1) You can speak about war in several ways: you can make up a story with statesmen as the main characters, the ones deciding the war, or you can make up a story with common people as the main characters, the ones participating in the war. Why did you chose only ordinary people to be the main characters of Balkan Roulette?
Because I always write only of common people and their destinies. I’m not interested in the leaders except in the context of evil. What would I write about them anyway? Each one of them writes at least two versions of their memoires since they have trouble with the “truths”… And I can’t stand people who sacrifice other people’s present for somebody’s past, while at the same time talking aboutthe future of the people they sacrifice. The victims have no future and they know that. Besides that, I write about my experience, things I’ve seen or witnessed in this or that way.
6) When somebody asked Beckett before the American premiere of “Waiting for Godot”, what Godot representes, he said: “If I knew, I would have written it in the drama.” What does Godot represent for you? Why did you mention him in the foreword? Did Godot’s arrival solve anything or did it complicate things further?
A genius writer and an exceptional drama. It is very difficult to give ananswer to a question he left unanswered on purpose, leaving the world to wait for Godot feverishly. What does Godot represent to his two dehumanized homeless men? What does it represent to me? Honestly, I’m not sure I know what itrepresents to me, but I think I know what it represents to Petar. The encounter with the destiny,that didn’t want him, eye to eye. The destiny that convicted him. The arrival of Godot does not solve anything, it opened Pandora’s box, full of absurdities that did not exist yesterday, but that decided the fate of today… That is why it is much better to wait for Godot than have him arrive.
Your trilogy Balkan Farewells is made of the novels Half-way to Heaven, Balkan Farewells and Love as Punishment. In brief, how did these novels come to be and what could you say about them?
I wrote the novel Half-way to Heaven in 1983. After that I stopped writing for a while. Life simply reorganizes your priorities… Later I left the former Yugoslav Navy and began practicing law, only to see the war move in. The war eventually ended but it left behind a load of questions, doubts, insecurity, conflicts with both yourself and the others… It all resulted in my going back to writing and so, around the year 2000 I wrote Balkan Farewells. To tell you the truth, I wrote it for my sake only, so as to save what was left of my sanity. I never really thought about publishing it, much less about translating it or winning any awards with it, all things that actually happened later.
Anyway, these are all anti-war novels with a multicultural orientation describing the situation before the war (Half-way to Heaven), the war (Balkan Farewells) and the post-war period (Love as Punishment).
The hero in Balkan Farewells says: “It seems that the most adaptable species in the Balkans is man, on condition he was born and raised there. Other members of the human race have never and could never adapt to the Balkans, nor could they understand these people, wherever they come from.” What are the reasons: history, living myths, illusions…?
Instead of answering I’ll paraphrase a thought from Heaven is also for People, a novel I have just finished. It goes something like this:
“The first five generations of the people in the Balkans first think of an idea that makes them all gather around it, then the next five generations totally fuck up the idea, and then the next twenty five generations create a myth from a failed idea, while the following ten heavenly generations go to war for that myth. And it goes on and on, until it’s our turn, the members of some five hundredth generation, to fight an already lost war against myths and mythomaniacs…”
If this thought seams too generalized and cliché to you, take the history books from any of these nationalities from the beginning of the last century, then take books from the middle of the century and their contemporary editions. Judge for yourself which of the numerous differences are historical facts, which are myths and which are illusions… Try and draw precise boundaries between them… Here, every generation has its own history, its own myths and illusions. No historical facts can withstand the challenges of war, and there is not one generation that has not been involved in a war.
In your novels and plays you use irony and grotesque to write about tragedies. How can we interpret this choice? Is it a counterbalance to the horrors of war?
Precisely. I once wrote that sarcasm is the last spiritual bastion of intellectualism. After all, what do I have left? Should I admit that the war has crushed me? Not a chance. They can take everything but my past and my soul. I haven’t been seriously counting on the future for a while. It sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? I simply can’t resist. After all, it’s not my fault if we live in an area covered with a patina of pathos, strewn with dead bodies that cannot be buried, and walked on by the living that do not wish to live…
Irony and grotesque are just a defense mechanism, nothing more.
Your books deal with the consequences of the tragic end of former Yugoslavia felt in the lives of common people. You write about family life experiences of simple people, and not about military strategies, even if you have been a professional soldier. How did you decide on such an approach to the theme?
I am interested in the common people, not strategists. These people are my friends who mean more than anything to me, much more than all the strategists in history put together. Unfortunately, they are only statistics to the strategists, number that fill in their grand plans covered in blood, tears and sweat… They are part of my life, my past, things I cannot give up on because I cannot give up on me. There has always been enough strategists and states but there are never enough men, real friends, those that will not look away when the bad guys threaten you…
It is easy to be a Croat, a Serb or a Montenegrin, but so difficult to be a man.
