and Andric¯ himself was imprisoned in 1914 for involvement in the Mlada Bosna (“Young Bosnia”) conspiracy that took the life of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, and brought about the First World War.

For these writers borders are porous, and empires are impermanent.

Andric is an author of “big books.” Sarajevo is replete with copies of The Bridge on the Drina that have been bought by members of the international community employed here and put aside after an attempt at the first chapter. But while it is absurd to argue, as his promoters do, that a reading of Andric suffices to educate a foreigner in Balkan reality, one needs to make his acquaintance. The Damned Yard,3 as a novella, is the best introduction to him.

Although Andric was never a literary experimenter, The Damned Yard evinces an effective but somewhat precious formal structure. A story written by a storyteller about stories told by storytellers, it describes the recollections of a young Bosnian Franciscan about the reminiscences of a recently deceased friar, who rambled repetitively about the things he had seen and heard in the world. The elder cleric, Fra Petar, was once imprisoned in Istanbul, and in “the damned yard” of the Ottoman lockup he heard one particularly affecting tale from another teller of tales, a Turkish political prisoner.

The chain of recounting proceeds from twentieth-century Bosnia to fifteenth-century Istanbul and Rome, reinforcing the sense of the proximity of history in the Balkans. In the “damned yard” men from throughout the empire—Fra Petar, the Croat Catholic priest; Haim, a Jew from Smyrna; and Krikor, an Armenian, in addition to various Turkish characters—have been assembled, and each has his own way with language and truth. This sense of epic as the central fact of existence, as well as its trail of human transmission, has made The Damned Yard as popular as it is.

The Damned Yard also has its weaknesses. It is too short, a novella that should have been a novel. Its main narrative artifact, the story told to Fra Petar in the prison by the political suspect Kamil Effendi, is surprisingly flat, being an account of the conflict between the two sons of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, the victor at Constantinople in 1453, who remains alive in the Balkan collective memory even now at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It has rather bald nationalist clues: one son, who loses his influence, leaves the Ottoman domains, and becomes a hostage to the pope, is said to be born of a mother “of Serbian royal blood.” This is not the only instance where Andric treats a Muslim hero as, in effect, a Serb struggling to free himself from an alien legacy—and this conception has played a ghastly role in the bloodletting that has marked Yugoslav history in this century, with Serbs often demanding that Balkan Muslims acknowledge their “inner Serb” or die. Kamil Effendi, who narrates the story of the defeated son, with whom he identifies, is also said to be half-Christian in origin.

The central declaration of The Damned Yard, which justifies the tale, is equally redolent of nationalist oversimplification. After Kamil Effendi has related the history of the rival brothers, the author comments,

it all amounted to the same thing: there are two worlds, between which there can never be any real contact or possibility of understanding, two terrible worlds condemned to eternal war in a thousand forms. And between them was a man who, in his own way, was at war with both these warring worlds.

The two worlds are, of course, those of Christianity and Islam. And, illogically, the author seeks to have it both ways: the worlds are locked in combat, without the possibility of mutual comprehension, but tragic individuals combine them in a single personality. Many Bosnian Muslims and other residents of the former Yugoslavia cannot forgive Andric’s emphasis on the former point, for the idea of “eternal war in a thousand forms” is not very distant from the propaganda of Radovan Karadžic, the Bosnian Serb chieftain indicted as a war criminal, who insisted that asking Muslims and Serbs to live together in Bosnia-Hercegovina was the same as asking dogs and cats to cooperate.

Andric undeniably evinced a certain Balkan “whiggery,” recasting his historic Bosnia to flatter the Serb nationalists of a later generation. In any event, whatever their differences and frictions, Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and Jews did live together in Bosnia-Hercegovina for centuries, and the country has had the same borders since the early eighteenth century, longer than any other European state! And while the experiment in transborder country-making called “Yugoslavia” failed, its literature comprises both of the “warring worlds” of Andric's purview. The five authors presented here are proof of that.

For these writers borders are porous, and empires are impermanent. Yet one seems to proceed along a hall filled with echoes when reading Kiš, Selimovic, and Andric¯ in succession: always, there is the obsession with oppressive rulers, and the helplessness of men and women faced with them. But worse than the baffling bureaucracies depicted by Kafka and other subjects of the Habsburg empire, power in these authors’ works is more than arbitrary and heedless; it is vindictive and brutal. That is the Islamic and Orthodox heritage. But while the remaining authors on our list, Krleža and Crnjanski, also deal with irrevocable human destiny, their stories are set in the Catholic west, and the lives of their protagonists are free of the iron hand of extreme despotism, though not of overbearing government, and not of a greater eternal fate.

