Miljenko Jergović is a Bosnian prose writer. Jergović currently lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia, having moved there in 1993. Jergović has established himself as a writer in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, and his stories and novels have been translated into more than 20 languages. Critics have acclaimed his capability to turn every topic into a story without changing it at all, hence preserving its internal logic.
His more acclaimed works include his debut Opservatorija Varšava (Warsaw Observatory, 1988); Hauzmajstor Šulc (Schultz the Repairman, 2000), both collections of poetry; a collection of short stories Sarajevski marlboro (Sarajevo Marlboro, 1994); the novels Mama Leone and Dvori od oraha ("The Mansion in Walnut," 2003; and the drama Kažeš, anđeo (You Say It's an Angel, 2000).
His debut "Opservatorij Varšava" won him the Ivan Goran Kovačić Award (by Vjesnik) and the Mak Dizdar Award. Jergović's 1994 book Sarajevski Marlboro was awarded the Erich-Maria Remarque Peace Prize, and the Ksaver Šandor Gjalski Award.
Jergović is also a journalist and has published a collection of his articles in the acclaimed Historijska čitanka (A Reader in History, 1996). Jergović writes a regular column in the Croatian daily Jutarnji list entitled Sumnjivo lice (trans. "suspicious character").Jergović has espoused various liberal stances in his columns, including a criticism of chauvinism among what is usually considered the liberal left and an unusually open support for a liberal political candidate.
His novel Buick Riviera was made into a movie in 2008 by filmmaker Goran Rušinović, and the two were in turn awarded the Golden Arena for Best Screenplay.
From "The Himmel Comando"* cycle of poems
Through the cloudy window the farside of the street disappears.
Your finger touches the window pane, the scribbled names and drawings.
Once you scratched at the paint under the fogged up window,
and a carbon smelling piece stuck under your fingernail,
sending a mild shiver of terrror down your spine.
Later in a heat wave things changed their shape,
it all seemed
like an undulating reel of film in an over-heated projector.
Pretty soon we'll reach the point
when life's boundary is marked by the in-coming explosions,
crackling metal fragments flying every which way.
Steel splinters beds down our bodies on statistical tables,
and our souls are stuffed into the morgue's freezers;
among the war's reserve beef provisions,
in the company of dead proletarians and Frankensteins,
who unexpectedly rose from the dead,
scaring to death the dead spies.
Their hearts are squeezed into velvet underwear
and in the choking embrace of muscles their souls fly out.
When death is seen vaporizing out of the tin caskets,
while the extremities are scattered on the vault of the green-glowing death chamber,
stagger up to the window-pane and breathe upon it.
Without leaving a print or any betraying sign
frozen finger-nails touch the glass,
not even void is left behind,
just the sound of tin,
hints of life
in the gnarled soundlessness of a dream.
The battle rages on the radio waves.
In the pad-locked room Yugo's aroma streams apart.
Under the window-caressing cherry tree branch.
The body sudders in the nervous twilight--
Vampires stir in loved ones' souls.
The battle rages on the radio waves.
There's five minutes left of night in the city,
that God had swathed in veiled silence.
Among the soundless branches and the gentle breeze
only the Cathedral bell is heard,
just as it came tumbling down.
In the square Albanians
light candles in memorial to their martyrs.
extinguish them every half-hour.
as many flickering flames remain
as there are martyrs.
From a respectful distance we watch impassively,
to see which side will be the first to give up:
will the desperate people holding matches relent
or will the airplanes run out fire-power first?
The Ideal Yugoslavian
Milijenko Jergovic on Balkan identity, as told through the story of his family
My father, two of my uncles on my mother’s side, and I all went to the same high school in Sarajevo. Before World War II, when the three of them enrolled, it was called the First High School for Boys. After the war, when schools turned co-ed, it was simply called the First High School. In 1984, just before I graduated, the school changed its name a third time. It was called Heroes and Revolutionaries of the First High School. It received its fourth name during the war, when it became the Bosniak First High School.
