The world knows that the former Yugoslavia boasted numerous good writers, in the same way that it produced remarkable films and, recently, even more notable ethnic demagogues and frightful wars. And, as in Russia, South Slavic authors are widely known and read in their own territories, although in the decade following the disintegration of the country they considered theirs, those alive today have lost most of the public influence they once enjoyed. Yet the fact persists; among Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians, and Kosovar Albanians, writers of the past and present often count as much or more than politicians, pop singers, or sports stars.

Living in Sarajevo, I can cite considerable evidence for this claim. I have frequently heard people who survived the 1992–95 siege of the city describe with nostalgia the hundreds of days they spent reading in basement shelters. Sarajevo is also strewn, on fair weather days,...

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