9 July 2014 Miljenko Jergović’s story and interview in Tygodnik Powszechny weekly
It seems to me that the 20th century is too much for me. And perhaps there is no sense in trying to grasp the whole, if we are interested in details. If we like to tell local stories, why should we take up the universal ones? I have always been interested in such a micro-scale outlook and in the world of detail, as in it, I imagine, the whole is reflected, in the same way as the whole world is mirrored in the smallest shard of a smashed car window. Grzegorz Jankowicz from Tygodnik Powszechny weekly is talking to Miljenko Jergović about the grandfather conscripted to Bosnian army, about the family relic written in Italian but in Cyrillic characters, about the last meal of Francis Ferdinand and about literature, which may be the only rescue for martyrs and exiles.
Let us remind you that the newest issue of Tygodnik Powszechny features the writer’s short story entitled The Supernatural Expression of His Hands, concerning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
“I believe the 20th century to be too much for me. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to embrace the whole if we are interested in detail. If we like telling local stories, why should we reach up to the all-encompassing ones? I’ve always been keen on such a look, on a micro scale, the world of detail, because it is in them – at least this is how I see it – that the whole is reflected, much like the whole world is reflected in the smallest particle of the windshield smashed into smithereens.” About a grandfather conscripted into Bosnian army, about a cherished family relic in Italian language written down in Cyrillic script, about the last meal of Franz Ferdinand, and about literature, which is the only salvation for martyrs and exiles, Grzegorz Jankowicz of Tygodnik Powszechny talks to Miljenko Jergović.
The latest issue of Tygodnik Powszechny includes a short story by Miljenko Jergović – Nadprzyrodzony wyraz jego rąk(The supernatural expression of his hands), making reference to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
Čabrinović, the protagonist of Conrad’s unwritten novel
Miljenko Jergović: “That’s one of the reasons why I deal with the ‘Great War’. I want to bring back to life my Grandpa who died in the autumn of 1972, and is buried in one of the Sarajevo cemeteries together with my grandmother and mother.”
Grzegorz Jankowicz: Literature does not always answer the experiences of war. It happens that the literary history of a conflict and events related to it is written down by the generations that had no direct contact with such an experience. How was it in the case of Bosnian writers? When did Bosnian literature take up the subject of the first world war.?
Miljenko Jergović: I believe there is no rule here. Sometimes great literature is born during an event, and sometimes a historical moment passes by unnoticed and someone returns to it only years later. The most important Bosnian or Yugoslavian literary texts on the “Great War” originated either while it still continued or immediately afterwards. Ivo Andrić, a Bosnian (Serb, Croatian, Yugoslavian…) Nobel Prize winner reacted very quickly to that war, as already in detainment (1915–1917), referring to it on the side-lines of his poetic diary Ex ponto. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, he would return to the subject in numerous short stories that either concerned the war directly, or focused on the circumstances of the Sarajevo assassination.
Interestingly, none of our men of letters, whether prose writer, dramatist or diarist, ever took interest in what was taking place at the time on the fronts of northern Italy, by the Piave and Soča rivers, where Bosnian youth were heroically dying in gory skirmishes: young men aged from 21 to 35, fighting for the Emperor in Bosnia and Herzegovina Infantry Regiments, who wore fezzes instead of military caps to demonstrate that the authorities stalwartly supported variety and respected the convictions of all the citizens of the Monarchy. Why did this subject pass unnoticed in our country? Why didn’t anyone write even a short essay about it? Initially, immediately after the war, the Bosnian regiments remained unmentioned, as there was no patriotic demand for their history. After all, from the perspective of the newly established Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the soldiers of that unit supported the enemy’s interest. It must be, however, emphasised that they not only supported it, but first of all shed their blood and gave up their lives. In the name of what? The final defeat? Writing about that was not allowed, and as the times changed the subject went into oblivion.
