A meeting with Miljenko Jergović in Italy, related to the promotion of his latest book, Freelander. The theory and reality of a stateless writer, between Sarajevo and Zagreb. The search for answers as a strategy for survival, and the sentiment of the past
The hero of your new book is tormented by an idea: “Had I done it differently, it wouldn’t have happened...” Is there an autobiographical note to it?
Yes. I think that a similar thing happens to all of us when we reflect on important decisions in our lives, but also in simple everyday reality. For example, if one scratches the car door, or breaks the tail-light, he thinks that it would not have happened if he stayed at home or went to work by tram. People are accustomed of thinking in such a way. It could even be argued that every reflection of the past, or even a single recollection, is nothing else but a sad thought of how everything could have gone differently if only we had done the opposite of what we actually had done.
The war divided the language we had when we started talking, with which we had grown up. After the publishing of your last book, a critic from Zagreb argued it should have come with a supplement dictionary of Turkish words. What language do you write in?
I write in my language and I do not pay much attention to politics. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Montenegrins, as well as others who live in their countries, talk the same language, with minimal differences from one country to the other. The spelling and the standards are partially different, as well as the vocabulary, but it is a fact that every Croat perfectly understands the language of every Serb, Bosniak, or Montenegrin…. From a political point of view, it could be important to allow every people to give their name to their language, or the name they have chosen for it, considering it rightfully an important product, if not the source of their culture. Here ends all the history of the language, or the languages, created from what used to be called Serbo-Croatian, or Croat-Serbian (srpskohrvatski or hrvatskosrpski), and which confuses many, particularly the foreigners. It is a fact that the present linguistics in the territories of ex Yugoslavia does not differ much from that of twenty years ago. Everyone continues to perfectly understand the other. Or, he doesn’t understand if he doesn’t want to. As for the Turkisms in my language and the languages I have just referred to, they do not have to be automatically clear to everyone, although all the Turkisms are an integral part of our common experience and our common lexical heritage. Those who does not understand them, can consult the Rječnik turcizama u srpskohrvatskome jeziku (Dictionary of Turkisms in Serbo-Croatian Language) by Abdulah Škaljić, published by Svjetlost, Sarajevo, which can be found in any better supplied library. I, however, will never attach a dictionary of Turkisms to a book of mine, because I would just help the mental laziness of a potential reader. Besides, by doing that I would be confessing to myself that those words are not part of my language. And, this simply does not correspond to the truth.
You are very well known in Italy, and your work is highly appreciated. You are being compared to Andrić, Selimović, Kiš. Are you content with yourself as an author?
I do not have a prepared answer to this question. I am always more content as a reader of other writers. As for comparisons, people often compare you to others they have read and whose work they know. Andrić, Selimović, Kiš are known in Italy, and I am naturally content with such comparisons; they flatter me.
You are a Sarajevan who lives in Zagreb. Do you ever feel like the hero from your book, as “the most alone person in the world”?
I live in Zagreb, in a very interesting situation from a social and emotional point of view. I left Sarajevo a long time ago, 17 years or so, when Sarajevo was a different city in many ways. Now, when I go back, I don’t feel like I am returning to my city, like I am coming home. In Zagreb yet, I do not really feel like home, because I was not born there, I was not moulded there. In addition, I am often exposed to ferocious attacks in chauvinist campaigns by the media and I am challenged by the political establishment (an interesting fact given that I am not a politician, and that I do not have the slightest aspiration of ever becoming one). These attacks often loudly and categorically argue that for the good of Zagreb and Croatia, I should return to where I have come from, and because of this, the city where I live is for me the most foreign, distant place on the planet.
Hence, I don’t belong to the city where I was born, and the city where I live is not mine. I guess that many people share this sentiment, that I am not the only one. Despite the fact that I have double citizenship, Croatian and Bosnian, and many readers in both countries, I am at present stateless. Perhaps because I did not want to make a choice, because I didn’t want to renounce one city in order to conquer the heart of another. In the Balkans, however, this is an imperative. However, I am not a person who renounces easily.
The new film you made (A 3,000 km Journey with the Red Yugo) is, if I understood well, a search for an answer to the question: “What happened to us?” I myself come from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I know that the same question torments many of my friends, colleagues, relatives, and fellow Bosnian citizens scattered the world over. I address the question to you: “What happened to us?”
It is a question that everyone has an answer to, except that they are not happy with it. A definitive answer probably does not even exist, but the social scope of our lives would be to seek this answer till the end. Only in this way is it possible to survive decently.
Who do you address when you write? Do you seek to resolve your inner dilemmas, or do you address the readers in order to inform them, educate them, entertain them?
I think I do not address anyone in particular. I simply tell my story, because I consider it important. I write because of the same motive that makes me read the stories written by others. I think this is one of the basic human traits: telling a story, listening to one, or reading the story told by others. Without this, we could not move along. Without the stories being told, we would probably turn into cruel and ferocious beasts, which do not even exist in nature. A story being told prevents people from becoming savages; it contains the basis of every ethics, and with it, the motive for sometimes being good and kind.
You are not only a writer but also a journalist. You publish in Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo. Some of your colleagues have been refusing to go to Belgrade and Serbia after the war, considering it “the source of evil”. You, instead, were a guest at the Belgrade Book Fair. You do not have a problem going to those you have criticized, accused?
