Monday, June 04, 2007

Review: With Their Backs To The World

I renewed my interest in Ansne Seierstad's "With Their Backs To The World: Portraits From Serbia" after reading this article about it on the Beyond Sarajevo Blog. The book features 14 characters; all whom represent a different segment of Serbian society during the 1990s and early 2000s.

The book's biggest strength is primarily due to the author's writing talents; (Seierstand also wrote "The Bookseller of Kabul"). She takes, what could be a rather cliche look at Serbian society in the 1990s and early 2000s; full of stock characters like "the nationalist" "the protester" "the democrat" "the religious one"; and writes a deeply effective; and at times moving portrait; of her subjects. In other words; instead of just having her subjects be one dimensional caricatures whose sole purpose is to be the embodiment of a political/social/religious idea; she allows them (if you forgive my overuse of cliches in the piece); to "come to life."

While the writing style is enough to draw in people who are not extensively interested in the Balkans; the book will also be appreciated by those who have a knowledge of the region and want a more in depth look.
Through her featured characters; the author does an impressive job of showing the complexities involved in Serbian political life.
There is probably no issue today as pressing in Serbia and Kosovo as to the status of Kosovo. In her chapter focusing on Kosovo; she takes what could be a rather cliche look at the issue; and provides a more nuanced view. The chapter focuses on the bitter irony of some Serbs who strongly believe that Kosovo is "holy" land; and can never, ever, be separated from Serbia; yet who have a rather prejudice view towards Kosovo Serbs. Some have even gone as far as posting signs forbidding Kosovo Serbs from entering their places of business. And none of them seem to get the irony of speaking in rather sweeping terms about Kosovo; yet in rather dismissive terms about the very refugees from there. Other chapters focus on various people, ranging from a man who makes a living off the black market; to a member of the youth resistance organization, Otpor. From an anonymous family, to the rocker Rambo Amadeus. From a young supporter of Milosevic; to a newly elected democratic mayor.

With Their Backs To The World is a compelling and complex look at a dark time in Serbian society.


Kirk Johnson said...

Great minds think alike, Shaina--I just started a review of this book the other night (haven't published it yet)!

I agree with you absolutely--it's a fascinating, if troubling, read.

Owen said...

Kirk, sounds like this could be rather more worthwhile than the last magnum opus!

Daniel said...

Kosovo has never been "Serbian".
Neither was Bosnia.

Can Serbia really heal itself from extreme radical nationalism? Can't they face reality and stop living in mythology?

Belgrade spreads over 3.6% of the territory of Serbia, and 21% of the Serbian population. That's Serbia.

Anonymous said...


Serbia was MADE in Kosovo, buddy. Kosovo & Metohia has been Serbian since time immemorial. I think the etymology and the 1,500+ Serbian Orthodox churches, monasteries and hermitages of Kosovo are proof enough.

Bosnia could have been Serbian, had Prime Minister Nikola Pashich been more persevering. After all, Bosnia, Slavonia and Dalmatia were offered Serbia on a silver platter. Instead, Serbia chose to form a country with Slovenes and Croats.