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Remembering the Balkans.


Writing over a year ago about Orhan Pamuk, on the occasion of the bestowal of the Nobel Prize (2006), I felt it important to place Pamuk in the context that I think suits him perfectly--to wit, the Balkan context. At that time I cited a definition from E. M. Cioran, adding that, to some, a definition coming from him would certainly be considered "dubious," since Cioran himself came from the Balkans; I am repeating my main point here, because it impresses me as a fitting overture for (yet another) reflection on the Balkans: "The problem with the Balkans, its fateful curse, is often precisely the way it fits into outsiders' definitions, its susceptibility to what a poet described thus: somebody from outside always comes to threaten us."

The problem, however, is perhaps broader than this. Maybe definitions themselves are the problem. It would be easy to cite here definitions of the Balkans from geography, or from dictionaries or encyclopedias, but it seems more advisable, at least from my personal point of view, to paraphrase St. Augustine. What is the Balkans? As long as you do not ask me, I know; if someone demands that I explain, I do not know.

In the original, Augustine was, of course, talking about time. That phrase grew to be legendary because it describes effectively and precisely the awkwardness a person feels when he or she has to "compress into unyielding words" (Borges) that which is thought or felt about something inseparable from one's own life. Every life is necessarily inseparable from time. Time is the medium in which life unfolds, and that would seem to be why Augustine's sentence rings so true in all language and in all epochs.

To all of us who perceive the Balkans primarily as something that is our own, or of us, Augustine's discomfiture is comprehensible whenever someone requests that we explain the Balkans, that we define it, that we talk about it.

In general terms, definitions are problematic in one other way. Danilo Kis defined this problem beautifully in his essay "Novels in the Palm of One's Hand": "If defining genre comes in on the ground floor of literary-theoretical considerations, that is a situation testifying more often than not to stagnation." This definition by Kis is also applicable, mutatis mutandis, outside the world of literature. It very much reminds me of George Steiner's remark that the literature of the twentieth century resembles a walk through a museum five minutes before closing time. Defining, theory, contextualization--these are phenomena characterizing the phase of decadence, not merely stagnation.

In this vein it is worrisome that the Balkans have lately become--as they say--fashionable. Conferences, seminars, essay collections have become more and more common in the last several years. Does that mean that Stanko Cerovic's fear, uttered but recently, has actually reached us too late? Does this signify that his hopes have already been betrayed?

Before I attempt an answer, let us listen to Cerovic:
 I hope that no one will study this, for
 then it will disappear, like a magic spell.
 But there is something in this soil, in the
 zone roughly encompassing the Balkan
 peninsula, on account of which the fruits
 of its earth have more robust flavors than
 elsewhere. I have heard that a similar
 phenomenon exists in part of the Caucasus.
 It is as if some large creature had
 emerged from the water and spread its
 arms at Boka, making a circle with them
 so that the fingers interlace at Belgrade,
 at the confluence of the Sava and the
 Danube, encircling Hercegovina and part
 of Croatia, mountainous Bosnia and, to
 the south, across the plains of Macedonia
 to the Peloponnesus and Athens,
 including Crete. That's how this part of
 the world--where every taste and smell
 pushes to the limits of what people can
 endure without devouring their own
 tongues--found itself in an embrace.
 That's how it was up till recently. Rumor
 has it that now globalization is arriving
 even there, and that the soil is no longer
 what it once was. When people leave the
 vicious circle that is the Balkans, it is this
 very robust presence of the taste of the
 soil that makes them both breathe easier
 and feel that they have entered a world of
 artificiality in which something is always
 lacking. Everything is to be had there,
 except that most important thing. This
 creates great historical clashes and confusion,
 but nobody gets either credit or
 blame for this; it all comes, rather, from
 this taste of the earth's fruits. Outside
 the Balkans, food tastes like the feed-mix
 given to a bird in a cage. [...] It is possible
 that feelings of haste and evanescence
 become part of the taste of food, since
 History does not move at a walking pace
 in our direction but rather rushes in with
 a roar, like imperial armies; everything is
 intoxicating, and dearly paid for in blood
 and passion, and the earth takes care to
 be worthy of a feast. [...] This is the way
 it always is in the soil, but it is never that
 way in me. [...]

Yugoslavia was a Balkan country, but it was not situated entirely in the Balkans. If Bosnia is (or rather was) the heart of Yugoslavia, Macedonia is the heart of the Balkans. In the fact that Greece denies Macedonia the right to its name, there is a lot more than simply quotidian political concerns. In the name Macedonia is the remembrance of the Balkans: from pop music to literature, from that memorable distich of Dado Topic about the land where the sun always shines to the first page of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, where Melquiades demonstrates "the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedonia."

In August 2001 I interviewed the Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova. The topic was her highly regarded book, Imagining the Balkans, a translation of which had recently been brought out by the Twentieth Century publishing house in Belgrade. I was obliged, of course, in that conversation, to ask Todorova what, in her opinion, constituted the Balkans. "In its function as a name," she replied, "it carries a neutral, or even a positive, connotation. In another way, Balkan is a metaphor. This grew to be pejorative at the start of the twentieth century, but this was a gradual process, caused by events connected to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the small, economically weak, reactionary, and dependent national states that were striving for modernization." [...]

