A View Into Non-Existence
Could history be applied to an individual life and be explained by it?
Let me begin within the frame of the theme: it is the state/country in which I have lived for half a century. The former Yugoslavia is gone, but its internal borders are still there. Within their untouchable wrapping cover, the authorities may do whatever they want, and people can be slaughtered inside, displace or divide themselves at their will. It is so because it does not really matter what is going on inside the invisible zone, as long as it remains to be an inclusive part of the general order.
Great wars have been waged for the sake of changing borders and re-designing interests within the new created/formed states and regions. It makes no difference whether they have been caused or called by the internal growing of revolutionary forces or the external probing of democratic influences. Noone can gain what is not given, unless it is not taken/seized. And it needs a real and great force in order to take it. The only real victor in Europe after the World War Two was Great Britain, but during the war it lost all its colonies. If the price of freedom is so big for the victors, how great could it be for the defeated or for those who would turn to their side?
All those who seem now upset, within the undefined territories, about the eventual breaking the rules of unchangeable borders assume too much importance for themselves; that principle is valid only for the external borders of the old world, and not to what happens inside them. The external borders, even if they are virtual, may be changed only in a new big war. That war would not come, though, as long as the involved interests could be satisfied without it. Why should anyone wage a war against disarmed countries? That is why to deal with high politics in any of these countries is just to thresh straw/argue in vain/for no reason. The political games need negotiators because such are the rules in a world of apparitions. There is no visible difference between existence and non-existence: everyone takes part in his/her own burial, although he/she need not be present.
Why should a non-existent state/country be a frame for the theme of these thoughts, if the theme is free and could be written, if I feel, “in the first person singular”? I could think of three reasons related to what I entitled as “a view into non-existence”, which are, of course, the true subject of these thoughts. The first reason relates to where this text is to be published. It is The Sarajevo Notebooks, the role of which is to fulfill the empty space among those borders denoting what exists no longer. To what degree, and more correct, in what sense does and could anything exist if it consists only of this fog of non-existence? It could be assumed that such a publication, as The Notebooks presumably are, gather various people, ranging from those who respect their own past as reality which could not be destroyed (but was being left in its past continuous tense), including some adventurers who exist here and everywhere, to those lunatics who, without much thinking, would start building on the ruins of the old buildings, since they are well aware that the game of destroying and building does not really affect persistence (or, at least, unchangeable consistence) of things. This place of the publication should gather, as one of the limbos, the best representatives of the former world and those who would come sneaking in their discourse. On such a place one cannot feel those forces which destroyed the former world to such an extent that they could put out of action merely a literary mutual life within the borders of a mirage. The second, central reason due to which these thoughts are automatically related to the non-existent state/country is that they are the sole connection between the theme of non-existence and that of the mutual existence. Why should anyone be interested in someone’s thoughts “in the first person” if he/she does not care about them at all, and if they are not related to things known to him/her, although in a different way? How should we, in such a situation, avoid the only common theme, that is – what is our own view to that non-existence? Of course, this is what relates us automatically to the third reason, which is the least formal. It is not related to relations, but to meanings, or to what is our own part in all this story, i.e. what is its real meaning.
Non-existence is closely related to invisible or opaque things. That is why what has happened on an “outer” level spills out and permeates all sections of life, including literary creation. Homer’s Iliad starts with the word anger and ends with Hector’s burial as a consequence of that anger. The literary work is placed in between. It similarly happens in everyday life, albeit not in such a firm form, but still with a clear beginning and end. The recognition, if this is the real word for what is not real but is non-existent, depends on what is our own interest and outlook.
Before I pass on the theme let me pose a question with no immediate relevance. Why people just retired do not go back, generally, to plants or offices they have hitherto worked in or for? Those who got fired are the only people who visit their former working places, because they are still on a strike/striking? But when the strike, or their working life, is over, these same people will not even mention their ex-working places, not alone visit them. Noone is even inviting them, but even if they are, those who come are usually called in order to be photografed, to illustrate what has no meaning any longer, yet someone needs. Why is there such a resentment and bitterness?
