Life & Culture

Review: After massacre, a butterfly

In 'Balkan Spaces' Richard Berengarten's passion and erudition opens up a fascinating world


Mostar, Herzegovina-Neretva, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Ex-Yugoslavia), 1975. The Neretva river with the famous bridge in Mostar. Furthermore: buildings, minarets and tourists (bridge).

Balkan Spaces

By Richard Berengarten

Shearsman Books. £19.95

Reviewed by Mark Glanville


Yugoslavia, as it was when Richard Berengarten first visited the country in 1982, has been a consistent source of “intimate and quickened inspiration” for his poetry. Its renowned epic tradition, famously chronicled by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, carries “particular qualities of energy” that Berengarten believes are “still simmering under the surface.” According to the French Petite Planète series,Yugoslavia was the country “with the highest density of poets in the world.”

In 1985, as Berengarten queued for the Šumarice park where, in 1941, the Nazis had massacred 3,000 male civilians, a blue butterfly landed on his writing hand, triggering an epiphany. A follower of Jung, Berengarten perceived in this event, “a sudden, immediate and resonant connection between the massacre and this butterfly:

“a blue butterfly takes my hand and writes/in invisible ink across its page of air/ Nada, Elphida, Nadezhda, Esperanza, Hoffnung” concludes Nada: Hope or Nothing, one of a handful of poems that break up this collection of essays on various themes poetic, historical and anthropological. “The Blue Butterfly” was to engage him for the next 26 years. After a woman told him he had the “soul of a Serb” there was no going back.

Berengarten lived in Yugoslavia from 1987 to 1990, witnessing the rise of Slobodan Miloševic and the break-up of the country. Serbo-Croat was no longer a recognised language as Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin became politically correct. But epic poetry had always united the region’s disparate ethnic groups, a tradition that “belonged as much to Muslims as to Christians.” Berengarten initially nailed his colours firmly to the Serbian mast, denouncing NATO bombings and, in a 1999 address to the Serbian Writers Association, balancing the indictments against Miloševic in The Hague with the news that, “an international indictment has been issued accusing President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair... of committing war crimes and atrocities against Yugoslavia.”

His view later altered in the wake of subsequent revelations, but such passages make uncomfortable reading. The massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslim males by Serbs at Srebrenica in 1995 is a chilling echo of the 1941 Šumarice atrocity that led to Berengarten’s butterfly encounter.

He is on surer ground with his scholarly explanation of the phenomenon of hajduks, originally brigand bands formed in response to Ottoman persecution of the Christian underclass (Serbian paramilitaries cynically compared themselves to hajduks as they went off to butcher innocent Bosnian Muslims on weekend hunting expeditions.)

Best of all in this substantial volume is Richard Berengarten’s writing on poetry and the important Balkan poetic tradition scarcely known outside the region. Berengarten’s insights into the untranslatability of Tin Ujevic, “one of the greatest European poets of the first half of the twentieth century”, go to the heart of what poetry is. “At the micro-level… rhyme, rhythm, melopoeia; at the macro-level, musicality and sense of number, measure and measurement. “Meaning” is in no way reducible to “literal meaning.

“A poet’s role,” he continues, “is to open up all the senses.” Philip Larkin, a poet with an often crude, middle-class English sensibility who, “for some inexplicable reason remains wholly acceptable to contemporary English taste,” is seen as Ujevic’s’s antithesis.

As Berengarten suggests, there is unlikely to be a reader who will appreciate all of the highly varied content of Balkan Spaces, but his passion and erudition open up a fascinating world, too little understood.


Mark Glanville is a teacher, writer and musician


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