“Do you want to come and see my museum?” read the Facebook message I received from an unknown contact sent to me by a close friend from Serbia based in London. I’d asked her if there was anyone I should meet in Belgrade, she just replied “You need to meet Viktor” and made no further comment. After a hearty Serbian meal on a Friday evening and one or two shots of Slivovice (plum brandy) we embarked on a 20 minute Trolleybus ride to the southern suburb of Banjica and alighted to find a run down shopping centre with locals waiting to change lines. My co-pilot Brett commented that the area felt a bit like Hackney, yet a few steps down the road revealed that it we felt more like we were in Hampstead. Not sure we were in the right place, we walked down a steep hill until we reached a gated mansion and were greeted by a small white dog barking at us. It didn’t feel like a Museum as we knew it. Viktor greeted us unassumingly dressed in a t-shirt jogging bottoms and welcomed us inside a vast literary catacomb of cherrywood shelving rammed floor-to-ceiling with books from all corners of the globe.
Banjica hardly felt like the kind of place you’d find a book museum comprising of a wide selection of signed first-editions and in total over 1 million books in all world languages, yet that is exactly what can be found in this sleepy suburb of Southern Belgrade. The Adligat Book and Travel Museum was purposely set up as an NGO to be completely free of any political influence. Viktor explained that the precarious political situation in Serbia since the 1990s had inspired this decision and it appears to have been the right choice. With 50 founder members who channeled their resources into creating a safe-haven for Serbian and World literature, Adligat is not only the home to books but also many rare writers manuscripts, a collection of typewriters and a huge collection of travel books. Travel books are a particular focus because the current geopolitical situation in the world means that foreign travel is out of reach for a majority of Serbs. According to passportindex.com the Serbian passport accesses only 112 countries visa-free, compared with 158 for Germany and Sweden and 157 for the UK or 155 for the USA or Austria. Viktor jokingly claimed to be the best Serbian travel-writer, and swiftly added that he is the only one. Black humour and a self-deprecating nature seems to be the modus-operandi for a nation that feels unfairly tarnished in the present day. This isolation breeds a curiosity in Serbs that manifests itself as a friendliness and genuine warmth when meeting people on the streets, the city of Belgrade itself is a delightful mixture of dilapidated former glory and thoughtful regeneration. During our brief stay we were struck by the desire of locals to strike up conversation with us, usually in excellent English.
In our discussion about the museum Viktor revealed the close cultural ties between Serbia and China which seem to originally be based on the premise of an enemy’s enemy being a friend. Yugoslavia severed links with the USSR in 1948 and whilst remaining communist it refused to toe the Soviet line – this didn’t go unnoticed in Beijing and as a result the two countries developed strong cultural ties that endure to this day. A prize exhibit of the Adligat collection is a book completely printed on silk that was a gift from the Chinese president to the Serbian president. Relations with Russia today are significantly stronger with a great many Serbs harbouring grudges against the United States. Whilst the atrocities of the conflicts of the 1990s should not be glossed over it’s worth remembering that NATO forces waged a brutal air war against Serbia setting it back to 1945 infrastructure-wise in many places. It’s easy to see why Serbians have little desire to cosy-up to the West after having been ostensibly ostracized and portrayed as a pariah state of barbarians with little opportunity to redeem themselves.
It’s easy to see why Serbians have little desire to cosy-up to the West after having been ostensibly ostracized and portrayed as a pariah state of barbarians with little opportunity to redeem themselves.
Reading some English translations of Serbian poetry it was easy to see that we’re looking at a nation with a towering intellectual tradition. The subtlety of the prose and richness of the language jump from the page revealing deep passions and a romanticism that seems far away from the utilitarianism of much writing we see in English or other world languages today. The Adligat archive serves as a kind of anti-amazon for the slow pleasure of discovering great literature. In a world where we see commercial viability crushing art and literature at every turn with trash-writing and clickbait articles jamming the internet and real quality work finding it increasingly difficult to reach readers, a museum like Adligat is a real hidden gem. Visitors generally book an appointment to visit and turn up in 2’s and 3’s – it’s the very antithesis of the e-book. If we stop for a moment to consider what we could put in a time-capsule that people 500 years from now would find of enduring interest it’s unlikely to be an iPhone, a Kindle or a fitness tracker, but perhaps some well preserved signed first-edition books written by the true greats of literature, works that explore the human condition, might be a better choice?
In a world where we see commercial viability crushing art and literature at every turn with trash-writing and clickbait articles jamming the internet and real quality work finding it increasingly difficult to reach readers, a museum like Adligat is a real hidden gem
If you’d like to help Adligat in their mission to collect and preserve books then the good news is that they accept donations – they have major collection points all over Europe, they prefer if you contact them by email to discuss the kind of books you wish to donate to the collection, please contact Viktor at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re inspired to visit Belgrade then do make time to pay a visit to Viktor Lazić and the books that have been collected over 9 generations of his family – you can find Adligat on Facebook (oh the irony) and online, tell Viktor we sent you…
Adrian has been working in Marketing & Communications across Europe in sectors as diverse as Semiconductors, Recycling, Renewable Energy, Chocolate, IT Security, Natural Cosmetics, Contract Publishing, Business Consulting to name a few...
He is the Co-Founder of Tbilisi Hippo Fund, and currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.