I do not speak of those who were given notice in the recent period of unrecorded extortion/robbery? Unemployed workers strike for the sake of going back to their working places because this is their existence. But those who have retired regularly, why do they not go back to their firms or offices, even if the latter are still going on working? Why is it that these normal and civilized people, with empathy and warm memories for the communal life spent over long years, will not visit again the places where they have spent their working lives? Even criminals go back to the places where they have committed their crimes, but former respectable officers will not enter again the offices where they got old. What is the explanation to that? Why are they so embittered and exasperated?
I do not believe that there is a simple answer to that, or that it could be reduced to the usual dissatisfaction with life already passed. I have never thought that it would happen to me the same way it happened to others. I have passed my working life in a library, which is considered, by sheer inertia, as a calm, cultivated place; although some gloomy things are going on even in a place like this. Anyway, since I knew what may happen to people in such a position, I have almost promised myself not to repeat the same experience. After leaving my working place, I said: “I’ll come back” – and I appeared never again. Only later, I recalled, that was exactly the same thing that was done by others I have had some care for.
All this seemed as giving signs. You don’t have to say just everything, which belongs rather to bad literature or to life taken literally. If hints are so important in literature, why would life be left with no context? If you have left your house, why would you confirm this with a divorce from your wife? If you are left without a state/country, why should wear a masked uniform instead of a black band on your sleeve?
The best examples of “giving signs” are represented by a complete denial of bourgeois formality, by turning yourself into a clochard. I have in view a bold, lonely man and a true poet, Miodrag Stanisavljevic, and a wise and rare expert on literature, Pero Muzhijevic. Why had they thrown away their civil clothes and roamed unwashed around Belgrade, if they did not wish to announce something? It was not a sign of the collective rebellion from our youth, of youngsters who “do not know what they want, yet they want just that, and as soon as possible” (Khon Benditt), but a revolt of lonely, mature and self-conscious sceptic individuals walking against a rain of bullets, like in Sam Peckinpaw’s Afternoon Gunshots, only with no film tricks, of persons who “do know what they want, but won’t see it ever.” When he fell ill by an incurable disease, as his wife Marija did before him, Stanisavljevic did not want to cure himself at all, and when Nebojsha Popov convinced him somehow to go to a clinic where he had reserved a place for him, they refused to accept him with a remark that he should first wash himself. He then turned his back, returned home and died. That was at least what they told me. I have often seen Pero Muzhijevic after he left his post as a professor of world literature in Belgrade. While he was working in Novi Sad, he lived in a vacant apartment near mine in Batajnica, and so we had frequent occasions to talk of literature on my terrace, sipping wine. His external transformation coincided with the internal change of the world around us.
Floating between Konjic and Belgrade, one day he asked for me in the City Library of Belgrade, but was not allowed to pass the lobby. I had to come down the stairs, where he expected me with a broad smile. “If Mr. M. would like to accept you,” they had told him, as he explained, waving with his pipe, and pointing to his robes in which our time has dressed him. Those rags, quenched with the same tobacco smell, were clear instructions for recognition, on the basis of which he could be easily identified, so different from the rest of us, but they have seen only the sign, not its meaning.
These secret insignia of disagreement with a life already destroyed and rooted out from our memory are similar to the signs given by the employees who do not want to go back to places where they were employed. They just announce that their lives have already passed, or have been changed beyond recognition or acceptance.
When would this war only come?! I have heard this sigh quite often, at different moments, from different people. It was directed as if war was a God given opportunity for plundering, after which you could wake up as quite rich. Running away down the street during a heavy shell fire, at the beginning of the World War One, a Balkan never changing good-for-nothing, while still running, pulled out a crude rug from under a poor beggar-cripple, and went on running. This is not literature; the event was told to me by my grandfather, who was a reliable witness. In my early childhood I had personally heard a drunkard imagining “homes full with carpets” which he would plunder as soon as the war starts; and when the War Two has just passed, film news showed sexy girls kissing unknown soldiers. And just before the war we could call the Balkan War Three, I have heard stories about the time coming for enterprising minds. Then, too, there were many who hoped they could get rich overnight. Although most of them did not know what it meant and would be like altogether.
