Téléchargez Dimanche Ouest France
(Fichier PDF - 2.7 Mo)
Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference

Velibor Colic "The warriors’ cry – Nationalist literature"

image

Watch the video.

The wrinkles of a nation are just as visible as those of a person.
Emil Michel Cioran

During a visit in Switzerland, a journalist asked Ernesto Sabato :
-Mister Sabato, why are there so many epic novels and poems and myths in Latin American literature, whereas we hardly have any here in Switzerland, if at all ?
-Look young man
, Sabato answered ; when William Tell MISSED his son, you missed your one chance of a national tragedy…

Literature as a political project

This paper doesn’t question national literature and certainly doesn’t claim to be based on science. Rather, it is a bitter observation : the line between national and nationalist literature is very fine. Unfortunately, back in ex-Yougoslavia, I was the witness of an “elitist literature” which suddenly became a “national literature” ; where first “writers” came, and, through their books and their “national language”, defined the spiritual and national space of the people ; then came the military to outline the borders proper.

This of course led to that triple crime – genocide, memoricide and urbicide – which took place soon after in my country as the by-product of a national literature.

In his novel Koreni (published in 1954 by French publisher Les Racines), the writer Dobria Ćosić , also nicknamed “the Tolstoy of the Balkans”, “the father of the Serbian nation”, who would go on to become the future ex-president of small Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro – 1992/ 1993), concocted a manifesto of sorts for a national literature infused with Balkan juice. According to a spellbound critic, his great rustic and family-oriented roman-fleuve addresses and glorifies “Serbian cults of freedom, their ancestral and national mythology, their patriarchal despotism…”, and, according to the same critic, it also magnificently denounces “the Europeanization of Serbian intellectuals, the destruction of the farming world and of individualism”. The result being : the uprooting of the people and even the complete disappearance of the nation.

In 1954, the nation (made up of farmers, who were patriarchs and traditionalists as well as libertarians) had the same enemies as today : Europe, cultural diversity, the West, cities, individualism.

So “the Tolstoy of the Balkans” was in favor of a proper home-made, serious, perhaps boring and tragic national literature, in which, according to Ćosić, “Serbs always lose in peace time what they gain during the war”.

In this literature, which isn’t entirely devoid of interest, more objective observers discovered the premise (which has since been emphasized and argued in Ćosić’s works) of the country’s future woes, and the premise of this triple crime (genocide memoricide, urbicide), committed by Ćosić’s very own disciples in the name of the nation, “the youngest nation of Europe”, Yugoslavia (a good example is Radovan Karadzic, head of Bosnia’s Serbs, who was a psychiatrist and a nationalist poet).

A writer’s involvement in a war is never direct, but it seems to me that the root causes of this evil lie in this so-called national literature : it recognizes our soil, our spiritual borders defined by language and religion ; it more or less openly accuses our neighbors of being the true enemies (the communists, the Albanians, the “Turkish” Muslims in Ćosić’s works), or it points the finger at hidden enemies, which is much more insidious because that includes everyone, anyone…

This Serbian and then Croatian or Bosnian nightmare started precisely at the time when the masterpieces of Ćosić and his disciples became a political project, and when their novels started being read as history school books.

And vice versa.

This confusion between genres, between history and literature, was a tragedy. For everyone.

The distinction between myth and reality lies in intelligence and common sense, in the ability to distance oneself and to reason…

But, unfortunately, new national literatures work on an emotional and a collective level, they inexplicably erode convictions that were set in stone.

And at that point, there is but a step between national and nationalistic literature.

When there is but a step left, writers step aside and give way to the military.

The spiritual space of a nation

Just as hell is other people, borders are other people too. These imaginary geographic and political lines are like thorns in the soft flesh of humanity. For a long time, everywhere, we have lived with our walls and our languages, our Norths and our Souths, our rich and our poor. Borders are also our gods and our colours, our faces – gypsy moustaches and Jewish noses, Aryan grey-blue eyes and the plump lips of a jazz singer. For a long time, we have made and destroyed empires, democracies and dictatorships, and we’ve lived at ease within our communities, not with others. In order to change or to “protect” our borders, the military wage war incessantly, and the last customs officer still standing at the border tells the story. This narrow space, stuck between the arrogance of invaders and the destiny of their victims, which is stuck between all those borders, can become mankind’s new geography. It only takes a bit of courage and some talent. Great History is but statistics, whereas literature names and tells the small tragicomedies of mankind. It doesn’t seem like much, but to me, it is worth it.

