Bosnian Writers in London
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 securÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
ed.' '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