Interview with Vladimir Arsenijević for Portal Novosti from Croatia

Vladimir Arsenijević presented his latest book “Duhovi” (Spirits) at this year’s Interliber in Zagreb. This book is the concluding part of the “Cloaca Maxima” tetralogy, which began with the novel “In the Hold” in 1994. In a conversation with Novosti from Croatia, Vladimir Arsenijević shares his insights into the similarities and differences in current affairs, the complex post-Yugoslav reality, the generational conflict, and the political future in Serbia.

By Branimira Lazarin

As a concept, the post-Yugoslav space exists in the realm of politics of the former Yugoslav states. It is invisible and unrecognized, yet existing. There won’t be a point where the cultural policy instance on either side of the border suddenly decides to have the same premise in cultural production.

Of course not. We’ve already seen that. You push a certain thing to a certain limit, and on top of that, you have a lot of public support. But when you hit the wall behind which it’s the pure domain of realpolitik in the Balkans, that’s it. It greatly irritated me when people approached us at the regional conference “Languages and Nationalisms” with a fake benevolence, saying something like, “Well, it’s ultimately an academic question, what does it matter.” Meanwhile, there was a rebellion of kids in Jajce where Bosniak and Croat children protested against educational segregation. Like, they use different languages, so they need to be separated, Bosniak kids in the morning and Croat kids in the afternoon in the same school. Who do you think you can fool in that way? Moreover, language is just a lever for a more dangerous nationalist manipulation carried out through the system of so-called national school subjects.

Nationalistic education principles have been internalized in Croatia since the 1990s, that’s the reality we live in. Luckily, the internet exists as a friend against the indoctrination system through the national curriculum, for example. What about the internalization of nationalism in the education system in Serbia?

I think today the experiences of Serbia and Croatia differ so dramatically that it reflects especially on how the younger generations are growing up. In Croatia – despite all the problems, which are not small, and the situation that is not ideal – there is more fresh air compared to Serbia. Croatia is much more open than today’s Serbia. It seems to me that, unlike Serbia, Croatia is becoming less inclined to perpetuate the bloody delusions of the past. Unfortunately, in Serbia, we have raised a terrifying generation. Of course, in that generation, there are phenomenal young people, that’s clear. But it’s essential to look at the bigger picture. The violence displayed on the walls of buildings, on the streets of Serbian cities. Thousands of murals and graffiti with the image of Ratko Mladić with the same self-replicating messages: Serbian hero, Serbian hero, Serbian hero…

You know that on May 3rd there was a mass murder committed by a thirteen-year-old boy in the elementary school “Vladislav Ribnikar.” I live near that school, and there are constantly burning candles, ten tree saplings have been planted in memory of the ten child victims. But on the school wall, right next to the entrance the boy used, there’s a huge inscription: “Grobari Vračar.” Grobari (Undertakers) is a hooligan group, a mafia, and also a state service engaged in the darkest activities. Always next to images of Ratko Mladić and other hate-filled and chauvinistic graffiti, you can find the initials “GV.” Across the school entrance, there used to be a mural with Vladimir Putin’s face, a few meters away in the park “Mitićeva rupa” with a view of the children’s playground, there was a huge graffiti that read “When the army returns to Kosovo.” A hundred meters away, there was the famous mural of Ratko Mladić, and he cast such a shadow on all others that almost no one noticed that right next to him there used to be – and it’s not there anymore – a mural of Draža Mihailović. And what do you expect? What’s happening in children’s minds? It has always been problematic for me to say, “aha, Serbia is five, ten years behind Croatia.” It was too complex; it couldn’t be expressed with such a straightforward comparison. But today! Those are indeed two different paths. Which again doesn’t speak highly of Croatia but speaks very poorly of Serbia.

What then connects us?

Popular culture. I can have my oiwn opinions about any representatives of the music scenes, television productions, and all kinds of trash produced. Trash is sticky on a regional level and does what different idealisms fail to resolve. For example, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when we were traveling around the region. We started from Belgrade, saw a billboard: “Aca Lukas, Belgrade Arena, the biggest party in the Balkans.” We came to Sarajevo, saw a billboard: “Aca Lukas, Skenderija Hall, the biggest party in the Balkans.” In Zagreb, I’m looking at a billboard: “Aca Lukas.” When we went to Ljubljana, it said “Aca Lukas, Tivoli Hall, the biggest party.” But we are no longer in the Balkans, what is this? So, we can be as angry as we want, but the refreshing fact is collaboration and co-production, which guarantees distribution on a broader scale. And everything that can be expressed in numbers is actually phenomenal. No heroic principle is needed anymore. They do it because it simply pays off; there’s something that confuses me.

We did everything we could in the name of literary communication and a shared literary space to make things right. Nevertheless, regarding publishing, national publishing fiefdoms persist and are further strengthened. Serbian publishing and Croatian publishing, plus two colonies – Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they have a bit of autonomy in the publishing word, and Montenegro, which barely exists in this scene. It turns out that in these colonized environments, as a buyer, you can choose a book by one author in a fancy Croatian edition or a sloppy but more accessible Serbian edition. In Croatia and Serbia, you practically don’t have that privilege as a buyer, and the damage goes literally to everyone.

