Blesok no. 40, January-February, 2005
The Balkans are Somewhere Else
Recently, several of my friends from the former Yugoslavia started a band and now they are having a lot of success playing “Gypsy Music from the Balkans” in Paris bars and clubs. Perhaps it would be superfluous to mention than not one of them is a Rom, and that the music they play is, for the most part, Bosnian, Serbian, and Macedonian, with a sufficient number of gypsy hits to legitimate the band’s name and to advertise it as authentically gypsy and Balkan. When I accuse them of inauthenticity, they laugh at me and tell me to forget about such trivial details. Basically, they insist, who here knows what we’re playing, no one notices when we change languages, and if people would rather think that they’re listening to gypsy songs and not to Bosnian ones, who has the right to disappoint them? To figure out whose music is whose, who borrowed what from whom, who influenced whom, and who is, en fait, a real Balkan gypsy seems to them a waste of time, and, as they note, a question without a definite answer. We are all Balkans here, pal, and if that means we even have to be Rom in order to get the Western dreams fired up, then it is to everyone’s benefit. Anyway, can’t you see how many people are coming to our concerts? Or have your glasses fogged up amidst the crowds, or maybe someone stepped on your foot and so now you’re splitting hairs and moralizing?!
Yes, yes, they lectured me but good, I have to admit. Still, I refused to give up the idea that you can’t cook up a convincing soup forever out of some fraudulent invented Balkans. I decided to invite my French friend Juliette to one of their concerts. She is a well-educated and charming girl, and I thought that she would confirm my belief and show my Balkan friends that Western naiveté does have some limits, after all. And so, one evening we headed off to a concert of those “Balkan Gypsies,” and sat down in a spot from which, unnoticed, we could watch the situation develop, and where the noise level was low enough not to drown out my enlightening commentary. At first I decided to let the girl come up with her own opinion regarding what was happening right before her eyes. But after the first song Juliette simply could not say enough in praise of my choice of evening entertainment. She had fallen right into the trap, but I decided to give her one more chance. The band finished playing a popular song by Goran Bregovic, and she squealed that she just adored gypsy music, especially from the Balkans, and that these kids could really play. Where are these gypsies from? Romania? Bulgaria?, she asked. Mostly from Bosnia and some of the surrounding republics, I answered. Fantastic, she concluded. It was then that I decided to intervene and I tried to tell her the truth. I told her to take a look at the two blond boys and draw her own conclusion. She looked and said, hah, blond gypsies from the Balkans! That is just brilliant! Irate, I explained to her that they were not Rom at all, that they had stolen a gypsy name for their band, and that they were playing music from all over the Balkans, and that they were simply selling the French what the French wanted to hear. It’s a lie, I screamed, to which Juliette, her mood already somewhat spoiled, replied reproachfully: Ah, it’s not so terrible. Why are you so worked up? Does it really matter whether the music is Macedonian, Bulgarian, or Greek? Things are so complicated in your Balkans that I have no desire to decide who did what first, who borrowed what from whom, and who stole what there. And don’t you think that you’re exaggerating? And anyway, what are you trying to prove? Don’t give me this lie stuff! It’s great.
