BORIS A. NOVAK: INTERVIEW FOR THE BRIDGE (interviewed by AMILA KAHROVIĆ-POSAVLJAK)

Boris A. Novak (born in 1953) is a Slovene poet, playwright, translator, and essayist. He teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Ljubljana. Novak was active in the movement for the democratization of the Slovene and Yugoslav society. In the name of International PEN he organized humanitarian help for refugees from the former Yugoslavia and writers from Sarajevo during the war. In 2002 Novak was elected for the Vice-president of International PEN.

So far he has published nearly 100 books. His poetry is translated into many languages. He is also translator of poetry and prose, from French (S. Mallarmé, P. Valéry, P. Verlaine, E. Jabès), ancient Provencal (Troubadours), Dutch, as well as American, English and Irish poetry (S. Heaney) and literature written in Southern Slav languages.

Novak received several national and international awards, among them the highest Slovene one, the Presheren’s award for his life oeuvre, and Bosanski stechak (The Bosnian Tomb). He is a double knight of the French Republic (Le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques, and Le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres), a corresponding member of the French poetry academy Mallarmé and an associate member of the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts. In 2002 he was elected vice-president of the International PEN.

  1. Today, there are wide discussions about European heritage and identity. There is a rise of far-right and soft fascism; there are answers to that dangerous phenomenon on the left. Yet the European institutions are becoming more and more bureaucratic. Where to place the identity of contemporary Europe in these conditions?

 

BANovak: The identity of Europe is not a singular noun, it is, quite the opposite, plural – identities, European identities. Not a monolith, but a complex community of many different cultures, languages, religions etc. There are two basic forces keeping these differences together: one is the concept of the human rights and democracy, originally formulated in the Enlightenment, and the second one – for many politicians and economists the first one – the common market. Both concepts need strict rules in order to overcome violence and greed. I agree that these rules are often exaggerated and ridiculous, but the Rule of Law cannot and must not be put under question. With all its paradoxes, wrong decisions and problems, the EU offers living conditions which are far better than ever in history and anywhere in the world. It is still the only peaceful island in this increasingly violent contemporary world which is at the edge of the Third and possibly the Last World War. Let us try to maintain and develop it – for the sake of the citizens inside and outside the EU, and for the sake of next generations.

 

  1. When I asked you about bureaucratization, I was thinking about the fact that the non-EU states in Europe are often confronted with conditions based more on bureaucratic criteria than on their ideological problems. For example in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia the focus is often not on crucial things, such as status of the pets, while the EU does nothing to set conditions about the holocaust and Srebrenica genocide denial. How do you comment on that?

 

BANovak: Absurd rules are, unfortunately, inherent to bureaucracy. Questions of the holocaust and Srebrenica are crucial, especially in regions devastated by the war and contaminated by the race and religious hatred. The denial of the holocaust is a serious offense in several European countries. I don’t think that EU is indifferent towards the historical burden of the holocaust, with the exception of anti-Semitism in extreme right political movements which are, unfortunately, increasingly strong. Because of the fact that the Balkans was populated by several big Jewish communities (with the literature in ladino and the famous Haggadah of Sarajevo) we should be especially sensitive for the tragedy of the holocaust and the necessity of its respectful memory. I also believe that the majority of Europeans is aware of the crime of Srebrenica. There are, unfortunately, again some shocking exceptions: it is unacceptable that a part of Serbians in Serbia itself and in Republika Srpska (Bosnia) virulently denies the genocide of Srebrenica. The latest verdict of the court in the Kingdom of Netherlands that their country bears just 10% of the responsibility for the crime of Srebrenica is another case of the utter cynicism. It is true that the Dutch battalion sent to Srebrenica had no combat experiences and that it was commanded by a rotten officer who behaved as a Rambo, but was an incompetent coward. It is also true that the Headquarters of UNPROFOR (the then military UN formation for peacekeeping in the Yugoslav wars) ignored the requests of the Dutch battalion for the air force help. But, but … For all Europeans after the WW2 the image of unarmed men forced to enter wagons and trucks by armed soldiers is a signal for alert, a sign that these people were sent to death. Dutch soldiers (with honourable exceptions) made no effort to stop this murderous machinery and even helped bandits of General Mladić to embark the victims to their last journey, as can be seen in the film documents which first “disappeared” and were later, fortunately, found back. These tapes contain also the peaks of the shame: an exchange of farewell gifts between the Dutch Colonel and General Mladić, their toast with the “slivovitz” for the safe journey back home to Holland and a cynical laughter of Serbian officers after the crossing of the Colonel’s jeep over the bridge which Mladić commented with a remark: “We are going to baptise this bridge – The Dutch bridge.” Another scandal, later successfully covered and forgotten, was a drinking party which was thrown by the then Crown-prince (now King) Willem Alexander in Zagreb in order to honour the successful mission of the Dutch soldiers and their happy return from Srebrenica: images of celebrating, laughing, drunken Dutch soldiers are a shame for Holland. I know that they haunt the consciousness of many sensitive Dutch people today.

