Category Archives: Balkans

1934 stroll from the Iron Gate to Istanbul

I am not a member of the Sir Patrick Michael Leigh (“Paddy”) Fermor, DSO, OBE (1915-2011) cult, though I readily stipulate that he had pluck and extensive culture. Decades after his stroll from the Netherlands to Istanbul (which like many Greeks he continued to call “Constantinople”) that took from 8 December 1933 to1 January 1935 and mostly without notes or diaries, he published two books about the trip and worked on a third. The third was put together by Colin Tiburon and Artemis Cooper. It has a baroque style, except for the appended diary of his later first trip to Mount Athos.

I suspect that the 18-19-year-old had not been as virulently anti-Ottoman as the author of The Broken Road was. The Greek nationalist fanaticism and unremitting denigration of Turks mars the book.

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It also has other major problems of organization (wildly digressive) and believability. I do not believe he could have remembered so many details 25-75 years earlier, and his disquisitions on history surely owe much to later reading. I don’t doubt he went where he says he went (much lengthening the trip by swinging from Plovdid in central Bulgaria to the Romanian capital of Bucharest). Nor do I doubt that he cadged off scores of Romanians and Bulgarians, including impoverished peasants as well as Romanian (and, earlier, Hungarian) aristocrats. I find his sense of entitlement to being fed and sheltered very off-putting. His outrage that some Bulgarians would not give him a free ride shows particularly clearly his exploitativeness. (He does sometimes mention unease at others paying for all his meals and drinks, though the reader cannot be sure if he felt this is 1934 or decades later looking at the record of his reliance on the kindness of strangers that exceeded that of Blanche DuBois).

Fermor worked on the manuscript into his 90s. I find the portrait of his 19-year-old self suspect. There is hardly anything about the target of the long walk (with at least one train trip, and lots of rides), not even what is Byzantine in Istanbul, let alone its mosques, Topkapi Palace, and the waterways within its boundaries.

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The parts that most interested me were about his visit to Rustchuk (Russe, Bulgaria on the Danube) and his extended stay (sponging in both cities) in Bucharest. He documented the rabid anti-Semitism of the Romanians (pp. 148-52).

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(interior of Kretzulescu Church in Bucharest, showing typical decoraiton of every inch)

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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The Gorilla Bathes at Noon

“The gorilla bathes at noon” (Gorila se kupa u podne,1993) is not set in Africa. It has a stubborn non-conformist whose verities have banished at its center. A Soviet major, Victor Borisovich, who had been hospitalized (like the devoutly communist mother in “Goodbye, Lenin”) finds that his army has deserted him in Berlin. He remains in dress uniform and he remains loyal to Lenin, not only cleaning a gigantic statue of Lenin, but dreaming of his sort-of-girlfriend in Lenin drag. (There is footage of a Lenin statue being decapitated and the head trucked away. There is also footage of Stalin visiting Berlin recently conquered by the Red Army and other footage from the 1949 Soviet propaganda film/documentary “The Fall of Berlin.”

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The major has access to the Berlin Zoo, steals food intended for the animals, and considers (dreams?) of feeding himself to his compatriots, the zoo’s Siberian tigers, except that neither tiger had ever been in Siberia: one was born in Stüttgart, the other in Budapest.

The sex and the music are muted in contrast to Makavejev’s Yugoslavian films (back when he was allowed to make them). There’s still plenty of comedy of the absurd in “Gorilla.”

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In the other communist founding father veneration film (Tito and Me), I don’t know if the family is Serbian or Croatian. I suspect that instead of speaking Russian, the actors in “Gorilla” are speaking Serbo-Croatian. The abandoned  major is played by “Yugoslav stage actor Svetozar Cvetkovic”) and the film is directed by Dusan Makavejev (director of “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” and “Montenegro”), who may now be German, but was Yugoslav before that was a code word for Serbian. (He was born in Belgrade in 1932.)

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

Rats, sexologists, and switchboard operators

I was bored by Dusan Makavejev’s 1967 “Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator“ (Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.), one of the three movies in the Criterion Eclipse “” Makavejev: Free Radical” set. I assumed that the sexologist, Dr. Aleksandar Kostich, who natters frequently between scenes of the crime was a fictional parody, but, apparently, he was real, a cinematic objet trouvé. I don’t know if one could say the scenes of baking are documentary or not, but those of political rallies are.

