The Impossible Country

Brian Hall spent several months traveling through Yugoslavia in 1991, just as it tilted madly and irrevocably into bloody civil war. By the time he left, the country had ceased to exist. As Hall makes clear, however, he is no war correspondent; he avoided the areas of fighting to concentrate on individuals, and the result is a book that gives the Yugoslavian situation a human face.

Hall visits Zagreb (in what is now Croatia), Belgrade (in Serbia), the embattled region of Bosnia- Herzegovina, and Kosovo, which has so far resisted direct involvement in the conflict. He also sketches the country’s convoluted history (it was cobbled together in 1918, largely from fragments of Austria-Hungary), but for the most part allows the people he encounters to speak for themselves. What a blackly comic story they tell. “To say the Serbs are Fascists is an insult to Fascism!” insists one. Croats, declares another, “have the souls of hyenas.” “So call us Eskimos!” exclaims a third in exasperation at trying to explain his people’s particular mixture of ethnic, lingual, and religious elements. The wonder is that such a country could have existed at all and that it could have lasted as long as it did.

The wonder of THE IMPOSSIBLE COUNTRY is that Hall has fashioned such bleak material into such an unfailingly entertaining, perceptive, and even graceful work. In his preface, he thanks the individuals who appear in his volume, and apologizes for having made their stories his own. Yet in making those stories ours, too, he has made the tragedy ours as well. American readers who want to appreciate what has happened in Yugoslavia should start here.