Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Tragic Intensity of Europe

What's it like to be a Foreigner? This question was first raised forcefully in my mind by a film I saw in Germany with my friend Zarko Radakovic. It is called "The Foreigner" and was directed by Amos Poe. I've been thinking about it ever since.

One product of that thinking appeared in November of 2008 as Vampiri / Razumni recnik (Vampires / A Reasonable Dictionary), published in Serbian in Belgrade. The first half is Zarko's, the second mine. We write each in his own language. We converse in German. Zarko grew up in Communist Yugoslavia, I in the Mormon West. We were born to be foreigners in each other's world. My name "Scott" even means "vermin" in his language.

And yet, Zarko and I have been friends for almost thirty years. The friendship has made me into a different person than I would have been otherwise. It has changed me, piece by piece, thought by thought, atom by atom, experience by experience, and so have the years.

The photos at the end of our second book contrast starkly with the photos from our first book: Repetions: Travels into the Landscape of a Novel(ist), published in Belgrade in 1994.

And those photos were preceded by an earlier one, taken by Zarko's wife Zorica in their apartment in Tuebingen. We're reading identical copies of Peter Handke's novel Repetition, which was the catalyst for our journey into the novel's landscape -- what is now Slovenia, but at that time still part of Yugoslavia.

Things change, and in those changes we make our lives.

About the time our second book appeared, Zarko also edited a remarkable text in Germany, an edition of Schreibheft: Zeitschrift fuer Literature, a German literary magazine. Along with Austrian writer Peter Handke, Zarko produced a volume of literature from Serbia, translated into German and titled “The Tragic Intensity of Europe.”

This morning I reread some of the stories, several of the essays. I don't read Serbian, so this volume is a precious window into Zarko's world, into the intellectual and artistic universe made up of writers he knows whose world has so radically changed over a decade and a half -- the time between our books, our photos.

Zarko's essay “View from Zemun”
 begins with these lines:

Three decades have passed since I left the Balkans. The place from which I emigrated at the end of the Seventies was called Yugoslavia. Tito was still in power.

Settled in Germany, I immediately began to preserve my Yugoslavian past: driven by “homesickness” and by the almost animal need to return repeatedly – but never for long.

            If I had worries of any kind in the first years of emigration, they usually had to do with the uncertain success of a sports team. Never could I have imagined the destruction that would begin in the early Nineties, for I grew up with the good-natured ignorance that assumed that this country would never fall apart.

Zarko's essay is about the Serbian writer Igor Marojevic, a younger writer who fled the chaos of civil war to live in Barcelona, but returned to Serbia after four years. “Why didn’t you stay in Barcelona?” Zarko asks him. “I was afraid I would forget the language, he said – an answer only a writer can give.”

            Those are the words that remain from the conversation with Igo Marojevic in a dark Belgrade café, smoking cigarettes, drinking black coffee, visualizing with no illusions; in a café with a view in the direction of the Danube and Zemun, the place where Marojevic has lived since returning from emigration, the place I have left, because I remain an emigrant.

Because, Zarko might as well have said, because I have forgotten my language. Because I am not a writer. 

Although that is implied, with all its tragic implications, it's not true. Zarko lives in his language, the language that used to be Serbo-Croatian and that has become Serbian. He writes in it, book after book: Pogled, Knifer, Emigracija, Tuebingen, Ponavljanje, and Vampiri. He translates into it: a dozen important and sometimes big books by Peter Handke. 

And he returns to his country often, although he doesn't stay long. His last visit, with his partner Anne, he explained in a postcard, was for the sake of "Sophie." He meant, of course, his grandaughter. And he meant, I'm certain, for the sake of wisdom, of language, of self.

The Schreibheft issue contains any number of tragically intense stories, stories of emigrants become foreigners. One, by Dragan Aleksic, will have to stand for the rest:

The Heart Full of Rain

When I was a young man, I wrote a book whose hero says at one point: I want to go anywhere, I want to be silent, I don't want anyone to know anything about me. There, far away, I will cry and have only a single wish: to return. 

Twenty years later, at a mature age, as an emigrant to America, driven to windy Ohio, I listen in the evenings to my small sons who, before falling asleep, cry for our old house and our city. Later, sleeping, they smile and speak -- in English.

I am silent, with no connection to my fate.

I feel nothing.

I grieve for no thing.

I call nothing into memory.

I am not like the hero of my first novel.

I do not cry.

I do not want to return.

. . . But my heart is full of rain.

(2007, English translation mine, from the German of Mirjana and Klaus Wittmann)  

1 comment:

Meriaten said...

you are my facebook status update today.
thanks for the blog - it satisfies an empty, homesickey longing for ghosts of professors past I was having today. :)