In the post-Yugoslav countries, telling fact from fiction is an extremely obscure and vague business. A considerable number of serious cultural and social controversies have broken out due to the inability (or lack of willingness) to distinguish between these two concepts.
Ivo Andrić’s work on Bosniak, Croat, and Serb national discourses are read as history and then subsequently used as evidence for ethnic primacies, even though Andrić largely wrote fiction based on chronicles and historical sources. Then it becomes clear what happens when literature is interpreted historiographically, when fiction is injected with historical determinacy and utilized in a quest to compensate for illustrious injustices done in the past.
I primarily refer to the inability to establish the fact that literature is an art and that everything is allowed within it, if it is grounded in an author’s performance.
Literature does not and ought not regard anything as sacred. Literature should not be put to use to prove or disprove historical facts.
Literature often relies on history as a building material, picking out and playing with some of its chunks to fit them into the narrative logic of a text through which the author wants to reveal more about the time and space he/she inhabits. It is not done for the sake of rewriting or making history by means of artistic expression.
This idea works for those authors who do not perceive of literature as a mere instrument of political or national agitation.
The gist of the issue, on the other hand, lies in the reception, or — to be more precise — in a prehistoric consciousness nesting itself in the cultures of Yugosphere communities who cannot seem to make a distinction between the past as it is established in scientific discourse, mythomania and artistic treatment of the past.
All of us here — and I mean in all countries emerged from the dissolution of Yugoslavia — have witnessed that history flows parallel to our everyday lives.
In the pedagogy of Serbs, Miloš Crnjanski’s novel “Migrations” is read as an ethnic epic, drawing a picture of the tragic fate Serbs met over the course of 19th century migrations. Literary science, however, has confirmed multiple times that the work is a novel of a universal nature — despite covering an explicitly specified historical period in the lifetime of a nation. In fact, there is a consensus that its protagonists serve as the vessels of a story going beyond the limits of the ethnic.
Upon his return to Belgrade in the 1970s, even Crnjanski implied that “Migrations” is just a novel making it clear that he had not written a history of Serbs related to their migrations, but a literary and artistic work, a novel where the central characters walk their own paths in a given historical context.
For the past few decades, all of us here — and I mean all of us from countries that have emerged from the dissolution of Yugoslavia — have witnessed that history flows parallel to our everyday lives. As a matter of fact, certain historical events and figures repeatedly come into the foci of our cultures, never staying for good through their well-deserved walk in our histories. They keep coming back as the living fabric of our reality and when needed, they could be taken as alibis for misdeeds and crimes, or as corroborations for mythomaniac pipe dreams of a glorious, illustrious past.
It is precisely in the interest of literature that Svetislav Basara’s book titled “The Atlas of Pseudomythology” examines these aberrances and history..
More specifically, in this vehemently polemical book imbued with razor-sharp irony and satire, Basara shows the consequences of the literary being replaced by historiographical approaches to fictional texts. What compelled Basara to author this work in the first place is the historian Radoš Ljušić’s satire of his novel “The Beginning of the Uprising against the Dahije.”
Ljušić reads Basara’s novel as a historiographic piece, accusing the author of “desecrating” Serbian history and its historical figures. However, we come to find that this is not the only reason behind all this. In one of the novel’s footnotes — which is an entirely legitimate move in Serbian literary practice — Basara cites Ljušić as the author of a non-existent historical study. The historian was alarmed so he decided that Basara’s novel should be dissected with historiographical tenets in mind. In other words, he was going to represent it as targeted against the history of Serbs.
Ljušić was looking for “history” in a fictional text, or rather he was looking for sections where the author disregards “the truth”. “This is how the footnote from ‘The Dahije’ was seen by our historian through a hyper-patriotic lens. It sprouted into an epic scandal,” Basara writes.
Thus reminiscent of the style Radivoj Radić employs in his cult classic “Serbs Before Adam and After Him” (where Serbian mythomaniac historiography is meticulously broken to pieces) — Basara takes Ljušić’s criticism head on, to write what he calls the history of contemporary Serbian historiography.