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The Turkish sanitation expert Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudić) who picks up Izabela (Eva Ras) who is out on the town (/prowl) her fellow switchboard operator (Ruzica Sokić) is charged with exterminating the gray rat population — a species that was introduced to wipe out black rats (like the mongeese of Hawai’i). It is impossible not to suspect that the dueling rat populations are a Metaphor for human politics in a land where communists supplanted Nazis.

The alien (Turk) is a suspect in the murder of Izabela, not least in that her corpse is found in his subterranean workplace (the sewers). Another suspect is the mailman (Miodrag Andric) who gave her rides to work and hit on her incessantly—and when Ahmed was away on business for a month overcame her resistance.

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The whodunit aspect obviously did not much interest Makavejev. Clearly, he was aiming to preach against sexual repression (even before “W.R.: Mysteries of the Orgasm”), but the main romance has none of the quirky charm of even the generally cold-blooded Rainer Fassbiner’s (1974) “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” centering on a Muslim male and an eastern European female.

Ahmed does install a bathtub for Izabela, which introduces a theme taken up again in “The Gorilla Bathes at Noon.”.

 

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

Body-builder showing off in 1942 and 1968

The question is whether ‘Nevinost bez zastite” (Innocence Unprotected), the documentary Dusan Makavejev (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism; Montenegro; The Gorilla Bathes at Noon) made about/incorporating the first talkie shot in “Yugoslavian” (Serbian and Croatian use different scripts, but these inscribe the same spoken language) the 1942 ‘Nevinost bez zastite,” written, produced and directed by, and starring acrobat/bodybuilder/strongman Dragoljub Aleksic (1900-85) is one strange movie — or two strange movies intercut together.

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The 1942 melodrama has the creakiness of a particularly hokey silent-movie or Victorian play melodrama, except that the damsel in distress, Nada (Ana Milosavljevic) — on whom a rich man ((Bratoljub Gligorijević) is being pressed by a stereotypical wicked stepmother (Vera Jovanovic-Segvić) — is in love with Akrobata Aleksic, and when she speaks of his exploits, records of Aleksic’s daring feats are cut in. Hanging by his teeth from an airplane flying over Belgrade is not the most spectacular of these. (Hey! I have to leave something for the viewer to discover!)

In 1968, Aleksic remained a flamboyant exhibitionist, ready and more or less able to repeat some of his shows of strength. Other cast members (including both the female leads) gather at the grave of a departed one to picnic and reminisce. Makavejev splices in some maps of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, some WWII documentary footage, and large chunks of the 1942 movie.

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It seems that Aleksic and his brother intended to show their movie only after the war, but it did show in Belgrade during the war, which led to postwar charges of collaboration, though both were partisans (guerilla fighters against the Nazis) and even in the “right” partisan faction (the victorious communist one). Though filmed without any official permission, the theatrical release in Belgrade had at least implicit Nazi approval.

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The movie is part of a Criterion Eclipse (barebones) collection “Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical” with two earlier, also short movies shot in Tito’s Yugoslavia: “Man Is Not A Bird” (1965) and “Love Affair” (1967). “Innocence Unprotected” is like its immediate predecessor and “WR” in mixing found footage, documentary, and little narrative.

I’d actually like to know more about what people other than Aleksic thought of the 1942 movie in general and in using the (main) Yugoslavian language in particular, though I knew better than to expect any straightforward documentary from Makavejev. An idiosyncratic collage of “documentary” footage and fiction, much of the movie holds together because of the strength of ego (one completely unjustified by his film-making skill) of Dragoljub Aleksic. Aleksic is the kind of delusional larger-than-life character who would appearl to Werner Herzog, someone also more than willing to blur the fiction/documentary line.

What he shot and spliced together is only fitfully interesting, but is probably more interesting to someone more familiar with the 20th-century history and culture of the Southern Slavs (and I think that I am more familiar with these than most North Americans who are not of Southern Slav ancestry). The 1942 movie is now the first Serbian movie, I guess.

©2009, Stephen O. Murray

 

The most recent collection of essays by Josip Novakovich

Having caught up with the most recent collection of short stories by the Croatian-American-Canadian master Josip Novakovich (1956), Heritage of Smoke, I realized I had missed a collection of his essays, the provocatively titled Shopping for a Better Country. The country in which he was born, Yugoslavia, no longer exists. His hometown Daruvar, was significantly damaged by Serbian/Slavonian military/paramilitary forces during the early 1990s. Novakovich had been going to college in the Serbian city of Novi Stad before going (legally at both ends) to the US in 1976, gradually choosing English… and raising American kids.