What is trash for our generation might not be the same for the younger generation. So, if there’s no place for identification, where does the qualified opinion on the trash culture of younger generations come from? And why bother forming an opinion at all?

The classic generation gap always manifests through some form of misunderstanding and fear of the new generations. We are sure we understand the context, but that true misunderstanding is expressed through astonishment. How is it possible for them to end up like that? In Croatia, this is formed through some kind of rebellion because it seems that what young people accept from the general Balkan cultural production will horrify their parents. In Serbia, it’s not like that. In a larger number of parents, it creates an additional link, an understanding between the formative way of parental and teenage culture. Parents were consumers of Ceca too. However, for me, everything is fine as long as that culture of chauvinism, ultranationalism, and everything behind the flood of such trash culture remains within a specific sensibility. But when I see, as I recently saw a girl barely thirteen years old wearing a T-shirt with the image of Draža Mihailović, everything in my worldview collapses. Or when boys dress up as Draža Mihailović for Halloween. What kind of irony would it be if a parent “helped” their child to dress up as Draža? Why would any child decide to dress up as any military leader from the past? Impossible.

Maybe it’s a clash of generations where the painful consequences are only felt by the older one, maybe it’s about a difference towards iconoclasm, maybe we’re exaggerating in analysis…

Yes, all of that is true. I’ve felt all of that on my own skin many times, raising my own children. Parents can experience everything painfully particularly because everything in Serbia is realized through political extremism. But I always repeat: it won’t help to talk about Serbia as we talk about the principles of the French New Wave. No, Serbia is a closed pressure cooker constantly simmering in its own sauce. For example, at the Belgrade Book Fair, Vojislav Šešelj comes, and a line of baby faced youth, boys who can’t be older than fifteen, waits for his autograph. So how did they even find out about the book of that villain? Simply because there’s a very strong energy on the right that the opposite side of the political spectrum in Serbia, if it exists at all beyond Facebook comments, can’t respond to. There is no counterbalance to all of that. That’s why we live in a totalitarian atmosphere that doesn’t allow even the smallest segment of a different opinion.

Then what makes sense to think about in terms of political future?

Rambo Amadeus once said: “If the choice is between Kurta and Murta, I’m for Murta.” It was humorous, but unfortunately, it doesn’t apply well to the current situation in Serbia. Murta doesn’t differ in any way from Kurta; you don’t have a classic political struggle of representatives of different ideologies but political circles of nationalists fighting among themselves for power.

So, a better question would be what not to expect after the upcoming elections.

Here’s what not to expect. Political change is not certain, but even if it happens, there’s no expectation of abandoning the fundamental prerogatives of contemporary Serbian politics. Namely, a strong anti-Western sentiment and simultaneously – although it’s directly related but could be abandoned at any moment – a strong pro-Russian sentiment. And of course, deep social conservatism nurtured at all levels.

If the tetralogy “Cloaca Maxima” is an insider’s view of the milieu and era from the 1990s onward, the final part of this “soap opera” could suggest a common epilogue – as a concept without resolution. This is not new; we are used to it…

For the narrator and protagonist of my book, there is no one left from the reality he lived. The past still breathes down his neck, and the future is not what he hoped for. His position is disheartening. Although the tetralogy is by no means autofiction, what my protagonist and I agree on is the fact that nothing has been resolved throughout the past thirty years. In a way – going back to the previous answer about the image of contemporary Serbia – all the same actors are at play. They flourish in an atmosphere of total amateurism; everything is fine and good for them. All the villains are still where they were. You send Šešelj to The Hague, and he returns even fatter and stronger. At the end of the book, you find my protagonist walking disheartened, like the last in a series of people who made up his life. The feeling of loneliness increases in the traces of the same old monsters.

Because you see, if in 2000 even the most hardcore nationalist in Serbia couldn’t deny what happened in Vukovar, Srebrenica, Goražde, in Kosovo, and elsewhere where horrific crimes were committed, the revisionist wave of the last twenty plus years has been so strong that it’s now possible to emotionally deny almost everything. It’s as if nothing ever happened. The percentage of young people around twenty years old who, according to published statistics, even know that something happened in Vukovar in 1991. is below one percent. That’s terrifying. You have simple, vulgarized emotional truths like, “Milošević defended the Serbian people.” Or “Ratko Mladić is a hero who defended the Serbian people.” Done, period. In Serbia, we live in an even worse social condition than it was in the 1990s when you at least had a polarized society. You could live on the principle of a small isolated island where the values you belong to are nurtured. That is now completely shattered.

And a coin always has two sides: globalized-relativized and the private, perhaps trapped by the idea of progress and the concept of resolution. How can we help ourselves?

I believe in micro-communities on different levels. The concept of resolution is a utopian idea that doesn’t materialize. I knew that less in the 1990s or early 2000s. Now I know that there is also an obligation to oneself, which one often forgets. The question of futility. Is it worth investing all these years in something that is the reality of Serbia at the turn from the 20th to the 21st century? What am I doing there, what have I contributed, except to intensify my own neuroses? Actually, ther reply is – nothing. And now I know that these private obligations are much stronger, much more important for me. I’m much more interested in creating an environment in which my child, with all her developmental challenges, can live grow up and live her life as well as possible. I don’t feel an obligation to anyone except for my own private life.