We Have All Been Winners and Losers of This War
An interview with Miljenko Jergović, writer and journalist.
This interview is a special addition to New Eastern Europe Issue 2 (VII) / 2013: Painful Past, Fragile Future. To read the article by Miljenko Jergović, please download the whole issue from our mobile application.
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: Who was Miljenko Jergović in the early 1990s and who is he today?
I think that not much has changed in my life throughout this period of time. In the 1990s, I was more or less the same person I am today – a writer, an essayist and a journalist. I had my own column in the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian press where I was publishing opinion essays. By the end of the 1990s I started to write for the Serbian press again. Since then not much has changed. In that time I have also written the majority of my books. In all, a few thousand pages. From the very beginning they have been translated into many languages – Italian, German, French. In other areas, my life has not changed at all.
What pushed you to start writing? Was it the result of a specific event which took place in your life?
Surprisingly, it was a very ordinary situation. As a seven-year old, I just decided one day to become a writer. At first, my parents did not treat this plan of mine seriously. However, later, probably because I did not come up with any better idea, they finally came to terms with my choice. By saying this, I just want to show that this was the only thing I wanted to do in life. I have always been the happiest when I could write for different newspapers and magazines, something which I am still doing today.
In your newest book, Father, the main character says that he is the last living member of his family. Putting personal motifs aside, could we say that this book is some sort of metaphor?
Yes. However, in both of these aspects, personal and metaphysical, it should not be treated as something negative and tragic. I would even say that for me it is a rather lucky coincidence.
Because writing requires some drifting away from one’s identity and sense of belonging into which one is historically entangled. We can compare this to a situation of people who’ve been growing up in the shadow of trauma caused by their family history. For them, the death of those who can bring any memory of the painful past is a relief. Such people tend to stay alone. For them, everything that has happened before becomes memory. Only then is a person really free.
How has the situation in the region changed since the early 1990s?
My attitude to the region is bleaker than it was before. Simply speaking, in the late 1980s and early 1990s I would get very annoyed by Serbian nationalists and their leaders headed by Slobodan Milošević. After that, I started to get annoyed with the Croatian nationalists and General Franjo Tuđman. And today, I am annoyed by everybody. Today’s situation in the region looks as if we were all watching a “western” where all the guys are bad. The only positive element of this situation is the fact that somebody has managed to disarm all of the bad guys and that’s a good thing.
In fact, disarming these idiots could be regarded as the only accomplishment of the international community in the former Yugoslavia. I would really like to see greater change; a new reality to be created by a new generation. For sure, I would have a more positive attitude towards it. Unfortunately, such reality practically does not exist in the Balkans. The younger generations are trying to escape from the region and cut themselves off from its tragic past. This is a very sad perspective, but it is a perspective without a war. Escape is the only thing that can prevent an escalation of the conflict and bloodshed.
In this situation, do you think the countries of the former Yugoslavia are in danger of a mass exodus?
I would not call it an exodus. What is happening now is rather a slow process of emigration, which is noticeable only every ten years when national censuses are taken. This process of leaving and giving up one’s homeland is very quiet.
Where do these young people go?
Where? West, of course. And if you want to ask me what, from the perspective of the ex-Yugoslavia is the desired “West”, I will say that most often it is the United States and Canada.
However, the Serbian youth who, as a rule, is easily influenced by different forms of extremism, seems to be Russia-oriented, and feels a deeper connection with the ideals of Pan-Slavism which emerged in the 19th century.
I don’t think that we should generalise here. The truth is that in general, the youth is prone to be attracted to any form of extremism. Such a situation can be seen in Serbia and Croatia, but also in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The only difference between them is that while for the Serbs the ideal is indeed Russia, for the Croats it is Germany and the Vatican.
Is there a feeling and need in this region to seek justice with the past?
This is a dramatic problem and not only limited to the people in the Balkans, but of the whole of Europe. The view of the Balkans’ past has been completely clouded, and the goal to build a mutual dialogue seems extremely complicated. Historical truth has a tendency to be very vague and based on semi-truths. This is why nobody wants to deal with it. It is impossible to start building relations anew if we first don’t discuss the issues from our stormy past. Nobody has yet succeeded in building any form of positive relations between conflicted nations without seeking justice for acts done in the past. In this way, the Balkan nations find themselves in a tragic situation.
And what can you tell us about social relations in Croatia after the death of Franjo Tuđman (the first president of Croatia after the fall of Yugoslavia)?
