Below is a selection of useful readings and other materials on issues relating to the Cultural Left.
Closing The Book of Revenge
By Dragan Todorovic
I am not sure when exile entered the genes of my family. Was it in the XV century when my predecessors on my father’s side had to leave their homes in the mountains of Montenegro and move to the remote and unreachable area of the mountain Kopaonik, Serbia, hoping to save their lives from blood revenge? Was it later, in the XIX and the early XX century, when occasionally a male member of my mother’s family emigrated to the States or to the north of Europe, dreaming of a better life? Whenever it started running in the family, it is incurable. My uncle, my mother, my father, my partner, our daughter, me: deracinated, re-planted into another culture, another social group, an experiment without hypothesis.
What all these moves have in common, on top of the genes, is—conflict. We move to improve our chances—in anything—and that means that we move to survive. The XV century episode was about killing a Turkish soldier. Later, my predecessors moved away from the Balkan wars, from the Austrian army, from Germans, my uncle moved out of the reach of communism, my parents moved seeking communism, I went into exile escaping the war that shaped the culture beyond recognition. I went away to find my original self.
This text you are reading is not an essay, but a personal intervention, a free-jazz riff on the topic of this book. What preceded it:
My essay Ticket to Fiction: Art and War in Belgrade dealt with the position of artists during the war. In my memoir The Book of Revenge, several chapters were dedicated to artists in times of conflict. Coming from a country affected by war every four decades on average, I have always been interested in the relationship between art and war.
Does art suffer or benefit from conflict? If art and war affect each other, is it necessarily a frictional drag, or is the energy released by both sides symbiotic?
Who’s Afraid of Vladimir Lenin?
I grew up in a proletarian family in Kragujevac, an industrial city in central Serbia. My parents had both arrived from their small villages to the place where factories consumed muscles. Although exiled, they were expected to help their families, by sending money, by giving up on their inheritance, by offering a place to sleep for anyone in the family who had any business in town. Things were always taken away from them, never given to them (my mother always had problems with my gifts to her and always found something wrong with the object, always something unpleasant, ugly, or even dangerous in my presents). This gave us an excellent identity in a communist country.
There was not even a single book in our house until, when I was seven years old, my uncle gave me a set of eighty books as a present for starting school. Simple paperbacks, huddled together in two rows on a handsome shelf (from today’s perspective, I am not far from thought that the shelf manufacturer had added books to inflame the sales, not the other way around). Most of them translations, packed by the publisher into a series (‘Word and Thought’) without an obvious idea to unify them (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Confessions of Felix Krull, Laocoön, Yesenin, Neruda, Langston Hughes, Gorky, Chekhov, Lenin, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Virginia Woolf, Laozi…), these books changed me instantaneously: they told me that we had art on our side, not only the League of the Communists of Yugoslavia.
The state-sanctioned organisation of a working day was ‘eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours of culture’. Arts were actively supported and promoted. It was impossible to count all poetry festivals and competitions, fiction was sold in numbers utterly disproportional to the numbers of population (a print run of a hundred thousand copies in a country of eighteen million people, out of which about half a million were still illiterate…), sculptors worked overtime to meet the deadlines for their monuments to the Revolution… I won my first poetry prize at fifteen, was published at sixteen, bought my faithful typewriter at seventeen with the money earned from my first article. All we had were communism and art—we were rich.
And then Tito died in 1980. The internal leadership struggle almost immediately took away the best ingredients of our lives. The economy plummeted and we faced shortages of coffee, tampons, cooking oil (not a metaphor: seriously, in that order). The Party was not able to give anything to its members, no apartments, no credits, no future, and hordes of opportunists started seeking their prosperity elsewhere. The ruling cadre was unable or, more likely, unwilling to explain the quick fall of a prosperous economy. Nationalists offered their version: because the country was based on the system of brotherhood and unity, in which it was expected of the well-developed parts of the country to support the developing parts, it meant robbing the hard-working West (Slovenia and Croatia) and giving it for free to the East (Kosovo, southern Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia). Thus—brotherhood & unity: bad. This, of course, was immensely easer to understand as a concept than the complex economic interdependencies that were the real culprit. Nationalism, successfully suppressed under Tito, flourished. Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia got nationalist leaders. Soon, wars.