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He traveled back to Croatia, as well as teaching in Moscow and Berlin. He took up a position at Concordia University, an Anglophone university in Montréal in 2009. He does not write about Canada or the decision to move there in Shopping, nor much about his third of a century in the US.

The book includes pieces on Vukovar, North Africa, Hungary, Berlin, Russian customs (which refused to allow his son’s cello—or either of the bows for it—back out of the country), and writers’ tombs (in Prague and Paris. There is a very moving, lengthy essay about his mother (Ruth) and her death, a more abstract (and shorter) one on fathers. Having grown up a Baptist in a communist country, and as someone with mixed ancestry (in the most Czech town in Croatia) Novakovich is keenly aware of the tyranny of the majority and attuned to the censorious of small town ethnocentrism in which people seek ways to isolate and ostracize anyone who is different from the majority.

(Vukovar water tower, Oct. 2017 photo by SM)

I found “Why I Can’t Write Erotica” especially insightful about the straitjacket heterosexual male writers now try to write in. “Two Croatias” also communicates much about how Croatians are (mis)perceived. Being a fellow lover of trains, I am saddened by the demise of the Balkan Express (and the Orient Express). And I have seen the still raw damages of Vukovar a decade after the visit about which Novakovich wrote herein. I don’t agree with him about “friendship addiction,” though he has much of interest to say about male competitiveness in his essay on the subject. And the memoir of childhood coughing was unsettling, especially since I was coughing while reading it (though I doubt from tuberculosis).

The book does not proceed in chronological order through the author’s life, or, indeed, in any particular order I can detect. I guess that means the whole is less than the sum of the parts, but many of the parts are masterful and there is much (fairly dark) humor throughout the volume along with recordings of pain, particularly ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia — not exculpating the Croatian fascists’ treatment of Serbs during the Second World War or either Croatian or Serbian war criminals in the wars for independence of Croatia and Bosnia. Kosovo (and Macedonia) don’t figure here, not that there is any lack of atrocities in earlier conflicts!

 

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Internalizing hatred for one’s “kind”

Having read parts of the 1935-44 journal of surviging in Belgrade that Mihail Sebastian (né, Iosif Mendel Hechter, 1907-45) makes it even more difficult to regard his 1934 De două mii de ani, just translated by Philip O Ceallaigh as For Two Thousand Years, as a novel. The narrative voice is the same, and the lack of plot or even much narrative continuity makes 2000 feel more like a journal than a novel.

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It’s not that nothing happens, particularly early on, in 1923 when violence against Jewish students is routine at the University of Bucharest and the narrator is under the spell of a young lecturer on economic history (with a penchant for proto-fascist promotion of Romanian “blood” and the dangers of corruption by Jews), Ghiţă Blidaru, based on Nae Ionescu who wrote a rabidly anti-Semitic foreword to the first edition of the book. It is this teacher who convinced the narrator to leave the liberal arts program and become an architect. (This is fiction; Sebastian became a lawyer, not an architect.)

The narrator goes on to help build an oil well/refinery and, after two years of study in Paris, returns to build a villa with a terrace above the Danube. Anti-Semitism is back on the rise in Romania. It is surprising that Sebastian survived the holocaust and WWII—only to be run down by a truck on the way to the first class he was going to teach, on Balzac, in 1945. The diary of fascist times was not published until 1996, when it was “greeted” with renewed bursts of anti-Semitism in Romania.

The novel was not published in English until 2016. (The diary was published in the UK in 2001, in the US in 2012.) Its interest is more for documentation of Romanian fascism and of the psychopathology of self-hatred than as a novel, even a novel of consciousness. It was published in association with the US Holocaust Museum.

I think there is too little Bildung for it to be a Bildgunsroman: rather than growth, it documents flight from very pain-giving reality, following attempts by the narrator(/author) to understand the virulent hatred for Jews.

“I was expecting signs in the street—and there was nothing in the street but confusion, the fog of stupidity, intoxication. So I took refuge in intellectual problems, which cast no light, but gave me consolation.” (109)

“It was difficult to follow the progressive hardening of enity from one day to the next. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded on all sides, and have no idea how or when it happened. Scattered minor occurrences, gestures of no great account, the making of casual little threats. An argument in a gram today, a newspaper article tomorrow, a broken window after that. These things seem random, unconnected, frivolous. Then, one finr morning, you feel unable to breathe.” (209)

… And this was published in 1934. Things were going to get far worse, especially during the Iron Guard pogroms! (The reader knows this, though the author back then did not.)

