Francis R. Jones (University of Newcastle), Bosnia: A Cultural History. By Ivan Lovrenović

In contrast to most of the recent English-language books about the ex-Yugoslav region (pace Malcolm 1996; Wachtel 1998), Bosnia: A Cultural History takes the long view instead of focusing on the events of the 1990s. Through its 12 main chapters, Lovrenović interweaves two strands. The first is that of historical background. He devotes four chapters (cf. the 12 pages in Malcolm’s otherwise excellent history) to the period from Palaeolithic, Illyrian and Roman times, the coming of the Slavs, until the founding of the Bosnian state in 1180. He then parallels Malcolm (though inevitably in less depth) by taking us through the Middle Ages, the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslav periods until the late 1990s.

The second strand is the cultural history of the title, where we progress from Palaeolithic rock engravings (15), via the art and architecture of the high Middle Ages and the early modern period, to the achievements of the Yugoslav period and the new Bosnian state. Given its broad historical sweep, Lovrenović’s account cannot provide a detailed guide to the output of any one school, artist or writer, but as a primer to the culture of the region it is invaluable.

The book’s style is direct and free of academic jargon whilst pulling no intellectual punches, making it accessible to scholar and layperson alike. The translation is close (foreignizing rather than domesticating, in Venuti’s terms: 1995), enabling Lovrenović’s own voice to be heard whilst only occasionally sacrificing fluency of English expression.

The book is richly illustrated. Two particularly poignant colour plates show the magnificent Ottoman public and vernacular townscapes of pre-war Mostar and Počitelj (128–129), later deliberately destroyed by Croatian Herceg-Bosna nationalists. Not, of course that they had a monopoly on culturocide, as testified by the Serb ravaging of Banja Luka, Foča and other towns; but such acts are unequivocally condemned by Lovrenović, himself of Bosnian Croat origins. Indeed, death threats have recently been made against Lovrenović and his family because of his opposition to the Catholic fundamentalism striving to block the restoration of such townscapes.

In a masterly final essay, Lovrenović makes explicit his model of Bosnian culture; here he also tackles and contextualises the inevitable question of nation (all too often decontextualised in other accounts of 1990s Bosnia). He argues that “high” culture from the Ottoman era developed separately within each millet (Catholic, Islamic, Jewish and Orthodox), but that there was more mixing at the level of popular culture. Moreover, shared locality and history meant that even the high streams often had more in common with each other than with their “parent” cultures outside Bosnia – as we see, for example, with the vision of Ottoman Bosnia as a topos of existential powerlessness in the novels of Andrić (1995) and Selimović (1996), despite the contrast between their Serb and Bosniak ideologies.

A Foreword by Ammiel Alcalay balances Lovrenović’s Afterword. The passionate, richly-argued humanism of their pleas to embrace cultural diversity, with all its cross-fertilizations and conflicts, would make the book worth buying for these two essays alone.

Andrić, Ivo. 1995. The Bridge Over the Drina. Translated by L. F. Edwards. London:
Harvill. Original edition, Na Drini ćuprija, 1945.
Malcolm, Noel. 1996. Bosnia: A Short History. Updated ed. London: Macmillan.
Selimović, Meša. 1996. Death and the Dervish. Translated by B. Rakić and S.
Dickey, Writings from an Unbound Europe. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University
Press. Original edition, Derviš i smrt, 1966.
Venuti, Lawrence. 1995. The Translator’s Invisibility:  A History of Translation.
London: Routledge.
Wachtel, Andrew Baruch. 1998. Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia. Edited by M. Bal and H. de Vries, Cultural Memory in the Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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