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Reading the World: ‘With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia’ by Asne Seierstad ***

With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia was the only one of Norwegian author Asne Seierstad’s works of extended journalism which I had outstanding.  I have found her work insightful and far-reaching in the past, and I admire the way in which she tries to present as many viewpoints as she possibly can.  The real triumph for me is Seierstad’s newest publication, One of Us (review here), which deals with Anders Breivik, who carried out atrocious terror attacks in Norway in 2011.  I felt that it would be a nice change to include a work of non-fiction in my Reading the World Project, as I have certainly gravitated more towards works of fiction thus far.

In her second book, With Their Backs to the World, Seierstad details ‘the lives of ordinary Serbs – under Milosevic, during the dramatic events leading up to his fall and finally in the troubled years that have followed’.  She follows those who fall across the entire political spectrum, from three visits which she made between 1999 and 2004.  After broadcasting about the Kosovan conflict in 1999 for NRK (Norway’s Broadcasting Corporation), she ‘couldn’t stop wondering about the Serbs, these outcasts of Europe.  This people that started one war after the other, and lost them all’. 9781844082148

In her research for With Their Backs to the World, Seierstad found that many people were reluctant to speak to her, accusing her of wanting to have her supposed ‘prejudices confirmed’, or saying that they could not formulate an understanding of what was happening even between themselves.  She eventually discovered thirteen individuals who were happy to speak to her, as well as one family, and interviewed them between the winter of 1999 and the spring of 2000.  Of her subjects, she writes: ‘These people together made up a picture, a mosaic of sorts’.

Translated from its original Norwegian by Sindre Kartvedt, With Their Backs to the World is quite often culturally fascinating.  Serbia is not anywhere that I’ve travelled to to date, but I would be interested to, particularly after understanding more of its turbulent history, and the way in which it is rising from the ashes.  With Their Backs to the World, in this sense, is both historically and culturally important.  The dialogue, however, is rather clumsy in places; whether this is a translation issue I am unsure, but some of the phrases simply did not sound right to my English ears.

One reviewer on Goodreads has commented that With Their Backs to the World focused on individual experiences at the expense of the wider picture.  I am of this opinion to an extent; Seierstad here seems to have veered toward looking at the effect rather than the cause.  The background of Serbia and its recent conflicts is covered in the introduction, but later information is not always detailed, which surprised me; I had, up until now, viewed Seierstad as a more meticulous journalist than she comes across here.  With Their Backs to the World was certainly more character driven than I was expecting, and the balance between characters and historical and geographical background does not sit quite right.

With Their Backs to the World is an interesting book in many ways, but I do not feel as though it is Seierstad’s strongest.  A slight niggle for me was that no information was included as to how the participants had been selected, and the practical details about the interviews – how were they conducted, how often, and in what language?  With Their Backs to the World was not as engrossing as I was expecting; indeed, it was a little disappointing in this respect.  There also seemed to be a real lack of emotion, which felt odd in the context of the whole.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal’ by Asne Seierstad ****

A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal is the third of Seierstad’s books which I have read to date, and has been translated from the Norwegian by Ingrid Christophersen.  This particular reportage comes from Iraq, where Seierstad stayed for over three months in the beginning of 2003.  A Norwegian award-winning journalist, she had been sent to the country in order to report upon the war and its aftermath; she arrives before said war, and is able to report upon the state of politics, and the way of life for the city’s citizens.  The book’s blurb reads that ‘her passionate and erudite book conveys both the drama and the tragedy of her one hundred and one days in a city at war’.   9780465076017

I was in my early years of secondary school when the Iraq war broke out.  Whilst I remember much of the reportage, and the horrors which it conveyed, I do not feel as though I was given much of an idea about how awful it must have been to live, and to try to survive, in the country at the time.  I haven’t read much about Iraq from a retrospective position, but felt that it was an important thing to do.

