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’.
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.