Dobrica Cosic - more dishonest than most
by Mirko Kovac
Rade Konstatinović - the author of Filozofija palanke [Boondock Philosophy], that seminal study of the mentality of small Serbian rural towns and the sources of Serb Nazism - in his other capital book Biće i jezik [Being and Language] analyses, among others, the poet and monk Mitrofan Matić. He begins by saying: ‘Mitrofan Matić searched for God and found Dimitrije Ljotić.’(1) This lucid remark could be applied to many Serb poets who suffered ‘the destiny of non-culture’ and offered their verses to the glory of an earthly God, or a ‘deified tribe’.
Dobrica Ćosić did not tread any metaphysical path in order to reach his God, as Mitrofan Matić had done, but promptly found deities in this world. He was devoted to them, was on intimate terms with them, and after abandoning his faith besmirched them with the same passion with which he had once adored them. He tossed aside his deities on the political marketplace, without suffering any consequences; he washed his hands and embraced a new cult with the same ‘energy of delusion’ [Shklovsky].
The writer tells us that very early on, while still a member of the central committee of the Serbian Communist Party, he began flirting with Orthodox priests and bishops; that already in 1967 he planted a vine at Hilandar [Mt Athos], and meditated together with the monk Mitrofan Hilandarac, a former opponent whom the Partisans had blinded in one eye, after which following many sleepless nights the two brothers made peace, united ‘in God and Serbdom’. Moving from one monastery to another and mulling over matters in the company of priests, Ćosić could not come to know God nor enter into His world, since at such sessions the only spiritual discussions to be held concerned ‘the Serb national question’. No other meditations took place on these occasions, nor were holy books read then.
When writing the introduction to Tito’s book Četrdesetprva [Nineteen Forty-One], (2) an ‘exceptional book by an exceptional author’, Ćosić fashioned an ode to the Marshal with the same ecstasy with which the above-mentioned Mitrofan Matić wrote marching songs and cheap verses to the glory of Ljotić’s Zbor [Rally]. Čosić wrote it in a surging rhythm, powerfully inspired, albeit with much too froth for my taste, I don’t know whether sincerely or not, since he would later say that he was not in fact such a sincere Communist and did not believe in many of the things he was doing; but this is no longer of the essence, the text appears sincere enough, and its literary faults may be subjected to other, primarily aesthetic criteria. Ćosić wrote in this introduction: ‘There existed a Croat, a metal worker, a revolutionary, a secretary of the Communist Party, who entered with firm step into the history of Yugoslavia, the Balkans and Europe, bringing new ideas, his voice now angry now gentle, a man different in every way from all previous leaders, military commanders and politicians in the Balkans; there existed a man created to change the destiny of this country, to mark with his name and deeds its most decisive epoch.’
Ćosić stressed in his introduction that this ‘exceptional book by an exceptional author’, was ‘Our Book’, i.e. a book for every home, something akin to the Bible. He wrote about Tito’s greatness, Tito’s independence and self-reliance, Tito’s democratic nature and humanism, only to reveal himself at the end, somewhat in contrast to the form of the introduction, as a talented AgitProp man: ‘To follow Tito means to have a Titoist attitude to life, to think like a Titoist, to fight like a Titoist in one’s own time, in the present, forever.’ This was written by a man who without a tremor in his voice now calmly states that ‘Titoism beheaded the Serb nation’, as if he had never had anything to do with the business of beheading. To be able to say this is to be more dishonest than most.
In an interview with the Italian Il Tempo on 27 July 1989, Dobrica Ćosić declared that he had abandoned being ‘Tito’s forever’ as early as 1960 and become an oppositionist - even though the book Nineteen Forty-One with his introduction was published in 1961, while in 1960, the year in which he says he became an oppositionist, he was sailing with Tito on his yacht Galeb [Gull] in the capacity of a court writer. He nevertheless tells this to a foreign journalist, trusting that the latter will never check up on the facts - though he is not too bothered either when caught out in a lie back home. It is not a sin, after all, to lie to a Western paper, and it is useful too to project a picture of oneself which one wishes were true.
He nevertheless later corrected for his domestic audience the year in which he awoke as an anti-Titoist, shifting it to 1963 or 1964, but without wishing to explain in any detail how it came to be that he, though an anti-Titoist, managed to become a member of the [Serbian] central committee of Tito’s party. Or maybe this too lacked sincerity, was perhaps only an opportunity to undermine the party from within, as is claimed today by so many ‘Communist moles’. Ćosić is a liar who frequently appeals to the truth, which is a good way to turn truth into parody. Such petty peasant guiles have made Gedža (3) himself usually appear as a grotesque figure.
