During each residency, guests will publish blog entries through which the interested public will be able to track their journey through the locations included in the project.

Katja Zakrajšek: Between reading fire and fiery ruin / Med bralskim ognjem in ognjeno ujmo

Imagine: A fenced-off pit in the midst of a city, showing remains of walls partially overgrown with greenery. A scar.

Imagine: Charred lumps in a glass case, just suggesting the familiar contours of books. Phantom limbs.


These are two images from a recent visit to Belgrade that remain most vivid in my mind: the former national library, and the new one; the former no longer there, victim to World War II; the latter holding, alongside its books, the absence and the loss of its forerunner. 

Between my stay in Belgrade and the moment of writing this, yet another war has broken out, the deluge of fresh images of destruction stirring up yet other, older ones: the National and University Library in Sarajevo, destroyed in 1992 during the siege; the evacuation of Timbuctu manuscripts in 2012; the books at Mosul’s university library, burnt circa 2015; the library that barely survived the fire at the National Museum of Brazil in 2018; the rare books and manuscripts lost in the fire that engulfed the Cape Town university in 2021 ... A whirlwind of images, from Alexandria to this day, when Ukrainian libraries have become bomb shelters. 


The library is a curious formation in human history. Measured against its depth, the written word is a relatively new technology, while its general dissemination – not only in terms of geography, but in terms of the proportion of members of society participating in it in one way or another – is counted not even in centuries, but in generations at best. As someone whose job and passion it is to fill library shelves with new translations, that is a difficult concept to grasp. Indeed, I can’t remember a time when I was not a reader, surrounding myself with ramparts of books. There’s no separating my childhood memories from stacks of new finds and old favourites from the local library, nor from suitcases bursting with books to ward off the worst, unimaginable danger that could befall you at the seaside: running out of reading material. Even now, I’m largely unable to leave the house without a book or, more recently, an e-reader in my bag. What if I run out of reading material? (What if I run out of air? I admit, I’m exaggerating. A bit.)

It is only recently that this fear has eased thanks to my smartphone. Even then, this is still about reading: the internet as another library. At home, I’m forever browsing its “shelves” for dictionaries, corpora and encyclopaedias, hunting down quotations in book pdf’s, trawling its fora for that one elusive expression; at the bus stop, riding the bus, in the waiting room I’ll read articles and opinion pieces, the unavoidable posts on social media, but I’ll also often read poetry – even translating it if inspiration strikes. The internet is a very particular, almost Borgesian library where it’s easy to lose your way, but also to find your ways across geographies. Unattached to a material location, it is less vulnerable than physical libraries; at the same time, disembodied, existentially dependent on complex technologies, and open to manipulation, it is so much more vulnerable than they are. A wonderful tool in short, although it cannot replace the printed book any more than the book as technology can replace the human mind. What it can do, just like the book before it, is open up yet further possibilities, even if at the cost of the feel and smell of paper many find so soothing and indissociable from “real” reading.


Books hold all kinds of stories, knowledge, innovation, artistic expression, observations, perspectives, systems of thought, traditions as well as deviations from and questioning and subverting those traditions. They are memory externalised: transient, yet much less so than a human individual, and as a rule, much less restricted and less self-restricting in who they will open to. Books tend to come in more than one copy, none of which are ever distracted from their one purpose: being read. And libraries hold books. They are social memory externalised: places of accumulation and coexistence of a substantial part of what is being thought in a given society as it traverses time, as well as of its contacts with other societies. They are nexuses where gaps in memory or in familiarity can be bridged to access ideas and stories far removed in time and space, whether geographical or social. 

Obviously (but is it obvious?), a library doesn’t emerge by itself, books attracting other books by some sort of gravitational logic, however charming this notion might be. It is a social institution handled by people of flesh and blood, and as such, not only a place of inclusion and accumulation of sources and resources, but also of their selection, their active exclusion as well as simple forgetting, lack of awareness, blind spots. However encompassing, it must remain imperfect. The composition of a library’s book collection, the shifting relationship between its active portions and dusty corners of its basement stacks, speak of their social time and its self-comprehension – even its incomprehension. Yet there is, in this process, always something that slips by unnoticed, to emerge again at a different time. Too large for one human brain to take in and recall all the writings it contains, a library can never be entirely catalogued, accounted for and brought under control. The older it is, the more surprises lurk there, waiting to be excavated. 

And when it burns, all those stories it holds, both known and unknown, are equally consumed. (Known to whom? Unknown to whom?) The printed ones, the manuscript ones, those jotted down at the margins or as dedication, those implied by underlinings and crossings out, folded corners, pages torn or fallen out, the condition of the spine and the covers: all erased. 


In a time of war, is there time to speak of books? In a time of killing, is there time to speak of the destruction of libraries? I think there always is. 

We people are social beings through and through, and we are social beings through the stories we tell each other about ourselves and about others. Our past, present and future are understood and made sense of as stories. As Chinua Achebe memorably put it: “People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories.” And communities of people create libraries ...

