LITERATURE IS FOUNDED ON THE SOVEREIGNTY OF THE INDIVIDUAL
translated from Bosnian by Irena Žlof
Boro Kontić: A few days ago I was passing by your old Sarajevo courtyard. And there I saw it, in front of a five-story building, in a small garden (birches, fir-trees and pines…), still in one piece, a tin plaque with the inscription "88 roses for comrade Tito." The plate remained (survived) from the times of your youth. What field of thought associations opens up when I mention this fact to you?
Aleksandar Hemon: There is another plaque in that garden, right in front of my entrance, which has also been standing there for the past twenty seven years, which says: "Let us teach ourselves and the younger generations to nurture this piece of nature." I am overcome by warm feelings when I think of those plates. That inscription about a piece of nature is practically poetry, because the creator comes across as a recognisable, neoromantic sensibility – as someone who started growing old twenty seven years ago, someone who has always pined for nature, but has reconciled himself to the fact that things can only be saved in pieces and pathetic fragments, someone who is stubborn enough to be teaching himself and the younger generations the same thing for the past twenty seven years, even though it is more than obvious that not only did no one learn anything in all this time, but that the world and the town and the neighbourhood have in the meantime changed catastrophically and irreversibly. I find that consistency, that stubbornness, in spite of the undeniable cataclysm, absolutely fascinating and worthy of our respect. Whatever the system of values which the plaque implies, it still persists in Sarajevo and in my neighbourhood, in spite of everything. The man who takes care of the garden is Mustafa, once a passionate mountaineer who now moves around on crutches, cutting and replanting the flowers and plants, and doing it all with a smile, unconditionally, not expecting any gratitude or compensation.
BK: What do you see when you look out of the building in which you now live in Chicago, Illinois (USA)?
AH: At the moment we live in a house which we rented from a friend and which is the only house in Chicago directly by the lake. It has a small private beach. This house is an aberration, it survived by some miracle. Up until few years ago, it was owned by an elderly woman who refused to sell her property to make way for new buildings. The house is right next to a skyscraper, because that street of ours is lined exclusively by tall buildings – once there were residential houses there, but they were levelled to the ground so that skyscrapers could be built in their place. This old lady lived there all her life and after she died her children sold the house to our friend. They told me that they pulled out of her garage a car which had not been driven in over forty years. Anyway, this friend was living there with his wife until they had a child, after which the old house was no longer suitable for them. It's really beautiful out there because every morning as I drink my coffee I watch the waves, birds as they glide on the wind, the sun emerging on the horizon at dawn. However, every now and then, a damp spot appears on the wall, or the roof starts leaking. Every morning we find cobwebs on all the windows and doors, because it's quite windy by the lake, and the wind carries bugs making it a spider paradise. This morning we found the beginning of a cobweb which stretched between the window overlooking the lake and our bed. We are there on a temporary basis, we don't try to fix things, and every night before we go to sleep we execute an army of spiders. Our friend will probably tear down the house next year (his family owns a bank and invests in real estate) and build something else in its place. So we're living in a house whose destiny is doomed, and I tend to get attached to things which are doomed, which are excluded from the future, not to mention eternity.
BK: Actually, I was wondering if some kind of comparison, or perhaps a list of similarities was possible between the two worlds which, for the sake of simplicity, we distinguish as socialism and capitalism, and in which you spent your youth and are now living as a middle-aged man?
AH: Capitalism is evil, and especially the American kind of capitalism. The fall of socialism persuaded many that it was freedom and justice in the shape of capitalism that had won – and this is not the same as democracy. Socialism was not exactly a joy, but at least somewhere, behind all those illusions and lies, there was an idea of a common well-being and this is the idea I grew up with. My mother was particularly invested in this idea of togetherness, a society in which no one is excluded from progress. Our idiotic nationalism has destroyed not only the possibility of an identity and freedom outside and above the national, but also the infrastructure which would have enabled the idea of a community. So this new breed is now stealing and destroying what was once ours.
And as for American capitalism, I think it inevitably suppresses, even assaults everything that's human about us. The logic of capital demands constant growth, constant maximisation of profit and everything that stands in the way of that logic becomes an obstacle or a target. What goes on in America with regard to the so-called War on Terror is a symptom of the conflict between capital and democracy. This is why Bush and company (and not only they – many Democrats are playing the same game) are doing everything in their power to dissolve and neutralise mechanisms of democracy and thereby enable an unrestrained growth of capital.
I do not mourn Tito's era. I was never particularly fond of our self-governing socialism, but I do hate American capitalism in a way I never hated all those socialist experiments and failures.
BK: I once saw a cartoon in The New Yorker, where your work is often published, of a girl writing to her parents "Thanks for the happy childhood. You've destroyed any chance I had of becoming a writer." You wouldn't have written such a note?
AH: Well, my childhood wasn't at all unhappy. I think it's more important that during my childhood I believed I was happy, and with good reason too: kids had a lot of freedom and autonomy, we used to play in the streets, we used to spend our summers in the country or on the coast, the world was interesting and comfortable, Yugoslavia was going through its best period, my dad travelled a lot, my parents had a lot of friends and plenty of good times. Only now do I realise that not everything was so blissful, that my parents were not nearly as happy or as powerful as they had seemed to me at the time. In short, I know now that my childhood, just like everything else in my life, was pretty complicated, which is a good thing for a writer.
I was equally happy as a teenager and I'd always recalled my high-school years as a happy period – the tough teens. But the war changes your perspective: I now realise that a kid in my class committed suicide because he was constantly being bullied by my friends (I wasn't the one who bullied him, but I didn't do anything – not a word nor an action – to put a stop to it or to confront it). I now understand that there was a certain evil in us, a deeply rooted pseudo-Darwinistic belief that demonstrating your power, exercising it over the weak, was a perfectly legitimate thing to do. There were other things too: my best high-school friend, who I believed was as good as they come, was the ringleader in bullying all who he diagnosed as idiots, and he later became a proper Chetnik.