Generally, the First World War is hardly present in the literature of southern Slavs. The exception are Serbs, although we have a problem with them as well. In their case, the subject gained popularity in the 1980s, that is, before the breakdown of Yugoslavia, as a domain of national and nationalistic narration. Novels from that time, as a rule, speak of the heroism of Serb soldiers and the ingratitude of other Yugoslavian nations, especially the ones whose representatives served in the Austro-Hungarian army. From the artistic point of view, these books are quite insignificant today. Of course, there are exceptions, nevertheless most of these texts are nothing else but tools to be applied for combat, literary hand grenades and bombs resorted to before you reach for genuine weapons.
What texts, what works devoted to the subject played the most important role in the Yugoslavian literary tradition?
You could say that the most valuable Yugoslavian testimonies to the first world war in this context are two pieces very unlike each other, namely a collection of war-time short stories by the Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža Croatian God Mars (Hrvatski bog Mars) and reporter sketches placed at the end of a volume of poetry entitled Lyrics of Ithaca by a Serbian writer, Miloš Crnjanski. Krleža wrote about the hecatomb of domobrans, i.e. Croatians serving in the Monarchy’s army on the fronts of the “Great War”, which he however did not participate in. In turn, Crnjanski discussed the history a Serb in the Habsburg army from his own experience, because as a citizen of the Royal and Imperial Monarchy he was drafted and did his military service.
Both Crnjanski and Krleža turned the experience of war into serious literature. However, they both wrote from the position of losers, which is quite exceptional, as there is hardly any representation of this approach in the literature of southern Slavs. It is dominated, at least as far as the wartime themes are concerned, by the national romanticism and nationalistic stereotypes, that is either dazzling with heroism of the soldiers or lamentation over the doom of the civilians. What is why perhaps the most popular subject is that of a mother whose son dies on the front; and obviously dies a hero’s death. Sobbing, the mother is yet capable of appreciating the sacrifice made on the altar of patriotism. Even if she had a hundred sons, she would hand them all over to fatherland without hesitation.
What made you start writing about the first world war?
I write about what I find interesting also as a reader. This is the first and foremost of the reasons. I find this subject very dear also for personal reasons.
My grandfather, Franjo Rejc, was born and brought up in Bosnia, yet he felt a Slovene (as his father hailed from there), which, of course, was immaterial to the powers that be. When recruiting started, he was drafted and as a soldier of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Infantry Regiment, a fez on his head, he lived through the hell of the Soča. By that river, more or less, 30 km away from the first line of the front, his father – my great-grandfather – was born. There, by the Soča, Franjo was made an Italian prisoner of war. He had not been let out until 1921. When he returned home he had beautiful tales to tell, which I eagerly listened to throughout my childhood. He had a talent for languages, learned his Italian quickly, and began working as an interpreter. That’s why the Italians kept him so long. He made many true friends among them, and their shared story overshadowed his earlier painful memories of the frontline. From the war, he brought a little black book, which was his diary, written in pencil and ink. To be on the safe side, and not to have colleagues peering over his shoulder, he used Italian but in Cyrillic script. Those who knew the script didn’t understand the words, and those who knew the language could not decode the alphabet. As a boy I hardly parted from that book, and whenever I move homes I take it with me. It is a family relic.
That’s one of the reasons why I deal with the “Great War”. I want to bring back to life my Grandpa who died in the autumn of 1972, and is buried in one of the Sarajevo cemeteries together with my grandmother and mother.”
In a short story Nadprzyrodzony wyraz jego rąk / The supernatural expression of his hands you focus primarily on a group of conspirers, paying attention especially to these aspects of their personality that in a way connected to the attempted assassination.
I write about them and their generation, in more than just this story. I wrote lots of both fiction and non-fiction stories about the events preceding the attempt, and generally from before the outbreak of the first world war. Gavrilo Princip is – something I keep repeating – my high school friend. We are only 70 years apart, and everything besides this remains the same: the same school corridors, classrooms, coal-fired stoves, stairs and railings. His deed changed the course of European history.
