The writer from Prijedor talks life, literature and how one could sing after the war.
Writer Darko Cvijetić is in many respects an authentic and rare phenomenon in contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in the broader post-Yugoslav literature.
Should we also consider him as a poet within the aforementioned framework, it might be said that the author has dissected our ’90s apocalypse and the aftermath thereof with surgical precision through his poetry, thereby managing to lay this monstrosity before us in all its terror and bloodlust.
The publication of Cvijetić’s book “Mass Postcards from Bosnia” was and still is one of the most important events pertaining to local literature. Though at first largely overlooked in our cultural milieu, this work has echoed through Cvijetić’s subsequent poetry collections, fiercely showing the way in which one could indeed still sing after the war.
In the aforementioned book, Cvijetić begs to differ from numerous other authors hailing from this region, taking gruesome data on war crimes, mass graves, persecutions and internment camps — the extent of which was the eeriest in Prijedor, a town where more than 5,200 people were killed, while several thousands of others were imprisoned and tortured in concentration camps during the 1992–1995 war — and translating it into deep-cutting verses that make us come to terms with the most painful periods of our past.
The author’s body of work is pitted against a far too large wall of silence that has served to conceal these crimes in the post-war period under the guise of amnesia. What remains are unhealed wounds and scars open for new hatred to slither into and flare up in, breeding future generations of bloodthirsty humanoid beasts.
The core of Cvijetić’s new book, a novel titled “Schindler’s Lift” — the main topic of the discussion held with the author at “Bookstan,” Sarajevo’s Fourth International Literary Festival — brings us back to that distinctive, even obsessive chronotope. The novel’s plotline is structured around two high-rise residential buildings located in Prijedor, the Red One and the Blue One, which open up to the reader while their exterior walls disappear. Thus begins the story of Prijedor, a workers’ town that is no more.
As to its structure and composition, “Schindler’s Lift” is akin to “Pig’s Bone and Leper’s Hands,” a novel by the Iranian writer Mostafa Mastoor. Both authors rely on cinematographic language in order to focus on this intricate dynamic of life within the micro-area that is this block of flats, which is laid out bare to the readership. The only difference is that Cvijetić’s story depicts a severely disrupted, vanished life and a wall of silence surrounding the crimes committed in a once neighbourly abode of Prijedor’s workers and teachers.
K2.0: Following a number of poetry books — in which you have authentically, yet almost obsessively set up a chronotope of Prijedor, having questioned the town’s traumatic experience with crimes as well as silence that has been the enduring treatment of these crimes — you deal with grim images from the ’90s once again, this time in your novel “Schindler’s Lift.” What is it like to embark on an adventure of novel writing after your poetic endeavours? How challenging was this for you as an author?
Courtesy of Almir Imširević Mirni.
Darko Cvijetić: In my case, writing a novel felt like getting onto a slippery slope. I felt frightened there in a certain sense, as an author. On the other hand — since the novel as a narrative genre does format a story, while poetry concerns the stuff of language by default — at some point, it occurred to me that prose is extremely easy when compared to poetry, and that the story I had been telling through my verses for a long time, practically since the unfortunate events in the ’90s, suddenly required a different form of expression all by itself. It needed that, so it could be more easily reflected, more easily put into words.
So, this occurred to me rather spontaneously. It is as if the death of my father, who died last year, compelled me to express myself prosaically. Dad was the one who used to tell me: “Fine, it’s all good, but, mate, you should write something even I could read.” His words would go on to haunt me at all times, but at that particular moment, when he passed away, this need surfaced to my consciousness all of a sudden, and I realised that it was perhaps necessary for me to speak up a bit more directly and in a more simplified manner.
Now, it seems to me that this decision bore fruit, which is something I had not expected at all. I had been striving for a poetic form, but it transposed itself into fiction completely on its own.
Indeed, novels render these matters more accessible and easily comprehensible, bearing in mind that your poetry is very much obscure, more hermetic. The focal point of your novel is the Red high-rise in Prijedor. What was it in the past, and what is it now, after everything that happened?