The problem is that as a boy I was happy enough not to notice other people's unhappiness. Now I see it, in front of me, and retrospectively, not because I'm unhappy now, but because for some reason – maybe because of my age – I pay more attention to other people. That is very good for a writer – to find other people more interesting than yourself.
BK: Your growing up, what was it like?
AH: My father was in charge of stories, my mother of books. My dad is a born story-teller. When I was a kid, he used to tell me stories from his childhood: war adventures, hiding from the Chetniks and Cossacks; entire epic cycles with domestic animals (the absolute favourite: ram Janko) and neighbours (Branko and Duja) cast in leading roles. He travelled a lot and used to bring stories and pictures from his travels. On his return, there would always be a family slideshow from his travels: pictures from Siberia or Leningrad or Libya or London, and he would be commenting, spinning a whole set of stories around each slide. One of my fondest childhood memories is that of us watching slideshows of Russian fairy tales which my dad had brought from the Soviet Union. Those weren't films, but reels of slides with illustrations from the fairy tales and a text in Russian at the bottom of each slide. My dad would be playing the slides, translating the text and probably embellishing it in the process.
My mother was (and still is) a booklover. She is the reason why we had so many books on the shelves. Whenever a door-to-door salesman came to our school selling those Disney books or any kind of children encyclopaedia, she would invariably authorise their acquisition. Often she would return from work with collected works of this or that author or, say, ten books of French literature, because the salesmen would also come by Energoinvest where she worked. She was the one who always felt the need or an obligation to read a book that everyone talked about either publically or in secret. It is because of her that we had in our house A Tomb for Boris Davidovich and The Gulag Archipelago.
Anyway, my dad was responsible for our oral and visual culture and my mum for the written word. I generally do not believe in occupational gender segregation, but when I was in Paris I did notice something similar amongst tourist couples: the woman would carry a book, the man a camera.
BK: G.G. Marquez was supposed to have said somewhere "everything that happened to me had happened by the age of eight." Would you say that the same period is the key primary source of memories for you too?
AH: I wish that were true, but it is not. Everything that happened to me happened from 1991 onwards. And not only that, but what happened to me over the past sixteen years made me interpret my life before that rather differently.
The problem with that cartoon from The New Yorker and the philosophy or ideology or aesthetics which it ridicules is that it implies that someone becomes a writer because there is magma of unspoken feelings, unrealised thoughts boiling inside him or her. I am a writer because I have always been – throughout my childhood as well as now, whether happy or unhappy – absolutely obsessed by language. This obsessive need to exist within language is only partly satisfied through reading, and I find writing necessary in order to digest my experience, to face the world, to interpret everything that happens to me. What happened to me in my childhood or in the last fifteen years did not make me want to write because the magma accumulated in me. I equally used to write back in Sarajevo, before the war, when I was bored and thought nothing was happening. In the sixth grade I started writing a novel (and wrote one chapter, a page and a half) which dealt with, well, adolescent issues. Even if there had been no war, or if I had lived under the siege, which I didn’t, or if my parents had moved to Canada in 1976, I would have still have pursued writing.
My childhood was important to me as a framework for that battle with language in my first book, The Question of Bruno, not that I am particularly interested in rummaging through those memories all over again. It is quite possible that I might end up rummaging through them with my child, telling her stories as my father did to me.
BK: You said that ever since your childhood you had a "need to exist within language." As a student of the primary school "29. novembar" in Sarajevo you participated in the Young Linguists League – a rather unique language competition which only existed in BiH, initiated by one of the more important, and nowadays, unfortunately, forgotten Sarajevo characters - Bato Zurovac. How would you describe this competition and your part in it to someone who does not know anything about it?
AH: Given that Bosnia and Herzegovina was what it was during the period of self-governing socialism, its official language was called Serbo-Croat or Croato-Serb. The orthography and grammar and vocabulary of that language were decided upon through various consultations of grammarians and linguists. This is what was taught in schools, we studied all these linguistic oddities, and then we competed against other schools in our knowledge of this language which basically no one spoke; our vocabulary had many doublets where one word would be considered an "eastern variant" and the other "western." The linguistic section in my school was led by Dostinja Starović, also known as Doka. She was a brilliant teacher and a tall, brusque woman, feared by many. She encouraged us (and for this I will always be grateful) to immerse ourselves into that language, to dig deep into its syntax, to understand the rules, enlarge our vocabulary and speak correctly. Our school team often won republic competitions, and I (as well as several others in my team) came through as a champion a couple of times. As the winners of team championships we used to go on prize trips around Yugoslavia, and as a champion I spent a couple of summer holidays in the children’s colony Lastavica, where I also acquired my first sexual experiences.
BK: How does it work, your "system" of recollecting, sorting, recording, memorising and selecting the past?
AH: I'm getting worse at memorising facts and dates, I find it increasingly harder to recall what happened and when it happened. But then I have these distorted, involuntary memories which pop up suddenly and for no particular reason. Those are the kind of memories that Proust was to use to create his masterpiece, so they are probably more important for me as a writer than the names of the students in my primary school class (which, by the way, I can still recall).
I once read an article in The New Yorker about Benazir Bhutto, who related a story about how her father Zulfikar used to spend his days in solitary confinement, after he was arrested by Zia-ul-Haq: Zulfikar would pick a day in his life and would then try to remember everything that happened during that day, every single detail. I guess he was hoping he would be able to reconstruct at least one day in its entirety. I find the futility of any such undertaking fascinating, how utterly impossible it must be to remember everything that was part of your presence in the world that day, every sensory experience, every thought and idea, every decision and every dream.
