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New series no. 4 June-July 1998
The literature of Bosnia-Herzegovina is global literature
by Vesna Ruzicka

'While flying at over 10,000 metres on our way to London, which has more inhabitants than Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia together, my thoughts turned to Bosnia and I voiced a thought that came into my mind: ''The literature of Bosnia-Herzegovina is wider in scope than the country itself.'' These words were spoken by Miljenko Jergovic, one member of a group of well known writers from B-H - along with Hadzem Hajdarovic, Alma Lazarevska, Ivan Lovrenovic and Goran Samardzic - who visited London in June 1998, in order to present for the first time in the British capital what is by any reckoning one of the richest domains of their country's contemporary culture. The visit was organized by The Bosnian Institute (previously Alliance to Defend Bosnia-Herzegovina).

The visit began with a brief gathering with students at the School of Slavonic and East European studies in the University of London, chaired by head of department Celia Hawkesworth. This was followed next day by the main event: a whole-day seminar on B-H literature at the University of Westminster, in the morning of which the writers read from their works, while during the afternoon an interesting, indeed at times inspiring, debate took place on the themes of war, peace, identity, tradition and community.

Nenad Popovic, editor of the publishing house 'Durieux' in Zagreb, which has excelled at encouraging, publishing and promoting authors from B-H, opened the debate with the statement that 'The literature and culture of Bosnia- Herzegovina are political issues'. Popovic said that to describe Bosnia as a provincial cultural setting is to fail to understand its global actuality.

Ivan Lovrenovic, not merely a prominent author but also editor of the Sarajevo publishing house 'Bosanska knjiga', followed this by stressing that: 'Bosnia-Herzegovina, as the land of a specific space, is the heir to multi-layered cultural and traditional substrata, from ancient cave inscriptions to the present day.' In the 30,000-year-old historical context, the present day is but a historical minute of time. The contemporary political (ethnic) concept is unable to accept - let alone provide a productive solution for - this complexity, he added. Lovrenovic concluded by saying that questions which are being dramatically posed in B-H today in regard to identity, nationality and ethnicity are far less important than the wisdom of the global inheritance of all that composes the wealth of Bosnia-Herzegovina on the way to its modern articulation, which would be capable of acknowledging as its own all that has been deposited during the 30 millennia of its cultural and spiritual formation.

'There are two basic preconditions for reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina today', said Hadzem Hajdarevic: 'that the war be called by its proper name, i.e. a proper diagnosis be made, and that what belongs to Bosnia-Herzegovina be secured.' 'Unfortunately', he added, 'Bosnia is in the uncomfortable position that it is forced constantly to explain itself - its language, its past and its future.' He ended by stressing the need to build bridges between B-H and the outside world, 'so that we can be rid of barriers and the need for explanation'.

'It is very difficult when I am forced to defend and explain what is mine, just as this finger, for example, is mine', said Goran Samardzic, alluding to the lack of knowledge of the basic components of the cultural and other inheritance of Bosnia-Herzegovina outside its borders.

'Bosnian literature has a kind of variety and metropolitan relaxation which implies that its scope is far wider than its own borders', Jergovic elaborated further. He gave the example of Isaac Samokovlija: 'A doctor from Gorazde, he wrote stories coloured by their Bosnian setting but also by his own Jewish origins, in the same way and as powerfully as was done by Isaac Bashevis Singer or Shalom Alejhem.' Between them stands an enormous world, but they nevertheless belong to a single world and soil which has the kind of elasticity needed to create authentic literary works, Miljenko continued. 'In this sense B-H is bigger than itself, since it has Nikola Àop, and Hamza Humo, whose Grozdana's Giggle appeared in Germany quite accidentally but fitted perfectly into another world: it came from an authentic literary milieu, yet could communicate with those outside it, not as a folkloristic entertainment about an exotic land and people. It came from within, but was turned towards the outside.'

'Is the contemporary literature of Bosnia- Herzegovina able, and to what extent, to influence Bosnia's identity?' - this was the question posed by Predrag Finci. 'At the end of the 1980s a process began to unfold that was brutally interrupted by the war', answered Lovrenovic. At that time, in terms of its quality and variety of production a complete cultural structure had been created, ranging from its elite to its sub-cultural forms. If this process had continued and been completed during the ensuing years, i.e. had it not been for the war, that identity would have been created also within ourselves and towards the outside world. Now, when that process has been interrupted by force, the outcome is uncertain and a long period will be needed for the creation of a Bosnian identity.

'What about writers from Republika Srpska?', was the next question, to which Alma Lazarevska replied: 'My impression is that in RS writers - including those who would know how to, or be able to, write well - are being prevented by something, by a latent conscience. They are all over the place; they cannot be good "Chetnik writers", nor are they allowed to write openly and critically. This is where the problem probably lies, and it demands another kind of analysis', she said, adding that in both RS and Serbia itself one can find a great deal of excellent translated material.

'But so far as creative writing is concerned', Goran Samardzic interposed here, 'we find a black hole.' As an illustration, he told the following story: 'With the aid of the Swiss embassy, we spent four hours in Banja Luka searching for a young Serb writer to join the editorial board of Lica [Personalities]. We got nowhere. The quality was not satisfactory, since all the best ones had either remained in Sarajevo or emigrated. Still, they keep sending us their texts.'

One may conclude by saying that there is some real hope that Bosnian literary works may begin increasingly to be picked up by British publishing houses, which have already expressed an interest in items from the catalogues of 'Bosanska knjiga' and 'Durieux'.

This article has been translated and slightly adapted from one published in Oslobodenje on 17 June 1998

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