Blesok no. 64, January-February, 2009

Where Do You Stand While You Create Your Work?

Jasna Koteska

For decades, in a trance we have been repeating to our students at literature classes a set mantra, that we have the best literature in the world. Still, when they open the world canon, our students see that our literature is nowhere to be found; so, we are lying to them. The world canon is not to blame that we are not part of it. They can hardly wait for literature that will be universally accepted, so that they sell it and study it. When I am asked at my literature classes: “Why should I read Kole Nedelkovski instead of Victor Hugo, I admit that have no esthetic, but rather a national response. But my students do not need such an answer. They already come as carriers of this culture, they do not need somebody to additionally rub their noses with the national issues. They only have honest questions if there is a Macedonian that would make them stay awake by five in the morning as Dostoyevsky does. What would you answer them?
    When I read that the reason that we are not in the world canon is that we have not been adequately translated, it is simply not true. All of the more significant poets of the first five poetic generations in Macedonia have been translated at least to Serbian and Slovenian, and some of their work to English, German French, Russian. It is enough for some beginning, but still we do not communicate with the world. This is to some extent also valid for the prose, with a reserve that prose is more “robust” so it is technically more complicated for translation. However, many of the most significant Macedonian writers have been translated abroad, sometimes in several editions and with new works. And still they do not communicate with the world.
    When we say that the world has not accepted us because we are a small culture, it is also incorrect. At least half of the best world literature was born in an agonic battle with the big languages and scenes. Kafka is an example – a Prague Jew who spoke German, tell me which scene he automatically belonged to, the Austro-Hungarian, Jewish, or the German? Which culture did he have to identify himself with for the world canon to accept him? The thing is that Kafka used to write as a dismantler of ideologies, systems, values, great languages and cultures, he worked as a dog that digs a hole, as a rat that makes a nest. Over here, they still write as bolts in the collective machinery, in the ecstasy of the collective stupidity. In this way you will really manage to be counted as a bolt, but only in your literature: for the world you need something more. Kafka says in a letter: “Only the small literature is capable of transforming the existing building material.” Kafka says that the great authors can come only from small literatures. If your vocabulary is poor, make it twinkle. Intensify it. Joyce, Becket and many others left their mother tongues, their great languages and cultures and they moved to others, where they were barely nomads; they consciously went to the areas they did not manage; there they had poorer expression, but they had the chance to pay along the “tight rope” of muteness, to say something very important.
    Small literature is an advantage, not a shortcoming. It can revolutionize the expression, say things that the “walked on” culture can not longer say. The small culture is already favored in the beginning. In a great language nowadays you can only perfectly explain a Sunday lunch, a baby stolen from the crib, place a political figure in a thriller-mix-up, but in the small languages you still have unseen possibilities for a turnover. Every language creates meaning only if it pushes out of itself, when the tongue argues with the teeth, when eating argues with talking. There is a certain mismatch between eating and writing. Here we write only when we devour. We have no world values because our whole literature is made of: “oh, mother”, “oh, home”, “oh, country”, it is all: “la-la-la” or: “my-my-my”. It is a horror of collective “yelling and devouring”. The one who wants to make a difference in the world canon has to produce words that can compete with food, leave you hungry until five in the morning, as Becket left me, as my students would swap their last sausage for Shakespeare. It is a cruel competition, but it is not political, it is an intimate competition, it has been valid from Antiquity until nowadays; in this way the world canon is created.
    Our problem, the problem that is called “the invisibility of the Macedonian literature in the world”, “Macedonian lack of quality”, “esthetic minority” is made of the fact that we do not know how to write expect for craftsmanship purposes. It is not always wrong, but at least then we should not deceive ourselves that we are a great literature. In all 45 years of communist Macedonia we did not manage to write a single book that would be classically censored. It is not about writing a dissident literature. Even back then we did not know how to write a book that would “get out” of the network of neighbors' eyes, out of the evaluation that I expect from the lady at the grocery store, not to mention the uncrowned ruler of my cultural cash. No literature of this kind can be top. That is why we never needed any censors and we never had them, not even in the most classical communist meaning of the word. We were raised like this, that we are our own biggest censors. We like our provincial comfort and our writer's dignity.
    Since any fifth citizen of Macedonia was illiterate at the end of 1950es, then it is no wonder that the writer was something of a messiah. Awaited with flowers both by the party leaders and the neighbor who saved the best cabbage for souring under his counter. The canon was entered according to the Biblical parabola: “Many were called, and few were elected”, except that here it simply meant – according to literacy law. The ones who were literate were writers. And that is not enough. I am not saying that even in this way it is not possible to create great literature – yes, but only by exception. The same applies for the reverse examples. The rare examples of the great writers with royal backing from the world are just rare.
    For the politicians in literature, the people who want both to write and eat at the same time, there is a ready-made formula for success, and we can sketch it in five moves. To enter the Macedonian canon, you should belong to as many of the following divisions as possible: 1. it's better to be Macedonian, then a member of the ethnic groups; 2. it's better to be a man than a woman, 3. it's better to be from Skopje than from any other city of village in Macedonia. Besides this, it is good, (4.) to have a trivial detail in your biography (suicide, unfortunate killing in an earthquake, revolutionary clash, etc), (5.) to have been and are politically and morally acceptable and of course to have friends at important positions. And it is the best to have a status of this kind yourself. Even nowadays we easily canonize the literature professors, publishers, Maecenas with literary ambitions…
    I find that the saddest thing is that in every published discussion, the Macedonian writers repeat the same mourning, that they are “disappointed from the people”. As if they were the pimps of the people, so the “sew workers” did not satisfy them. What can the people owe them, or what they owe the people? Our writers maybe have the right to grudge, from a distance, because they lied in their literature on behalf of the agendas. It is sad, but so reactive, that it brings human empathy in me, but nor professional understanding. You either write because you want to tell some truth about the world or yourself, or – of you have worked programmed – don't be sorry.

Finally, the question about the literary values always includes the literary criticism. I do not like it personally, even if it is potentially important for a culture, especially for the small cultures. My unclear intuition is that the literary criticism is like a pill that did not pass the test, and it can bring you a potential harm or potential benefit, more the former than the latter. Tell me, who can nowadays, in this narrow culture in which we have been crushed like Matka rocks, write a relevant criticism for any writing? Even if one wants to write a negative criticism, it will be read as a daily political clash. When there is a real absence of a market and critical mass, criticism in our country is limited to a positive opinion only and the readers are taught that the phrases like “excellent book”, “read breakthrough”, etc. mean absolutely nothing. If I had to choose personally I will always vote for a free market, self-regulation of values, with some necessary interventionism, if things sink really low. The readers are not idiots, at least not always.
    It is good that this narrow Macedonian literary circle was destroyed, the one that write, criticized and read themselves at the same time. “Gilgamesh” did not remain because it was glorified by a priest close to the king, but because it spoke about the problem of immortality, which concerns both the kings and the servants. It is why the test audience is good. Be it as it may, it manifests the taste of a time, repulsive as it may be. I watched a movie of late Tarkowsky in Swedish: although it was Tarkowsky, the movie is a “popular” medium, and Tarkowsky, even if he does not want it, can not always do what he wants with the medium and then blame the test audience, because it has an impeccable instinct. The movie was a fat, avant-gard-like packed stupidity. If something is genial, it will be genial for the simple people and the “intellectuals” as well; if not, it will be for ones of the others, but not for all. And to have a genial work, you need the interest of the both. At least most often. Somebody told the story of a girl who sent a text written by Nabokov to the paid critics of bestsellers from the USA, on anonymous basis. She was advised to cut down the dialogues, shorten the prolonged parts, etc. So, Nabokov could not be sold today, and back then he was. All of this means that the field of literary values is unclear, but the way out of these dilemmas is to create trends rather than follow them. It can be dome only if the canon is not important to you as a writer, if you don't take it into account, only if you are authentic to yourself, but not on the principle of the “Macedonian” authenticity. I have seen people who work what they think is important. In any area. They don't care about the test-audience, the golden toilet seat, they work out of an inner instinct, they do not bargain. One hundred thousand of them would fail, one would pass. The world canon is also made of the biggest stupidities. Several months ago in a bookshop in a big city, together with the books I also got a plastic bag which read: “The Best Writers in 2007”, and it listed the names of: K.J. Rowling, John Grisham, Jamie Oliver and Shakespeare. This is what is being sold, so that is the canon. It is also not right. Even the Nobel Prize, a par excellence canonizing institution, is problematic – let us notice that in the years of world crises, for example during world wars, this award was always given based on political parameters.
    The province confuses, immediately and easily conquers with its answer. The immortality is added to the writing as a mysterious category which is actually not there. There is a genial cartoon, “Kung-fu Panda”, when Kung-fu Panda's Father says: “All of my life I have had only one spaghetti recipe which I sell to everyone, and everybody thinks that there is a secret ingredient in it. Before I die, I will tell you the secret of my success. There is no such a spice. All I did was making spaghetti all the time.” I had a friend from Moscow, the most brilliant mind I had ever seen. When she came to visit me in Skopje, several years ago, she told me confused: “This is the best director in Macedonia, this is the best painter, you are all the best, but I don't know you. Do you know how many people in Moscow, a city of 10 million inhabitants, work on genial, avant-garde techniques and methods every day, they think about everything, and they don's think that they are the best in Russia, simply because there are ten thousand more geniuses like that, because there are too many people.”
