A violent parting

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 May, 1993, 12:00am

A PAPER HOUSE: The Ending of Yugoslavia By Mark Thompson (Vintage, $87) HIGH HOPES: Young Voices of Eastern Europe Edited by Mita Castle-Kanerova (Virago, $105) THE ending of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fragmentation of what used to be called the Eastern Bloc has resulted in a plethora of apparently independent states; you need a detailed map even to make sense of news reports.


Never mind Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Romania, what about Yugoslavia: which is what A Paper House is all about. Correction: it is about the segments into which Yugoslavia has split.


This is an intensely-written book. Events have overtaken the author a little but, surprisingly, not all that much.


''As a term,'' he writes, ''Yugoslavia was false: the Bulgarian, Croatian, Serbian and Slovenian languages are distinct, and anyway, racial kinship proved too frail a bond against differences wrought by history and culture . . . As a political project itwas beautiful, inspirational, delusive - and sometimes expedient. As a state, it was unique and eventually impossible . . . born in violence, it could only be maintained by force.'' Well, we have certainly seen plenty of violence, despite all the efforts of the United Nations in Croatia and elsewhere. The author obviously feels engrossed in the history and the present of what, I suppose, we can loosely call ''the Balkans''. But whenhe is not obsessed by background he can break out of his contemporary history mould to become a little human.


He writes about going through a maze of streets in a town in Croatia where teenage wreckers were gutting Serbian-owned shops. ''The air was fragrant with coffee beans spilt on the flagstones.'' A policeman walked past, glancing indifferently at the damage as the glass crunched under his feet.


Later, with his photographer, they went to a bar where the photographer asked a posse of wreckers if he could take their picture. ''They posed obligingly with a brace of nearby policemen. Then they bought us a beer. A heavy-lidded youth with a crowbar beside his chair contemplated me as I drank. 'What's your religion?' he asked dully.


'' 'None. What's yours?' - as if there were any doubt. 'Catholic.' '' So we come to the crux of present woes: Bosnia-Herzegovenia and Serbia. This week Bosnian Serb leader Mr Kadovan Karadzic provisionally signed a peace plan but the violence, as yet, continues.


Desperately trying, understandably, to keep up with events, Mr Thompson has an Afterword beyond his main text. He declares that Bosnia ''has been assaulted with extreme violence and absolute barbarity. Its people are massacred: perhaps 30,000 have died, perhaps 50,000, perhaps more; no one knows.'' This is a strange book. Almost tediously factual for most of its 350 pages, it becomes - as in the Afterword - highly emotional. But we ignore the Balkans at our peril.


Yugoslavia - or the former Yugoslavia - is just about the only part of eastern Europe not covered by Mita Castle-Kanerova, who seems to have led a charmed life in some ways.


She must have a way which I have never discovered with immigration officials. Back in 1968 she was on holiday in Britain from her native Czechoslovakia. She became a political exile ''unable to return to her country for 20 years''.


Since then, however, if I understand her correctly, she has made several visits to, not only Czechoslovakia but other parts of eastern Europe, sometimes for months. In between, she teaches social and political science at the Polytechnic of North London.


On the cover, she is described as having ''edited'' this book. Inside, the word ''edited'' is omitted, and I must say that this collection of young voices from eastern Europe, have a remarkable similarity of style, which may simply be a translation factor.


They are certainly worth skimming through. The problem is that there was such saturation coverage by newspapers, radio and television at the time that this book is already history - useful in recalling the mood of the times, but history nonetheless.


 

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