The Week of the Festival: Literatur & Wein in Krems


Researching and Writing between Austria and Bosnia

/ by Robert Prosser

Beginning of February 2017, Berlin Humboldthain: I pose in a shirt in the graffiti-covered bunker ruins, built during the Second World War. The temperature reaches zero, but I try to look as untouched as possible for the video shoot of an upcoming book trailer. It's not the winter that's troubling me, it's the fact I have to step out of this mental zone in which only research and characters exist, the sentences and their rhythms, the poetic language. I need to be in the present, discussing the cover or the advertisement text, all the stuff that announces the end of the writing process, which will be definite with the publishing of the book forthcoming September.


I've worked on this text for a bit more than three years. During this time, I researched mainly in the Posavina in Bosnia’s north, and along the Drina River in the country's east. In July 2013, coming from Albania, I visited Bosnia for the first time. A short stay in Sarajevo and, after two days, I got on a bus to Zagreb to catch a train to Vienna. This stopover, however, made me realize that I knew nothing of Bosnia except for a few vague images and stereotypes, mainly gained during the war in the 90s when I, as a child, eavesdropped on my parents and uncles and aunts, who discussed the combats and atrocities happening in ex-Yugoslavia.


Back in Vienna, I started interviewing people who came to Austria because of the war. Electricians or teachers, who stood steady in Austria’s daily routine, but whose existence was based on traumatic experiences of violence and flight. I discovered how deeply Vienna is influenced and shaped by the Yugoslav culture. I learned to read the city differently, as I became more and more able to decode the Bosniak, Croat or Serbian background of various graffiti or tattoos. And soon, because of the contacts to the Diaspora, I had a few telephone numbers, mail addresses and names, and was ready to go back to Bosnia, to meet former refugees and ex-soldiers alike.


In the beginning, it was a kind of an obsessive urge to know more about ex-Yugoslavia. Then, especially because of my visit to Tuzla, shortly after the public demonstrations in February 2014, which sent a whirlwind of hope and anger through the country, an eruptive display of civil disobedience, which vanished as fast as it exploded, I wrote the draft of a long poem, displaying different voices of younger people, a spectrum of poetry-filtered rage and energy, ranging from Vienna to Tuzla, with the common ground of hip-hop and graffiti. It had already spooked around in my head for quite some time, the idea to use my own past in the graff- and rap-scenes as a reservoir for a text. In Tuzla, the Balkan’s secret hip-hop capitol, I discovered this do-it-yourself-mentality I knew from the early 2000s rap scene, which I had assumed was gone, and was able to shape my vague idea into a much clearer form. I found a lot of twenty-somethings with a lot to tell, all part of a society in uproar. I began to understand that Bosnia is exemplary of a lot of issues currently under discussion in Western Europe. The creation of enemy images, the manipulation through media, the staged fight between Christianity and Islam: That's ever present between the Drina and Sava rivers. The questions I was forced to face have been on my mind since then: How to deal with the experience of war and flight? How to think, feel and remember, in spite of political propaganda, which undercuts one's own thoughts, feelings and experiences? Or, thinking of the youths in Tuzla, the hooligans and sprayers and rappers: Where to put all your energy and simultaneously deal with the frustration; that the EU, this promise of luck and future, is within your grasp, without ever taking effect?


These questions outreach Bosnia. They are as important in Sarajevo as they are in Vienna. I couldn't answer them while writing. Instead these questions grew more important, more urgent. During my visits I recorded stories, was myself part of new stories, and slowly the initial poem needed more space and turned at last into the scheme for a novel. This book is the result of my attempt to understand a country and its past and present. In this mission I failed, honestly. With every travel I understood less, partly because of my own decisions, which in retrospect seem questionable. For example, I refused to learn the language, a seemingly necessary decision during the time I spent in Bosnia’s East, in the region from Zvornik to Goražde. Confronted with the still visible wounds left behind by the war in people and landscape alike, I was searching for a kind of shelter – to not be able to speak the country’s language put me aside, made my role as a foreigner as clear as possible, and this gave me a feeling of security. Travelling with translators or with people who would find a way into the text as a character's aspect (sometimes an essential part, sometimes a very hidden one) the situation became naturally different. But being on the road alone helped me develop the language for the novel. Travelling alone in Bosnia, with a lot of small talk, a lot of photographing, a lot of thinking, I wasn't travelling the real Bosnia. Rather, I was wandering through a shadowy pre-stage of the novel. I walked in the evolving, vibrating, not yet finished story.


I know that my Bosnia isn't the real one, but it's existing through the touching and stirring experiences and encounters I was allowed to make. On this February Day in Berlin, looking into a camera and unsuccessfully trying to articulate such thoughts and feelings, I understand that the book will be published with me far away from feeling finished with it.

Robert Prosser