Although it has been almost fifty years since my older uncle enrolled in the high school, and that was in 1934, the inside of the building has not changed, as my grandmother, who attended parent-teacher meetings there in both his day and mine, could attest. The same teacher who taught the history of art to my younger uncle and to my father, who enrolled five or six years later, also taught me. When the old teacher died at the start of my sophomore year, all three of us went to his funeral.
From its inception in the 1880’s, it was an elite school. After many travails, Bosnia’s only Nobel prize winner for literature, Ivo Andric, graduated from the school, later talking about it with horror and a whiff of disgust. That is probably why Andric’s name was never mentioned at school ceremonies when the principal listed all the illustrious figures who had attended our school. In my day its greatest alumni were considered to be communist revolutionaries and the assassins of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand. Gavrilo Princip, the man who actually shot the Archduke and his pregnant wife, did not attend our school, but his close collaborators did.
Our teachers repeatedly told us how we should look up to such people as shining examples. We lived in a socialist society where shining examples were held in high regard. This included our parents and uncles, who were often hailed as examples of age-old sacrifice and heroism.
There was my father, for instance, a top student, one of the best of his generation. And there was also my younger uncle, who was to represent the Yugoslav metallurgical industry in the Soviet Union and become a man of the world. The two of them were often mentioned and cited as models worth emulating. My older uncle, who had been a better student than both his brothers, was not mentioned. He was not a shining example. Most Yugoslavs had someone like him in their family, someone they did not talk about. It was like in a fairytale: at least one of the three sons was not a shining example.
My older uncle was a straight A student. He corresponded in Latin with foreign friends, solved unsolvable math problems, played the guitar and wrote an essay about Paul Valery. Blond and blue-eyed, tall and frail, in photographs he looked like a young aristocrat straight out of a Thomas Mann novel, who at the end of the book would die of, say, meningitis or tuberculosis, but it would be no ordinary death, no, it would symbolize the fate of a family or of an entire generation. That was what my older uncle may have looked like but there was nothing Mann-like about his life, except that on his non-existent headstone I would have gladly inscribed the words with which Serenus Zeitblom, doctor of philosophy, bid farewell to his friend, the composer Adrian Leverkuhn: A lone man clasps his hands and says: "may God have mercy on your poor souls, my friend, my homeland."
But I am not quite certain that I know what my older uncle’s homeland was. What is more certain is that I myself have no homeland. In the end, therefore, I am not sure what such an epitaph on his invisible grave would actually mean.
My older uncle’s homeland might possibly have looked like this: he was born in Usori, a small town in central Bosnia, where his father, my grandfather, was the railroad stationmaster; he grew up alongside the tracks built by Austria-Hungary, often changing friends and landscapes; he learned Slovenian from his father – a Slovene by origin, his mother tongue was Croatian, but he started speaking German before either one or the other. He learned it from his grandfather, my great-grandfather, a senior railway official, who was an ethnic German from Banat, born in a small town in what is today Romania, and educated in Budapest and Vienna. His whole working life was spent with the Bosnian railway.
Clearly, my older uncle, and perhaps I should say here that his name was Mladen because it is too confusing to continue without names, lived in a complicated linguistic situation and environment. And you are about to see just how complicated a language can be, and how it can decide a person's fate. Mladen’s grandfather Karlo was conscious of his Germanness; he spoke only German to his four children until the day he died. He never uttered a word of Croatian to them. His sons-in-law, two Croats and Mladen’s Slovene father, all spoke perfect German, but to them he spoke Croatian. With his grandchildren he spoke both languages, but only once they had addressed him in German. If they greeted him in Croatian, Otata Karlo would pretend not to hear them.
