An accidental Serb - Andrea Pisac talks to novelist Vladimir Arsenijevic´on the use and abuse of free speech

Pisac, Andrea and Arsenijević, Vladimir. 2009. An accidental Serb - Andrea Pisac talks to novelist Vladimir Arsenijevic´on the use and abuse of free speech. Index on Censorship, 38(3), pp. 140-149. ISSN 0306-4220 [Article]

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It is said that writers like Milan Kundera do not exist any more. Not because
there are no longer any writers of his stature, but because Kundera was
internationally well known for what he represented as a dissident voice as
much as for his writing. Stalin’s famous line that ‘writers are engineers of the
human soul’ illustrates their importance to communist society. It was
believed that books could help build and strengthen the national identity and
educate the public. As long as they played by the rules, socialist writers had a
comfortable life. However, that very belief in the strength and importance of a
writer’s words meant that dissident writers were persecuted with the same
zeal as the regime’s writers were celebrated. The communist state feared
writers who were not complicit with its ideology.
Yet, in the post-socialist and post-war climate of the former Yugoslav
countries, the situation has changed significantly. Vladimir Arsenijevic´, a
prominent Serbian writer whose novel In the Hold received a prestigious
literary award in Serbia in 1995, and has been published in English by Harvill
Press, argues that since the fall of communism and disintegration of
Yugoslavia it has become more difficult to define freedom of speech and
pinpoint instances of its abuse. Under Slobodan Milos˘evic´ ’s regime in Serbia,
writers experienced the loss of their social role and status; they could neither
be literary heroes (celebrated by the state) nor literary dissidents (suppressed
by the state), and so the very definition of free speech, hence its practice too,
changed dramatically. The fact that the state made no official attempts to
curb free speech is hardly evidence that true freedom of expression existed.
Milos˘evic´ actively promoted the media climate in which ‘everyone could say
whatever they wanted’. Yet, in such an atmosphere of noise, as Arsenijevic´
calls it, no words were actually being heard, only meaningless chatter.
Milos˘evic´ ’s regime devalued the writer and their work to the level of
semantic insignificance, and since their words could not hurt the state any
more, there was no need for overt censorship.
The practice of free speech has become an extremely challenging issue
in countries that underwent drastic socio-political changes, such as the
former Yugoslavia. It is not enough to look for legislation that protects
freedom of expression any more, but to understand the overall context from
which literature emerges. Arsenijevic´ shows that specific examples of free
speech practices and its curtailment need to influence how this global
issue is formulated on an international level. Such reflections can
further improve the kind of help that the world can offer to many more
writers in new

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7 September 2009Published

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23 Jun 2015 14:46

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23 Jun 2015 14:46

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