Andrija Matic’s Interview in E-Novine (January 2014)Interviewed by Dragoljub Stankovic
Andrija Matić talks about his novel A Blackout in Five Images, which is in many ways unique in contemporary Serbian fiction. It is hard to single out all the qualities of this provocative novel, but one thing is for sure – Andrija Matic masterly depicted recent history of Kragujevac through the ordeal of a family whose members, in fact, just wanted to live their lives normally.
It is usually said that if the Dublin disappeared in a catastrophe, it could be easily reconstructed on the basis of Joyce’s Ulysses. In a manner of speaking, you have built a literary monument to your hometown. I cannot recall similar examples in Serbian literature. When reading your novel, we can find a lot of interesting facts about culture, people, and way of living in the town of Kragujevac. What was your intention in this regard and are you satisfied with the outcome?
Much before I became an author, I had thought that the history of Kragujevac had a great literary potential. In XIX century, it was the capital of Serbia. During the Second World War, the biggest and most heinous crime in this region was committed in Kragujevac. After the war, there were also interesting people and events, though the general public might not be familiar with them. However, while I was writing the novel, my intention was not just to give a historical record of Kragujevac, but primarily to use the past as a basis for creating a new literary world. Of course, it is up to the readers to decide whether I was successful or not.
Speaking of Joyce, epiphanies are very important for the characterization of Milan, Milos, Vedran and Jovana. Their function is to describe a spiritual connection among the major characters, since they have never met each other. I am talking about the sense of harmony, sometimes a premonition too, that comes to them at critical moments of their lives and it is beyond empirical reality. Their lives are marked by extreme turmoil and this fleeting harmony is a counterpoint of sorts. Those characters have the same physical problems, too. Where did you draw the inspiration from – literature or your own life?
The epiphanies are very important for understanding the major characters. It is a gift that connects them, though they are not aware of that. Their epiphanies are ironic because the characters do not understand what is happening to them, nor are they capable of making conclusions that could help them deal with all the humiliations, defeats, and suffering. Unlike Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who, after experiencing epiphanies, rejects almost everything he has considered valuable up to that moment and decides to follow his artistic instinct, my characters realize that something important is happening to them, but they are not able to define it. Physical pain connects them too. The suffocations in Milos, Vedran, and Jovana evoke everything that Milan Lazovic had gone through before he was killed along with his colleagues and students. But suffocation can be a metaphor of anxiety that my characters, as outcasts, feel in their own lives, the anxiety that, at the end of the day, arises in anyone who comes into conflict with the majority.
The atmosphere in the occupied Kragujevac is portrayed extremely realistically, with German soldiers, Serbian quislings, Nada Naumovic’s rebellious act, the frightening atmosphere in the barracks where people cannot come to terms with the fact that something terrible is going to happen, because at that moment it seems unthinkable. Their personalities change, they collapse, and everybody talks from their own point of view. The actions of Yugoslav secret service are very well described too. In what way did the documents listed at the end of the novel help you feel confident about the narration?
I could have never described all the historical periods without those documents. As regards the events from 1941, one book was particularly important to me – Oni su nas ubijali (published posthumously) by Svetislav M. Maksimovic. A high school teacher and poet, he was arrested on 20 October, 1941, and he was supposed to be shot together with other citizens, but German soldiers let him go the following day because at that moment, according to their calculations, they had killed “enough” people. Bearing in mind that he spent the entire day and night in the barracks, his testimony is priceless. I would also like to mention Ime i broj, a book by Stanisa Brkic in which he summarized his extensive research on the events before, during, and after the massacre in Sumarice. As for the period after the Second World War, I used the articles from “Politika” and “Svetlost”, a weekly that had been a landmark of Kragujevac journalism for years. It is there, for example, that I found a lot of data on the activities of the secret service, and only a small portion ended up in the novel. The interior of the mental institution in the village of Male Pcelice from 1993 is based on two reports from “Svetlost”. However, as I have mentioned earlier, I used all the historical documents to build a context for the stories on predominantly fictitious characters. Except for Marisav Petrovic, Nada Naumovic, and Svetislav Maksimovic, other characters are fictitious, including the students and teachers of the First Grammar School.
One of the leitmotifs in the novel is Novalis, a German poet who the family members are connected with, each in his or her own way, and that connection is both ironic (the first chapter of the novel is entitled “Eternal Night”) and tragic. While waiting to be killed by the army of the nation to which this poet belongs too, Milan Lazovic tests Novalis’s immense idealism and realizes that it is useless. Jovana considers Novalis the only true poet and consoles herself with his “pain full of rage”. We could say that for the entire family, whose suffering was caused by their wish to love freely? Is Novalis your favorite poet or was he just a counterpoint in the novel?
Novalis is not my favorite poet, but he influenced some of my ideas about literature and art in general. That paradoxical blend of yearning for death and extreme idealism, which I have found in Novalis’s poetry, marks the lives of all the major characters in the novel. They suffer without seeing any point in it, but nevertheless they continue to live, to fight, though they are aware that in such a battle they could never win. The phrase “eternal night” from a Novalis’s poem defines best the plot in the first part of the novel. It unites the atmosphere in the barracks, the evil that forces German soldiers to kill innocent people, the dark side of Lazovic’s personality which he discovers too late, when nothing could be changed, and many other ideas that the readers will have no difficulties in finding.
You emphasize the dominant ideology and its variations in former Yugoslavia, especially in schools among the youngsters. The ideology influences the viewpoints and is often the primary cause of misunderstandings, discrimination, violence, evil. The young communist’s monologue in the occupied Kragujevac during the WWII is as dangerous as the communist rhetoric in the Yugoslavia of 1954, when the youngsters want to suppress comic books, jazz, and even “inappropriate” clothing, which is very hard to believe, while the madness of the nineties, cemented at the beginning of the new millennium, looks quite real. Can we ever get out of those cycles of hatred in which the elites have kept us for centuries or, following the plotline of the novel, you do not feel it could happen in the near future?