First and foremost, I live in that building. We in Prijedor have called it “the red one” ever since it was built. The word for high-rise residential buildings itself [“soliter” in BCS] comes from French [“solitaire”], and the original meaning is actually “recluse.” And now, this red recluse has become the story of a wretched country that is no more, a country which was, so to speak, a red recluse as well.
"To me, the series of tragedies that plagued this building were essentially — and at a micro-level of sorts — an amalgamation of the entire Bosnia and Herzegovina."
To me, the series of tragedies that plagued this building were essentially — and at a micro-level of sorts — an amalgamation of the entire Bosnia and Herzegovina. This skyscraper constituted a vertical village. Taking into consideration the fact that villages throughout this country are ethnically homogenous for the most part, these skyscrapers, or blocks, or buildings, were built as heterogeneous spaces on purpose, and the purpose was to have people become close to each other, both socially and ethnically speaking.
Therefore, when the tragedy struck, it was much more appalling than it perhaps would have been in monoethnic rural areas. The concept of vertical village suddenly reared its true, guillotining face. Here, the symbolic potential contained in Schindler’s list as an universal area instantaneously morphed into its opposite — that is, it took its previously mentioned guillotining form.
In reality, starting from the ground floor upwards, you could follow an entire series of tragedies that occurred in each flat. Every ethnicity was equally affected, every group suffered terribly. The same story could be told in any other town, not only in our country, but also beyond.
You are one of the first, yet one of the very few contemporary authors who use literature to raise their voice about the horrors of war and war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In particular, you focus on Prijedor as a topos where these horrors led to the most devastating consequences possible: camps and the mass murder of ethnic Others. Some would say that you are obsessed with these topics in your works, since crimes are the centrefolds of every book you have authored. How is it to speak from that perspective, how is it — after having experienced Prijedor, where you have lived until this day — to create art that does not serve to describe atrocities verbatim, but rather to give an authentic birth to the dread that we have gone through?
As a matter of fact, it is terrifying. In a certain way, I openly declare myself as a disciple of Kiš [Danilo Kiš, a Serbian writer] and I mention this very often. From treating the subject matter as an outcast, as an outlaw, to supporting this notion that the death of a child, when devoid of literary treatment, amounts to the death of an animal in a slaughterhouse — it really is true.
Courtesy of Almir Imširević Mirni.
The trigger for this novel certainly was a tragedy, the death of the girl who met her morbid end in that high-rise when a lift decapitated her, quite literally. Among the numerous tragic events that took place in Prijedor, I felt that this one was the last straw. I heard something inside me say, “Enough. I need to write this down, so that one day, when normal people show up, they clutch their heads and say, ‘My God, what on earth happened? What kind of people would let this happen?’”
What is even more terrifying is the general opinion of today, which posits that the majority of your subject matter is fiction, that the crimes were not committed to begin with. It is devastating that people knowingly keep silent and deny these wrongdoings.
It is downright shocking as well as unbelievable — the fact that we are not able to face the recent past. Then how could we possibly discuss the more distant past? Basically, we do not have a clue about our own history, or rather, we do not want to have a clue, and it is this lack of will that leads us to a brand new cycle of tragedies.
We will be unable to gaze at our reflections comfortably until we see ourselves in all our heinousness.
Until in one way or another we come to terms with what happened to us, or what was done to us, until we try to grasp this in its entirety, until we become appalled by what we see in the mirror, I do not think we will be able to do our eyebrows. We will be unable to gaze at our reflections comfortably until we see ourselves in all our heinousness.
I held that it was one’s duty as a human being to write this down, the horrific tragedy that the Other had faced. It seems to me that those who experienced all of this in Prijedor firsthand still have a feeling of dismay that prevents them from raising their voice and documenting what they truly went through. Therefore, on the one hand, it appears that writing proves to be an easier process for those people who did not suffer directly, those who observed the terrors from afar, enjoying the neat protection stemming from their name and surname.