Did we still have arts after we had lost communism?
What a beautiful interview I would give! My dignified face of a world traveller, my mild, yet so decisive manners, my shining intelligence, and my experience of an Atlantis survivor... Several cameras around me and I take my time, I maybe even drink wine...it has to be a 1993 red wine, I believe in a balance of pleasure: that was a bad year where I was, so it must have been a sunny year somewhere else. I could tell the audience how to recognize the slow coming of darkness, how condensed sadness can grip your chest and halt your breathing, I would instruct how to withdraw from life, how to pick friends in times of war. I would even know how to keep meat fresh out of the fridge in the summer, and how to recognize your time for leaving.
And I would say: ‘Some of this comes from my experience, but some, maybe even most, comes from my, from our, genes. I can’t explain how I know how to treat a wound, I never learned it in school, I just know. I know how to avoid the first hit, how to use keys as a weapon of self-defence, how to kill with only one blow. Every generation in my family had at least one war. The fact that I am here says we all learned fast.’
I would tell that weather gets worse when the war starts, that fear is the only universal language we have, and that despair is the mother of courage. How to keep warm without heating, how to listen to the messages of the night, what to hear when one hears words, how to cut the meat for your cousin who lost his fingers on the front and joke about it.
But nobody asks me for an interview. So I write. I am a sower of this seed that doesn’t grow into anything we need.
Peace culture versus war culture?
In South Slavic languages, the common word for war is ‘rat’ (rhymes with ‘strut’) and, oddly, that is the anagram of ‘art’ (which is, also, a common international word in all the South Slavic languages). The way that art is perceived in the Balkans is very close to the way war is perceived, and that is the notion of fight: war means a destructive fight, art is a constructive fight; war is about enslaving a territory, art is about liberating a territory; war is based on the primitive, animal characteristics of the human mind, art is about achieving the refinement. Artists through the centuries have either celebrated or denounced war. There is a long list of books, paintings, poems, and songs that deal with the experience of war, and mostly in a celebratory way. There is no neutral position in the history of the arts in ex-Yugoslav countries in regards to this phenomenon. There is no place there without a giant rat sleeping underneath.
The first story my grandmother told me about my grandfather was that he had been imprisoned by Germans and spent some time in a concentration camp. He learned German there, in self-defence, I guess, and returned to his village after the war, the only person who spoke a foreign language. A learned man of the world, he had been all the way to Germany. My father was enrolled in military school and later served three years as Tito’s guard. During those eight years with the Army, he learned all the basic skills that fed us later. For many generations culture came into my family either through war, or the things related to it.
War culture versus peace culture?
The first images I got from poetry in my childhood were those from the Kosovo cycle: Serbian knights in shining armour riding their big white horses against the Turkish hordes on their dark Arab studs back in 1389. The sound of the Novi Trg sword hitting the Damascus sabre, the adrenaline of a fighter who forks three Turks at once with his shaft and throws them over his shoulder into the river, as described in one of the poems. The Serbian minstrels (guslari) kept this cycle alive for six centuries. Later, when it became fashionable in Europe in times of Romanticism (Goethe translated the cycle into German), the mere fact that these poems were that old remained an important lesson in the tradition of my nation.
The war kept coming through culture at all times, even later. In those years when I started learning about the cultures of the Far East, one of the first books I read was Sun Tzu Wu’s The Art of War. When I began taking Dylan seriously, it was ‘Hard Rain’. Vietnam got me really interested in the world of politics. I was ten or eleven at the time, but Yugoslav TV was full of stories about this imperialist country taking on a small nation. We all identified. The best comedy was ‘M.A.S.H.’.
Has our war culture defined me?
Here is what it did for me:
When Slobodan Milošević brought his mixture of communism and nationalism into focus, his offer didn’t work for me. I was well-steeped in my religion, my culture, and a millennium of Serbian history, so I didn’t have to hate the Croats to define myself. The differences between us were exactly the thing that made my generation love our unity and the idea of Yugoslavia. Was I aggressive? Oh, yes, fighting for this idea that was not profitable for politicians anymore, but was the only roof my generation had.
