The wilderness in us

Whether as heritage or as kitsch, landscape is often thought of as being detached from everyday life. In literature, too, human history tends to be separated from geography. Writing from the Balkans reminds us of this intimate connection, says British poet Fiona Sampson.

Sitting behind glass on the terrace of the castle restaurant in Banja Luka, it’s impossible to ignore the relationship between landscape and history. Below us the River Vrbas is full, though not in spate. The snow that fell last night on the Bosnian Highlands hasn’t yet melted, and the heron and mallards who fish this stretch loiter without effort between the willows (vrbas, in Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) that give the river its name. On the further bank, a straggle of wooden restaurants looks anything but prosperous in the dim morning light. Around them, the last yellow leaves hang against dark wet branches on the black poplars.

Vrbas river, Banja Luka. Source: Wiki Commons

Almost everything that we can see here is a product of interplay between the human and natural worlds. While this says much about war in Bosnia, it also says a great deal about how to read the inhabited environment more generally. We ignore this dialectic between people and place literally at our peril; and the view P and I have this morning is an almost perfect illustration of both peril and dialectic.

As we watch from our terrace, someone walks out onto the riverbank to piss. The Vrbas is treasured by the citizens of Banja Luka − but not in the careful British way. By our standards in fact, it’s conspicuously under-exploited. Its grassy banks are reached across a rubble car park. Or you can climb over a railing by the town bridge. Like this path, everything appears temporary. And in many ways it is. Daily life in communities like this one ‘floats’, as Jelena, my publisher’s 19-year-old granddaughter says, on the ever-present possibility of war. Memories of the last conflict are recent. The Dayton Accord, which in 1995 brokered peace in Bosnia by fixing the borders of ethnic settlement, is less than a quarter of a century old. Further south in neighbouring Kosovo and Macedonia, war is more recent still, rumbling on into this millennium. Everyone here lives with some kind of personal loss. Jelena’s father, for example, killed himself a few years ago. He had suffered for years from PTSD, after serving in the unit responsible for policing the ethics of Bosnian Serb fighters.


It’s all too easy to surmise what that bookish young man must have seen. But popular memory goes back further than direct experience. This is a region where war is a regular, even cyclical, phenomenon, and world wars recruit old enmities to their own causes. Fifty kilometres north of here, still within Republika Srpska − the Serb enclave of federated Bosnia − is Prijedor, a provincial town with a population of around 100,000. (Official population figures are widely regarded here as approximate, since remaining minorities tend not to want to declare themselves.) Prijedor is notorious for 1942’s massacre by Croatian Ustaše paramilitaries of anti-fascist Partisans and Serb civilians at Kozara, in the wooded hilly region above the town. In the 1990s it became notorious again, this time for the violent ethnic cleansing of its outlying villages, and for the brutal holding camps for Bosnian and Croatian civilians established by Serbian paramilitaries.

Last night, as we parked up in a residential block behind Prijedor’s small municipal library, we spotted a graffito reading, ‘Street of Those Murdered by Turbo-folk’. What this parody of the local custom of renaming streets after ‘national heroes’ means will be instantly clear to any local. Turbo-folk is a genre of rocked-up versions of traditional songs that are nationalist both by implication (in this part of Europe the concept of ‘folk’, or narod, tends to connote nationalism) and in content. Their tone is sentimental longing, but whether they’re love songs or songs of homesickness (and what the Welsh call hiraeth) they normalise death. Often explicitly bloodthirsty, many revisit the region’s medieval conflicts. These were the recruiting songs of the wars of the 1990s.


Just south of where we’re sitting this morning in Banja Luka’s restored Ottoman fortress, the River Vrbas enters a stunning, winding gorge on its way to join the Sava. In turn, the Sava joins the Danube at Belgrade, and finds the Black Sea some 900 kilometres further south and east, in the Romanian Delta. Despite their beauty, these west Balkan rivers have dark human histories, not least because they so often serve as borders. Croatian Jasenovac, one of the worst death camps in Europe in the Second World War, stood on the banks of the Sava. Banja Luka’s museum, to which I’ve just made my annual visit, devotes its black-draped mezzanine to the camp, yet fails to cite the full, shocking figures. Up to 99,000 non-Catholics (Serbs, Jews, Roma, Muslims) are thought to have died at Jasenovac, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. But here in Banja Luka, from whose own hinterland people were force-marched to their deaths there, it’s as if the enormity of what happened, and with what particular cruelty, is literally unspeakable.

