STATIONS OF MEMORY
translated from Croatian by Graham McMaster
Daša Drndić: From the section that follows, it is obvious that you are preparing a rather extensive manuscript about your former individual and eternal Belgrade friends and colleagues with whom you lived through an exciting period in not only Serbian but also Yugoslav art, both in the fine arts and film as well as literature. Apart from Živojin Pavlović, whom else do you intend to bring to life, and why?
Mirko Kovač:I’d like to do a rather long book of memoirs, but something holds me back, and I don’t myself know what it is. I admire those who are able to write memoirs, but for a novelist it’s a difficult and often unsuccessful task. In his book of memories Other Shores Nabokov says in one place: “Mnemosyne dies in a cold room at the hands of the belle-lettriste”. It seems to me somehow that I don’t have the key to the writing of memoires. What I am doing now, what I am working on, I have tried to determine in genre terms like anti-memoire, employing this title or perhaps gimmick of Malraux’s as a kind of key to make it easier. Under this heading perhaps I shall manage to conjure something up about the exciting times, but without sections that are really essays I wouldn’t be able to do this. So I am combining the memoir and the essay in order to avoid one or the other genre on its own. Recently, in several instalments in Feral, I published my encounters with Andrić; some of my friends and readers think that these are just fragments, that there is a lot more behind them. That’s the impression these writings give, that of sketches, for there is no whole. There’s nothing I can do here. Even if I wanted to and were able to describe some extremely bizarre and lunatic affairs, I no longer want to, for many of these are now dead souls, and I don’t want to trade in souls. What I write about late friends is only what I would be able to say about them while they were alive. And this is not enough for a book of memoirs. For example, about Kiš, there are many things I cannot write. We were close, there were no secrets between us, we confided our intimate stories to each other. I can’t write about that. But if I were able to speak with him again, I would absolutely want to ask him why in his will he requested to be buried according to the Orthodox rites. In one piece, which will come out in this book of so-called memoirs, I wrote about this funeral, tried to explain it, put some unknown details into the piece, but I nevertheless sent it to Filip David to check, and he took all those private things out and told me that we cannot write even about what we would be able to tell Kiš if he were alive, and then if need be have it out with him. I mean to say that this will be a rather special set of memories, all of them plaudits, with just the occasional complaint. Only in very rare instances is truth dearer to me than a friend.
D.D.: In the piece about Živojin Pavlović you say that it’s all the same to you what some of the people with whom you were very close some twenty or thirty or even forty years ago are doing now. I don’t believe that you will be able to stop at this, although you write that you are lingering ever more gladly at the stations of memory. If we want to bring these stations of memory to life, I think it’s impossible not to extend them to the moment we live today. You were not able to avoid this even in the article about Živojin Pavlović. For apart from your unblemished friendships with Filip David and Vidosav Stevanović, whom you still meet today, not to mention Kiš and Pekić, to whom you might be able to devote a book, there were all kinds of adventures and discussions here, conflicts and reconciliations with people that ought not to be missed out in this kind of cross-section of an exciting cultural and political scene. There is Miodrag Bulatović, Branimir Šćepanović and Borislav Mihajlović-Mihiz; there is Dragan Jeremić, Slobodan Selenić,and Bora Radović; then there is Mira Trailović, and Vida Ognjenović, the living and the dead. And you have some great stories about Lordan Zafranović, the painter Radomir Reljić and many other painters. Then there is Branko Vučičević, and the famous Francuska ulica 7 in various “uniforms” and costumes. Lord, how many days and nights, how many raised voices, bottles drunk, how many shrewd (using a non-Croatian word) anecdotes, revolts, big and little battles lost and won. You can write a really major work. For the thirty-year-olds in Croatia today, these names mean little or nothing and yet they would have something to say to them.
M.K.: I think a bit earlier I expressed my doubts about this big book, this story of modern times, and I don’t believe it will be written. Although I’m pleased you think I could do it, it’s not feasible. I’d sooner write a novel. A novel releases you from the discipline that restricts memoir writing. As long as I don’t start writing, I think it’s a simple story, that I could tell in an evening, into a dictaphone or before a camera, but writing is something different, at least when it’s done by someone who’s a novel-writer by trade. In his excellent autobiography Love and Exile, Singer, at the beginning, in the foreword, says that only a “spiritual biography” is possible, but by the very act of writing “it becomes fiction resting on grounds of truth”.
