Monday 2 July 2012

Asne Seierstad, With Their Backs to the World

asne seierstad with their backs to the world

When I saw Asne Seierstad's With Their Backs to the World on the library shelf, I almost sprinted to grab it.  What a coincidence, I've been dying to read a book presenting Balkan Wars from the Serbian point of view and here's one doing just that, written by one of my favourite conflict zone reporters.

With Their Backs to the World is subtitled Portraits from Serbia and I can't think of a more accurate description.  Each of fourteen chapters included in the volume presents a different person (or group of people) telling their own version of the Serbian story.  One simply cannot help being fascinated by the selection.  Pretty much all political options are covered, various ways of life represented.  There's a farmer, a priest, a writer, a musician, a journalist, a currency trader and a student activist.  There are politicians and people who simply try to survive doing whatever they can.  As much colour as it is possible to get.

Seierstad took down their stories 'in instalments', with a new update added each time she visited Serbia during the years.  Thus, she managed to show how opinions and circumstances were changing with time.  Some fortunes went up, some went down, other didn't really change that much.  How lifelike.

I am always amazed by Seierstad's non-judgemental attitude.  Sure, she does convey her personal opinions now and again, but she always does it very discreetly, by accenting a word or a sentence rather than by preaching.  I also admire how respectful she is towards her sources.  Inevitably, With Their Backs to the World is full of pretty extreme stories, yet she manages to withhold her judgement and refrain from condemnation.  I am officially impressed.

Paradoxically, the most important observation I've made when reading With Their Backs to the World has nothing to do with Serbia, but is universal.  Whatever the story, the teller is always the last to blame.  Whether it's big politics or ordinary human relations, it's always 'their' fault, never 'mine'.

Funny, really.

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