I explained last week in Part I of this post how before I left on my big trip to the Balkans in 2010, my friend Christoph came up with an idea. He wanted to give me a book that I could take, and when I was done with it I was to exchange it for a new book, and I was to do that with every book, and bring him back the last one. I loved the idea and agreed. I have told you about the first three books that took me through the first two countries, Hungary and Slovenia. Funnily enough, the next three books lasted me up until the end of my trip through nine more countries.
I couchsurfed in a lovely flat with five wonderful people in Maribor in Slovenia, and I asked them what books they could recommend for me to read that were related to their country or the Balkans in general. They came up with two suggestions: Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut and Ivo Andric’s The Bridge over the Drina. When I went to Lujbljana, after Maribor, I found the greatest English book shop in all my travels, Behemot. They happened to have copies of both books in English and I bought them without second thought. It stepped on the point of having to exchange books for one another a little bit, but I really wanted to read these two novels and exchanging books had proven difficult so far anyway.
Alamut is a novel by Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol – which is why I started with it, since I was still in Slovenia. At first sight one wouldn’t think that it had anything to do with the region. It is a story set in 11th century Persia and tells of the training of assasins in service of a political leader. It is a deeply moving story of almost epic proportions about love and friendship, sacrifice, honour, pride and deception. It would be easy to oversee the actual tie to its author, who wrote it as an allegory for Italian fascism under Mussolini, being part of the Slovene minority in Italy himself. I loved everything about the book that took me through Slovenia and Northern Croatia almost half way through Dalmatia.
Following this was the reading of something particularly special to me. I have written about the meaning I attach to Ivo Andric’s wonderful novel The Bridge over the Drina when I wrote about, well, the bridge over the Drina – because it is an actual place in Eastern Bosnia not far from the Serbian border, the magnificent Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad. This picture certifies it for me that I did sit on the very bridge as I finished reading the book. It was not just a dream, I truly did it.
Ivo Andric actually won the nobel prize for literature for this book in 1961 – even if the book was published in 1945 already. In it, he connects the fates of people living in the small town of Višegrad to the fate of the mighty bridge. The town’s life seems to circle entirely around it, and as I sat on the bridge, I wished that someone would come by and sell me a piece of water melon, like it was described in the book, so that I could try and spit the seeds as far as I could into the turquoise waters of the Drina.
I finished reading The Bridge over the Drina and couldn’t just get myself to leave it somewhere for anyone to find. Besides I needed a new one in exchange. I went back to Mostar, that city of cities to me, and saw my Canadian friend Aasa again who I had met the time I had been atround before. She knew about the book and had wanted to read it for a long time, and now the prospect of getting her hands on it excited her much. I couldn’t have found a better person to give it to. In exchange, Aasa gave me Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
An absolute classic in Balkan travel literature, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has well over 1,000 pages and is a non-fiction account of a journey that Dame Rebecca West took through what then was Yugoslavia with her husband in 1937. It is a right brickstone, and quite a few people pronounced me completely whack carrying it around with me through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, again Bulgaria, again Macedonia, and Kosovo.
I never finished the book. In fact I was not so much reading it as reading in it. I didn’t do a linear reading, chapter by chapter. Instead I went directly to parts Rebecca West had written about cities I got to know and love. I was indignant over the fact that the chapter on my beloved Mostar was so short, but I loved whenever there was talk of meeting locals and being welcomed with open arms in so many different situations. Often I marvelled at what had not changed, and sometimes I was startled by how different my own impressions were. All of the time I was thinking about how I would describe the places I read about in Rebecca West’s writing.
I left the book with my couchsurfing host in Prishtina, and Irish girl who had as desperately wanted to read it as my Canadian friend had the Ivo Andric novel. Again I am confident that I left it in good hands.
While writing this, I had completely forgotten how the story ended. I was already prepared to have to tell you now that it had just escaped my consciousness what had happened with Cristoph’s and my deal. In fact it only just came back to me that I gave Black Lamb and Grey Falcon away in Prishtina. And similarly, it just now came back to me what I brought back for Christoph. There is another fabulous little bookshop in Prishtina called Dit e Nat. It is a good place for meeting both locals and expats and the have a good selection of English books and delicious coffee – plus and unbeatable atmosphere. There, I bought an English a novel called Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain) by Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešić that I brought Christoph back to Germany. And thus it was a perfect circle – leaving with a novel in German, coming back with an English translation of a Croatian one, leaving with a book on academia, returning with one on war traumata and cultural identity.
What books in your travel has shaped your experience? Do you read when you travel?