In the book I am now putting together many people are mentioned, including those you spoke about a just now, there is something of these times, but it is all in allusions hardly touched on. If I were to describe everything I had gone through with, for example, Miodrag Bulatović, being friends with him in the second half of the sixties, it would be a scandal of a book in which I would put myself in an awkward position, for how could I have taken part in certain things, even as an observer? He is a brilliant writer, with four marvellous books, but the rest is trashy and horrible, and forgotten today; no one in the Serbia that sent him crazy knows about him, won’t hear about him, and he’s been translated into about thirty languages - he himself didn’t know how many. In Japan his novel The Red Cock Flies to the Sky has come out in paperback, with a print order of about a hundred thousand. I spent almost two months with him on Mt Vogel, in Slovenia. It was there he wrote his flop of a novel War was Better, and I wrote the screenplay for the film Lisice. We often took breaks to go by cable car to the last station, and then on foot, to the peak, which if I am not mistaken is called Šije, at a height of about 1,800 m. One day we were sitting on the peak, lounging in the grass, when he suddenly got a fit of epilepsy, about which I knew nothing. I didn’t know what to do, how to help him. He thrashed head and body on the ground, foaming at the mouth. We were alone at 1800 metres, nobody anywhere, and I was completely convinced he would die and that that would be the end. I mention this detail only to try to envisage to myself how and in what way this could be described, whether it is possible at all. Or one more event, if it’s not too much of a bother for you. I was with Bulatović in Hamburg, at the promotion of the book Hero on a Donkey, which was a smash hit in Germany. After the launch and dinner, in the late hours, Bulatović said he would take me to a queers’ night club. A translator from German was with us, I think he was called Vukić; I remember him because he always carried cured sausage in his briefcase, and every now and then he would take a bit out and take a bite. And now, we go into the club, up to the bar, order some drinks. There’s a fellow behind the bar and Bulatović at once gets into conversation with him. Asks him what he likes, and the lad says that he likes paying for someone to get hold of his hair and bash his head against the wall or whatnot. Bulatović says he’ll do it for free, takes the lad by the hair and bashes his head against the bar. The boy is bleeding from the nose and I’m expecting some commotion, but the lad just repeats “Noch, noch, noch!” Bulatović furiously bashes his head on the bar. I’m shaking from some kind of distress, some terrible feeling, and shout out hysterically that we have to get out of there. And the three of us set off, but out of some shady compartment comes a vast, muscular guy. I think, oh, here’s trouble, now we’re going to get thrashed, but the guy turns to Bulatović, politely, even humbly, gives him his card, and says that he had watched the scene at the bar with a lot of pleasure. These are just a few examples, and with Bulatović alone I had a hundred things happening, but it seems to me I can’t put them in a book, for my problem is writing. I expect something very different from writing, and these are just stories, anecdotes perhaps. What has no value as art doesn’t interest me. If you want to know, sincerely, reading doesn’t interest me either. I mean, I don’t care whether someone will read my things. I write for writing’s sake. I write because I can no longer run away from it. Memoirs are read, but usually they don’t have any very great value as art, not even those of Malraux. Perhaps just a few books of memoirs have gone over this border: the memoirs of Knut Hamsun, considered to be a masterpiece; Singer’s autobiography; the Marquez book Living to Tell the Tale, and perhaps a couple more I can’t recall at the moment.
D.D.: I would think that there was no socialising of the same intensity and high charge at that time in Zagreb. If you agree, why do you think it is so? If you don’t agree, then what did this socialising look like from a Belgrade viewpoint?
M.K.: I have lived in Belgrade and in Zagreb, and at one time, while I was writing for films, I lived half and half between Belgrade and Zagreb. Personally, I liked Zagreb more, it wasn’t such hard work as Belgrade; often I took cover in Zagreb and recovered from Belgrade. In those years Zagreb was a province, culturally speaking. Nothing was happening, not on any level. There were gifted people, considerable names in the arts, but it was all somehow just dying down in itself, if I can put it like that. It was all slow, boring, resigned. There was also fear, of good and of bad. In Belgrade there was theatre, literature, conflict, the Black Wave, books and performances and films were being banned. Modernists and realists were slugging it out, and we later came upon the scene. There were heated arguments, heavy drinking, dissipation. We hung around the pubs till morning. Some cafes like Zmajko at Bajlonijeva, Tabor at Kalenić Market, Posljednja šansa and Skardarlija worked all night. When I came to Zagreb, well, if you didn’t get a bite by ten in the evening, you had to stay hungry. Belgrade had the Documentary Film Festival, Bemus, the music festival, BITEF – in Belgrade you could watch six hours of Bergman’s staging of Strindberg’s Way to Damascus, then FEST, first nights, Atelje 212 and so on. If you wanted to see some Zagreb friends, you didn’t actually have to go to Zagreb, they were in Belgrade because of all these goings-on in the arts. I think there was a kind of resignation in Zagreb. They felt left out, which led to a sense of powerlessness; they couldn’t undertake anything, organise anything, and in terms of the arts it was a desert. There was no desire even to compete with Belgrade; it was easier and more convenient to go there and see everything. The first film that experienced political problems, which was produced in Zagreb, was a film for which I wrote the screenplay, Lisice – Handcuffs. Screening of it was forbidden in Belgrade, and that’s where the confrontation started. It couldn’t get anywhere in Belgrade, but in Croatia it got all the prizes and was pronounced one of the few best films ever made in Croatia. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that some sort of winning-back-liberty started in Croatia with me. I am far from assigning myself any kind of importance, but from the beginning of the seventies this Croatian resignation gradually turned into confrontation, which was very good and positive.
