Monday, November 7, 2016

On Writing about the Balkans, Getting it...Sorta

I picked up Richard West's biography of Tito from the university library a few weeks ago. West was a prominent journalist who died a year ago. He's best known for his reporting on Vietnam. His biography of Tito was published in 1994 at the height of the first wave of the Balkan wars. In the opening chapter, West lays the groundwork for the regional history. This paragraph appears on page 4:

"In spite of later division, both political and religious, the language spoken by most of the South Slav people has stayed the same to the present day. A foreigner learning Serbo-Croat may notice peculiar dialects spoken in country districts such as eastern Serbia and the Dalmatian coast, but unless one is a linguistic expert one will notice little difference between the languages spoken in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo. The word for "what" may vary; the vowel "e" is shorter in Serb than it is in Croat; "bread" is hleb in Belgrade and kruha in Zagreb. In the obscene and often blasphemous oaths that punctuate all South Slav conversation, the word for vagina is pička in Serb and pizda in Croat. The Serbs retained a few Turkish words such as varoš (town) and para (money), besides borrowing others from English and French. The Serbs listen to muzika, the Croats to glazba; the Serbs play futbol, the Croats nogomet. Many Serbs disapprove of the Western names for the months, such as Oktobar, regretting the old Slav words such as Listopad, literally "leaf fall," still used by the Croats. The Greek monks Saints Cyril and Methodius brought the Cyrillic script to the Serbs as well as the Russians and Bulgarians, but the Croats adapted the Latin script, so that for instance the ts became c, ch became č, and tch became ć."

West doesn't quite recognize the differences between nominative, genitive, accusative, instrumental, locative, and dative cases, all elements that would be familiar to anyone trying to learn any slavic language. I don't need to explain the differences here, but I will say that any linguist would use the nominative case when giving literal translations of any word. Hleb is correct. But kruha should be kruh. (Kruha is the genitive case). He refers to the various dialects based on the word "what." Those three dialects are štokavian, which is spoken in most of the former Yugoslavia, and kakavian and čakavian. And he's mostly right when he suggests that the latter two, which he doesn't name, are minority dialects. When he refers to the vowel "e" being shorter in Serb than in Croat, he is hitting on the primary difference between the two most significant dialects. That difference is not insignificant. That would be the ekavian dialect and the ijekavian dialect. I will explain by example. The term "beautiful child" in ekavian, which is mostly spoken in Serbia, would be lep dete. In the ijekavian, it would be lijep dijete. It's not just that the "e" in ekavian is shorter. The ije in ijekavian adds a different sound entirely. One of my early teachers was frustrated by my habit of writing lep dijete. Also, in Serbo-Croatian, the names of the months are not capitalized, so listopad, not Listopad.

It is true that the two dialects have almost total mutual intelligibility. Many Croats know Cyrillic and many Serbs know the Latin alphabet. You can get Cyrillic and Latin alphabet books in any bookstore in Novi Sad and Belgrade.

The language politics in Yugoslavia are complicated. The first attempt to codify the language came in the nineteenth century, some decades after German was codified by the Brothers Grimm. In the socialist era, the country declared four major official languages: Croato-Serbian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian, all of which appeared on its currency. Later reforms would allow more open instruction and uses of Albanian and other languages on the local level. The language politics remain troubled. There are still reports of traditional ekavian plays being performed in Croatian towns with ijekavian subtitles.

There's more, but there's no need to go into further detail. My point is not that West is wrong. He got most of this right, some of it dead on. I know a few Serbs who miss listopad. The paragraph is correct enough that it would past muster with a New Yorker fact-checker, the same people who publish Malcolm Gladwell. It's just that he's a little off. And like most essays in The New Yorker, West's prose has a lovely lilt that suggests authority, whether or not it has been fairly earned.

We like to make fun of the Serbs and Croats for engaging in the narcissism of the small differences. Are they really going to go to war with each other because someone says lep dete and not lijep dijete? Mark Mazower has a more subtle reading of how this narcissism developed in his book The Balkans, a wonderful attempt to demystify and de-exoticize the region. Unfortunately, people who want to learn about the Balkans are more likely to encounter Robert Kaplan's excrescent Balkan Ghosts and Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is lovely, but falls short; neither of them are read by literate elite, or any serious scholars from the former Yugoslavia. Or they will read this paragraph from Richard West.

Milovan Đilas, a true dissident and a fascinating historical figure, was the most widely read Yugoslav writer in the U.S. during the Cold War.  The English translations of his many books are all now out of print, which is a shame. They still read him in the former Yugoslavia. But they also read Miloš Crnjaski and Danilo Kiš, neither of whom could be called dissidents. Mention the latter two names to the average educated fellow in America and the first question you will get: "So was he against the regime?" I tell people I write about Yugoslav cartoons, and they ask me about censorship. I explain that censorship existed, but it was not the primary concern of the artists in the studio. As one animator, Bordo, told me when I asked him if he had to contend with censorship: "Good question! You just couldn't say anything mean about Tito. But why would we? We loved Tito." His oeuvre is filled with satires of the imperfections of Yugoslav life, the misery of being a socialist factory worker, the weirdness of bureaucracy. What am I saying? I'm saying that these things are complicated. That we have a lot of assumptions when we walk into these countries. That we should try to listen first before we say anything.

It's hard to write about another culture. It takes patience and humility, and a willingness to make up for a lifetime of not having lived in a different world. I guess we all fall short.

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