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Belgrade and the Selenites

Copyright © by Alan Grant
Stari grad

In 1960, the noted French left-wing Catholic intellectual, Jean-Marie Domenach, and Alain Pontault published a book on Yugoslavia, which was translated and published in English two years later. The book is a fascinating study, and the sentiments that the authors express in the following extract are echoed by many people today - that young people in the Balkans just want to live like anyone else in Europe. The rest of the extract perhaps reveals something more about the authors than the country they were travelling in!

You only have to talk with young Yugoslavs for five minutes to find out that what they admire and long for is what young people in Western countries admire and long for too: the cinema, speed, football (a national passion, this), travel and an interesting job. And one of the side effects of the relaxation pronounced by the regime was the penetration of influences from the west: unfortunately not only jazz and abstract art, but some of the seedier products as well, such as murder mysteries, erotic films and grotesque exhibitions of various kinds. When I see the busty figures of comic-strip vamps in Yugoslav newspapers, or when I hear that three publishers fought over Francoise Sagan and that 250,000 readers, not counting their wives and children, plunged into this particular little Western void, I begin to wonder where socialist culture can have got to. "Socialist realism" died without heirs. The retreat of political coercion revealed this startling truth: the spirit, when left to itself, creates the same forms, and enjoys the same feelings as in capitalist countries.

Having made this discovery the authors, or perhaps just one of them since the text appears to be written in the first person, goes on to say what he does like…

Socialism is threatened by ugliness and monotony just like capitalism in those very places where it has succeeded most. That is why I wish to salute the "Selenites" of Belgrade, young members of a club who live in their imagination on the moon, and draw what they find there; they are the brothers of the little Americans who watch the redskins gallop across the television screen. I should like to congratulate the architect of Kraguyevats who decorated his city with little surrealist kiosks, multicoloured shops for shoeshiners, dealers in newspapers and lemonade. But nothing has really been lost, for new cities are beginning to replace the hideous suburban workers' homes, new towns like Prilep or Velenye that have broken with the stiff and pretentious ugliness of Stalinist construction.

Yugoslavia. Jean-Marie Domenach & Alain Pontault. 1962.
[pp. 165-66 / Vista Books]

January 2007
Tim Judah

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