Balkan Literature: Where brilliant writers flourished despite the dissolution of a nation

To set the stage, the term “Balkan” references the geographical area that stretches from Slovenia to Greece in southeast Europe. It was formerly known as Yugoslavia, the country which was composed of present day Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, North Macedonia, and Kosovo (still disputed).

The passing of Josip Broz Tito, the former President of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, marked the end of an era, and the start of the country’s dissolution; however, this era borne brilliant writers whose work would preserve despite the chaos that would ensue. Known to be a place where all ethnicities could live in peace, the Balkans would go through many trials and tribulations, placing emphasis on a person’s ethnicity and religion, rather than co-habituating.

As part of my literature research series, I interviewed a few natives to grasp the cornerstones of Balkan literature. Before I spent seven weeks of my summer in the Balkans, if you told me the streets of Belgrade had more authentic charm than the streets of Rome or Paris, I would’ve politely, but earnestly, scoffed.

Here are some classical works of Balkan literature that will paint the picture of the unique mindset of the Balkan people.

1. The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić

Originally published in Serbo-Croatian in 1945

As a window into the Ottoman rule over the Balkans, this novel depicts life of the townspeople during the bombing of the bridge which crosses over the Drina River. It compares the culture and evolution of people over the course of a century where the bridge is the only remnant of permanence.

It explores the motifs of identity, colonialism, and destruction. It also contrasts the varying experiences of Muslims and Serbians living in the city during that time. The novel gained such notoriety, the city of Andricgrad was built to commemorate this author.

“They entered there into the unconscious philosophy of the town; that life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet none the less it lasted and endured ‘like the bridge on the Drina’.”

“Every human generation has its own illusions with regard to civilization; some believe they are taking part in its upsurge, others that they are witnesses of its extinction. In fact, it always both flames and smolders and is extinguished, according to the place and the angle of view.”

Ivo Andrić

2. Death and the Dervish by Meša Selimović

Originally written in 1966

The protagonist is a respected dervish, someone who chooses material poverty, in eighteenth century Bosnia. Once he learns his brother has been arrested by the Ottoman empire, he starts to unravel his meaning of life. This novel explores philosophy, metaphysical thinking, challenging religion, and overidentity in religion.

“Death is a certainty, an inevitable realization, the only thing that we know will befall us. There are no exceptions, no surprises: all paths lead to it. Everything we do is a preparation for it, a preparation that we begin at birth, whimpering with our foreheads against the ground. We never move farther away from death, only closer. But if it is a certainty, then why are we surprised when it comes? If this life is a short passage that lasts only an hour or a day, then why do we fight to prolong it one more day or hour? Worldly life is treacherous, eternity is better.”

Meša Selimović

3. The Mountain Wreath by Petar II Petrovic Njegos

Originally written in Serbian in 1847

The Mountain Wreath (Gorski vijenac) is a heroic poem written at the peak of the Serbian romantic movement. The author details much of Balkan history into one exquisite work, which was written in verse as a folk play.

“Heroism is the king of everyone’s evil, and also the sweetest drink of the soul, with which generations are drunk.”

Petrovic Njegos


Bonus: A Guide to the Serbian Mentality by Momo Kapor

Published in 2006

Downtown Belgrade is laced with a dozen quaint bookshops, each one more charming than the last; so, as you can imagine, I couldn’t resist from taking home a souvenir. Although this one isn’t a classic, it’s a regular at the bookstores in Serbia. I read this book at the convergence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, in the heart of the Belgrade fortress.

Written by native Belgrade author and painter Momo Kapor, this book will help you understand the essence of the Serbian people. He also has such a way with words that it’s a beautiful read.

As a self-proclaimed writer, another cool part this book mentioned was the writer’s club in Belgrade, which was the home away from home many writers and avant-garde thinkers came to collaborate. It’s still open to this day and luckily I had the chance to visit and have a glass of chardonnay.

“The Sava is feminine. Like a great seductress, she nestles to the sides of boats and rolls in the shadows of willow groves. She is a true feminine river. Her twilights seem to hide the gaze of a young woman yearning for love. She cuddles, coddles, and giggles, whispering tenderly into a swimmer’s ear…”

Momo Kapor

Do you have any other recommendations for Balkan literature? Let me know below!

For more by me, you can check out my personal page at http://www.poemsandprose.travel.blog


4 thoughts on “Balkan Literature: Where brilliant writers flourished despite the dissolution of a nation

  1. What a great post, Elle! I love The Bridge on the Drina and haven’t thought of that book in years. Thank you for bringing it back and the other great suggestions. What a lovely series you are doing! Best wishes and safe travels!

  2. Are you also a fan of non-Hollywood films? What an American might call foreign films? Do you have any suggestions of good sources to watch or download foreign films? I’ve become so used to streaming services that when I can’t find a movie I want to see (that doesn’t fall into the popular American production mostly found on the streaming platforms I use) then I just don’t know where to look next… If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them!!

  3. Thank you for this reminder that there are more than simply the mainstream books we most often see on the shelves of bookstores. I have been adding recommendations from different cultures to my reading list, and find it both eye-opening to learn what is at the outset foreign to me and helpful when creating the people and cultures which inhabit the stories I write!

    Your writing is a spark of inspiration to dive deeply into learning what I don’t know – and of course this is very large so there are plenty of places to venture!

    Happy New Year to you El, and I hope you are finding the beginning of 2023 one filled with creativity and adventure. 🧡😊

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