Belgrade

I traveled  to Belgrade in February carrying the information that a first time visitor to the city would normally have – the confluence of two rivers, Sava and Danube, old fortress, museums, squares, temple, a mausoleum and the unmissable Knez Mihailova Street. Most of the boxes were ticked, places seen, beautiful restaurants serving local food with music tried and as always memories made to cherish and recount.  However, in addition to the usual mementos, I brought home three things: the experience of stepping into a bookstore, of speaking to a young scholar for an hour and of reading a book. The account that connects the three is how I recollect the city.

The shop in the corner
The Knez Mihailova Street in the heart of the capital is a pedestrian market thoroughfare under a kilometre long, with lanes branching off and a variety of establishments, on all sides – small shops, large departmental stores, cafes, restaurants, hotels, museums, a mall creating a blur of impressions. In a corner where Vuka Karadzica Street meets Knez Mihailova Street, the Academy of Science and Arts Bookstore and Antique Shop on the ground floor of a majestic three storeyed, neo classical building number 35, is, however, hard to miss. I walked past it the first time and came back almost immediately to admire its beautifully displayed books and wares, aesthetically coordinated lights and the figure of an archetypal reader on one side. Stepping inside I was treated to a delight that only books can give – they were  in abundance, thickly covering every inch of space on the shelves that fronted the walls from floor to the high ceiling and there were many more on tables, standalone shelves, imaginatively curated and arranged, under perfect lighting with the buzz of readers and buyers and busy sales advisors all around.

I was curious to find out more about the store and the story behind the name. I requested one of the advisors if I could have a bit of his time and he agreed to meet me the following evening in the coffee shop inside the store. It was serendipity for I couldn’t have found a better person to talk to. Milan Peric is a scholar studying towards  a Ph. D in Literature at the University of Belgrade and  works in the bookstore in the evenings. Our conversation was my introduction to the cultural world of reading and writing in Serbia which I came to discover has continued from the middle of the 19th century almost unbroken  even while its political and social world was recast many times over.

                    The splendid facade
The building was a good place to start. The ornate white and beige structure, its front wall decorated with windows of myriad designs, traditional and experimental, was built in 1923-24. Overlooking the building, at the top, stands the elegant statue of goddess Nike. It was among the best examples of Art Nouveau, widely known as the Succession styled architecture that became very popular in Western Europe and the USA in the late 19th and early 20th century.1

The spread of this fashion in Belgrade was materially demonstrated by the construction of ornamental buildings – residences and public structures -beautifully designed, lavishly decorated and indulgently crafted-on this main street and its immediate, affluent neighbourhood that the infusion of wealth after the World War prompted.  Even though the Academy of Science and Arts did not move to the building till 1952, the bookstore had existed from the beginning, originally owned by the Academy and later by others, some being even book clubs. Whatever the conditions that Belgrade was subjected to, including the NATO bombing of 1999 that Serbs can scarcely recall without a deep sense of injustice, the bookstore never ceased to operate. This was the first bit of information that Milan shared with me.

As I try to put the pieces together an intricately woven past finds its way up. The street derives its name from Mihailo Obrenovic, the King of Serbia who ruled for over three decades till 1878, with a break of 18 years.2 He spent his exiled years in Vienna studying and over his two stints of rule, supported efforts at modernization that coupled national consciousness with the need for a language in the run up to the formation of a separate state.3  Mihailo confirmed the founding of the Society of Serbian Letters in 1841, to give the language a proper and definite script and an authoritative grammar and then use it to promote Science.  In the course of the century, several groups and clusters of intellectuals gathered under various institutionalized bodies with different labels, changed names and different academic interests till the two main ones, Serbian Learned Society and Serbian Royal Academy merged in 1892 to become the Academy of Science and Arts.

Geca Kon in his shop
 The period from the 1840s to the end of the century was one of decisive political re-calibration in the Balkans with increasing resistance to the Ottoman Empire that was crumbling at its edges, new political consciousness shaping local voices of dissent and the attention of other European powers turning to the beautiful  Balkans. When the Turks were forced to withdraw by the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Austria Hungary stepped in to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia became an independent constitutional monarchy.  Locally, ethnic, social and religious frontiers were being redrawn with heightened awareness of the lines of demarcation. In the intersection and overlap, there was a deliberate nurturing of culture particularly in Serbia that threaded around language and reading. Reformed Serbian language and the standardized Serbian Cyrillic script finally came of its own in 1868. The custom and practice of reading grew on the back of translations of West European and Russian literary works. Translations became the mainstay of intellectual efflorescence offering the means of bringing in knowledge and creativity in Science and Arts from outside and of helping nurture Serbia’s own. This gave book production and sale an unmatched significance in intellectual as well as commercial terms, best exemplified in the career of  Geca Kon who opened the first bookstore in Belgrade in 1901. He invited Serbian and Croatian writers to send him a copy of their books before he took to publishing himself a few years later in 1905. He was also the architect of a thriving practice and business of translations having produced the first Serbian version of Machiavelli’s Prince in 1907. The business of translation and book production and sale hit a jackpot making Geca Kon the most successful entrepreneur of his time and the first one to afford a luxury car in Belgrade. Books and reading became pivots around which the social, cultural and intellectual environment of the city was freshly  organized. More than a century and a couple of decades later, the Geca Kon Bookstore at 12 Knez Mihailova, is a bustling shop visited by men and women of all ages. The popular engagement of people with books struck me as a singular feature of the city.

