Vladislav Bajac: Before the beginning

Vladislav Bajac is a Serbian author, translator, and publisher. He was born in Belgrade in 1954 and later studied philology at the University of Belgrade. His early writing is inspired by esotericism and experiences of eastern art, and his later books concentrate on historiographical metafiction and national and individual identity. In 1993 he founded the publishing house Geopoetika, which publishes fiction as well as nonfiction books about history, art, rock & roll, and archeology.
His best-known work is his 2008 novel, Hamam Balkanija, for which he won the International Literature Prize Balkanika. He is a founding member of Academia Balkanica Europeana.

A work of stunning intellectual, structural and narrative complexity, written in clear, engaging and witty prose. Hamam Balkania is a novel of ideas in pursuit of age-old questions of identity and culture, and chases those questions in refreshingly unique ways.  

Set in two distinct time periods, this riveting story swings back and forth between the 16th century Ottoman Empire and our modern, contemporary world.

It is the story of Bajac’s first-person, present-tense search for the nature of identity that encounters Orhan Pamuk, Allen Ginsburg, Leonard Cohen and Zen Buddhists. It is also a “historical novel” that traces the journey of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, a Bosnian forced into servitude and Islamic conversion as a teenager in the 1500s by the Ottoman Empire, who ultimately rose to the highest positions of power under three Sultans. Bajac expertly weaves these disparate characters, story lines and time periods into a fascinating and compelling meditation on identity, culture and literary conventions. We are publishing a fragment from this novel.      

 

Višegrad, like any other place, has its own real life. Yet, like few others,
it also has its own abstract life. My experience with the metaphysics of
Višegrad began in April, 1977, on approaching the town, before I ever
saw the famed bridge on the Drina, which certainly fixed the town’s
place in history forever. In my little haiku notebook, which I still have,
I noted down a geopoetic commentary “on the gravel of Višegrad” with
the poem that I saw through the window of the bus:

A stone between them
two sunbathed firs, a parting made
in the forest.

My host and friend from my university days, Žarko Čigoja, thought
that the bridge of Mehmed-pasha Sokollu (as it is written in Turkish)
from 1571 – the bridge Andrić wrote about – was enough of a prize and
a pleasure, for that occasion, so that he did not even show me the other
attractions of his hometown. He could not even imagine how selfish
I was, actually even unhappy, that I had to share this magnificent
bridge with others. However, how could I have imagined that deeper
knowledge of the secrets of the environs of Višegrad would have to
be earned by future experience, on the basis of which I would be able
to actually enjoy what was being offered to me? Once again, a secret
brotherhood was in question. I had to wait twenty-six whole years to
enter that brotherhood! It was worth it. It was actually Ivo Andrić who
taught me to wait – in reading him
again; during my literature studies I was not yet able to connect his
masterpiece with real life: too flippantly had I passed over his notes on
the beginnings of the bridge’s construction – on its very essence – on
the “transportation of stones from the quarries that were opened in
the hills near Banja, an hour’s walk from the town”. What is more, the
two most important bridges, at least in literature, in all of Bosnia – this

one on the River Drina and the other on the River Žepa – were built
of the very same white stone mentioned in my haiku poem: with the
love and money of (the Turkified or Islamized Serbs) Mehmedpasha
Sokolović and Jusuf Ibrahim, made eternal in the humble and wise
words of Andrić , the man who attributed his own life’s motto to his
literary hero: there is safety in silence.
When I complained to a friend that I had perhaps dried up in my
writing, he told me not to worry in the slightest. He had a certain cure
for that illness. He was, actually, expecting the arrival of the Turkish
writer, Orhan Pamuk, with the same diagnosis, so that the two of us
could be cured at the same time with his prescription.
The only thing I knew about Banja, about Sokollu’s Spa, the Spa of
Višegrad, as everyone called it, besides being the source of crystalline
calcium carbonate used to build the bridge in Višegrad, was that there
was a medicinal spring in this place three miles from the town. It
was here that Mehmed-pasha Sokollu, in his waning years in 1575,
built a domed Turkish bath, wanting to give something (more) to his
birthplace. In a brochure from 1934, I read that the radioactive waters
(at an altitude of more than 1200 feet) treated rheumatism, neuralgia
and women’s disorders. The brochure further claimed that the spa
waters have an especially beneficial effect on barren women. “When a
barren wife hails at the spa, and then begets a child, the village round
doth shake its head, saying: By God, if she hadn’t hailed at the spa and
her incantations said, she never ever would have bred…”
So it was that I also traveled through the thick forest to the spa,
which I nicknamed “the Maidenhair” after the magical looking rare
grass that grows only there. I was happy to meet
up with my old acquaintance, Orhan Pamuk, the most famous Turkish
writer, a native of Istanbul. I was mildly surprised that he, too, was
suffering from a dry spell, because he was known to be a prolific writer.
If perchance in some period of his writing life he did not publish a
book for a long while, the one that followed was sure to be a hefty
baby.
I gave birth to my children less often, and most often they were
of medium weight. Such was my rhythm. However, in the last couple of

