Jonathan Bousfield talks to Croatian man of letters Miljenko Jergović about Croatian literature, growing up in Yugoslavia and the gentrification of Dalmatia.
The most prolific writer of his generation and certainly the most widely translated, Miljenko Jergović is one of the few contemporary Croatian novelist who can boast a genuinely international profile.
That said, he’s hardly the most easy-to-handle of cultural exports, and few Croatian cultural patriots would regard him as a kindred spirit. As a Bosnian Croat born in Sarajevo in 1966, and resident in Zagreb since 1993, Jergović has an ambiguous relationship with his country of residence. His fiction frequently deals with the sense of displacement and unease felt by many in the post-Yugoslav landscape, and few of his characters have simple one-nation stories to tell. Written with the caustic detachment of the not-quite insider who is not afraid to speak his mind, Jergović’s weekly newspaper columns frequently offer uncomfortably forensic insights into the Croatian body politic.
While many of Jergović’s novels have appeared in the major European languages, it is only recently that English-language publishers have begun to catch up. Jergovic’s debut short-story collection ‘Sarajevo Marlboro’ (1994) appeared in English as early as 1997, although it wasn’t until 2011 that more of his work became available in the shape of ‘Ruta Tannenbaum’, a historical novel set in the Zagreb of the 1930s. The partly autobiographical story collection ‘Mama Leone’ is out soon, while Jergović’s ‘The Walnut House’, a rich historical saga that roams all over the Western Balkans during its troubled 20th century, is due to be released by Yale University Press in 2013.
Q: The first part of ‘Mama Leone’ contains stories told in the first person by a child called Miljenko. The second, post-1992 part follows the fates of various characters – why does ‘Miljenko’ stop being the focus of the book?
A: The first part of the book is about early childhood and growing up. For the most part, it is wholly autobiographical. I had a very exciting childhood, spent with my maternal grandparents both in Sarajevo and in a small town in Dalmatia. I have retained deep and unusually early memories of this period of my life. For example, I can clearly remember how, as a ten-month-old child, I was taught to walk. It sounds unlikely, but it’s true. The second part of ‘Mama Leone’ is about wartime fragmentation and deals with the fates of several wartime emigrés from the Nineties. None of these stories are autobiographical in any way. I simply wasn’t able to deal with my own life in those stories, because I wanted to show the break between the normal Yugoslav childhood I enjoyed before the war and what became of us after the war.
Q: One of the characters in ‘Mama Leone’ (Deda) leaves Sarajevo for Ljubljana and feels as if ‘he has neither left nor stayed, and was neither at home nor abroad’. Is this how you felt about Zagreb and do you still feel like that now?
A: I left Sarajevo for Zagreb in 1993, right in the middle of the war, but I have never become a Zagrepčanin. I came to know this town as an adult, which means that for me it will always remain some kind of foreign country. However, today’s Sarajevo isn’t my town either. So Sarajevo itself has beccome a foreign country too. There aren’t any places in the world that aren’t a foreign country to me. But this is not something that should be perceived as a tragedy. Many people share similar feelings towards their towns. Once a man leaves the town of his childhood, he can never go back, because if he does go back, it will no longer be his town, but some completely different place.
Q: Do the neighbourhoods of Novi Zagreb have a specific flavour, and are they more interesting for a writer than the tourist-friendly Zagreb of the Upper Town and Tkalčićeva?
A: That’s not an easy question to answer. First of all, I don’t know Zagreb sufficiently well: I’ve never lived in the Upper Town or indeed anywhere in the centre. And more importantly, I never grew up here, so I don’t have a deep understanding of what it really means to be from Tkalčićeva or any other street. I know Novi Zagreb a lot better, I spent ten years in various parts of Novi Zagreb, I love its various neighbourhoods and I think they are manifoldly interesting. Let’s say that if I was in charge of cultural politics in Zagreb I would do everything possible to preserve the architectural integrity of these Novi Zagreb neighbourhoods. Some of them are outstanding examples of modern architecture in a socialist context, and also of the ways in which new urban communities were formed in those days.
Q: You grew up in Sarajevo but the Adriatic world of southern Dalmatia and Dubrovnik has always been important in your writing. Is today’s Adriatic of spa hotels, cocktail bars and yachting marinas an improvement on the one you remember from childhood?