What was it that really happened? I have once posed a question what would one choose as a winning ticket: people with a country, or a country without people. The answer can be expected as a premonition. I cannot believe anyone who would come into that story of disintegration, or in any story of war, with an interest. I got tired of listening to lamentations about communists, chetniks and ustashas, as much as to eulogies in their honour. Most of them were inspired by an interest. It can now be checked into their bank accounts. For my part, I have no reason to justify myself to anyone at all. My father was arrested in 1945. as a prewar industrialist, “the tzar’s child”, and I-don’t-know-what-for, and it was sheer miracle that he was not shot, so that I would not go too far in defending the after-war regime. But that man deprived of any rights, my father, such as he was, talked of that regime that it was better than the preceding one, and just and fair as he was, had he lived through what followed, he would have said, I am sure, that it was even better than the actual transition period and beastly plunders. And he would not have asked for restitution of his once nationalised property, as neither did I, since there is always someone who does it better, and one tends to get sick of so much greed. After the French Revolution a restauration period followed, but noone even thought of restitution the confiscated estates back to the Church, since they were already common possession within the transformation of the hitherto feudal society. But in our all-Balkan case, in order to grab as much as possible some people would go back to Adam and Eve, if only they might have left a deed to someone else beyond their Eden.
The state/country in which my generation has lived half a century disposed with a mediocre intellectual and spiritual orientation, but thanks to its later period of development, socially more relaxed than in any other of the so-called socialistic countries, it was still more human, even amidst its agony, than those who inherited its disintegration. If it were not like that, the Party would not have, at least nominally, separated from state (and each republic authorities), but would have crushed any resistance on a Tianamen of its own. Yet it did not do that, and it served to its own honour. What makes each revolution disgusting is that it would start all over again, but equally disgusting were those who had caused all the rebellions and revolutions, because they wished the world to stay their own for ever.
What is it that has gone during this transition period? Ask those who have been gone, and they will tell you all. Ask those who have nothing, and they will tell you the same. Twenty years of payments, pensions and health insurances, billions of dollars throughout the new capitalistic properties, all this and all the rest which is hard even to count, did not evaporate but reached some destinations. All those armed to the teeth did not leave occupied territories without clearing out banks and post offices, and taking all that could be taken. And all those who are the passive voice of history, who move like pawns on a chess board, have suffered to cover up the crimes, lootings and rapes of the others.
All those riches possessed by the successful people of today were not produced because they were thousand times more able than the loosers, or that they worked millionfold more industrious with their own dilligent hands. Those riches were only parts of the monthly wages of ordinary people, but – so that strangers would not understand, the money was first processed by war, and then “legally” printed again, or – to use the hygienic expression of today, was “laundried” by bloodsheds.
Out of sheer inertia, we trust people we see in a state of order, but we have not seen them in disintegration. Nonetheless, it is true that those with whom we serve “neighbour’s coffee” could serve for extermination of lots of people. The camp capos of all world did not wear horns, they may have been “good fellows”, and no doubt have descendants of the same quality. All that happened did happen by the help of people we have lived and we are now living with. The only change brought by time is that the spectacle of a bloody war has been replaced by an image of peaceful welfare.
When the war began, I hoped that people would at least know what is in their own interest. But serving their interest, I thought, would not mean destroying what is not serving it. I deluded myself with that Socratic philosophy which had poisoned the world ever since, to which Tolstoi was bound by an oath, and which Christ has related the most clearly: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do!” This opinion is based, of course, on the assumption that evil derives from sheer ignorance, that people do not know what is good and, therefore, do wrong and evil things, wheareas if they do come to their senses…, etc. Even at that time, I was not fully convinced that good comprehension is enough to do good things, but I believed nevertheless, or at least hoped for, that people would not betray their own interest, and if only they could face… And suddenly it dawned to me: what if their interest is just to destroy, to tear down and not to build up, what if this and such interest – based on plundering – could not be realized with other means but with war and slaughter?
I would rather say, ending this story of signs which noone follows, that what happened to me was just that which happened to many others: I turned and went away, and not thinking too much of either what I leave or where I go. Before me – and before all of us – that was exactly what our children had already done. There was something too deterrent in that world to which we have committed our lives without seeing what it is really like and what could await us.