There are many layers to the violence of war. It is not only individual lives that it ends or leaves its mark on; it cuts deep into the social fabric, into institutions and avenues of exchange, into the material basis of social processes. The tragedy of a library hit by bombs is not in the paper that burns; it is in the conflagration of the externalised memory of a community and of its projections into the future. War is itself a story that cannibalises other stories. That is why aggressors will often destroy libraries, whether led by strategic reasoning or by an instinctive understanding of their importance. This too is a way, however crude, of selection of written sources. That is also why the attacked will try and rescue books.


“Life goes on,” Wiszława Szymborska writes. “It continues at Cannae and Borodino, / at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.

/ There’s a gas station / on a little square in Jericho, / and wet paint / on park benches in Bila Hora.” In February 2022, Mosul’s university library opened its doors again. The digitalisation of fragile Timbuctu manuscripts is in full swing; in March 2022 they were made freely available online, in the form of a digital library. The bomb shelters in Ukraine will once again become libraries: different than they would have been without the war, some with irreparable gaps in their collections, yet libraries all the same. “What moral flows from this? Probably none,” muses Szymborska. It is simply that “reality demands / that we also mention this”.



These lines took on their English voice in the reading room of the National Library of Wales. Around me, other people were delving into existing books or writing new ones. In an atmosphere of quiet complicity that forms in such places, I started translating a new picture book about war.



Dva prizora: 

Z ograjo zagrajena jama sredi mesta in v njej delno z zelenjem prerasle ruševine. Brazgotina.

Zoglenele kepe v vitrini, v katerih tu in tam ravno še razpoznaš znano obliko knjig. Fantomski udi.


To sta dve od slik iz Beograda, ki so mi ostale najbolj živo v spominu: nekdanja in sedanja narodna knjižnica: tista, ki je ni več, žrtev druge svetovne vojne; tista, ki bok ob boku s knjigami hrani odsotnost in izgubo svoje predhodnice. 

Med časom, ko sem bila v Beogradu, in časom, ko to pišem, se je razdivjala še ena vojna in v metežu podob uničenja se tem slikam v moji glavi pridružujejo še druge: narodna in univerzitetna knjižnica v Sarajevu, porušena med obleganjem leta 1992; evakuacija timbuktujskih rokopisov leta 2012; knjige mosulske univerze, sežgane okrog leta 2015; knjižnica, ki je za las preživela požar v brazilskem narodnem muzeju leta 2018; redke knjige in rokopisi, izgubljeni v požaru, ki je leta 2021 zajel univerzo v Cape Townu … slike in še več slik, od Aleksandrije do danes, ko so ukrajinske knjižnice postale bombna zatočišča. 


Knjižnice so nenavadne tvorbe v človeški zgodovini. Pisana beseda je v njej razmeroma nova tehnologija, njena vsesplošna razširjenost – ne le geografska, ampak predvsem v smislu deleža ljudi v družbi, ki v njej tako ali drugače sodelujejo – pa je sploh zelo nedaven pojav, ki ga še niti ne moremo šteti v stoletjih, kvečjemu v generacijah. Kot nekomu, ki poklicno polni knjižnične police z novimi prevodi, mi je ta misel težko doumljiva. Ne spomnim se časa, ko nisem brala in ko se nisem obdajala z okopi knjig. Moji spomini na otroštvo so nerazvezljivo prepleteni s kupi knjig iz lokalne knjižnice in tovorjenjem knjig na počitnice, kajti največje in nepredstavljivo tveganje na morju je bilo, da bi mi zmanjkalo čtiva. Še vedno skoraj ne znam od hiše brez knjige ali v zadnjih letih e-bralnika v torbi. Kaj pa, če ne bom imela česa brati? (Kaj pa, če ne bom imela česa dihati? V redu, pretiravam. Malo.)

Ta strah pri odhajanju od doma mi je šele nedavno omilil pametni telefon, a še vedno gre za branje; tudi internet je knjižnica. Od doma nenehno posegam po njenih »policah« s slovarji, korpusi in enciklopedijami, po pdf-jih knjig brskam za citati, po spletnih forumih lovim pravi izraz; na avtobusu, na postaji, v čakalnici preberem kak članek, kolumno, seveda tudi objave na družabnih medijih, sem pa na telefonu prebrala že tudi dosti poezije in jo celo prevajala, ko je med branjem udaril navdih. Internet je povsem svojska, prav borgesovska knjižnica, v kateri se zlahka izgubiš, ki pa tudi olajšuje preskoke med geografijami. Zaradi svoje nevezanosti na stvarno lokacijo je manj občutljiva od fizičnih knjižnic, zaradi svoje nesnovnosti, eksistencialne vezanosti na kompleksno tehnologijo in manipulabilnosti pa toliko bolj občutljiva od njih. Sijajno orodje skratka, ki pa ne more nadomestiti tiskanih knjig nič bolj, kot more knjižna tehnologija nadomestiti človeški um. Tako kot ona pa odpira spet nove možnosti, četudi brez občutka in vonja papirja, ki sta za mnoge tako tolažeča in še vedno neločljiv del »pravega« branja.