A: I wouldn’t want to say what is better than what. I’m not particularly interested in spa hotels and don’t know what I would do in a cocktail bar, and I don’t have the money for yachts and marinas, even though I think that I would somehow know what to do there. The difference between the Dalmatia of my childhood and the Dalmatia of today is in large part the difference between
Yugoslav socialism and Croatian capitalism, but also the difference between two different ideas of what economic function tourism actually fulfils.
For example, during my childhood Dubrovnik was an expensive town for tourists just as it is today, but Yugoslavia had a wide middle class who could afford a holiday in that kind of town. For today’s Croatian middle class such an undertaking is unimaginable. And those who were poor, and couldn’t afford to stay in Dubrovnik, could at least enjoy holidays in workers’ holiday camps nearby and visit the town during the day. Today the workers’ holiday camps have disappeared. Furthermore, Dubrovnik was in those days a place that represented the cultural identity and living culture of the whole of Yugoslavia. In summer the theatrical and musical scene was incredibly vibrant, and world-class musicians and artists came to perform. Today’s Dubrovnik, despite boasting of a summer cultural life, is a town where casinos are built, which tries to cater to the daily needs of very rich tourists, and in which a normal person frequently feels as if he is in a royal palace, in which nothing is really his. In today’s Dubrovnik a normal person can feel unwanted.
So which is better, the socialist concept of tourism or today’s Croatian-capitalist concept? And what’s true of Dubrovnik is in large part true of the rest of Dalmatia. The exceptions are Istria and some of the Adriatic islands, not because they deliberately set out to be exceptions, but because they were lucky, and maybe because the local people there had a bit more sense.
Q: Your generation grew up with a common Yugoslav culture. Does this common heritage still exist for Croatian-Bosnian-Serbian-Montenegrin literatures, or is each national community developing within its own cultural borders?
A: I have been going on about this subject for a long time. The thing is, at least from my point of view, very simple. As you know, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are mutually understandable languages. He who calls Serbian his first language, also has Croatian as his first language, and so on… As far as linguistics are concerned, all of the above form the same language, which both European and our own linguists have for more than 100 years called Serbo-Croatian.
For political reasons, due to the need for their own cultural and political self-realisation, national elites decided to insist on individual names for the language, which led to the emergence of Croatian and then all the others. But this was, of course, a political decision, as is every decision about the name of a language or name of a state, and nothing has changed in the actual content of the language, nor can it be changed to any great extent. In order to turn Serbian and Croatian into different languages, you’d have to build a 20-metre-high wall between the two countries, and prevent anyone from jumping over it for a hundred years. And of course, they would have to jam each other’s television channels and refrain from communicating on the internet.
But to return to your question: as long as there is no real difference between the languages, the possibility of a shared cultural scene exists, and there will be shared cultural identities which link up all these regional identities. Within the framework of Serbian literature, my books have their place. Belgrade appears in my books more frequently than Zagreb, I hold book promotions there, I have literary and other friends there, even though I am, to all intents and purposes, a Croatian writer. The same potential for some kind of linguistic community exists between those of us who live in what used to be called the Serbo-Croatian lingustic area as exists between German-language writers, regardless of whether they are Austrian, Swiss or German.
Q: Does EU membership bring anything positive or negative to the development of culture?
A: The mere fact of membership doesn’t mean anything in itself. It doesn’t mean that because of our entry into the EU better books will be written and better films will be made. Nor does it mean that Croatian citizens will read more books, in the way that concerned language teachers in provincial schools might wish. Something positive would be achieved if more money was made available for the direct or indirect funding of living culture. And it would also bring benefits if entry into the European Union led to acceptance of the corpus of human rights that forms a positive part of the European tradition.
Q: More and more Anglo-American books are being translated into Croatian, and fewer and fewer Croatian books are being translated into English. Is there any way of reversing this trend?
A: One might say that this is one of the main cultural questions of our epoch, and not necessarily one that it is my calling to answer. The problem is not just that Croatian books are rarely translated into English. The bigger problem is that Turkish, Arabic, Iranian, Chinese, Spanish, Russian or French writers aren’t translated into English either. What does get translated is that which seems likely to be recogniseable to the ear and eye of the American or British reader, as if the book was written by an American or English writer. The end result is that people stop making the effort to get to know different cultural traditions. As far as the translation of American or English books into Croatian is concerned, the problem is that it’s the books from the ‘New York Times’ bestseller list that get translated – or books that are even more stupid than that – while the books that are more serious, more ambitious or more demanding, don’t get translated at all.
‘Mama Leone’ will be published by Archipelago press in summer 2012.