My war culture gave me this will to fight against the regime in all possible ways, to stay on the streets when the clouds of teargas were rolling, when people with their faces smashed by police batons were passing by me, when water cannons were spraying us. Was I a hero? Never. Silvija was with me all the time. Did she feel like a heroine? No. But we both felt it was the only normal thing to do when you don’t agree with the angels that planned your life without asking.
It’s late in the evening, and I’m driving from Kragujevac to Belgrade. I know this road by heart, and—as the radio in the car doesn’t work—my only fun is to close my eyes and drive blindly through the night, which I do from time to time, when there are no lights on the road ahead or behind me. There are only maybe a couple of months left of my life here, in Serbia. Tomorrow a guy will come with a van to pick up my whole music library, and I’ve borrowed this car to bring some of the records from my mother’s apartment. I’ve already sold all the vinyl to a newly-founded radio station in a small town in the north of Serbia. Only now it all feels final: that man will not carry records from my apartment, he will remove my condensed memories. Fifteen hundred of them. I remember why I bought each record, I remember with whom I listened to them, I remember the girls that I seduced with their help, and others who gathered the courage from my own records to leave me. Now it will all be gone.
My cousins Bojan, Zoran, and Boban live by this road, but I just drive by. I’m not in the mood for sad talks. A few kilometres after I pass their homes the road started winding and now I keep my eyes open. The sky is clear, with thousands of stars visible in this place far from city lights. This I will miss. This old road—built by the Romans—these fields on the side, tame hills, this sensual scenery that curves like a perfect body, these plum trees that bend in late summer with fruit. Was it Johnny who said how he never missed people, but smells?
I check my rear-view mirror, and look ahead, and there’s no one on the road. People who are in a hurry to get between the two cities take the highway, but it’s without character to me, and I drive this road here whenever I can. Without thinking, I step on the brakes and pull the car to the side. I’m not sure why, but I open the door and step out. I light a cigarette and just lean against the hub. I hear the distant barking of the dogs in front of the old houses scattered across these hills like giant strawberries. I hear the night itself—its murmurs and moans and secrets. […]
Silvija and I are packing. This is not an ordinary trip, this is the Final Trip. We are emigrating tomorrow.
Our tickets say: two bags, thirty-two kilograms each. So, the only persons we can bring with us are the dead. The only books allowed are small books. It means limited dictionaries, appropriate for exiles. No history books, no cookbooks, no encyclopaedias. No reputation. No old shoes. No heavy feelings, either. No food, no drinks, no records. No reputation. No family, no friends, no success, no failure.
What’s the name for this? Ethical cleansing? We will arrive in Canada as what, as who? Will our memories pass through customs?
I am looking at my Yugoslav passport. It has a red cover with ‘SFR Jugoslavija’ inscribed in front, as in ‘Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’. That country, my country, does not exist anymore. The passport was issued in 1991 and even at that time such a Yugoslavia did not exist.
So, what is this red booklet?
A membership card of the League of Expatriates. An ID from Atlantis. A one‑way ticket to fiction.
I transfer all the files from my computer in Belgrade to floppy disks. Extra memory for the road. When we arrive, I discover that the airport magnetic frames irrevocably destroyed one-third of the disks.
November in Belgrade, a cold and depressing night in 1993. Serbia is under sanctions, the Yugoslav Airlines can’t fly, and the closest airport is in Budapest. Our friends Eka and D.T. have just embarked on a night ark for Canada. It looked like a bus, but no one was fooled by its license plates. Even before the gentle driver slowly made the last circle for the families and friends waving good-bye on the shadowy shore of the square, we all knew his name: Noah.
A few of us decide to go to someone’s apartment to throw a small party. Silvija and I don’t stay long; it’s late and cold and there is no heating, not in apartments, public places, or on public transportation. There is no gas, not enough food, and we have a chronic fear of news.
We leave the party and are standing at the tram station with five or six other people. Suddenly, from across the street, we hear someone yelling and then two gunshots. A man runs out of the darkness into the poorly lit street, jumps across a fence and disappears again on the other side. Another man with a gun in his hand follows. He stops briefly in the middle of the street, a few steps from us, aims at the runner and shoots. He misses. Then he turns toward us, as if thinking whether to compensate right away, but decides not to. He continues the chase.