“The Atlas of Pseudomythology” comes as a book the aim of which is to illustrate how Serbian national myths are created and their purpose.
Because of the reading of his novel as a historical rather than a fictional piece, the author of “The Atlas of Pseudomythology” seeks to demonstrate the logical dissipation occurring in the consciousness of a nation when literature fiddles with historical facts and records.
Basara does not stop when his novel is published, instead moving on to deconstruct some other alleged historical truths put forth chiefly as mythomaniac narratives supposedly to consolidate nationalist rhetorics and monopolize interpretations of the past.
“The Atlas of Pseudomythology” is a book where the aim is to illustrate how Serbian national myths are created and their purpose.
Basara thoroughly exposes the creation of these myths, drawing attention to their (mis)use in daily political bickerings and positionings. Nevertheless, the essence of his book is an effort to employ satirical means — since it is impossible to debate Serbian myth-making with rational and logical arguments — in order to lay out the full extent of the induced horror by using the past (in most cases the false one) at this particular moment in history.
Or, as Basara would say: “Principally speaking, I have nothing against this sort of historiography intended for children and young people, the masses and beginners. “Official” histories are more or less the same all around the world, dull, phony, and utterly boring. Serbian historiography is no different, albeit people in the rest of the world make a comparatively clear distinction between what did indeed happen (and does happen) and the different perceptions and interpretations of the given events — perceptions and interpretations that are prone to change in line with the imperatives of daily political affairs and are relative and unreliable, as is the case with everything human. These bring about fatal misunderstandings with reality if absolutized like they are in Serbia.”
It is precisely these fatal misunderstandings with reality that hit a nerve in the body of Serbian nationalism and mythomanic apparatus. In his book, Basara aims to present them the way they really are, along with all of their adverse effects whose impact on Serbian society is a lasting one.
We might as well draw an analogy here. In the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tarik Haverić does a similar thing in his book “The Critique of the Bosnian Mind”. Consistently and convincingly, in stylistic terms, both authors show the scope of our collective obfuscation in this part of the world, highlighting the cracks appearing in an ethnicized mind because of the inability to separate history from a fictional piece of writing.
It may be the case that this inability partially stems from a deliberate disregard, that is in turn the origin of all misunderstandings and witch hunts directed towards those who dare pry into “the sacred truths” about our people.
“The Atlas of Pseudomythology” author brings up numerous falsifications within Serb historiography, pointing up what I have previously referred to — here, history never passes, but constitutes a potent vehicle of nationalist mobilization when misused mythomanically and politically. Consequently, the backlash one faces when meddling into “the sacrosanct” is perfectly understandable.
“As per the closely monitored histories”, Basara would write, “or false historicist religions such as Ljušić’s, that is, events essentially never come to pass, they never transpire in time; they pile up and turn into a vast warehouse of mass frustrations.”
Basara enters the space of unmasking Serbs’ nationalist psychopathology that sees treason and enemies in everything and everyone. It explains its mistakes with global conspiracies and historical determinism, incessantly insisting on discussing its own suffering and tribulations as if these woes have not been brought about by the Serbian elites’ poor decision making.
The author writes that the dead end where Serbia is stuck derives from “a series of wrong decisions and choices from the past made in complete freedom and (relatively) clear consciousness.”
In such circumstances, history represents a tool for dubious distortions of the past, the goal of which is to legitimize present actions, or — to be more precise — for the horrors of the present to be viewed in light of the glorious past.
Basara writes in “The Atlas of Pseudomythology”: “(…) I do not regard one people’s history as a story about the past, I take it as condensed in its present moment, in the state that people are here and now. So, Serbian historians can glorify the history of Serbs as much as they like and they can weave stories of “the glorious past” indefinitely, ascribing the inglorious present and painful reality to conspiracies, injustices, and bad luck, but this is not history. This is politicking drivel, or even worse, a tawdry pseudo-mythology.”
