Having been out from under the beneficent yoke of academic tutelage for a little while, I’ve been left to my own devices to figure out what to read.
This has and has not been what you’d call a problem – not having multiple syllabi to guide me has hardly cut down on the number of books I buy, but it has more or less obliterated any semblance of An Approach to Literature.
But I realized after a time that as in life, so in reading lists – I needed to get some structure STAT or things were really gonna start unwinding. So I decided to focus my efforts, and after considering a few methodologies, I settled on a geographical approach.
First up is the Adriatic – the Western Balkans, plus some northern Italy, maybe an Austrian or two for good measure, since despite their distance from the actual sea, they did exert a bit influence at one time or another over the area. I’ll probably reach down into the Ionian for some contemporary Greeks and Sicilians, too, just to round things out.
So, if anyone has any Yugoslavian/Austrian/Greek author recommendations (besides Aleksandar Hemon), I’m all ears.
Anyway, the Adriatic to start. Specifically Bosnia, because I’ve always found the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 (which arguably provided the catalyst for the First World War) to be one the most interesting points in European history. What I know of it boils down to a string of facts. But recently I’ve become more interested in the stories that surround or transcend the various groups of facts that I know, the implications of the facts for the people who have to deal with them or the life they created, the impact of those facts on people’s psyches and on culture in general. One of the places to turn for this is literature, which is one of the reasons I developed my reading lists geographically – in the hope that maybe I can get a general sense of what life or some various fractions thereof are like in these places that have, in the course of voracious-news-consumption-modern-life, become places on the map where “victims” and/or “threats” are reported on by CNN.
Anyway, realizing that I have no real idea what life must have been like for Gavrilo Princip, the “Yugoslav nationalist” who shot Ferdinand and his wife, I started with a man of Princip’s place and age: Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslavian writer and winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Andrić was born in Travnik, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1892, about two years before and a hundred miles east of Princip. Back then, the whole area was “united” under the Ottoman Empire, though everyone – Bosnians, Serbs, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Crotas, Albanians, Macedonians, etcetera – knew who one another were and had been and would be again. Living side by side, often within the same “ethnicity,” were (are) Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. For some people, religion meant more than origin or language – for others, political worldview trumped any kind of ethnicity. This is the same in many places, of course – those of us who celebrate difference (like the US [ostensibly] does) consider it a strength of a country or region. But the cheek-by-jowlness of the mix in Yugoslavia seems more interesting because of the volatility involved – the volatility, and what Andrić called “the hatred.”
In his collection The Damned Yard and Other Stories, I hoped to get a feel for what early 20th century Bosnia must have been like. While there wasn’t that much insight into what might have compelled Princip, man, what a world Andrić paints. Myths and legends from the days of yore, rivalries and grudges centuries in the making, medieval rituals and modern thought carried out throughout the country, from tiny village to small town to big city.
Underneath it all, though – and this is the beauty of literature, the very reason why I read it – are things I recognize about my own life, my own circumstances, and my own prejudices. In particular, the following excerpt from “A Letter from 1920.” Andrić was very specific about his settings, so the fact that this was from 1920, a year and change after WWI officially ended, when Bosnia was licking its wounds and half-optimistically-dreaming-about and half-mortally-fearing-for the future, is rather important. It’s narrated by a man who runs into a childhood friend in a train station in the middle of the night, and from whom he gets a letter several weeks later. The friend is an emigré, a European who grew up in Bosnia but fled for a doctor’s life in France after WWI – was in the middle of fleeing the night he and the narrator ran into one another. Their meeting was strained, and the letter he wrote after was an attempt to clear things up. What follows is part of that letter, the crux of his explanation of why he couldn’t stay in Bosnia, why he felt compelled to abandon his homeland:
“Yes, Bosnia is a country of hatred. That is Bosnia. And by a strange contrast…it can also be said that there are few countries with such firm belief and elevated strength of character, so much tenderness and loving passion, such depth of feeling, of loyalty and unshakable devotion, or with such a thirst for justice. But in secret depths underneath all this hide burning hatreds, entire hurricanes of tethered and compressed hatreds maturing and awaiting their hour. The relationship between your loves and your hatred is the same as between your high mountains and the invisible geological strata underlying them, a thousand times larger and heavier. And thus you are condemned to live on deep layers of explosive which are lit from time to time by the very sparks of your loves and your fiery and violent emotion. Perhaps your greatest misfortune is precisely that you do not suspect just how much hatred there is in your loves and passions, traditions and pieties. And just as under the influence of atmospheric moisture and warmth, the earth on which we live passes into our bodies and gives them color and form, determining the character and direction of our way of life and our actions – so does the strong, underground and invisible hatred on which Bosnian man lives imperceptibly and indirectly enter into all his actions, even the very best of them. Vice gives birth to hatred everywhere in the world, because it consumes and does not create, destroys, and does not build; but in countries like Bosnia, virtue itself often speaks and acts through hatred. With you, ascetics derive no love from their asceticism, but hatred for the voluptuary instead; abstainers hate those who drink, and drunkards feel a murderous hatred for the whole world. Those who do believe and love feel a mortal hatred for those who don’t, or those who believe and love differently. And, unhappily, the chief part of their belief and love is often consumed in this hatred. (The most evil and sinister-looking faces can be met in greatest numbers at places of worship – monasteries, and dervish tekkes.) Those who oppress and exploit the economically weaker do it with hatred into the bargain, which makes that exploitation a hundred times harder and uglier, while those who bear these injustices dream of justice and reprisal, but as some explosion of vengeance which, if it were realized according to their ideas, would perforce be so complete that it would blow to pieces the oppressed along with the hated oppressors. You Bosnians have, for the most part, got used to keeping all the strength of your hatred for that which is closest to you. Your holy of holies is, as a rule, three hundred rivers and mountains away, but the objects of your repulsion and hatred are right beside you in the same town, often on the other side of your courtyard wall. So your love remains inert, but your hatred is easily spurred into action. And you love your homeland, you passionately love it, but in three or four different ways which are mutually exclusive, then come to blows and hate each other to death.”
I don’t want to say too much about this (shocker, I know) and risk spoiling it, but I can’t help but emphasize again that first sentence I bolded – “virtue itself speaks and acts through hatred.” How much like jihad and Fundamental Christianity and anti-choiceism and uber-American-nationalism does it sound to make a mortal sin out of something you don’t agree with? Andrić implies that there is another way to do things. I don’t know whether he thought people could change – he, or at least his letter-writer, certainly seems to think that Bosnia hatred is endemic – but for me, it’s enough to pause and wonder, how much of what I consider virtue is based on hatred or even dislike of that virtue’s opposite? I’d like to say none, but am I really as breezy as I like to think I am?
PS – There are some who say, apparently, that Andrić’s work is being dusted off and employed for anti-Muslim purposes. This I find very unsettling. It seems to me that, as this passage indicates, the vitriol he felt for his native country wasn’t directed at any one group of believers, but at the whole lot of them. If anything – and being the good Communist he was, this isn’t a stretch – he disagreed with people of all faiths, and used the various faiths of his homeland as vehicles by which to examine or expose the ridiculousness, the futility, the inherent malevolence of blind allegiance to anything.
Header image: archer10 (Dennis)