The episode in the biography of the ‘great writer’ that he once joined Tito for a cruise on Galeb used to be something of a taboo for his critics, at least while the yacht’s owner was still alive. For who would dare to make fun of the cruise, especially since Ćosić’s colleagues envied him for having enjoyed the emperor’s grace, while his countrymen admired his political seafaring, which had so quickly led him to the emperor’s side. With the hindsight of today, now when everyone is so wise and astute, Ćosić and his lot try to present the cruise as something quite artless, insisting that cruising with the dictator involved no sycophancy. According to the retired Marxist ‘thinker’ Ljubomir Tadić, (4) moreover, ‘the absolute ruler wished to have with him the renowned Partisan fighter and established writer, hoping this would add to his prestige in the world. But the episode was of a short duration, since the Writer’s sharp eye promptly detected the wretchedness of Broz and his regime hidden behind the courtly splendour .’
Seventy days and seventy nights
But did Ćosić really have to sail for seventy days and nights round Africa in order for his ‘sharp eye to promptly detect the wretchedness of Broz and his regime hidden behind the courtly splendour’? If D. Ćosić promptly detected it, one would like to know when this happened: at the start or at the end of the cruise? If at the start, he should have disembarked at the first port. If at the end, then the eye could not have been so sharp, since it took him seventy days and nights to notice that the ruler was an imbecile who kept next to him a ‘renowned Partisan fighter’ in order that such an obscure character as he might warm himself with Ćosić’s Partisan glory and literary achievement. For - after so many years, and also after the ruler’s death - the new Serb racist ideology that former Marxist philosopher Ljubomir Tadić serves as a minor official complains ever more loudly that the ruler was an agent, or just an ‘Ustasha among the Partisans’, since how could a Croat be anti-Fascist? Which is why the ruler had to have the ‘renowned Partisan fighter’ on his ship as cover. According to another nationalist stupidity, Ćosić played the role on the ship of a ‘mole’ who had climbed aboard in order to undermine Titoism.
Ćosić’s ‘puppet advocate’ Ljubomir Tadić says: ‘Malicious critics of Ćosić’s works declare that he was a guest on Broz’s Galeb.’ To say that, however, is not necessarily to be critical of Ćosić’s works, since a writer can be a moral scoundrel like D.Ć. yet be a good writer. Or does this former Marxist think that anyone who says that Ćosić was on Broz’s Galeb must be critical of his works, hence a Serb-eater and enemy of the Serb nation, a plotter and a person filled with envy? The former Marxist Ljubomir Tadić holds that it is perfectly moral to watch with one sharp eye and take pictures of the ruler in his baseness, while using the other to read what he had written in a corner of the ship’s saloon, which runs: ‘Tito’s democratic approach in determining and developing the political course of the national-liberation struggle; his steadfastness and his humanity displayed under the most brutal conditions of living and fighting; his political generosity and his skill in winning the widest layers of the popular masses, the religious, political and ideological formations of this multinational and in every way exceptionally complex Yugoslav community - these are the principles that were realised in peace only more strongly, more fruitfully and more comprehensively.’
To write this stuff while watching with one eye the miserable creature for whom this ode was being written is moral perversity - or pure theatre. Ćosić could have refused the ruler’s invitation, denied him the glory that would enhance the status of this miserable and anonymous figure - but he did not. Why? Because he was greatly honoured that the ruler should have taken him, in particular, on his mission. This was a great honour for him, for his father Žika, for his immediate and wider family, for the whole of his native Trstenik area. It was Ćosić, after all, who said: ‘I admit that I did not hide my pleasure at the invitation.’
A quarter of a century had to pass before someone would laugh at the sea-going writer, the peasant in tails, (5) which is what Danilo Kiš surreptitiously did in his engaging satire A poet of the revolution on a presidential ship, clearly aimed at Gedža. The author makes much fun of ‘the poet of the revolution’ as an upstart, and provides a kind of satirical protocol regarding polite behaviour on the ship, dispensing advice on conversation, dress, personal hygiene, social games, good manners, etc. In the poem the chief of protocol addresses Gedža thus:
‘Quite simply, my man,
it is not the habit in polite society
to pick your nose
as is said in your village
in the area of Čačak
it is not permitted to
poke into your nose.
And here is something else from bon-ton:
it is not permitted
(I mentioned this before,
but no matter)
to spit as they say "on the floor",
nor from the deck at the sea,
nor within the ship...’