If you are asking me if there is a particular technique that I employ, then I must admit that there is no method to what I do – I almost never make any notes of ideas or sentences. Lately I started writing things down as I travel, but I almost never look at it when I get home. I write down thoughts and sentences of other people, quotes from other people's books. My thoughts are a process: everything I write down will become something else, a different thought. If it stays the same then it was probably not very interesting to begin with.
BK: When did you realise you wanted to be a writer? What influenced your decision? Was it something rational or was it simply an instinctive choice you had no option but to succumb to?
AH: I've always enjoyed reading, ever since I learnt how to, at the age of five. Reading has long since become not only an intellectual and psychological need (closely related to my need for solitude) but also a physical need – as I'm prone to psychosomatic neurosis, books actually calm me down. When I was a kid, my mum would always bring along a book or a magazine (Politikin Zabavnik) when we went to someone's house. Without a book, I would be climbing on top of the furniture, talking other well-behaved kids into having pillow-fights or something along those lines. With a book I was an angel, without one I was Satan. In any case, writing and reading have always been a part of the same continuum for me. I've been writing since I was a kid, all sorts of things, beginnings of stories and novels, and I always knew I would write. Which is not to say that I've always dreamt of becoming a professional writer. I didn't find that particularly appealing, and the writers of the socialist Yugoslavia did not have that neoromantic aura which my adolescent imagination required: writers were cultural workers, and the last thing I wanted to be was a worker, cultural or otherwise. When I was in high school I dreamt of studying film directing, but they didn't have film department at the Sarajevo Academy of Performing Arts at that time. Then, of course, I wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Professional writing only really became an option after, having studied for a year and having passed several very difficult exams, I abruptly abandoned electrical engineering studies and switched to literature studies instead. My dad asked me then how I intended to earn my daily bread and I said by writing, though I had no idea if this were possible or indeed how I was to get there. For me writing is a vocation, in a spiritual sense, and I ended up a professional writer by pure chance.
BK: Have you ever tried writing poetry?
AH: Yes, of course. This obsession with language, the pressure of words buzzing in my head, found its vent in poetry. There was a period in my life, just after the army, when for about three years I wrote poetry on a daily basis, and I must have written about a thousand poems in those three years. I now know that this was a way for me to tame the language which was raging inside my head. The poems were mostly meaningless and worthless, but it was a necessary phase.
BK: Would you agree that rock ‘n’ roll and everything which was back then generally referred to as "alternative culture" were just as important for your literary beginnings as poetry and fiction were?
AH: For me rock ‘n’ roll was the most important cultural medium. Besides my mother, who is an honest genuine communist, a woman who believed and still believes in justice and equality, my key political influences were The Clash, The Jam and a number of other, mostly leftist bands of the punk and new wave generation, including Yugoslav bands such as Idoli, Haustor and Buldožer. I'm not sure how we could measure this, but it is quite possible that The Clash's album London Calling was in fact the most influential work of art in my life. The late seventies and early eighties, my formative years, were a kind of rock ‘n’ roll renaissance – it is difficult to imagine a better period for pop music, with better, more important and more revolutionary bands. This period coincided with my puberty, which, biologically, is a revolutionary period in every person's life, as well as with our transition from hardcore Titoism toward liberal socialism, perhaps even true democracy. This transition never saw its completion, because it was sabotaged by the nationalists. So, with all that was going on, I naturally thought that the world was ripe for a change, I had a need for a radical change and all that was somehow collected and voiced in the music of those years. That was the first and possibly the last time in the history of the South Slavs that the urban culture did not only acquire voice but was also the driver of change. My ideology, perhaps even my aesthetics are rooted in the music of that time, though it has probably spread wider since then. After all, my very first published article was dedicated to Nick Cave, and some of those aforementioned poetic attempts were used as lyrics by the band I was a member of in the late eighties.
BK: The band was named after one of the characters in the Lord of the Rings? What was your role in the band? Is it really true that you once had to explain to the drummer the meaning of the lyrics you guys were singing?
AH: The band was called Strider. It lasted for about a year, that is, until I fell in love. I was the lead singer and the weaker of the two guitar players. I would bring a three-chord song and the lyrics (one of my many pointless poetic attempts) and then we would turn it into more serious, longer songs. At some point this practice got out of control and we would end up with songs of twelve minutes and four movements, like a string quartet. The drummer was a certain Dule, he was pretty good, but he liked his drink. Once he ate thirteen dolmas the size of a fist, which my mum made for us so that we had something to eat whilst we practised. Later on, he vomited for over an hour – dolma poisoning. At our first concert in Steleks, he got so drunk he forgot the order in which we were to play our songs, so several songs were a total disaster – we didn't have monitors back then so the rest of the band had no idea what he was playing, we played one thing and he played something completely different. The beauty of it was that no one in the audience noticed it either. Anyway, one day Dule announced that he was not going to play our stuff because he couldn't understand the meaning of the lyrics, so I had to sit down with him and shed some light on this aesthetics of mine. The problem was I too wasn't quite sure what those songs were about – the stuff was coming out of me rather spontaneously and madly – so I quite brilliantly improvised my analysis of the songs, without his ever realising I was bullshitting him. I was so convincing that he too started writing poetry, and his was even worse than mine.
BK: Which books, records of that time do you think were significant or influential in your case? What type of literature, which music, titles?
