A Serbian Writer Describes War from the Inside

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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.

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