Honestly – I don't know. Actually, I know to what extent this
is possible. What proves this point are thousands of messages
I got from readers all over the ex Yugoslavia, who expressed their
support and wanted me to keep writing (it often isn't easy). On
the other hand, I have no illusions that any literary or other
work of art could significantly influence people's thinking (I
already said that we are just servants and not masters of the
war, it is not given to us to decide about it, for as much as
we may find it unacceptable). Then again, it is worth writing
about, even if it touches only a few people and makes them seriously
think about the sense of war. Imagine if we all remained silent
and let arsonists speak alone. If a man has to take part in something
he finds unacceptable (as it often happens, independently of one's
will), then he can at least express his indignation and show that,
if he is forced to participate, he hasn't given up his humanity.
(excerpt), Impattosonorro (Italy) 2004
You can speak about war in several ways: you
can make up a story with statesmen as the main characters, the
ones deciding the war, or you can make up a story with common
people as the main characters, the ones participating in the war.
Why did you chose only ordinary people to be the main characters
of Balkan Roulette?
I always write only of common people and their destinies. I'm
not interested in the leaders except in the context of evil. What
would I write about them anyway? Each one of them writes at least
two versions of their memoires since they have trouble with the
"truths"... And I can't stand people who sacrifice other
people's present for somebody's past, while at the same time talking
aboutthe future of the people they sacrifice. The victims have
no future and they know that. Besides that, I write about my experience,
things I've seen or witnessed in this or that way.
6) When somebody asked Beckett before the American
premiere of "Waiting for Godot", what Godot representes,
he said: "If I knew, I would have written it in the drama."
What does Godot represent for you? Why did you mention him in
the foreword? Did Godot's arrival solve anything or did it complicate
A genius writer and an exceptional drama. It is very difficult
to give ananswer to a question he left unanswered on purpose,
leaving the world to wait for Godot feverishly. What does Godot
represent to his two dehumanized homeless men? What does it represent
to me? Honestly, I'm not sure I know what itrepresents to me,
but I think I know what it represents to Petar. The encounter
with the destiny,that didn't want him, eye to eye. The destiny
that convicted him. The arrival of Godot does not solve anything,
it opened Pandora's box, full of absurdities that did not exist
yesterday, but that decided the fate of today... That is why it
is much better to wait for Godot than have him arrive.
It is easy to be a Croat, a Serb or a Montenegrin, but so difficult to be a man
Independent daily VIJESTI, Montenegro, June 30, 2007
Your trilogy Balkan Farewells is made of the novels Half-way to Heaven, Balkan Farewells and Love as Punishment. In brief, how did these novels come to be and what could you say about them?
I wrote the novel Half-way to Heaven in 1983. After that I stopped writing for a while. Life simply reorganizes your priorities… Later I left the former Yugoslav Navy and began practicing law, only to see the war move in. The war eventually ended but it left behind a load of questions, doubts, insecurity, conflicts with both yourself and the others… It all resulted in my going back to writing and so, around the year 2000 I wrote Balkan Farewells. To tell you the truth, I wrote it for my sake only, so as to save what was left of my sanity. I never really thought about publishing it, much less about translating it or winning any awards with it, all things that actually happened later.
Anyway, these are all anti-war novels with a multicultural orientation describing the situation before the war (Half-way to Heaven), the war (Balkan Farewells) and the post-war period (Love as Punishment).
The hero in Balkan Farewells says: “It seems that the most adaptable species in the Balkans is man, on condition he was born and raised there. Other members of the human race have never and could never adapt to the Balkans, nor could they understand these people, wherever they come from.” What are the reasons: history, living myths, illusions…?
Instead of answering I’ll paraphrase a thought from Heaven is also for People, a novel I have just finished. It goes something like this:
“The first five generations of the people in the Balkans first think of an idea that makes them all gather around it, then the next five generations totally fuck up the idea, and then the next twenty five generations create a myth from a failed idea, while the following ten heavenly generations go to war for that myth. And it goes on and on, until it’s our turn, the members of some five hundredth generation, to fight an already lost war against myths and mythomaniacs…”
If this thought seams too generalized and cliché to you, take the history books from any of these nationalities from the beginning of the last century, then take books from the middle of the century and their contemporary editions. Judge for yourself which of the numerous differences are historical facts, which are myths and which are illusions… Try and draw precise boundaries between them… Here, every generation has its own history, its own myths and illusions. No historical facts can withstand the challenges of war, and there is not one generation that has not been involved in a war.
In your novels and plays you use irony and grotesque to write about tragedies. How can we interpret this choice? Is it a counterbalance to the horrors of war?
