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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller


Dragan Velikić
Traduction de Sladja Blazan

Texte intégral

Svaki pisac nosi u sebi deo globusa, svejedno da li je to
Makondo ili Buenos Aires, Aleksandrija ili Dablin, Trst ili
Berlin. Pisanje i jeste veština pretvaranja unutrašnje
mape u sistem znakova.


1We don’t think of Moldavia, Bosnia, or Serbia when we say “Europe.” Geography is not enough by itself to get you on the floor. The floor is the European Union. And outside of the walls surrounding the Schengen area are the expanding balconies on which countries at the edge of Europe wait to one day descend to the promised floor. When it comes to Serbia, actually Yugoslavia, the reason for an almost ten-year-long expulsion even from the balconies are the Balkan wars of the past decade. At the very moment when the war happened, this country stopped being European.

2“Europe” is not a norm being reduced exclusively to comfortable trains that always run on time. However, trains are part of Europe as well. And not at all by chance, trains that travel from European balconies to the European floor — whether it is the Hungarian “Bela Bartok,” Croatian “Mimara,” Serbian “Avala,” or Polish “Warsaw Express”— judging by appearances, comfort, and punctuality they do meet European standards. I assume that Eastern European countries will become a part of the European Union, but only after using for domestic traffic the same kind of trains that connect them to Europe. Great Britain’s example proves my point.

3Yugoslavia’s expulsion from Europe began with trains. Belgrade disappeared overnight from the European railroad timetables. You would not see it listed on any airport schedule. And that’s not all. Because of sanctions by the European Union against Yugoslavia, it was impossible to send a package heavier than twenty grams out of any European city to Yugoslavia, which had become a house without a street address. A strict visa policy had quarantined Yugoslavia. The once most-wanted passport on the black market (since Yugoslavians were able to travel to West and East without a visa) was reduced in this way to a useless piece of paper with which you could travel only to a handful of bordering countries. Such isolation leads to a bunker-mentality that becomes contagious. Recent political changes in Serbia have put this country back on the balconies, looking ahead to a long and tiring journey, the final destination of which is certainly the European floor.

4The term “Europe” seems to be free of any negative connotation. Europe is a place where a high standard of living has been achieved. It is a place of peace and order. The poor cousins on the outskirts of Europe certainly see it this way. For years they have prepared to enter a unified Europe. And Europe imagines the outskirts gazing at it with a certain look in their eyes. And it wants the outskirts to confirm this look as their own. Strictly speaking, it often demands a regular supply of stereotypes rather than authentic art pieces. These stereotypes became the official version of culture for the countries on the outskirts during this time. And here is where we should look most closely to find the reasons why some of the movies, theater performances, and books that skillfully filter all that refuses to fit the ready-made cliché were so successful. Here we reach a paradox: according to certain artworks, there exists a reality in the countries on the outskirts (meaning Eastern Europe) that does not actually exist except in terms of Europe’s opinion.

5In these days of globalization, extraordinary computer programs, fashion, supermarkets, and shopping centers, it is possible to go to wildly different regions to buy the same product, from Greek pickles and Bulgarian yogurt to Danish butter and Italian pasta, French perfume and Portuguese shoes to Swedish furniture and Swiss watches. One day we all will be able to choose from the same products, and it will be possible to buy everything everywhere. As a consequence of a globalization, all places will be stuck in the horror of sameness. Traveling will become superfluous too. Since it is not possible to travel to the same.

6However, up until now the same only appears to be the same. Licenses are getting better, and originals will soon become superfluous. Still, there is a noticeable difference between a Milka chocolate and Nestle coffee produced in Switzerland or Germany from those made through Hungarian or Czech licenses. A whole industry of the “same” was installed on the European outskirts. Now licenses, let’s call them B-licenses, supply B-Europe in order to satisfy the needs of the inhabitants of this region. I don’t mean pirate products of dubious origin, of course. And there is nothing wrong with that, because this is a reality. Besides, Serbian Coca-Cola is, in many ways, better than that from France. However, product programs of multinational corporations are turning the whole world into one place.


