The Shakespearean Scholar of Sarajevo
In the Kenyon Review, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky discusses this strange beast we call America, and the role of fiction in our lives.
I’ve always assumed that one of the basic needs that literature serves is to allow us to imagine experiences we may never have and solicit our empathy for those whose lives are unlike our own. I may not admire Macbeth as a man or as a leader, but by the end of the play I feel that I can understand him: the play allows me to feel a certain empathy for him which expands my humanity even as I watch his humanity shrink in his violent failures of empathy. There’s a problem with this theory, of course, and its name is Nikola Koljevic. Koljevic was a Shakespeare scholar, author of eight books on Shakespeare, and Professor of English Literature at Sarajevo University. He was also Vice-President of the Bosnian Serb Republic and, according to Janine di Giovanni, the “architect of the destruction of Sarajevo” who ordered the destruction of the National Library with its collection of priceless medieval texts, a “wartime ideologue of ethnic cleansing, and the man who was nominally in charge of Serb concentration camps.” In an ending appropriate to one of the Shakespearean tragedies he loved, Koljevic shot himself in the days following the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, after returning one last time to Sarajevo and weeping at the destruction he’d brought down on the city that was once his home. (Di Giovanni tells the story in an article in The Guardian, dated March 1, 1997, not available online, as well as in Madness Visible, her memoir of covering the Bosnian war as a journalist.)