AH: Well, as I said, as far as records, that was London Calling – The Clash. Of the records from Yugoslavia, those were Idoli – Paket Aranžman, Šarlo Akrobata, Električni Orgazam. My favourite and probably the best Yugoslav album of that time is Haustor's Treći Svijet. As for books, The Catcher in the Rye was my bible during the high-school years, the same goes for Raymond Chandler; I also read Bukowski which can only really appeal to adolescents. But I read all the time, I used to read through the night and then sleep in classes, and I often read during classes. Once I was kicked out of a class because I was chuckling as I read Heller's Catch 22. The books that mattered to me then were the books which fitted in with certain fantasies I had of myself. I was perhaps more influenced by the books which I could not project myself into, which were not about me, as I imagined myself back then. I was still in primary school when I read Kafka whose books I couldn't quite understand, and precisely for that reason, they prompted me to contemplate things. Later, when I started university, new horizons opened up for me: Greek tragedies, Dante, Gogol, Tolstoy, etc. Some of those were taught by Marko Vešović, who approached books with a genuine, contagious passion – he is the reason I grew to love Tolstoy, for example.
Film too was very important to me, not just because I grew up next to the Arena Cinema, watching all sorts of films from a very young age, but also because of my unrealised film-making ambitions. Hitchcock was always one of the greatest, which is why I also liked the second-rate by-products such as Brian De Palma. After the Belgrade Fest, we had a week of the Fest films in Sarajevo (in the Dubrovnik Cinema) and I would skive off school (which was also close to Kinoteka) to queue for the tickets to the Apocalypse Now and The Tin Drum.
To me back then (as well as now) everything was interrelated: film, music, literature, visual art… it's all the same thing, everything is connected. I started reading Kafka because a Bowie record or a song was somewhere described as Kafkian, and I wanted to find out what it meant. I read Günter Grass because of the film The Tin Drum.
What I remember with the utmost warmth from my life in Sarajevo is this constant search, this insatiable cultural curiosity. I was interested in everything, all the time. And all my friends were like that – there was a deep solidarity amongst us, based on that curiosity. That is the only thing I feel truly nostalgic about, those people, most of whom you know too, who are interested in everything and who then get together, connected by this collective knowledge. That is the exact opposite of the internet, and something that doesn't happen naturally in capitalism.
BK: Let's get back to literature. Which literature is "closer" to you – Central European, Latin-American, Russian, Anglo-Saxon… or is there no difference and no segregation there?
AH: Someone once asked me who my favourite writers were and I started listing: Danilo Kiš, Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, Vladimir Nabokov… and as I listed them, it suddenly occurred to me that what they all have in common is the instability and displacement of identity. If I add Sebald and Michael Ondaatje to the list, this common trait becomes even more apparent. That is the tradition I relate to, and this tradition is not determined by geography, even though many of the writers on that list are in fact from Central and Eastern Europe, but rather it is defined by a historical experience which had led those writers to having to constantly contemplate their identity. This in turn has somehow led to a particular linguistic sensibility, perhaps because language became their free territory, an area of personal sovereignty.
What I cannot relate to is any kind of national literature, be it our own crypto-fascist and neo-fascist and just plain fascist kind, or that seemingly less harmful Western version of it. I detest the writers who take upon themselves to represent the entire nation or the civilisation, writers who strive to diagnose or illustrate problems of an abstract community.
BK: It is a little known fact that your first more significant literary work (The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders) was first published by being read live on the radio (the Youth Programme of the Radio Sarajevo) and it prompted numerous phone calls of delighted and excited listeners who were unable to find that character in their encyclopaedias. Was this almost Wellsian act helpful to you in any way?
AH: Well, it did help me understand some things. First, it taught me that the difference between reality and fantasy, between history and fiction, is often just a matter of the narrator's approach and attitude and that the media has an inherent authority over reality – the media does not report on reality but they create it, which enables them, as well we know, to lie without any restraint. When we did Alphonse Kauders on the radio, I first read parts of the story in three-minute chunks and then I recorded the entire story, along with sound effects, some twenty five minutes in total, and we played it on the show hosted by Zoka Stevanović and Neven Anđelić. Then we opened our phone lines to the listeners and I pretended to be a historian who has merely discovered the life and work of Alphonse Kauders. I asked the hosts not to laugh on air, no matter what I said. Most of the listeners who called in had believed that Kauders was a historical figure. The scariest and most exciting of all was that I too started to believe in the actual existence of Alphonse Kauders. At one point I started worrying that someone would call in and they would know more about Kauders than I did. Thus I learnt that the story is good when I myself start believing in the characters whom I spent a lot of time and effort inventing.
BK: Alphone Kauders is after all an actual person, he was even featured in some encyclopaedias (a professor, forestry expert, an associate of the Yugoslav Academy of Arts and Science). I would like us to use this example to illustrate your literary process of turning facts into fiction and vice versa.
AH: The story of Kauders started when I was studying for an exam in Bibliography (taught by Vojislav Maksimović, a terrible professor, and a first-rate Chetnik and criminal) and I came across a forestry bibliography published by Alphonse Kauders in 1948. It intrigued me: Kauders was collecting the material for his bibliography during the war, as his Jewish neighbours (I imagined) were being taken away from their homes and transported to Jasenovac, and then he published it as Stalin's troupes crossed the border into the country, and the veterans who were by then living in abandoned Jewish apartments were being banished to Goli Otok. I imagined a character who had no interest in history as such, all in the name of some pseudo-objectivity, rationality and science. Nowadays I would imagine Professor Kauders rather differently, probably as someone who strives to maintain some kind of professional dignity, to share his knowledge with others, this being the only thing he can offer. Nowadays I would approach him with more sensitivity.
I am not sure, though, how representative my writing of Kauders is when it comes to my method. Actually, I'm not sure I even have a method. I've recently completed a book dealing with a historical event from 1908. After I was done with my research, I let it rest for a while, allowing myself to forget the facts and allowing for the story skeleton to form, revealing the deposits of the imaginable human experience. By doing so, I have fundamentally altered this event.