They say that Sunday family lunches were something to behold. There was a strict linguistic protocol, which today probably exists only at the headquarters of the European Union, but nobody ever wondered why. Otata Karlo felt very strongly about his Germanness and about his select position, and they all had to respect it. In return, nobody, least of all him, stopped them from being who they were or from speaking whatever languages they wished amongst themselves. Otata was fond of his sons-in-law, he did not mind that they were not German and was proud of their occupations. For him belonging to the railroads was like belonging to a secret organization, a Masonic lodge, whose members have a different view of the world than others and a different role to play. A German railroad man and a Croatian railroad man were like brothers who understood each other better than any compatriots. Otata Karlo had leftist leanings and at the turn of the 20th century he wound up in jail and then lost his job for supporting a railway workers’ strike. It would not have been such a scandal had he not been the stationmaster and a German living among the wild Slavs, so he was severely punished by the powers that be of King and Empire for betraying his national origins and his position in society.
But ideological issues were never discussed at home unless they concerned upbringing, wherein everybody had the same rights, regardless of religion or assets. The poor little land of Bosnia, where in the 1920’s and 1930’s almost ninety per cent of the population was illiterate, where typhoid and cholera epidemics were recurrent and endemic syphilis ran rampant and was passed on from generation to generation like an ominous tradition, this Bosnia was an ideal place for Otata Karlo and his ideas. He never thought of returning to Banat or moving to Vienna or Germany. Though he was German, Germany was a foreign country to him. If we asked him about it, he would say that he could never live there because "the people over there are different." To this day I have not heard a clearer definition of what is not one’s homeland.
My uncle Mladen was closer to his grandfather than the other grandchildren, but he did not resemble him. Old Karlo had dark hair, a long gray beard and was on the short side; judging by his photographs he looked more like a Romanian rabbi or at the very least a Jewish scholar than a German. Mladen, on the other hand, got his Nordic blue eyes, height and bearing not from his mother’s German side but from his father’s line of Slovene peasants from around Tolmin. Looking at the faded black-and-white photos of the two of them makes me wonder how their lives would have turned out had Mladen not learned German so easily, not enjoyed listening to his grandfather play the violin, not sat so near him at Sunday lunch. I wonder what would have happened had the old man hated the Slav in his grandson at least a little bit.
In the courtyard of the building where my family had been living since the early 1930’s, there was a big new Ashkenazi synagogue. Everybody, not just the Jews, called it Temple. People who had come to Sarajevo by will of the emperor and king, Franz Joseph, and who had stayed, like Otata Karlo and my Slovene grandfather, came here to pray. In earlier Turkish times, Sephardic Spanish Jews had lived in our city and there were no Ashkenazi. They were usually poor, and distrusted the new occupying authorities and would not let the newcomers into their temple. In a way, they did not believe that these people were Jewish, and so, like their imperial and royal protectors, they called them Krauts. Eventually, a second, Ashkenazi or, as they called it, Kraut synagogue had to be built and everybody called it temple.
At the very start of the war, a day after the Ustashas took power, a mob broke into the synagogue and smashed everything in sight. These were not people in uniform, they were plain, perfectly civilian folk. They included city bums and bullies, small-time crooks and better class citizens, and Romanies, the very same people who only a few days later would find themselves being transported alongside Sarajevo’s Jews to the concentration camps.
My Slovene grandfather, his name was Franjo, watched the temple being destroyed from his window. Grandma Olga tried to pull him away so that nobody would see him, but, his fear notwithstanding, he stayed at the window. It was a measure of his courage.
At the time, their son Mladen was in his junior year in high school. They had taught him that what was happening was wrong, they told him that Pavelic was mad and Hitler a lunatic who would certainly lose the war in the end. The two of them, along with Otata Karlo, taught him everything that would be important and necessary from today’s perspective. But they also told him, of course, that he should never ever, no matter what, speak his mind about Hitler or Pavelic. And that he should steer clear of people who protested against the new Ustasha authorities. My grandparents, like their parents and our entire greater family, were principally against any opposition to the authorities. There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s not up to us to change the state. You’ll just wind up in jail.
They told Mladen to stay away from members of the Ustasha Youth, not to attend their events or get-togethers, and, if asked, to say that he felt German not Croat. Who knows whether he ever had to tell anybody that he was German in order to avoid the consequences of being Croat; certainly, his knowledge of German and of some of the finer skills that Germans are famous for, such as their artistry with the foil or the violin, led to the preception that he was not a Croat and so could not be an Ustasha.