Miroslav Krleža created a universe, out of his own insights and his command of language, that is an exact representation of that in which he lived, and we live, in the glittering cities of the Western Hemisphere no less than in rural Slavonia. His work reminds one of the great painters: it is our common reality, but only he can show it to us as he does. An adulation of Krleža among Croats is predictable and understandable for he is among the finest European writers. Numerous Yugoslavs, and not only Croats, thought he deserved the Nobel that was presented to Andric. Ex-Yugoslavs often ascribe the granting of such recognition to official lobbying, and many believe Krleža was done out of a Nobel for political reasons. This is, above all, because although he was extremely proud to be considered a Yugoslav, he would never have Serbified himself the way Andric did.

In addition, Krleža, although a Communist, was a dissident long before the term was popularized, indeed, before the idea of dissident Communists was even heard of in the broader West. He was extremely lucky to have made it through the Stalin era at all. And he was a lifelong doubter. He loved his Croatian idioms as much as his Yugoslav identity, but he detested nationalism, and he hated what flags and symbols had done to the lives of ordinary people, over the centuries. Indeed, we may even say that while the peace of the Yugoslavs died with Tito in 1980, their conscience died with Krleža a year later. For me, Kiš at his most incisive, Selimovic at his most poetic, and Andric¯ at his most exotic are very small alongside Krleža. And yet he was free of arrogance, and would have put the interest of any of them ahead of his own. He would even have given his life for their freedom to write, their freedom to be. It is immensely frustrating to realize how difficult it is for foreign readers to comprehend his achievement, since so little of his work has been translated.

It is unlikely that the early books that made Krleža famous, Hrvatski Bog Mars (“The Croat God Mars”), his early outcry against the waste of Croatian manhood by military service to foreigners, or Glembajeva (“The Glembajs”), a series of portraits of a typical family of ambitious Croats, will be translated soon. They are simply too marginal to the interest of the foreign public, and are now too old. Nor will his Dijalekticki Antibarbarus (“The Dialectical Antibarbarus”), a polemic against Stalinism, which could have lost him his head, see the light of English soon, although in a better world it would be studied by every Anglo-American Slavicist and historian of Communism.

We are lucky to have two of his greatest works in English: Na Rubu Pameti (“On the Edge of Reason”) and The Return of Philip Latinovicz.4 The former is a short book, and a delightful excursion for readers who can surrender themselves to an unfamiliar milieu. It tells the Candide-like tale of a respectable lawyer who, in the middle of his life, commits a social error: he speaks candidly at a party to the boorish host. (This is not a unique situation in South Slavic literature: Meša Selimovic’s second great work, Tvrdjava (“The Fortress”), focuses on a similar incident, but with a very different outcome.) The narrator’s resulting fall from grace, prominence, and prosperity propels him to the bottom of European society in the late 1930s, and on the way he meets exemplars of every form of political and social pretension and pathology in evidence at that time. On the Edge of Reason is one of Krleža’s great expressions of protest against nationalism and totalitarianism. Nevertheless, the existing translation cannot be recommended, mainly because, having been done during the Tito era, it was printed, according to the Yale South Slavicist and Krleža expert Ivo Banac, with its sharp comments about the Communists of the 1930s excised.

By contrast, nothing should prevent an educated American reader from enjoying Philip Latinovicz to the fullest. It is more than a novel; it is an encyclopedic examination, a dissection, of Croatian society after World War I. Tinted with a black humor of deadly seriousness, it is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson with, say, the comic Jack Benny as the head surgeon. Yet it is never vulgar or superficial.

Latinovicz describes the memories, inner turbulence, and environment of a successful modernist painter who, after more than twenty years out in the world, has returned to his original home, a rural Croatian hamlet. His intent is obvious:

To live for a while amidst mares and cats, amidst village rumors, to feel a rough calf’s tongue on one’s palm, to watch plants growing, from day to day ever increasingly green and lush, with mathematical precision adjusting themselves to the maximum amount of light and sunshine, those were soothing things for Philip’s neurasthenia.

But, of course, the way back from maturity and the city brings him, another Croat Candide, to nothing like a rural idyll. Rather, the place is a provincial hell. The artist and his mother hold each other in contempt; the setting is dominated by ludicrous, failed personalities stuck in the Habsburg glories of a previous generation. Latinovicz feels himself to be going mad, and is driven in that direction by another refugee from the city, a poseur named Kyriales. No more should be said: the rest is left to the reader.

