One-on-one | Serbia

Saša Ilić: Nonviolent revolution is an imperative

By - 22.06.2020

The writer talks about post-Milošević Serbia, nationalism and the Polip festival.

In Serbia, the annual NIN Awards, one of the most significant literary awards in the region and certainly the most significant one in the country, always causes a stir.

There is always someone to kick up a row, but more people did so this year because the award went to Saša Ilić’s novel “The Dog and the Double Bass” — a story of war trauma laying bare a system led by Slobodan Milošević and Mirjana Marković

This system continues to endure, even when great efforts are made for all these traumas to be erased into oblivion. Before the public ceremony, 18 Serbian writers sent an open letter in protest against Ilić being named this year’s winner.  

Ilić has authored three short story collections: “The Premonition of the Civil War,” 2000; “Dušanovac, Post Office,” 2015; “Hedgehog Hunt,” 2015; as well as two novels: “The Berlin Window,” 2005, and “The Fall of Columbia,” 2010. He is a columnist for Peščanik, co-founded Beton magazine and is also involved in the organization of Prishtina’s literary festival Polip.

We start our conversation with Ilić —  who is currently working at the National Library of Serbia — by asking him about Crni Vrh, a place near Bor, where the “Dog and the Double Bass’” protagonist meets the married couple Milošević and Marković.

K2.0: Why is the location where doctor Marko Julius meets the couple — which turns his life upside down and sends him to a psychiatric institution — so important?

Saša Ilić: It’s quite a decent spot to begin the discussion of my novel, since I dealt with the issue of buried trauma. We all know this refers to the wars and everything they brought.

In his most recent novel, Saša Ilić explores the traumas left behind in the aftermath of the 90s. Photo: Dejan Kožul.

At one point in my novel, dealing with this issue and following a group of oblivion-resisting veterans being treated in a public psychiatric institution, one of the characters talks about a night trip to Crni Vrh, the location of President [Milošević]’s secret mansion, that still stands. As Mirjana Marković willed it, [the character] was hospitalized immediately after her visit. It was a political decision. I came up with this story by chance, during some interview.

What is the key detail here?

My plan was to have my protagonist bump into the couple because it was important to me to tell a story of the origin of trauma. Crni Vrh (Black Top) as a toponym is already compelling.

This one time, in the library warehouse, I stumbled upon a memoir by Mira Marković. I was curious to see how she described the summer of 1995, around the time when Srebrenica was taking place as well. I found an excerpt revolving around a family trip to Crni Vrh and her descriptions rife with mundane language and colloquialisms. She writes about a family wrapping up their workweek, a husband and wife. They’re tired and they want to get away, somewhere out of town. They have a summer house of sorts, so they take their car — “Slobodan has always been fond of driving alone,” she writes.

Everything is so banal. I relied on this banality that I felt in her description of everyday life, which in fact hides the real, terrifying face of the time, to depict the encounter between doctor Marko Julius and the couple on the night when she had a severe allergic attack. She writes about that, of course. Reading this passage, I was telling myself: “This is the key.”

Having slipped into critical condition, she admits that she was arranging a JUL (Yugoslav United Left political party, Marković’s party) anniversary banquet for party members, including the former defense minister [Aleksandar Vulin, a former member of the party].

The novel’s subject matter was brewing inside of me for a long time.

However, an allergy of unknown origin thwarted her plans. I correlate the allergy with a person’s past actions that cannot be brought to light, which may cause these degenerative changes to your body, invisible to the naked eye. And this is slowly revealed in a conversation she has with her psychiatrist, before she goes mad and throws him out.

Of course, as a result of all this, and his decision to write a paper on the case, he ends up in the Kovin psychiatric hospital.

You spent a long time working on this novel. What proved to be crucial in your decision to write about your traumatic experiences from the 1990s, when you were aboard a Yugoslav Navy warship? Literally pushed into war as a young lad, you portray these events through the character of Filip Isaković.

