Interview with Vladimir Arsenijević for “Il Manifesto” from Italy

From a punk musician to an engaged writer… your life, not just literary, has always been firmly connected to the social and political events of the 20th and 21st centuries. Let’s start with your latest literary work „Cloaca Maxima“ which was finally published…

I started writing it thirty years ago, in the spring of 1991, when the Yugoslav army went to Slovenia to reclaim border areas and clashed with Slovenian border guards who didnt have an army because until then, we didn’t consider Slovenia a foreign country. That’s how the Balkan wars began. We were all completely taken aback. Watching this very familiar scene of Slovenian mountains and everything we recognized as our home, and then seeing people killed on the road, was completely shocking. I simply couldnt accept it; it made no sense to me. Among ourselves, we talked about a crisis, not a war.

We said, “Yes, somehow it will be resolved; in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, there was Gorbachev, the unification of Europe… Can we be that stupid?” It just didn’t seem logical to us. And then everything started unfolding, with conflicts between Croats and units of the then Yugoslav army, the destruction of Vukovar, and then Dubrovnik, which was completely unbelievable. I was simply shocked.

You began writing „In the Hold“ amid the sounds of gunfire…

In early 1992, Radio B92, very important for the cultural scene of young people, was against the war, urging people to write war stories. I was really motivated by all that. So, the first draft of „Cloaca Maxima“ came about, subtly coinciding with the first draft of “In the Hold“ my first novel, and I sent it to them. Meanwhile, the war started in Bosnia in early April. It was impossible for this to happen, I told myself; it was inconceivable that anyone would dare touch it because it was so fragile. Of course, I was mistaken again. And so the war flared up again… „In the Hold“ wasn’t included in the B92 anthology; all the other stories were genuinely related to real wartime situations. And I didn’t write as if I were in a trench, shooting at the enemy.

Is this your biography?

I wrote about a young couple supposedly living a normal life, carrying the burden of their demons and heroin addiction, and other irregularities of life in Belgrade, wanting to have a child while the war is raging and everything is being destroyed, and they can no longer reclaim their lives. And in that process of creation, I started thinking about what would happen afterward because it didn’t seem right for there to be a happy ending of giving birth while the tragedy is still ongoing. No, everything won’t be fine. Everyone knows that. And so I decided to call the novel „In the Hold“ and name the whole project four novels „Cloaca Maxima“ I added the subtitle soap opera because today we would probably call it a reality show or something similar. By writing a soap opera, I was presenting this exaggerated television representation of reality. I thought that what we were experiencing in very dark terms actually resembled a soap opera.

So, a work that began during the Balkan wars was finished during the second war in Ukraine? Can you tell me the common sentiment of Serbs towards the war in Ukraine?

Yes, I was still finishing writing „Cloaca Maxima“ when the war broke out in Ukraine. The sentiment of Serbs is very favorable towards Russia. Initially, pro-Russian views were almost 90%, and now they are less than 70%, but still two-thirds of society. When the war in Ukraine started, the headlines on the front pages were shocking, „Ukraine attacked Russia“ it said that on February 24, Ukraine crossed its border and attacked Russia, portraying Putin as a hero. The narrative is completely like that: Western countries bombed us in the 90s Russia never bombed us. Everything is simplified and absurd. About 200,000 Russian citizens came to Serbia, and then we have a significant Ukrainian diaspora of about 20,000 people. Ten Russians to one Ukrainian. Russian is heard everywhere. They come from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other big cities. Mostly educated people, people working in the IT sector or business people, but also a large number of LGBTQ individuals, activists against Putin, and pacifists in danger in Putin’s regime. They organized protests against the war, protests in front of the Russian embassy. We were very impressed by their civic courage because most of these people have to return to Russia after 30 days to renew their tourist visa, but they don’t want to stay in Russia or be arrested. Without the Russians, these anti-war protests in Belgrade would never have been organized.

With your KROKODIL association, you are involved in humanitarian actions, but also in strengthening dialogue and collaboration with Ukrainian writers.

We connected very much with the Ukrainian diaspora in Serbia. We not only collected humanitarian aid but also hosted Ukrainian writers in residence with the Writers in Exile program. Last year we had 11 people with their families directly from war zones. We opened the Ukrainian library at KROKODIL, bought 500 titles of contemporary Ukrainian literature, children’s books, translated texts, organized book lending, workshops for children, Serbian language classes. However, when we first started collecting humanitarian aid in March 2021, the number of people who decided to help was only six. Four were Serbs living abroad, and only two were from Serbia. When Ukrainian writer Andrii Ljubka asked me how much money I had collected from people in Serbia, I had to tell him 150 euros. I was ashamed. We were collecting money for a hospital in Kharkiv, a hospital for premature babies. People didn’t know how to react to it. Last summer, however, many more people joined and brought everything they could, diapers, food, warm clothing, and everything intended for the social center in the far east of Ukraine, rural population needing aspirin and diapers for the elderly. We do all this because we really want to help, but we also do it because we want to oppose revisionist and nationalist narratives in Serbia.

By Franco Ungaro