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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe, Literature

by Lucien Degoy

Ivo Andric’ on the Other Europe

Translated Saturday 21 April 2007, by Isabelle Métral

The premonitory works of Yugoslav writer and Nobel-prize-winner Ivo Andric’ (1872-1975), L’Humanité’s guest Predrag Madvejevitch shows, afford rich insights into the past, present, and future of that "other Europe".

Predrag Matvejevitch, a writer and essayist from the former Yugoslavia (his father was Russian and his mother a Croat), recently gave a talk about the Yugoslav writer’s insights into the heart of “the other Europe”. Matvejevitch was professor of French literature at the University of Zagreb until 1991, when he emigrated to France where he stayed for several years as an opponent to the fratricide war that was then being waged in his homeland. He is now professor of Slavic literature at the Sapienza University in Rome. In an interview with Lucien Degoy he evokes the figure of his Bosnian fellow-countryman Andric’, a great humanist who contributed significantly to the building of a Yugoslav national entity. Andric’ was granted the Nobel prize for literature in 1961 and died in 1975 before the break-up of his country.

HUMA: You describe Andric’ as “a builder of bridges”, to use the image in the title of one of his novels “The Bridge on the Drina”. Bridges between cultures and peoples, or between past and present figure prominently in his works, don’t they?

MATVEJEVITCH: Bridges set a time scale that transcends generations. They bear witness to the passage of time: how life wears or crumbles away, and goes on doggedly, indestructibly. They shape the destinies of the living and ignore the marks left on their flanks by men’s ephemeral whims and needs. Bridges are thrown wherever men come up against obstacles but they never serve secret or evil forces. They stand at the meeting-points of diverging outlooks and approaches which, as Andric’ shows, may clash tragically sometimes as a result of stupid misunderstandings.

HUMA: Andric’ certainly did not consider that his art must serve a cause but would you say he somehow succeeded in Europeanizing the old eastern narrative tradition?

MATVEJEVITCH: His art consisted in telling stories. The spirit that breathes through many of the pages he wrote is one of faith and hope - hope that the Southern Slavs can get along fraternally. Yet he was quite clear as to the devilish forces ever or potentially active in people’s hearts. That he had a foreboding of the scourges that were later to plague the country appears in a strange text entitled “Letter Written in 1920”, in which he narrates the exile of a Sephardic Jewish physician who leaves his Bosnian native country and Sarajevo when ethnic hatred becomes unbearable and intolerance breaks out between the Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim communities. Yet the hatred the hero flees eventually catches up with him. One may wonder what those very people in ex-Yugoslavia who decided to divide or even destroy what was formerly common, undivided cultural property and heritage can now make of his premonitory works. It yet remains to explain how white-hot hatred like this could suddenly erupt and have the better of an age-old tradition of love and wisdom.

HUMA: After all the years of hatred and war that followed upon the break-up of the communist world the only possible future for Eastern European countries seems to lie in the unification of Europe. Yet you seem to imply that a lot of misunderstandings still plague that “other” Europe.

MATVEJEVITCH: No one probably expected that other Europe to make such slow, painful, and exhausting progress from the old to the new. Caution now prevails. Part of the intelligentsia thinks or at least senses that Europe in the future must be less Europe-centred than it has so far been, less colonialist, less submissive to Americanisation, more cosmopolitan. We are confronted with various conservative or regressive attitudes, especially where democratic traditions are wanting and democracy is merely a thin cover for a form of dictatorship. With so very few of us committed to a concrete form of socialism now, it is clear that that Europe cannot exchange its inhuman capitalist rule for a humanised form of socialism before long.

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