 

  1. Do you believe in the future of Europe – as an idea and cultural concept – if there is a compromise with far-right and genocide deniers and glorifications?

 

BANovak: I believe that united Europe is the only possibility for the human life and survival of Europeans. I see Europe in the first place as an Enlightenment project where human rights play a crucial role. In this sense the far-right movements deny the very essence of Europe; what we cannot deny is, unfortunately, that they are marching again like they did in the thirties.

 

  1. With regards to all of this, do you think that the Balkans is still a bridge between East and West, which is a pretty usual thing to hear? And what East and what West when those terms seem to pretty much lose their solid character?

 

BANovak: The terms Balkans and Balkanisation, frequently used in the international political terminology  at the turn of the 20th century (undoubtedly with reference to the dramatic historic conflicts which through the two Balkan Wars led to the WW1), have recently been resurrected as a result of the tragic wars on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. The Balkans has once more become an extremely negative, even pejorative, term, which can be seen even in the funny paradox that nobody wants to have anything to do with it: Italians and Austrians claim that the Balkans begin on the border with Slovenia, Slovenes have it that the Balkans begin on the border with Croatia, Croats maintain that the Balkans begin on the borders with Serbia and Bosnia, Serbs accept the term the Balkans only as a geographical, but not as a political and cultural notion of their social reality, etc., etc. When we were still living in the Yugoslav federation, Slovenes understood the Balkans as a disparaging symbol of cultural, economic and political backwardness, as an area dominated by mostly violent and aggressive emotions, as the antithesis of the desired principle of rational interpersonal relationships… In short: the terms Balkan and the Balkans in unreflective everyday jargon functioned as the symbolic opposite to the only redeeming notion – Europe (meaning Western Europe, and from the eighties onwards also Central Europe), into which we, Slovenes, like to project our historic and cultural identity.

My personal relation to the Balkans is quite the opposite: I love it, with all the pain because of its ambiguities and dark dimensions. So allow me to answer your question with my own, personal story. My parents were Slovenes (my grandmother on the father’s side a German) and I was born in Belgrade where I finished the elementary school. My childhood was bilingual, Slovene and Serbian. My classmates were not just Serbs, but also Croats, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Albanians, Roma children – a true multicultural environment in which I felt very well. I was desperately in love with Merima (her name shows a Muslim origin) and Maja, a Jewish girl, and my first kiss was with Mira, half Italian. I had relatives all over the former Yugoslavia, in Belgrade, in Croatia (Zagreb, Opatija, Rijeka), and Bosnia and Hercegovina (Mostar), and friends everywhere. Emotionally the Balkans is for me a space full of warmth, beauty and – today – bitter nostalgia. These cultures – each one of them incredibly rich – still represent an important horizon of my world. That is the reason why my heart was torn apart by the Yugoslav wars: I identified myself with the defence of the Slovene people against the aggression of the Yugoslav “People’s” Army, but in the name of the International PEN I organized humanitarian help for refugees from all the regions of the former Yugoslavia and especially for writers in Sarajevo.