7In the last couple of years only one movie from the Balkans was celebrated in the West. It is, of course, Emir Kusturica’s movie, Underground. Even though the artistic qualities of this movie are undeniable, I am convinced that they are not the reason for its fame. The reason rather lies in its content, the picture of the Balkans that it offered to the West. Let me remind you: in this movie the Balkans are pictured as an orgiastic place, a place of pure insanity, as a place where people eat, drink, sing, make love, and kill all the time; thus, it is an almost mythical place, a wild place where all is allowed. There is nothing paradoxical about the fact that exactly this picture of the Balkans pleased the eye of the West: it confirmed, I tend to think, its tacit, phantasmagoric public assumption about those others, the people from the Balkans, the ones so different from them, entirely different from those in the West, while reinforcing its belief in Western unity and inaccessibility. This assumption about the Balkans led to a satisfied gaze from the West because it offered it exactly what it wished to see as a picture of itself, as a confirmation of its own perfection.

8When it comes to literature, the West likes to see the kind of literature from the Balkans that focuses on the absence of democracy, that expresses a thirst for the kind of democracy that always considers the West as a norm. In other words, it responds to a literature that presents an image of the West as its thematic center. In this literature the Western gaze can again be satisfied by persuading itself that it is deeply desirable, able to confirm to itself that it is on the right track. In this literature the West experiences a narcissistic joy, seeing itself as the inaccessible object of the others’ dreams. The West remains closed, as far as I can tell, to a different kind of literature that also exists in the Balkans, one that uses styles and themes that are not the result of “political” or ideological conditions, a literature that cannot be reduced to the witnessing of a hard life on the European outskirts, a literature I would like to call “pure literature,” a literature, so to speak, facing itself and questioning the literary abilities of language. Western culture keeps for itself any expectations regarding artistic experimentation that come with such literature, hording the mandate to challenge and transform literary praxis. This too is very easy to explain: it is the only way for the West to “protect” its own domination, to confirm its own ideal picture of a territory in which sophisticated intellectual “interventions” are being achieved, and to continue with its own narcissistic satisfaction.


9There is no form of electrolysis that can deconstruct a literary world into its constituent parts. Books you read in childhood form your image of the world; they are a writer’s third parent. Books are the name of the ship’s home carved into the bow. And of course it is possible to be a writer form a certain region without ever having lived there, just as a Swiss-built ship that flies the flag of its home country might never sail into a Swiss port.

10Writing is a means of considering the possibility of living other lives. I. B. Singer is right to say that a writer is one who remembers, but one who creates his own memories. We can create our own and “others’” memories (of characters) if we feel a longing to add a chapter to life. Not because we are not satisfied with our own lives, but because every writer lives through his books the many shades of the one and only reality.

11The invention of my memories started one day in November 1958, when the train from Belgrade stopped at the shore of Pula, where the tracks looked as if they ran into the sea. The next scene is lit by a bulb on the bottom of a large enameled lampshade: a room in the Hotel Central that long ago, back when Pula, the city of my childhood, used to be Italian, was called the Milan. And during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the beginning of the last century, when the Irish writer James Joyce spent a couple of months in Pula, this hotel went by the name Europe.

12I believe that every writer possesses a modest number of tones, scenes, sounds, and fragrances that are acquired in childhood, during the “ahistorical” period of life, that is, during one’s own myth-making. These are settings that he uses repeatedly each time he begins a new book. He builds a world by inventing that which is infinite; namely: combinations. Each writer carries within himself his own parts of the globe, regardless whether it is Macondo or Buenos Aires, Alexandria or Dublin, Trieste or Berlin. Writing is exactly the ability to convert the content of a map into a system of signs. Heinrich Schliemann, while looking for Troy, used maps found in Homer. In spite of the amateurism of his archeological technique, he understood the messages hidden in the verses of the Iliad. And the Irish writer James Joyce constructed an entire city by carefully studying Ulysses’ journey. He dreamed of Dublin in Tri-este, Pula, Zurich, Paris. He transplanted many streets from old Trieste to Dublin, just as he recalled names from the phone book with his keen ear and gave them to his characters. On the “street furniture” of Dublin he recognized the indestructible layer.