My method is to give in to my own instincts and see where they take me. That is not a very good method if your aim is to progress your career.
BK: Looking at it chronologically, almost a decade had to pass between that first story and your first novel. In that decade the war happened, your study trip to America turned into a permanent residence, emigration, and your learning English as your literary language of choice. Those facts are more or less known to all your readers, but I am interested to hear what was the journey of that book (The Question of Bruno) which you started writing in peacetime and finished in an entirely different atmosphere, one that no imagination, not even that of a writer, could bring into existence?
AH: Although it is true that Kauders was written in peacetime, the decay had by then already begun: the late eighties was the initial stage of a historical disaster. Only, back then I thought that a different, better system might spring up from the ashes of Tito's Yugoslavia. There was a period of five, perhaps six years between communism and fascism when I believed, like so many of my friends, that there was a third, maybe even a fourth option. Of course, this third option was destroyed at its roots. So there are traces of hope in that book, along with a sense of a complete, absolute, bloody defeat. The stories in The Question of Bruno document in a certain way this transformation from a catastrophic euphoria (Kauders is an example of that) to my having to face the fact that history never takes any notice of its victims, that literature is de facto pointless, except perhaps as an ethical standpoint.
BK: Jozef Skvorecky took up English language studies because he fell in love with Judy Garland after watching The Wizard of Oz, and he wanted to write her a letter, declaring his love for her. His only problem was that he didn't speak English at the time. Your reasons for switching into English were rather more existential? Or was that simply the pragmatism of a larger market?
AH: My reasons for switching languages were metaphysical, if you will. At some point I realised that I had lost my connection with the language I once called my mother tongue, which at the time was called Serbo-Croat. Experience alters the language, and I was cut off from the experience of people in Sarajevo which had been my primary and, at times, my exclusive linguistic context. Not to mention that the same – official - language was also the language of all those maksimovićes and bećkovićes and karadžićes. On the other hand, I had realised that I was to stay in America for a very long time, probably till the end of my life and that the language of this experience had to be English or else I was to stay stuck forever in the vacuum of nostalgia. The size of the market had nothing to do with it, because I was writing – and I still do – out of my inner need, literature is my vocation. After all, I had no idea how that market worked, nor did I think anything was ever to come out of it. Then I started writing a column for Dani and through that I renewed the connection with my mother tongue, so now I'm completely bilingual.
BK: A friend who reads you in English tells me that you use very fine language and, on occasions, even rather unusual English in an idiomatic sense. How do you feel about the language which you write in and which is not your mother tongue?
AH: The same way I feel about my mother tongue. The language I write in – actually, languages, because I write in Bosnian too – has to be planted in my subconscious mind. My mother tongue was planted there in my childhood, and English got there by some miracle. In any case, my subconscious is bilingual. I remember, in the early nineties, when I was not writing in either language but was reading like crazy, I had dreams in English and whilst dreaming, I was aware that my dreams should not be in English. Stranger yet, I caught myself remembering in English: I would recall conversations with my friends from Sarajevo and they were in English. Now I think that those were the symptoms of English being planted in my subconscious.
BK: Are there any examples in your English which could help illustrate why this language is "wider," "freer" than the language you started writing in. When is it "easier" to write in English and when do you feel it "restrains" you?
AH: The advantage of English is not in the size of the market, but the size of the language. Books have been regularly published in English ever since the thirteenth century, and at present it is spoken by over a billion people. The existence of Shakespeare's collected works alone is what makes it big.
For example, in my book Nowhere Man, for the piece titled Fatherland I used a lot of quotes from Shakespeare but without the quotation marks. In translations into our languages (and probably all other languages) those Shakespeare's verses are hardly recognisable, not only because many translators had failed to identify them (the Croatian translator had identified quite a few and he used the verses from the Croatian translation) but also because Shakespeare is on the margins of all those national literatures. Besides, I find Shakespeare infinitely more interesting and attractive as a source of language in which I write than Njegoš or, fuck it, I don't know, Marin Držić or Evlija Čelebija or any other member of our nations and nationalities who was merely imitating and introducing and translating the forms which had long since been established in other languages.
There is a certain melody to English language which is different from the melody of our own language, its tonalities and harmonies are much wider and more complicated, because the language has more dialects, styles, idioms, because it has more writers and they all have a different sense of the melody of English. I listen to this melody in Shakespeare and Yeats and Heaney and in countless others, and then I strive to find my own tonalities and harmonies. My favourite English verse is from Hamlet: "When sorrows come, they come not single spies,/ but in battalions." I remember more verses and more poetry in English than I do in our own language and, whenever I feel my soul needs soothing, I read poetry in English.
BK: Does your choice of language in some way reflect a desire to overcome an objective fact that you come from a "small" language?
AH: Our language is not small because it lacks words. What words we have are more than enough to say anything you may say in any other language. The problem is in small cultures, and they are small because they are organised around nations and national identities. Not enough translations are published; there is a constant presence of that xenophobic feeling of our culture being somehow threatened. National cultures are by definition provincial, and this is particularly true of these backward creations which are popping up in countries in transition, where illiteracy seems to be not only common but necessary for the functioning of the crippled states. One of the advantages of English is that it is transnational. American contemporary literature has managed to absorb a large number of writers whose mother tongue is not necessarily English, writers who are not expected to express some national essence. There are of course conflicts and attacks and confusions in American literature too, but no one is surprised by the fact that I regularly publish in The New Yorker, not does anyone deny my right to do so.
BK: Your switch over into English has for some meant the inevitable comparison with Nabokov and Conrad, who too had chosen English as their literary language. How do you feel about such comparisons?
