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Ever since Vuk Karadžić took to the villages of Serbia and implored the peasants to ‘say it as you read it’, the Serbs have been busy putting together an enviable back catalogue of impressive literature. The work began long before Karadžić lost his leg, of course, and the words of Serbs from Subotica all the way down to Kosovo have been inspiring the nation for hundreds of years. We’re going to lean towards the more modern work, but this is the best of the best when it comes to Serbian literature.
The Bridge on the Drina isn’t just the Big Daddy of Serbian literature, it holds that position when it comes to all fiction from this part of the world, full stop. Andrić was the only Yugoslav to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and it was his iconic telling of life in Ottoman Bosnia that brought the prize to his home in Belgrade. If you only read one piece of fiction before visiting the Balkans, you have to make a pretty compelling argument for it not to be The Bridge on the Drina.
Heavily influenced by Bruno Schulz and Vladimir Nabaokov, Danilo Kiš is widely regarded as one of the finest Serbian writers of the last century. His 1976 classic A Tomb for Boris Davidović is his best, a collection of seven short stories all about political betrayal and murder in Eastern Europe. The eponymous tale deals with issues of remembrance and perception, and is essential reading whether you are coming to Serbia or not.
You might struggle to grasp Dictionary of the Khazars at first, but don’t worry about that. Milorad Pavić’s 1984 publication takes a historic event and imbues it with life through mostly fictional characters, creating three encyclopaedias from three different viewpoints that often contradict each other. It is impossible to avoid making comparisons with the triple threat conflict that saw Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia at war in the 1990s.
Born in Tuzla (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Meša Sealimović was nonetheless quick to identify as a Serb and commit his work to the annals of Serbian literature. His best known work is undoubtedly Death and the Dervish, a 1966 novel about a man coming to terms with the seemingly random arrest of his brother. Questions of life, power, and justice torment the religious everyman in the tale, which was made into a feature length film in 1974.
Petar II Petrović Njegoš towers over much of modern history in the Balkans, and not just because of his giant frame. The Serb who dragged Montenegro into the modern world also found time to write The Mountain Wreath, one of the true masterpieces of Serbian literature. The epic poem was written in 1846 and tells the story of an ancestor of Njegoš trying to bring together the warring tribes of the area. The word ‘epic’ gets thrown around a lot, but it is definitely justified here.
An expressionist poet and noted diplomat, Miloš Crnjanski is widely regarded as one of the greatest Serbian writers of the 20th century. He primarily wrote poetry, but his 1920 novel The Journal of Čarnojević is a great example of his flowing prose and creative mind. There isn’t much of a plot to hang your hat on, but the book is all style over substance in the best possible way.
Borislav Pekić’s place in history was assured long before he helped establish the Democratic Party in Serbia. The Houses of Belgrade was first published in 1970, and it looks at unrest throughout various points in 20th century Serbia and the way all of the riots are linked. A Belgrade house builder plays the primary role, a man whose deep love for the houses of the city is all that stands between him and insanity.
The only living author on this list, Svetislav Basara is a contemporary Serbian author who also had a stint as the Yugoslav ambassador to Cyprus. His 1987 book The Cyclist Conspiracy is considered to be his best work, and for good reason, as the book is as much about conspiracies as it is about psychological issues and philosophical musings. For anyone looking to get into modern Serbian literature, make this one of your first stops.
Also called Bosnian Chronicle, Andrić’s first book after The Bridge on the Drina stayed in the same ballpark when it came to subject matter. Travnik Chronicle is all about great powers struggling for supremacy in a region that stubbornly refuses to conform to its ordained position as an occupied territory, creating a piece of work that is massive in its psychological ambition. This is the closest Andrić ever came to echoing the great Leo Tolstoy.
Sounds like a cheery read, right? Danilo Kiš’s The Encyclopaedia of the Dead isn’t quite as miserable as the title suggests, and its curious blend of fiction and fact make for an innovative and invigorating read. The human condition is a constant factor in the themes, along with the typically cheery subjects of death, loss, indifference, and betrayal. The human soul can be a dark place, an Danilo Kiš wasn’t afraid of exploring those darkest depths.