Punctum Books, out of Brooklyn, has just agreed to publish American versions of two books published in Belgrade by Zarko Radakovic and myself.
A REASONABLE DICTIONARY
Here's the text that bridges between the two texts that make up the second volume:
In the summer of 1998, Peter Handke, Scott Abbott and I traveled together through Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Several months before this trip, I thought that along the way Scott and I could continue the joint travelogue that we started in our book Repetitions. That book resulted from reading Handke’s book Repetitions – and Scott and I traveling together through the “geography of the novel,” intending to “verify” just how much the narration in Handke’s book corresponded to the “reality” of the described “locations.” Now that Scott had become Handke’s translator too, having translated and published Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers, I felt it would be worthwhile to go to the geography of that book – we, Handke’s translators, traveling together with our author. And we would write another double manuscript. Again we would be One looking through two different optics. That way – we thought – what was Seen and Experienced would be enriched. And I again – as I had with Repetitions – made the proposal. We got ready for the trip. And we set off on the journey. Scott, as always, was efficient. He noted down every detail “on the ground.” I, as often when traveling with Peter Handke, wrote down as little as possible and let myself surrender to experiences that I would later repeat. But this time Repetition became lost in Experience. As soon as our trip ended, new events followed each other at breakneck speed. So much that was new. The country continued to break up: a takeover was portended in what remained of the state; NATO intervention loomed on the horizon and soon came; I traveled to the US; I moved; my closest friends fell ill; I withdrew inside myself and fell silent; I left my job. All the new things I experience during that period before and after the trip with Handke and Scott simply buried the experiences that were to be the basis of our writing a book together. My manuscript developed into another story. The connection with Scott’s text took on new dimensions. I suddenly took Scott’s manuscript as a crucial context in which the book Vampires arose. Instead of keeping a distance with regard to my partner’s text, regarding is as parallel to what I was writing and another way of looking at our joint reality, I kept going back to my friend’s manuscript. I suddenly experienced the reading of Scott’s text as a solid part of myself. The danger arose: instead of a writer, I would remain a reader. Consequently, I had to remove myself from that reading material. I had to write. But repeating what my traveling companion had already written seemed impossible to me. Owing to the proximity of my friend’s text, owing to the intensity of the new experiences. Consequently, I had to write something new. I started writing the novel Vampires. Today I experience Scott’s writing as an extremely important environment for my novel. Because if there was anything I wanted in Vampires, it was a description of the time and space in which we lived in 1998 before the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, which made us all suffer so much, which changed us essentially. I thought, if Scott has already recorded everything so convincingly, shouldn’t it be up to me to do some storytelling. In my case, there was no longer any question about a travelogue. All I could do was take what already existed as a travelogue, Scott’s manuscript, and insert it into my book. That is what I have done.
The year Žarko and I traveled up the Drina River with Peter Handke – between the wars – was a nearly fatal span for my dear friend. The events of the same year may have saved my life.
I remember standing next to Žarko in front of an audience at the university (was it his first visit or his second?). I had invited him to speak to German-speaking students in my seminar on his work with Peter Handke. For two hours he had engaged them, delighted them, questioned them – all in German (which is the language he and I share – we’re both foreigners when we’re together). Now he was to address an audience that didn’t understand German. I was to be the interpreter. I was to say “I” and mean “Žarko.”
It was 1992 (the first visit, then). Žarko’s lecture was so personal, so elegiac (tragic) that I stood transfixed even as I repeated in English the words my friend spoke in German:
Approximately fifteen years ago I left my country. Back then, in 1978, it called itself the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In late autumn as I left the Belgrade train station to travel to what was then the Federal Republic of Germany, I didn't have the least suspicion that in fifteen years, that is, now, my country would no longer exist. . . .
Can I, in the midst of these tragic events, appear as an “omniscient narrator”? Can I, as an isolated writer, produce stories? Can I, as a writer in this situation, react publicly, draw conclusions, show emotions, move about freely, take part in discussions? Can I write about this brutal present at all?
Years later, Žarko answered those questions with his novel Vampires. The answer, of course, is no. He can’t appear as an “omniscient narrator.” He can’t produce stories. He can’t draw conclusions. The answer, of course, is also yes. He can, in fact, write about this brutal present. Or better said: He can write this brutal present. That writing – that tortured, broken, but not un-dead writing – questions narration. It undermines stories. It deflates conclusions.
The tremendous costs such writing exacted on my dear friend weighed heavy on me as I tried to write my own text in the context of a country split so brutally that it now required a Serbian dictionary and a Croatian dictionary. How could I possibly put what I experienced with Žarko, in Žarko’s homeland, into sentences?
What I did know was that my own life was in danger – my emotional life, my future life, my spiritual life (no, not my spiritual life, I no longer wanted a spiritual life). If I couldn’t somehow write my way out of the drying cement of my life. . . .