I arrived to study in Belgrade by the Orient Express, which covered all the meaning then which is ascribed to that train now. That same evening I came out strolling “down town” to see the city lights. Prior to that, I have only seen Zagreb as a bigger town. I have been to the seaside rather early, in Rijeka and Pula, where my youngest aunt used to live, and have seen the green waters of the Korane in Karlovac, where my elder aunt lived. I got crazy for ordered towns and big and clear waters. Living in literature, I have walked along the streets in Paris as if i was born there.
And later on I went out into the night to compare my real and imaginary impressions of towns I had seen and waters I had longed for, since I would not have wanted to stay for a while, least of all the longer part of my life, as it did turn out, in a place inadequate to my internal expectations. I stopped at the Slavija square to count up the trams, so that I would have something to talk about at home – there were seven or eight of them. The city was rather vacant then, with no traffic. I stopped at the Terazije junction to count up the advertisements, I was rather disappointed by their number, although there were more of them than there are now. I strolled to Knez Mihailova street, there was a korzo just like at Strumica, the town I came from. I was running out from the town with a korzo, and there it was again. Later on I wondered why some Balkan pilgrims, writers of popular novels and pamphlets, have written so much of that street, whereas I was struck just because I had expected much more, maybe even for what there was nowhere to be found in the whole world. I walked on up to the Kalemegdan park, and somehow managed to reach the bulwark from where, as I later found out, a view spreads out to the Sava and the plain beyond, from where the New Belgrade would later grow. It was already dark and fog was falling. I knew that the river was down there and could barely discern it. In the distance there were faint lights here and there, reflecting through the fog, or was it in the water. I was filled with joy at the thought of such a big river spreading beneath me up to the horizon. This river is really big, and lulled by this thought I slept rather calmly that night. Later I found out that a river would not and could not be like sea. And that was the thought, that nothing real could match our desires, which filled out my later life.
As it usually happens with people who can be easily tied up with the first sight in nature, as with the first picture in an infinite gallery, I stayed in Belgrade for good. I finished my studies of world literature, got married and had two sons. I took the city as a natural place for schooling and education of the children born there, as their mother did. I believed it was, for me as well, a more suitable place than other towns, since I found a job there, started a literary career and was accepted as only a small number of writers of my generation were. I looked like a natural sapling of the state/country I grew with. I have spent my working life of forty years, including my literary experience, more or les in only one job, in the City Library of Belgrade. I lived there with my wife and our younger son, the pianist, through the war years, including the NATO bombardments; the elder son managed to leave the country in the last hour, before the bombs started falling; he completed his Phd studies in Stockholm, and now works in Passadena, California, USA.
Of course, I thought of going back to my own home country right from the beginning of disintegration, as many others did who found themselves, in spite of their will, on a foreign territory, having passed overnight, as it were, from a state of belonging to a nation into a status of minority. During this period, in media interviews and otherwise, I was often asked “when would M.M. return to Macedonia”. That did not depend, naturally, only on me, since I had really nowhere to go to, except “under bridges over the Vardar”. A certain number of important persons – including a president of a state and government – got engaged about my return, at times only verbally, sometimes honestly, but nothing came out of it. This is not the right place and time to go into details why it turned out like that. The fact is that I had to wait until my retirement, and then, as a freelance, to decide where to live. I would not leave you altogether yet, I used to say, hiding behind metaphors.
When I did return to Macedonia, I came to a place much less likened to a city than Belgrade, with a river not even to be likened to sea,
which, during this dry summer to be remembered by its hot weather, turned into a little stream one could sit in like in a trough.
That is the frame in which, from one beginning to another, and from one end to the other, my life has spread out. I came back to the place of my departure too late, without much hope, yet with no remorse either, only wishing to pull my strength together in order to finish what was left over. When one turns out literature into a life project, he does not even notice when and how overnight his own life turns into a literary project.
But that story has no importance outside the subject of this text. Let me try, therefore, to explain how my destiny, however individual and insignificant it were, is reflected in what was our (maybe a wrong word, but anyway) own common/mutual life, which crumbled first from the inside, then got covered by ashes of twenty wasted years, and started looking like non-existence and non-reality.
Let me begin with the so-called double identity and bilinguality. The question whether a life’s model is able to survive or not – likewise for a state/country – may be followed by some dominant common “symbols”, as the common language is for instance. The common/mutual language, the language of literacy and writing on a given territory from the start, is historically an important factor for unity and harmony of states and nations and may be the most essential for their survival. I have once written how all great nations of the old ages without their own writing have disappeared. The choice of the writing language had an essential impact on the destiny and future of all Slav nations on the Balkans, from the acceptance of Christianity to the present days.
