A literary awakening in Montenegro

The Economist features an article on Istros Books authors

Montenegrins have always fancied themselves as writers and artists. Historically says Kenneth Morrison, an academic and Britain’s leading Montenegro-watcher, the country’s men saw themselves “not just as warriors but as poets with a soulful side. Being a poet was a natural part of being a Montenegrin male, alongside fighting the Turks, and not at all effeminate.”

Six years after independence the country is seeing what Mr Morrison calls “a new wave” of Montenegrin writers. Only a handful have really come to the fore internationally. But as the country is so small, he says, this is the “equivalent of 30 or 50 in the UK. It is very significant. There is something going on.” 

The three most prominent young Montenegrin writers are Balsa Brkovic, Andrej Nikolaidis and Ognjen Spahic. Last week Mr Nikolaidis and Mr Spahic were in London to talk on various literary panels. Mr Nikolaidis was also speaker at the annual meeting of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and last year he was a winner of the European Union Prize for Literature . He was in London to talk about his book The Coming, which has just been translated into English. Set in the coastal town of Ulcinj, it is detective novel meets Dan Brown mixed with the tale of Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th century Jewish false messiah who ended his days in Ulcinj.

Mr Nikoladis was born in Sarajevo. He left his hometown for Montenegro after he had finished school, just as the siege of city of the city began in 1992. “That, for me, was the moment of the apocalypse,” he says, explaining that as the whole world trembles, in his novel, on the brink of extinction, “that is a metaphor of Yugoslavia’s dissolution.”

Mr Nikolaidis, has something of a bad boy reputation. When in January an arms cache was discovered in a hall in Banja Luka where Serbian president Boris Tadic was about to speak alongside Milorad Dodik, the president of the Republika Srpska, the Serb part of Bosnia, he wrote a satirical piece saying that if they had been killed it would have been a step forward for civilisation. In fact there was no assassination attempt (the arms had just been hidden there), but the comment caused a storm in Serbia where they were used as part of the pre-election campaign by various politicians. Mr Nikolaidis chortles that all this was good publicity. “They used me for their campaign. I’ll use them for mine.”

While Mr Nikolaidis is a highly political figure, Mr Spahic is not. His novel, Hansen’s Children, which has won prestigious literary prizes in Romania and Bosnia and has been translated into several languages is set more than two decades ago in the (real) last leper colony in Europe in Romania. Amusing and engaging, Mr Spahic also came of age just as Yugoslavia fell apart. He was called up by the Yugoslav Army, refused to serve and thus could not get a passport. So he claims that in the 1990s “I didn’t do anything, except read whole libraries.” After that his literary career began to take off.

One contemporary writer and poet not yet translated into English is Igor Luksic, whose day job is being prime minister of Montenegro. He recently published two volumes of poetry, the Book of Laughs and the Book of Fear. The head of government publishing poems is very much a Montenegrin tradition that goes back to 1847 when Njegos, the prince-bishop who led the country then, published his famous Mountain Wreath. Still regarded as a classic, some of his poetry is rather radically politically incorrect, such as his paean to ethnic cleansing , where the Montenegrins slaughter their Muslim enemies who will not convert to Orthodoxy:

Though broad enough Cetinje’s Plain,

No single seeing eye, no tongue of Turk,

Escap’d to tell his tale another day!

We put them all unto the sword,

All those who would not be baptiz’d

After Njegos, King Nikola who ruled from 1860 to 1918 also dabbled with poetry, writing the still popular song Onamo ‘namo! which evoked the liberation of Kosovo, as Serbs and Montenegrins saw it, from the Turkish yoke.

There, over there I see Prizren!

It is all mine – home I shall come!

Happily Mr Luksic steers clears of such stirring stuff. His repertoire includes love poems and others in which Montenegrins strive to divine what their leader is thinking. In a poem called Vakuum he writes:

I am already feeling defeated

Is it possible that I am losing this battle

In the time of Njegos or King Nikola one probably risked exile or worse if one criticised the leader’s poems. Not anymore. Mr Spahic says that it was “weird” to see the prime minister reading his poems in a book shop flanked by bodyguards, and adds that while King Nikola was the worst Montenegrin poet, Mr Luksic is “the second worst”.

Being so small the Montenegrin literary and entertainment world is something of a village, so anyone who sees the prime minister, Mr Spahic, Mr Nikolaidis and Rambo Amadeus arguing over coffee about the merits of this or that song, book or poem should not be unduly surprised.