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The Ghosts of Serbia

Posted on November 18, 2014

People often ask me, why Serbia? Why include such a remote, unfamiliar place in your novel? Why make one of the main characters Serbian? I can only tell you that if you knew the countries that make up what was once Yugoslavia, then you’d understand…

Serbia and its neighbors are a land beyond the imagination of most people. A far off place that populates the now paper-thin international news sections of major dailies, it’s best known because of the Balkan wars of the late 1990’s, where ethnic hatreds long hibernating in the dark cave of communism erupted after the death of Josef Broz Tito.

But long before that, writers and historians recognized the power of the place. Rebecca West wrote Black Lamb, Grey Falcon in 1941, revealing her own fascination with the area, just before World War II. Her attraction is not surprising; the region is steeped in drama, its ethnic tensions playing a role in both European wars. Prior to that it was the chessboard of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, the land around Belgrade’s military fortress steeped in the blood of countless battles between East and West.

All of this is to say that the place interests me; it did long before I visited Croatia’s stunning seacoast in 2004 and walked the ancient walls of Dubrovnik marveling at the sun’s dusk-hewed rays against thousand year-old terra cotta tiles that, in some cases, had been recently replaced after their war with Serbia. It’s a memory I modified in the opening of Dark Horse:

The ancient city, founded sometime in the seventh century, lay inside an enormous stone wallLeaning over the massive stone ramparts, we’d gotten a glimpse of what it must have been like to gaze out to sea a thousand years ago, searching for invaders.

It was during that visit, my curiosity was pricked by the proximity of Serbia, the epicenter of a war that had profound effects on the region. It stayed with me…

By the time my family I arrived to stay in our rental apartment in Belgrade in the winter of 2012, I’d read so many books, and travel articles that I felt I knew the place. But I was mistaken. My imagination failed to capture the odd tensions of a city and a country, still mulling its destiny. A place that seemed simultaneously foreign and familiar, alluring and alarming, depending on the block. Corrupt taxi drivers dropped us at chic restaurants, where young chefs were serving farm-to-table meals that any Bay Area resident would recognize. And then down the street, riding on one of their old wooden street cars we passed the remains of a building bombed by NATO a decade ago. Who leaves a building rotting in place like that? I tried to conjure up these reoccurring contrasts using Olivia’s eyes in Dark Horse’s passages:

We headed south from our hotel through Knez Mihailova, the city’s beautiful Old World pedestrian plaza. Past the fancy department stores and boutiques, the buildings began to look less elegant, and more like massive concrete bunkers. On the flight over, I’d read that the Germans had bombed Belgrade extensively during World War II, clearing the way for the Communists to rebuild the city with the worst in socialist architecture. The result was a cityscape that looked like whiteout conditions, where the eye could barely discern between the sky and the buildings. Still, I craned my neck to peek inside the small bars and restaurants we passed, trying to catch a glimpse of the places that anchored my temporary homeI swiped the card against an electronic reader and lurched forward toward a seat, my body rocking with the movements of the streetcar as it rolled along its tracks. I really didn’t care about the final destination, as long as I could sit quietly and let the vibration in the antique car’s wooden frame lull me into a trance. Gazing out the window at Soviet-era apartments, dish antennas protruding from their concrete sides, faded towels masking partially collapsed balconies, I tried to reconcile myself to the present.

Like Olivia, I didn’t stay in Serbia long enough to really grasp its essence. I did experience the biting cold of its winter, and the sensation of truly being in the east with a language and culture unrecognizable to my own. It’s a disconcerting feeling, to be so far from what you know and yet I can tell you I would go back in a minute, Serbia’s rich set of contradictions still calling to me.

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