Even to this day, I keep seeing my friends who have survived these abattoirs. Virtually entire families disappeared there. I can see that these friends of mine remain full of silence, unable to speak about their own woes. I find it hard even to mention it, but I believe it is very important for me to write about it repeatedly, book after book.
Going back to the issue of literature, could anything be achieved in this respect, by means of literary expression? Is literature able to induce someone — if not today, but tomorrow — a person from the future, to make use of it in order to find the truth, at least at an individual level?
I do not think so. Quite on the contrary, I would say that Kiš was right when he said that this is secondary-school nonsense — this notion that literature has this capacity to transform someone or wake them up.
However, when it comes to an individual level, I do believe that it is possible to bring about one person’s awakening. If this person is awake, they can awaken the ones fast asleep right next to them.
But unfortunately, considering some sort of a more general, universal level, the prospect of literature, theater or any other form of art bringing about catharsis or social change is nothing but a pipe dream to me. My reasoning is that politics — as ugly as it is — is so powerful that it effectively cancels out and annihilates any possibility of cogent expression.
In your poetry, you are essentially mining language. I would dare say that you are descending into this language with a pagan zeal. It is certainly a kind of prayer, or perhaps even linguistic incantation — sucking out the gist of desolation by means of expressing oneself. My impression is that it is not only important to detect a tragedy in your poems, but also to find the means of articulating it via language, of putting it across.
This mining, this descent into the belly of language, is a lonely journey indeed. At some point, it may look as if the words we know, our native words, are just not enough. It is then that language starts to speak on its own, taking some incantation-like form, which is certainly some kind of praying.
I believe that, as we touch upon this side of language, we have already begun to perform a prayer and managed to establish contact with the other side. This is my understanding of poetry, it truly is. Poetry is like a priestly vocation, a vocation that converges with the supernatural to such an extent that it could be regarded as a direct communication of sorts with the ineffable. And whenever we mention the ineffable, we are in fact referring to God’s language.
This ineffability is the most bitter form of weeping. It seems to me that when we mine through the surface layers of language, we come to the silence full of tears, the silence that is not allowed to speak.
After all these experiences, what sort of town is Prijedor today? Can people look each other in the eye and is there anything that could serve as the basis for reconciliation, as the seed thereof? In the novel “Schindler’s Lift,” it appears that this seed lies in the tragic characters of mothers, of old women whose hearts have been torn out since their children were killed. Principally, this is due to the fact that motherly pain does not have any ethnic connotation. These women understand each other in a way that only a mother who has lost her child can identify with another mother who has suffered the same fate.
It is likely that what lies beneath is this reading of a future, some kind of a seed that we could discuss like some sort of a future. I look at my daughter, who is 24, and I see that her peers are much more unburdened by all of this than my peers and me.
Yet, nowadays, when I look at that high-rise in Prijedor, it really resembles an erect coffin in which there are fewer and fewer people. Prijedor is a town of mass exodus, a town where only these two or more old women would stay, and these women will be forced to communicate with each other, regardless of the nature of their respective tragedies.
Nevertheless, I think that these young people are doomed to reconcile out there, someplace else. In some other world — perhaps as second-class citizens — they will speak in a common language again, and out of a sudden, they will understand how destroyed we are here, how duped we are, how the war was waged only for property while we were being told stories about fatherlands and motherlands.
Today, it is clear to everyone that we are defeated. This is why even in Prijedor, one gets the feeling that this defeat was decisive on every side. We all see that enough years have passed for even the biggest fools among us to understand that no one has managed to do anything. Because, if you do not build a single factory in 25 years, if you employ only a handful of people and if you increase the number of the despondent and the defeated, then you simply cannot talk about any division whatsoever.
You can wave your flag, but this flag will sooner or later become nothing but a mere rag, a rag that cannot feed you nor provide you with any security for your future.K