Interview – 23rd February, 2010

You cannot delete the past

An interview with Miljenko Jergovic

Interview–23rd February, 2010


How do Croatian writers relate to the traumas of the recent past – the Yugoslav war, the decades of communism and World War II? We talked to Bosnian Croatian writer Miljenko Jergovic, author of Sarajevo Marlboro, a novel which presents the city under the siege.

Miljenko Jergovic has been chosen by readers of one of the most popular Croatian daily papers Jutarnji List as the best Croatian writer of the decade. We talked to Jergovic on the occasion of the publication of his latest novel, Ruta Tannenbaum in Hungarian translation.
You have mentioned that your grandfather spoke very good Hungarian.
My father was a high ranking railway official and a polyglot. At that time, before WWII, speaking Hungarian was taken for granted in all self-respecting genteel families. Practically everyone had to speak German, but anyone with a bit of pride also spoke Hungarian. Even though the monarchy no longer existed, my grandfather lived in a much larger country than I do now. After the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy fell apart, he still traveled about over its former parts as though he were in his own country. After he retired, he went to visit his friends in Vienna every summer and on his way back would always travel through Budapest. This was a considerable detour but he found it worthwhile. Those were different times.
How far do you think that the cultural wall which separates the peoples of Central Europe today is due to the fact that we don’t speak each other’s language?
There are several kinds of walls between these countries. The first crucial difference is indeed the language. Of course, anyone could ask why we don’t just walk into a language school and learn to speak Hungarian, Italian or Romanian – but that would not solve anything. The peoples of the southern Slavic region, Macedonians, Serbians, Croatians, Slovenians, Bosnians, Montenegrins all speak the same or very similar languages, but there are still walls between these very new countries. We are living through very difficult times – a period of awakening nationalism, religious warfare, a disillusioned age which has proved disappointing when compared to the expectations we had after the collapse of the Berlin wall. There is nothing more absurd than the appearance of skinheads in Eastern Europe! It is devastating to think that there are people living in Hungary who would willingly kill Gypsies, and people in Croatia who would kill blacks or Muslims. These young people are unaware that all of us, the peoples living here, our families and our parents would all have been wiped off the face of the earth had Adolf Hitler achieved victory.
Your novel is built around a holocaust story. Although there is no such reference in the text, the reader may surmise that perhaps it might be seen as an allegory of the Yugoslav war.
The Yugoslav war of the 1990's was a very different story. The World War had begun outside and independently of our countries, it was launched by far greater powers. But the wars of the 1990’s were started by ourselves. WWII ended with the defeat of fascism but the fascism which was revived in the South Slavic wars of the 1990’s was not defeated.
Your novel Rita Tannenbaum may be seen as a parallel to Bosnian author Igor Šiks’s novel The Chair of the Prophet Elijah where a story of the holocaust is rendered within the frames of the siege of Sarajevo and the South Slavic war. Šiks believes that only the third generation can treat the theme of the holocaust in an objective fashion. What do you think about this and about the way in which the literature of the South Slavic peoples has processed the wars of the 1990’s?
Šiks is right about everything he says. Very few people in Croatian or Bosnian literature have processed the holocaust. There have only been memoirs but practically no fiction. It is true that ours is the first generation where the holocaust appeared as a subject matter. The wars of the 1990’s are a strong feature not only in Croatian but also in Bosnian, Montenegrin and Serbian literature. There are two models as regards these literatures. One is that there are authors who write about the war in order to prove their own nationalism and to kill the enemy in a book. There are also authors who try to bring about a paradigm shift. I might say they write in such a way as to avoid killing the enemy in their writing.
How objective is this second model? Is not the experience too recent for people to take an unbiased look at the war?
It being close is not a problem. In these four states there have been excellent novels about the war in the last ten years. These authors proved able to speak in an unbiased fashion.
In Hungarian literature there is a growing amount of fictional writing which attempts to come to terms with the Kádár era and the informer scandals. Croatian literature, on the other hand, is mostly about the war. Have there been seminal works about the decades of socialism?
Very few and they are very bad novels. Sadly, the people who write about this in Croatia are mostly people who would like to re-write history as regards their own biography. Authors who were once favourites with the party are now insinuating that one could hardly breathe in those days. This is sad, because the subject matter will pass and it should be written about before it is too late.
What is the reason for this? Was it perhaps because the Croatian society now has a far heavier trauma to process? Perhaps these things have become unimportant because of the war?
Well, this is the explanation usually offered in our country, too, but I don’t believe in this. The fact that we have been through some shattering years does not delete the past.
What are you working on right now?
I am writing all the time, but usually until I finish something I am never sure what it will turn out to be. Besides prose writing I also work as a journalist, as I could not make a living purely as a writer. But I don’t mind this at all – I like journalism. It is a totally different profession which is not related in any way to the fact that I am a writer. The press and literature are two completely different worlds in my eyes.
Dóra Szekeres

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