Yes, her question was a good one. I stopped for a moment, without having any idea of how to continue. Actually, what was I trying to prove? Well maybe, I began to stammer, that it is important that we know what we’re hearing. It is relevant, truly relevant, ma cherie, whose music this is. After all, I have to write an article for an important literary festival I’ve been invited to on the subject of what I love in my culture that has been borrowed from another Balkan culture. And how, I ask you, can I write it if I don’t know whose is what? I’m going around in circles, I sleep badly at night, I’ve already missed the deadline, and now I see these clowns stealing everything and stuffing it into a single box with the label “Gypsies from the Balkans,” and, what’s worse, it sells beautifully. All I want to say, I continue more calmly, seeing that my statement is getting lost as it mixes with the apocalyptic lyrics There’s no more sun, there’s no more moon…, is that things Balkan become Balkan only when we’re outside the Balkans. It’s all a matter of perspective. All you have to do is say the word Balkan and all that complexity seems simpler, more attractive even. You put them all under the same exotic umbrella, which you are carrying right now and which can exist only when you set foot outside of the Balkans. Because, down there, you simply can’t find the Balkans. Ask all those Slovenians, Croatians, Bosnians, Serbs, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks, Albanians, Turks, and anyone else you can find and each of them will point to someone else. The Balkans are elsewhere! Sartre’s lesson has found fertile soil, ma cherie. The Balkans aren’t in the Balkans anymore, they are simply somewhere else. Maybe even in Paris. In the Balkans themselves the only Balkan peoples are those minorities whose fate has been tied to Balkan history but who don’t have the right to speak for themselves. Yes, the Rom, the Vlachs, the Tsyntsars or the Sephardi were the only nations that could not push their Balkanness onto others, as the official nations all did, for they lived all over the region. Indeed, sometimes it seems to me that the Balkans would collapse were it not for the links that these little nations formed across its interior, amongst its peoples, and out into the world. These are the things that hold the Balkans to the Eurasian continent. Otherwise, it would have long ago turned into an island, which might itself have broken up into a series of smaller islands, forming a kind of strange archipelago. In fact that is the actual picture of the Balkans, that crumpled up archipelago with a seductive and terrifying civilization that has bored into the imagination of others. Many of its inhabitants are washing ashore in the West, like victims of a shipwreck, punished both by speaking many languages and mutual misunderstanding and by the view of others who see all those Balkan types on their territory as identical, as members of one and the same Balkan people which has gotten mixed up to the point of incomprehensibility and which has now headed off on its conquering path! My friend is listening to me open-mouthed, while glancing from time to time at the singer who, this time, is singing an actual gypsy hit, and watching as people dance happily. My gloomy mood leads me to continue in the same vein. For you guys, and for you in particular, the Balkans are the exotic enfant terrible of Europe, but, despite this, irresistible as such children always are, but at the same time it is a region that is the source of trouble, a region that is eaten up by a mysterious force of endless hatred that spreads its tentacles ever wider. The Balkans are Europe’s subconscious into which you can stuff everything you don’t like about yourselves while taking everything that is good from it. It is a beast that you can easily see near all the main rail stations of the European capitals. It begins, as they say in Vienna, at the Südbahnhof, but it can also be found in certain quarters in Hamburg and Oslo, inducing anxiety in the local inhabitants. Its nebulous borders encompass Trieste, Vienna, and Budapest, and also the southern Italian port of Brindisi, that Balkan colony in Italy where you can find hordes of desperate people crossing the Adriatic to Albania, Montenegro, Greece, and Turkey, a city in a permanent state of siege. From this perspective, Cypress is much closer than one generally thinks, my dear Juliette. Oh, my son, return from distant climes… the voice of my friend continues to charm the audience.
I take a slug of wine because my throat has dried out from talking, I don’t see our conversation getting anywhere, and I seem even to myself to be unclear at the very least. She keeps looking at me and shakes her head in amazement. OK, but what is your problem? she finally asks me. You’re contradicting yourself. On the one hand you’re accusing your friends of stuffing everything into a single box, and, on the other, you’re talking sympathetically about how you are all the same, this Balkan archipelago business and such like. I think your problem is that you don’t know how to write your article, so you’re banging your head against the wall, cursing the required subject, and though you’re speaking about differences, you simply can’t figure out how to dissect out the various Balkan cultures which obviously function as a single unit. And, as a result, you’re attacking the entire world and me in particular. I don’t understand anything anymore. Then my friend takes a slug of wine and, as if that has improved her mood or at least turned her thoughts toward more amusing things, she invites me to come closer. She says she’s had enough debate but she would prefer not to stop talking about the Balkans until we clear up one important problem. What is it, my love? So, Juliette continues, they say that Balkan types are very strong in the sexual sense. Is that true? I’d like to know. Have you studied that issue, she says, and does that hold for all the Balkan peoples or only for some particular nations, my dear professor… , what did you say your name was, with an St at the beginning, I believe.? She pauses, attempts to remember, but she can’t—Forgive me, I know that it begins with some kind of St, doesn’t it?
So, she has forgotten my last name. She is feeling uncomfortable, comes up with Stiglitz, doesn’t know how she got mixed up. Forget it, I say, taking up the question. Nothing is accidental. In any case, isn’t Stiglitz our well-known chickadee. I don’t know how to say that in French and whether it means the same thing. But still, we have gotten somewhere this evening. I look for a reasonable answer, one that would not completely undermine the seriousness of everything I said this evening, and anyway it seems to me that I’ve already said too much. We’ve already downed two bottles of wine and we’ve ordered a third, and at that point, of all the people on earth, I think about Dr. Freud. The band puts the audience into a melancholy mood with a song from Herzegovina.