The novel’s subject matter was brewing inside of me for a long time. Already in the 1990s I considered writing about it, but I didn’t really have the stomach for it, I couldn’t look at it from a distance. 

I was working on other novels, fleshing them out. That was just me warming up, preparing myself, since I was writing about forgetting, about the crimes from the 1990s, writing about the language of media, the prime minister’s assassination. And then, in 2012, the narrative lines of my life somehow converged, albeit in a rather unpleasant way.

What I had been doing miserably failed, so I found myself in no man’s land. I was trying to grasp the trauma present within society, within me and many other individuals, and then I started looking for a synopsis strong enough to carry out such a story.

One day, I went to visit my friend in the Laza Lazarević hospital. At the reception desk, I found out I couldn’t even get to him because I was told that only close relatives were allowed. After I returned home, I was browsing some psychiatry-related data and this is how I discovered the history of the Kovin psychiatry clinic.

I came across a biography that seemed very interesting to me. It was Dezider Julius, a psychiatrist and a participant of Béla Kun’s 1919 revolution in Hungary. He was described as a man who structurally transformed an entire institution in the mid-1920s — a barracks built just prior to World War I — and managed it throughout the 1930s … I thought this could be the beginning of my quest for a synopsis suitable for what I wanted to talk about.

Dezider Julius is a tragic character, isn’t he?

Doctor Julius actually shares the fate of Central European Jewish intellectuals associated with the political movement that emerged in Europe following the October Revolution. A follower of Viennese and Prague psychiatry and psychoanalysis, he brings these practices to Kovin, thus establishing a connection between Kovin, Belgrade, Pančevo and Zagreb. 

This Yugoslav aspect of his life was as important to me as his World War II experience, as he joins the Partisans with the rest of his family. At the very end of the novel — there is some sort of a terrifying finale to his revolutionary fate — where Yugoslav bureaucracy gives birth to apparatchiks. It’s a point of no return for him, so he commits suicide at the Vrapče psychiatric hospital in Zagreb, on Christmas Eve 1953. Afterward, his family leaves for America.

These are a few factual coordinates of his life and I made use of his biography to enter that world. A congregation of nuns from Zagreb entered it too. I used that to tell a story of a young nun’s emancipation following her time in Kovin.

It is through her that I come to Marko Julius, a young doctor whose story is the same as Yugoslavia, with a particular focus on the 1990s, and a faceoff with the Serbian regime. The outcome is unfavorable for him. He remains in the Kovin hospital until the novel’s protagonist Filip Isaković, a jazz musician, shows up, awakening his last quantum of revolutionary zeal and inviting him to rebel against the system treating its patients like that.

Filip quits music due to trauma and his past experiences, so he comes to the psychiatric hospital. There he joins a group of war veterans undergoing a special rehabilitation program, where he meets doctor Marko Julius.

Nonviolent revolution piqued my interest the most. Doctor Julius probably does exemplify such an ideology, a revolt he advocates for by saying that we have to dismantle all Kovins in our lives and that we need class and personal revolutions.

The characters you have mentioned, the traumas they have, are all around us. I have a feeling that we effectively live in some kind of an open prison that you describe in your novel, which was particularly evident in lockdown and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a viable comparison. What I noticed — and I could indeed listen to everything happening around me closely — was that, when you’re in isolation, you’re controlled by the police, you watch news, you read things, so your sensors are much more sensitive in that respect.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Belgrade Fair was turned into a quarantine for coronavirus-positive patients. Photo: Dejan Kožul.

Some triggering militant scenes unfolded, like the Belgrade Fair being converted into a strict camp-like facility. In the subconscious of Belgrade — and beyond, Serbia and the region — this harks back to the more disturbing images of Sajmište, formerly a concentration camp.

Numerous actions seen in the media and public over the course of a 40-day-long state of emergency triggered the existing trauma, breeding paranoia and fear through the talk of stringent disinfection, death, burial, bags and whatnot. The most logical step was to go for an entirely different approach: To pacify and tame the discourse and establish trust on an entirely different basis, rather than on repression and activating militant images. Not to mention the images of war, ubiquitous and easily triggerable.