Precisely. I once wrote that sarcasm is the last spiritual bastion of intellectualism. After all, what do I have left? Should I admit that the war has crushed me? Not a chance. They can take everything but my past and my soul. I haven’t been seriously counting on the future for a while. It sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? I simply can’t resist. After all, it’s not my fault if we live in an area covered with a patina of pathos, strewn with dead bodies that cannot be buried, and walked on by the living that do not wish to live…
Irony and grotesque are just a defense mechanism, nothing more.
Your books deal with the consequences of the tragic end of former Yugoslavia felt in the lives of common people. You write about family life experiences of simple people, and not about military strategies, even if you have been a professional soldier. How did you decide on such an approach to the theme?
I am interested in the common people, not strategists. These people are my friends who mean more than anything to me, much more than all the strategists in history put together. Unfortunately, they are only statistics to the strategists, number that fill in their grand plans covered in blood, tears and sweat… They are part of my life, my past, things I cannot give up on because I cannot give up on me. There has always been enough strategists and states but there are never enough men, real friends, those that will not look away when the bad guys threaten you…
It is easy to be a Croat, a Serb or a Montenegrin, but so difficult to be a man.
As opposed to the Russian roulette, where there is a chance to survive, the Balkan roulette is a shot from an automatic, no chance to live… You seem too much of a pessimist in this play… Why?
In the novel Seven Days of Solitude I wrote that I was not an optimist or a pessimist, but a realist, with a slight tendency towards idiocy. How did I get there? Easy. The environment as a factor of (anti)socialization. After all, what else could I have written after spending all night with an old friend trying to convince him not to commit suicide.
One should be an optimist. I would so much like to be one. Sometimes I manage, but then life gets me down and I, ashamed of my naivety, go back to being a realist.
Anyway, for as much as life may be harsh with me, I don’t miss a chance for optimism. May it last while it lasts. There is no future without it.
The play Balkan Roulette did not have the fortune to appear on stage in Croatia or Serbia. Why is it still being put off?
I am not expecting anything any more, but I would like to see the play on stage in the original language. There has been a show of the play in my city, Pula, by an Italian theatre and, of course, in Italian.
I don’t know whether it’s a question of luck and why. There must be more than one reason. I know for a fact that many people think it is too soon to stage such (multicultural) pieces. The wounds of the war are still bleeding… I am able to and am sure trying to understand each and every victim of the war, no matter of its nationality. But I cannot and will not understand those who make a living on such victims. I know very well how people react to my books and plays, and I am sure they wouldn’t mind seeing my plays on stage. Elementary logic makes us conclude that somebody does mind. Why, if, as they say, the war has really ended?
How did the war affect the people around you, in Istria?
While it lasts, the war is a collective tragedy including everybody in one way or another. Once it ends, it becomes the tragedy of individuals, those who lost somebody or themselves. Istria somehow fits into this image. It must be said that Istria did not see direct military operations and was, therefore, sort of a sanctuary to numerous refugees. People in Istria have a long tradition of tolerance, which can prove to be a priceless quality in times of war.
You were an officer in the ex Yugoslav National Army, then a lawyer, in both the war and after. Some say that the post-war period is worse than the war. Do you agree?
Those were hard times. On one hand you are trying to survive, on the other you are trying to remain a man. I don’t know which is harder. I hope I managed to do both at least in part.
As for the post-war period, I’m not really sure that it is more difficult than the war itself. Great expectations lead to great disappointments. The war definitely brings great expectations. Perhaps the greatest of them all. The consequence, as I said, are great disappointments. On all sides. The problem of the post-war period is mostly in these disappointments. All participants in the war expect more from it, and in the end the majority feels betrayed. However, the war is way more horrible. One can live with disappointments, not with death.
Your novel Rape of Reason speaks of the post-war period, betrayed people who served as “meat” for the war machinery, the terrible consequences of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that affects many veterans. How often is this problem discussed in Croatia today?
Very often, indeed. Especially in election years. Everybody remembers the veterans then, some even take pictures with them… give them a pat on the shoulder and a promise of a better future. The problem with this disease is that it does not recognize the future.
After the wars on the territories of the former Yugoslavia, the question of identity has become very important to some people. What is your attitude to this issue?
Personally, I have never had any problems with my identity, nor with anybody else’s for that matter. The exceptions to the rule are those who have built a (profitable) career on their identity. I call them professional Croats, professional Serbs… They cashed in on the question of identity and gave it a negative prefix. They have made “identity” so important that it becomes a question of existence.