All of the works discussed so far were produced for an audience that knew, and knows, how to read. However, the last, Crnjanski’s Migrations,5 should perhaps stand first in a group offered to foreigners. But unfortunately, its author is so little known to the world outside the former Yugoslavia that his name was rendered as Tsernianski when the book was published in English, in 1994, and it seems to have made no money for Harcourt Brace, which issued it. That edition is correctly labeled “volume I,” which is somewhat misleading. The first book in Crnjanski’s Migrations series was published in 1929, the rest decades later, and the first can stand on its own.

Readers would be correct in perceiving a pattern here, and it is heartbreaking. South Slavs, Yugoslavs, Bosnians, Croats, Serbs: all have been terribly susceptible to big words, big ideas, big promises.

Migrations is a book that may be enjoyed by almost any reader. It is the rousing, romantic story of Vuk Isakovic, a Serb mercenary soldier fighting in the Rhineland in the early eighteenth century in the service of the Austrian empress Maria Theresa. Crnjanski was a serious literary modernist and a great stylist, yet it is conceivable that Migrations could satisfy fans of Tom Clancy. The story is fast-paced, but never surrenders to action for its own sake. And its level of detail is exceptional; like Krleža, Crnjanski was a gifted observer of people as well as an expert on the time about which he wrote.

Vuk Isakovic, the book’s hero, is potbellied, has lost his youthful looks, and has become exhausted and querulous after years as a paid combatant. His wife is at the end of her tether. His soldiers must forage for food, and are hanged as thieves; his fellow commanders are fools. But these characters possess an essential vitality that is amazing to behold. The underlying power of Migrations comes from its transmutation of popular consciousness; for generations of Serbs, the military profession abroad was the only honorable alternative to submission to the Ottomans. And in Vuk Isakovic, Serbian military honor has its greatest literary exemplar.

Crnjanski was an authentic Serb patriot, but unlike Andric, whose Serbism was adoptive, Crnjanski never felt called to enunciate nationalist rhetoric or to rationalize primitive hatred. Vuk Isakovic makes no fancy claims for the superiority of Christian to Islamic civilization, or of the Orthodox East over the Catholic West. His situation is, in a sense, hopeless; he must fight to survive, but in the service of others. But his only hope is his religious Orthodoxy and the loyalty it inspires to a mystical conception of Russia, where he intends someday to flee, thus ending his migrations.

Yet the Orthodoxy of Vuk Isakovic is simple and pure, untainted by demagogy. Throughout the book he feels pressured by the Austrian authorities to convert to Catholicism, yet in a memorable passage, he tells himself,

Just as my sweet Orthodoxy did reside forever within my mother, so shall it reside forever within me and those who come after me. Our Russia is also sweet. I pray to God the creator to show me the way there! Russia! R for the Resurrection, U for the Universe, S for the Slavs, S for Salvation, I for the Immortality of Christ, A for …

The fictional Vuk Isakovic is therefore a worthy counterpart to the spiritual Muslims in Selimovic’s books, who reside on the other side of the imperial borders of that time, and, like Kiš’s Boris Davidovich, he is a true believer, but an unselfish one, turned toward an ideal Moscow. Crnjanski’s work is the most important in moral terms of those under discussion, for his vision of Serbian patriotism, although intense, is sane and even noble, which is saying something when one considers the uses to which Serbian pride has been put in recent times.

Readers would be correct in perceiving a pattern here, and it is heartbreaking. South Slavs, Yugoslavs, Bosnians, Croats, Serbs: all have been terribly susceptible to big words, big ideas, big promises. The landscape is tragic, but its writers have, on more than one occasion, transmuted the materials God gave them—as he gave them to the peasant, the dervish, the mercenary, the revolutionary, the artist, the petty functionary, the usurper, the martyred and the decadent—in a way that makes great literature. Suffering has its rewards.


  1.  A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kiš, translated by Duška Mikic-Mitchell; Penguin Classics, 135 pages. This edition is temporarily out of stock. An edition is available in England from Faber.
  2.  Death and the Dervish, by Meša Selimovic, translated by Bogdan Rakic and Stephen Dickey; Northwestern University Press, 473 pages, $49.95, $19.95 paper.
  3.  The Damned Yard and Other Stories, by Ivo Andric, translated by Celia Hawksworth; Dufour Editions, 218 pages, $24.
  4.  On the Edge of Reason, by Miroslav Krleža, translated by Zora Depolo; New Directions, 182 pages, $10.95. The Return of Philip Latinovicz, by Miroslav Krleža, translated by Zora Depolo; Northwestern University Press, 230 pages, $54.95, $14.95 paper.
  5.  An edition of Migrations, translated by Michael Henry Heim, was published in 1994 by Harcourt Brace, but is now out of print.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 9, on page 15
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
newcriterion.com/issues/2000/5/five-yugoslav-classics

Popular Right Now