We were all prisoners back then, but now — maybe it’s a rough thing to say, maybe it isn’t — all of this looks like some kind of a psychiatric institution. It is a quagmire.

A system of deep paranoia has been created, the exact same system I write about. The very structure of the psychiatric clinic in my novel has been inverted and some of the most self-aware people in the society are hospitalized, while managing the hospital system is handed to others overseeing scientific projects coordinated by military and health ministries.

If you recall, in the first days of the pandemic, the police with automatic weapons were patrolling the city. That was the beginning of our COVID-19 response. These scenes are inconceivable.

I can’t remember seeing images of armed people tracking the enemy in formation throughout any other city in Europe or elsewhere. I think such images are unique and terrifying.

These images date back to the 1990s, since we are talking about those who are as influential now as they were then. Do the mentality and traumas remain the same?

It takes me back to the ship cabins, where our crew slept below sea level. Battle stations were the most frequent occurrence governing our lives, our days and nights. So, yes, days weren’t days and nights weren’t nights to begin with.

Those who declared the state of emergency effectively set off the battle station alarm and the whole system rebuilt itself to bring about the state of total paranoia.

I can only remember this endless night lasting from September 1991 until May 1992, when battle stations calls were incessant. As soon as you hear the announcement, you spring from your bed by default and you know the exact sequential order of actions you need to perform in order to get to your battle station as soon as possible.

Once launched, this military system is activated in your mind every time you hear something similar, which prompts you to carry out the rote combat actions and get to your battle station as soon as possible. Those who declared the state of emergency effectively set off the battle station alarm and the whole system rebuilt itself to bring about the state of total paranoia.

Your novel also explores the European Union’s hypocrisy reflected in its funding of psychiatric projects that do nothing to make systemic change. We can see this in real life as well: Everyone is suitable, regardless of whether they used to champion the theory of blood and soil, since now they are all for the theory of a future devoid of that past. As such, they are an ideal set of partners.

Yes, that’s another dimension I pondered on while writing the novel. We face a plethora of problems here and every single one of them is very clear, visible, deep-rooted and unresolved.

Our society hasn’t grappled with these challenges yet, hasn’t grappled with these traumas, hasn’t, as they say, served transitional justice. A lot of time has been wasted. The world moved on. Neoliberal capitalism moved on. There have been various efforts to rebuild it, yet our old problems trouble us all the same. Reformist elites were annihilated, leaving behind the protégés of figures active in the 1990s. They are keeping up with Europe in wiping the past clean. This erasure served as my motivation.

Politicians often suggest that the main issue pertaining to this downfall is what happened after October 5, [2000, the fall of Milošević] right? Meaning, the system had been working until that point, our economy booming, culture kept to a high standard, judiciary phenomenal. And then this stable system of an old European democracy is brought down. Theft becomes widespread, everything collapses. However, the balance was restored in 2012, with “them” [ Aleksandar Vučić’s Progressive party took power. Vučić was Milošević’s Information Minister in 1999]. And now we have gone to the dogs.

Nothing was done on time. The reform was brutally cut short with the prime minister’s assassination [Former Serbian Prime Minister Djindjic’s assassination in 2003] and today’s projects are implemented by a new political elite, the 1990s new blood. This elite maintains connections with the European Union, they have its financial support and carry out these projects within institutions.

So, this is my story, the problem of capturing and usurping institutions hosting projects and of institutions in turn losing their primary function, which is what happened with the psychiatric clinic in my novel, for example.

A clinic or a society as a whole is losing its function while being militarized once more?

Correct. It’s getting militarized and society is preparing for something terribly dangerous. European funds are used to erase a major part of the past that should’ve facilitated new policies, the policies of solidarity, policies aimed at the region, citizens, institutional employees, the past.

