Is Balkan Madness Still a Thing?

Interview with Dejan Atanacković

/ by Elisa Biagini

I have known Dejan Atanacković, born in Belgrade and residing in Florence since the early 90s, for the past nine years. When I met him, he was working mainly in the visual arts, both as an artist and as an educator, focusing on themes of body and memory, through video, installation, music performance and photographic projects. Over time, I have seen him slowly shift his interests towards literature. After publishing a few short stories (in Serbian and in English), he has finally decided, challenged by a friend, to write a novel. Luzitanija, published by Besna kobila (Beograd), is now in the Belgrade bookstores.


(EB) You have been a visual artist for 20 years: Why fiction and why now?

(DA) Most of my visual work contains written or spoken words. In the past few years, I often wasn’t sure whether I was doing a piece of writing or an installation. Usually it ended up being both. In a way, I consider my writing a visual production by different means. It is another way of making pictures. But words also allow you to create not one, but many pictures, that eventually take form when the reader and the text meet.


Also, my didactic activity, teaching, is really very much about telling stories. Especially when you teach subjects that deal with the nature and the origin of images. For instance, my work with art students in various sections of the Florentine Museum of Natural History necessarily results in storytelling. And these stories are often quite amazing, about ambitious rulers, travelers, artists and doctors who collected strange objects, dissected bodies, created ambiguous wax models of human anatomy, searched for bizarre ways to preserve organic tissue. All these facts necessarily turn into fiction and sometimes they are much stranger than fiction.


Since the early 1990s, you have been living between Florence and Belgrade. How has your work been influenced by such diverse cultural realities?

It has, if anything, created a condition of living nowhere fully, or living in between. In fact, the characters in my novel are people who travel obsessively, some of them trying to get back home, some fleeing from home. For many years, I had an obsessive need to organize events that would connect the two cities, by curating projects that brought many students, artists and lecturers from one city to the other. Therefore, the city, as a theme in itself, became very important to me, as both cities changed over the years. Of course, Belgrade’s changes, in particular, have been much more drastic and emotionally felt.


The notion of disappearance also became very relevant, as you would see things disappear day-by-day: Places, habits, ways of life. Florence is an extremely visible city, certainly one of the most photographed in the world, yet things here disappear too, perhaps precisely because of that extreme visibility. Belgrade is not as visible, at least not in the same way. It is a city which, for a long time, has been the ground of brutal political and oligarchic interests, and as such, it was subjected to numerous attempts at murder and rape. It is a strong city, however, as it still manages to maintain its identity, but that has become increasingly difficult over time.


I think that, in the complex tapestry of your novel, one main thread would be nostalgia, both for the Yugoslavian past but also for its future, in the form of a deep interest in Utopia. Do you agree?

Yes, there is certainly, in me, a nostalgia for some “past idea of the future, for what the future used to be.” Yugoslavia itself resembled a utopian society and, as such, it projected both utopian and dystopian ideas of the future. Today, we don’t envision the future as utopian or dystopian, as there is no ideology that supports either the dream of one, nor the fear of the other. Even the commercial Hollywood production is mainly focused on a future as an instant catastrophe. I grew up with the fear of a dystopic future, not the end-of-the-world future. But it was also a world of desires, and, unlike today, desires were not so immediately and fully satisfied. Back then, desires, in a rather beautiful way, promised to stay unfulfilled.


In a way, the novel follows the line of a classical utopian novel. There is a utopian society and a visitor to whom this society is revealed.

While it is certainly not a historical novel, I use various historical facts and characters to develop a fictional narrative. One of those facts is that, during the 1915 occupation of Belgrade, the psychiatric hospital had been assigned, by the Austrian and German authorities, an extraterritorial status. Most likely the occupier just wanted to avoid any complicated obligations, as no one really wanted to have much to do with the insane. It practically became an independent “island” in the midst of the occupied territories, and it relied on international support, such as that of the Red Cross. In my novel, however, things go a step further, and the Belgrade psychiatric hospital becomes an independent state, a self-proclaimed republic, with a parliament formed by all patients and staff, a harmonious as well as subversive society which formulates its own very clear ideas in regard to the world outside. Most of all, it is a society where the deepest inequality in human history, that between a doctor and a patient, between those who diagnose and those who are subject to diagnosis, is removed and abolished. As I was writing, I became more and more certain that if such state ever existed, it probably would have been one of the most successful state projects in this part of the world.


Sir Thomas Lipton, a millionaire, sportsman and the founder of the Lipton Tea company who, at the time, actually traveled through Serbia and who actively supported the Red Cross, is one of the main characters. In the novel, he is that typical figure of the visitor to whom the utopian society is being explained. Throughout the story, which is edited into a series of events in different times and places, Sir Lipton is guided by an ex school teacher – now a patient, through Lusitania, the hospital-state named after the famous ship, sunken, under notoriously unclear circumstances, by a German submarine.


