Goran Petrovic, Serbia
WE OFTEN LIVE IN THE PAST OR IN THE FUTURE, AND ONLY SOMETIMES IN THE PRESENT
When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Serbian and Bulgarian book for you?
After so many millennia of existence, after such an interweaving of motifs, literature has rightfully earned the mandatory epithet of universal art – a universal subject, which, among other things, best preserves the heritage, the characteristics of a nation. In this respect maybe it is surpassed only by the art of arts – music. That is why I find it hard to separate the participation of one or another national literature. Perhaps, this could be done when we talk about folklore, songs or narratives. And later on, with the development of writing and printing we come to mixing of influences, to effects of certain schools and tendencies, many of which, unfortunately, due to sad historical circumstances, were missed by Bulgarian and Serbian literatures. But if I have to be very specific, it is very rarely that I separate a certain literature from this centuries-old humus, which has been accumulating generation after generation, and renewing itself over and over again guaranteeing growth. A humus in which, after some time, no longer matters, which tree this or that leaf came from.
Which books have given you the most, and from which books have you been able to take more than you believed it possible?
This list would be very long. And, of course, incomplete, because I have probably forgotten many titles and contents, but they have remained somewhere deep within me and have refined me. In general, the word refine is the key word, the essence of what books have given me both as a reader and as a writer.
What is the destiny of fine letters now and what could this destiny be in the near and the more distant future?
You could say that literature is a somewhat old-fashioned field. Like a craft of some kind, jewelry, for example. If we put aside the interest of the publishing houses which want speed, the book itself still requires meticulousness when it’s created, when it’s divided into chapters, when it’s written, and when it’s read. The need for books still exists, and I am sure, it always will. The form is not so essential, although I don’t believe someone would derive pleasure from reading a book off of a computer screen. Another thing that’s not so important is the number of the population literature is aimed at. Generally, it has always been a small one, almost elitist. On the other hand, this peripheral role has its advantages – literature, as an object and means of manipulation rarely exists anymore, an unfortunate advantage taken on by the cinema, for example.
The cultural crisis of today has its causes and its signs, but it also has a remedy that is basically universal. Perhaps the purely Serbian specifics of this remedy remain out of focus?
It would be hard to find a cure for this sickness in Serbia. Just like in the other, to use a widely accepted cliche, countries in transition. In the end, those who offer the cure to this severe affliction, to me seem to be like the travelling charlatans from the times of the Wild West. The same ones who in exchange of serious money sold some water, just enough to freshen your breath claiming it can cure heart conditions and pneumonia.
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 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 text to the reader?
I believe you become a writer when you find the balance between talent and effort. Instinct is what guides us how much we should put on these two scales to keep the balance. I also believe that in the process of creating a literary work, mystery is crucial. I leave the experts to unravel this mystery – the literary theoreticians, historians and critics. Literature, therefore, is twofold in its essence – it creates and opens. And yet, in order not to mystify things, because I have no such intention, I use three methods in my work. The first one is what we can call personal experience, that is the specific importance of personality, which differs for every man. The second is the book itself, the literature. I prepare exhaustively for my novels, I do research, I read, I look for the right lexis, I try to recreate the age I will be talking about (not all this will necessarily make the manuscript, but I have to be confident, since I expect the same from the reader). And in the end, if the first is not enough, and the second threatens to dominate, when there is the danger of my writing a book, born of another book, I find the people with experience I lack and through conversation I try to get to the poetics they hide inside, regardless of whether they are psychiatrists, carpenters, travelers, who have felt a place in the world I have not seen…Because each one of them has their own poetics, you only have to make them express it, no matter what they will be talking about, a certain mental disorder, or lovingly talk about their instrument, or talk about the feelings you may experience by some distant sea. In short, when I draw the coordinates of a manuscript, the verticals are what I want to write about, and the horizontals are the way I want to write it, it’s like I become a sort of a sift, a fine screen which filters everything I experience, read, hear – some things remain, others are gone. Literature is always a new, unique crystallization, resulting from a saturation that’s the same to everyone. I also pay much attention to the music I listen to while I write. I try to find similar music to what I intend to communicate. Because every book is a kind of a resonating body, so the different elements need tuning so the reader can feel the vibrations, the peculiarity of the notes.
What has been the major source of hope and belief for you through the years?
My family and writing itself. It’s as simple as that: I am content when I write. Literary success may bring me joy, but true happiness is when I write. That’s right: family is faith, literature is hope.
What is your vision of Serbia at the end of 21st century? What does Time mean to you?
It sometimes seems to me that most people simply expect all kinds of answers from the writers. I, however, understand in a completely different way both the writer and literature. If they have to set a goal before them, then this is to raise various questions. Which means, as few exclamation marks as possible, as many question marks as possible. I am afraid of a literature, in which exclamations predominate. I feel uncomfortable with books that make me ask no questions after reading. I doubt writers who have a solution to every possible problem. That is why I’d rather avoid answering this question by emphasizing that every single person in Serbia should ask themselves how they see their country’s future. This is what things in Serbia, Bulgaria, America will depend on, and not on some metaphor or hyperbole of some writer from this or that country. And time, I can say now, is one of the engrossing motifs in my prose. Because I think that we – I mean Serbs, but also the Balkan peoples, - experience in a particular way time, most often, at certain times, we live and relive our past or future, but only sometimes, our present. So rare is this that sometimes I think we only exists more or less in the glorious past or more or less in the promised future.
What is the weight of values created over the last 100 years and what is the burden that these years have placed on us?