General Tuđman passed away a long time ago, 13 years ago, and yet no direction of development, which we could call good, has been taken since. Many attempts have been made to tackle the difficult, previously not talked about, issues related to Tuđman. It was then when the statement should have been made that Tuđman was a fascist dressed in a communist coat. And that’s why he was very dangerous and, in the end, put the country in reverse.
The problem in Croatia is that the right-wing has a tendency to copy with what the fascists did during the Second World War, while the left-wing is scared of being called communists. At the same time, the Catholic Church supports the radical right-wing. In churches, one can hear praises of convicted war criminals from the Second World War. In this situation, the cult of Tuđman as a defender of Croatia’s independence is not getting any weaker.
This glorification of people who broke the basic principles of Christian morality seems counterintuitive. How would you explain the social acceptance of such a situation?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question lies in history. The role of the Catholic Church in Croatia during the Second World War was very different from the role of the Catholic Church in Poland at the same time. And even different to the role of the Catholic Church in Germany. The Catholic Church in Croatia, with a few exceptions, was most enthusiastic in greeting the Independent State of Croatia, meaning the Nazi state. To a large extent, it actively or passively, supported the system of concentration camps and the Sarajevo-based bishops from the Second World War – Ivan Evangelista Šarić, whom I mention in my novel Father, openly supported the extermination of Serbs and Jews, and wrote odes to glorify the Independent State of Croatia and its leader Ante Pavelicia.
In Croatia, the Catholic Church never really, even with the smallest gesture, stopped playing the role it had during the Second World War. It did not do so under communism, nor after. I will just provide you with one important comparison in the Catholic world. After the Second Vatican Synod, the conference of Polish bishops accepted the apologies of German bishops for what had been done during the Second World War. At the same time they also asked the Germans to forgive the Poles. This seems a bit like a tragicomedy, that the Poles ask the Germans for forgiveness for something that they (the Germans) did to this nation (the Poles) during the Second World War; but it is essentially correct. Because even if it was only one Pole who hurt one German, the apologies are already in order.
Croatia was the complete opposite. Croatian bishops, instead of taking responsibility and blame, put the blame on all those who, during the Second World War, were not on the fascists’ side, and who declared themselves anti-fascists: those the Croatian Catholic Church regards as communists. Meaning, this is probably something that does not exist anywhere else in the European Catholic Church. Unfortunately, this was also the influence of Pope (emeritus) Benedict XVI whose position during the Second World War was somewhat unclear; and when compared to his predecessor, John Paul II, his intentions were perceived as not being fully honest and, therefore, questionable.
What is the attitude to the diaspora which comprises people who managed to leave the region in the earlier phase of the military conflict, or even just before the war?
Croatian and Serbian emigration which left in the early 1990s is comprised of relatively well-educated people, usually city-dwellers, who have adapted to their new countries. They usually come to visit their homeland once a year, and it seems that they don’t have any ambitions to come more often. As opposed to the older emigration, whose attitudes are traditionally nationalistic and pro-clergy, the new generation has a very positive attitude, but is also quite passive.
They are not politically engaged in any way and only very few are involved in culture. There are a few writers, film-makers, artists, painters and all kinds of professors of liberal arts, but these are not any big names. Some of them were educated in the West, but only very few have returned to their family areas.
Does your novel Father include any hints about your next novel? In one of the chapters the main character says that he would like to write a story about the Moon Landing. Is this your dream or just literary fiction?
This is a true story and everything written in Father is true. Although I write all the time, until I fully finish it I can’t tell you that it will become something concrete. I am fascinated with the Moon Landing. It was the last big romantic moment for humanity. It’s sad. The first man landed on the Moon in 1969 and the last man in 1972. Nobody has gone there in the last 40 years. It seems that since then, the world cannot find another big idea to push it forward. That enthusiasm and feeling of delight has died out. Currently, we are caught in the exhausting greyness of the final stages of capitalism. In my opinion the world has fallen into a malaise.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Miljenko Jergović is an award winning writer whose books have been translated into many languages including English, French, Italian, Polish and German. Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jergović currently lives and writes in Zagreb, Croatia.
Adam Dohnal is a student of Philosophy and Eastern Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, as well as a member of the “Vostok” association and Res Politica – the Poznań Society for Political Thought.
Adrian Kossowski is a graduate of Eastern Studies of the history department of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and a member of the “Vostok” association. He is also an editor of a portal dedicated to the football club Polonia Warszawa.