AH: I'm not particularly impressed by Conrad's language – it's pretty stiff and a bit deaf. But no one, apart from Shakespeare, has heard the melody of English the way Nabokov had. However flattering such comparisons may be, they are totally unrealistic. When, like Nabokov, I write forty books in two languages, amongst which there are several masterpieces and a whole lot of excellent books, such comparisons may be possible.
BK: Even as a successful tennis player Mónika Szeles could not get out of a habit of fetching her balls herself. I imagine that was a consequence of her starting a career in a context where one is required to do everything. Can you recognise yourself in this example?
AH: My job is simple: I think, I sit down and write. No one can do that for me. In a way, I'm doing it precisely because there is no space for anyone else in that process – there is an inherent sovereignty, a wonderful illusion of freedom, or at least autonomy, in the act of writing. There are however certain aspects of my professional career which require my having an agent. She is the one who has to deal with publishers and contracts, she attends receptions and dinners in New York and Frankfurt, so that I don't have to.
BK: What is the country which you came from known by in your new world? Was there anyone in your literary "family" who was of some help to you?
AH: It is known, unfortunately, by the war, the fall of Yugoslavia. Balkanisation is a word which has entered the English language and it implies decay, disintegration of a whole into frail units.
And as for my literary family, Danilo Kiš is my model. And I'm not talking just about his formal or intellectual influence. With his help I have managed to formulate ways in which literature can be ethically engaged.
BK: What are those ways?
AH: Kiš knew how to stand up to history and to engage literature ethically without resorting to lecturing or moralising. He knew how to adopt supranational traditions. His Advice to a Young Writer is essentially my ethical manifesto. His story Encyclopaedia of the Dead is an ethically perfect story. I learnt from Kiš that literature, at least in the last twenty years, is based on the sovereignty of the individual. Kiš's literature derives from an axiom that every life is unique and unrepeatable. This individual sovereignty is threatened and destroyed by totalitarian and genocidal regimes. It is threatened by any form of racism. An ethical engagement of literature aims to defend or establish that sovereignty in language.
BK: "People who have 'disappeared' make up the core of my literature and are a fundamental phenomenon of the 20th century," said Kiš. What is your thematic obsession? Would you be able to pin it down? What is the core of your literature?
AH: So far this has been transcultural displacement.
BK: History is one of the pillars of your literature. I would say that you have a very open, atypical, almost friendly relationship with it. What is your view of history, as a space for manipulation, a search for the truth, the rule of the most powerful, a space of freedom?
AH: If history is the sum of all human experience, then literature is the story about that experience. There is a history – with a capital H – featuring large events, large persons, large numbers. Such History does not recognise me as an individual. We (you and I and people we know), as morally and intellectually defined individuals, are of no relevance to it, except maybe as some of its many victims. But the history I am interested in – and this history is not possible without literature – is the history of the individual. The importance of such history, its necessity, is established and confirmed in personal memories, language, story-telling.
BK: Would you then say that literature is a form of battle of an individual against history?
AH: There is no battle. Maybe a fight, an unfair fight in which the best possible outcome is survival, never a victory.
BK: John Irving, an American writer, once said that the only thing which equally disturbs the writers of fiction and historians is the fact that "the world is so poor and pathetic in its ability to usefully absorb its recent past." How does this sound to you, considering our part in the world's history at the end of the 20th century?
AH: Well, I'm not sure who we are. There is no us. I do not feel I belong to any community which cannot be defined by a list of individual names. I consider myself a Bosnian only because so many people I love and respect consider themselves Bosnians, because my growing up in Sarajevo and Bosnia is what defined me. However, given that I do not belong to any of the constitutive nations - nor would I, if I were living in Bosnia, have equal rights to those of members of the constitutive nations - for me Bosnia is a geographical and emotional location. But, as a fallacy of a state which includes overtly criminal creations such as Republika Srpska, as a cynical, criminogenic, triple-headed nationalistic structure which enables those in power to openly steal from their own people, Bosnia is as alien to me as is Saudi Arabia. And I am an American too, because the American experience has also defined me significantly. But America is no better – I am constantly embarrassed for being a part of this America as it is today.
As for our part in history, someone will at some point realise that many global trends in history began with the war in Bosnia or were made more apparent through it. Take, for example, Bosnia as a historical creation whose infrastructure is completely destroyed, as a country which not only does not function but is run by people who never wanted it to start functioning, because the moment any kind of law and order is established, when that criminal-political elite is broken down, when the market starts operating, when the rich start paying taxes, the blatant exploitation of its people will have to stop, the infrastructure will have to start developing. The Bosnian political model enables continued plundering and, as such, can for example serve as a model for Iraq. Iraq will stay the way it is now for at least several generation, and so will Bosnia, like so many countries in transition. The war was just a convenient occasion, a way to break down the country's infrastructure. Modern capitalism feeds on weak countries and broken-down infrastructures. Bosnia is an ideal patient of the new world order, an excellent example of a weak, awfully regulated country which is therefore a perfect market for the epidemic of new capital.
BK: Not just in your first book, but also in general, you often use two motifs which are like threads weaved into the fabric of your literature. Spies and beekeepers, espionage and beekeeping. Is there a deeper meaning to this?
AH: I've always been interested in espionage. I find spy stories interesting: spies have complicated identities, they are characters in their own invented stories. In spy terminology, "legend" is an invented story of their earlier life, which I find fascinating, because my own earlier life sometimes seems to me like an invention. Besides, spies are somehow more real than other, so-called ordinary people, and the world which is constantly persuading itself that life without lies is possible. I find that very interesting, this situation where you keep trying to do "normal" things so that no one would recognise you for what you really are.