The ruling ideology has always profoundly shaped the lives in the Balkans. The majority has always bullied the minority and that pattern will not change in the near future. The scene in which the members of the National Youth (nowadays a forgotten organization, but at that time highly active, especially in schools) criticize comic books, jazz and “inappropriate” clothes is based on the texts I have found in the “Svetlost”. You would be surprised to know what can be found in then newspapers. For example, during the so-called Trieste Crisis, the newspaper listed the names of “traitors” and their home addresses. There are even more bizarre stories. I have found a story on a peasant woman who told the Communist Party’s committee that she was persecuted by her late husband. As regards your question, everybody who has read my novel Manhole knows that I am not an optimist, not because I am a pessimist by nature, but because I do not see any sign that this can be a normal country in the near future.
A Blackout in Five Images is an exceptional novel in our literature for several reasons. One of them is the change in the register based on different epochs, by which the atmosphere of those epochs is evoked instantly. It made your book dynamic, surprising, unpredictable, obviously giving genuine pleasure to both the reader and writer. What do you think about those changes in the register?
I put a lot of effort into making the register changes. In my novel, you can find the register that was characteristic of Kragujevac before the Second World War (it is mostly based on the articles from “Odjek Šumadije”, a newspaper issued regularly until 8 April, 1941, which means two days after Belgrade had been bombed), the language of communist propaganda in the 50s, the rhetoric of Serbian nationalists in the 90s, modern cyber terminology… It is quite natural to use different registers so as to describe different historical periods. I hope they will help the readers understand all the epochs better.
One of the themes in your novel is the life of gay population in our region. You described their lives in different ideological situations. It is a pleasant surprise for a reader who is fed up with literary clichés. It is usually said that a good writer can be seen when writing about love, for it is very easy to slip into banality. The love scenes in your novel are outstanding, whether you write about straight or gay people, as well as the whole context in which different people are constantly discriminated. Do you think their life will change in Serbia?
I cannot believe that in Serbia a small, peaceful group of people lives under constant threat from lynching and humiliations of all kinds and that it is not a theme in Serbian literature. I can understand that in a backward, patriarchal country the majority terrorizes minority – it has always been a main pattern of behavior in the Balkans – but what I cannot understand is that Serbian writers do not consider that as, at least, an interesting subject matter. Of course, this is not the only “proscribed” topic in our literature. The war crimes committed by Serbs in the 90s (either by the Yugoslav Army or paramilitaries) and the madness of Serbian Orthodox Church are mentioned in very few novels. On the other hand, Serbia has powerful literary machinery which ignores or even stigmatizes the authors willing to write about those topics. I don’t think the position of gay people in Serbia will change soon. Whenever they try to organize a protest, there will be a huge number of right-wing thugs and latent homosexuals who will do their best to stop them.
Now, allow me to express my doubt about the love affair between Milos and Katarina. It is exciting and functions well, but still, how realistic is the relationship between an ex-convict and the wife of a mayor, the man who used to be a local secret service chief and who will have him executed? Apart from their genuine wish to find a right person and settle down, that relationship seems to be doomed to failure because later on it boiled down to sex, which is more a manipulation of a lover than a path towards long-term relationship. Isn’t it a careless game in an extremely serious environment?
In their relationship, both of them feel real love for the first time. Milos’ former relationships were hampered by his homosexual experience and fear that someone might discover he had been in prison. On the other hand, Katarina has married a sadist and in the relationship with Milos she discovers what she could not find in her marriage. During their untypical sexual adventures, Katarina, being an actress, develops her talent again, while Milos, apart from taking revenge on the man who sent him to prison, finds peace he has been longing for. However, since all the relationships sooner or later become monotonous and since one partner always tends to dominate over the other, Milos and Katarina go through similar problems. They are too elated by that new feeling to think about the long-term goals. It might be risky and careless, but I think it is realistic.
Your book summarizes the evil in the history of this region, particularly referring to the outcasts. The Roma people, intellectuals, left-wing activists, minorities of all kinds, as well as other people who choose to resist ideological pressure – all of them suffer. It is ironic that in 1941, the citizens of Kragujevac are killed by the quislings, while in the 90s the quislings come back on the nationalist wave. History is not a life’s teacher, it is a killer? That was masterly depicted through the violence of the 90s. Vedran Bozovic’s rebellion, just like the rebellion of his father, whom he has never met, is doomed to failure in our context. Can you tell me something more about the generation of those more or less normal youngsters? Vedran, who plays in a hard-core band Wasteland, resembles the author of this book? Is the dark, heavy music he listens to rather the result of local despair than a global phenomenon and can you compare the generation born in 75 -78 to the earlier ones?
Vedran is a fictitious character, but you can say that his thinking is similar to mine in the early 90s. The music he listens to was very popular in my crew at that time. As a matter of fact, all those bands were popular not only in our country, but primarily in the States and Western Europe. For Vedran, it is the music of rebellion and a way to express his otherness. I cannot say in what way the generation born in the 70s is different than the earlier ones, but I can make a comparison to the youngsters in the present. As I recall, in the 90s, a vast majority of the guys listened to folk music and idolized criminals, the girls wanted to become models or marry a “controversial” businessman, and a very small number of people did not follow that pattern. Today’s youngsters are not much different than the youngsters in the 90s. They might be even worse. Contrary to popular belief that young people are always progressive, I think that the youth is the most primitive part of Serbian society, and that scares me, because some of them might come to power in the near future and we could get a new Milosevic or Seselj who will lead us to another insane war adventure.