From History to Now: 5 Best Books to Understand Serbia

Kopaonik, Serbia/Photo by Andrej Nihil on Unsplash

Despite a history that stretches into prehistory, Serbia as we know it today became a sovereign republic in 2006 following a split with neighboring Montenegro – a separation which proved to be the final chapter in the separation of the republics that once made up Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. The region that would become Serbia spent decades under the authoritarian rule of Yugoslavia’s communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. Following Tito’s death and the rise of Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic, ethnic tensions boiled over into a devastating war and the secession of the remaining states that comprised Yugoslavia took place.

Amidst this turmoil, strife, and political tension, Serbia has maintained a strong literary history. Unsurprisingly, it is one marked by the unrest and violence that defined much of Serbian history. Serbian literature leans, like other cultures who have lived under the thumb of authoritarianism, toward the introspective and satirical. English translations of Serbian literature can be hard to come by, but what is available is uniformly excellent. The novels and books below, written by Serbian authors and those familiar with the region and culture, will hopefully provide some understanding of this complex nation and the people who populate it.

  • The cover of the book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

    Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

    A Journey Through Yugoslavia

    Written with the world on the brink of World War II, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a must-read chronicle of the history, people, and politics of Yugoslavia and what eventually become Serbia. One part travelogue, one part cultural study, and part history, it is widely considered an authoritative work on the history of the region. It offers keen insight into the political and ethnic tensions that would eventually lead to the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

  • The cover of the book The Bridge on the Drina

    The Bridge on the Drina

    Nobel Laureate Ivo Andric is arguably the most important writer in Serbian literature. The Bridge on the Drina is widely considered his masterpiece and a must-read on the history of the region. It is a sprawling chronicle of life in Ottoman Bosnia from the sixteenth century to the beginning of World War I. It is a powerful and haunting work.

  • The cover of the book How to Quiet a Vampire

    How to Quiet a Vampire

    Borislav Pekic was Serbian novelist and political activist who is considered to be one of the most influential Serbian literary figures of the twentieth century. How to Quiet a Vampire is a complex satire following a former Gestapo officer attempting to renounce – or perhaps justify – the war crimes of his past. Pekic, who spent years in exile and was a political prisoner for a time, drew on his own experiences under a totalitarian regime to underpin his novel.

  • The cover of the book With Their Backs to the World

    With Their Backs to the World

    Portraits from Serbia

    Rather than concentrating on the political turmoil and unrest that unfortunately defines Serbian history, journalist Asne Seierstand instead chose to chronicle the lives of everyday Serbs. Drawing from interviews during her extensive travels through Serbia between 1999 and 2004, Asne created a kaleidoscopic portrait of a fledgling and troubled nation trying to find its way after years of struggle under the weight of totalitarianism and war.

  • The cover of the book The Cyclist Conspiracy

    The Cyclist Conspiracy

    Svetislav Basara is a key figure in contemporary Serbian literature and The Cyclist Conspiracy is his most well-regarded work. It centers on a secret brotherhood with members who communicate via dreams, gain knowledge through the contemplation of the bicycle, and seek to manipulate history as part of a far-reaching and grand conspiracy. Told through a series of memoirs, letters, and other documents, the novel recounts the brotherhood’s influence and intervention throughout the past, present and future. It’s is a wholly bizarre, oft-comical, and Pynchon-esque read.