The first Yugoslavia (or the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes as it was originally called) was a state of “whites” and “Negroes”, with all that this relation means. One of the missing links for unity was the common/mutual language that all would accept as their own. In the socialist Yugoslavia the choice has been made by the solution already existing, which was then even less acceptable. In as much as this language could exist as language for the common/mutual culture, such could be the existence and survival of that same state/country. As it turned out, neither of these options could be possible. For, it is one thing to use only one language in the army, but it is something totally different to write literary works in it.
Like in the beginning of the Christian era, this state was confronted with the problem of its unity, and its own attributes. The promotion of the term “Yugoslav”, not only in terms of citizenship but also of national identity, was the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia: the uniting symbol cannot survive without common/mutual attributes. Which would be the common language of literacy and writing of this new nation: the Serbo-Croatian? That was, for many people, a clear way to assimilation. The forming out of republics-states determined the attributes of national (nationalistic) understanding of state, as it happened thousand years ago. The rest was a matter of execution, viewed from that linguistic attitude.
Since my early youth, I have built up a system for myself according to which the rest of the world, concerning this attitude at least, is still functioning successful: to preserve oneself while becoming a part of wider community. The integration in Yugoslav community and culture should have served as doorway towards the integrations so much aspired to nowadays. In a linguistic sense, this meant nursing and keeping your own maternal language while adopting the predominant language of the community.
Naturally though, the nationalistic core of that community and culture had not been changed since the time of the preceding state with the same name, when the citizens were divided into “whites” and “Negroes”. And there, in this whirlpool, it sufficed to tie yourself to any of the attributes of that community, and change your main features, or to be treated as you had changed them.
When I now look back to my literary beginnings in Belgrade, I can see that I was accepted nearly unanimously. That environment had not likely done me wrong as much as I had rather estranged myself from it. The key question was where you belong. It was incomprehensible to me that my literary, or even national identity could be derived by the language I had voluntarily accepted from that wider common culture. I can now see that all the environments are ultimately more or less like that, i.e. chauvinistic. Nowadays it is no longer a question whether you agree to be assimilated or not, but whether anyone wants you at all. It seems indecent and insolent to pose any conditions to the environment which has accepted you nicely, not alone if you tend to ignore it. If the environment is not suitable enough to someone, he/she should not live there. My problem was, in fact, that I felt that I was a Belgrade writer, but not a Serbian one. I thought I was living in the capital city of my state and that my rights derive from that. Then I did not know that that state is gone, that it was a mirage.
Soon my so-called “double identity” showed to me that those who did not “opt for” would be left alone: they do not acquire a new homeland, but lose the preceding one all the same. I am sometimes asking the question myself as well: whom did this famed “Yugoslav space” belong to really, not in politics, but just in culture? I have not noticed that there was much room left for those to whom the integrated, common culture did matter so much. All that mattered went on in the different republic centres whose administrative representatives “exchanged their experiences” on “a federal level”. Since I lived in Belgrade I considered myself as a member of the Serbian Writers’ Union by domicile, and not by some other characteristic. I considered it was needless to explain that the writer’s authentic belonging had been taken for granted, and that his/her ties to the homeland/original environment and language could not come into question. As I had lived in an environment which looked at these things from a different perspective, I had never read my works under a label which I did not take as mine too. And since my homeland and original environment was so far, I had nowhere appeared in public as its actual representative. So I was left in an invisible zone: my absence was distinctive, and quite unusual for my then current “rang”, from the public scene of the whole “Yugoslav space”. There was something suspicious and unclear in relation with me and, as it often happens, it stayed like that up to the present day.
I do admit the possibility that all I have worked in my life was set up wrongly right from the beginning: my utopian view in relation with real life, my still living in contrast to general moving, and my own inaction in reference to the action of others. Traces of all that can be found in my books. What I am talking about may be only a kind of my psychological profile. To reduce all to literature, not taking into account what surrounds it, may really look like a denial of it. Does the same destiny await us here, in our internal world, as it happened to us in the surrounding one?