13This durability is also destruction, decay. The act of preservation implies hay and cotton, essential oils, acid, and at least a pair of glass eyes instead of real ones. However, these glass eyes can see deeper than decrepit, gelatinous gazers; these eyes can hear tones, words, a sound that bears an unknown heritage. There is a code layered deeply in language that is graphic and acoustic, and in all our stupidity we will name the little meanings that drip out onto the surface like a sandblast, a coincidence, destiny.

14A literary workshop is a warehouse. The creation comes from a search through this warehouse. The sediment out of which every writer builds his literary world is unique and unrepeatable like a fingerprint. I believe in hidden, parallel universes that surround; we only occasionally notice the blinks. Actually, the writer is searching for vibrations. Like a spider, the writer is weaving a web out of himself, out of his own sediment. Like the circulatory system in a human body, the world of reality and the world of literature pulsate in the same way. My tower, which I have inhabited since reading through all of Karl May’s novels, is built from Cervantes’ humor, Italo Svevo’s tensions, James Joyce’s circular routes, Danilo Kiš’ Pannonian remembrances, from Herman Broch’s sleepwalking. Strings that connect me to other literary worlds are just as invisible as a “colonial style.”

15There is no identity for a writer other than the one in literature. Or should this identification be in my passport? Or even in my birth certificate? In my case it is simply a fact that I was born a Serb in Belgrade and that I grew up in the Croatian city of Pula on the Mediterranean coast. These facts exist as no more than a way of entering literature, first as a reader, ultimately as a writer. They embody a uniqueness produced simply by our being born and growing up surrounded by a certain environment. Later, facts from the biographies of favorite writers and the residue of their books add to this uniqueness. Spaces are being layered by which we pass only on late-night trains, just like the words of an unknown language.

16As a child I often took walks through the Monte Ghiro Cemetery in Pula. In the old section of the cemetery, between pine trees, there are, even today, worn ledgers that list the names of Danish, Dutch, and Swedish officers and engineers who built the harbor and arsenal in Pula in the middle of the nineteenth century. I also used to find Hungarian, Slavic, Jewish, Italian, Germanic names. Everything is connected, Milos Crnjanski, the classic author of Serbian literature used to say. In his writings I recognize the rustle of Dante’s terzines, just the way I assume Gogol’s absurd situations appear in Nabokov’s stories. Just like the dense air of Bruno Schulz’s interiors evaporates in Kiš’s family-cycle stories.

17“The perpetual mobile” of literary structure is a neurotransmitter that transports notes to the “sensitive” ones.

18A friend of mine, who lived in Rome for a long time, told me about the red dust that used to cover cars on the streets on windy days. Once he asked a passenger where this dust came from; the answer was: “This is sand from Africa.”


Further Reading:
“The Boat for Rushdie.” In The Rushdie Letters, Nebraska Press, 1992.
“Astrakhan.” Extract. In Balkan Blues: Writing Out of Yugoslavia. Edited by Joanna Labon. Northwestern University Press, 1995.
“A Woman from a Catalogue.” In The Prince of Fire. An Anthology of Contemporary Serbian Short Stories.
Edited by Radmilla J. Gorup and Nadezda Obradović.
Univ of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.
“Belgrade.” In Balkan Perspective–Writing across borders. Hungarian National Committee–Europian Cultural Foundation, 1999.
“Which Way and Back.” In In Defence of the Future. Folio Verlag, 2000.

Table des illustrations

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Born in Belgrade in 1953, the author Dragan Velikić grew up in Pula, Istria and studied literature in Belgrade, where he lived until 1999. He is a representative of the ‘other Serbia’ and a member of the Group 99, a pressure group formed in response to the war by authors from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. As a journalist, Velikić wrote, until going into exile, for opposition newspapers and was editor in chief of the independent Radio B-92 in Belgrade. Dragan Velikić currently lives in Belgrade.

Sladja Blazan (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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