Further north still, in the top corner of the Adriatic curve, another river, the Isonzo/Soča, became a notorious front in the First World War. It still marks the Italian/Slovenian border. To our south, the Drina runs like a fault-line through little Srebrenica, notorious for the 1995 massacre by Serbs of its Muslim Bosniak men and boys, and the larger country town of Višegrad, where in 1992 massacres helped obliterate the majority Muslim population. Such bloody workings-out of this region’s struggle between its rival Central European and post-Ottoman destinies is nothing new. To the north of former Yugoslavia sit Vienna and Budapest. To the south is Istanbul.

Ivo Andrić made these empires’ territorial legacy world famous in his deeply insightful lament for the people of Bosnia, The Bridge on the Drina (1945), written about Višegrad from wartime exile in Belgrade, for which he received the Nobel Prize. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), the other major exploration of the pre-WW2 Balkans and written astonishingly by a Brit, Rebecca West subverts the travel writing genre by stuffing her story with the region’s people, all of whom have things to say about its ethnic and cultural mix. The cityscapes, even the coast and countryside she visits and acutely notes, contract and slide into the background as these characters − every bit as vocal and assertive as their real-life successors − take over the 1,200-page narrative.


Characterising places by their inhabitants, as West does, is an approach that remains radical today. We tend to divide writing about place into political history on the one hand and nature writing on the other: not to mention the often more commercial genre of travel writing. This separation of interacting elements is counterintuitive, askew from our actual experience of place: whether that’s somewhere we know well or little. It encourages us to look at places with narrowed eyes, ignoring the connections between people and location, geography and history.

Yet the temptation to do so does exist for British writers and readers. Partly this has to do with our particular cultural inheritance. The early 19th-century British invention of tourism, the Romantic era’s search for landscape as personal experience − of awe, of transcendence – and the highly personally appropriative tradition of the Grand Tour from which both emerged all encourage us to think about landscape as a series of natural tableaux removed from daily life. That we continue to do so can be seen in the glossy calendars and gift mugs, TV countryside shows and coffee-table books, with which we commodify and isolate ‘nature’ and ‘heritage’.

We seem less keen to acknowledge landscape’s practical effects on daily life. The Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales may have kept that country from being conquered until the 15th century, but this fact now seems to belong in the realm of costume drama. Yet the same mountains still disrupt Wales’s national infrastructure − there’s no motorway or railway line running through the country from the capital to its north − with consequences for its prosperity and cultural unanimity, and the life chances of its three million inhabitants.


As for the ‘other direction’ of this continual interaction between humans and their surroundings: we know that man-made global warming is changing the environment, yet this overarching condition of contemporary life can feel remote, meta-national. In fact it goes to show how landscape, just as much as any townscape, is created in dialectic between people and their places. Our farmland is being changed by us, through agro-farming practices on the one hand, and EU subsidies for environmental protection and small-scale family farming on the other. Ribbon development does interrupt ecosystems and transform habitats, so that our songbirds sing louder nearer motorways.

Our landscapes are not innocent. Even the apparent wildness of the Scottish Highlands was man-made, by the notorious 18th- and 19th-century Clearances that threw subsistence farmers off the land − and in turn generated some of the mass emigration that would transform North America. Yet publishers’ marketing departments, bookshops and critics persist in separating human history from nature. For my recent book Limestone Country, I found myself questioning this orthodoxy. ‘I want to write about the inhabited landscape,’ I told my publishers; and, perhaps because they specialise in writing about place, they understood. They let me explore the way a particular geology produces a particular ecology and leads to particular patterns of human settlement. I also got to write concretely about three landscapes I’ve lived in: Périgord, the Slovenian Karst and the Vale of the White Horse. Yet since the book was published I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve assumed W. H. Auden said it all in ‘In Praise of Limestone’: a marvellous poem, but scarcely encyclopaedic, and in any case more concerned with camp than with ecology.


The Balkans, on the other hand, do challenge writers to grapple with landscape as history. It’s not only Rebecca West. After Patrick Leigh Fermor walked the Danube in the 1930s, he celebrated the beauty of the landscapes he passed through, and the diversity of their inhabitants, in the subtle, evocative books it took him decades to produce: A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and the posthumous The Broken Road (2013). The Italian historian Claudio Magris’s Danube (also published in 1986) is rightly hailed Europe-wide as a masterpiece of cultural geography for its deep understanding of the cultures the river connects.