A year later, after graduating from high school, Mladen was making plans to study in Zagreb or Vienna. We had lots of relatives in Vienna, they were not poor and he could live with them. It would have been a bit harder in Zagreb. He wanted to study forestry, because Otata had always told him that it was crazy to be in Bosnia and not live in the woods.
But in the early summer of 1942, he received his call-up papers for the army, written in German and Croatian as per the regulations of a united Europe. The unit Mladen was assigned to was a part of the Wehrmacht, not the Croatian army, and only Sarajevo’s top young men, usually of German or Austrian descent, were sent there.
There were two possibilities: Mladen could either report for duty and go to war, or run off to join the partisans. Not for one moment did his parents, my grandfather Franjo and grandmother Olga, doubt that Hitler would lose the war and that Pavelic would end with a noose around his neck. I know I have said this before, but it bears repeating: never, not for a single day, not for a single hour, did Franjo think that the people who had destroyed the temple and carted away our Jewish neighbors could win the war. Though he was not religious, there was no way that evil could win out. He was not a communist, but his father-in-law, Otata Karlo, was a bit of one, and the partisans to whom Mladen would be escaping from his German draft papers certainly were. To join them would place him on the side of justice in every respect.
My grandparents knew that, but all the same they sent their son, my older uncle, to the Germans. They figured that he would stand a better chance of survivalwith them. He would spend a few months in boot camp, by which time Hitler would have lost the war. They figured wrong, however, because fourteen months later my older uncle was killed fighting the partisans. It was his unit’s first battle and he was its first and last casualty. Several days later, the entire unit, along with its command, crossed over to the partisans. After the war, in the summer of 1945, four of Mladen’s wartime comrades came to see his parents. They were now part of the liberation army and Franjo and Olga were the parents of a dead enemy soldier. After her son died, my grandmother never went to mass again, she stopped crossing herself, stopped celebrating Christmas and Easter and when, at the age of fifteen, I asked her if there was a God, she replied:
"For some there is, for some there isn't."
"And for you?"
"And for me?"
"That you have to figure out for yourself."
While his grandson was fighting as a German soldier, Otata Karlo was living on the outskirts of Sarajevo in his house in Ilid'a, where various, mostly drunken troops would come tearing through. When the Ustashas set off on their nocturnal rampages, killing and plundering Serbian houses, Otata would take the neighbors, sometimes as many as fifty, into his house. And when the Ustashas came to search the house, he would stand at the door, bearded and scowling, and tell them in Croatian:
"This is a German house, you're not setting foot in here!"
No matter how drunk they were, they would turn on their heels and leave without a word. The look of hatred on his face as he watched them go made him hard to recognize. He was like a different man. A terrible man. I was once told that I had inherited that look from him.
Sarajevo was liberated in April 1945. A couple of months later they came to take Otata away to a holding camp from where he was to be deported, along with his German compatriots, to Germany. It was a kilometer-and-a-half-long walk to the train station in Ilid'a. He was flanked by two partisans, while a third kept prodding him in the back with the barrel of his rifle. The man knew him from before the war, he knew exactly who and what Otata Karlo was, but he got a kick out of pushing him around. That's how it is in life. You never know who will be carted off to a concentration camp, when or why, it's just that people seldom think it will be them.
But when they reached the train station, Otata's Serb neighbors had already gathered in front of the cattle cars used now by the partisans to transport their victims to the camps. They shouted that he could be German ten times over but for four years he had saved them from the Ustashas and they were not going to let comrade Karlo go; if he went, they went. The partisans tried to break up the crowd, rifle butts flashed through the air, a few heads were bashed, but the harder they hit, the more stubborn the people became.
That day, they brought Otata Karlo home and never came back for him again, even though he was a German and, along with other Yugoslav Germans, slated for deportation to Germany. Who knows whether he would have made it there alive. It can be said that his life was saved by the very people whose lives he himself had saved. Like in a fairytale, his good deeds were rewarded. Otata died fifteen years later, at the start of the decade in which I was born.
