Small Presses Special - Rage of the Serbs
Rage of the Serbs
Marjorie Radulovic The Book Guild, 530pp, £16.95
In Belgrade, two years ago, I watched a pigeon fall from the sky. Sick or hurt, it fluttered on to a tramline, but just as the next tram approached, a passer-by ran on to the line and plucked the miserable bird to safety. My companions were impressed, and eager that I should be so, too: "People say we Serbs are cruel and heartless, but did you see how that man risked his life for the pigeon?"
As that day wore on, it seemed as though the whole city knew the story, and was keen that its political implications not be lost: "The world's media say we Serbs are evil people, but one of us risked his life . . ." The anxious, desperate repetition, the clutching at symbolic feathers, was of course for my benefit - but I felt that it was also for their own. The shade of the Bosnian war still hung heavily over Belgrade. The details of what had happened in Srebrenica and other towns where Serbs had committed massacres were seeping out. The agony of Kosovo, where more atrocities were to be committed by other uniformed Serbs, was still to come. In the world's eyes, Serbs were the only people in Europe who, since 1945, had not only waged aggressive war against their neighbours but had also attempted something close to genocide upon them. Many Serbs felt unjustly hated, the most misunderstood people in the world. Both were right.
Rage of the Serbs is the literary equivalent of all that sad praise for the Belgrade pigeon-lover: under the thin cloak of a historical novel, it serves as a plea for sympathy, understanding and respect. It says: "Look, we are not bad people. We are proud and, when threatened, fierce; but we are also kind and generous, hospitable and loving. We have suffered terrible things that the world ignores. Only when we hit back, to preserve our very existence, does the world take notice: and then it calls us murderers."
Marjorie Radulovic lives in Canada, Australian-born but married to a Serb veteran of the second world war. Her fiction is described by her publishers as "superbly researched" and "heavily based on fact". It revolves round the experiences of three young Serbs, prewar friends who are pulled apart by the effects of the Nazi occupation and civil war, from 1939 to 1951. One is an unprincipled opportunist, who survives every change of regime by bending with the prevailing wind, even when his Jewish wife is deported by the Nazis. The second becomes a communist, and his ever-deeper embroilment in the corruption of Tito leaves him politically powerful but sick at heart. The third, the hero - apparently based in large part on the author's husband - fights heroically with Draza Mihailovic's anti-communist Chetnik resistance, and is forced into exile as the Chetniks are betrayed by their British allies and murdered by Tito's communists.
Rage of the Serbs is hardly the first instance of the novel as national propaganda, yet Radulovic's story is a particularly crude and ill-crafted example of the genre; it is a symptom, rather than a diagnosis, of the Serb tragedy. It is for that symptomatic function that it deserves attention, as a political rather than literary artefact - one indeed that might greatly aid understanding of what has happened in Serbia and Kosovo during the past fortnight.
Much of the book's political narrative is broadly true, and should be more widely remembered than it is, particularly the dreadful sufferings of the Serbian people in the 1940s, which included widespread massacres of Serbs by Ante Pavelic's semi-fascist Croatian regime. But there is a cloying, wearying insistence on supposedly unique Serb virtues. True Serbs, like the hero David and his family, are unvaryingly brave, faithful, hospitable, humorous, and a remarkable number of them are brilliant intellectuals, freely quoting Spinoza or Nietzsche. More seriously, the evil deeds of the Croats and others are referred to and "explained" in racial terms, as products of their essential nature as a people. Accounts of disputed historical atrocities, for which the actual evidence is rather thin, are treated as unquestioned fact, as if the genuinely known facts were not terrible enough. The reported words of a minor Croat politician, Mile Budak - who was supposed to have said that one third of the Serbs must be massacred, one third expelled and one third forcibly converted to Catholicism - are repeated three times, the third time attributing the threat not to an individual but to "the Croats". The Chetniks are presented as the only real resistance against Nazism, with Tito's Partisans playing no serious role in combating the occupation, but instead collaborating with the Germans and turning their guns, without provocation, against the Chetniks and against innocent civilians.
All this is a mirror image of the postwar official Yugoslav propaganda line, and is no more accurate than that was. The British liaison officers who worked with the Yugoslav resistance (actual historical individuals, some of whom are still alive, although the book gets some names wrong) are claimed to have betrayed the Chetniks for one simple reason: most of them were communist agents, "Stalin's Englishmen".
Rage of the Serbs, then, is neither a good novel nor, for all the author's and publisher's claims, reliable history. It is, rather, a cry of pain. Serbian national consciousness has been deeply wounded, not least by the events animated here. Those wounds have been cultivated, the pain inflamed and exploited, by viciously opportunistic politicians. From all that, something terrible has come.