At the very beginning of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud recounts an interesting thing that happened to him in Herzegovina. Traveling in the Balkans he set out from Dubrovnik for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the company of a foreigner, as he puts it. So he and the foreigner are going through my homeland, but the topic of their conversation is far from the rugged landscape that surrounds them. They are talking, actually, about Italy. And just at that moment Freud asks his companion whether he had ever been in Orvieto and had ever seen the famous frescos of S… damn, what is his name? And here, just here, when memory is needed, our good doctor is hit with a wave of discomfort. That moment of forgetting a normally well-known fact will stimulate the famous Viennese to devote a lot more attention to this seemingly trivial problem, and to explain the unexpected discomfort he felt. Specifically, while journeying through Herzegovina, their conversation had turned several times to the mores of the local inhabitants, as Dr. Freud would later recall in his attempt to explicate the situation. The foreigner, who had spent a lot of time in this land that had only recently been joined to the empire, informed him of one unusual characteristic of the people here, one that he had encountered during his own work as a doctor. It appears, he said, that the Bosnians have a generally indifferent attitude to death, while, at the same time, curiously, they value sexual pleasure highly, and in the case of impotence they fall into a deadly depression which stands in sharp contrast to their indifference towards weighty questions of life and death. We don’t know what else this mysterious stranger told Dr. Freud. We can only guess. Perhaps it was Sigmund F. himself who at that moment turned the conversation to Italy, which in any case evokes only pleasant and sweet memories, in order to avoid or, to put it better, suppress the discomfort that was coming over him. But the fact was that some devil gave him no peace the entire time, and at the moment he needed to recall the name of the painter of the Orvieto frescos, the famous Signorelli we might mention in passing, the entire mechanism of repression came into play. In fact, the story about the people through whose land they were passing reminded him of some bad news he had recently heard: one of his patients, tormented by incurable impotence, had committed suicide. This whole concatenation of circumstances led, in a very complex way that Freud tries to explain using his own interpretation, to forgetting the name Signorelli and to the general conclusion that, in addition to the normal forgetting of first and last names, there are situations when forgetting is directly tied to repression, which is, we know, an expression of sexual tension.
Juliette, surprised, looked me straight in the eyes trying perhaps to understand better the meaning of my words and the situation as a whole. Her good mood, which had been stirred up by the wine and the conversation, now changed to agitation. Eventually, she gave up trying to find a subtle explanation:
– Hang on, hang on. I don’t get it… Are you saying that I forgot your name because I want to sleep with you? Is that what you want to say? Is it?!
– Calm down, calm down. No, it isn’t that easy, my dear, although from a scientific point of view that is not out of the question.
Her answer to my answer was quite simple and quick. Before I even realized that she had raised her arm, her hand had already slapped across my face. By the time I recovered, she had already turned her back on me and melted into the crowd. Actually, she was dancing in front of the singer who had now reached the refrain: “What deceived me in your glance…” Too bad he doesn’t know any Roma, I thought bitterly, as I watched my friend holding my girlfriend’s hand and dancing with her.
Damned Balkan types!—I yelled toward the noise that, to the delight of the rest of the audience, my Balkan friends continued to produce. The waiter who was standing on the other side of the bar leaned toward me, and, while dancing, shouted out a phrase that proved to me that no one here understood me:
“I agree, old man, these Balkan guys are great. Hey, you know, my grandma is from Bulgaria.”
“No way!” I said, quite angrily—“Just think, so’s my grandpa.”
“So tell me what you’ll drink, my friend. I’ll pay”—said the waiter, confirming my worst suspicions. “It’s not every day you meet people from your homeland.”
“Blagodaram, bratko,” I answered in Macedonian.
“Pardon, what are you saying? Excuse me, I don’t know Bulgarian,” he explained. “I’m third generation here.”
“It’s OK, pal,” I concluded. “As long as the Balkans are with us. Among us. Here and now.
Translated from the Croatian by Andrew Wachtel.
First published at www.see-lit.org