- Writing the Yugoslav Wars: Literature, Postmodernism, and the Ethics of Representation by Dragana Obradović
This review is a meta-review, reviewing a book of reviews of books reviewing wars. Dragana Obradović, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto, has written an illuminating account of the recent war writing in the former Yugoslavia in the period from 1991 to 1995. She analyses the "conflict between the pursuit of truthfulness as an ethical matter and the pursuit of an aestheticized representation" and asks: "How does war, either despite or because of its tragedy, become literary?"
She studies primarily three postmodernist writers, Semezdin Mehemedinović (Bosnian Muslim), Dubvavka Ugrešić (Croatian), and David Albahari (Jewish-Serbian). All three writers are against the war one way or another, and somehow it seems to be a predictable stance for postmodernist writers. However, Obradović could have easily added to the mix a prominent Serbian postmodernist writer, Milorad Pavić, who published articles urging for ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in order to turn it into a Serbian territory. There is not a logical induction (the sample is too small) or deduction at work here (there is no clear unified theory to apply to the sample), but the aim of this book is not so much a scientific study as an analysis of the aesthetics and ethics of writing about the wars, a task that is admirably accomplished.
In terms of aesthetics, I am surprised that it is a question of how the horrors of war can become works of art. The notion of storytelling in the Western tradition comes to us from battle accounts of the Greeks (The Illiad and the Histories) and the Hebrews (a good proportion of the Bible). And, in the Balkans, we had the oral tradition or the mythology of the oral tradition stemming from old wars. However, how to write about the war, whether simply as an artist or an activist, emerges as the more complex and important question.
Obradović points out that this war was evolving in real time on international television more than any war hitherto. The images from the Yugoslav wars were almost instantly transmitted globally in fragments and sound bites. There has hardly ever been a war on which so much was reported and, yet, so little was understood, and the fact that journalists and readers understood that they did not understand enough and questioned the media and the stories also seemed to be a part of the postmodernist self-conscious sensibility. What can a post-modernist writer – who sometimes questions the possibility [End Page 231] of a coherent narration, doubts the power of language, and subscribes to the aesthetics of "the death of the author" – do in a war? Carry on as usual or become socially engaged?
The writers whom Obradović studies offer different paradigms. She examines the relationship between the horrors of destruction and the aesthetics of narrative construction in representing the horrors in Semezdin Mehemedinović's Sarajevo Blues. He chooses to record his observations, phenomenologically, and not to censor what he hears and sees. He is self-conscious about the startling moments of beauty occurring in his work, wondering whether he is a war profiteer of sorts rather than just a witness. He becomes a witness. The term witness bridges the two categories: creating narrative as well as addressing an audience to judge. Witness is a legal term, and it implies some kind of court of justice. Drawing attention to the plight of Sarajevo is a political action.
Dubravka Ugrešić, writing about Croatian politics and symbols and slogans, points out how the aesthetics of war and politics there degenerate into kitsch. She struggles with the notion of kitsch, whether it is perhaps invading even her narrative. She writes a critical essay, blasting Croatian nationalism during the war, while Croatia was still trying to establish itself as a sovereign nation. Many intellectuals said "wait a minute," we must unite and survive first and worry about being perfect later; they blasted her as a traitor. Obradovi...