Late that night, Silvija and I decide to go to the Canadian embassy to apply for visas.
Months pass and I notice a slow process inside me. I’m starting to lose my fear. One afternoon in the summer of 1994, a few days after I said some nasty things on my radio show about the right wing leader Vojislav Šešelj, I enter the lobby of my apartment building, and I hear someone coming in behind me. My inner sense transmits a piercing signal. When the guy asks for my name, I know he’s going to attack me, but I’m ready. Several months before I would have been desperate and frightened, but now I’m okay; the application in the Canadian embassy has opened a door. I am strong and I don’t care. I hit him hard and fast and he runs away.
Later that summer, I have a very successful exhibition—Art & War—at the cultural centre gallery in the heart of Belgrade. For months before the war, street vendors had been selling tapes with jingoistic songs, small figures of Chetniks with oversized penises, black pirate flags, small masked uniforms for kids, and other symbols of machismo. I always thought that these tokens opened a small window for war psychology to enter our lives and prepare ordinary citizens to become tomorrow’s volunteers for the battlefield. After collecting these souvenirs for a few years, I finally assembled an exhibition so people could see what was happening. By taking a closer look at this poison maybe we could come closer to the catharsis we needed so badly as a nation. It drew a lot of media attention. I gave interviews to the BBC, De Volkskrant, The Guardian, Reuters. Several months before it would have been a delight, but now I felt cold. The process of removal in my head was already well under way.
It is winter of 1994 and in the heart of the city a huge television screen is installed for public celebrations on New Year’s Eve. I stop before it as they play the Three Tenors singing ‘Nessun Dorma’. It’s snowing, my coat is old, my friends do not live in Belgrade anymore, and Puccini hurts. I see myself in a window—my shoulders bent forward, the lines on my forehead deep, my whole body tense, I look 20 years older than I am—and I think about how the song does not belong here. It simply is not true: everyone is asleep here. You have to be, if you want to stay normal.
People leave in all directions. Some go outside and shut the door behind them; some hide inside, and forget about the door.
A macho man from Montenegro who calls himself Rambo Amadeus sits across from me at the studio table. He is an eclectic musician who combines rock, rap, folk, and jazz into an efficient, strong mixture that targets kitsch culture and strongly criticizes societal hypocrisy. Rambo is usually very provocative and I am looking forward to doing this talk‑show with him. A few weeks ago, parliamentary elections were held in Serbia. In the last minutes before pre-electoral silence, Rambo appeared on TV and said, addressing voters in general: ‘Listen, you monkeys! In forty-eight hours you’ll have the chance to change our lives, to get rid of this criminal, Milošević. Think carefully how you vote, otherwise I’ll find out where you live!’ Milošević’s Socialist Party won a majority again.
We are in the studio of Art Channel, the alternative, private TV station in Belgrade, where I now work. A transmitter of very limited power covers only parts of Belgrade, politics is taboo, and the salary is an insult. Nonetheless, it is one of the very few remaining shelters for journalists who want to stay independent. Or, rather, this is one of the few remaining illusions of independent journalism.
When I come into the studio, two hours before the show, I find only one camera, and the cameraman is playing a shooting game on the editing computer. ‘We are taping some wedding ceremony’, he tells me, ‘so you’ll have only this camera. But don’t worry, I’ll change the shot every now and then.’
So Macho Rambo and I start talking. We warm up with his career in general, then I go for his artistic standards, and then I steer him to his political beliefs. But something is wrong: this artist, this very engaged intellectual, is mild tonight. No matter how hard I try, he stays distanced.
During the second break, I ask him if he has problems with the interview and if, perhaps, that could be the reason why he is avoiding politics.
‘No,’ he says laconically, ‘but is there any sense in talking to cattle?’
Then we start the third and last part of the show, and we are already into the sign-off courtesies, when I suddenly have this urge to do something absurd. And I do: in the middle of his sentence, I lift the microphone from the table between us, take the tablecloth and put it around my shoulders. Silence. We are on the air all the time.
