Writer and journalist Saša Ilić was awarded the prestigious NIN literary prize for best novel of the year in 2019. We interviewed him and talked about psychiatry, Yugoslavia, the Divine Comedy, and refugees
The 66th edition of the NIN prize for best novel of the year was won by novel Pas i kontrabas by Saša Ilić, writer and columnist as well as promoter of various literary projects including, for several years, the insert of the newspaper Danas, Beton. Known for his anti-nationalist positions, Ilić has dealt with cultural policies and the process of confronting the past in Serbia for several years.
The novel's complex narrative intertwines apparently distant themes such as the antipsychiatric movements, the traumas resulting from the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s, and the timeless question of refugees, in a path that winds over the last century and is articulated through a series of geographical coordinates linking the post-Yugoslav space with Italy. Some dramatic events of the recent past enter the narrative plot, such as the war in Slavonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the conflict fought by the Yugoslav Navy, the repression of the Milošević years, the Balkan route, or historical events such as the revolution of Béla Kun, surrealism in Serbia, the rise of fascism.
The history of the NIN prize, promoted by one of the largest Serbian weekly newspapers that today stands on anti-government positions, has been tormented over the years by a series of controversies, but this year's edition has been followed by an actual media storm which seems to have little to do with literature.
The award was followed by a boycott appeal by 18 writers, including some open nationalists like director Emir Kusturica, who accused the jury of "incompetence" in both professional and moral terms and invited their publishing houses to stop taking part in the selection.
In the appeal, the finalist novels are defined as sharing "a tragicomic attempt to promote poetic arbitrariness as pluralism of ideas, a sterile use of politically correct as freedom of thought, and a provincial and colonial conscience as cosmopolitanism". The appeal was followed by other attacks by the Serbian intellectual and academic world.
Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa discussed with the author the novel, the NIN award, and more generally the cultural scene in Serbia.
The book contains several references to Italy, starting with the character of Marko Julius, a psychiatrist following Franco Basaglia's school of thought, to the numerous references to the Divine Comedy and the conclusion in the port area of Genoa. How do these elements articulate in the narrative?
My novel wants to tell the relationship between the state and citizens through the mediation of institutions, in a post-conflict situation in which the institutions themselves are prisoners and have lost their meaning, becoming a weapon of the power of the regime and the party class. Starting from this idea and having lived through those years of war myself, I wanted to investigate the work of institutions with individuals who have post-traumatic stress syndrome and I wanted the plot to be set in Kovin's psychiatric clinic, related to which I discovered a great biography of psychiatrist and revolutionary Dezider Julius, in the first half of the century. As I was researching him, the theme developed. It turned out that that psychiatric clinic, in a place that was on the border between Serbia and Austria Hungary, had been a barracks until the First World War.
So these were two closed systems that operate on people, two European institutions par excellence, the army and psychiatry. One of the invented characters is Marko, the illegitimate son of Dezider Julius, who helped me tell the story of this transformation of the institutions and is connected to Italian culture mainly because of Dante. What interested me in the Divine Comedy was the relationship between the Church and the institutions. As I worked on Marko the scope expanded and, through psychiatry, I arrived at Franco Basaglia and the antipsychiatric movement. At that point my novel developed that Yugoslav-Italian dimension that is present from beginning to end and which culminates in a great finale in Genoa.
How long did the research and writing work on this book last?
About five years, of which the first two for research. I tried to enter the Kovin psychiatric clinic to consult the archive, but in the end I did not receive authorisation. I visited the city, photographed the clinic and former Austro-Hungarian barracks through the bars, I followed what was going on in those days to understand the atmosphere, and I think I learned a lot even without entering the institution itself. Then I started the research. I found a terrible document from an international commission which, after the fall of Milošević in the early 2000s, visited mental health institutions in Serbia and documented a truly daunting situation with a series of photographs and a report.
I also found that much of the documentation on Kovin's psychiatric clinic during the interwar period, particularly in the transition from the 1920s to the 1930s when a reform took place carried out by Dr. Dezider Julius, is found in the Pančevo archive. Then I discovered that, as happened in other places in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, a group of nuns came from the Congregation of Zagreb, St. Vinko Paulski, to work with patients. At that moment it seemed to me that I had several characters that could have helped me develop the whole story, which is set at the time of the surrealist movement in Yugoslavia. Since Dezider Julius showed sensitivity to culture, literature, revolution, I set the whole story at the time of surrealism which is still linked to the unconscious and psychiatry. I also did research at the National Library. In the end I went to Genoa and concentrated on the universe of migrants, on the jazz scene, on the Staglieno cemetery, on ships – the ship is also the site of the trauma of the main actor.
Why did you feel the need to write about the relationship between institutions and the individual?
I have been dealing with these issues for some time, from confronting the past to the language of the media, like in the novel Pad Kolumbije, in which I spoke of the attack on Prime Minister Đinđić. Here in Serbia, on the one hand, any possibility of opening a dialogue on the past has been completely blocked, while on the other hand the institutions themselves have been usurped. For this reason, I thought it would be interesting to write about how institutions work and how individuals position themselves in relation to them. I think this is the right time to deal with this issue.
Critics have not perceived that the ways of negating institutions in the novel derive from the anti-Oedipus of Deleuze and Guattari. For example, at some point the protagonist Filip is informed that his guide may be affected by schizophrenia and that this schizophrenic path represents one of the last ways to freedom for those who decide to leave the system. Starting from these theoretical premises, I came to the names of the antipsychiatric movement, namely Basaglia and his idea of negating institutions. It has long been thought that it was about the destruction of these institutions and the creation of a parallel system, but Basaglia showed that instead it meant a substantial reform of the institutions through their negation, the recovery of some human characteristics, and the change of relations with the individual.
How was Basaglia's philosophy received in Yugoslavia?
A key year was 1968 in Yugoslavia, when there were major demonstrations and intellectual and political libertarian groups emerged from Belgrade to Zagreb to Sarajevo, in particular anarchist and feminist groups on the political-literary scene. An interesting alliance was reached at European level which has intertwined with antipsychiatric movements, based on the theories of Foucalt, Deleuze, Guattari and on concepts such as Basaglia's antipsychiatry, which stimulated conferences, translations. In 1984 a large congress of alternative psychiatry was held in Belgrade. Then, with the rise of nationalisms in Yugoslavia, the dissolution of the country, and the wars, this movement was marginalised and dispersed in the 1990s.
Some of these people joined anti-war movements or non-governmental organisations, making a major contribution to the fight against the regime's repression. Yet, the idea of an antipsychiatric movement has fallen into oblivion in the face of the growth of nationalist and conservative tendencies. This was apparent from the report I mentioned. After that, public opinion never had access to these institutions, as I was probably not given access to Kovin because of what I could have found there. When I discovered those texts written by the libertarian currents in the 1980s in Yugoslavia I thought it was necessary to bring them to light and I tried to do it with literature.
Is the life of Dr. Marko Julius, a psychiatrist who followed Basaglia's philosophy, who was himself locked up in the Kovin clinic during the Milošević years, the metaphor for a wider process?
Yes, it's a metaphor for 1968 in Yugoslavia. The knowledge he represents is virtually still absent from educational institutions in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Julius comes from the Yugoslav educational system and is eventually hospitalised for political reasons in Kovin. His latest contribution will be an attempt to implement a negation of institutions, together with his three followers. Thanks to his teachings, they will come to an intimate revolution, intended as a premise for a reform of the system.
Who is hiding behind the figure of jazz double bass player Filip Isaković, who was also hospitalised in Kovin following a series of personal events that bring to light his war trauma?
Filip Isaković is the representative of a generation that in 1991, as soon as it stepped into adulthood, was recalled to the front and consequently exploited for military purposes, then completely abandoned. They remained the only ones to keep memory of some horrible events that happened in the 1990s and have been completely removed in Serbia's public discourse. We often witness accidents with people of those generations born between the late 1960s and early 1970s who take up arms or kill families or neighbours, but none of this stimulates a debate on the existence of deep traumas deriving from the war in this society.
On the other hand Julius, thanks to his philosophy inspired by Basaglia, brings all this to light and shows how this iceberg continues to act under the surface, until he overcomes the trauma and achieves a full reintegration of the personality at the end of the novel.
Is it possible today to take stock of how Serbia has dealt with its past in recent decades?
During the 1990s this only happened in some small enclaves, in civil society organisations, such as the Centar za kulturnu dekontaminaciju, the Rex cinema, etc... These small areas of freedom have always been active, with campaigns against the war, through the reception of refugees...
After Milošević's fall and the arrival of Prime Minister Đinđić, a strong wave of confrontation with the past began. In those years there was also a great expansion in the publishing sector, a dialogue with other international experiences of similar processes, contacts were established with individuals who in the other countries of the region were dealing with issues related to the past. This strong wave was blocked by the attack, after which the country entered a new phase in which that movement became increasingly weakened and after 2012, with the defeat of the Democratic Party, it completely stopped. Now the situation has even reversed: the negative phases of the past are blamed on the very party which put in place October 5th and brought down the Milošević regime – a complete reversal of reality in public discourse.
How do you see the situation in other countries in the region?
Here too I see a fading of these trends with the victory of the parties of the past. What interests me as an author, journalist, and citizen is the existence of free and libertarian individuals in the cultural sphere who have the strength and courage to question the systems in which they find themselves. Now in the whole of the former Yugoslavia there are few such groups or individuals. There has been a distortion of these previous trends in the direction of a new narrative focused on reforms and European integration, an ideological project implemented in a catastrophic way. The ruling elites have perfectly understood that the economy, the future – not the past – are central. Thus the past remains with literature.
In the book you discuss the experience of wars in the 1990s, including the scenario of the war led by the Yugoslav Navy, which often remained in the shadow...
I myself have lived that experience in the Navy, and this theme is absent in literature throughout the region, unlike the war fought on the mainland. My perspective is linked to my memories. The Navy was used to implement a total blockade against Croatia when it was attacked by the Yugoslav Army in Vukovar and other places. I wanted to tell about that experience in a very closed community like that of a crew, with officers among whom there were actual nationalists, people who sowed hatred and led their personal war. In the novel I created a symbolic structure, with the arrangement of those mines that would remain there for decades. That resentment still exists and is more dangerous than all weapons.
Refugees seem to be the main victims of repression today, in particular by the institutions themselves. How do these act towards individuals who are not citizens of those countries?
It is a great topic of our time. My heroes are migrants and the protagonist leaves his country, one of the fates of former Yugoslavs who find escape elsewhere. The protagonist Filip is a man without attributes, as migrants are people without the documents that would allow them to travel normally. His decision not to participate in the European cultural industry of which jazz has also become a part, but to side with those homeless and abandoned to themselves and the inclemency of institutions across Europe, leads him to find himself. As I researched these paths, I encountered many repressive moments such as the mistreatment of migrants that I happened to witness on the border between Greece and Macedonia, or the situation in camps across Serbia. Their life seems to be absolutely worthless, while others try to profit off of it. Going to Genoa in the narrow streets of the port I saw these people standing in front of the basement doors, waiting to find a solution for their destiny, you could see rooms where there were ten metal beds and where the humidity had eaten everything. Wherever I went I encountered these scenes, some of which flowed into the novel.
How was the novel received in Serbia and why did you decide to nominate it for the NIN prize?
In summer 2010 I decided not to compete for the NIN prize when I saw the composition of the jury, because I didn't want to give it legitimacy. Ten years later, working on this new novel, I thought that the NIN prize is also an institution and that it will not be able to change if you do not try to. It was an attempt to get out of the underground where all of us who belong to this cultural sector have lived for a long time. I noticed that there was a taboo in that institution, and that it had to be broken in order to achieve its liberation.
In the public space there were very intense attacks to me, the novel, and the jury, the boycott of the prize, while few have written positively about the novel.
I believe it is an example of an attempt to negate an institution in the sense of its transformation and openness.
Did you expect this kind of reaction?
No, not to this extent, which has exceeded all expectations. The attacks by mainstream media have been going on for a month and a half. The first signatories of the appeal were 18, then joined by about twenty faculty professors. Then came an attack by prof. Aleksandar Jerkov, who gave a defamatory speech in front of an audience of Serbian literature teachers. Isolating the parts about war, he judged them very negatively from a literary point of view, calling the book a propaganda pamphlet and a betrayal of the country and nation.
Do you think that a similar situation could have arisen about ten years ago?
Ten years ago, I don't think such a novel could have made it to the NIN prize. The premise of what happened is a serious conflict between NIN magazine – and generally the independent media – and the regime. The independent media are under terrible pressure and NIN has found itself in an uncomfortable position. I interpret the whole story as yet another concerted attack against the independent media and the values for which they fight.
In addition to the attacks, have you felt solidarity from colleagues or the public?
From the public yes, from colleagues to a lesser extent. For example, I am very pleased that I have received support from the bookvica.net portal which brings together critics, including many feminists who read literature and politics differently.
During the award ceremony you mentioned that the book celebrates Yugoslavism and anti-fascism. Are these issues considered taboo in today's Serbia?
Absolutely. I wasn't aware of it until I said the words during that press conference, and it was one of the issues I was most attacked about. These systems are fighting for the preservation of national identities built during wars. Yugoslavian identity is a superstructure as well as an emancipatory phenomenon in this constellation where everything is restricted to rigid national identities. There is also the fear that the NIN prize will open to a region and a language that is understandable to everyone, and to the literature that is written in that language, which would be plausible, because this is the way the NIN prize was before the wars. And this would really lead to the deconstruction of that institution.
You are among the authors of the Polip literature festival in Prishtina. What can be the role of culture in relations between Serbia and Kosovo?
With some colleagues from Prishtina we have tried for ten years, through literature and culture, to arrive at a mutual understanding and the creation of a new cooperation platform. Several authors have joined, both Kosovar and Serbian, that encountered that scene for the first time, but also international ones – we worked on translations to be able to read each other. Two of my books, Pad Kolumbije and Lov na ježeve, are translated into Albanian.
Lack of knowledge of languages is a big issue. I believe that in this case literature has entered a peacebuilding process, with a significant impact on the cultural scene. Before we published two anthologies in 2011, one of Kosovar literature in Serbian and the other of Serbian literature in Albanian, by the late 1980s only a handful of books had been translated and there was a complete separation, here we didn't know what they were doing and vice versa.
How strong is the post-Yugoslav literary scene?
I belong in this scene. Feral Tribune, Novosti of Zagreb, some associations, small bookstores and festivals were also part of it. There are enclaves that collaborate and have shown a good level of solidarity in the case of my book, because they recognised a very important moment for all of us in this process that unfolds from the war and the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This scene is not so strong, but it is very significant and I believe it will strengthen in the future.
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