Ivo Andrich, Serbia and Montenegro
BEING A MAN*
In thousands of different languages, in divers living conditions, from century to century, from the ancient patriarchal stories told by the hearth of the cabin down to the works of modern writers, which spurt out of the publishing houses of the big world centers, is spun the never-ending story of man’s fate, told and retold over and over again. The manner and shape of this story change over time and circumstance, but the need for a story and storytelling remains, the story goes on and the storytelling never stops. So, it seems sometimes that mankind, from the very first dawn of consciousness and throughout the centuries, has been telling itself the same story in millions of variations, with the breath of its lungs and the beat of its heart. And it is as if that story wants, in the fashion of the tales of Sheherezade, to trick the executiomner, to delay the inevitability of the tragic doom, which haunts us, and to prolong the illusion of life and existence. Or perhaps it is the storyteller through his work who has to help man realize and deal with this fate? Maybe his calling is to speak on behalf of all those who don’t know how, or who, long ago crushed by life, don’t succeed in expressing themselves?
Or perhaps the storyteller is telling his own story to himself, just as the child sings in the darkness to appease his fear? Or the purpose of this storytelling is to light up at least a little bit the dark paths, which life forces us to take, and to tell us something more about this life, which in our weakness we fail to comprehend and understand. Oftentimes the words of the good storyteller tell us about our acts and our omissions, about what we should be doing and what not. Maybe these stories – written or spoken – contain the true history of mankind, and maybe they can hint at, if not completely disclose, the whole meaning of this history. And without any regard to past or present.
When we talk about storytelling whose subject is the past, we shouldn’t forget that there are certain views, according to which writing about the past means neglecting the present and turning our backs on life. I think the creators of historical stories and novels would not agree with this and would rather admit they themselves don’t know how and when they cross from what is called present into what is considered past, that they do so with ease, as if in a dream, they cross the thresholds of the centuries. Can it be that both in the past and the present we face similar phenomena and identical problems: to be a man born without his own knowledge and his own will, cast into the ocean of existence? To have to swim. To exist. To be identical. To stand the atmospheric pressure around you, all confrontations, yours and others’ unforeseen and unforeseeable actions which most often extend beyond our capacity. Furthermore, to endure your own thought about all this. In short: to be a man!
So, beyond the line which randomly separates past from present, the writer comes upon the same human fate, which he has to observe and understand to the best of his abilities, to identify with it, to give it warmth from with his own breath and own blood until he acquires the living texture of the story he wants to tell the readers in the best, simplest and most persuasive way possible.
How to achieve this, in what way and by what means? Some achieve this through a free unlimited flight of their imagination, others – through a long and careful study of historical data and social events. Some – through submerging into the core and essence of the past beauty, others – through a whimsically joyful easiness, like that prolific French novelist who used to say, “What is history? A nail on which I hang my novels.” In short, there are hundreds of ways and means, in which a writer accomplishes his work, but the one single thing that matters and is of importance, is the work itself.
The historical novelist could place as an epigraph and as an only explanation to everything, to everyone and once and for all, “I pondered over the days of yore and I have kept in mind the years of eternity.”*
But even without any epigraph on it, his work alone says the same.
In the end it is all a matter of technique, method, habit.
All this is more or less an amusing game of the soul on a certain occasion or something about it. It’s not at all important whether the narrator describes the present or the past, or boldly plunges into the future. What matters, is the spirit, in which his narrative is immersed, that principal instruction which his work communicates to people. And of course, there cannot be any rules and regulations about this. Everybody tells their story because of an inner personal need, according to their inherited or acquired inclinations and conceptions, or to the power of their expressive ability. Everybody is morally responsible for what they say, and everybody should be able to speak freely. And the story, which the modern narrator tells his contemporaries, regardless of form and subject, should not be poisoned by hatred nor deafened by the sound of weapons, but as much as it is possible, it should be inspired by love and driven by the breadth and serenity of the free human spirit. Because the writer and his work serve no one unless, in one way or another, they serve man and humanity. That is what matters.