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Post-Yugoslav Literature and Fragile Communities

Yugoslavia has disappeared, but its spirit continues to live in works of fiction being written in its former territories, spanning “from the River Vardar to the Triglav mountain”...

Post-Yugoslav Literature and Fragile Communities
by Saša Ilić 

Yugoslavia has disappeared, but its spirit continues to live in works of fiction being written in its former territories, spanning  “from the River Vardar to the Triglav mountain”, as a metonimic verse from a 1980s popular Yugoslav song states (Vardar is a river in the most southern part of the former Yugoslavia and Triglav is a mountain in its most northern part). In the aftermath of the 1990s wars, the fragments of people’s traumatized lives were scattered everywhere, left to the brutal forces of the transitional period, in which a new democratic order was supposed to emerge. In the post-Yugoslav transitional societies, the most fragile communities have suffered the most – the refugees, the families who lost their dear ones in the war, LGBT+, the poor, the disabled and frail, the ethnic minorities. From time to time, a literary work would appear that would succeed in giving a voice to the voiceless ones. How Are You?, an excellent collection of short stories by a Croatian journalist and writer Barbara Matejčić, is one of these literary works.

The issues tackled in this book are the ones concerning the community in which the author lives, along with the issues it shares with the neighbouring communities. The topics that were highlighted make us think about the state of journalism, where the stories in this book originate from, and make us question the status of literature, where the author has arrived to, having written these stories about the invisible people of one post-Yugoslav society. Namely, Barbara Matejčić has chosen six life stories and narrated them mostly in the third person (“August in Šarić Struga”, “Top Grades From the Bottom Classroom Desk”, “An Ordinary Day in Branimir’s Life”, “Lovrić Family from Osijek”, and “Long Live the Pussy”), while the story “One Out of A Hundred”, about a young woman suffering from schizophrenia, is written in a form of a diary.

Barbara Matejčić is predominantly interested in the current state of the post-Yugoslav societies and their institutions, which are undergoing a dissolution process during which all of their features are being lost. If solidarity, or care for the other, is fundamental to the society, then the lack of it is the theme that drives the author’s storytelling. Moreover, this space emptied of empathy gets filled up with the opposite emotions of hatred, lack of tolerance and ignorance which all lead to violence. That is how an intolerant community is being brought about, with its cohesive forces being ritually recharged in this space emptied of empathy, and it is this space that becomes the focal point of Matejčić’s narrative. The individuals at the center of the narrative, whose life stories serve to tell the truth about the society they live in, are very real and concrete and every resemblance to actual people and events is intentional. Those individuals are mainly women, either paralyzed like Ivana, after a car accident, or ostracized like Bojana, a young Roma attending a highly segregated school, or beaten up by the angry young men, like lesbians in Split. The story that is somewhat different is “One Out of A Hundred”, which is presented in a form of a diary of Jadranka, a schizophrenic patient. Through her obsessive meditations on herself and the society, the meditations on relation between mental illness and sanity, Jadranka confronts us with the following inversion - how the society, while trying to cure those who are “unwell” with the use of electroconvulsive therapy, develops within itself the characteristics of a real mental patient. Hence, the diary, as a record of a mental illness, morphs into a record of social pathology. This pathology is diagnosed by the main character in the following way: “So, if you want to get a job don’t mention your illness, we live in capitalism. Or, maybe the best thing is to say it straight away, so they don’t hear it from someone else. They will find it out anyway.” Jadranka has identified very precisely how the society has been transformed in the meantime. The radical shock therapy performed by the society on all who were different, had been experienced by Marija Lovrić fifteen years earlier. Marija is the central character in the story “Lovrić Family from Osijek”, which revolves around the theme of the war in Slavonia and the suffering of a mixed, Serbian and Croatian, Yugoslav family, following the executions carried out by Branimir Glavaš’s troops. Marija’s experiences during the war and in its aftermath resemble the exposure to the permanent electroconvulsion therapy by other means.