After the show, Rambo asks: ‘What was it? You were trying to save the show?’
‘No, I don’t know what it was, I just had to do it.’
In his essay Resisting the Anomie: Exile and the Romantic Self, Chris Abani writes:
‘While trying to steer clear of Foucault and Freud, among others, the argument can be made that we do for the most part construct our identity, and at an even deeper more ineffable level, the self, from our interaction with our environment. It can even be argued that identity is not a 'thing' or 'place' we construct or arrive at, but simply a constant flux created by the tensions between the promptings of our internal voice and the external forces of experience.’
What many encounters with the Serbian artists during the war have taught me, was that the external factors affect identity more than we think. War has the power to change anything: societies, political systems, population numbers, destinies of the whole countries, so an individual obviously has no means of truly resisting it.
Once the war in Yugoslavia started, it instantaneously became the highest peak on the horizon, against which everything was measured. Every single day saw protests against the war, or counter-protests in support of the government. Friction created by this (low-energy, but permanent) conflict in the media and public space in general became an obstacle for normal activities, and with most artists I knew the strategy of survival involved fragmentation of public space. Certain areas had to be abandoned, left to the other side, because mixing would have led to shifting identities. Promoting one’s work, for example, on the Radio Television of Serbia One meant huge audience but collaboration with the regime, while doing it on Art Channel, an independent TV station, meant very limited reach but intact image. Theatre practitioners avoided Šećerana, as the theatre owner was Ljubiša Ristić, an internationally renowned theatre director, but also a person who, when the war started, became one of the closest collaborators of Slobodan Milošević.
Fragmentation of public space as a mechanism is applicable in any situation where the overwhelming external threatens to take away the internal. In his book about Venice Javier Marias writes about a woman who lives in one part of the city (Castello), but has never once set foot in another (St Mark’s Square). It is useful to mention here that from the farthest end of Castello to the farthest end of St Mark’s Square the distance is 2.5 km:
‘Now and then she asks […] how things are going over there in the same tone of voice in which she might inquire about events in Madagascar. […] This “imaginary” distancing is a condition of existence in Venice: you live mainly in the restricted world of the street, the canal or the quarter, and the totality of Venice […] is perceived only in fragments, albeit perfectly articulated.’
As Venice in this case is fragmentary but present, so the totality of war never disappears from the horizon, even after the retreat into personal space, and the resulting fragmentation of perception. Acts, political and private, words, public and personal—all are highlighted by the presence of conflict. This process of magnification of daily life creates hypersensitivity which results in tension, and what has been started in an attempt of self-preservation—voluntary fragmentation of public space—soon becomes the source of frequent earthquakes as the tectonic plates of separate public spaces collide.
This was precisely the mechanism I have seen in action in Belgrade during the war years: the conflict starts—people cut the reality into manageable pieces and withdraw into their own ‘territory’—’territories’ collide and create the omnipresent noise of political and cultural friction. In the end, in spite of being perceived as externalised (something that happens in the distance and to the others), war becomes a deeply personal experience. As soon as your country, or your people, or your social group, or your tribe…are caught up in war, it becomes your war.
Between 1991 and 1995, during the three wars for secession (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia) the artistic output related to the conflict was astonishingly small. Lidija Dimkovska, Macedonian writer, explains:
‘In Yugoslavia there was a common literary life, but during the wars many connections broke up. Maybe we are still waiting for the best works about the Yugoslav wars, because there must be several generations [in between] to forget about the trauma, to be able to write about the wars as a kind of historical and collective memory.’
After the war, the output increased. The first significant antiwar work was the Serbian film Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, shot in 1996, a year after the war in Bosnia ended. But other than that, it was Serbia where the output was negligible—in other ex-Yugoslav-republics authors like Faruk Šehić (Bosnia), Tomaž Šalamun and Svetlana Makarovič (Slovenia), Boris Dežulović, Predrag Lucić and Viktor Ivančić (Croatia)—did produce a significant body of work. This gives additional gravitas to the question of absence of anti-war projects in Serbia, which saw many works that could be categorised as anti-regime (primarily in the field of visual arts), but—while these were aiming at Slobodan Milošević, requesting his resignation or overthrowing, they can not be characterised as anti-war, except indirectly.
