In the Hills, the Cities (11. Dec 2012)

By Edo Muric

This is an old blog post. Some of the views expressed in it may not be what I think today.

I am always delighted when I find something which gives me an outsider's view at former Yugoslavia. It is not a frequent thing, as it is. But it is even rarer to find something relating to the situation from before the wars of the 1990s, but especially something which takes place in some of the most neglected parts of the region, places which are usually all but stricken from the maps because they don't play any significant role even within the region.

Most of Ex-Yugoslavia is a detour which no one in their right mind would take. But then, there are places within it which are a detour within a detour. One of those places is the part of the country where I come from. It is the triangle of north-east Montenegro, south-east Serbia, bordering with northern Kosovo, which is the region of Sandzak, chronically neglected because it is populated by ethnic minorities. This region, however, is the setting of a 1984 cult horror story by Clive Barker, titled "In the Hills, the Cities" (masterfully adapted for comics by Chuck Wagner and Fred Burke, with art by John Bolton). The protagonists, two Englishmen, actually pass trough the villages where my father was born, spend night in Novi Pazar, the town where my parents used to live just after they got married. They take the proverbial wrong turn just outside of the town, which is some 50 kilometers from where I myself was born and where I grew up.

All this is noteworthy because, as I have said, the places in question are usually treated as "nowhere" by the respective countries they belong to, not to mention the total strangers, such as Clive Barker, who aren't supposed to know so many of the local details, as he apparently does. Clearly, he probably visited the place sometimes in the early 1980s.

Apart from all this, there is not much else to be proud of about the region taking a center stage in Barker's story. After passing trough Novi Pazar, which is sort of the last civilised stop before the two lovers wander a bit further and get themselves into trouble, they decide to go to a nearby town of Kosovska Mitrovica to see some museum. On the way there they end up lost in the hills between the Serb towns of Podujevo and Popolac. It turns out these two "twin cities" have a centuries old tradition which repeats every ten years. The townsfolk, counting tens of thousands of people, including women and children, form giants out of their own bodies. These giants, in a secret ritual known only to the inhabitants, clash somewhere in the hills. The giant of Podujevo turns out to be badly constructed, so it eventually crashes, killing most of the people who formed it. The giant of Popolac takes a life of its own and wanders trough the hills, leaving a path of destruction, attracting the attention of the English travelers who are astonished at the level of civilian casualties, and at the horrific bloodbath which resulted from the ritual.

I've heard some interpretations of this gem of modern horror, which claim the story is actually a criticism of communism. While it may certainly be true to some extent, I doubt that's the whole or even the central concern, first of all because it would be an endorsement of the opinions of one of the characters, which would be out of place for Barker's usual ambivalence. Picking Yugoslavia of the 1980s would also be an odd choice for a story with an anti-communist slant, since it was far from being a hard core communist country, also it was neutral during the Cold War and it didn't even belong to the Eastern Block. In addition, Barker's lucid knowledge of the local details wouldn't go together with a broad-brushed view based on a random choice of just any communist country, made for the purpose of making a point. The two giants would also make little sense if it was primarily an anti-communist metaphor, though the interpretation does have to do with collective vs. individual. But are there other kinds of collective apart from communism? Wouldn't the collective of ethno-religious nationalism be more fitting in the case of Yugoslavia, even for a story written before the 1990s? That's how the giants make more sense. The zealous rituals with the giants, which give the people a sense of invincibility and oneness, are deeply spiritual. When one giant perishes by accident, the other one starts wandering aimlessly, without any purpose, until its "cells" die off, which is essentially how nationalism loses its purpose.

What I see in this story is, therefore, a disturbing metaphor about the historical reality of Ex-Yugoslavia. And in many ways, it is a prophetic vision, since it was written in the 1980s, but is able to present us with the same dilemmas which would become crucial several years later, namely the western view, the lack of decisive reaction (inactivity) in the case of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, but most importantly the Bosnian genocide. Barker invokes some of the most essential themes, such as the tendency of Yugoslav wars to be fought against civilians (military aim being to "cleanse" the rival ethnicity), but also the danger of the virulent "organised" nationalism which poisons every man, woman and child, as illustrated by the two rival cities whose citizens become uncontrollable monstrous entities which strive towards self-destructive nationalistic nihilism. And of course, the tendency of the westerners to either be overwhelmed, therefore scared off by the bloody spectacle, or to identify with it, to become fascinated by its destructive power, to succumb to its perceived exotic spirituality and savour its unexpected potentials, the way one of the two Englishmen gets fascinated by the local religious art and churches, to the annoyance of his lover.

Barker is clear about the way these giants are formed - trough manipulation and persuasion by talented individuals. This would be at odds with what is usually the way oppressive communism takes hold, which is trough revolution and violence. A metaphor for a communist society would also entail at least some dissenting voices of individuals, in order to bring home the pro-individualist message. There is none of it in Baker's dark fantasy. It is not an outcry against the revolutionary and new but against something centuries old, ritualistic and tribal. In the end, a more fitting target of his metaphor seems to be organised religion itself, and that to me is what the giant bodies stand for, not communist collective.