BELGRADE CALLING: AN INTERVIEW WITH DUSAN VELICKOVIC
Biblioteka Alexandria, the first international book review in Serbia, was launched in April 1998 by Dusan Velickovic and Vreme, a high-profile weekly newspaper: " Everybody kept threatening me, from Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic to Arkan and Ratko Mladic."
Andrew Gallix interviews Dusan Velickovic
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: Could you tell us about your personal writing career and your decision to launch a literary journal in 1998?
DV: When I was fifteen I decided to become a writer. I wanted to write like Albert Camus or Max Frisch; The Outsider and I'm Not Stiller were the two books I had just finished reading. But it wasn't a teenage dream or an obsession. It was a pragmatic decision. I had to work for money so as to be able to continue my education, and writing was easier than manual labor. I didn't manage to become a Camus or a Frisch, but two years later, as a boy of seventeen, I became Dick Wellington. That was the pseudonym under which I wrote a crime story each week for the most popular evening newspaper in Yugoslavia. I was in good company, with Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, and Ellery Queen whose stories, translated into Serbian, the newspaper also published. Those were the nice and happy years of my writing career, but they didn't last long. Soon the year 1968 rolled in, making of me first a critical Marxist, then a determined anarchist, then a liberal. Finally I devoted myself to writing studies about the theories of perpetual peace. I thought I could demonstrate that the political philosophies of Kant, Tolstoy and Gandhi have important modern meanings. At that time I was also the editor of a theoretical magazine at the University.
In the 1980s I started working as a journalist for the Belgrade weekly NIN, and I returned to writing short stories. Now they were a sort of documentary prose: stories mixing true and imaginary events, invented characters with real historical persons such as Lenin, Freud or Koestler. In that same period, in a small publishing house I started Literature in Exile, a collection of books in which I published mostly the works of Soviet dissidents.
Then Milosevic rose to power and I became the editor-in-chief of NIN. I remember that era as an exciting fight for a critical and independent position of the paper, and an era of numerous threats too. Everybody kept threatening me, from Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic to Arkan and Ratko Mladic. I was fired in 1997 and because of this my journalists went on strike for a month and a half. That was actually the first strike in the sixty-year-long history of NIN. That's when I started considering the possibility of founding a serious literary and political magazine, the sort that didn't exist in Serbia at the time. So originated Biblioteka Alexandria, first as a special edition of the Vreme weekly, then as an independent publication of the Alexandria Press publishing house. Of course, none of this would have materialized without the assistance of the Fund for Central and East European Book Projects from Amsterdam and the Fund for Open Society Belgrade.
3AM: What was the state of the Serbian literary scene under Milosevic? Was it divided between supporters and opponents of the regime? Did you have any links with B92 or the Otpor movement?
DV: There was neither a literary scene nor any literary life under Milosevic. Or, more precisely, they existed in some perverted, schizoid form. There was an official literary scene shaped by the Association of Serbian Writers. The loudest and most active participants were those writers who had lost any interest in literature long before. They now acted as defenders of the so-called national interest, turning Serbian literature into a nationalistic and quasi-patriotic pamphlet. As for style, we seemed to have returned firmly into the nineteenth century. And yet, there was another, parallel, rather underground literary life, creating a scene on which some other, very interesting books by talented writers appeared. A claim might reasonably be made that it was a split between supporters and opponents of the regime. I prefer to say that it was a literary cacophony.
I had excellent cooperation with Radio B92 while I was the editor-in-chief of NIN, and also when I founded the magazine and publishing house. Some of the local groups of Otpor were subscribers to our magazine from the very first moment. Both Radio B92 and Otpor were our natural political and cultural allies, we were always on the same side, so there was no need for any formal ties. But, there are some "family" ties here. My older son Uros works in the English-language office of Radio B92, while my younger son Vuksa, a student of political science, is a member of Otpor.
3AM: Biblioteka Alexandria seems to have a resolutely international outlook. Was this a means of resisting an inward-looking, nationalistic government: cosmopolitism vs turbo folk? Is the journal also dedicated to fostering local talent?
DV: Yes, that's true. Both the magazine and publishing house were born in conditions of harsh internal repression and officially proclaimed xenophobia. Politically, the two projects were an attempt to resist the regime in a very sensitive segment of life, a segment seemingly not as important as are purely political or purely economic matters. It wasn't only about political liberties and rights, living standards, purchasing goods, or economic development. It was and still is about the state of consciousness and about the possibility of creative and provocative thinking. After ten years in power, the Milosevic regime was well on its way to finally proclaiming cretinism as the highest value. I wanted Biblioteka Alexandria to be one of the small oases of reality in an ocean of faked and false life.