And as for beekeeping, that is one of the myths of my family. Beekeeping has a sentimental value for me, and it is also a legacy of a world where such kind of labour had its value.
BK: Humour in your books seems like a combination of our local and English sense of humour. It is as though you have a built-in parachute which somehow cushions the "roughness" so typical of Sarajevo. As if you are trying to keep your cool whilst expecting a burst of laughter at the other end. Do you do it intentionally or does it come naturally to you?
AH: Well, I'm not sure about the English humour bit. I don't actually know what English humour is – Shakespeare's humour is very different from Monty Python's. I see my humour as a certain Eastern European, perhaps Slavic, Chekhovian sensibility. This was best described by Nabokov who said that Chekhov's books are sad books for humorous people – only a reader with a sense of humour can really appreciate their sadness. Sarajevan humour is, I think, unique, practically ingrained in the language, and it is often cruel – it tends to be based on insults and humiliation and provocations. By the way, Chekhov is my ethical idol: for him humanity is a state of constant but pardonable imperfection.
BK: One of your characters, when asked about his nationality, says "I'm complicated." In another text about Danilo Kiš, in answer to a typically local question "Which nationality does he belong to?“ you say, “Mine“. You also talk about your Ukrainian origins. At the same time, you had a column in Sarajevo called The Sarajevo Republic. What's the story with your identities?
AH: My identities are numerous and varied. Every reduction of identity to either national, racial or sexual is a violence against an individual. Every human being is made of layers of identity and that is what constitutes an individual, this unrepeatable combination of layers. Ideological formations – state, nation, class – establish themselves as legitimate through a forceful assumption of the right to identify individuals, and every resistance to that process authorises them to include you in that formation by identifying you as illegitimate or illegal. Hence the multiplicity of identities is not only an ethical but also a political position – I want it to be my right to determine who I am and what I am.
BK: They say that, when they asked Einstein if he carried a notepad for writing down his thoughts, he said that he does not carry a notepad and does not write anything down because "thoughts are so rare." How do you write? Do you type it directly on a computer or is there a process that precedes it?
AH: The main part of creating a story goes on in my head. Some of the stories I wrote were written seven or eight years after the original idea appeared in my mind. I believe it was Kiš who said that he started writing only after he managed to overcome his repulsion for literature. I start writing only when I can no longer bear not to write, when I overcome my resistance towards writing, including my repulsion for literature. I then write with a fountain pen and I write fast and never read what I write until I'm done writing. After that I type it on the computer, and I sometimes leave out dozens of pages, and sometimes I add things that did not occur to me until that moment. And every time I write, there comes a point when I feel the story or book is terrible, I don't have a clue about what I'm doing and, at that precise moment, I know I will finish what I'm doing and it will be different from what I'd written before. In the entire process of writing – which induces a certain state of trance, a sense of an intense presence in the world – the most pleasant phase is when I'm cutting out things after I decided the story or book is completed.
BK: Does your writing require any particular conditions? Peace, space, people, atmosphere?
AH: Loud music and a certain amount of coffee are my only conditions. This can be in a bar, in a house full of people, and it can be at six in the morning, when everyone is asleep. It has to be in a city, not for the writing itself but for afterwards. When I'm in the deepest trance, I can write for about four-five hours a day. But when I'm done writing, my body is so flooded with adrenalin that I cannot sit still, I need human masses and bars and the urban intensity. I once went to a writers' colony in the state of New York: total peace, birds, does and other living things. There was an apple tree underneath my window and the silence was such that I could hear an apple fall off the tree. I nearly went crazy there. After spending three to four hours writing I would be overcome by such an adrenalin rush that I had to make some Brazilian writer play table tennis with me for two-three hours, until this crazy tension wore off. But the poor guy soon started avoiding me. Anyway, I had to chuck away everything I wrote there, it was no good.
BK: I remember a morning few years back, in Sarajevo. We were sitting in a café (the old gang from the radio) and the whole time we were there, we were trying to get you to come out and join us, but you didn't because you had to write a certain number of pages. Is this some kind of rule?
AH: I remember that too. Only it wasn't about the number of pages, there was a scene or a situation I just had to finish. When I immerse myself into this, I cannot stop writing until I'm done. I can't, for example, stop mid-sentence if I'm writing a dialogue, the conversation has to finish. Graham Green had a rule: six hundred words – two pages – every day. I can go for months without writing and I don't get worried because I think it is very important for a writer not to write sometimes. But when I start something, I have to finish it.
BK: Who is the first reader of your books?
AH: I am. But I the reader, not I the writer.
BK: How do you make that shift between the two identities, I don't suppose there is a switch you can press to transform the creator into an observer?
AH: Those aren't different identities, but different points of view. In a way, I write books which I as a reader would like to read. After all, I've been a reader for the past forty years and I've read hundreds, maybe even thousands of books, and I've written only four. My experience as a reader is much bigger and far more important and I don't find it difficult to imagine how my writing would seem to me, had I stumbled upon it as a reader. On top of that, I love meeting and talking to the readers of my books – which is not too difficult as there aren't too many of them out there – because it helps me understand how my writing appears to them. And there is rarely any radical difference in how I see my texts and how they are perceived by some anonymous reader.
BK: Your second American book (Nowhere Man) is largely about a character which ended your previous book, Jozef Pronek. Like you, he arrives in America towards the end of January1992. How much of it is biographical and how much is fictional?
AH: Biography is irrelevant here. My imagination is such that I like best to embellish what has already happened – to me or to someone else. And when I start embellishing it, I don't stop until I believe in that character or characters, until I'm convinced that this sequence of events is real, that this world won't collapse the moment I step out of it. I truly don't recognise myself in Pronek. Moreover – and this might be dangerous – some of my memories with which certain parts of the book begin have been completely overwritten by what I wrote – they now belong to Pronek, not me. I can no longer remember what happened, I only know what I wrote.