Barbara Matejčić’s narration is persuasive and the very first sentence shifts her writing from journalism to literature (“Ivana knows what people are thinking while she walks about the city.”). The author has spent a period of her life with her characters, being with them, helping them and listening to their stories, and her method is hence intrinsically one typical of investigative journalism. While listening to other people’s stories, Matejčić demonstrates a rare gift to recognize, amid all the suffering and misery, those almost invisible offshoots of life, paying special attention to them. Such moments in the book serve as a counterpoint to the societal decline, and at the same time they are maybe the parts of the greatest literary value in the book. One such moment is the scene of Ivana’s repeated going to the fair in Šarić Struga. Ivana is in her wheelchair, listening to the music by the bar. In this scene Barbara Matejčić’s language has such an effect on us that we can sense the internal tension of a rhythm permeating Ivana's paralised body, almost moving it. Its counterpart is a scene when Marija walks along the bank of the River Drava, at the very end of the story. While trying to make peace with the past marked by the war, Marija looks at her grandson as he runs with his arms spread, pretending to be a plane. After a decade of everyday struggle, she succeeds in her fight for the Croatian state to admit that her husband is dead. However, she still hasn’t been told why. The image of this persistent woman who awaits this most important answer in her life is imprinted symbolically in the shared imagination of the post-Yugoslav communities.

 

Translated by Svetlana Rakocevic

Postyu literatura i fragilne zajednice

Jugoslavija je nestala ali njen duh živi u jednom delu literature koja nastaje „od Vardara pa do Triglava“, kako je glasio metonimijski stih u popularnoj pesmi koja je obeležila poslednju deceniju života ove države. Iza rata, ostale su traumatizovane krhotine, prepuštene surovoj tranziciji koja bi trebalo da uspostavi demokratske poretke. U takvim društvima, osobito teško prolaze najranjivije skupine, ljudi bez glasa u javnosti, izbeglice, LGBT, siromašni, bolesni, porodice koje su izgubile nekog u ratu, manjinske zajednice. S vremena na vreme, dogodi se da neko književno delo uspe da artikuliše upravo glasove ovih ljudi. Jedna takva knjiga je i odlična zbirka priča hrvatske novinarke i spisateljice Barbare Matejčić pod naslovom Kako ste?

Pitanja koja ova knjiga postavlja tiču se zajednice u kojoj je knjiga napisana, susednih zajednica takođe, ona pokreću razmišljanja o novinarstvu iz kog ova knjiga dolazi i naposletku preispituju status književnosti, u koju je autorka dospela napisavši svojih šest priča o nevidljivim ljudima postjugoslovenskog društva. Naime, autorka je odabrala šest sudbina i ispripovedala nam njihove priče, uglavnom u trećem licu (“Kolovoz u Šarić Strugi”, “Petica iz zadnje klupe”, “Običan dan u Branimirovom životu”, “Osiječka obitelj Lovrić” i “Živila pička”), dok je priču “Jedna od sto”, koja govori o mladoj ženi koja boluje od shizofrenije, napisala u vidu dnevničkih beleški.