The publication so named, Biblioteka Alexandria, was thus, for political reasons, designed to be a truly international magazine, but there was another reason, the most important one to me. Due to the collective blind spot, two dominant attitudes had formed in the Serbian culture over the last dozen years: one provincial, manifested in uncritical admiration and awe towards all and everything that comes in from the world, and another, stupidly egocentric, basically a belief that we are the best, smartest and most beautiful. I thought that an attempt ought to be made to find a third stance, being normal, being a natural part of the world. It is then, of course, an opportunity for talented Serbian writers to become a normal and natural part of the world through Biblioteka Alexandria.
3AM: How did the Serbian literary scene react to the NATO bombings of 1999? Do the air strikes feature prominently in Serbian fiction?
DV: I think Serbian literature still has an ambivalent attitude to this subject. Both in literature and in society a general, simplified condemnation of the bombardment is still predominant. This attitude isn't sufficiently founded or explained; in practice it relies on what the Milosevic propaganda invented more than two years ago. And the propaganda kept saying that America and her obedient allies wish to enslave the brave and honest Serbian nation that stands up as an obstacle on America's road to enslaving the entire world. A thesis obviously too idiotic to be accepted by anyone with any brains whatsoever. Yet, the propaganda went on for a long time and left deep traces in the minds of the people.
This is why you so seldom hear anyone in Serbia say publicly that Milosevic and his political gangsters were the main reason for the bombing and its main target as well. Neither did the new authorities have sufficient courage to finally demystify this topic. They acted as if it were too risky to re-examine Milosevic's propagandic patriotism just now. So the entire question was somehow pushed under the rug. It seems that everyone feels most comfortable just forgetting it and acting as if the bombing never happened. At some later time literature will probably come round to it and remind us, and explain what really happened. I think literature will find its real topics more on the "ground", in the destinies of dictators and their subjects, then in the "skies", among the NATO aircraft.
3AM: Could you present your forthcoming issue on Milosevic and war crimes ("Long Journey Through Dark Times")?
DV: It's a very ambitious project, and I think we will realize it only next year. There are two reasons for us to devote a double issue of Biblioteka Alexandria to Milosevic and war crimes. For one thing, to provide a solid data-base for those who wish to study this topic or are in some way interested in the period of Milosevic's power in Serbia. Simultaneously, to analyze the books on Milosevic and war crimes and thus to reveal the true nature of a totalitarian regime and its effects not only on social and political events, but also on the consciousness of the people. The analysis can probably help us to better understand the contradictions of those dark times in the Balkans. This project is large and ambitious for the simple reason that such books are many, and new volumes appear daily. For instance, just now we have obtained a book in manuscript written by an author who once was a close associate of Milosevic, and we wish to include it into our analysis, too.
3AM: Has Serbian fiction changed much since the fall of Milosevic? Could you mention some of the most interesting Serbian writers today?
DV: Literature hasn't changed much since Milosevic went away. The writers are still the same, but literary life has changed. Literary criticism is different, public opinion and the reception of literature are different. Good writers find it easier to breathe now, as we all do. There are good and interesting writers in all generations, from the young ones like Slobodan Ilic, Vladimir Arsenijevic, Srdjan Valjarevic and Igor Marojevic, to old ones such as and Milorad Pavic who keeps writing good, interesting books.
3AM: Do you only publish articles in English on the website or do they also appear in the print version of the magazine? What sort of balance are you aiming at?
DV: At the moment we publish our English-language texts only in the online edition of the magazine. These are mostly the works of English-language authors, plus a few texts by Serbian authors that we translate into English. Our goal is to make our online editions completely bilingual. Also we intend to start publishing English texts on paper, at least as special issues. The ultimate goal is total bilinguality and our presence in the markets of other countries. Recently we initiated establishing a Biblioteka Alexandria USA in Washington to work on further developing Alexandria's international horizons.
3AM: Tell us about your book Amor Mundi: True Stories.
DV: It's a collection of very short, true stories about the days of bombardment and martial law in Belgrade from March to June 1999. The book is more about the state-of-war -- censorship, dictatorship, the terror of the secret police -- than about the bombardment itself. A shortened Serbian-language version of Amor Mundi was published by Alexandria Press, while the complete English edition, with the foreword by Nicholas Jose, was published by the Australian publishing house Common Ground. Fragments from the book have been published in magazines in Austria, England, Hungary and Croatia. One of the stories from this collection is included in the Italian anthology of Serbian contemporary writing entitled Casablanca Serba, soon to be published by the Feltrinelli publishing house in Milan, Italy. In his review of Amor Mundi the Australian writer Tom Shapcott wrote that it is "a book about courage . . . and a sense of humour as well as a sense of outrage". I'd like him to be right at least about the humour part.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
was born in Yugoslavia in 1947. Between 1993 and 1997 he edited leading Serbian weekly NIN
. In 1998, he launched Biblioteka Alexandria
, the first important literary journal in Serbia and the publishing house Alexandria Press
. He has written numerous reviews, essays and short stories. His latest book is Amor Mundi
, a collection of short stories about life in Serbia during the NATO air raids of 1999. One of Dusan Velickovic's short stories will soon be published in 3am Magazine