Things are very different today. It can’t all happen so fast; yesterday independence began, Zagreb became a cultural centre, and if there is nothing of real value yet, there is still potential. The weakness of Croatia is that they talk a lot and that’s where it peters out. There’s something of that Mediterranean chatter, it’s all some empty chiacchiere; they don’t get to grips with serious themes, with what they’ve lived through, but use it all up facilely in small talk. I don’t recall who it was who said that the worst are those cultures and peoples that are “participants in evil at the same time as when they’re victims”.
D.D. : Since you live in Rovinj, from that position on the outskirts, that is, outside the centre of the Croatian arts scene in the broadest sense, how much does it seem to you lively, argumentative, avant-garde? Why, or why not?
M.K.: If the Croatian arts scene were, as you say, lively and avant-garde and argumentative, I’d probably know it even though I live in Rovinj, because I don’t live in isolation. Something nevertheless gets through to me, but what gets through from the Croatian, i.e. our arts scene is not lively or avant-garde. There have been some arguments, but I can’t recall about what. Ah, yes, I recall, something about some prizes, someone refused some prize or something, and some people said it was an act of morality while others moaned about the cash. Quite recently there was something about prizes again. And yet, there are some nice books, and good writers, even some marvellous things like the periodicals Europski glasnik, Tvrđa, Gordogan. There are many people who are fantastically devoted to their job, but then some others appear who do the best they can to frustrate those who are doing something. There’s always been on the Croatian cultural scene, probably like elsewhere, a parallel and destructive opposition to things of worth. As soon as someone succeeds, not only in art, an alarm goes off, he’s got to be toppled, made an ordinary petit bourgeois, and if you’ve worried him or hurt him, you can gloat over it. Perhaps these are the laws of small nations, for small nations, as Kundera puts it, are just one family and everyone knows everyone else. Perhaps something is happening in the theatre, without my knowing; in film, there is almost nothing of any note, we are way behind Bosnian film, all the time saying when some Bosnian film gets an Oscar or a Golden Bear, this or that prize, that it’s a Croatian film too, for some of our actors have taken part, some producer invested something. It’s true, but we still don’t have any films. In Croatia there’s a fear of real things, and a constant flight to the superficial and the trivial. This society is shocked to the core by a list of former secret police, but only at the level of gossip, not as a real theme. There is no book, film, performance about the many dramatic fates of the secret police and the police informers and so on, but there’s loose talk in the cafes – “You don’t say, he worked in UDBA too, who would have guessed?” And none of it is relevant, it all just dissipates, who cares, empty patter, empty chatter.
D.D. : How are things in Montenegro? As far as I see, you are working very vigorously with the country, or at least with some people in it.
M.K.: I have to admit that I don’t know the political or cultural circumstances in Montenegro, I don’t follow them enough to be well informed. I’ve been outside the country a long time. The year before last I was there for the first time in twenty years. I’ve got a bit involved now as far as it is possible from this distance. I keep up some contacts, more so than when I lived in Belgrade. What I would like now is somehow to take part in the process of Montenegro becoming independent, which won’t be very easy, because the Montenegrins are divided by their feelings of ethnicity, some Serbs are more Serbian than Serbs, others are Montenegrins more than they need be. Among some there is that state-forming awareness connected with Serbia, while among others, there are the traditional Montenegrin values. Pro-Serb Montenegro follows everything that comes out of Belgrade blindly, even if it’s only evil, which it was during the time of Milošević. Montenegrins went to war, destroyed Dubrovnik, because they were following the will of Belgrade. That pro-Serb Montenegrin lot don’t distinguish good from evil, because someone else is thinking for them. If it is fascism, as it was with Milošević, they will take it. This pro-Serb lot in Montenegro disseminates Serbian nationalism, intolerance for others and minorities; it’s low on the moral scale, below any criterion of humanity. This subordinate stratum has completely abandoned the old Montenegrin virtues, like heroism and manliness. It is hard to be with such people, but I still believe that there are many more of those who want to renovate Montenegrin statehood and that they will somehow get beyond the influence of Serbia, so fatal in the past.
D.D.: Still, it’s not that you have no idea who is publishing what in Belgrade and who is at work politically and artistically. Filip David, yes, I use an already done-to-death phrase, is the moral exemplar of the Serbian cultural and political scene, and you are in contact with him all the time. If nothing else, he informs you about the curiosities of the place. The curiosities of this place, Croatia, are known to us, but for readers of other former-Yugoslav milieus, you can say a bit more about it if you want.
M.K.:Dašenka, I don’t know what to do with this question. Perhaps I’m a bit tired with questions. Perhaps something else might, in small quantities, be added. How the Herzgovinans, for example, adored Gojko Šušak, and they know that his mother was a Montenegrin, and then the gusle players sang that he was refined, from a good home, smart, brilliant, a wonderful general, then the last lines went approximately, “and then Stane his marvellous mother / if not from our side, but the other”.