Serbian Dreambook

Marko Živković
Serbian Dreambook National Imaginary in the
Time of Milosevic

New Anthropologies of Europe Series.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

By Maria Vivod

Cultures and Societies of Europe, Strasbourg

In this part of the world, in almost every elderly woman’s bedroom, there is a book. It is a Sanovnik, a dreambook that serves to interpret the dreams of the night before. It contains an alphabetical index of objects, animals, feelings, and colors. It is a book that is often consulted even before the first morning coffee. While consulting it, one deliberates about the possible outcomes of the day ahead and understands the past events in a new light.

By compiling the leitmotifs of the Serbian popular ethnonational political imaginary of the Milosevic era with all the characteristics of a national dream work—as dreams about and for the nation—Marko Zivkovic has embraced the role of dream interpreter who helps us, anthropologists, to understand what happened behind the scenes of the Greater Serbian war machinery.
The role of the ethnopolitical myths—or the repertoire of the “national imaginarium” during the armed clashes of the former Yugoslavia—has already been exploited in the works of Ivo Zanic (2007), Ivan Colovic (1993, 2000), and others.
Such authors have blissfully demonstrated how historical events and mythical and pseudo-historical personages taken as symbols were used as propaganda material in political narratives about the “nation and its destiny” and served as mobilization strategies in the bloody decompo-sition of the federation.
At first glimpse, Zivkovic adds just another pebble to this construction of how nationalist discourses are born, raised, and sustained during a warmongering regime. His goal to create a repertoire seems to be modest for a reader who has experience in the subject—the book seems to be nihil nuovi. But the narrative voice of the author skillfully retains readers’ attention and guides them through a complex cosmology with ease. The reader can understand more about a topic that still appears to be a definitional puzzle in anthropology after more than two decades since the armed clashes of the former Yugoslavia highlighted the role of narrational patterns in the creation of conflictual identities. What exactly are those ethnonationalist myths and narratives, how they are propagated, and how do they endure for so long?
The author’s effort to explore the answers to these questions is summarized by cataloging the types of narratives and representations. Made as a clumsy bricolage of historic (in)accuracies, stereotypes, ethnomyths, conspiracy theories, and social (gender?) frustrations, Zivkovic finds these “bugs” as a passionate entomologist of nationalist venoms in the most unusual places as shining examples of the most flamboyant specimens of Serbian nationalism: in taking a ride in a Belgrade taxi, at a market, or traveling by train from Budapest to Belgrade with a perfect stranger who doesn’t know how to shut up. Fragments and pieces reappear incessantly in the small talk between strangers, among friends and relatives, and in contemporary literature, public speech, and publicities—even via astrological forecasts on a TV channel. (I do not intend to repeat these “bugs” here—such as the mythical “cradle of the Serbian nation” [Kosovo] and “the Serbs as the most ancient people.” It was sickening enough to grow up with them.)
What Zivkovic promises, he delivers, and successfully too: he has prepared a collection of ethnonational myths that led Serbia to the edge of fascism. As some sharp-eyed Gwynplaine whose insight is distant enough yet familiar too, Zivkovic embraces irony to cope with and analyze the topic. His position as native ethnographer—his dual identities of Belgrade citizen and U.S. scholar—give him a privileged insight. He stands with his smile of irony, collecting recurring dreams (hallucinating?), returning nightmares and obsessions, and provides us with a very accurate image of those years.
Taking Belgrade as the hotbed, the epicenter of an arena that mirrors well the events that occurred during those years all across Serbia, Zivkovic gives us a detailed landscape of urban myths, movies, Serbian literature, rock music lyrics, national sciences, and pseudoscience of those times, which perpetuated those dreams. He takes us on a ride with his style as a fantastic vessel. But to this “feast” one must come prepared: one should be familiar with more than a few titles in his bibliography, which summarizes all that is relevant on the topic of Serbia in the 1990s.
Reading between the lines, however, one gets the feeling that the author paid the price for his privileged insight into such a national dreamtime: the ever-present smile of irony is as carved as Gwynplaine’s. One cannot remain unafflicted
by the Serbian dreamtime while knowing the suffering it caused and still does.
Serbian Dreambook is a must-read for all—graduate students and scholars in social sciences, even political scientists and journalists—interested in European identities, particularly southeastern European identities: how they are created, perpetuated, and sustained. It also contributes to the further understanding of present-day political realities in Serbia.

REFERENCES CITED

Colovic, Ivan
1993 Bordel ratnika [The brothel of the warriors]. Belgrade: Biblioteka XX Vek.
2000 Politika simbola [The politics of symbol]. Belgrade: Biblioteka XX Vek.
Zanic, Ivo
2007 Flag on the Mountain: A Political Anthropology of War in Croatia and Bosnia 1990–1995. London: Saqi Books.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License