Let me evoke the memory of the visit of Slovene writers to the besieged city of Sarajevo during the Yugoslav wars in 1994. The group included a novelist, Drago Jančar, a poet, Niko Grafenauer, the Bosnian poet Josip Osti and me. We had a status of the delegation of UNESCO (since I was the Chair of the so called “Sarajevo Committee” of the International PEN). UNPROFOR issued us a permit for flying there with a military transport plane. UNPROFOR representatives seriously warned us in writing and verbally that the situation in Sarajevo was rather unstable and dangerous, they advised us against travelling there and told us that in case of any complications they could not guarantee a return flight for us. It was much easier to get into Sarajevo than out of it. The name of the military air service was very meaningful in this sense – MAYBE AIRLINES. At Sarajevo airport, which looked like one big bunker, the United Kingdom Embassy staff offered to take us to the city. We rejected that kind gesture as an UNPROFOR armoured vehicle was there to meet us, but this proved to have been a mistake that could have cost us dearly. The vehicle was driven by Egyptian soldiers who, for reasons that were not quite clear, drove us through the territory controlled by the Bosnian Serbs. I was sitting next to the window behind the drivers’ seat. I got the first inkling that something was not right when I saw on the road a group of people, many of whom did not want to get out of the way of our vehicle: children were running along the pavements, jumping in front of the fast-moving vehicle, lifting their middle finger and making other provocative gestures. The crowd in front of us was getting denser and denser, and the driver had to slow down. In the end, we were stopped by a tight circle, consisting of hundred, maybe two hundred people. It was clear to us that we were among Serbs. Our vehicle was surrounded by a group of young men who were aiming Kalashnikovs at us. An automatic memory from my military service whispered to me that this was not dangerous in itself since the machine guns could not pierce the steel vehicle; heavier weapons would be needed for that. In the next moment, a boy of seventeen or eighteen, with the Kalashnikov on his chest, walked to the rear door and commanded in Serbian to the Egyptian soldiers to open the vehicle. Until then, we had been calm. What unsettled us was the panic we noticed in the behaviour of our armed escort – the Egyptian soldiers who started shouting nervously to us “ID, ID!” Then they did something which was strictly forbidden by the UNPROFOR rules and which was also completely unnecessary: they opened the vehicle door! (We were all vividly remembering having heard on the news how the vice-president of the legitimate Bosnian government was captured in this way and shot on the spot.) I was carrying a large amount of German marks for the Sarajevo writers; I had hidden them beneath my bullet-proof vest, but it involved a hefty bundle of sweat-suffused paper, in banknotes of 5, 10 and 20 marks, for higher denominations were useless in the Sarajevo black market. It happened so quickly that there was no time for fear. That we had been in deadly danger occurred to us only when we reached our destination – Sarajevo. There we met our friends, among them Serbs who remained loyal to the Bosnian government and shared 1001 nights and days of the siege with their Muslim, Croat and other neighbours.

 

  1. One of the basic ideas of contemporary imagology (such as that in Maria Todorova book on Balkans) is that Balkan is some sort of heritage of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. Can you read the nowadays relation between Balkans and Europe in perspective of that, especially in countries with a significant Muslim population?

BANovak: I know the Muslim culture and the historic development of the Muslim question in the former Yugoslavia rather well, since I have two Muslim branches of relatives. My uncle Jerolim (Jerko) Novak, an aviation ace between the two world wars, married Nadžida Nuri Hadžić from Mostar, a lawyer and a judge. She came from a well-known Bosnia-Herzegovina family Nuri Hadžić. Both parents were intellectuals, very well educated. Her mother Almasa – diamond in Turkish – was a descendant of Pasha Mehmed Sokolović, a grand vizier in the Ottoman Empire and the builder of the bridge over the Drina River, immortalized in the novel The Bridge on Drina by the Nobel award winner Ivo Andrić. Nadžida’s father Osman Nuri Hadžić was a writer and one of the leading Bosnian politicians in the first decades of the twentieth century, a wise, openhearted and cosmopolitan spirit, a follower of Ata Turk’s reforms. His three daughters were the first Muslim women in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to take off the veil; they played important roles in the history of the feminism in the Balkans, fighting for the literacy and the rights of the Muslim women. Both parents supported their education: the family moved from Mostar to Belgrade in order to give a good schooling to their daughters, and especially to Bahrija who grew to become an opera singer, one of the great divas on the world scale, especially renowned for her leading roles in the experimental opera repertoire. She was the first Lulu at the opening of the unfinished opera by Alban Berg in Zurich in 1937. When I saw her for the last time, in 1990, she showed me a letter by Richard Strauss who praised her that she was the best and the most beautiful Salome. Her name can be found in any history of opera; unfortunately, the great majority of her recordings are lost. Her sister Rabija was an ethnographer. The third sister Nuri Hadžić, my Aunt Nadžida, had a terrible life: after the tragic accident of her husband, the pilot, she stayed alone with their one year old baby Zulejka. As a member of the Resistance against the Nazi occupation during the WW2 and the President of the Bosnian Anti-fascist Women’s Front, Nadžida supported Tito in his conflict with Stalin in 1948, but was sentenced as a “Stalinist” to Goli Otok (Naked Island) in the Adriatic, Yugoslav version of the Gulag, for nine long years. With the eruption of the war around Mostar in 1992, Nadžida was forced to leave her home and to find a shelter with her daughter in Switzerland. From there my old Aunt Nadžida phoned me to Ljubljana: “Boris, take me to Mostar! I want to die at home. I am fed up of life. Enough, enough!”  I didn’t know what to answer because the situation in Mostar was so dangerous that there was no way of bringing her back home, but I could not tell it to her and break the heart of my 90 years old aunt. The three aunts had a deep influence that I became a writer: during each of their frequent visits to our home in Belgrade and in Ljubljana I had to read to them my new stories. Three great, brave, beautiful souls.