There will be many more writers of small nations who would pass writing from their languages in the well-known world languages in the future. It is similar to the emigration process, leaving home countries for good and settling elsewhere in the world. In the beginning it will seem as if they have appeared on a large stage, neither hurting themselves nor their past or memories. Such writers of the first generation will use the world language mostly for promotion of what they have written in their mother tongues. But later on the latter will become first difficult to use,
then of no use at all, and ultimately forgotten. Had I reached the end of the Orient express track, I would have likely been in that situation.
As events turned out, I have come only half that way. In the middle of it there was the same state that I believed was mine where I would live all my life. I have adopted another language to write my literature in, which is just slightly bigger than my maternal one. It is like repeating of nothing; as invisibility multiplied by itself. All the same I believed that it will be a light step in climbing up Platonic ladders. And now I see that it coincides with the failed project relating to a whole state/country.
In saying this, I do not speak of an eventual formal desertion of the other language: the language you have acquired by writing in it stays to be yours, in spite of all possessive rights of a nation, and noone can take it away from you. I can express myself as good and as bad in it as anyone else. Even this text which, according to the former “republic cue”, should have been written first in Macedonian, is written in the same language in which you are reading it. I am saying this because, when I was on the top of my literary career, I have unawares stopped publishing in this language due to reasons not quite clear to me either, so that I would continue my communications with readers in a less developed state/country where bookshops are really rare in view and seeing someone reading a book is even rarer occasion.
I see now that what has happened to me also happened to the language I had adopted as my second literary one. As I was climbing down the linguistic tree trunk for some of my own reasons, in the same way the language itself started going back from the former common core to its own beginnings, or to its own end.
It is generally said that the basic duty of a writer is dedicated to his/her own language. In fact, the basic duty is dedicated to literature, by the means of the used literary language. The language usually imposes itself, but sometimes it is also our own choice. Had Joyce written his work in Irish, he would have now been invisible as all other writers are, outside the horizon of big languages. Therefore, the forward step a writer may do to some bigger language is not groundless, if we accept the basic assumption that one writes for others and not for himself/herself. My own experience, acquired on a rather small scale, tells me though that the writer who has chosen another language for his/her literary expression may not count for a bigger success unless he/she does not integrate in the environment and accept it as his/her own. This is the bitter pill one must swallow.
It may suffice if one writes for only a hundred of people, and it may be more important to be accepted by your own people (it certainly is the most difficult), but if the interaction between a literary work and its readers, to a hypothetic world level, means something, as it does in science or trade, where stocks meeting their consumers are as essential, let everyone who takes a pen in hand remember what has been already written at Hell’s entrance. The inconceivable amount of books published so far will eventually bring to a final selection ending on stakes more terrible than the former burning for religious or ideological reasons. This selection is a lecture that mankind has yet to learn. And there is little chance that a writer will survive in a small language, doomed to destruction, except nearby the sound of metal hooks on his/her home hearth.
The gravest consequences of disappearing states cannot be seen immediately. Much water had run since the destruction of the Roman Empire up to the time when Gibson wrote his famous book. One of the evident consequences is disappearing of the state’s language, even for the greatest empires and of the most dominant languages, which though dead still emanate life. Large states overcome for longer the tooth of time than small ones, and their destinies coincide with the fate of their languages. Anyone reducing his/her own territory should account for a reduction of one’s language territory as well, and might have destined the language to death. The languages of small nations are endangered as the latter are too. And with the general disappearance of small things on this planet, small languages are the first to disappear, while small nations will be melted in the pot.
However, this walk backwards, this climbing down the linguistic trunk, is also a duty and obligation of writers. This is a painful reflection of our existence. “Someone, who had known better than us how should the world be ordered, had obviously decided that there would be small nations and languages, beside the bigger ones,”* writes Koneski, wisely leaving aside the question whether there is a sense in what we have been engaged. One day all may ultimately disappear, but we may not know what will happen with what we have done. We may certainly know just one thing, what will happen with what we have not done.
The better side of non-existence is its invisible reality. We do not know though, when Troy has been excavated whether it is the real Troy or not. But how shall we know before it is excavated?