For me, the most interesting character is an itinerant seller of books in Yiddish, Abraham Sulitzer, who has a passionate speech about Yiddish as a living language (nor a corrupt dialect of German, nor the attempted reincarnation of Hebrew outside synagogues):

“real Yiddish is a living, breathing language. Millions of Jews speak it, millions live through it. For these millions are printed the books uou see, for those million Yiddish is written, translations are made into Yiddish, and Jewish theater ir performed. It is a complete world, a complete people with itw own elite…. There are Yiddish novelists, poets, critics and essayists… The edgy, gritty urban realism of the ghetto and the mysticism of the synagogue unite in this folk-culture of the Jewish neighborhood.” (83)

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The narrator is convinced Jews are assimilating into national cultures, including Romanian. He rejects Zionism and Marxism, each having a representative advocate among his agemates (Sami Winkler and S.T. Haim, respectively). Most of the book is very talky. I doubt I would have read even the first part if I had had something else to read with me, though I finished the book later, at home.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

A new collection of often harrowing, sometimes very funny stories by Josip Novakovich

I think that Croatian-Canadian author Josip Novakovich (1956-) is the greatest living writer of short stories. He has also published powerful collections of essays and what I consider The Great Croatian Novel, April Fool’s Day.

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This high esteem does not mean that I like everything he writes. Indeed, I hated the last story in his 2017 collection Heritage of Smoke, “In the Same Boat,” the only one not set in Europe or North America (but on the Pacific Ocean south of the US/Mexico border). And I didn’t much like the penultimate story, ‘Remote Love,” which centers on inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), who was born in a Serbian village in what is now Croatia (but then was part of the Hapsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire), attended high school in German in Karlovac, which is also now in Croatia, moved on to Vienna, Prague, and, eventually New York, where Novakovich’s story is set.

Enough about stories I disliked. I think that “Acorns” is a great work, centering on a UN translator who is disgusted by the complicity with Serbian genocide of the UN “peacekeepers,” has very harrowing adventures as a prisoner of a Serbian unit, and after finding her husband who has come searching for, spends months in a Bosnian unit. Living in the aftermath of rape is one important aspect of the story—not just for Ana.

The title story, which centers on an unexpected inheritance is the funniest story in the collection. The humor is not entirely dark, as, for instance that in “White Mustache” is. It recalls brothers who were swept up (drafted) by opposing forces during WWII, the fascist Utashas who outdid the Nazis in atrocities, and the anti-fascist partisans (chetniks). Both militias forced young men into their ranks (as later, in El Salvador). Let’s say that the narrator learns why his elderly relatives believe in ghosts…

“Be Patient” in which a child is overdosed with experimental (American) measles vaccine and gets her wish to adopt a dog only posthumously. “Dutch Treat” is an example of the maxim “No good deed goes unpunished,” when a Dutchman named Martin who had been among the UN “peacekeepers” unknowingly aided Serbians (Army of Srpska) to massacre Croatians at Srebrinca in 1995. In New York City he meets a man who remembers him from there and then. His aid gets him in very serious trouble in NYC.

“When the Saints Come” is more typical American short story fare about the dissolution of a marriage, though set mostly in Jerusalem. “Eclipse Near Golgotha” goes back the crucifixion of Christ, focusing on the unrepentant thief crucified beside Jesus. “The Wanderer” grew up in East Jerusalem and passes through Croatia.

“Strings” is a mock-heroic tale of multi-ethnic (Russian, Swiss-French, Croatian) students exterminating a rat. Soccer hooliganism provides a background for some more very dark humor in Ideal Goalie” and the sardonic, surprising “Crossbar,” which also involved grizzly bears given the Zagreb zoo by (Clinton-era) America.

There is a lot of displacement, a lot of wariness, more than a little violence in Novakovich’s stories. Though disdaining any objective history, the characters (OK, especially the Serbian ones) nourish ancient grudges against “Turks,” which they take out on Bosnian Muslims. (Bosnians converted to Islam during Ottoman times, but were not Turks.) This has continued with Albanian Kosovars (the vast majority of the people in Kosovo, though Serbs used to dominating everyone else within the Yugoslavia they claim to perpetuate as one region after another breaks loose).

Though I recommend stopping at page 182, there are alternately horrifying and moving stories before that point. In particular, I think that “Acorns” should have a very wide readership, by no means limited to those interested in what happened in Bosnia, since similar things continue to happen in “civil wars” in various places.

(BTW, after many years teaching in the US, the author of Shopping for a Better Country  moved on to Concordia University in Montréal in 2009.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray