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30 May 12

Common Yugoslav Culture Transcends New Divisions

Predrag Matvejevic recalls his 18 years spend in exile, addresses the impact of nationalism and maintains that the former Yugoslav states should take more pride in being a part of a common culture.

Andrej Klemencic
BIRN Belgrade
Predrag Matvejevic at a festival dedicated to Miroslav Krleza | Photo by the organizers

“For 18 years I lived between asylum and exile to preserve the freedom of my own expression,” says Predrag Matvejevic, aged 80, recalling his years of absence from his home in France and Italy.

As the independence war continued in Croatia, in late 1992 Matvejevic walked to the mailbox in the ground floor of his building to find three bullet holes in it.

“I took that warning very seriously and left immediately, thinking I would come back in a short while and that Yugoslavia can’t disappear just like that. But it did and that short while became 18 years,” he adds.

During that time Matvejevic became a star of world literature with Mediterranean Breviary, published in 1987 lecturing on literature at the Sorbonne in Paris and at La Sapienza in Rome.

In 2001 he wrote "Our Taliban", a text condemning the role played by right-winged Croatian politicians and writers in the war.

He was sued, tried and sentenced in Croatia to five months' probation in November 2005. The legal dispute is still ongoing.

Matvejevic came recently to Belgrade to mark the Krleza festival, a month of cultural events dedicated to the famous Yugoslav writer.

Of all living Yugoslav intellectuals, Matvejevic knew Krleza most intimately, recording their conversations and turning them into a book.

“Krleza has not been around for 30 years but I almost feel his presence more strongly in Belgrade than in Zagreb,” he says.

In Belgrade, Krleza’s best-known drama, Glembajevi is performed at the Atelje 212 theatre with tickets sold out months in advance.

In Croatia, on the other hand, he became marginalised in the 1990s because his broad views and ideas were incompatible with the politics of the ruling Croatian Democratic Party, he notes.

“When I came back a few years ago I found chaos, but not as dangerous as it was in the 1990s,” he continues.

“The warriors had grown tired, but the state of war remained in the heads of many individuals.”

Matvejevic says that Krleza broadened the minds of Yugoslavs when it comes to their perception of their common culture.

“In terms of the language itself, Krleza remained faithful to his stand that Serbian and Croatian are one language, which the Croats call Croatian and Serbs call Serbian,” he explains.

“I advocate the idea that we have here one polycentric language. It has the same differences as exist between English in Canada and English in Australia.”

In Serbia, he notes, Krleza’s book “A Trip to Russia” was recently republished. He wrote it in the ekavska variation of the language, the version spoken in Serbia.

The man known as the Father of the Croatian Fatherland (Otac domovine) the 19th-century politician Ante Starcevic, wrote his works in ekavska variation, while Vuk Karadzic who is referred to as the father of Serbian language wrote in the ijekavska variation, which is today spoken in Croatia.

Asked what he thinks of people like the writer Mirko Kovac who began writing in ijekavica, then moved to Belgrade and switched to ekavica, and then returned to ijekavica on settling in Croatia, Matvejevic describes it as a quest for liberty within one language.

“When I taught Serbian authors at La Sapienza, I spoke the ekavska variation and when I lectured on Croatian literature, I used the ijekavska variation,” he recalls.

Asked if the Yugoslav nations have confined the language by nominally establishing several languages in several new nation states, he answers in the affirmative.

But people like Krleza and the Nobel prize-winner, Ivo Andric, go beyond such segmentations, he argues.

“I found the polemics about whether Andric is a Croatian, Serbian or Bosnian writer ridiculous. He is a great European writer whose work goes beyond our regional divisions,” he says.

“Perhaps we are entering the phase when we will be able to perceive each other’s artists affirmatively.

“Perhaps, the time is coming when we will grow out of petty, limited nationalist quarrels, concerning writers.”

He believes that the wars changed people’s general perception of politics, altering the traditional relationship between left and right.

“To short-sighted people, being a leftist in the Balkans means being Yugo-nostalgic. People forget that the Illyrian idea, which laid the foundations for Yugoslavia, came from Croatia, and that Zagreb had the Yugoslav Academy of Science and Arts,” he says.

“When you remind them of that, they say you are Yugo-nostalgic,” he concludes.

“After all that has happened, Yugoslavia as a country is no longer possible, but that does not mean its people should have bad relations.”

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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