The books I had published after “the separation” confirmed my belief that we live in a world which barely matters for what is going on in its neighbourhood. But the same belief dominates in the neighbourhood as well. You could see the same picture from there too. And to sum up all, it comes out that one and the same book may be important at the same time in each place and in none of them at all. It proves to us that literary values mean next to nothing in an unreliable world.
Not to stray too much from the subject, I shall rather show how the double identity could, in the wink of an eye, turn the visible things into invisible, and an actual existence into non-existence. When I voluntarily separated from the state I lived in – as it did from itself – I stopped to publish my works in Serbian. Noone bothered about that. In this period I wrote and published in Macedonian some of my best books consisting of: hundreds of stories, six or seven plays, essays, a few novels, including a “Belgrade” one. Noone among those with whom I had spent years of literary friendship did not even leaf through them. Not one paper published even news of what was going on with me in Macedonia. I had spent years in my perfecting their language, whereas my own language remained foreign and unintelligible for them. The Macedonians are not popular any longer, told me a Serbian academician. From time to time I used to publish a few things in some literary paper in Belgrade, and a short novel and a book on Chekhov as well, just to see if something would happen. Nothing happened whatsoever. The rest of the world had gone with the war torrents and last year’s snow. To tell the truth, I would not say that there was any trace of my work during this period in any of the other states created from ex-Yugoslavia. There was no trace of me there earlier, and there were none later.
After all, the absence of an interaction with the world and the actual time is more dangerous for the world than for literary works. Then whose interest would be if the works torpedoed with the sunken Antlantis remain on the sea bottom? It is not my job to discuss this, and I will not go on about it. Literary works are functional on an aesthetic level, and not
*Quoted in translation by Koneski himself.
for the sake of their plots or ideas. For whom does it matter now that my novel Toward Another Country has described events to come (arrival of “liberators”, sifting of nations, destroying towns, etc.), or that the later Srebrenica happened as early as in 1912 in my native Strumica, when some 5.000 Turks were slaughtered. It should have been read when it was published, before the latest senseless war has started. Aside the literary treatment woven in each written sentence, all this does not mean much, as the whole of that literature has been conceived not “in relation to the world” but “instead of the world”, and contains “not only words but what the words were created from”, etc. Thus reported, this looks like an irritating chatter even to me. If things have not been saved one has written about, it may be only natural that testimony of it is gone as well.
A literary work is posed in relation to the world as literary criticism is in relation to the parallel world of literature. In both cases, what has been chosed as its subject has got better chances to survive. Poetry is usually considered to have an advantage over critical judgment – but who could vouch for a book on the stake, and who could restore its letters and hear its voice? Without a relevant critical treatment each literary work is doomed to dust. In such a case it looks like a life lived out in anonymity, which has been conceived but lasts and disappears as all things in nature do, beyond any common spiritual homeland.
Assuming that criticism is primarily interested in the written work’s quality, the critics of poetry would mainly be engaged in Sappho, Li Tai Po and suchlike poets, who are not many in number. The fact that it is not like that discloses the critic as someone who does not judge on poetry but decides about survival. And whenever survival is discussed, everyone would rather wish to outlive his/her neighbour: that is why all people feel the best on graveyard, thinks Canetti.
How would one leave the world defeated? “Noone recognizes the defeated,” told me one evening, in a moment of anxiety, Danilo Kish, quoting what Mihiz had told him before. But what measures could be taken into account, when a question comes of victory or defeat? Those which concern the others, or those which concern us? This took place sometime during the summer in 1980. We were drinking in Chudic’s apartment, and when I sang the Macedonian folk song Si zaljubiv edno mome, which he had surprisingly heard for the first time, Danilo burst in tears. That was an evening of final separations already predicted. In the morning, in a drunken mood we, Mirjana Miocinovic, Danilo and me, started going towards my home at Zvezdara to continue the night as long as possible. It has already dawned, just enough for us to be stunned. We reached the last tram stop, near Kluz, and walked down to Pashina cesma, where there was a bakery opposite, in order to buy some bread and rolls, rather than bursting in my home empty-handed, as Danilo said. My wife was then in high pregnancy, and there, in front of the bakery, Danilo suddenly hesitated and got sober. He took it would be rude to wake up my wife that early. I insisted in vain, while he, in his usual mild and reasonable manner, was adamant. And I am now asking myself, could a man with such an empathy and vulnerability stay undefeated?