It was Šehić who said: ‘War prose can only be anti-war prose. It is impossible to write books that would glorify war. Even Homer did not do that.’
Twenty-odd years after the end of the Yugoslav wars, we still do not see any significant works reflecting on Serbia’s role in the tragedy. A few films that dealt with the 1990s, the period of wars, have concentrated on personal experiences and economic difficulties and, again, were focused more on the politics of the Serbian regime at the time than on war. So, why Serbian artists have not addressed the war?
To attempt an answer to this question, it is important to remember the roles of different sides involved in the Yugoslav wars. In 1991, when Slovenia proclaimed secession from the Yugoslav federation, ensued a Ten-Day War. Serbian leader Milošević had threatened beforehand that an attempt at independence on anyone’s part would result in the Yugoslav People’s Army being sent to protect the Constitution and the country’s borders. While the YPA was made of soldiers recruited from all Yugoslav peoples, its cadre was predominantly Serbian, and the Army was perceived as the protector of Serbian interests, hence an aggressor. This continued when the war in Croatia broke, only now the situation got worse because in the meantime a number of soldiers who were Croatian citizens were either demobilised or deserted their positions: People’s Army, but without the Croatian people. The picture worsened even further for the Bosnian part of the wars, the Army now being truly Serbian, with very few exceptions. From this, it followed that Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia all claimed to be victims of an expansionist aggression. It is safe to say that the Serbian side also perceived itself as the victim of the secessionist movements and the international conspiracy. Paradoxically, everyone was a victim in the Yugoslav wars—but some were more than the others.
Jean Baudrillard writes about a project done in the middle of the Bosnian war. TV Arte, a Franco-German channel, organised a TV link between Strasbourg and Sarajevo. It was a symbolical gesture. At the time, Sarajevo was under siege, and the message was that the Sarajevans were not forgotten. The viewers expected to see a group of victims lamenting their own fate, and instead:
‘What was striking was the absolute superiority, the exceptional status conferred by misfortune, distress and total disillusionment—that very disillusionment which allowed the people of Sarajevo to treat the “Europeans” with contempt, or at least with an air of sarcastic freedom which contrasted with the hypocritical remorse and contrition of those who were linked up with them. They were not the ones in need of compassion; they had compassion for our wretched destinies. “I spit on Europe,” said one of them. Nothing offers greater freedom, in fact, or greater sovereignty, than justified contempt—and not even towards the enemy, but towards those basking with their good consciences in the warm sun of solidarity.’
This twist in the psychology of a victim—the ‘sovereignty of justified contempt’ as Baudrillard calls it—perhaps can help us understand why the artists in those countries that had been violated by the Yugoslav People’s Army were quicker to respond to the reality of war they had lived though: the Serbian side lacked the moral grounds to judge the war. This I can witness: only a handful of organisations in Serbia had courage to engage in public protests and open clashes with the regime. To avoid quick moral judgements, perhaps it would help to mention that the streets of Belgrade and other Serbian towns were full of paramilitaries, some of which carried their weapons openly. A campaign of terror was orchestrated from the highest places and dissonant voices were not tolerated. A few opposition politicians were severely beaten (Vuk and Danica Drašković), or kidnapped and executed (Ivan Stambolić). On top of all this, the Serbian public opinion was affected by the simple fact that their country of unity, brotherhood and freedom, modelled after the ideals of the French Revolution, was being thorn apart by the secessionist movements in Slovenia, Bosnia and Croatia. Not everyone had understanding for this development. That the Serbian leader was a bloodthirsty dictator who did not hesitate to order liquidation of his political enemies was a fact too close to be seen.
Is it possible that Dimkovska is wrong, that the passage of time will not help at all and that we, in fact, will not see any meaningful introspection done by the Serbian artists? How is it possible to continue after the siege of Sarajevo as if nothing has happened? Srebrenica?
Šehić claims that:
‘People who survive war have unrealistic optimism. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to do anything. […] People strive to return into their original position, into their habitats, they wish to continue the lives that have been stopped.’
Striving to return the pendulum of their lives into the bearing it had before the war, survivors choose to avoid memories.
