Svetlozar Igov, Bulgaria
BALKAN LITERATURES AND “BALKAN LIBRARY”
A few years ago, the manager and editor in chief of publishing house “Balkani”, Georgi Grozdev, approached me with a request for cooperation. His desire was to publish a series containing the work of the Balkan Nobel Prize Winners. Since I am known also for being an expert (researcher and translator) on the works of the first Balkan Nobel Prize Winner, Ivo Andric, Mr. Grozdev sought consultation with me.
The Balkan Nobel Prize Winners are only three, so during my conversation with the publisher Mr. Grozdev, the idea arose to prepare a reading series of the Balkan literatures, which was to open with the books of the Balkan Nobelists and continue with a presentation of the works of the most renowned writers of Balkan literatures in the XX century.
That was an exceptionally noble and difficult undertaking. Noble, because in the last decade of the XX century the Balkans became again a “powder keg”, amidst bloody war conflicts, ethnic enmity and civil wars, and every act of cultural cooperation and mutual interest among the Balkan states and peoples would be an act and support of their desire to live in peace and cooperation. But such an undertaking was also a very hard one because, surrounded by blazing war conflicts, the intellectuals had found themselves on different sides of the changing battlefronts, which made it difficult to bring them together even in the imaginary union of a book library, and also because due to the economic crisis the financing of cultural projects had fallen to the bottom of the to-do list of those who had the money and the power.
It is not the first time, by the way, when it is exactly literature and culture, writers and artist, who lend a helping hand over the precipice created by the politicians between the Balkan nations. Men of art are the first ones who rebuilt the friendship between Serbs and Bulgarians after the fratricidal war of 1885, after World War I, as well as after World War II, during which Bulgarians and Serbs are on opposite sides of the fighting European war coalitions.
The first work Emilian Stanev wrote after World War II was the beautiful love novel “The Thief of Peaches” – it was about the love between a Bulgarian woman and a Serb prisoner of war in the time of the previous war (the plot becomes extremely popular also thanks to the great acting in the film version of the novel of the megastars of national cinematography Rade Markovic and Nevena Kokanova). Ivo Andric, the future Nobelist, headed both delegations of Yugoslavian writers who visited Bulgaria after the war.
Similar examples can be given from the bilateral relations between all Balkan nations in their long and dramatic history, a metaphor for which can be Pencho Slaveikov’s title “A Bloody Song” or Desanka Maximovic’s “A Bloody Tale”.
Desanka Maximovic’s friendship with the poetesses Elisaveta Bagryana and Dora Gabe is in fact another symbolic chronicle of the friendship among artists, which no military and political cataclysm can undermine.
Divisions (if I use the title of Dobrica Cosic) are the symbol of the Balkan historical fate, but they have always been overcome by the Bridges of Andric, the connection across different banks, the extended and connected hands over the abyss of hatred and violence, which often stands between us.
I have attended or witnessed many forums of Balkan cultural cooperation – bilateral or multilateral. I also remember many publishing and cultural initiatives.
In the early 60s the writer Dimitar Dimov, then chairman of the Union of Bulgarian writers, demonstrated enterprise and took great care to organize a meeting among Balkan writers (he actually died in Bucharest where he was working on these matters). In connection with this meeting began the publication of a separate reading series of Balkan literatures (I remember Oskar Davico’s novel Poem was in it). After the initial enthusiasm both undertakings came to a halt – the writers’ meeting remained one of a kind, and the library was taken out of print.