Barbaru Matejčić pre svega zanimaju društvo i institucije koje se, baš kao i društvo samo, nalaze u procesu rastakanja ili bolje rečeno gubitka svojstava. Ako je osnovna premisa društvenosti solidarnost, ili osećaj za drugog pored sebe, onda je izostanak ovog osećanja tema koja pokreće sve naracije ove autroke. Štaviše, ovaj ispražnjeni prostor empatije biva ispunjen potpuno suprotnim osećanjima: mržnje, netolerancije i ignorancije koje dovode do nasilja. Tako se rađa zajednica netrpeljivosti, čije se kohezivne snage ritualno obnavljaju upravo na ovom mestu, koje je Matejčić postavila u svoj pripovedni fokus. Pojedinci o kojima je reč, preko čijih sudbina se transponuje istina o društvu, zapravo su vrlo konkretni i svaka sličnost sa stvarnim ljudima i događajima je namerna. Radi se prevashodno o ženama, bilo da su paralizovane nakon saobraćajne nesreće kao Ivana, ili da se govori o nemiloj sudbini mlade Romkinje Bojane u školi u kojoj vlada jaka segregacija ili o lezbijkama koje dobijaju batine od gnevnih mladih muškaraca u Splitu. Posebna priča je “Jedna od sto“ koja nam donosi dnevničke zapise o shizofreniji pacijentkinje Jadranke. Ona nas svojim opsesivnim meditacijama o sebi i društvu, o odnosu između bolesti i normalnosti, suočava sa inverzijom koja upućuje na to da društvo koje preko svojih institucija pokušava da leči “obolele” elektrokonvulzivnom terapijom sve više poprima osobine stvarnog pacijenta. Tako se dnevnik jedne bolesti pretvara u dnevnik društvene patologije čiju dijagnozu izgovara junakinja priče: “Tako da ako se želite zaposliti, ni slučajno ne spominjati bolest, sada je kapitalizam. Ili je odmah najbolje reći da si bolestan prije nego što čuju od nekog sa strane. Sve se to sazna“. Jadranka je zapravo vrlo precizno detektovala šta se dogodilo sa društvom u međuvremenu. Radikalnu terapiju koju je društvo sprovodilo nad drugačijima, petnaestak godina ranije osetila je i Marija Lovrić, junakinja priče „Osiječka obitelj Lovrić” koja govori o ratu u Slavoniji i stradanju jedne srpsko-hrvatske, jugoslovenske porodice u egzekucijama koje su sprovodile jedinice Branimira Glavaša. Marijin prolazak kroz rat i poratni period podseća na stalno izlaganje elektrokonvulzivnoj terapiji drugim sredstvima.

Pripovedanje Barbare Matejčić je uverljivo i to je već od prve rečenice približava literaturi (“Ivana zna što ljudi misle dok prolazi gradskim ulicama”). No ona je proživela jedan komad svog života sa svojim junacima, prateći ih, pomažući im i slušajući njihove priče, što je neraskidivo vezuje za novinarsko-istraživački pristup. Ona pokazuje neobičan dar da slušajući druge ljude, pa čak iako su pritisnuti velikom nesrećom i patnjom, prepozna one minimalne ili gotovo nevidljive izdanke života i da im posveti posebnu pažnju. Ti momenti su u ovoj knjizi kontrapunkt propasti društva, a ujedno su možda i literarno najuspeliji. Jedan takav trenutak je i scena ponovnog Ivaninog odlaska na feštu u Šarić Strugi. Dok sedi u invalidskim kolicima kod šanka i sluša muziku, pripovedni jezik Barbare Matejčić postiže da gotovo osetimo unutrašnji napon paralizovanog tela koje prožima ritam, i gotovo da ga pokreće. Pandan toj sceni je Marijina šetnja obalom Drave na kraju priče kada, posmatrajući svog unuka kako trči raširenih ruku poput aviona, svodi svoje račune sa ratnom prošlošću. U svojoj svakodnevnoj decenijskoj borbi, ona je uspela da se izbori za to da joj država prizna da njenog muža više nema, ali još uvek se nije došlo do odgovora zbog čega. Figura ove istrajne žene koja čeka najvažniji odgovor u svom životu simbolički je utisnuta u imaginarij postjugoslovenskih zajednica.

Saša Ilić

Saša Ilic, born 1972, is a Serbian writer. He lives in Beograd and is member of the editorial board of BETON (literary supplement of the daily newspaper Danas).

Saša Ilic, 1972 geboren, ist ein serbischer Schriftsteller. Er lebt in Belgrad und ist Chefredaktionsmitglied von BETON (Beilage der Tageszeitung Danas).

Saša Ilic, born 1972, is a Serbian writer. He lives in Beograd and is member of the editorial board of BETON (literary supplement of the daily newspaper Danas).

Saša Ilic, 1972 geboren, ist ein serbischer Schriftsteller. Er lebt in Belgrad und ist Chefredaktionsmitglied von BETON (Beilage der Tageszeitung Danas).

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