years I had not conceived a single one, and I was getting seriously
worried. That was why I went to visit the stone that gave birth to
water: such fertility revived my faith. The stone on which I stepped
had been polished for more than four centuries! A stone the colors of
grass and moss! The water, hot but not boiling, just next to being of
heavenly warmth. And my body was turning into a ghost! Alive, but
dead! Pamuk and our host tried to talk through the water vapor, but
the words disappeared in the glass windows of the dome and lost all
their meaning. We turned into the heroes (monkeys) in the film with
the Sufi title Baraka by director Ron Fricke: standing in place we float
across the surface that turns into mist and takes on another aggregate
state, taking all forms of intellectualism with it. Our eyelids close, but
our eyes do not go to sleep. When this threatens to happen, I push
my way through the powerful water, to be under the heavy stream that
rushes from the mountain into this small pool, now across my back.
I am beaten as I never have been before. And I am happy to the point
of silliness. This is the meeting point of the Cabbala, Zen, Sufism,
Orthodox Estheticism, the Catholic erasure of the fear of sin, artistic
Islam… Just as the maidenhair fern can grow nowhere else but here,
only here does the water arrive from a depth of 590 feet and from a
more important historical depth of thirtyeight thousand years. An age
sufficient so that no one doubts its reason for existence or for speaking
to the world.
It is also the reason for my relationship with the past. The antiquity
that is inhaled here is completely authentic and cannot be resisted. The
spirit first loses its orientation, and then the concept of time, and then
the body also loses its orientation,
and then its concept of space. This peculiar nirvana transformed me
into a large question mark: Was the barren woman at this bath, perhaps,
serviced by a man who was renowned for his healthy seed? Was this
bath perhaps a male harem for desperate barren women? What kind
of pleasure this tucked-away pool must have been for beys, pashas,
viziers or sultans, whether they were the hosts or guests here, regardless!
Whichever of the genders served these active waters and their bathers
– they say, it is noted in text gone lost, that making love under this
mountain stream (at a temperature of 95 degees) is on par with the

pleasure in the beauties of the heavenly gardens, Valhalla and Jannah.
This hamam could have been an ideal place for a caravansary. How
much money would travelers leave behind here! However, nature (and
perhaps fate) wished to hide it from the busy byways, and so placed
it at an altitude that discouraged the weary traveler from the very
thought of climbing up to it. That is why the stones of the hamam
were polished by decades and centuries, and largely not by the hand of
man. Although, it must be admitted, that hand got involved wherever
and whenever it could: thus it is possible to find quotations in old
manuscripts (recognizing them by their language, but without the need
to cite their source and date) that overlap with the present: “Next to the
spa stands a building where a popular investor maintains a restaurant
and has rooms for overnight. In front of that building there is a large
veranda in front of which spread magnificent panoramas of nature.”
I don’t know who the popular investor is nowadays, whether a
private businessman or not, but he has not deprived himself either of
the “restaurant” nor of the “veranda”. For, it is true, the satisfaction
of bathing in the tiny heavenly pool would not be complete if one
does not go to the restaurant veranda afterwards, over a sort of small
bridge. It is, in fact, a large hanging balcony without glass, above a deep
mountain ravine that expands your thoughts with its marvelous view,
thoughts that do not seem, reflecting off the Bosnian hills and vales
that stand shoulder to shoulder with you, to return to you infertile.
And the food! Along with the domestic appetizers, you will be served
royal young trout, just pulled from the nearby rapids, ordered by
telephone to Zlatibor only an hour before. This is trout that has gone
all winter without eating, and has just begun to feed on pristine food.
However, the modern structure of this restaurant should not be
confused today with the caravansary in the 16th century. That, it is not.
Today, for those who wish to enjoy these marvels for a while longer,
there is a hotel – a rehabilitation center called “Maidenhair”, with all
the necessary comforts and also a modern pool which, of course, is
also filled with the thermal waters. The source of their radioactivity
is radon, and where there is radon there will also be doctors and
physiotherapists. Clearly, you do not have to be ill or concerned about