Identity should be a personal thing of the individual, in no way affecting his social status. The moment identity becomes truly a matter of the individual and not his community, the question of identity itself will become much less important.
Your novels have been published in the USA, Italy, Germany, Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia. You have been awarded numerous times in Italy. How did the Italians discover you as a writer, long before you were officially acknowledged in your country?
By coincidence (if you believe in coincidences).
Generally speaking, I am against globalization, but there are exceptions. Namely, I became a more or less known writer thanks to Internet. I live in Pula, a small town far from large centers and media so that Internet was the only way to reach the public. When I wrote the novel Balkan Farewells, my friend Srđa Orbanić translated it in Italian and I offered it, on the Internet, to some Italian publishers and applied for the contest Premio Satyagraha 2002 in Italy on the theme of peace… I got the award and things started moving on. Without Internet I wouldn’t exist as an author. Unfortunately, in my country, Internet doesn’t help. There are problems of a different kind I have already mentioned.
In the end, I have to say that I still believe things are getting better here… Some think it is happening too slow, some think it’s too fast. It doesn’t really matter, does it, as long as it’s moving.
POBJEDA, PODOGORICA, CRNA GORA
http :// www . pobjeda . co . me / citanje . php ? id =158530
1. The war in ex-Yugoslavia, especially in Croatia, was crucial to the creation of your novels, before all the trilogy “Half-way to Heaven”, “Balkan Farewells” and “Love as Punishment”. Am I wrong in saying that the harsh reality around you was an impulse to write?
No, you are not wrong. The impact with that reality was so frightening and, after all, it so completely devastated my mental structure, that I ended up being in a sort of “war disharmony” with what was around me that grew increasingly deeper, although the war had supposedly ended in 1995. The wars do not begin or end on the dates stated in history books. They are planned for years, and it takes years for them to really end. Furthermore, wars are horribly demanding and exhausting in every sense. You survive the war and reach the after-war period, the anxieties of war give way to existential and similar problems, most of which you didn't even know existed… I think I gave the best definition of our reality in the novel “Good Night My Friends”, where I speak of depressions:
“Our depressions are woven of broken dreams of love, work and similar, just like in the rest of the world, only here it all comes with a fine frosting made of blood and sweat, of the dead that cannot be buried, of the living that do not want to live, of the borders of old and new states that change at least a couple of times in the life of an average sufferer in this territory, of biblical values on which even the Lord had given up some two or three millennia ago… Oh, when it comes to depressions, the rotten West is nowhere near us. Just as in many other things…”
2. Your novels are dominated by male friendships stronger than wars or leaders. Can we say that one of the key features of your writing is this humanity that most people still like to recognize in others?
I wrote somewhere that I did not create my friendships because of states or leaders and I am certainly not going to end them for the sake of the like. I created my friendships for myself and not for other people and therefore I cannot allow anybody to judge them.
There is nothing worse than have a friend turn his back on you in times of trouble… Then again, many friendships could not withstand the war. People just broke down in every sense and their fear for survival took its toll… When the war ended and the fear died down a bit, they took a good look around them and were horrified with the emotional desert surrounding them. In my books I remind them that they had an existence before the desert set in. I take them to a world they know or recognize, to a world in which men were men and wolves were wolves…
I agree on the fact that nothing is or ever will be as it once was, but remembering the people who marked our past with their goodness, I am sure that things can be much better than in these dog-eat-dog times. I think that even those who bought the story of the promised land are slowly starting to realize that fact…
3. The beneficial effect of friendship can also be seen in the novel “Good Night My Friends”, and although its story is not about the war, its heroes are “damaged” by the baleful nineties. After all we have been through (the break up of the state, of the family and businesses, the acceptance of a whole new set of values), is it possible today to live and think normally?
All times, even the worse, have their reasons of existence and so does this one. This is not my time but it still bears me. I wonder until when… I believe many people think like that. The new set of values you are talking about does not really exist. If it did I would know how to deal with it, decide whether I can find it acceptable or not. My generation has had a decade that was worth living (I am referring to the “golden eighties”). After that we simply abandoned one system without taking over another, which lead us where we are today, and that is nowhere. We are wandering somewhere between social-realism and capitalism. At the same time, the Americans, our unquestionable role models, exported to us and to the rest of the world one of the worst economic crises which in this area has not yet shown its worst… It'll take a couple of years for the world to restore them to financial health after which they will again redefine a neo-liberal idea to avoid a new crisis… This means that in about ten years we might get to know where we are headed. They are so busy that they might just forget to let us know so we'll keep wandering. There are too many little people who think they are big… and too few big people knowing they are only human…
To sum up, the “normal life” we once knew does not exist any more. However, we can and have to use our brains and think because it's the only way to pave just a little bit of the way for those who are coming after us, who are also entitled to their “golden years”… As someone once said, the future is coming whether we want it or not. If that's the way things are, let's do what we can, no matter how little it is.
