A Serbian Writer Describes War from the Inside

Written by Richard Byrne on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Then, suddenly, you find
yourself and your country in the sights of NATO warplanes. Not only are bombs
falling on your city, but you find that the "soft" totalitarian state
has become a lot more rigid overnight.

Jasmina Tesanovic is one
of a number of Serbian writers who found herself in that position in the 1990s.
She’s written numerous books and translated Pasolini, Calvino and Brodsky
into Serbian. She recorded her experience in a diary that has become the most
prominent account of 1999’s Kosovo war from inside Serbia–The Diary
of a Political Idiot: Normal Life in Belgrade
, published by Cleis Press’
new Midnight Editions imprint. Tesanovic will be in New York next week to do
a reading from it.

Tesanovic’s ambivalence
is the hinge upon which The Diary of a Political Idiot swings, through
bombs and information via rumor and political gangsterism. As a prominent Belgrade
intellectual, her sympathies are Western-leaning and outward-looking, yet she
smarts at being bombed by NATO warplanes taking off from her beloved Italy.
"My American friend in Hungary," she writes, "saw smugglers with
thousands of packs of Pampers heading towards Serbia. How can you defeat NATO
with Pampers? she asked me. I said, we’ll all need Pampers soon."

The Diary revels
in the everyday details of life under war and martial law, calmly picking out
glittering detail and grim humor in the midst of chaos and emotional plague.
"The washing machine broke down," Tesanovic writes in the April 29,
1999 entry. "I wept as if somebody had died. I imagine myself doing all
the laundry by hand as well as the extra housework I’ve had to do since
the war started. Then I remembered hearing how, in NATO Phase Three, we will
have no water, no electricity, and no phone lines. I imagine myself with many
other women, washing the laundry in the Danube as they did in ancient Greece,
singing, gossiping and dancing, with kids running all around us."

Via e-mail, I asked Tesanovic
what coming to New York after the NATO bombing meant to her. "As Calvino
put it," she replied, "I have three levels of anxiety. The first one
is very practical and paranoid, belonging to dark times of being a Serb: Will
I get a visa? Will my airplane be hit by NATO or other bombs? The second level
is more concrete but makes me only slightly less anxious: Can I wear my fur
coat without being seen as a hippie or being lynched? Where will I smoke my
cigarettes? The third level of my neurosis is actually joyous. If I overcome
the first two levels and get there, why on earth should I ever come back?"

Tesanovic will read from
The Diary of a Political Idiot on Thurs., Dec. 7, 7 p.m., at KGB, 85
E. 4th St. (betw. 2nd Ave. & Bowery), 505-3360.