On Books, Fire and the Written Word (I)

29 mars 2023 10:14

Artikulli i përkthyer.

(A personal account of the 1990s, about burned books, newspapers used for cleaning and the ghosts of war still wandering in search of blood.)


“May your words blow in the wind”

“May your books burn”

“May the flames swallow your written words”

“May you run out of newspapers to clean your windows”


Books, but also newspapers, when burned, remain in a carbonized form for a few moments, and if you have a sharp eye, you might still make out a word or half a sentence in them! But then, very quickly, what was once paper becomes soot entirely, and if there’s a breeze, the soot, in small particles, rises to the sky and disappears in infinite space. And the words, once written on paper, now lose their meaning entirely, become one with the wind… become words blown in the wind!

Pre-war and war in six episodes with books

First episode. It must have been 1990 or 1991. One afternoon, in our house, the fire that had been lit to roast flia] burned brighter when a pile of discarded books was added to it. “We do not need them,” the adults told us children. Later, we realized that they were books by Marx, Engels, Tito, Kardelj and their contemporaries. Of that series of red books, only Rosa Luxemburg’s book was not burned. Probably because the author was a woman, burning her book might have seemed bizarre to the men in our family. Who knows.

But that day was the first time I was eating flia roasted over a fire of books. As I tore off thin layers from it, I tried to make out the letters I believed had been left there after the burning of the books…

Second episode. A few years later, in Pristina, in the space between the University Library and the Department of Philosophy, one day a pile of books showed up, like a big pile of garbage. From the stack, the books were being loaded onto a tractor by two men assisted by an armed guard. We then realized that they were Albanian books and that they were being taken out of the department’s facilities, to be burned or thrown in a landfill.

Third episode. During the war, from a hill, we saw villages burning in fires set by Milošević’s police and paramilitaries. When one of the houses produced more flames than the others, we joked, “the owner is an intellectual,” as we assumed that the big flames were due to the books that were now burning— they burned beautifully, to express it in the humorous spirit of those days. It is strange, but suffering and cruelty brought us joy. We talked about why it was worth writing “a thick book”; among other reasons, because when it burns, it emits more flame, it’s a true fire, while thin books burn fast and their fire is depressing, good only for kindling, a wisp of a fire, a fireless fire…

Fourth episode. One day when it became clear to me that our house could burn down like the other houses in the surrounding villages were burning, I decided to hide the books. There was no hiding place on the face of the earth. So I decided to dig a hole in the ground and put them there. Of course, I could not save all the books, a selection had to be made. And here, the dilemmas arose: which books were worth burying to be resurrected after the war, and which could be left to the mercy of fate—while still worrying they could be burned. I do not remember what criteria I chose. But I believe priority was given to the books of literary theory and drama, that is, the ones that were the rarest and that I believed would serve me… if I survived.

I wrapped the selected books tightly in newspapers, put them in plastic bags, then in a wooden box, and then buried them in a hole in the yard. Those days I had a strange dream: as if the war were over and I started digging a hole where I had buried the books. But I could not find them. While searching for the books, the backyard and then everything around was filled with open holes. To me, the holes looked like graves…

I often think about that dream, even now, more than 20 years later.

I pulled the books out of the hole when the war ended. It was a good feeling that among the many losses, something had survived. I did not believe then that there was such a thing as a bad and harmful book. But many years later, when I read a book written in the language of hate whose contents poisoned, I wrote an article titled “Books that Must Be Burned.” Now I think that was a bad title. But what can you do, the fires of war have the capacity to leave us with bad habits!

Fifth episode. In Pristina, after the end of the war, the homes of Serbs who had fled to Serbia were now occupied by Albanians. In those days, trash bins were full of, among other things, books written in Serbian. The new apartment owners dismissed them with disgust. The only place you could find books from that period was in trash bins. Of course, this exclusivity applied only to those Albanians who could read in Serbian.

Sixth episode. Many years after the end of the war in Kosovo, I was in the offices of a publishing house in Frankfurt. The staff there told me that if I found something I liked I could get the book for free. I took an armful of books. The staff looked at me in amazement, then asked, “Do you read German?” “No,” I replied. “Ah, maybe someone in your family reads German?” they asked me again. “No,” I replied again. And now they were completely confused, but somehow, I too was confused by their confusion. “Then why do you need them, if you cannot read them?” they finally asked me. “Because they are books,” I told them. This answer of course did not explain much, and they did not ask further questions, but I’m sure it seemed very strange to them. I, too, didn’t know how to tell them about our obsession with books, the trauma and stories I carried with me about burned, buried books, about the images of books thrown in trash bins and disappeared from the face of the earth…! When Ernesto Sabato is asked what he meant by one of his books, he replies that he could not summarize in a hundred words what he had said in the book with three hundred thousand. Because, according to him, then there would be two hundred ninety thousand nine hundred redundant words in that book. That day in Frankfurt, I, too, could not explain to those people in two minutes the trauma that took more than ten years for the flames and trash bins to sculpt in me: that one day we might be left without books.

Displacing the other and their books

In my mind, these fragmented episodes focusing on books, which took place over a period of about 20 years, are the most dramatic landscape of a space contaminated by violence, intolerance of the other, hatred and desire to displace the other, to burn and vanish even their books. Even their books, because only then would the extinction be fully completed. Ethnic cleansing in Kosovo could not be successful if Albanians still had access to books.

Therefore, these books had to be loaded on a tractor and burned or thrown in the trash. When Albanians occupied Serb homes after the war, they were removing books from them—and perhaps a cross that someone might have left behind. Not the furniture, not the beds, not the plates, spoons and other things… they were not Serbian enough. But the books in Serbian, yes, they carried hidden traces of the enemy who had left, so they had to be removed. Only this way could the traces of their existence be erased from those houses and flats. Undoubtedly, similar stories about books that were burned and destroyed during the 1990s and beyond are found throughout the former Yugoslavia. The most famous public image is that of the bombing and burning of the National Library in Sarajevo.

But there are so many other libraries burned all over the region, tens of thousands of private libraries burned, numerous institutions emptied of document archives, and so many trash bins filled with other-enemy books.

Immediately after the war ended, when the Serbian administration relinquished what was at that time, the People’s Theater of Kosovo, they took to Serbia with them a large part of the archive, to preserve it. They carried away what could be taken in that sudden and dramatic period, before the Albanians came, the new “owners” of that building. But a few years later, a crazy Albanian director of the current National Theater of Kosovo collected books and documents in Serbian, as many as could be collected in one night, and sent them to be burned or thrown away as garbage. So I have heard. A few years ago, in several cities in Kosovo, a group of angry former soldiers, in an organized ritual, burned the book of Kosovar writer and publicist Veton Surroi, in which he denounced war crimes and corruption and the postwar political mafia. There are also episodes full of the burning and other disappearances of books throughout the region, about which the public does not know, or of which is not spoken publicly… The past in these parts has swallowed and forgotten everything else, but also many flames with which books and archives have been burned.

Second  and final part to be published on Thursday, March 30. 

*The article 'On Books, Fire and the Written Word’ was specially commissioned from Jeton Neziraj for the publication "Open Society and Its Friends", published in 2021 for the occasion of the 30 years of Open Society Foundations' coming to the Balkans.

Illustration: Bigeye

29 mars 2023

Jeton Neziraj