The past century has mostly made me sick to my stomach, mostly because we developed the technology of warring with and killing each other. Compared to it, the Middle Ages are like the naïve world of Walt Disney. The most treacherous methods, the best technology, the least feelings, erasing the differences and at the same time intensifying them. And just the opposite, the values, most often contained in that ordinary immutable through the centuries feeling of love, love for your neighbor, for the vocation, for art, have not developed in the least. So there are many values, but they are somehow scattered and always somehow individual.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the destiny of the Balkans and mankind? And why?
I am a pessimist. Because we have become so distant. The biggest paradox is that we have become distant in a time that takes pride in communications. As I like saying, we have cut the umbilical cord, and the umbilical cord is the word, literature, the word of God, if you like, which binds us to the creation, to the beginning.
Is there a peculiarity of your character that you freely joke about in public? And does it happen frequently?
About my seriousness. I think it already appeared in the previous answer. Unfortunately, I rarely have the opportunity to do it in public, too, because such questions are rare.
What would you choose – if you had to choose today – between a bag of gold and an eternal book? And what would have your choice been thirty years ago?
I think thirty years ago I would have chosen to play football better or the guitar. Now, I don’t want to sound like a demagogue, I suppose I would go for the book. Also because I really don’t expect to ever have the opportunity to reach for a bag of gold. Allow me to quote a character from a book of mine, “Gold attracts fear”. Metaphorically speaking, the ancient secret of the alchemists, the secret of turning base metals into precious ones, the secret long pursued over the centuries, which was the reason for sending people to the stake, which killed people with its poisonous fumes in their own laboratories or drove them to suicide after they have failed, this secret has been divulged with the invention of the printing press. This is the way, the only way, a base metal turns into a precious one. The lead, that lead from which the letters were forged into a gold thread, a gold string, interwoven into the book while it was being set and printed. You only have to find it. Although the feeling it exists is absolutely enough.
Do you think that in these times when the part of 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?
Naturally. Every time has its season of sowing, growing, and harvesting. And it’s always said last year’s harvest was better. People will say that for as long as life depends on last year’s crops. Although my recognition in literature perhaps is not a typical one. I was lucky to always find well-meaning people: first readers, editors, publishers, the support of my family… And then, I was fortunate to find the range of my talent… And last but not least, I was fortunate to realize this gift was useless if I didn’t keep it up with hard work. Whether this is easy or difficult, you can judge yourselves. One thing is for sure, this – let’s call it recognition, I see as a passepartout. Sometimes it’s magnificent, sometimes too small, but it’s still only a passepartout, a frame, and that means something inconstant, today it’s this, tomorrow it’s that – depending on the fashion while it’s core is immutable and no one can make it better or worse than what it really is. That is why, we have to add patience to everything. Just like a story or a novel must be created with much patience, just as patiently we should look for the road to the readers. Shortcuts are not always useful. You might break your leg. Or your conscience.
Would you disclose your own anthology or collection of names of masters of the prose whom you hold in highest esteem – names from Serbia and the world, including Balkan literature?
I told you, it’s hard to begin when you know you can’t finish. But let me try. This is the Big Serbian Five – Crnjanski, Andric, Pekic, Kis and Pavic. Then, many Latin-American writers – Borges, Fuentes, Cortasar, Liosa…Or course, Rushdi. An American – Carver. And to all this I would always add a type of books which, strictly speaking don’t belong to literature – Dictionaries. I always go back to dictionaries. Because they contain many of the shortest novels, stories, poems…You just have to know how to find them.
Is there a refuge from the monologism and masochism of the Balkan people? What is it?
Monologism is very often reduced to fate, to destiny. And fate is only an excuse for inaction. Just like masochism is an excuse for the punishment which follows this inaction. Salvation seems to lie in not looking for excuses.
Which authors – Serbian, Balkan and world – would be essential for an imagined anthology of chauvinism?
Chauvinist literature doesn’t interest me. When I find it, I throw it away, without even trying to remember the name of the author. It is most often the shortcut to local recognition. A road where conscience breaks. And the fracture is not an obvious one, it can’t be seen but it’s more painful. But still, so you don’t get me wrong, within that international literature I clearly see the word national, it’s a part, a component of the first compound word. I would say the writers I mentioned before belong to the circle of international literature, and that means they have managed to present their pecularities and identify themselves through their national identity, and in this entity to place the collective.
What cultural and literary complexes can you discern in Serbs and their neighboring Balkan people? To what extent is that the result of the fact that the Balkan people missed the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Great Geographical Discoveries? How long will we continue to live as if we were alone in the wold, as if nobody else existed but us?
Namely the complex of the missed ages. The ages which have gone by us because of many historic and geographical reasons and which we constantly try to reach or somehow catch up with. From this, our mind is too often troubled to the extreme and we exaggerate our own, our modest, it’s seems out of envy. And then, after awhile, we completely destroy it, we consider it useless because of an inferiority complex. It is difficult to say how long this will last. It depends, of course, on us, i.e. on our desire and the opportunity to establish a system of values. Actually, it depends on the “world”, and how long will this “world” look at us as some sort of an exotic phenomenon.
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 not been published in Bulgaria since 1878. What hatred, prejudice and ideological taboos, what loss of time…
Well, really a project worth paying attention to. As an attempt to shatter prejudice. As an attempt to break the taboos. In the end, as an attempt for a joint effort to do away with the perception of this place as ethnology where there are only interesting folk costumes and customs, spiced up with a few exotic dishes and wars inbetween meals.