Iosip Osti, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina
When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Slovenian book for you?
Regretfully, my knowledge of the Bulgarian literary history is not that rich, but it seems to me that books to Bulgarians, as well as to Slovenians, have always been and remain the basis of their national identity. To Bulgarians, these are the texts of Cyril and Methodius’ disciples; to Slovenians, the oldest text, the Freising Fragments (Brizinski spomeniki), through the folk poetry of the two peoples to the modern writers.
Since, undoubtedly, written texts – respectively books – help one see the past, ever since the first printed book by Primoz Trubar in 1550, Slovenians have considered themselves a people of the book, despite the current crisis of the book and writer in Slovenia. And rightly so, because it is language and literature that have preserved them as a people through history. Besides, writers in Slovenia were at the forefront of the anti-fascist fight during World War II, as well as during the struggle for sovereignty, for an own country and democracy in the early 1990s.
Which books have given you the most and from which books have you been able to take more than you believed it possible?
I have been a fervent reader ever since my early years. At times, I even think I am more of a reader than a writer. I have been connected with the book all my life: not only as a reader and writer, nor as a literary man only, but also as an editor and translator. That is why it is difficult for me to name just a few of the long list of books that have given me a lot, and be just to the others. Thanks to the many and oftentimes brilliant translations in former Yugoslavia, I was able to early acquaint myself with the works of writers from the whole world. Of course, the adventure of reading in my childhood stands for the immediate meeting with literature as a world parallel to the real one. I dedicated all my time to books. Unreservedly, completely. And they opened my third eye, which sees much deeper and much clearer in daily life. A lot of books were my best teachers in aesthetics and ethics. I believe that it is the books I’ve read that have shaped me into what I am today. I will only mention that at my maturity exam I wrote about Franz Kafka’s works and that my university graduation thesis was about Miroslav Krleza. I will also add that at the beginning and the end of the war in former Yugoslavia I re-read Dostoevsky. Since on the eve of the very war I wanted to reach the truth about what was happening, for some time I was reading all the dailies and weeklies that came out in Sarajevo, Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana and they brimmed with various commentaries. But when I realized I needed more than 24 hours a day to read all the press – and in order to keep my hands from too much printer’s ink – I decided to re-read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I finished it in two days and two nights and it helped me see much clearer what the conflict between the “brotherly” peoples in former Yugoslavia actually was. After the war crimes court in the Hague was established, I re-read Crime and Punishment and I realized that that book – as well as many others – was not just a temporary, but eternal conviction of malefaction.
What is the destiny of fine letters now, and what could this destiny be in the near and in the more distant future?
The destiny of literature is unknown at present, because it is partly substituted by other media. We live at a time when, regretfully, the book has almost everywhere become a commodity like any other. It is the relentless market that decides its fate. But as the novel survived its prophets, who foretold its death, I hope literature will outlive its current and future gravediggers, because hope is all that writers are left with.
The cultural crisis of today has its causes and its signs, but it also has a remedy that is basically universal. Perhaps, the purely Slovenian specifics of this remedy remain out of focus?
We can hardly recall a period in the human history when culture was not in a crisis, respectively in conflict with anti-culture. The question is when the crisis was bigger or smaller. It may have reached a peak in our time. And if anti-culture is barbarism, then the only remedy is anti-barbarism, if there is a remedy at all. By the way, we must be anti-barbarians in Krleza’s sense and call our cultural values to arms against anti-culture, though its weapons are more numerous and more powerful. How else could it be today, when politics claims to be supportive of culture, while in fact it is its enemy. Unfortunately, in Slovenia, as well as anywhere else, the remedy has not been found yet. But a battle lost is not a war lost because the spirit that produces culture today will hardly be destroyed. This is proven by the past millenniums.
There are many secrets to a book, and the author’s mastership tends to be among the most mysterious. Have you reached a conscious explanation for yourself of everything that you have created – as creative art, besides a pure will, is also the product of the artist’s instincts, of the artist’s enigmatic and mysterious self that he deciphers only partially in his texts to the reader?