But the attempts were constantly renewed. I know of at least a dozen Balkan forums and meetings which were always “the First”, they had forgotten of the previous ones. I delivered a presentation at the “Balkan Cultural Dialog” meeting in Varna in the fall of 1986. I have also participated in two international Balkan meetings with writers in the city of Bor (Yugoslavia). All these initiatives hoped to become a long tradition, but always came to a standstill. However, they always began anew. Still, it’s better to have many “firsts” than have some initiative turn out as “ the last”. Not only the Balkan culture, but also the Balkan history is an example of constant discontinuities, of constant establishing and severing of bonds. Like every history! The conversation with the publisher Georgi Grozdev (who being also a writer is interested in the “Balkan”) ended with the decision to start the “Balkan Library”, and I took on preparing the first books – by the three Balkan Nobel Prize winners – which I compiled and wrote introductions to. I am not an expert on Greek literature, but I am really interested in it exactly because of my interest for the Balkan problems in literature. As for the Greek Nobelists, Seferis and Elytis, I am particularly interested in them as typical representatives of the Mediterranean sensitivity. I prepared a special edition of the Ezik i Kultura magazine (2001, 1-2) on Bulgarian and Balkan literatures in the context of the Mediterranean culture.
Georgi Grozdev demonstrated a great organizational talent and initiative as a publisher to find financial support for the publication of the “Balkan Library”, he made contact with writers and culture figures, diplomats, publishers, representatives of business and political circles of the Balkan countries.
In the spring of 2002, in the Military Club in Sofia, was the official premiere of the first two books from the “Balkan Library” series – The Cursed Yard by Ivo Andric, and The Language and the Monster by Giorgos Seferis. The opening event was attended by many representatives of the Bulgarian culture and public, writers, journalists, diplomats from all the Balkan states accredited in Bulgaria.
As of the beginning of 2004, “Balkan Library” includes 11 works of writers from Greece, Serbia, Albania, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Cyprus. In set-up are books by writers from Romania and Turkey, also books from writers of the already represented countries. Some of the most famous translators and experts of literature and Balkan languages have taken part in the publication and preparation of the library – Stefan Gechev (no longer living) and Siyka Racheva, Marina Marinova, Zhela Georgieva and Zdravka Mihailova (I mention only translators of already published books). Famous Bulgarian poets have also been attracted as translators – Valeri Petrov prepared with great willingness a translation of his Bosnian colleague and friend Izet Sarailic.
There is a certain asymmetry in the presentation so far, which is a result of the publishing and economic situation, as well as of the objective state of the Bulgarian knowledge of our neighbors. This project, however, intends an equal (because even is impossible) representation of all the Balkan national literatures, as well as of the most significant Balkan writers of the XX century, and also new yet unknown writers to the Bulgarian readership.
The true wish of the many collaborators and contributors is Mr. Georgi Grozdev to continue ever so actively to find financial support for the “Balkan Library”.
Although the “Balkan Library” also suffers from the main ailment of literary culture – book distribution, the Balkan writers’ books have a really wide potential audience – not only the literature lovers as a whole, but also people involved in the cooperation of Balkan states, representatives of business and political circles, as well as teachers and students of Bulgarian, Slavic, Balkan, and European Studies, as well as other social and humanitarian studies.
Being an expert in comparative literature, the Balkan topic is of particular interest to me. I was fortunate to come to know the work of Ivo Andric at the beginning of my literary career. He is one of the most typical examples of “Balkan” writers, not only because he cannot place himself in any one single national literature, because he belongs to several. Balkan literatures are a rich soil for every literary critic who is interested in the problem of multicultural communities. Only the presence and participation of Balkan literatures in many cultural contexts – South-Slavic and Slavic, Mediterranean and Central-European, East-European, European and Global, - the coexistence of a number of religious communities on the Balkans – Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, etc., - and the Balkans as a borderland and land-bridge across Eastern and Western civilizations turn the separate Balkan national literatures and the Balkan literatures as a multicultural community into an object of interesting literary and cultural anthropological observation and generalization.
For over three decades now – along with my other occupations as a critic – the “Balkan” topic has constantly engaged my mind. I compiled and set up for print my essays and articles on Balkan topics in a book entitled Homo balkanicus: the crossroad man. You could read it as a sort of a literary introduction to the “Balkan Library”. I wish Balkan Library a long life, to be a disclaimer of the quick Balkan discontinuities.