Memory is the point in which time, place and the Self intersect. Since all three elements are in constant movement, memories are neither permanent nor reliable. Why, then, write down our memories? Is it an effort to turn them into accurate points that should mark the locus of a certain plateau in our consciousness? Is it an attempt to write the (private) Self into (collective) history? By writing memory, and adding personal perspective—are we creating another layer of distortion, or are we peeling the onion? When we delegate our memory to paper, do we reinforce it or do we abdicate our responsibilities? Is memoir just another name for passport to oblivion?
Baudrillard, about memory and art:
‘Were it not for appearances, the world would be a perfect crime, that is, a crime without a criminal, without a victim and without a motive. […] The fact is that the crime is never perfect, for the world betrays itself by appearances, which are the clues to its non-existence, the traces of the continuity of the nothing. For the nothing itself—the continuity of the nothing—leaves traces. And that is the way the world betrays its secret. That is the way it allows itself to be sensed, while at the same time hiding away behind appearances. The artist, too, is always close to committing the perfect crime: saying nothing. But he turns away from it, and his work is the trace of that criminal imperfection. The artist is, in Michaux's words, the one who, with all his might, resists the fundamental drive not to leave traces.’
There is a river flowing between Serbia and Bosnia, but that river is Drina, not Lethe. The deep silence about the siege of Sarajevo, the (almost) complete darkness surrounding Srebrenica… simply cannot last forever. As someone who carries the Serbian blood in his veins but has the long gaze of an exile, I am concerned that the delay in facing own history will cost the Serbian artists in the long run. And not only them.
Half men, half horses
In the midst of all the madness around us, without a permanent job, writing articles here and there mostly for some new magazines which nobody reads, preparing my exhibition Art & War, I spend my time taking long walks in the pedestrian zone in Knez Mihailova street, uphill from where I live.
Momir is an artist. I run into him one day in the summer of 1994 during my walk. We know each other from our hometown, Kragujevac, and, although we don’t meet often, we spend some time together whenever we bump into each other on the street. The day is from a brewer’s dream, the girls are half naked and there’s that vibration of insanity that comes with the summer into all the big cities of the world. We pick a small café on a shadowy sidewalk and take our beers outside to drink.
‘So, how are things,’ I ask.
‘Good,’ he says, ‘I’m going to war.’
‘Now,’ he says.
I drink my beer, light a cigarette, and look at him. He likes to joke and I expect a smile to loosen his face, the bearded face of a Serbian Che. But his eyes stay narrow and that smile doesn’t come.
‘You were drafted?’ I ask.
‘No, I’m going to volunteer. I was just on my way when I met you.’
‘Volunteer? With whom do you want to go to Bosnia?’ At that time, even minor political parties in Serbia had their illegal paramilitaries there, not to mention major parties and the army of Bosnian Serbs.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he responds. ‘There’s no real life, everything is just waiting for the war to end. I did my part, now I’m going to fight.’
The previous night, Belgrade TV had shown a story about some Bosnian Serbs being massacred by Muslims in some distant village. I thought that maybe he’d reacted to that.
‘But that’s exactly what they want,’ I say. ‘You watch too much television. Can’t you see they’re doing that on purpose: whenever they need new volunteers, they come up with some massacre that Muslims did. Remember how, at the beginning of Bosnia, Muslim TV showed some massacred bodies and accused Serbs, but two week later it was proved that those actually were the bodies of Serbs, massacred by Muslims?...’
Momir looks into my eyes carefully. ‘Corpses are corpses. Listen: there is no critical mass of soldiers in there to end the fighting one way or the other. What I mean is: it doesn’t matter anymore, at least not to me, who will win this war. All that matters is for it to be over. Even when the war is ended it will take some time for this country to recover. So: the sooner, the better.’
‘Is that what you want—to be another corpse on the screen? If this is too slow for you, why not just go and live somewhere else?’
Momir has this laughter that cuts you in two. The inquisition would have burned him for it. ‘Live, where? Go to the States and do my macramé? They think it’s for housewives, not for real artists. Italy? I wouldn’t know how to order a beer. France? To work in a cafe on Champs Elysées washing the dishes? You know, if this was the 1930s, it would be much easier: you could go to Berlin to become a Nazi, or to Moscow to be a commie, or to America to join Capone. But now? I don’t believe in capitalism, and I’ve seen what socialism does to you. Where do we go?’
