Ivan Lovrenović, Bosnia: A Cultural history, Saqi Books, London, 2001.
One of the more ironic and unfortunate by-products of war in the age of mass media is that it too often tends to be the only conduit through which we can grasp some sense of seemingly distant or hitherto unknown cultures. While the war against Bosnia was initially fought by the media machine directed from Belgrade, all the might and technology of the Western world’s journalistic resources were soon concentrated on a part of the world that few had any real conception or knowledge of. In many ways, particularly in the American context (though somewhat less so in Europe), the extent, depth and quality of the coverage on Bosnia was quite surprising, despite numerous lingering misconceptions. At the same time, while it was exceedingly difficult if not impossible to translate works from Bosnia before the war, a critical mass of translated texts has since found its way into English.
This, too, is somewhat surprising. After all, if one considers some of the major post-World-War-II conflicts – Vietnam, the Gulf War or Algeria (both presently and in its struggle against colonialism) – one can see just how little Vietnamese, Iraqi or Algerian culture has penetrated the anglophone world.
In this sense, we know more about Bosnia now than many other places we should have at least some knowledge of. Yet, when one encounters the work of Ivan Lovrenovic, we are immediately confronted with a profundity of knowledge and an integrity of approach that makes us realize how little we actually do know about Bosnia’s multiple and palimpsestial history. Poet, novelist, essayist and journalist, Lovrenovic’s uncompromising work seems almost antithetical to what generally passes for ‘informed’ intellectual discourse. Fiercely local, his erudition goes to the deepest roots of language’s connection to place, while conveying the sense that no human culture can ever really be ‘foreign’ to other humans.
Yet, Lovrenovic’s sense of humanity is never nostalgic or reductive as he remains constantly and acutely aware of the barbarism that only humans are capable of perpetrating. In another book representing a very different tone, Ex tenebris: Sarajevo Diary , Lovrenovic writes:
Moral accommodation – this is the mark of modern Europe and the world, perhaps the highest achievement (why not even the goal?) of technologically conceived Western consumer civilization at the end of the 20th century, going into the 21st. When you think, even in a quick panoramic scan, of what Europe has gone through in only the last two thousand years, or even the last two hundred years – from the guillotines of Paris, the French-Austrian-German-Russian-Turkish slaughter, bloody revolutions, world wars, Hitlerism and Stalinism, Auschwitz and the Gulag – then you see that it’s only now, in the last couple of years, that she has had a historical second to doze off a bit, to take a breather from these awful goings-on and the even more awful need to be morally awake. What a terrible strain – to remain morally alert, to always have your uneasy conscience plugged in!
So just as Europe finally succumbed to sweet indulgence, to the idyll of prosperity and affluence, the fairy-tale of democracy – boom: the Balkan slaughterhouse! You can just imagine how much they hate us in European parliaments – each and every one of them, and all of them together (no kidding). Irretrievably, mercilessly, with wanton irresponsibility, their whole dream has been ruined… Isn’t there perhaps in this hatred just a nuance more rage vented on the victims than on the murderers (even without taking into account the fact that everyone knows precisely who is who)? I mean, what the hell did you have to get us into all this for anyway? And once you started, why weren’t your reflexes on the alert, the reflexes of potential victims, instead of naively and sheepishly peeking your half-wailing, half-accusing gaze over here at us, at a world that has gotten out of the throat-cutting business… And besides, what the hell do we need this whole bloody, morbid circus for anyway? War criminals, victims, mass graves, camps, hunger, sickness, rivers of people carrying things, hysterical children…What’s in it for us if we identify with the victims and try the murderers?
With the world seemingly connected by the feel-good imagery of global capitalism in which everyone is equally different but the same, Lovrenovic defines a new humanism that never descends into the bathetic platitudes of a selective liberalism in which politics become a fashion statement.
The importance of this, following Europe’s acquiescence in allowing the destruction of Bosnia to take place, cannot be over emphasized. Moreover, the increased homogeneity of intellectual discourse through academic migration between Europe and America, and the almost total victory of theory without active politics, makes Lovrenovic’s work ever more urgent and relevant. Like so many intellectuals outside the pale of academic moulds and models, Lovrenovic’s career has encompassed many facets of productive cultural and public life. Author of more than ten books, Lovrenovic also worked as the editor in chief of Svjetlost, one of Europe’s best publishing houses before the war. He has worked and continues to work as a journalist, while remaining active in both establishing and promoting a diverse range of cultural and political projects. Given the post-war measures of political and intellectual conformity, as well as the death and migration of so many important Bosnian intellectuals, his presence and example in Sarajevo cannot
Needless to say, any translation of Lovrenovic’s work is long overdue. Despite many good books on Bosnia, there is still nothing comparable to Inner Land.[the present work's original title]. While it may at times remind us of Claudio Magris or Amin Maaluf, Lovrenovic’s style represents a unique and incredibly condensed mix of geography, politics, history, culture and poetics. The staying power of this mix derives from his profound sense that the accumulated experience of a place can be possessed by a people and contained in its buildings, books, music, and language, and that this complex amalgam must be conveyed in all its richness.
The great Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris has spoken of ‘inequalities, harboured by one-sided traditions’ that become stamped into narratives as ‘injustices’. Speaking of Dante, Harris writes:
You may recall how Virgil – who had laboured for Dante in guiding him through the Inferno and the Purgatorio – was unjustly excluded from the Paradiso. He was deemed a pagan because his address lay in a pre-Christian age. How one-sided is such a Paradiso? Does it not need a profound, re-visionary momentum of the frame of language in which it was cast? Once such deep-seated inequalities remain within traditions, the Soul of tradition itself is orphaned. It suffers cosmic abandonment in that it appears to nurture absolutes which polarize humanity irreconcilably. Unless such absolutes can yield their particularities within plural masks that question themselves, the Soul is cut adrift and may lose its potency to arbitrate, with profoundest creativity, between divisions in humanity.
In the labyrinth of inherited assumptions, willful manipulations and grotesque mythologies that Bosnia has come to represent, we have never been in greater need of a guide to arbitrate between these wounding and wounded divisions. Yet, despite the obliteration of so much, Bosnia still represents a place and a people that embodies human, geographic, historical and cultural plurality in ways other peoples and places are only beginning to fathom. In acting as our guide, Ivan Lovrenovic never lets go, holding our hand throughout the journey as we meander through pagan sites, synagogues, churches, mosques and flaming libraries, places that – no matter how beautiful or horrid – are never unfamiliar.
Ammiel Alcalay, poet, translator, critic and scholar, has written on a wide range of subjects from diaspora, memory and modernism to sacred texts. His books include After Jews and Arabs; remaking Levantine culture , The Cairo Notebooks  and Keys to the Garden: new Israeli writing . His selected essays have been published as Memories of our Future [City Lights Books, San Francisco 1999].