The assassination opened the cruel 20th century, and focused in itself the later events from the October Revolution, via the coming of Hitler to power, the Holocaust, German concentration camps, the period of Stalinism, the Gulag, the signing of the Warsaw Treaty, to the establishment of the NATO, the Cold War, Vietnam, etc. In each of these, you could hear reverberations of the shot fired by Gavrilo Princip. You can say that this sound accompanied the birth of us all, of entire Europe. So is that man not interesting? Are not his companions interesting, ones with whom he experienced spiritual euphoria reading Walt Whitman, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and classics of anarchism, and with whom he yielded to romantic vagaries about the unification of southern Slavs into a single nation in a single state? None of his dreams came true. Hell was released on Earth, and Princip and other members of Young Bosnia, having experienced it, would be long dying in the prisons of Austro Hungary.
Which is precisely why I find them fascinating. Had their desires being satisfied, they wouldn’t be so interesting. Because winners are boring. They have their victories, and all that is left to the victims is literature.
You present them as “hotheads, amateurs who in killing the Austro-Hungarian Archduke wanted to learn the trade, so that, if they were ever granted such an opportunity, they could approach another assassination professionally”. Is this a hint for the reader to understand that significant historical events – in this case, the war – take their origin in not fully thought out decisions and chaotic, random activities of people?
Although it is not a rule, it was so in this case. These were the circumstances that played the key role in the outbreak of the First World War. I’m not going to lie if I say that the “short 20th century” began by coincidence, and then was guided by the hand of some cruel providence.
It is quite ironic when you write that to “martyrs and exiles, only literature can bring salvation. For only in literature can they get another chance. Was it also your goal to throw “a life line” to the hapless conspirers?
No, because they are long gone. Possibly it is us who need the lifeline while we are reflecting over their lives. Or when we consider ourselves the children of the 20th century.
The group you are presenting features a very clear division into those who have no doubts concerning the sense of the actions (they don’t even consider the consequences, as they are interested in pure action only) and the ones who are concerned primarily about the results. Yet you do not expand on this theme, and it seems that such a conflict gives plenty of opportunities for the narrative.
It will quite probably be developed by somebody else in another tale, or possibly I might have done it myself, although I’m not aware of that. People frequently fall into those whose acts pay attention to no results, and those who do nothing because they are paralysed by the fear of consequences. Thanks to these and those, our world looks what it does look like. Personally, I belong to the latter, and it is quite possible that this is why I deal with literature.
Coming up to speak in the story is also the subject of various options of history: the fates of individuals and nations could have followed different routes if it had not been Čabrinović but somebody else who threw the bomb. Did you consider writing such an alternative history of the 20th century?
I believe the 20th century to be too much for me. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to embrace the whole if we are interested in detail. If we like telling local stories, why should we reach up to the all-encompassing ones? I’ve always been keen on such a look, on a macro scale, the world of detail, because it is in them – this is how I see it – that the totality reflects, much like the whole world reflects in the smallest particle of the windshield smashed into smithereens.
You present Čabrinović hurling the bomb in a highly ironic way, although at the same time, highly precise factographically. After the failed assassination attempt, Čabrinović tried to poison himself, yet he failed. The dose of poison he swallowed was too little to result in death. And as a furious crowd attacked the conspirer, he – as if in violation of the gravity of the moment – threw up. It is clearly visible that you are also interested in the comic (and sorrowful in its comedy) aspect of great history.
Every tale, even the oldest, has a comic or tragicomic aspect. And when it comes to history, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m far more interested in small events that, taken together, build up something big. For example, I preferred to study the menu of Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie last dinner than the geostrategic analyses of the reasons underlying the outbreak of the “Great War”.
It is Čabrinović , who is the central protagonist of your text. Why is it him, and not Princip who finally managed to murder the Archduke, that truly attracted your attention?
Princip is a revolutionary, an emblematic figure, a man with charisma, and Čabrinović is a born loser, a light-hearted boy, with ambiguous principles, tragically conflicted with his father, sad and lonely, a graphic worker with adventurer disposition, a rolling stone, who, however, feels the gravity of life and knows what he is going to lose devoting it for the cause (only later, immediately before the attempted assassination, would he lose his love for that life). In turn, Princip is strong and self-assured, cynical and resigned to his death, reminding in his stalwartness of young Trotsky and all the other hopeless revolutionaries of the 20th century, the generally hated today anti-American militants fighting for Muslim rights included.