your health to come to this place. In fact, by going there healthy, you
prove to yourself that you have not yet rid yourself of hedonism.
Even Mehmed-Pasha himself did not make a caravansary of the
hamam, of “the beautiful spa with its dome”; he built it a bit lower
down, “next to the River Drina as Sokollu’s stone inn or caravansary,
which could take about ten thousand horses and camels under its
roof”. Do you think the numbers are exaggerated? I wouldn’t say so.
If they are, then they are not far from true. Just imagine what a task
it was like to build a bridge like the one in Višegrad in the 1570s!
In Mehmed-Pasha’s time Višegrad had about seven hundred homes, a
mosque named Selimiye, a fountain, about three hundred stores, an
imaret (hospice) that fed the village’s poor, and a Dervish monastery –
a tekya. In the village of Sokolovići (which got its name after the pasha,
or the pasha got his name after the village, it makes no difference), there
was a mosque called Sokolovićmosque, but there was also a place for a
Christian church where, according to legend, the pasha built a church
dedicated to his Orthodox mother. This, of course, should not surprise
anyone, if it is generally known that it was actually Mehmed-Pasha
Sokollu who, as a vizier of the Turkish Dīvān, in 1557, personally had
the Serbian Patriarchate at Pećrenovated and then placed his brother
Makarije at the head of the church, as the sources say,
at the moment “when Orthodoxy was in chaos and disarray, and the
national idea of the Serbian people was beginning to wane in the heavy
shackles of its slavery”. Some historians hold the position that, with the
latter, “the great vizier through this decree preserved the Serbian people
from final extinction and destruction”. This cannot be far from the
truth if one knows to what extent the Serbian people of the time, no
longer having their own independent state, lent importance to the only
existing replacement for statehood – the Serbian Orthodox church.
This is the reason for the widely held qualification that Mehmed-Pasha
Sokollu was “an unshakeable Moslem and, at the same time… a good
patriot who paid his dues to his people with dignity”. He believed that
he made peace between Islam and his Bosnian homeland, his Serbian
roots and the Orthodox Christian faith.

And that is why (in my mind) it was there, at the hamam, at that
particular time, that the best and most popular, and indeed most
controversial, contemporary Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk showed
up with me – because, if there is any ideology in novel writing, he
dedicated his books to the relations between East and West, and
thereby continued down the path followed by some of his ancestors.
I had the opportunity to reassure myself of this in my discussions
with him, not just from reading his remarkable books. And there
is another reason: his masterpiece novel My Name is Red deals with
the Ottoman Empire (and in part with Mehmed-Pasha’s time, and
also with the consequences of that time) and it informed me of the
important relationships of the Turkish system – the conquering rule
and the vanquishing of new territories for art within the Empire, about
something of which I knew almost nothing. For all that effort, and
for the benefit of others, Pamuk deserved a virtual (perhaps for him
Dervish’s) bath. Among other things, there is never enough cleanliness
and purification. Nor is there enough enjoyment, or akshamluk “the
Bosnian custom of sitting on the grass in the evening, usually by a
body of water, drinking brandy, singing and talking”.
What kind of writers would we be if we did not, sometimes, next to
the hamam, enjoy a bit of akshamluk ourselves? Under
the condition that we understand this word simultaneously and equally
as being hedonistic and philosophical.
The writers’ problem, one of countless others, is that they often
confuse reality and imagination. That is the source of the famous loss
of the boundary between what happened and what was experienced.
That is how I began to temporally mix my encounters with people close
to me; I want to say, I brought those who lived five centuries before
me closer to my own time, and transferred myself and my friends (or
characters, it makes no difference) with ease into lives centuries older
than we are. That is how it could happen that our encounters, real and
unreal, became more frequent.
It was one of the ways of fulfilling the writer’s dream about the
temporal omnipotence of words.
Because of that dream, among other things, books come into being