This and many other stories from the family heritage are the material for my verse epos  The Doors of No Return. The epos is divided into three books.The second book, The Times of Fathers, is a history of four generations of my ancestors, relatives and many other personalities, and is concentrated on my parents, mother Anica and father Ante. The coincidental rhyme Ante – Dante represents one of the axes of The Doors of No Return. Nearly all the members of the family Novak lost their lives in the turmoil of the 20th century, in the most horrible ways, on battle fields, torture chambers, military hospitals. In the generation of my father, in the family with seven children, only two survived – he and my Aunt Mara Čepič, a musician and professor of languages, the first Slovene woman in the Nazi concentration camp Ravensbrück. Two of my relatives were sentenced to death and executed by their own comrades, communists: the first one was my uncle Mirko, and the second one a cousin Max; the fact that we both belonged to the same generation has opened my eyes for the fact that history was not something which happened a long time ago, but dangerously close. My father Ante, 23 times imprisoned, one of the organizers of the armed partisan Resistance against the Nazi and Fascist occupation of the country, barely avoided the same destiny, twice sentenced to death by the Headquarters of the Slovene partisan army and by the Central Committe of the Slovene Communist Party. When I was a young dissident against the Communist system, he saved me several times with his instructions, because he knew everything about police, judges, courts and prisons. After the WW2 my father found a relative shelter in statistics. As a demographer he prepared the first research of the demographic situation in Kosovo in the early sixties. What he found out, devastated him: there was such a social misery that he suggested in his report a necessity for the better education and a higher living standard; without these measures Kosovo was doomed to ethnic conflicts between the Serbian and Albanian population, he predicted … and in the nineties his prediction turned out to be true. But in the sixties, when such an outcome could still be prevented, the Yugoslav Communist Party and Serbian politicians didn’t want any changes, convinced about their eternal rule, so they attacked fiercely Ante Novak, the author of the demographic report, who fell in a political disgrace, once more. As a consequence the family returned from Belgrade to Ljubljana. My father was deeply attached to Kosovo; till the end of his life in 1991 he traveled once a year to Kosovo in order to update his demographic research. I still have hundreds of pages of statistical data about Kosovo, a dear heritage of my father’s idealistic personal project to help Kosovo.

 

  1. Balkans is not just former Yugoslavia, but there is often thinking that when it is said Balkans it is meant former Yugoslavia. Why?

 

BANovak: The Balkans seems to be an unclear geographical, cultural and political term, and the tragic history of the region has complicated this problem to the extent that each and every country sees a different map of the Balkans, usually trying to avoid belonging to this problematic region. As I have already said, the paradox of the Balkans is that nobody wants to belong to it. The fall of Yugoslavia has confirmed that image with the signature of blood. On the other hand, the sinister fame of the Balkans cannot and must not be dismissed as a pure construction of the West, which is a popular slogan of nationalists in different, mutually hostile Balkan nations. We shall have to admit that the bloody mess of the Balkans was not just an import of the strategic interests of great imperial powers, but our own doing in the first place. So we’ll have to clean our own mess ourselves.

In this context I would like to point out the merits of the magazine Sarajevo Notebooks for the conceptualization of the Balkans. Paradoxically, it was the best Yugoslav literary magazine ever, although it was founded a few years after the fall of Yugoslavia. (During the existence of Yugoslavia all the literary magazines with a federal concept were bad or mediocre because they were politically motivated and controlled.) In 2000 a group of writers and intellectuals from newly founded states at the territories of the former Yugoslavia felt a need to re-establish broken contacts and cooperation and to reflect upon the new historic reality without any nostalgic lunacy to form the third Yugoslavia; I was one of the founding members of the redaction which was led by Vojka Smiljanić Đikić from Bosnia and Velimir Visković from Croatia; the seat of the magazine was in Sarajevo. In this context I would like to point out excellent and lucid analyses written by the Slovene poet and sociologist Aleš Debeljak who conceptualized the Balkans and Yugoslavia in the new historic context as a “sunken Atlantis”. Debeljak’s premature death in 2016 and the death of the spiritus movens and great lady of Sarajevo Notebooks, Vojka Smiljanić Đikić, a year later, marked the end of one of the most honest and ambitious literary and intellectual efforts to define the Balkans after three Balkan and two world wars, at the beginning of the third millennium.