There was plenty that stood between Čabrinović and Princip. Which is why they hated each other. Had they survived, there would probably have been a sharp conflict between them. Čabrinović is like the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s unwritten novel, while Princip with his cynicism and self-assuredness belongs rather to Gombrowicz. Let’s assume that he did not die in Terezin, but escaped to America, which by the way he frequently dreamt of as his homeland of dreams. If it had happened so, he would be looking at his compatriots with a dose of despair, equal to that which Gombrowicz had assaying Poles. Lo and behold, there is a Transatlantic with Princip in the leading role being born in my head…
Another important thing is the one that concerns relationships between individual nations: Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians… and also their attitude to the idea of Yugoslavism. Could you tell me more about this, placing it in the context of the First World War?
That was the period when new states originated, the time when European nations were only learning to crawl, and – especially in the Balkans, you didn’t really know where was the end of one and the beginning of another. The Yugoslavian emancipation idea was born among the southern Slavs who had neither independence nor national rights within the borders of an alien state. This refers to Croatians enfolded in Austro Hungary rather than to Serbs who at that time already had their own kingdom. Interestingly, the most ardent Yugoslavian, the inspirer and the spiritual patron of Yugoslavia, was a Roman Catholic bishop – Josip Juraj Strossmayer. Later, the Roman Catholic Church supported Croatian nationalism and the criminal Independent State of Croatia, which hand-in-hand with Hitler, contributed to the genocide of Jews, Serbs, the Roma, and all non-Croats and non-Catholics.
Thus, before 1914, Yugoslavism enjoyed popularity, primarily in Croatia. It also gave shelter to the Young Bosnians, the inhabitants of a country divided both ethnically and that denominationally, where hatred on religious and national background was triumphantly rife. They found nationalism alien, and moreover considered themselves atheists.
Gavrilo Princip, also an atheist, believed that Yugoslavism will be a remedy to that sense of enmity omnipresent in Bosnia.
In the subtitle you pointed to an important theme: the relationship between father and son. Still, the frequent rows between Nedeljko at his father are presented as one of the motives guiding Čabrinović’s decision to join the conspirers. Is this a message to today’s societies that they watch their sons?
I don’t know, and I’d rather avoid such generalisations. Simply, I’ve always been interested in the relationships between fathers and sons. Honestly speaking, I have no respect for the sons who – instead of standing up against their fathers, try to follow in their footsteps at any cost. Yet I know that I have no right to think so.
Possibly I’ve gone too far in interpreting relations with my father? Or perhaps it comes from my apprehension of any patriarchal conservatism? A good community should allow its sons to rebel against their fathers, yet such a community does not exist. Possibly, it is only to the better.
Interviewed by Grzegorz Jankowicz
Gavrilo Princip is – something I keep repeating – my high school friend. We are only 70 years apart, and everything besides this remains the same: the same school corridors, classrooms, coal-fired stoves, stairs and railings. His deed changed the course of European history.
These were the circumstances that played a key role in the outbreak of the First World War. I’m not going to lie if I say that the “short 20th century” began by coincidence, and then was guided by the hand of some cruel providence.
People frequently fall into those who acts pay attention to no results, and those who do nothing because they are paralysed by the fear of consequences. Thanks to these and those, our world looks what it does look like. Personally, I belong to the latter, and it is quite possible that this is why I deal with literature.
MILJENKO JERGOVIĆ (b. 1966 in Sarajevo) – poet, prose and essay writer, dramatist, one of most outstanding Bosnian writers. A graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Sarajevo, recipients of many literary awards, including the Angelus Central European Literature Award for the novel Srda pjeva, u sumrak, na Duhove (Polish edition 2011, Srda śpiewa o zmierzchu w Zielone Świątki). His works published in Polish include Ruta Tannenbaum (2008), Otac (2012, Ojciec), and Volga, Volga (2013, Wołga, Wołga). The writer will be a guest of this year’s Conrad Festival.