According to Basara, Serbian history is a false religion rooted in carnal desires. It is used to cover up all the poor decisions taken in the past, all those futile wars and violence now being painted as mythical martyrdom.
Yet, as Basara proves in his book, most of these past events came as the result of Serbian political and cultural leaders’ intentional actions, so everything they agreed to — [in the period] from the creation to dissolution of Yugoslavia, but also before that, in the more distant past — was done on purpose, only for it to be seen as a historical wrong or a worldwide plot devised against people nowadays.
Following each epoch, Serbian elites go to war against these periods, despite having created and chosen them themselves for the most part.
Things would have been different had this narrative been given up in the end, after all the defeats of the 1990s. However, “The Atlas of Pseudomythology” shows that this mytho-manic path is even more acute in today’s context.
Chronically bogged down in the past, Serbia is in Basara’s opinion constantly floating in the sphere of the irrational and going back to the beginning time and time again, which gives rise to discontinuities shaking up the foundations of Serbian society and culture.
Serbian elites went to war throughout the 20th century, having created and chosen these wars themselves.
Basara even touches upon Vuk Karadžić in this book, including his mistakes and deviations, as well as the question of language, claiming that in the still feudalized consciousness of Serbia, the dahije from Anatolia have been substituted by the dahije from Šumadija .
Moreover, speaking of the ideology revolving around Saint Sava — principally the fact that Nikolaj Velimirović has compared Saint Sava to Hitler, having described him as a precursor to nazism — Basara demonstrates to what extent Serbian society with its religious and cultural leaders has become steeped into this benighted and enduring state of the mythological.
In Basara’s words: “To have labelled Saint Sava as an antecedent of nazism — an ideology detesting both Orthodoxy, sanctity, and Slavs in particular — was a sign of the absolute loss of spiritual and moral orientation that was very soon about to bear sour fruit — and continue bearing it until this day. (…) At its core, Saint Sava’s Orthodoxy has little to do with Orthodox Christianity. The former is a primitive political doctrine which came to serve as the ideological basis for profascist movements popping up all over Serbia right before the Second World War like mushrooms after the rain (…).”
“The Atlas of Pseudomythology” author accordingly concludes that it is through ideology centering on Saint Sava that Serbian society has been de-christianized, having receded from the Gospels into the cauldron of pagan myths and darkness.
“This lust for history even when history could be dispensed with,” Basara writes, “this need for powerful experiences, for outbursts of historical emotions, this attachment to blood and soil in Serbia grew so strong over time that it went on to turn into an idolatrous cult which — and we would see this paradox was merely an ostensible one — lost everything it had to do with soil and blood, transforming into an abstraction, into a Baudrillardian simulation squeezing out reality.”
Basara uses the assassination of Zoran Đinđić as an example of the ultimate denial of reality pertaining to the world it is located in. It’s a historical point where Serbia missed an opportunity to prevail over its national-mythological narratives in one way or another and face reality.
For the author, this event symbolically marked the end of Serbian history.
“True, life in Serbia continued after that day, but in a biological sense only, like hair and nails growing after death. It carried on in the form of a mathematical set of individuals who find their meaning only by recycling the past, held together by obscure cults of tennis players and bad beer,” Basara writes.
“The Atlas of Pseudomythology” is bound to be viewed as a treasonable book in nationalist circles that are confined within myth-making fantasies, since nationalism squeals out that it is treason whenever you reveal its true face in the mirror.
Again, in Basara’s words: “(…) events — whether fictitious or not — are never what they are (or quite rarely so). They are what they ought to be to a mythological mind and every attempt to point out the psychopathology of such an approach is nipped in the bud, being labelled as ‘treason’ or as a part of some anti-Serb conspiracy”.
The author is nonetheless aware that no logical or rational discussion could be held within these narratives, which is why he counters them with biting satire.
Basara’s book is a document of paramount importance attesting to the crater left behind by decades of vile Serbian politics, a crater that the book shows to be growing even wider.
Feature image: K2.0.