It is because of their many unfathomable secrets that books have always had magnetic attractiveness for me. Even a book we have read many times and have every time discovered something new, sticks in our memory thanks to its equivocality, which is never revealed completely. It is the inexhaustible well of meanings that makes reading enchanting. The greatest thrill comes from the writing of such a book of many layers and meanings and this is what distinguishes it from a book that is not a real art of letters. But every time you re-read a book, it reveals something new to you because a reader is always different, enriched with new and different living and reading experience. This is the vicious circle of literature that a writing reader can never escape. But this labyrinthian cul-de-sac – unlike the labyrinth of life – is not a threat but inspiration, because it shows us the way that leads us closer to ourselves and thus to the other. We lose our bearings in this labyrinth in search of ourselves, but this is our choice. After all, a man cannot be made to read and write, nor can he be forbidden to do so. It is true that for a certain time – shorter or longer, as the case may be – he may be deprived of the possibility to publish or even be forbidden to publish. But even if he makes his living as a writer, that is less important than writing itself because a writer is most of all a man who writes and feels satisfaction despite the difficulties.
It is a known fact that art, true art, often materializes the rational intentions of the writer through its irrational or transcendental scales, especially when it succeeds in combining the awakened language, which has its own and collective memories, not only with experience, but also with dream, and weave it into one pattern. It is all imbued with deep sensitivity and care for human destiny; in other words, the writer infuses it with the life-giving breath of a mastered conscience and with the subconscious that possesses him, the way instincts and passions possess him. This is confirmed by the different answers writers and readers give to the banal question of what the writer has meant, as well as by the different answers of different readers. But there will be no answer to this question as long as there is no answer to how the writer has expressed that. Here lies the mystery of the literary art and of all art, too.
What has been the major source of hope and belief for you through the years?
In the last decade of the 20th century, the major source of hope and faith on the territory of former Yugoslavia was the expectation for the war to end; the war that turned this part of the Balkans into a real slaughterhouse. Despite the Dayton Accord, which prevented the fire of war from spreading to neighboring countries, this fire has not been fully extinguished yet. It is still smoldering In Kosovo. In Macedonia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is why we cannot speak of real peace, if there has ever been real peace in this region. Many things show that not a single war has really ended here. Neither the First nor the Second World War, nor the last war which fortunately did not grow on world scale.
What is your vision of Slovenia at the end of the 21st century? What does Time mean for you?
I do not have global vision either of Slovenia or of the world in the 21st century. I just hope that people in Slovenia and in the world will live a worthy life. Slovenia is on its way to United Europe, on the way, it seems, to inevitable globalization, which I believe is just a term for Americanization and English language domination. But if this globalization is not accompanied by higher-level humanization of people’s relations – which we can certainly doubt, given the many goings-on in the world today – then the harsh world market, which is the only interest to the most powerful states, will turn into a new type of colonialism. And each colonialism is domination of people over other people. But as long as some nations assume the right to subject others, believing them to be less worthy, we can hardly have a brighter vision of the world and humankind.
When I was young, in the middle of the 1960s, I went in for athletics, and I often visited Bulgaria to participate in sports events and I must say that I was so naïve as to imagine I could reach and outrun time. Though I ran for some ten years or so, as a poet I realized early in my life that my race with time was predestined. A lot of my poems and stories, if not all, are a struggle with time. Of course, it is another struggle, not that running race, with the clear conscience that time is faster and shows our human mortality and transience.
What is the weight of values created over the last hundred years, and what is the burden that these years have placed on us?
I don’t think we can speak of specific values that we have inherited from the past hundred years. Moreover, it seems to me that the wars that marked in blood both the beginning and the end of the century and which raged here, in the Balkans, even blurred the meaning of a major value: the sanctity of life. This means that time has not made progress in making humans more human, despite the development of technology, because it is not men that are born, but human beings, who later become men. As Martin Buber says, “The fact that supports human existence is neither the separate individual, nor the society as such… it is man with man”, i.e. human relations.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the destiny of the Balkans and mankind, and why?