 

  1. In that context, do you actually believe in the Balkans as a homogeneous concept (and also Europe as such)? So can we talk about the relation between Balkans and Europe’s instead of Balkan and Europe?

 

BANovak: The Balkans was never a homogeneous concept and I sincerely hope that it never will become homogeneous. The same for Europe. Differences and the respect for those differences are the wealth we have.  

 

  1. What about the iron curtain… I am prone to think that East European literature has shaped the continent after WW2. What about considering Eastern Europe some sort of non-western, inner Other?

 

BANovak: Your definition is probably true for the situation of the Cold War, from the end of the WW2 till the fall of the Berlin Wall and iron curtain in 1989, but it doesn’t offer a suitable model how to conceptualize this relation in the last 30 years. A few decades ago I was also inclined to think that the power position of the West gave Western European literatures and writers prevalent positions which were not always deserved; but their arrogance had bad consequences for the power of their artistic visions. Now I don’t agree with your idea that Eastern Europe is still a non-western, inner Other. Eastern Europe has fallen from communism to nationalism and racism of the worst kind; Eastern European intellectuals have either yielded to these ideological Sirens or are desperately fighting against the high tide of narrowness and stupidity. Let us see which countries have accepted refugees: Italy (before Salvini), Germany, Belgium, Sweden… And what about the Eastern Europe? How many refugees have Hungary and Poland accepted? In this context I will not criticize the other former Yugoslav republics, but only my own country, Slovenia: our politicians and police use a European rhetoric, but in reality they refuse refugees in the same way as the countries of the Vishegrad group. I have frequently protested against the walls that Slovenia has built on the Croatian border “in order to stop the refugees”. My compatriots, unfortunately, don’t see that building walls we don’t just close the others OUT – we close ourselves IN as well.

 

  1. Now, a very simple question: do you believe that the Balkan countries that are still not in the EU will enter it in the next few years?

 

BANovak: I hope so. Being members of the EU would not solve all the accumulated problems of the region, but would make the explosive questions of the borders irrelevant and would bring a badly needed economic prosperity to the impoverished Balkans.

 

  1. Also, do you think that the rise of the far-right will be even stronger, and if it happens what would be the future for Europe and for the Balkans?

 

BANovak: Unfortunately, we cannot afford any illusions about the fact that the far-right is marching again and that it is increasingly strong. The only possible answer to that danger is the further development of the democratic system and the joint active struggle of all the democrats. Our future will be democracy or there will be none.

 

  1. In the end, do you think that European institutions are sometimes not very aware of the fact that Balkans’ future is basically their own future? And how do you comment relation and flow of that relation between Europe(s) and Balkan(s)?

 

BANovak: Allow me to criticize the undertone of your questions that European institutions are problematic because they don’t accept the Balkans, and that the Balkans is completely innocent in the process. Let me remind you of the simple fact that it was not Europe which caused the Yugoslav wars – we have done it ourselves! The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in 1995 with the Dayton agreement which stopped the armed conflicts, but, unfortunately, failed to solve the reasons for the wars; the post-war political system in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a complete impasse. And now, let us compare Yugoslavia, Europe and the world 24 years after the WW2, in 1969, and the Balkans 24 years after Dayton, in 2019. The difference is shocking. The year 1969 was one of the best years for Yugoslavia, a year of the greatest economic prosperity and of the relative democratic atmosphere in the late federation, before it fell back into the restoration of Tito’s communist autocracy in “the leaden seventies”. In 1969 Europe blossomed, and its complacency was strongly shaken by student demonstrations in Paris in 1968 and also by the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. In these August days 50 years ago there was a Woodstock festival in the U. S. A. – And where are the Balkans 24 years after our last tragic war from which we have learned nothing, nothing at all? Of course, it is partly a consequence of the wrong policy of the international community – but there is a question for both of us: aren’t we, inhabitants of the Balkans, also responsible for our own Balkan misery? Isn’t the bad eternity of the Balkans OUR own fault as well? So, are we going to lament and lament and lament as infantile eternal victims of History asking all the time the others to help and curse them for their help – or are we going TO DO something about it OURSELVES?