As opposed to the Russian roulette, where there is a chance to survive, the Balkan roulette is a shot from an automatic, no chance to live… You seem too much of a pessimist in this play… Why?
In the novel Seven Days of Solitude I wrote that I was not an optimist or a pessimist, but a realist, with a slight tendency towards idiocy. How did I get there? Easy. The environment as a factor of (anti)socialization. After all, what else could I have written after spending all night with an old friend trying to convince him not to commit suicide.
One should be an optimist. I would so much like to be one. Sometimes I manage, but then life gets me down and I, ashamed of my naivety, go back to being a realist.
Anyway, for as much as life may be harsh with me, I don’t miss a chance for optimism. May it last while it lasts. There is no future without it.
The play Balkan Roulette did not have the fortune to appear on stage in Croatia or Serbia. Why is it still being put off?
I am not expecting anything any more, but I would like to see the play on stage in the original language. There has been a show of the play in my city, Pula, by an Italian theatre and, of course, in Italian.
I don’t know whether it’s a question of luck and why. There must be more than one reason. I know for a fact that many people think it is too soon to stage such (multicultural) pieces. The wounds of the war are still bleeding… I am able to and am sure trying to understand each and every victim of the war, no matter of its nationality. But I cannot and will not understand those who make a living on such victims. I know very well how people react to my books and plays, and I am sure they wouldn’t mind seeing my plays on stage. Elementary logic makes us conclude that somebody does mind. Why, if, as they say, the war has really ended?
How did the war affect the people around you, in Istria?
While it lasts, the war is a collective tragedy including everybody in one way or another. Once it ends, it becomes the tragedy of individuals, those who lost somebody or themselves. Istria somehow fits into this image. It must be said that Istria did not see direct military operations and was, therefore, sort of a sanctuary to numerous refugees. People in Istria have a long tradition of tolerance, which can prove to be a priceless quality in times of war.
You were an officer in the ex Yugoslav National Army, then a lawyer, in both the war and after. Some say that the post-war period is worse than the war. Do you agree?
Those were hard times. On one hand you are trying to survive, on the other you are trying to remain a man. I don’t know which is harder. I hope I managed to do both at least in part.
As for the post-war period, I’m not really sure that it is more difficult than the war itself. Great expectations lead to great disappointments. The war definitely brings great expectations. Perhaps the greatest of them all. The consequence, as I said, are great disappointments. On all sides. The problem of the post-war period is mostly in these disappointments. All participants in the war expect more from it, and in the end the majority feels betrayed. However, the war is way more horrible. One can live with disappointments, not with death.
Your novel Rape of Reason speaks of the post-war period, betrayed people who served as “meat” for the war machinery, the terrible consequences of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that affects many veterans. How often is this problem discussed in Croatia today?
Very often, indeed. Especially in election years. Everybody remembers the veterans then, some even take pictures with them… give them a pat on the shoulder and a promise of a better future. The problem with this disease is that it does not recognize the future.
After the wars on the territories of the former Yugoslavia, the question of identity has become very important to some people. What is your attitude to this issue?
Personally, I have never had any problems with my identity, nor with anybody else’s for that matter. The exceptions to the rule are those who have built a (profitable) career on their identity. I call them professional Croats, professional Serbs… They cashed in on the question of identity and gave it a negative prefix. They have made “identity” so important that it becomes a question of existence.
Identity should be a personal thing of the individual, in no way affecting his social status. The moment identity becomes truly a matter of the individual and not his community, the question of identity itself will become much less important.
Your novels have been published in the USA, Italy, Germany, Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia. You have been awarded numerous times in Italy. How did the Italians discover you as a writer, long before you were officially acknowledged in your country?
By coincidence (if you believe in coincidences).
Generally speaking, I am against globalization, but there are exceptions. Namely, I became a more or less known writer thanks to Internet. I live in Pula, a small town far from large centers and media so that Internet was the only way to reach the public. When I wrote the novel Balkan Farewells, my friend Srđa Orbanić translated it in Italian and I offered it, on the Internet, to some Italian publishers and applied for the contest Premio Satyagraha 2002 in Italy on the theme of peace… I got the award and things started moving on. Without Internet I wouldn’t exist as an author. Unfortunately, in my country, Internet doesn’t help. There are problems of a different kind I have already mentioned.
In the end, I have to say that I still believe things are getting better here… Some think it is happening too slow, some think it’s too fast. It doesn’t really matter, does it, as long as it’s moving.