I cannot see, at least today, any good reason for optimism. If I were an optimist I would have to be more naïve than I am. Though I admit I am happy that in the global division of people into dodgers and dupes in former Yugoslavia, and in a broader aspect, I belong to the dupes. If this is pessimism than I am a pessimist; but I suspect that by taking the path of deep rationalism and materialism of the West, which denies spirituality and sensitivity, mankind will hardly be able to avoid the impending catastrophe. The Balkans are, and will probably remain for a long time to come, a powder keg. After all, the whole world is like a mine field. A man is never safe. Literally everywhere – from the most godforsaken Balkan cottages to New York and London – anyone can be blown to bits. Pasternak said life was not like crossing a field, having in mind a field full of flowers. We and the generations to come are doomed to walk through a field of mines. I hope that such an absurd life can only be made meaningful by love. That is why most of my poems are love poems. They are probably optimistic, too, because they urge us to walk the mine field holding each other.
Is there any peculiarity of your character that you freely joke about in public? And does it happen frequently?
I realize that I’ve remained a child or, rather, that I’ve preserved my childhood sensitivity and views, especially in my prose, in the wondering eyes and views of a child. I think I can see the stars peeping through the sky’s black cloak. And when there is irony in my jokes – at my or somebody else’s expense – it is never of the bitterest kind. Most often it is the fruit of pun, I cannot overcome it. My poems and stories are both sad and jovial. If I were to define this seeming paradox – why life is both the one and the other – I would say it is the smile on the face of a sad clown, who often smiles even when dead.
What would you choose – if you had to choose today – between a bag of gold and an eternal book? And what would have been your choice 30 years ago?
Ever since I wrote and published my first poem at 14, I have lived for literature. And for more than a decade now, as a free writer, I have earned my living by writing literature. I have survived a series of trials, one of which is that for years now I have not been writing in the language of my memories, but in Slovenian. This means the dilemma lies in your question, though I am well aware of the fact that we all live in a world dominated by money, but that is outside my field of vision. And will probably remain so in future. Finally, most of my poems in Slovenian are an act of communion with the poetry of Srecko Kosovel (1904-26), who says in one of his poems that gold is manure and manure is gold.
Do you think that in these times when the path to the reader is difficult and uncertain, new names could emerge? Could the experience with your own public recognition be useful today? How did you gain recognition, was it easy?
The crises of the book and readers’ culture, which influence the existential position and the public status of the writer, does not imply that books are not written, published and read. New writers and new books find their way to readers, despite all difficulties. It is true that most often they do not reach many of them. But if they reach the true readers, I think that both for the writer and for the book that seeks a company, in the immaterial sense of the word, this is much more valuable than a big number of readers. From time to time, the excellent writer and the excellent book have the luck to enjoy a large number of readers, though more often that happens to writers and books that are not that worthy. But such is the time and world we live in. And we have to accept it as it is.
If there is any use of my experience, it is the fact that for quite a long time most of my readership is in Slovenia, where I live and work, through I used to live in Bosnia, in the region of the former Serbo-Croatian language and I had readers throughout Yugoslavia. Since 20 or so of my collections of poems were translated into other languages, the scope of my readers expanded but I have no way of knowing who they are, where they are and how many they are. What is more important to me, however, is whether readers find my books absorbing, the way I am absorbed by other writers’ books. When I write, I think of the reader and I see myself in him. The fact that people in Slovenia know me – and many of them read me – is due to the fact that I have been popular for a long time here as a translator of Slovenian literature (I have so far translated 70 books and 15 dramas by Slovenian authors), and as winner of literary awards I received in Slovenia. Besides the translation awards, for the past ten years or so, I have also received the Golden Bird (1993); the Vilenica international literary award (1994), which is given by the Association of Slovenian Writers for high achievements in Central-European literature; the placard of Ljubljana (1997); the Veronika award (1997), which recognized my first book in Slovenian; A Krakow Narcissus for poetic book of the year; and the Zupancic award (2000), the biggest prize given by Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana for art and culture. Though I am critical to prizes and in a sense consider them to be a hypocritical reward for the unequal social status of the artists, who rarely can live on their work, their cash equivalent is bigger than the royalty for the books. This allows me to scratch a living and help my mother, who was in besieged Sarajevo throughout the war. Undoubtedly, these awards turned readers’ attention to my books and made them more popular among readers.
Would you disclose your own anthology or collection of names of masters of the prose whom you hold in highest esteem – names from the Bulgarian and world, including Balkan, literature?