His daughters were not treated as Germans in Yugoslavia, because they were married to Slavs. His only son, Rudolf, known as Nano to everybody except his sisters and mistresses who called him Rudi, was not considered German either and so was not carted off to the camp. What were the criteria used by Yugoslav communists when sending Germans off to the camps after the war and what, from their viewpoint, defined a person as a German? That is a question I have been unable to answer to this day. Our Nano looked more German than his father, he carried his last name, never Croatianized it or gave it a phonetic spelling, he had a library full of German books, went to concerts of classical music, spoke German with his friends, strolled through the streets of Sarajevo’s Barija with relatives from Vienna and his beautiful girlfriends, all of them Austrian, but the partisans did not consider him German. Why not? Probably because, with their policeman's sixth sense, they figured that our family’s Germanness had ended with Otata Karlo and that Rudolf was not interested in his German roots. That was enough for them to spare a person from the camps and, in this respect, communist concentration camps could not be compared with German or Ustasha camps.
After the liberation of Sarajevo, my younger uncle Dragan and my father were mobilized by the partisans and fought in one of the bloodiest battles of the end of the war, somewhere around Karlovac. They were still in high school when they were sent to war and only graduated after they were demobilized. My uncle later studied metallurgy and my father medicine. Both made a success of their professions and became respected members of society. And both carried family stigmas in their hearts and minds, and in their names which were registered in their police files. My uncle's was his brother, who died as a German soldier, while my father had his mother and her two sisters, who were very active in the Ustasha youth movement in Sarajevo, as a result of which, after the war, she was sentenced to prison and her sisters emigrated to Argentina.
My uncle and father joined the League of Communists and remained loyal members until the break-up of Yugoslavia. As did my mother who had been only one year old when her brother was killed. But even she was told on occasion, when it was thought necessary, that her brother had fought on the wrong side in the war. She felt a little guilty about it. So did her brother. And her future husband, my father, felt guilty because of his mother and aunts.
This guilt marked their lives and shaped their identity. It is a part of my own identity although I have never felt guilt myself, just as I have never felt the Germanness of my great grandfather Otata Karlo or the Sloveneness of my grandfather Franjo. My case, I know now, is rather more complicated, because my identity consists more of what I am not than of what I am.
In the summer of 1993, with Sarajevo under siege from Mladic's and Karadzic's tanks, I left the city in a US military plane that was transporting aid relief, foreign and local journalists to Split and I thought I might be leaving it forever. I was simply trying to stay alive. My parents, who had divorced many years earlier, stayed behind. It struck me that I might never see them again. But, after seventeen months of war and siege, I had to save myself. I was doing what my older uncle had not been able to do. I was running away from my war.
I knew that I was going to Zagreb, to Croatia. Even though it was the land of my language, even though I am Croatian, I went there the way Otata Karlo went to Germany. But I did not know it at the time. In saving my neck I never thought how "the other people" in Croatia lived, and I was a foreigner in their midst, just as Otata was a foreigner in Germany. He was a German whose Germanness could only exist in the context of people who were not German, in daily contact with others, in the peculiar linguistic ceremonies that formed part of family Sunday lunches, in his arrogant behavior towards the Croatian fascists who wanted to search his house. My Croatianness was Bosnian and even more than that, it was a carpetbagger’s. That was the name given to people who, in the days of Emperor Franz Joseph, had come from different parts of the Monarchy to settle down in Sarajevo. They, with their different cultures and languages, created a non-national identity, whose cultural substrate was stronger than their sense of national belonging. In my case and in the case of my family, this means that we are Bosnian Croats whose identity is defined by Slav, German, Italian and who knows what other nations form the former Monarchy. Without Austria-Hungary I would never have been born, because my parents would never have been born, because their parents would never have been born, because the parents of their parents would never have met… In that respect, my birth was a political project.