Why did you decide to name the state Lusitania? Was it relevant that, beside the name of the famous ship, Lusitania was also the ancient name of Portugal?

Why Lusitania?” asks Lipton. “Why name the state after a sunken ship?”

Lusitania was not only a ship,” replies the teacher, “it was also the land of the Iberian people who had long resisted the conqueror, despite his superior strength. But Lusitania is a ship as well, its architecture that of a floating machine, the ship of the sacrificed, the ship of fools. Anyone can see that the investment in its launching, for the sake of travel and trade, was negligible compared to the benefits of a mass sacrifice. Imagine the power of its symbolism. Water has always been a symbol of insanity, and the sinking of Lusitania surpasses, by its symbolic value, any other use value. Though it seems to delay death, mass production in itself contains a great potential for death and devastation. For the more something is useful to a society, the more powerful will be its destruction on a symbolic level. Our state, Lusitania, may itself sink in the sea of ​​senselessness, but until then it will continue to persist and to thrive on the grounds of its futility. We, the mad, have no value greater than our solitude. Modern society has given us the role of the hopelessly unproductive, and that is why the fear of madness is today greater than the fear of death. In comparison to a well-constructed fortress, which is alternately destroyed and improved, we are like a birds’ nest that has reached a suitable shape and does not need to be changed. Even when washed out by rain or torn apart by predators, we have nothing left to do but make another identical one.”


It was when a survivor of the Lusitania shipwreck, Mr. Teofilović, first arrived at the Belgrade hospital, after his incredible journey through the network of trenches and tunnels, that the patients saw the name of the ship printed on his life-jacket that he never again took off. From that moment on everyone had something to say about it, but no-one ever thought of Portugal. Clearly, it was me who, in the process of writing, entirely moved away from that most obvious historical reference.


Patients competed in finding the meaning of that word and as the lavish imagination of the mentally ill implied, nothing in life could have ever been one thing only while not being at the same time a hundred others. And if it had occurred to someone, in those final days of September of 1915, just before the beginning of the bombing, to conduct a survey in the hospital with the question: “What is Lusitania?” the number of answers would have been equal to the number of the institution’s residents. To one it was a river, to another a tree, some considered it a title of a classical comedy, for others it was a rare disease. Some thought it was a woman, others a bird, and there was even an opinion that it may have been the farthest corner of the Hyperborean land. To be exact, everyone undoubtedly knew that Lusitania was one huge sunken ship. But, at the same time, it was clear to all that this ship, in the dark depths of the ocean, far from anyone’s sight, now carried within itself the unusual possibility of being anything.


The story takes place during the First World War, although it seems that you were really more interested in writing a story about our time.

There are references to events that could equally have occurred in the 1990s. In a way, the First World War is so mythologized in the Serbian collective memory that it sort of fits well into our time, so filled with partial facts and various forms of mystification. Regardless of all the “relative” exposure to numerous sources of information, the past in Serbia remains as uncertain as the present. The past changes constantly, and there is no historical event, especially from more recent history, that does not have at least two versions or interpretations. But, about the First World War, there seems to be a strange consensus. Hardly anyone raises any questions about the truthfulness of the narrative of the First World War, or of the Balkan Wars, while these in many ways represent some of the crucial events the outcomes of which we are still dealing with today.


I grew up, like all Belgraders, with the legendary story of Major Gavrilović, who sent to death the last remnants of his troops, the last defense of Belgrade, by telling them that their lives had been erased. Therefore, they fought till the last man, as if they were dead already. There was something really impressive and horribly romantic about that story. Until the 90s. From the 90s on, I began to seriously doubt the justification and romanticism of the “erasing of lives.” In fact, I became rather suspicious about the glorification of those typically Serbian victories through defeat, which contributed greatly to this syndrome of eternal victims which has been so much abused in this society, as well as an efficient way of distorting reality. In the novel there is a major who resembles Major Gavrilović. He faces the inevitable slaughter, and orders his soldiers to abandon posts and to desert, while he himself stays “to defend the undefendable.” That seemed to me like a decisively better version of that story.


Insanity seems to be present on many levels in the book: Is this connected with the current political situation in Serbia?

Many recent events in Yugoslavian history, specifically the wars of the 90s, have been conveniently attributed to a sort of innate Balkan madness. That image has been useful to many. In the Serbian film production of the 90s and later, there are some very popular films, mostly state financed, that tended to indicate that in the origin of all Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian violence there is a factor of some orgiastic lunacy. For a regime which provoked those wars that was an excellent way to create a sense of collective responsibility. At the same time, the Italian and European media have often defined the Yugoslav wars as “incomprehensible” and deeply rooted in some exotic, savage and unexplainable past, which consequently makes a western observer feel disengaged and detached.