I don’t have a clue, but I don’t want him to go to war. I look covertly at my watch. It is almost five. If we sit here long enough, and it’s Friday, there is a good chance that the volunteers’ offices will be closed for the weekend. So I order another round.
‘Momir, we’re all centaurs, half men, half horses. The brains are up there, but sometimes we just don’t think fast enough for these quick legs. They just take us somewhere and then the brain’s no use to us. Brains do not work where grenades fly. That’s what I’m saying: don’t let your legs take you into the quagmire. Is this your war, is this my war? Did you make any, no matter how small, decision that led to this war? Did you vote for Milošević? Did we vote for the Muslim leaders? What’s the biggest difference between before the war and now—we live much worse, the bastards in power live much better. Milošević has a son, so let him send his son to war. There, that’s one volunteer that will make the critical mass, so you can stay here and drink with me.’
‘But I’m an anarchist. I have this woman, I have these hands, and I have this ugly head. There’s nothing anywhere else in the world, no system, no power, no idea that I’m attracted to. I didn’t even know I was an anarchist before this war. Now I do. And where do the anarchists fit? Nowhere. Even the idea of anarchy is dead. So at least I’m going to fight until I come up with something I can believe in.’
It is difficult to beat him when you agree with him and I go for the lowest level of persuasion: material stuff. It’s five-twenty.
‘When the war started, in Croatia, I said, OK, this is the same old thing. But the bad shit would be Bosnia. Jesus, people of different religions and nationalities are living side by side there. If that starts, I’m out, I’m definitely out of the country, the same day! But, look, here I am. How’s that happened? Because I looked around, like now: beautiful women, good friends, nice cafés on the sidewalk...sometimes one can live on air and whatever hangs in there. I think that’s how prisoners in concentration camps survived. Read Salamov: you start enjoying the breadcrumbs when there’s no more bread.’
‘That’s for mice, not men.’
‘Possible. But mice live, and tell about it, heroes don’t. I never thought you wanted to have a street named after you.’
‘No, f. you. Besides, I really did. Look at your watch: it’s 5:45, and it’s Friday, you won’t find any office open now.’
So we sit and drink slowly. When I get home after ten, Silvija says, ‘You’re drunk. What did you do?’
‘I just saved my own life,’ I say.
Momir never went to war. But he never said thanks, either.
. Published in To Arrive Where You Are (2000) Banff: Banff Press,
. The original of this exploration was written as a performance script when I was generously invited by Professor Peter Billingham to participate in the conference ‘I too, remember dust’: Peace-building, Politics & the Arts, and the central interest here is the issue of identity of an artist as influenced by armed conflict.
Although The Book of Revenge was published (by Random House Canada) in 2006, it ended in 1995, the year when the wars in Yugoslavia ended with the Dayton agreement. From that book, chapters Erasure, Nessun Dorma, Rambo and Half Men Half Horses are reprinted here in edited versions, with comments (that is why ‘Closing The Book of Revenge’).
. At the time this article is being written, New York’s Museum of Modern art is preparing exhibition titled Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980
4. Branimir Johnny Štulić, Croatian poet and composer of Serbian background. One of the biggest music stars of Yugoslavia
. Hanne, M., ed. Creativity in Exile (2004) Amsterdam: Rodopi.
. Márias, J. (2016). Venice, An Interior. London: Penguin Random House. [p 43]
. BBC World Service: The Cultural Frontline: ‘Culture and the Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia.’ First aired 18 December 2017. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csvs4c accessed on 28 April 2018.
. RFE/RL: ‘Šehić: Samo loši pisci jezik koriste za proizvodnju mržnje’. https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/sehc-samo-losi-pisci-jezik-koriste-za-mrznju/24710434.html Published 17 December 2012, assessed 28 April 2018.
. Baudrillard, J., translated by Turner, C. The Perfect Crime (1996) London: Verso. p132-133
. Baudrillard, ibidem, p1.