Knjige hranijo vsakovrstne zgodbe, vednost, inovacije, besedne umetnine, zapažanja, perspektive, miselne sisteme, tradicije in odklone in prevpraševanje in spodkopavanje tradicij. So pozunanjen spomin. Minljiv, a mnogo manj minljiv od posameznega človeka, in ponajveč mnogo manj omejen in manj samoomejujoč pri tem, komu se odpre. Knjiga praviloma kroži v mnogo izvodih in vsak od njih ima vedno čas. In knjižnice hranijo knjige. So pozunanjen družbeni spomin. Tu se kopiči in sobiva pomemben del miselnega dogajanja v neki družbi, ko ta preči čas, in njenih stikov z drugimi družbami. So vozlišča, kjer je mogoče prek vrzeli pozabe ali nepoznavanja najti stik z idejami in zgodbami, oddaljenimi v času in prostoru, naj bo ta geografski ali družben. 

Knjižnice seveda ne nastajajo same od sebe, tako da bi knjige same pritegnile k sebi še druge knjige, po nekakšni gravitacijski logiki, naj je ta podoba še tako privlačna. So družbene institucije, v katerih delujejo konkretni ljudje, in kot take niso le kraj vključevanja in kopičenja virov, temveč tudi njihove selekcije, izključevanja ali tudi preprostega pozabljanja, nepoznavanja, slepih peg. Tako so ne glede na svojo obsežnost nujno nepopolne. Njihovi knjižni fondi, s svojo sestavo in s spreminjajočim se razmerjem med aktivnim delom fonda in zaprašenimi kotički skladišč, govorijo o svojem družbenem času in njegovem samorazumevanju – pa tudi njegovem nerazumevanju. A v tem procesu se vedno tudi kaj izmuzne mimo in tako počaka na drug čas. Ker je knjižnica prevelika, da bi vse napisano v njej v celoti zaobjeli in pomnili eni človeški možgani, ni nikoli docela obvladana in popisana. Starejša kot je, več se v njej skriva arheoloških presenečenj. 

In ko zagori, gori vse v njej: znane in neznane zgodbe. (Znane komu? Neznane komu?) Tiste natiskane, tiste rokopisne, tiste pripisane ob rob strani ali v posvetilo, tiste implicirane s podčrtovanjem, prečrtovanjem, zapogibi strani, iztrganimi ali izpadlimi listi, stanjem hrbta in platnic.


Je v vojnem času čas govoriti o knjigah? Je v času pobijanja čas govoriti o uničenju knjižnic? Mislim, da je; vedno. 

Ljudje smo v temelju družbena bitja, družbena bitja pa smo skozi zgodbe, ki jih drug drugemu pripovedujemo o sebi in o drugih. Svojo preteklost, sedanjost in prihodnost razumemo in osmišljamo v obliki zgodb. Kot je zapisal Chinua Achebe: »Ljudje ustvarjajo zgodbe in te ustvarjajo ljudi; oziroma: zgodbe ustvarjajo ljudi in ti ustvarjajo zgodbe.« Lahko nadaljujemo: družbene skupnosti ustvarjajo knjižnice …

Vojno nasilje ima mnogo plasti. Ne konča ali zaznamuje le posameznih življenj, temveč zaseka globoko v družbeno tkivo, v institucije, kanale vsakovrstnih izmenjav, v materialno podstat družbenega. Ko bombe zadenejo knjižnico, tragedija ni papir, ki gori; tragedija je požar pozunanjenega družbenega spomina in projekcij prihodnosti (v množini). Vojna je zgodba, ki kanibalizira druge zgodbe. Zato vojni agresorji tako radi rušijo knjižnice, bodisi iz strateškega razmisleka bodisi iz instinktivnega razumevanja njihove pomembnosti. Tudi to je, zelo grob, način selekcije pisnih virov. In zato napadeni rešujejo knjige.


»Življenje teče dalje,« pravi Wiszława Szymborska. »To počne pri Kanah in pri Borodinu / in na Kosovem polju in v Guernici. / Na malem trgcu v Jerihu / je bencinska črpalka, / pod Belo goro so / sveže popleskane klopce.« Od februarja 2022 v Mosulu spet deluje univerzitetna knjižnica. Digitalizacija od starosti krhkih timbuktujskih rokopisov je v polnem teku in od marca 2022 so prosto dostopni prek spleta – kot digitalna knjižnica. Ukrajinska bombna zavetišča bodo spet knjižnice. Drugačne, kot bi bile brez vojne, z včasih nepopravljivimi vrzelmi v fondu, vendar knjižnice. »Kakšen nauk izvira iz tega – najbrž nobeden,« pristavlja pesnica. A »resničnost zahteva, / da povemo tudi to«.



Sandorf - publishing house founded in 2008, engaged in Croatian literature and literature in translation, and in a wide range of books in humanities.


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