Years later, and especially after the shipowner’s death, Ćosić had a great time spitting at the deck and the floor and the Marshal, behaving as though he had been kidnapped and forced to join Tito’s society.
A strange dissident
Serb writers from the patriotic league, harbouring strong emotions of love for the homeland, have traditionally always been on friendly terms with the police, ready to commit any evil in the name of the nation. To follow the nation is for them sheer delight: each bite is sweet and every banality invested with a higher meaning. In the embrace of this ideology one may commit any infamy without feeling guilt, since ‘the patriotic community’ releases all inhibitions, which is why so many writers have found refuge there - and Dobrica Čosić his divan [sultan’s court] too, on which he would build the myth of the nation and his own myth as ‘father of the nation’. And while his followers revelled in café nationalism - for the most part drunk, vulgar and informers into the bargain - their guru always occupied a higher sphere, intimate with the UDB [state security service] bosses, privileged as a writer, and the only individual permitted to visit the notorious camp on Goli Otok.
Long ago in 1964, when Slobodan Penezić head of the Serbian UDB died in a car accident, Dobrica Ćosić wrote an obituary in Politika about the death of the hero on his ‘iron horse’. This stylistic device was not a happy one, but if the poet saw the black Mercedes being transformed into a winged ‘iron horse’, it was probably because he wished to stress that a Serb can die only in a heroic gallop and on a horse - be it merely an iron one. Dobrica Ćosić was not interested in the victims of this ‘hero on an iron horse’ - it was perhaps not quite polite to talk about that at the moment of the hero’s death - but their marginal fates did not bother him much later on either, since he dealt only with lofty and exalted themes.
When in the Communist world an influential writer pens an obituary glorifying a police chief, who has left behind human sorrows and dramas, such a writer would everywhere be denounced as a creep and denied access to public life. But in Serbia with its upside-down values such writers only gain in public esteem.
One badly composed and humble letter that Dobrica Ćosić addressed to Tito - that Balkan beacon - in which he expressed his feelings for Alekandar Ranković, (6) and his concern about his removal from the political scene, was received in Serbia as a ‘brave act’, a ‘moral gesture’, a ‘sacrifice for the Serb cause’. It was secretly read and passed around as forbidden literature. It is likely that the letter never reached the Beacon, but the author’s myth grew along with that of the purged policeman, whose funeral in 1983 would be attended by some 200,000 people. This was the first great public manifestation of the Serb nationalism that at the end of the 1980s would give rise to the so-called ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’, and at the start of the 1990s to a brutal war against other nations.
Moving to Dedinje
Dobrica Ćosić admits that he did not have the courage to follow the ideas of Milovan Đilas, (7) since (he says) he was still ignorant then. But as he matured and began to read Crnjanski, heard of Goya and Velasquez and listened to Beethoven, now well-grounded in knowledge and experience he immediately sprang to the defence of the notorious Communist interior minister, whom he saw as a defender of ‘Serb national interests’. It was then that Ćosić acquired the comfortable position of a dissident; but he had not invested much in it or risked anything, since he was one of the rare defectors not to be given much grief. He was frozen out just enough to allow his charisma to grow. His ideas and dissidence did not get him into trouble; on the contrary, they paid well, so that he could recently say: ‘I thank my readers for feeding me all these years.’
He was never taken to a police station for questioning, nor did he spend a single day in emigration; he could travel wherever he wished, write whatever he wanted. There was a big affair when the ‘dissident’ raised a great hullabaloo because he alleged that he had discovered listening devices in his flat in Belgrade and his country retreat at Grocka. The writer did indeed protest against surveillance because it had now happened to him; but he had kept quiet up to then and not been too bothered when the homes of suspects were bugged and many people suffered on account of information gathered in this manner - all this, of course, under the control of his UDB friends. This affair made our dissident so angry that he left his bugged flat and bought a villa on Dedinje.
It is true that, unlike former Serb romantics, he was not allowed to establish a league of Great-Serb Associations. But he worked in secret and without UDB control (or maybe with its blessing) on projects that would lead to the bloodshed that the Serbs initiated and practised during the entire final decade of the last century. ‘The king of all creeps’ played an important role in this shedding of blood, and even directed the war for a year, while pretending he was only doing so in order to secure peace.
At the start of 1992 a Congress of Serb Intellectuals was held in Sarajevo, to which the ‘father of the nation’ sent a congratulatory telegram with the message: ‘Separate and divide, if you wish to live like human beings.’ The author of Deobe [Divisions] would later say that he had no idea it would end in such bloodshed, that separation would lead to a slaughterhouse. He always passes with the greatest of ease over his own misapprehensions, while frequently demanding that ‘we as a nation must re-examine our false beliefs’.