4. Judging from your books, the Balkans are a valley of tears where the roulette always stops on the same number – death. Why is it so?
The stereotype regarding the Balkans can be reduced to a barrel of gunpowder and somebody always around it with a smoldering fuse, just waiting for a chance to blow everything up. Every now and then some people succeed in it. Such a perception is a rewarding subject for literature and film, but it comes in especially handy for world fixers to gamble with our destinies. They keep delivering gunpowder, fuses and matches, all for free, and when the barrel explodes, they present the bills to the survivors.
I wrote the play “Balkan Roulette” in which I speak of a simple man with ideals that suddenly become obsolete and who, against his wishes, becomes a victim of the above mentioned perception, so much that by taking his own life he turns that perception into reality…
The extent to which we have been manipulated is unbelievable. Ever since the seventh century, as the patriotic troubadours say…
Back to your question: Why is it so? Because some people need it to be so. Who? Certainly not me and people like me…
5. You served in the Navy in ex-Yugoslavia and are now an attorney at law and a writer. In your books you described some real life stories of your colleagues. Have they ever given you any feedback? What are the reactions? Who are your readers?
Owing to my style (a combination of irony and grotesque, tears and laughter) I have a pretty wide reading audience. Naturally, my greatest fans are my own generation, especially those who left the country in the nineties and went to Canada , Australia , New Zealand … One way ticket, you surely remember. All our trips are generally one way… Normal nations always treasure some backup paths, you never know, but we, oh no… Once we are on the move, there is no turning back… Only forward, to the glorious past, until they tear down our bridges… If you cannot swim… I'm straying, not on purpose, of course.
I got endless streams of letters from those and other people. If I organized them into a book (which I won't) it would probably be more interesting than many of my anti-war books that are, despite of all, published in the Balkans from time to time. It happens rarely to see them published, as if publishers were ashamed such books have been written… I am convinced that such a “collection of letters” would shock many people, especially those who think they “know” the thoughts of the people and think, therefore, to be entitled, directly or indirectly, to decide in the name of the people…
One more thing I feel strongly about. My books are equally accepted in all parts of ex-Yugoslavia, by everyone except the political, mediatic or publishing elite… Elites do not like me, that must be it. Well, the feeling is mutual. Luckily, there are always exceptions, if nothing else, only to confirm the rule. After all, these exceptions sometimes result in changes of some rules…
6. Lately a great number of awards come from abroad, especially from Italy where you were awarded with around fifty literary awards. How do foreigners see our tragic war and post-war stories?
They see them as we all see other people's war tragedies. First, there is incredulity which in time, because it all lasts too long and there is too much competition (not a day passes without a serious tragedy happening somewhere in the world), turns to indifference. With that in mind we could say that our war is well beyond its expiry date. It's now time to pay its costs.
However, due to my before mentioned style and the themes which contain a trace of universality, many find my books interesting. Before all those in the cultural circles, but also the average readers, when they get the chance to know my books.
7. Considering you write in the little time you have left after all your other professional activities, to what extent are you able to follow what is going on on the literary scene in the ex-Yugoslavia. Do you occasionally lend your ear to other literary voices?
In coping with time I always end up taking a beating. Somehow it always slips out of my hands and I never have enough. Christmas is coming so let's use our imagination a bit. Imagine one day you are given a pension you can actually live on (survive), you manage to pay the subscription to the library, God has granted you health and then… you start reading. You read all those things you always wanted to but haven't had the time. When it's us we are taking about, this seems a bit too much, even for a Christmas wish. Thus, under the pressure of existential trivia, unfortunately, I have no time to read. Anyway, I sometimes manage to steal some time from myself and spend the night reading and following the literary destinies of those condemned to live in the Balkans.
Luckily, many of the modern writers in the Balkans are my friends and they send me their books so that I have no trouble finding them. These days I am waiting for Vujica Ognjenovic who is coming to the book fair in Pula to bring me a breath of Herceg Novi and Bosiljka Pušic's latest book “Naranca pod sljemom” (Orange under a helmet).
Personally, it seems to me that there is not enough good quality anti-war literature, at least not in Croatia, and the books that do exist are often systematically ignored and pushed aside… This is even more obvious if we think of how much money and media time was spent for the other kind of literature… That is why I repeat that the war and its policy did not end in 1995, it only started using other means…