    Writing is actually hard work, and in Macedonia the people are not used to work hard. When Kierkegaard says that he does nothing for days, and we read about that in a book of 1,000 pages, who is making a joke? These pages are written with some work, even if he was in bed all the time, it was, nevertheless work. Our literature is lame, not only because the people have no idea how to oppose the dominant dictate of the provincial culture, but also because the people do not work, it is that simple. There is a 1970 movie with Donald Sutherland, “Alex in Wonderland”; the main character in it, Alex, is a crazy director, he had an instant success with his first movie, but he had a creative block and could not make his second movie. He went to Italy to ask Fellini what was the secret of his inspiration, he found Fellini, who played himself in the movie, in a small gray room, dressed like a real bureaucrat, next to a grandmother, they hurry with the movie editing, he wants to help the young director, but has no idea how. After several attempts, he apologized that he was really tired, they had been working for 15 hours every day, he had no time or luxury to think of those big inspiration issues, even if he wanted. What I want to say is that literature is also work, there are no secrets there.
    I especially detest it when somebody attacks those who had left Macedonia. When they attack Goran Stefanovski, for me this is a provincial revenge. If somebody can rattle on about the American porn movies from Macedonia, why can not he write about the Debar Maalo demon from Canterbury? Personally, I do not have such an attitude towards literature, be it general, or national. For example, my father left me a clear message: never come back to Macedonia, stay as far as possible from this country. And I returned. Not because of nostalgic reasons, but because I thought that I would be useful here, because I had accounts to settle with this culture. I can also leave tomorrow. I don't see how it is being creates, except in this liberation, and it is exactly in the name of your culture.
    Finally, I think that our post-communism displays bad aging of the whole generation, not only the writers, but they are the most exposed. Deceived that they were coryphées of a culture, the Internet showed them that they were actually insignificant not only for the global scene, but for the local one as well. But, even bad truth is better than the untruth. Not to be political idiots, we should also say that our past was not ideologically the happiest one. It had a political tone that shaped everybody and everybody owed their rhythm to this ideological sup-rhythm. It is different now, it is the time to face our deceptions. We have already obtained the recipes of the global culture. If you want to be read, try hard. If you insist on being obscure, don't complain that you are not read. And if you are really lucky, you might succeed in the world. I once watched Paul McCartney who said in an interview: “While we were making the music, we knew exactly that it was very good” and I do not believe that a person does not have such a measure, so that the success would surprise him, you somehow feel where you are while you are making your work. Even where you are in the world market. We desperately need this blow. So that we can rise from this esthetic (but it also means ethic) mud… Even when the world market, and the world canon not always follow this feeling all the way…

Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska

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