And what does it mean at all? Life is not conceived to last for ever, but to be consumed. All the same, when a child is born noone says: “so sorry that it would die,” but all people rejoice to the new life. Knowing that they would die, why don’t they dig up their graves and lie there, not waiting to reach roundabout where they could arrive by a shortcut?
If there is no eternity, life is senseless, thought Tolstoi, like the biblical Preacher long before him. But since they had no found any sense where they looked it for, they have accepted it as a ready solution. If eternity is not in Heaven (since grass does not grow there, let alone paradise trees), it must be here on Earth. Only we may not see and recognize it. If there is no eternity though, there is no other solution but to accept this passing life, and oblivion and death as things that cannot make life worthless. In that case, what makes life sensible is just all that way which we have passed. Subjectively, life can be jumped over, as death can be slept over too. And there is not a more objective measure of what has been done (which fits into the everlasting) than what has already crawled out from us and inhabited the world. Ruins are symbols of death, as buildings are symbols of life. What is the most important in all what has be preserved, in ordinary using or rare art objects, and in those keeping the energy of past lives and capable to come to life in us again? The tears shed over books are sufficient witnesses.
What is the writing for, or its master skill, if we cannot formulate the main questions and give answers to them? Chekhov was really honest and free to admit that he was unable to answer “the questions of greatest importance in life.” Had all been visible, we would have nothing to talk about. What is it that is so touching in the character of Hasanagica, and make it ever actual? A despotic shyness, to use my own syntagm, which calls off the possibility of physical touch and destroys the family, or a childish timidity before oneself and life which must not be touched as if it belongs to someone else? That quality, as shyness, the only one capable to overcome fear, as related by Kafka too, to which the popular legend teches us, is the quality of the poet himself to whom all things matter more than his own destiny, although it may not fit into its “present profile”.
Today art serves rather to suppress the artist’s destiny. The impression is that there were some genii only in their own time who were waving not only with their paintbrushes and pens but with the rulers’ scepters, though none of them were real in the actual time of their lives, in the present sense of the word. That is the adjoining part of the story of non-reality and invisibility of things. In my novel The Age of Reindeers, I have varied the theme that Jesus has primarily been a literary character. Noone got upset for that, although such a view changes the assumed bases of our civilization. Had it been accepted that literature is the only legitimate homeland of the most important characters in the Western culture (which seems obvious), Poetry would have imposed itself as being more important than the Church, not alone the State, which is not acceptable for many people of course. However, it is obvious that Jesus (whose life has passed more or less in anonymity) has gained his immortality by dying first as a man, and has become an immortal literary figure later.
(Translated into English by Bogomil Gjuzel)
Mitko Madzhunkov is a writer of short stories, novels, plays and essays. He was born 1943 in Strumica, where he completed his primary and secondary education. He graduated at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade, in the Section for universal literature with literary theory. He started his literary career in Belgrade, where he published his first story, Resurrection, in 1965, and worked in the City Library of Belgrade for thirty years until his retirement.
He has published the following books of short stories: A Strange Encounter, Kill the Talkative Dog (“Isidora Sekulic” award, 1973), Clouds Above Weeds, a triptych of short narratives World Boundary (“Kosta Racin” award, 1985), A Paradoxical Dream, Narayana’s Tree; the plays The Big Aesculapius’ Snake (“Vojdan Chernodrinski” award, 1986), The Shadow (the same award, 1988), The Road to Lychnidos, The Mill, A Great Wonder; the novels: The Hill Tower, Alexandre’s Home (the novel of the year 1992 of “Detska radost”), Towards Another Country (the novel of the year 1993 of the Macedonian Literary Foundation), The Age of Reindeers; and the books of essays: The Only Stork and Its Flock and Chekhov or the Secret of Narrating. He is a co-author (with Jasmina Rackovic) of the anthology Belgrade Narratives in two volumes. He is a double recipient of an award given by the municipality of Strumica to its honorary citizens. His plays have been staged in Macedonia, where all of the above mentioned books have been published, and about half of them have been published in Serbian.
His stories have been included in domestic and foreign anthologies, and translated into many languages. He has translated many works as well. He is a regular member of the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts (MANU).
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