BK: There is a character in this book, a nationalist and emigrant, a big time Serb, "son of a bitch who never pays his child support" whose name is Branko Brđanin, yet another character from our lives here, same name, same surname. He was working at the Youth radio in late eighties just as you were starting your career there. When you employ such "direct" technique, what is it that you hope to achieve?
AH: It helps me establish a relationship with the character, but that changes too. This character in the book in the end falls to pieces in his Serb-loving madness. The real Brđanin did not fall to pieces, unfortunately, and he is now managing a theatre or some other pseudo-cultural institution in Republika Šumska.
BK: Do you follow what critics write about you? Andrić once said that he had never read a single critique that he found useful. Abroad, along with an impressive collection of interviews, you can also find decent critical reviews of your work. Here, and especially in Sarajevo, (apart from praise for the success of being "one of our own" in the big world) there is next to nothing as far as critical reviews. Does this bother you or are you indifferent to it?
AH: I do follow what people write about me. On the one hand, I find it difficult to resist this vain urge, but on the other, critics are basically professional readers, and I believe it's important I know what my readers think, what they see, what confuses them and what excites them. I am bothered by the absence of any serious critique in Sarajevo, but not because there isn't enough stuff being written about my work, but because it is a symptom of the weakness of Bosnian literature which, if you think about it, only exists within a very small circle of people, and any critique is inevitable reduced to friendly support or mean, personal attacks. I imagine literature as a public space where writers, readers, critics talk about things which are not defined or touched by other forms of art or public discourses. The absence of any serious critique is, in fact, only a symptom of a complete ethical and intellectual collapse of the public space in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
BK: You have a very pronounced interest in politics and you deal with it especially through your columns. American politics, Bush, these seem to be your favourite topics. Isn't this a waste of time for literature?
AH: For literature yes, of course it is. But I am not only a writer, I'm also a citizen, a person who is having to face, on a daily basis, the consequences of a moral and political disaster embodied by the Bush administration. After all, my displacement to America is a direct consequence of the political disaster in former Yugoslavia and Bosnia. I write columns for the newspapers partly because I then find it easier to eliminate rage from my literature. So there is therefore an occupational segregation between different forms of writing.
BK: What would you say is the key misconception of your generation? For my generation, for example, this was a belief that socialism or the social system in general "had its human face".
AH: There were many misconceptions, and some I'm not even ashamed of. The key misconception was, I think, our belief that there is a direct link between one's cultural knowledge and one’s moral and ethical engagement – that someone who listens to The Clash or reads Shakespeare cannot be a Chetnik or a war criminal. Although this misconception is probably not unique to my generation. You know what half of the displaced (and not displaced) Sarajevo likes to think: the war was started and fought by rednecks, people who didn't listen to enough rock ‘n’ roll and didn't read enough books. I'm not ashamed of my having believed that reading books would improve one morally. But I would be ashamed to believe that now, or to think that the war was started by rednecks.
BK: In one of his interviews Doctorow (Edgar Lawrence) states that in America everything is arranged so as to draw the writer away from his work – a talk show in the morning, lecturing tours during the day and then creative writing seminars at university. How do you manage if this is indeed so?
AH: That's the price of a professional situation, and it can be overwhelming at times, but on the other hand I've travelled the world as a professional writer, I met many interesting people (including Doctorow, who is a wonderful man), I connected with Bosnians living abroad. As I said, I love talking to people, and I don't mind being in a situation which makes that possible. I also like lecturing – although I'm currently very careful about when I lecture and what I lecture, because that too is a situation of dialogue. I do not function well in isolation – either as a writer or as a person. Perhaps I'm like Mónika Szeles in that respect – I write in every situation and when I set out to write whatever it is that I have to write, nothing can draw me away from that. Not one of these books was written in ideal conditions – I was writing throughout the war and depression and divorce, through all sorts of lousy jobs, in bars, at airports, in hotels, always with the help of coffee and loud music.
BK: If I understood correctly, in the meantime you have completed two books? One takes place in Ukraine and Moldavia and the other in Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century. Is this correct and what are you working on at the moment?
AH: It's the same book – The Lazarus Project. The stories of Chicago and Eastern Europe intertwine, but everything is related to a 1908 incident when a chief of Chicago police, for the reasons unknown, shot a young emigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, a survivor of the pogrom in Chisinau who ended up in Chicago. The second book is a collection of stories I wrote as I was working on Lazarus, and it just piled up. I then collected some essays, articles and lectures I wrote in English, enough material for another book. So, I'm expecting to have three books published in the next few years.
BK: Finally, something similar to that famous BBC show where each guest is required to state their choice of music they would take to a desert island. So, which music, which books would you pack up if life were to take you to a place of solitude? Though I actually think a better question would be: which people would you wish to take with you to a desert island?
AH: I would of course take my wife and daughter and my parents and my sister and her family and a lot of friends from Sarajevo and some American friends too – enough of us to have a football league. This island would very soon become overpopulated. But for the moments of peace and solitude I would bring Bach, if not his collected works, then the St Matthew Passion. And Mozart, at least several piano concertos (21, 23 and 25). Also Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus and Miles Davis are all necessary in my life, and Ella Fitzgerald too. The Beatles – The White Album, Abbey Road, Revolver. As for books, Chekhov's stories are obligatory. Shakespeare, too. Plenty of poetry, but only a few poems by each poet – Dickinson, Yeats, Wordsworth, Larkin, Auden, Frost and many others whom I cannot exclude. What can I say? It would be very crowded.