Once in Croatia, in the land of "the other people," I realized that I could spend my whole life here and even be happy, but I would never be one of them. When I utter the word we, it is usually a false we, the kind of we that makes one slightly ashamed. So I prefer to say them and me rather than we. When talking about myself I usually say things that people don’t like hearing, things that they themselves would never say because they don’t want to be different. It doesn't matter whether the difference is positive or negative; as soon as there is a difference, as soon as you stand out from the crowd in any way, it invitesantagonism.
At the time of my arrival, Croatia was an ethnically highly homogenous country, with Croats and Catholics accounting for ninety per cent of the population, most of whom were extremely hostile to anyone who belonged to a minority. This hostility was at the heart of the State's ideology, but it was also shaped by the fact that there was a war raging in the country and that one third of its territory had been occupied. The role of occupier was played by the former Yugoslav Peoples' Army, and the role of local traitors by members of the Serbian national minority. But members of the small Croatian Muslim community were also seen as enemies because at the time, and that was in the autumn of 1993, the Croats had launched attacks against Muslim regions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among the other non-national enemies were atheists, who were a reminder of forty years of communist rule, and also probably of people’s own hypocrisy when it came to matters of religion and God. For as long as this had been the desired social norm, people negated religion en masse, but now that times had changed, theyrushed to church, again en masse.
Yet, people reveled in their hatreds and enmities. That is nothing new: no emotion is as all-embracing and fulfilling as hatred, and nothing but hatred can grow from a private to a public and societal emotion. In the nineties, during the time of Franjo Tudjman, Croatia was very much a country of hatred. That hatred was directed mainly inwards, against parts of its own society, against its own culture, history, identity, language… In Croatia even words were hated if they did not sound Croatian enough. And sounds could often be deceptive. If there was no object to fix their hate on, people focused on things that had nothing to do with minorities or different identities.
At such times, you can find all sorts of reasons for wanting to be with the majority. Especially if you have come from a besieged city, if you are there on your own, a subtenant, an intellectual proletarian… After all, Sarajevo was under siege from members of a nation that was hated with a passion in Croatia at the time. So why wouldn’t you not agree to such hatred, to being accepted as a member of society, to switching, as is only fair, from a state of exile to a degree of stability and situation in society? If we forget the moral norms that speak against it, and such norms are always problematic if they are in the mouth of an individual opposed to society, and if we forget that hatred also presumes a certain intellectual and social effort – which does not come so easily to everyone – then it is truly difficult to find a reason why a person who arrived from Sarajevo in 1993 should speak out against the prevailing mood in the city and country to which he had just arrived. I am not so vain as to have to be different whatever the cost. And I know that such differences are not a recipe for particularly good living conditions.
So the reason why I reduced we to I, why, during the long season of hatred, I wanted to be an exception, even though it gave me no moral pleasure or satisfaction, had to do with how my own identity had been formed, an identity which in different ways was shaped by what I was not and who I was not. My great grandfather was a Banat German living in Sarajevo who spoke Croatian with a lot of Turkish words typical of Bosnian Muslims. He hid his Serb neighbors from the Ustashas not because he was a good or selfless man, at least not primarily for that reason, but because they formed an important part of his world, for what kind of German would he be without them being Serbs? He probably did not know what it meant to be a German where there were no Serbs (Croats, Bosnians, Moslems, Jews…). From his point of view and mine, hatred in a multinational community is the same thing as self-hatred. Which is why my Croatianness was substantially different from that of the people I found when I arrived in Zagreb, and even from my friends. Because while they rejected hatred for intellectual and moral reasons, or simply because that is how they were brought up, I rejected it because it threatened me. Although I am a Croat, it threatened the Serb and the Bosniak (Muslim) in me.
My younger uncle Dragan, who was to become a well-known metallurgist and trade representative of Bosnia’s heavy industry in the Soviet Union, was born in Kakanj, yet another of the little towns where my grandfather Franjo had worked as a stationmaster. The majority population in Kakanj was Muslim, and Dragan was the only Christian in his school class. In the 1930’s, religion was a compulsory subject in all schools in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and so my uncle had to learn to believe in God from a tender age and under unusual circumstances. For their first class of the day, all the children would go to the Islamic teacher in the nearby mosque for instruction, while Dragan stayed behind alone in the classroom because there was no Catholic religious teacher in the school, and the local priest, who could stand in for him when needed, had no idea that there was a little Christian sheep waiting for him in the school. And so, sitting alone in his classroom, staring at the blackboard and the photograph of King Aleksandar Karadjordjevic hanging on the wall, my uncle felt the kind of desperate, confusing loneliness that makes even adults flee from towns and countries where they are the minority to towns and countries where will be the majority.