Both of these deeply engaging storytellers are able to give what looks, from a café in Banja Luka, like a relatively sanguine account of geographical memory. After all, the Danube enters northern Serbia from Hungary and passes through the traditionally tolerant, ethnically mixed communities of the Banat, comfortably east of troubled Bosnia.


Yet even this river is not wholly innocent. Vukovar, site of a Serb massacre in 1991, is a Danubian town. Downstream, in Serbia itself, NATO bombed the waterfront industries of Novi Sad, and infrastructure in central Belgrade, in its attempt to shake loose the country’s warmonger dictator, Slobodan Milošević. In doing so, it used depleted uranium (DU) as ballast for its ordnance.

Where could the DU go but into the water table, and so the food supply chain, of this heavily agricultural region? The last two decades have seen clusters of soft tissue cancers − breast, thyroid, prostate − form near the sites of the bombings. Everyone I know here in turn knows someone living with, or already dead from, one of these diseases; my own ex is among them.

In a part of the world rich in superstition, where cancer’s name is whispered rather than spoken, it’s noticeable that the victims I hear named aren’t the elderly, who might be expected to experience raised cancer rates in this vigorously smoking culture. Many were in their prime – their 30s or early 40s − in 1999, when the bombings took place. An environment is written into the human body, and there’s nothing poetic about it at all.


This morning the Vrbas is silver-grey, a little ragged at the edges, and nearly deserted. As we sit here, the glass enclosing the terrace where we sit begins to steam up. The damp in this cold room matches the rags of mist in the wooded hills behind the town.

But I’m miles away as I remember sitting in the old local government villa at Čortanovci, in the Fruška Gora or Fruitful Hills outside Novi Sad, watching the Danube on one of my first visits to this region 16 years ago. That was autumn, too, but then we basked in the kind of delayed summer a continental climate like this often throws up.

On the brick-lined terrace of the Jugendstil villa, a castellated folk fantasy, I and other anti-nationalist young writers − mostly from the countries of this region – sunned ourselves with the lizards, argued over whether ‘Blue Jay’ was the correct name for the jay in the pine – American English outruns British here as everywhere in Europe − and drank slivovitz for breakfast.

The Danube is a beautiful river. Container barges, restaurant boats and driftwood float on its shining if viscous surface. Its water meadows are stalked by white egrets and oddly empty, to British eyes, of cattle. But it also brings floating downstream the whiff of that notorious, and proto-fascist, anxiety about belonging and identity which was if not hatched then certainly incubated in the Black Forest, in Martin Heidegger’s famous Hütte, the cottage the philosopher called his writing hut, at Todtnauberg.


It’s a paradox that his kind of writing, both despite and because of its eccentric search for an ‘authentic’ way to ‘dwell’, should reveal so clearly how thinking about place is always a form of psycho-geography. For it’s not only when we consciously position ourselves in relation to an environment, natural or built, that we write from the self outwards.

What we notice is no more innocent than how we see it. We can never exclude ourselves from the picture we create. Stand on the banks of the Dunav, the Danube, at fruitful Čortanovci and you’ll imagine you can hear, floating upriver from Belgrade, the mad folk-jazz clarinets of an Emir Kusturica film: Black Cat, White Cat maybe, or When Father Was Away on Business. Every one of Kusturica’s pictures is a self-portrait as it conjures up the spontaneous, surreal character he ascribes to his home country. And his version is infectious; after you’ve watched a Kusturica movie it’s impossible to see the Serbian Danube without peopling it with his characters.

We’re no different, as we sit here sipping the silty coffees with whose purchase we’re contributing to the local economy. We too are fitting ourselves into an interlocking scene: no more innocent than those willows planted on the riverbank by recent municipal authority. Together with the anti-nationalist rap playing on the kitchen radio, the sleet that’s beginning to fall, the guttering dripping on the kafana opposite, and the wooded hills beyond, we too form part of a November day in Banja Luka.

Published 28 February 2018
Original in English
First published by New Humanist 1/2018

Contributed by New Humanist © Fiona Sampson / New Humanist / Eurozine



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