Given the number of books I’ve read and my manner of reading – not seeking the shortages in books, as critics do, but the valuable things that invite me to communicate with the author – my list of such an imagined anthology would be very long. Of the Slovenian writers I wouldn’t miss Cankar, Voranc, Kosmac, Bartol, Kovacic, Jancar… Of the Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian, Andric, Krleza, Stankovic, Marinkovic, Crnyanski, Selimovic, Samokovlia, Desnica, Bulatovic, Novak, Kis, Kovac, Pekic… Of the Albanian, Kadare. Of the Bulgarian, Blaga Dimitrova. Of the world writers I would include Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pasternak, Babel, Bulgakov, Platonov, Voynovic, Hamsun, Strindberg, Mann, Grass, Boel, Lenz, Schultz, Singer, Gombrovic, Kafka, Hasek, Hrabal, Kundera, Joyce, Durrell, Lawrence, Stendhal, Camus, Jursenar, Pirandello, Moravia, Eco, Tabucci, Frisch, Zweig, Benhard, Nadas, Esterhasi, Mishima, Faulkner, Nabokov, Miller, Bellow, Saroyan, Malamud, Updike, Cervantes, Borges, Marquez, Fuentes, Cortazar, Lyosa, Carpentier, Sabato, Basnos…
Have you been able to read the answers of some of Bulgaria’s greatest writers to the questions included in the Autographed Book series and what is your comment?
I haven’t read them and I cannot comment on them.
Is there a refuge from the monologism and masochism of the Balkan peoples? What is it?
I do not know if there is any pretext, but unfortunately I realize that we live mainly in monologous cultures, which are unaccustomed to dialogue. That is why I am not surprised that a dialogue is always preceded by a conflict, where the masochism of one people becomes sadism to the other.
Which authors – Slovenian, Balkan and world – would be essential for an imagined anthology of chauvinism?
As a disciple of the ancient Greeks, despite everything that has happened in the Balkans, I believe this region is the cradle of European culture, aesthetics and ethics, which go hand in hand. But I do not know a real literary work that preaches chauvinism. If there is chauvinism in a work, it can hardly be accepted as a piece of art. In other words, I do not identify the writer with his art because the writer can well be a chauvinist, as many writers are. But he is a chauvinist as long as he writes. Otherwise he can be anything: a politician, a homosexual, a criminal… To make the long story short, unfortunately, the good writer is not always a good man, but fortunately he succeeds in overcoming these weaknesses of his in his works.
What cultural and literary complexes can you discern in Slovenians and their neighboring Balkan peoples? To what extent is that the result of the fact that the Balkan peoples have missed the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the great geographical discoveries?… How long will we continue to live as if we were alone in the world, as if nobody else existed but we?…
I can discern the uncritical self-complacency, which, regardless of the literary values, is as big as that of the other peoples and also the fear of clashes and the desire to always compare ourselves with the others. Some of our provincial complexes may disappear when we become part of the people of United Europe, though I cannot see how the hegemony of the English language will allow us to preserve the languages of the other peoples and the literature of these languages, which indicates the national identity.
How do you assess the role of Balkani, the private publishing house, for the Balkan literary and cultural cooperation, especially the role of the Balkan Library series? Such a comprehensive series of all Balkan authors has never been published in Bulgaria. What hatred, prejudice and ideological taboos, what loss of time…
The Literary Balkans Magazine and Balkani’s program which has already published books by some of the most significant Balkan writers undoubtedly play an important role for getting Balkan readers acquainted with the literatures of the other Balkan peoples, which is essential for mutual respect and understanding. This is an example that should be followed by publishers in other Balkan countries. If this existed before, I would have known the Bulgarian literature much better.
What do you think the Balkan peoples cannot divide?
The Balkan peoples cannot be divided by anybody but by themselves. This has been proven by the history of conflicts between closest neighbors.
What bigger opportunities do you see in this initiative and what new partners and participants, besides your highly respected involvement?
I expect to hear the opinions of the others, if we really have a democratic spirit. This means to know each other better and make a re-assessment, i.e. to correct ourselves, which would actually be a great achievement.