It was the only option we had to rebuild our sociality and politicality and steer this country down some different path, or perhaps even toward the famed Europe. It could’ve been done without the repressive measures that proved to be the most dominant tool so far, resurfacing as a structure once submerged in shallow waters and reemerging after a battle station alarm was sounded only for us to ask ourselves: “How come?” Even though it’s been here the whole time.

From its very outset, you have been engaged in organizing Polip, Prishtina’s literary festival marking its tenth birthday this year. What are the plans and to what extent did the pandemic upset them?

The Polip International Literature Festival was jointly launched by two organizations, Prishtina’s Qendra Multimedia from Prishtina and Belgrade’s Beton. After it broke up, Beton was succeeded by Belgrade’s Workers’ Commune LINKS from Belgrade.


All previous editions had their respective slogans around that we organized guests and festival programs. This year’s motto should’ve been “Change Your Language!”

The initial idea was to build bridges between the two communities via new translations. We managed to do so by publishing the first editions of our two anthologies: “From Pristhina with Love” and “From Belgrade with Love.” These were the first anthologies of this kind in 40 years, since Polip’s founders were born.

In the beginning, it was primarily conceived as a poetry festival bringing together authors from Serbia and Kosovo. However, Polip soon went beyond the genre and region, becoming a real international literary festival. Its tenth edition was scheduled for May, but the pandemic postponed it until autumn. Nevertheless, we’re optimistic that things will work out.

All previous editions had their respective slogans that we organized guests and festival programs around. This year’s motto should’ve been “Change Your Language!” We came up with it during last year’s panels, where we discussed opportunities for overcoming frozen conflict and creating space for mutual understanding.

Changing language doesn’t mean we should literally translate something into another language, but primarily to voice our concerns in a different manner i.e., to try to reconsider the given matter in a different coordinate system. We’ve always believed that literature could do it, which is why each subsequent Polip was a step further into the future. What’s more, we’ve been building trust and understanding all the while sidestepping politics or any sort of state-funded projects.

Over the past nine years, how successful have you been in your aim to make connections between the literary scenes of Kosovo and what is colloquially referred to as the B/C/S literary scene?

In the past decade, we’ve accomplished a lot, publishing lots of two-way translations, poetry, fiction, drama, nonfiction. “From Prishtina with Love” as an anthology encompassing contemporary poetry, drama and fiction written by younger Kosovar Albanian authors has made an impact on the reception of these works across the region.

Because of its publication, the “Festival of Little Literatures” was organized by Zagreb’s Booksa. A new Kosovar poetry selection was made in Slovenia, while Kosovar writers went beyond the post-Yugoslav sphere and began attending residential programs in the rest of Europe, because we had translated a part of this anthology into German and put it in print for the 2011 Leipzig Book Fair.

However, the most important bit is that younger authors from Serbia and Kosovo are brought together, that new connections and literary friendships are made. On top of that, the anthology of modern Kosovar drama titled “One Flew Over the Kosovo Theater” — originally published by LINKS in 2014 — came out in the United States, where it was published by Laertes Books.

Polip is slowly spreading and it’s bound to become well-known in Belgrade.

How substantial is the institutional support Polip has been getting?

Right from the start, the festival has been solely supported by EU-based institutions and foundations, with no local support coming from either Belgrade or Prishtina. It gets extensive media coverage in Prishtina, but it rarely gets to be in Belgrade’s cultural limelight.

When the anthologies began to be published, one of the organizers of this year’s NIN Awards boycott published a mocking piece where he points out that people here know everything about literature in Kosovo and that we shouldn’t be “reinventing wheels.”

Of course, our festival was continuously supported by CZKD Belgrade and Borka Pavićević, who took part in it multiple times. It was invaluable to us. We saw her work as our precursor, since CZKD — as far back as in the 1990s — established good cooperation with artists participating in Pertej, a 1997 exhibition held in CZKD.

All in all, our festival bypasses and sometimes even challenges the current political currents, and its outcomes are yet to be discussed.

Feature image: Dejan Kožul.