I talked with Todorova at the outset of the twenty-first century, but her description of the situation one hundred years earlier seemed quite topical to me. After the breakup of Yugoslavia--just like after the failure of the Ottoman Empire a century before--there arose (and aspired) in the Balkans "small, economically weak, reactionary, and dependent national states that were striving for modernization." This aspiration for modernization is known in our era as "transition." And, in point of fact, all the Balkan states that emerged from the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were small, and they were all economically weak, and they were all reactionary and dependent, and all of them were, in addition, striving for modernization--at least on the surface. But not all of them, however, were "national states" in terms of ethnic purity and uniformity. At a minimum, two of them were not such: Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia. We truly can perceive in Bosnia and Macedonia--as Ivan Lovrenovic would say--"a type of cultural metaphor that 'covers' the entire ex-Ottoman, Balkan ... area." Across Bosnia and Macedonia, the Balkans as a metaphor is refracted: from music and poetry to food and mentality. In that same conversation with Todorova, she also had this to say:
 Lastly, the Balkans can also be a scholarly
 category. In the wider sense of the
 word the region that we today call "the
 Balkans"--that is to say, that southern
 European peninsula--is the complex
 result of the interplay of myriad historical
 influences: political, economic, social,
 cultural, and so on. One can list a lot of
 them: Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, communist,
 just to name the most important
 ones in the political sense. In the domain
 of religion, there are Christian, Muslim
 and Jewish influences, with numerous
 sects and branches; in the realm of the
 arts and culture we have here the pre-Hellenic
 inheritance, the Greek, and the
 numerous ethnic groups that settled the
 peninsula, etc.; in the sociological and
 demographic sense, the influences had to
 do with large-scale and unceasing migration,
 ethnic heterogeneity, semi-nomadism,
 a predominantly agrarian culture,
 and late urbanization against a backdrop
 of unbroken continuity of urban life, etc.
 In the narrower meaning of the word,
 one could say that "Balkan" truly points
 to the Ottoman legacy, for the region
 received its name in the Ottoman period,
 and it is there that elements of the Ottoman
 inheritance--or things we consider
 to be such--have been immortalized.

On the one hand, then, "Balkanness" measures the power of the Ottoman patrimony, but on the other hand it measures the simultaneous presence of an ever larger number of influences from various eras. This is what Macedonian director Milco Mancevski spoke of in his film Dust: "The Balkans--where the centuries do not follow each other but rather exist side by side." In Bosnia, let us note, by way of example, that today women from the Larva Valley to the area around Vares still give themselves tattoos because of the vague memory of the Bosnian queen Katarina, they cook what they cook because of the Ottomans, and they do so after riding buses home from the factories in which they, and their mothers, found employment in the communist days. [...]

In the third chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude, an epidemic of insomnia is tormenting the entire town of Macondo. [...] In Macondo, one of the effects of the epidemic of insomnia was the arrival of mass forgetfulness, and at its peak a large sign was erected on the main street. On this sign was the inscription "There is a God." The war in The Iliad started as a result of the intrigues of the gods, and in this sense The Iliad has remained the fate of the Balkans. [...] But despite the different points of departure, says Lovrenovic, "the goal and the faith are shared--the ultimate vanquishing of bad history by means of political and cultural integration on what Krleza would call the 'Yugoslav national contours.'" Political integration confined to these "Yugoslav national contours" came to bloody ruin, but the cultural integration of the Balkans is broader than that, and stronger, and it survived. The great Balkan novelists--Ivo Andric, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Ismail Kadare--are connected to the various religious communities (Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim) by dint of their background, but they are uniformly distant from all traditional religious practice. In their works, these key oeuvres of three Balkan languages, in different languages and different ways, the same thing is celebrated: a Balkan elan vital. This is the same force that is found at the beginning of Andric's The Damned Yard, which he calls "life victorious." And it is found in Kazantzakis's emblematic character of Zorba the Greek, and in the yearning-laden young man who serves as the protagonist in Kadare's Broken April. "Might makes right" as the Balkan proverb has it. That's why the poet, who is also the translator of The Iliad, has only one message to transmit to the Balkans: "Be strong for me."

Translator's note: The poet referred to at the end of Bazdulj's essay is the Croatian translator and rock star Branimir "Johnny" Stulic; he was a member of the band Azra, which had a famous song "Balkan" with a refrain that included the phrase "Be strong for me" (Budi mi silan).

Translation from the Bosnian

By John K. Cox

Muharem Bazdulj (b. 1977) is one of the leading writers of the younger generation to appear in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. His writing includes novels, short stories, poetry, and essays; he is also active as a journalist and a translator. One of his short-story collections (The Second Book) was published in translation by Northwestern University Press in 2005; this work also received an award from the Soros Foundation. Bazdulj's most recent publication is a book of stories entitled Carolija (Magic). He currently lives in Travnik and Sarajevo.

John K. Cox is Professor of History at North Dakota State University. He has written historical works on Serbia and Slovenia and translated novels by Danilo Kis and Ivan Cankar. He is currently translating works by KarL-Markus Gauss and Kis, in addition to stories and essays by Bazdulj.
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Title Annotation:CULTURE & POLITICS
Author:Bazdulj, Muharem
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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