In A Hundred and One Days, Seierstad brilliantly details the frustrations and dangers which journalists worldwide faced in trying to uncover the truth behind the all-pervasive propaganda of the regime.  She is humble with regard to her account: ‘No story contains the whole story.  This is just one of many and it gives a fragment of the whole, not more.’  She demonstrates what a hold propaganda had upon the country, and also shows the new, brave breed of people, who wanted to remain anonymous, but found it important to tell her the truth about what they were living through.  She writes, ‘Iraq has become a country of schizophrenics and cowards, a country where people fear their friends, their family, their own children.  Once upon a time Iraq was the lighthouse of the Middle East, but thirty years of Oriental Stalinism and twelve years of embargoes has crushed the country and its people’.

The book’s translation is rather Americanised, and I must admit that I found a few of the past participles and such used rather jarring.  The writing itself wasn’t as good as I have come to expect from Seierstad either; I remember her being rather eloquent in The Bookseller of Kabul, and One of Us, her reportage of Anders Breivik and the Oslo massacre he perpetrated, is incredibly strong with regard to its prose.

At first, the book failed to grip me.  Some of the paragraphs in the initial section were incredibly interesting, but others felt too drawn out, and there was no real sense of cohesion to the whole.  As other reviews have mentioned, much emphasis is placed upon office bureaucracy; whilst obviously pivotal for Seierstad, to allow her to extend her stay in the country, this did not seem overly useful on the whole for the general reader.  Some of the extended interviews also seem to have been cut a little short, or repeat almost entirely the details of others.  Once I had read past the first fifty pages, however, I found the book incredibly compelling.  There was some clumsy phrasing at times, but it was largely rather a fluid piece.  The inclusion of original newspaper pieces was beneficial to the whole, and largely they flowed seamlessly from the main body of prose.

A Hundred and One Days is a fascinating, thorough, and honest portrait of a wartorn city, and whilst it is not my favourite piece of Seierstad’s longer journalistic pieces, it is certainly an important book to read in order to understand the reasoning behind and conditions of the war.

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‘One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath’ by Asne Seierstad ****

For the purposes of background to this review, I have copied the original blurb: ‘On 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in a terrorist atrocity that shocked the world. One of Us is the definitive account of the massacres and the subsequent trial. But more than that, it is the compelling story of Anders Breivik and a select group of his victims. As we follow the path to their inevitable collision, it becomes clear just what was lost in that one day.’

9781844089185It’s always going to be difficult to review a book about such a sickening and notorious crime as the massacre which happened on the island of Utoya in July 2011, and the bomb attack which happened in central Oslo just beforehand.  Norway is one of my favourite countries, and Oslo is certainly one of the most peaceful and friendly places I have ever visited.  I was even more shocked, therefore, when I learnt about Breivik’s crime.  What occurred was reported in the British media, but relatively few details emerged about the trial. When I spotted One of Us in Fopp, I decided to pick it up to learn as much as I could.  The fact that it is written by Asne Seierstad also swayed me, as I very much enjoyed her fascinating The Bookseller of Kabul when I read it a few years ago.

One of Us is the very pinnacle of excellent journalism.  Seierstad has taken her subject and written about his entire life, as well as taking into account elements of his parents’ lives to see what, if anything, rubbed off on Breivik and caused him to have the views which he so firmly holds.  Seierstad is thorough, but this will surprise nobody who is familiar with her work.  I have read several reviews which stated that One of Us is far too drawn out in places.  I did not get this impression at all; rather, the very depth of the details which she included, and the scope of her study, was of the utmost importance to try and understand Breivik and his motivations.  (I still do not, but that is by the by).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I learnt far more than I did throughout the original media coverage, and in retrospect, I feel that One of Us is one of the most important books I have ever read.  I admire Seierstad and the amount of scholarship which has gone into every single page of this book.  She gives such weight to the victims, picking out several of them and giving their backstories, which again was such an important element of the whole for me.  One of Us is a masterful work, which has been fluidly translated into English.  It is a book which I would – and will – recommend to everyone.

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