Visiting Goli Otok
According to Slavoljub Đukić’s book Lovljenje vetra, (8) based on conversations with Dobrica Ćosić, at the start of the 1950s Ćosić suddenly became ‘obsessed by the drama and tragedy of the informbirovci’. (9) He told his fellow writers about this obsession, but failed to gain their support; so he turned to his party colleagues Milovan Đilas and Veljko Vlahović, (10) because ‘this phenomenon was increasingly troubling me’. They too, however, remained deaf to the writer’s anxiety and obsession, because being politicians they were not interested in ‘human drama’ as such. The bard in Đilas nevertheless prevailed, so he introduced our writer to interior minister Ranković, who gave him a permit to visit the camp. Gedža thus became in 1952 the first civilian to arrive on Goli Otok, where he was able to learn all about the tragedy and to grasp the ‘human drama’. Đukić writes in his book that the writer was ‘surprised and disturbed’ by what he saw. According to Ćosić he was frightened too, and did not leave the office block of the prison for two or three days, during which time he read the dossiers. This led him to conclude that ‘it was for us mainlanders an unbelievably cruel island’. The ‘great writer’ also realised that ‘nothing would come of his literary project’, so he asked to visit the women’s camp on the island of St Gregory, where he also spent two days in the prison office block reading dossiers. He says that the conditions in this camp too were bad, but that he nevertheless decided to deliver a ‘shamelessly optimistic speech’ to the inmates, as - ever so slyly - he today self-critically admits.
It is not enough for Čosić to bore us with his many books describing his sins and his false beliefs; he also presents this as an ‘epochal drama’, the fate of the nation in history, in which everything is sinful, everything full of delusions and evil, which is why he alone could become leader of this heap of misfortune, of this horrible dialectic, imposing himself as the messiah and the ‘father of the nation’. Constantly repenting, he always ends up innocent, a lover of truth, because he is struggling against something stronger than himself, against Communism and Titoism, against the great powers that always stamped on Serbia ‘because it was in their way’, as the writer now thinks. The fact that Ćosić participated in all these misfortunes, that he celebrated them before denouncing them, is neither here not there, since the writer repents of it all in his books. He thinks that he was the first to realise and speak publicly about the delusions, which is why he frequently talks about them, treating them as normal human weaknesses which, if we know how to get rid of them, may even turn into virtues. Indeed, he has made his career out of them.
Translation of the first of seven instalments of a lengthy essay serialized in Dani (Sarajevo), published on 3 June2005
1. Dimitrije Ljotić (1981-1945) was a Nazi and an anti-Semite who once said: ‘I am pleased to say that we in Serbia have already solved 90% of the Jewish question.’
2. Josip Broz Tito, Četrdesetprva , Srpska književna zadruga, Belgrade 1961
3. Gedža is a word of Turkish origin (gege means a fool) used in Belgrade gossip for a peasant from Š umadija and, more generally, for a simple, rough-hewn person. Dobrica Čosić used to write for Mladi borac [Young Fighter] under the pseudonym Gedža, and it remained his nickname albeit without its mocking connotation. He was referred to almost fondly as ‘our Gedža’.
4. Belgrade philosophy lecturer, a former editor of the journal Praxis, father of the present Serbian president Boris Tadić. [note added]
5. Tito’s chief of protocol Zdenko Š tambuk informed Ćosić that he would have to bring along a tailcoat, a white tuxedo, a black dinner jacket, ten suits, sixty shirts, several pairs of shoes, white handkerchiefs, etc.
6. Aleksandar Ranković (1909-1983), the long-standing Communist interior minister, was divested of all his posts in 1966 for allegedly spying on his boss Marshal Tito, and was later presented as a ‘victim of anti-Serb coalitions’.
7. Milovan Đilas (1911-1995), the former Communist leader and writer, in 1954 became Yugoslavia’s best-known dissident, for which he spent nine years in prison.
8. Slavoljub Đukić, Lovljenje vetra, Belgrade 2001. The title ‘Chasing the Wind’ suggests a knightly struggle with windmills, making Ćosić into a modern Don Quixote.
9. People who in 1948 supported (or were accused of supporting) the Informburo, i.e. Stalin’s Moscow, against Titoist Yugoslavia.[note added]
10. Veljko Vlahović (1914-1975) was an old-fashioned Communist and ‘Marxist thinker’ who fought in the Spanish civil war.