But instead of moving away with his family or having his son taught to believe in God by the parish priest while the rest of the boy’s classmates were being taught religion by the local hodja, Dragan’s father, my grandfather Franjo, told the teacher that since he did not want to separate his son from the other children the boy might as well go with them to Islamic religious classes. It was an unusual but not unlawful request and no one had anything against it.
That was how Dragan completed all four years of the mekteb, the Muslim primary school, and so even though he had been christened a Catholic, he knew the rules of Muslim prayer from an tender age and firsthand. It made him no less of what he was nationally or religiously, but it did distinguish him from others of his faith and nation. The important thing here is not so much that he finished the mekteb, as that he came from a family that was prepared to send their child there because they did not want him to be left sitting alone in his classroom, deprived of what the school and the place gave all the other children.
The difference, however, lies not in a multinational versus a more homogeneous society, but in the attitude to differences. We can revel in hatred and use it to shape our identity, or we can live without it. If we do not hate, then we necessarily look to others and they necessarily become part of our identity. Otata Karlo knew that when he refused to go to Germany, because other kinds of Germans lived there. How would he communicate with them, how would they understand one another, how could a German like him live in Germany except in conflict and opposition?
I have written in my novels and stories about my great grandfather the Banat German and his family, about my uncle who died an enemy soldier, about my grandparents who sent him to that enemy army, and about other important and not so important figures from my childhood. I mixed fact and fiction, brought them to life and extended their lives. I have told their stories many times in many places and forms. Even this present story, where unfortunately there are no inventions, has already been told several times. I cannot detach myself from it and I cannot let my uncle, whose grave has long since disappeared into the grass of a village cemetery somewhere in Slavonia, lie among millions of Hitler’s soldiers. He is a part of my identity, of the guilty conscience that is passed on from one generation to the next, just as I add to my own national identity. I am such and such a Croat, but also such and such a person. Often, collective national and even religious identity is not encapsulated in a name. Often to be a Catholic goes against the widely held notion and identity of Catholics.
I thought that after the death of Franjo Tudjman and the implosion of the nationalist oligarchy in Croatia, the differences between us would, with time, fade, and that my bad reputation among the national elite would simply disappear into the mist of the past, be diluted, like all other hatreds which had started to be diluted with the end of the war. After all, this was a time when Croatia was beginning to take to its bosom dissidents from the nineties, to hand them national decorations and attestations of exemplary patriotic conduct. Nationalistic pathos turned into the pathos of collective Europeanization, which might be just as irritating but at least is easier to live with. The flag of the European Union now flies next to Croata's, even though Croatia is not a member. Perhaps this is a reflection of some kind of colonial allegiance, a fragmented and schizophrenic identity, or maybe it is just that there are three flagpoles in front of every public institution and it would be silly to fly a flag on just one of them. The three flagpoles date from the days when the Yugoslav flag was flown from the middle pole, with the Croatian and Communist Party flags flying on either side of it. Today, the European flag is flown next to the Croatian, and flying from the third flagpole is some invented town or county flag…
But our lives are not determined by flags. Yesterday’s banner of nationalism may be today’s flag of freedom. And vice versa. Just look at how much the importance of the American flag has changed in the five or six years of the Bush administration. My older uncle wrote on a postcard to my aunt in Sarajevo: “ It’s Sunday, a day off, the camp-ground is deserted, the German flag is flying. We sold ours.” Though not entirely clear, this was his only political statement. After the war, the surviving members of his family could console themselves with these words but actually they do not mean much. We are people who do not really know which flag is ours. Those who did know also knew that hatred is sweetest when brandished under a flag. Why else would flags be waved so fervently at soccer games or the Olympics? Our flags are there to humiliate the losersmore than to celebrate the winners. Everybody knows it. The best known soccer song sung by Croatian fans says: “Croatia is world champion, suffer and too bad”. Why would anybody have to suffer because Croatia is world champion? Anybody who even asks such a question is probably not a true blue Croat.