Milan explained the layered intellectual history of writers and publishers and artists. Serbia’s efforts at modernisation in the 19th century were as much directed towards political transformation to a constitutional monarchy as they were concerted attempts at a reformed culture deeply inspired by French and closer home Russian intellectual giants. Maxim Gorky was very popular but Milan thinks that Dostoevsky ‘s books may have been read the most after Bible.

The habit of reading is inculcated early. A literature course would entail a wide reading from Epics of Gilgamesh and Homer to postmodern writings  in their entirety. It is a rigorous training in literary appreciation. Therefore, the drive for translations became urgent.  Books that find fame because of prizes won -Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel-or popular fictions can be found in bookstores translated into Serbian. Publishers mark their terrain by choosing one or more authors and run with their books creating something of a monopoly.

For books which are popular, like the Harry Potter series, translations were produced overnight, literally. Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, made a record of sorts when one publisher engaged 7 translators to work all night; the book was in print and on the store shelf 24 hours after the first copy in English arrived in the country.

Cultural creativity, reading and writing, served as a salve to the otherwise fragile and fraught political situation in Serbia. From the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 right up until the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, people of this region, comprising Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia have been tormented by ravages of war and political uncertainty that may have brought power and prosperity to a class of elites but left the intellectuals and artists, restless. They were compelled to use different techniques, especially the Avant Garde, to circumvent censorship. Beneath political shifts and changing patterns of control, peoples’ lives, aspirations and hopes coped with tragedies, despair and anger.  This was evident from the paintings in  Zepter gallery of Modern Art I saw on the same street.

Milan introduced me to Ivo Andric, one of the most celebrated authors, who won the Nobel Prize in 1961 for his epic novel, The Bridge on the Drinka. I found two copies of the book published by two different publishers. The book  reminded me of a Tolstoy classic particularly in the manner in which it composed a panoramic canvas spanning several centuries and its many people against the backdrop of a single village called Visegrad and a river with the story  of the bridge from its beginning to its destruction. Ivo was raised in Visegrad, born to an Orthodox Christian Croat family who were settled in Bosnia that continued to be under the Turks and was largely Muslim. The destinies of various ethnic and religious communities, within the larger context of changing political fortunes and personal journeys pack the account vividly and densely. It also brings together influences  of competing political groups on the lives and fortunes of people, Turks, Serbs and Austrians.4

Tito’s mausoleum

I learnt about Mehmed Mesa Selimovic, a Bosnian Muslim of Serbian descent, Boris Pekic, a Montenegrin and Milos Crnjanski, a Serbian expat, three among a  wide array of thinkers and writers who deployed writing to record their  dissimilar experience of this  region comprising different nations reflecting dissimilar ethic and religious identities that Milan was able to tell me about in the short time.  Milan and his generation of scholars working on the literary influences and intellectual creations in Serbia hope to bring their work to the centre stage of attention in Europe and across the Atlantic. This is also the unspoken aspect of the country that I was thrilled to stumble upon. It got me thinking, what is it that one brings home from a travel? I brought home the joy of discovery and a list of reading to catch up on.

Author profile

Tapti is an independent scholar and the editor of Pastconnect. 

Footnotes

  1. It was characterised by ‘its use of long, sinuous, organic lines employed in architecture, interior design,..’ (Britannica.com)
  2. Mihailo Obrenovic was the King of Serbia from 1839 to 1842 when he was deposed and exiled. He returned and became the King the second time in 1860 and reigned till he was assassinated in 1878
  3. William H. McNeill, Introduction in The Bridge on the Drinka
  4. The language would have been Serbo-Croatian, the difference like the people and their pasts difficult to distinguish

9 comments

  1. A wonderful read Tapti. It opened my eyes to a different aspect of the Serbian people and their culture.

  2. Thanks Tapti for sharing this piece on Belgrade. It was a wonderful read and opened my eyes to another side of Serbian life, the cultural and non-violent side which sustain the people and cities but are ignored by the world media with their focus on disaster.

  3. Tapti, your story is a wonderful read. I think seldom tourists get to see this side of Belgrade which you have brought forward. I learnt so much about the place’s history, geography and its people, and the reason of their being so through your words. Now I very much want to go there and see and experience everything myself too.

  4. I love this story with all my heart and soul. Tapti, you gave me a whole new world to explore. I did my history. I knew about Bosnia, Herzegovina (my friends and I at school loved how luscious the word Herzegovina sounded, we’d say it over and over and over again, just to listen to it). I did not know about the determination to find and keep a coherent culture. I did not think to explore the Balkans beyond its ‘troublesome’ status from the perspective of Western Europeans. Now I have to learn more. Gimme some book titles please. Sergei, can you help, please? Books in English.

  5. Thanks so much Mrs. Roy for the article.
    Very detailed, kind and touching.
    Based on the dramatical history of this brave, smart and kind-hearted people!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *