Things are seldom what they seem
skim milk masquerades as cream
(William S. Gilbert)
Published on 4 February 2012
What happened to writers whose once-established literary and linguistic culture faced a campaign of obliteration, such as that conducted during the post-communist transition by secessionist elites and populists in the former Yugoslavia?
“With brief interruptions, my father spent approximately fifty years in Belgrade, and the sum of his experiences—the total of some eighteen thousand days and nights (432,000 hours) is covered here, in this book of the dead, in a mere five or six pages!” - Danilo Kiš, Encyclopedia of the Dead.
“The words Jew and Gypsy were written “jew” and “gypsy” in lowercase, inferior people cannot command superior letters” - David Albahari, Gotz and Meyer.
Deleuze and Guattari, in ‘Notes Towards a Minor Literature’, sketch the problem of the writer with European-wide ambitions writing in a minor language and in a minor literary tradition, whether little known, yet-to-beformed or slated for extinction. A non-observant Jew, assimilated to the hegemonic German-speaking elite of Prague, Kafka had nonetheless grown up in a Yiddish speaking Jewish quarter, was reared by Czechspeaking nurses, read law in German, witnessed the ascent of Czech as the official language of Czechoslovakia and late in life studied Hebrew in anticipation of emigration to Israel.
He wrote copious business correspondence in Czech during his hours as an insurance executive, while crafting experimental modernist fiction in German during the night and championed touring Yiddish language theatricals. The dilemma Kafka would have faced at the outset was, in what language to write and with what consequences for his aspirations to be a “great” or“world” writer, leaving a mark on his times and his culture?
Czech language, only recently revived as a written and then established as an official language of a new state, possessed no significant modern literary heritage. Modern Hebrew was a newly-consolidated language without a state. Yiddish would have confined Kafka to an exclusively Jewish audience and the distinctly non-assimilated literary traditions of the Yiddish language press and of the Ashkenazi Jews of the theatre troupe and of immigrants who were deeply foreign to Kafka and appear as singularly other presences in his texts. His choice of German seems in hindsight the obvious, if not inevitable, product of his generation’s assimilation to a German speaking professional class and the fact that German was also a world language in which the literary titans Goethe, Heine and Schillerhad wrote. At the same time, he would not easily escape the status and the stigma of a voice from outside – a Jew, a Praguer whose spoken Bohemian German betrayed his otherness when he resided in Germany and Austria proper.
The dilemma Kafka embodies is one of great individual literary aspirations in a minor literature, a minor language and a minor or colonized nation. Kafka’s navigation of this dilemma, has contributed to his status as a great writer virtually without a nation and to the sense that his work is singular and unprecedented, an enduring figuration of a world perpetually other and foreign. His work, in retrospect, has proven the nearly perfect vehicle of an uncompromising realism and cultural criticism, the credible representation and archaeology of a Prague residential quarter and a Jewish community experiencing its final decades.
This representation of censored lives and traditions, of minority person-hood in a vanishing place and of a people slated for extinction, reconstructs a seemingly vanquished imagined community. Writing against the grain of a triumphant and triumphalist cultural order becomes an indelible act of literary and imaginative reclamation for writer and reader. This linguistic variation on dominant cultural inheritance, its use to represent the unrepresented and un-representable, is an important forerunner of post-war Holocaust narratives, post-war minority and post-colonial literature. It is among the most humane and enduring cultural products of a too inhumane twentieth century.
What of writers whose once-established literary and linguistic culture faces a campaign of obliteration, such as that conducted during the post-communist transition by secessionist elitesand populists in the former Yugoslavia? As a result, Yugoslav writers dead and living have faced disenfranchisement, dispossession and the erasure of the personal and historical reference points that guided their craft and their shared and imagined literary nation. This is the situation faced by the Nobel laureate, Ivo Andri?, by Meša Selimovi? and their descendants. These issues are taken up quite directly by Slobodan Seleni?, Danilo Kiš and Dubravka Ugreši? in works written well into the period of the Yugoslav crisis and during the cleansing on all sides of Yugoslav culture during the wars of secession.
Capable majority writers extol traditions. Great majority writers open and articulate the counter-currents which compose the apparent unity of tradition, working through and ultimately beyond them. In either case, writing is an enterprise, rooted in an existing imagined community or linguistic tradition, informed by predecessors, yet creates work that leaves the tradition, the art form and its readership altered and in important respects newly and more inclusively human. What does it mean to write among the ruins of a linguistic, literary and cultural tradition? These three masters of Yugoslav literature were quick to identify the terminal condition of their traditions, raising the stakes for compactness, literalness and immediacy of works (“eighteen thousand days…covered here…in a mere five or six pages”) whose relationship to the former formal and once-official tradition was rendered utterly problematic.
Their former common, though various, Serbo-Croatian language and literary tradition, their former kinship with Yugoslav and Central European literary predecessors and their possession of a common readership large enough to sustain a minor literature, were each casualties of the region’s emerging and, ultimately, ascendant ultra-nationalisms. They began to practice compact forms of complex and concise memorialization – a formal anti-or non-tradition against the grain of nationalist forgetting. Seleni?, in ‘Pre-Meditated Murder’, pieces together from letters, official records, personal memoirs, the press and eye-witness testimony a cubist portrait of self- and filial division and conflict in a Belgrade first family during three generations of precariousnation building, post-war reconstruction and Yugoslavia’s terminal crisis.
Danilo Kiš reconstructs from one entry in an imagined exhaustive ‘Encyclopedia of the Dead’, a collection of prosaic biographies and their place in a multigenerational collective within and beyond the historic borders of Yugoslavia. The contribution of a single surveyor (the narrator’s father) to the cartography of Yugoslavia I and II make of metonomy the master metaphor for the prosaic remnants of the former nation and its heirs. Ugreši? develops, in ‘Museum of Unconditional Surrender’, a fictional discourse and non-fiction collage, equal parts personal narrative, grade-school primers, family photo album, and including her rendering of the post-Yugoslav experience as a flea-market of objects and archives of European socialism. The resulting noisy and self-interrupting assemblage rotates like a mobile of cultural dispossession in the floating world of post-communist and post-conflict refugees in a newly-disunited Berlin, where Ugreši? began her post-Yugoslav exile.
Together these writers archive the Yugoslav past and conduct a cultural and literary archaeologyof post-communist and post-conflict cultural fragments – drawing on the official, the prosaic and the personal, and a relentless and dark comedy south central at the expense of essentialist vendettas upon real and imagined difference. Their metaphors for these forms are rich, abundant and produce work at great ironic distance from official narratives, high-cultural monuments or fashionable innovation for the sake of lucrative commodification.
Like encyclopaedias, primary school primers and historical atlases, these works must strive to be inclusive and exhaustive. Unlike the new official cultures which exclude whole mountains, former monuments and centuries of common residency, these writers employ the simultaneity and exclusiveness of mirror image claims to hegemony as an ironic and self-canceling kaleidoscope. The newly-installed constitutions and ethno-centric curricula of the new order are among the anti-matter on which these narratives and narrators feed – Ugreši? and Hemon in particular employ forms that erase the distinction between disposed narrator and disposed writer. They must also be concise, accessible to a general readership, rational and categorical, yet unassimilated and unapologetic toward new national establishments.
They also preserve an astringent and sustained “otherness” from the global post-communist hyper-market in which they circulate Post-Yugoslav writers – like post-communist citizens – endured a uniquely violent, compressed, ill-liberal and rapid destruction of anti-capitalist and collectivist modernity. They have – as they have documented this experience and lived much of their lives beyond it – contributed to world literature an archive that reverses some small portion of the cultural erasure visited upon the diverse collective experience of a medium-sized European state, that in geopolitical terms has vanished, but which in cultural terms was in no respect negligible and which is a living alternative that the successor states have not yet demonstrated they can match.
They also provide a consistent meditation upon, and critique of, the successor status quo; whether global neo-liberalism or the crony and casino capitalism of much of post-Soviet Europe and beyond. It is a brave new age of I-phones, digital sweat shops and “friends” who never meet, while maximizing their exposure to data mining by marketing empires. These texts are their deeply self-reflexive textual and discursive other – they are the tradition of post-partition, post-conflict literature and they break the silence imposed by media consolidation, end of history polemic and the marketization of all public and private goods.
I have been fortunate to work regularly in the region since 1990 and to have witnessed the unilateral liberation of the GDR, the bloodless divorce of the Czech and Slovak Republic and the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. As a result, I think of the end of communism as a very mixed bag, containing many unanticipated good things. At the same time I am stunned at the highly selective record of the many and persistent hangovers of communism, cold war and stalled or endless transitions. While working this Summer in the former Yugoslav states with US students from Poland, Japan, India, Vietnam and South Korea our travels from Ljubljana, to Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo, have included rumors of the Croatian coast become unaffordable or hostile to former Yugos, of Montenegrin beaches divided by the concrete walls of oligarch’s villas, border crossing traffic jams and macro-economic numbers that budged upwards as in the States, without creating jobs or recovering a sense of security.
The cultural accomplishment and variety of this formerly medium-sized European social welfare state looks in retrospect richer than the emerging official and commercial cultures of the successor states. The peace and the region wide European Union membership and accession processes are admittedly promising works in progress, but ones in which independent voices remain drowned out by state-owned media and by money, assets and influence consolidated in the hands of too few. Monopolies have been bred rather than markets.
The successor micro-states, entities and cantons in transition, may have only increased exposure to great powers and global institutions without yet establishing civil societies or displacing entrenched post-conflict elites. The world financial crisis now threatens to deepen and suggests history has neither “ended” or is likely to leave without afight. Post-Yugoslav writing employs deep reserves of dark humour and skepticism about the stated motives behind all high-minded pronouncements. They curate our many though unintended lapses into humanity and fellow feeling. They document the outlooks that made the long march through regional and imperial instability first sufferable and then – for those who chose to read or listen – immensely instructive.
This ironic regard for human capital, this soundtrack of both human effort and the accomplishments of cleansed collectivities may be but one figure in the global wall paper, but one in which this reader finds again the human and its ironic commentary on the voices of our aspiring political and financial masters. These writers have recorded the ironies, the illiberal rampages of the media and intellectual culture that stoked the Yugoslav conflict. They espouse – instead of official nationalism – the values of Yugoslav era opinion polls that suggest ethnic hatred had virtually no traction on the ground in the former Yugoslavia. The body of cultural accomplishment in film, literature, institution building and the collective memory of three generations of Yugoslavs should not be systematically discounted because a constitutional impasse subverted its rapid transit alongside equally problematic neighbors into the EU and NATO. The work of Kiš, Ugreši?, Seleni? and their ringing variations upon the meditations of Ivo Andri? and Meša Selimovi? create a uniquely rich, plural and multivalent commentary upon the imagined community of a large part of this region, and its enduring legacy will contribute much to what will be accomplished in the decades to come.
Writers of fiction in Serbo-Croatian language and in the new national languages of the post-Yugoslav states – who extend and complicate the tradition – are significant in number (a recent literary contest and anthology drew applicants writing in Serbo-Croatian and its derivatives from forty countries), and a new wave of post-conflict writers are among the region’s prominent intellectual and cultural assets. I will close with a short list of writers whose works are available in both English and Serbo-Croatian and who will likely continue to write thought provoking fiction whatever the half-life of the region’s post-conflict, post-communist and post-ethnonationalist transitions.
The writers below include some who already have a body of work that will be read into the next generation both in Serbo-Croatian and in translation – and include contributions to world literature. The list includes a series ‘Contemporary Serbian Prose in Translation# (Series Editor, Ivana Djuri? Paunovi?) featured at the 2010 Leipzig book fair, a project and a diverse group of writers that suggest a complex, oppositional and recognizably cross-border literary cultural of great promise is well under way in Serbia, and in work by distinguished Bosnian and Croatian writers. Some have established world reputations like Dubravka Ugreši?, Alexander Hemon and David Albahari, others have been widely translated, such as Vladislav Bajac and Vladimir Tasi?, others like Saša Staniši? and Tea Obrecht write of the former and post-Yugoslavia in their second languages and earned national prizes for their first novels. Taken together, this is a various, border-crossing and border-breaking anti-canon in the making. Just the thing I would suggest their places of origin and their adopted globe-straddling destinations may most need, as we aspire to remain something more than the common denominators of the present siege against civility.
• David Albahari, Gotz & Meyer;
• Vladislav Bajac, Hamam Balkania;
• Svetislav Basara, The Cyclist Conspiracy;
• Alexandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno and The Lazarus Project;
• Danilo Kiš, The Encyclodepia of the Dead;
• Slobodan Seleni?, Pre-Meditated Murder;
• Tea Obrecht, The Tiger’s Wife;
• Slavoljub Stankovi?, The Box;
• Vedrana Rudan, Night (Eastern European Literature);
• Saša Staniši?, The Soldier Who Repaired the Gramophone;
• Vladimir Tasi?, Farewell Gift;
• Dubravka Ugreši?, The Museum Of Unconditional Surrender, The Ministry of Pain and Baba Jaga Hatched an Egg.
Norman Wacker is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Washington English Department. Since 2004, he has co-directed with Zorica Wacker the UW Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and the EU Summer program.
‘Kiš, Seleni?, Ugreši? and after – archivists of Yugoslavia disappeared’ is featured as part of TransConflict’s initiative, TransCulture, which aims to showcase efforts to explore and transcend inter-ethnic divisions through a variety of cultural means.
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