A year after the fall of nationalist rule, during the coalition government led by the Social Democrat Ivica Racan, whose Europeanism brought to a sigh of relief to all of Europe, including Croatia’s first neighbors, I was at the film festival in Istria. It was held in a small ancient hilltop town once inhabited almost entirely by Italians, who, when Istria became part of Yugoslavia, were given a choice by the communists to become Italians or stay as Yugoslavs and so, with bags in hand, they left, only to spend years living in refugee camps in Italy, never to see their Istrian homes again. This festival in this little town was a kind of cultural but also social and political testimonial to a new, anti-nationalist Croatia. It was attended, of course, by the new minister of culture, dubbed the "Croatian Malraux" by his supporters and sidekicks, a title he readily accepted since in Croatia, and generally in the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, it is both customary and desirable to liken one’s top figures to the great names of the world, be it Franz Beckenbauer, Emperor Selassie or Shakespeare, it doesn’t matter. Our minister of culture, this Croatian Malraux, had previously worked in the field of lexicography, in other words he mostly lazed around, holding intellectual coffee-house debates after checking the couple of lexicographical entries placed on his desk that day. I did not like the way he ran the ministry and I wrote a newspaper article to that effect, though admittedly it wasn’t harsh, it was far less harsh than what I wrote about Tudjman’s nationalists.
The article was far from my mind that afternoon when I walked up to the café table where, seated in the shade of the huge Slav tree were a collection of film directors, producers and general practitioner intellectuals, along with Minister Malraux. I knew these people, the minister included, and I merely wanted to say hello to them the way I would on any day.
“Beat it, you piece of Bosnian garbage, go back to where you came from or we’ll pack you off ourselves!”, cried Malraux.
I wasn’t overly angry because the minister was obviously still recovering from a long and busy night which had left him with a hangover well into the afternoon. Still, I stopped and looked at the famous director, who had been blacklisted in Tudjman’s day and his films banned from television. He had been a major dissident, almost like Kundera if not more so. The man lowered his eyes and said nothing. He had to be careful around the hungover minister because he wanted to make another movie and in Croatia, that required money from the state. The producer also lowered his eyes, this young man of promise, this fighter against all forms of nationalism and apologist for love between nations, and so did the others, all dissidents from Tudjman’s time, until, having stood there waiting for too long, I turned on my heel and, to the shouts of the Croatian Malraux, walked away and down the Istrian hill.
I left and am still going, a happy man, because unlike Otata Karlo, I was not taken away by two men with a third prodding me in the kidney. This is an important nuance in our identities and because of it, we live where we do, although we are not part of the majority. Happiness keeps us here and happiness, I am deeply convinced, has often cost us our lives. At peace with what we are, and with a sense of what we are not, we represent identities that no word, no passport, no identity card or permit can define. The masses know what they are from their coat of arms, flag and name, and then they chant it out, while we are left with our long, confusing explanations, novels and movies, stories both fictional and not, a need to visit with a village in Romanian Banat where there are no more Germans but where the horizon has not changed since Otata Karlo was a boy, we are left with deserted little towns in Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Poland, inhabited by people who quite literally went up in smoke, we are left with blurred memories, the feeling that we are one thing today and another tomorrow, that our hymns and state borders keep slipping away from us, we are left with remorse, a long and painful sense of guilt because our relative lived and died as an enemy and that makes us a bit of an enemy ourselves, we are left with faith in what we hide behind our language, with the truth that our homeland is no more, and maybe it never even existed, because for us every inch of land is a foreign country.
*This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Literaturen.
Translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich Zoric.
Source: Signandsight.com: http://www.signandsight.com/features/1450.html