*

During a recent televised debate on the French governmental project of “marriage for all”, Mr. Eric Zemmour (who, according to Wikipedia, is a French writer and political journalist) explained the violence of some “anti gay marriage” protests as the result of the May 1968 events in France.

According to him, protesters at the time were demanding freedom, therefore individualism (does he mean the current ultra liberalism ???) and the children of today want to get rid of a politically correct world that was imposed on them by 1968 rioters…

The idea of a national culture, of a national way of life, which you find in speeches such as Zemmour’s in France or speeches in the Balkans, all originate from the same place. This idea stems from short-cuts, ready-made wording, the reinterpretation of history, Holocaust denial, populism, nationalism…

Once again, you see that nationalist literature behaves like a chameleon. Back in ex-Yugoslavia, we sometimes call it “patriotic literature”, regularly we call it “traditional literature” and very often we call it “popular literature”.

I’d even go so far as to say mandatory literature, the one and only…

*

In his book “The Balkans – the terror of culture” (published in Belgrade in 2008), Ivan Čolović, the Serbian ethnologist, talks about the “national, cultural and spiritual space of a people”, and about the paraliterature that feeds off this Holy Trinity that the nation represents.

Yet, in a multinational state, where religions and cultures are manifold and blended (such as all ex-Yugoslav countries despite attempts at ethnic-cleansing during wars) this idea of one space, one language and one literature, is problematic.

The common points between different nations (the origin, the language, the mentality), they are analyzed, cut open, reinterpreted, as are all the weaknesses of our spirituality. Because nationalist literature is by essence exclusive. No other literature is tolerated, least of all the national literature of our neighbors.

*

The form and the essence of national literature go against modernity. Generally, novels of that genre are written in an “outdated” language (using popular and anti-elitist wording). Long poems intentionally blur the lines between ancestral epic tales and the current (and usually tough) situation of the nation. Ivan Čolović gives an example : during the latest war in Bosnia, in the middle of the battleground, Serbian soldiers cried out names of heroes from popular literature, as though bringing historical evidence to support the idea that their fight is universal.

In the name of the people
(a few tips to becoming a nationalist writer)

National literature goes against world citizenship. In this “Weltanschauung”, we wash our nation of all its sins, and turn it into a metaphor. Our homeland is no longer a country or a state, but often it is a pretty young woman who has been raped and tarnished ; our nation is also the cemetery of our grandfathers, it is our religion, it is a white dove, or a mother.

Recent national works of Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian writers show our motherland as a sort of monster, always expecting that we give our blood and life for it. A popular Croatian song says : “Do not be sad oh mother Croatia, call us, just call us/ and, like falcons, we will sacrifice our lives for you”.

Despite money, glory and power, in these parts of Europe it is not easy to be a national writer. But it is worth sacrificing everything, absolutely everything, even the nation, for the nation.

*

The Golden age of national literatures in South-East Europe matches the end of communism. This evolution was first seen in dissident writers, then in those who left communism, and then in self-proclaimed nationalist bards.

Of course, they received the full support of the church and of new “freshly and democratically” elected powers, which represented the renaissance of our people.

Nationalist literature always speaks out in the name of the people with heroic rhetoric. It tries and succeeds in finding scapegoats, it makes our enemies visible, and it always either accuses or forgives, always in the name of the people.

True writers need time and silence, whereas their nationalist colleagues need a stage, a crowd, they need sound and fury, “blood and tears”... This shoddy and wholesale literature only sees humanity in very simple terms : good and bad, us and the others, victims and perpetrators… Just like American westerns, the good guy always wears a white hat, and the bad guys a black one.

In this epic and eternal struggle, we are the good guys, who defend true values, whereas on the opposite side you have the barbarians, whose names and faces may change, but whose nature stays the same, it is wild, destructive and decadent.

A world as simplified and divided as supporters in a football game.

As a rule, this type of literature should stay where it belongs, at the margins of this world. But unfortunately, behind the wanderings of my country’s “heralds” lies a real tragedy, a fratricide war, with over 100.000 deaths and two million refugees.

Among those responsible for this massacre, some writers rank high. Their patriotic tirades, their works and their call for war still find an echo in victims’ heads, like a gruesome celebration.

*

National literature is like a church. Everything in national literature is sacred. Our soil is sacred, our language and most of all our freedom are sacred. It is also necrophiliac. In that literature, writers are either already dead, about to die, or about to be sacrificed on the altar of the nation. In patriotic texts, we, the Righteous Among the Nations, are no longer truly human. We have no name or occupation, we are neither married nor single, tall nor little. We have no personal destiny, only a common one, which, of course, is tragic.

National writers prefer to see us as victims.

Victims of the spread of Islam, of globalization, of various world conspiracies. We are but a handful of brave and lucid people who stand up to a rich, cunning and ruthless enemy.

A Serbian satirist said “before the war, we had nothing. Then, the Germans came and destroyed everything”.

*

A national writer always has a bone to pick. But first and foremost he is a sentinel who safeguards our language, which is vital and essential for any writer. The problem is that our language never fits the borders of a country.

In order to correct this anomaly, there’s always a drunken colonel ready to free the people all by himself. A German philosopher said “Repeat tragedies can become farcical…”

And I would add, unfortunately, repeat farces can become tragedies too.

Just as hell is other people, borders are other people too. These imaginary geographic and political lines are like thorns in the soft flesh of humanity. For a long time, everywhere, we have lived with our walls and our languages, our Norths and our Souths, our rich and our poor. Borders are also our gods and our colours, our faces – gypsy moustaches and Jewish noses, Aryan grey-blue eyes and the plump lips of a jazz singer. For a long time, we have made and destroyed empires, democracies and dictatorships, and we’ve lived at ease within our communities, not with others. In order to change or to “protect” our borders, the military wage war incessantly, and the last customs officer still standing at the border tells the story. This narrow space, stuck between the arrogance of invaders and the destiny of their victims, which is stuck between all those borders, can become mankind’s new geography. It only takes a bit of courage and some talent. Great History is but statistics, whereas literature names and tells the small tragicomedies of mankind. It doesn’t seem like much, but to me, it is worth it.

Should we believe in literature ?

Let’s hope that after the era of politics, which is only a perverted game that we will eventually have to put an end to, and after the era of crazy and bloodthirsty national bards, will come the era of literature. A nomad and human literature, a mobile and multicultural literature, disheveled, undisciplined, without visas and without passports.

In 1992, during the war, I wrote a text in my soldier’s logbook. Perhaps it was foolish, certainly naïve, but I was frightened. I wrote it as a kaddish of sorts for my country. This text is entitled “Believing in literature”.

In times of war, believing in literature means not accepting ready-made wording, not choosing necrophilia or death as biblical « necessities » symbolized by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. It also means working on the magic which makes words come together and recognizing evil and condemning it. That is how, in Bosnia, we can go beyond a purely aesthetic literature.

It means, time and again, remembering the bright and sacred nature of the sacrifice of victims, in order to believe there is meaning again, in order to breathe new life into literature, without thinking about the fact that this story has already been told numerous times. It means believing in the primeval cry of life, as wise and old as the hills, the cry of the child, who, pushed by survival instincts, tears his mother’s womb to announce the clear and definitive triumph of creativity over absurdity, and violence and destruction.

Yes, that is what believing in literature means.

A literature that cannot be altered.

Because it holds the secrets of life’s eternal nature.

Only a few months later, the soldier I was went into exile, and this text, which I’d written on my knees in the trenches, became a book.

A gypsy proverb says “they can kill off all the swallows, but they won’t stop the arrival of Spring.

Velibor Čolić, Spring 2013.

Téléchargez Dimanche Ouest France
(Fichier PDF - 2.7 Mo)