I think I am not visiting those who waged the war, held Sarajevo under siege, destroyed Vukovar and killed Srebrenica. I go to other folks, and among others, I go to see my friends. One also needs to accept the fact that one needs to forget many things. For me, it is not a big problem, given that I never had the illusion of being part of the community of the righteous. If I would accuse the Serbs for the war in the 90s, and because of this stop from going to Belgrade, I would encounter the significant internal problem in explaining to myself the fact that presently I live in Zagreb, city which during World War II perpetrated a substantive genocide of Serbs and Jews, or that I live in a city where, in the beginning of the 90s, they were killing 12-year old girls only because of being Serb. I have in mind the girl Aleksandra Zec and her family. Their assassins, Croatian policemen and military officers, have been identified but never convicted. Some of them were later even given medals. How is it that one can live in such a city? How does it feel to go to Belgrade, a city that sent the armoured cars to attack Vukovar and the assassins to Srebrenica? Could some of these bitter yet inevitable questions also be asked of Sarajevo? Naturally, not all cities are equal, nor is guilt or responsibility equal, but as soon as a person tries to identify with the community of righteous or the victims, if they are intelligent, they will understand by themselves that they are wrong and that it is exactly such identification which paves the way towards condoning crime. I go to Belgrade because I love the city, but even more because I nurture illusions that in such a way, step by step, I am winning against those who committed crimes in the name of that city and those people. I think it is very important to have such illusions. Without them, living in the Balkans would be akin to living in a grave.
You were strongly confronted, criticized, insulted. Renounced both by critics in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. However now, both countries are claiming you as theirs. Whose writer are you?
Let’s put it this way: I am a writer of all those who read my work in their mother tongue. Or, of all those who consider me their writer. Nevertheless, in a formal, encyclopaedic sense, I am a Croatian and Bosnian writer. And, in addition, I am also happy because of this duplexity.
The trial of Radovan Karadžić has begun. How would you want it to end? What would be right to expect, or what is it that you expect from this trial?
For a long time during the war, but also after, I went to bed with the idea of what I would do to Karadžić if I would meet him. In happier countries people count sheep before falling asleep, or simply take a pill. The war ended for me only when I stopped falling asleep thinking of Radovan Karadžić. I think it was in the early 2000s. I will not tell you what was going through my mind in order that you do not think of me as a horrible sadist, but I can tell you that I never, really never, found comfort in the idea of turning Karadžić to the Tribunal. To those trials in Nuremberg after 1945, yes, certainly, but to the one in The Hague, not really. This Tribunal simply does not function; there is no justice there for Bosnia and the Bosnians. In that place, they are not convinced that justice for Srebrenica or Prijedor, before God and man, is the same as justice for any other person, be they from Washington or London. They do not believe that a dead Muslim is worth as much as a dead Dutchman. They would like to finish their work by making everyone content, and it should not be like this. They produce sentences in a way to avoid any type of moral catharsis, any purification in Bosnia, in Croatia, or any other part of the world. In addition, judging the crimes of Srebrenica in the country and the city where a certain Geert Wilders is rising to power, a fascist of the new age, whose convictions are not much different from those of Radovan Karadžić, seems a matter of bad taste.
Previously, you and Karadžić were colleagues, you were both members of the Association of Writers of Bosnia and Herzegovina. You wrote of him in your title “Soul Doctor”, in which you argue that people are not divided into good and bad. At the end of the day, what determines if a man is good or bad? Should we, ourselves also fear?
It is not bad to fear ourselves and our capacity for evil, a little. It is a fact that today Karadžić would have been a respectable citizen, esteemed psychiatrist and member of the social mainstream – in the most controversial sense of the word – only if things had not gone the way they had, if only he had not been allowed to become a historic person, leader of the people and one of the most disgusting and hideous criminals after World War II. Besides, before they founded the Serb National Party in Sarajevo, Karadžić – probably before he realized there could be a war – was the founder of the Green Party in Bosnia. That is, before he decided to “protect” his people from the Muslims and the Catholics, or better said, from the Bosniaks and the Croats, he had decided to “protect” us from global warming.
You are from Sarajevo. You lived in that city during the war, even if not until its end. What do you think of the frequent criticism that argues that Sarajevo is not the same city it used to be?
Sarajevo renounced in every sense its identity of a multicultural and multiethnic city. This is sad but real. Concerning the fact that it is no longer “what it used to be”, it should be said that nothing is how it used to be; we are also not what we used to be. This is part of the usual loud nostalgia that mourns the good old times. The loss of the multinational spirit and the character of the Bosnian capital is a much more serious story.
Practically all of your books talk of Bosnia (even Buick Riviera, even though the action takes place in the US). At present, we are witnessing statements that Bosnia will disappear. Does Bosnia have a future?
The Serb and Yugoslav politician, the president of the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Nikola Pašić, on one occasion said: “There is no salvation, but we will not fail.” This paradoxical phrase I think contains the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It would be very difficult for that country to disappear more than it already has. Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is indestructible as a geographic and geopolitical reality. And then, it is a country that some of us love even when it seems it no longer exists.
(Translation by Ljiljana Avirović)