Memories Glide like a Raindrop

Interview with Velibor Čolić

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

The story of Velibor Čolić is a miracle story: musician and music journalist, he deserted from the army in Bosnia during the war, was captured but escaped, and came to France as an asylum-seeker. Without any support, without influential friends and cultural networks, he is a self-made writer, who learned French and is writing in French today. Apart from any established “trends” of writing about the Yugoslav war, and far from any political speculation, he is writing about the ultimate loss of humanity he witnessed, and trying to fight it through literature. His writing is elegant, finely-carved in detail - and witty, ironic and delightfully distanced.


Svetlana Slapšak (SS): Velibor, you are a French author today, published by one of the most respected French publishing houses, Gallimard. You came to France as a refugee, a deserter, a former POW, and everything you had in Bosnia was destroyed and vanished forever. And still, your newest book, Manuel d'exil (comment réussir son exil en trente-cinq leçons), A Manual on Exile: How To Succeed in Exile in 31 Lessons, published at Gallimard this year, is full of irony, self-irony, humor, and it represents a total contrast to the thematicization of a victim's position, as we know it from a long line of such works. How did you manage?

Velibor Čolić (VČ): I call it a triple airbag. The first one is in space: between Bosnia, where I was born, and Bretagne, where I live, there is a safety distance of several thousand kilometers. The second is time: twenty-three years have passed since my great escape without return, my terminal exile. And the third, probably the most important airbag is the language. This book, like several other that I wrote, is possible only in French. It is a book on exile in the language of exile. It seems to me that my “French me” in the text is not quite the same with my “truly me,” as if I were saturated, protected behind a screen of this language which is not my maternal tongue. Weird feeling, maybe even absurd, but the French language helps me to be more intimate with my text.


SS: You started as a musician, a jazz musician, you were a journalist, and your first book is a biographical one. Then you also wrote a biography of a great jazz musician...Today, you do not live anymore in a big urban center, which was your natural habitat before: is this a consequence of a change in your understanding of literature?

VČ: Of course it is. Maybe it is, as Danilo Kiš describes it, “a bitter grout of experience.” For the first time in my life, I live by the ocean. There is some new air, some new space, some new light... The big water makes us, ordinary mortals, if we only have a bit of sensitivity, more modest, more melancholy, maybe even smarter. But as I often have to go to Paris on business, I go and purchase there my dose of mess, crowds and concrete.


SS: You go back to Bosnia today as a different man and a different author. What do you find there?

VČ: I miss many keys for Bosnia. I leave and when I come back - like the famous Miroslav Krleža character, Filip Latinović – I usually have the big heart of an emigre. But slowly this is calmed down, after comparing memories and reality and, each and every time, just like in love, these twisted, humanly not precise memories glide like a raindrop down the reality... In everyday life, me and my fatherland have become strangers – but luckily, there is literature, where we can find each other. Therefore, there is something that simply was, and not what has happened. A normal person cannot totally hate his or her birthplace – in any case, not for a long time. Nobody could hate forever that country – it is ours, at the end.


SS: In the flood of literary and other works which marked the centennial of the beginning of the WWI, and especially the assassination of Prince Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, your novel Sarajevo Omnibus stands up with its total lack of calculation, pompousness and hardly-concealed nationalist ambition, to profit from the interpretation of the event in the local context. Is there a visible resistance and opposition to such use of literature in your novel?

VČ: The nationalist spectacles are a curious device. They make “our” things look bigger, they make them look nicer, and the neighbors' things are made smaller, or they just do not see them... With Sarajevo Omnibus, I wanted to make a novel-bridge, a novel in which the city of Sarajevo is the main hero. I wanted a story in which poets and architects, angels and madmen, criminals and caporals, colonels and decided to live together. And it is just a novel, nothing more and nothing less than a novel. Our common Yugoslav problem is the confusion of genres, as I see it. We started to understand Literature as History, and at the same time History as Literature... For instance, when the myth of Kosovo becomes a political program for Slobodan Milošević, and a bunch of crazy grandpas in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences...


SS: You have written sketches, short stories, biographies, essays, novels; which genres still are a challenge to you?

VČ: Manuel d'Exil is the first part of my French trilogy. I should start a new novel, the second part, and it is really bugging me. Finding a new form, a new spirit, a new freshness for my emigre trilogy, that is a real literary challenge for me. How to be a foreigner?


SS: You do not write under a pseudonym, but under your own name, rather hard to pronounce. Do you think that there is something that could be defined as the Yugoslav diaspora? Could it provide a wider plan, a multiple vision, for something inspirational in literature?

VČ: Why not? Unfortunately, there is still not much information on what is being written and published in, for instance, in Germany or in Norway... And there is a huge difference between us, the ex-Yugoslavs, and the new ones, the post-Yugoslavs. Elementary, my dear Watson, as Sherlock Holmes would put it. If we follow Camus in believing that the language defines us, then I might be a French author with an impossible name. But I never cared too much about the labels. As they say in Bosnia – call me a pot, but don't break me...


SS: Then how do you see the literature back there, in the post-Yugoslav cultures?

VČ: Very little is translated into French. Sometimes I get a book from there, not many of them. I often go through the periodicals of the “normal” (non-nationalist) kind, but it is all done quickly and superficially. I am sure that there are many talents – there have always been many there, but this is something I do from some internal reasons, and quite willfully: I have very few contacts with any in the “scene” back there, people and institutions alike. All of my literary ambitions and my relative success, everything in short, is for me French and in France. I made my divisions early, I turned the page, and I stick to it. Maybe this is not all right, but it is so.


SS: You took up a very risky road, as a writer who wants to write, not as someone from a temporarily-interesting environment, who has to say something about it. When and how did you come to such decision?

VČ: I understood relatively quickly that a literary career is something that has to be built over years. Establishing your own voice in such a great literature as the French one is a long-term, painful effort. You need some talent, some madness and much more work to be read and published. In my case, I suppose there is also a certain measure of our own Balkan stubbornness and – hard to translate – our very specific cockiness...


SS: Do you still play music?

VČ: Luckily, no... Laurie Anderson, a New York performer and Lou Reed's widow, once said: “I think that a human body has an incorrigible anatomical flaw: we cannot close our ears when we are exposed to bad music, but we can close our eyes in front of a bad painting.” I should add: The difference between a bad musician and a bad writer is that the worst possible book is...silent.   

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.