In the novel you use the words “mad” and “madness,” terms that have a very specific meaning in the history of psychiatric treatment and cannot be replaced by another term, even if we considered them “politically incorrect.”

Madness is a state of being in-between similar to today’s notion of migration. It is the condition of those who, in the eyes of a majority, have nowhere to return to and nowhere to go. There is no willingness to understand what causes their condition, and no diagnosis that could indicate a treatment. The mad, like the migrant, exist in an area undefined, undiagnosed by society. As a result, the madman and the migrant are best when immobilized, enclosed in what seems to be a facility for temporary stays, but we know that the “ideal” solution, the “unconsciously desired” solution, actually would be to keep them interred for good. Paradoxically, a migrant becomes a migrant only when he stops moving, when he (or his dead body) have reached some shore, when placed in a collective camp, or when caught and disfigured by the razor wire. But most of all, the migrant is a migrant when interred in a designated camp. The same occurs with the 18th, 19th or 20th century’s madmen, the definition of which is associated with the institution of the asylum. Outside the asylum, the mad can be a variety of things: a genius, a prophet, a fool, a criminal. Only the asylum defines the mad as such.


It was interesting for me to learn that, thanks to the initiative of some less aligned doctors, Belgrade’s psychiatric hospital at the start of the 20th century seemed to have been a rather advanced institution with a very constructive, human approach towards its patients. It seems that the “mad” there would actually turn into “patients,” as in very few other places in the world at the time.

In my novel, the hospital patients and the staff, the 120 citizens of Lusitania, understand more than others that madness and reason are not always opposed. The real opposition does not lie between reason and madness, but between reason and stupidity. Consequently, madness is not only as equally opposed to stupidity as reason, but it can be a way to identify and analyze stupidity. Stupidity is premeditated, stupidity makes plans, it is motivated by personal gain. While madness has been for centuries punished, the mad incarcerated and tortured, stupidity has always been gloriously celebrated. Doctor Stojimirović, the psychiatrist and the Prime Minister of Lusitania, will often underline this position in his lectures to patients and staff. In fact, as one “mad man” will say: Madness is the punishment for opening our eyes.


Your characters are often travelers with different goals, motivations and methods of travel. Some of them travel to return home. Is this connected in some ways to your own life?

To a great extent the novel was written while traveling. Sir Lipton himself is a traveler, but so is Mr. Teofilović, a Serbian immigrant in New York, an architect, obsessed with the idea of building a funerary monument for himself in his native Belgrade. As a survivor of the sinking of the Lusitania, he finds himself walking towards Belgrade down the lines of the Western Front, and through the underground passages that only some very special guides are familiar with, never taking off his vest that identifies him as a survivor of the shipwreck.


Another character, a taxidermist, travels from Belgrade to Florence, to avoid an apparently incomprehensible conspiracy, and there he finds himself exploring an irrational space of the Museum of Natural History. He will be confronted there with a mysterious puzzle in the form of a taxidermy object: Presumably the remains of a man shrunk to a size of a cat. In that mystery, which is essentially connected with the theme of sacrifice that survives in the modern world, he will slowly begin to lose himself.


The taxidermist’s travel and the travel of Teofilović are, in fact, symmetrical events in the novel.


Both will be guided in their journey by guides that strangely resemble animals, and both will be subject to a process of disappearance in front of the eyes of their closest observers.

I would say the theme of travel in the novel is very much connected with the theme of disappearance. One of the characters in the novel will conclude that the entire 20th century will be a century of developing methods and strategies of disappearance. Only the modality changes, a fragmentation, a fade out, a fall out of reality.


Throughout the novel, animal-like individuals appear as guides through strange, symbolic places. Sometimes, groups of animals appear in processions, alive, dead, exhibited or impersonated.

These processions resemble Dionysian rituals, whether they are part of a museum collection, a diorama, a therapy method, or a subversive masquerade. In the scene of the saving of stuffed animals of Belgrade’s zoological collection out of the burning museum, patients silently carry the taxidermy objects through the streets, and their huge shadows, cast by flames from the bombed buildings, merge with those of the animals they carry on their backs. They become therefore a procession of fantastic creatures with numerous legs and winged heads. In a dialogue, somewhere towards the end of the book, a strange little man, an unofficial guide though the Florentine Museum of Natural History, who, among other things, bares a strong resemblance to Lewis Carol’s rabbit, will try to convince his interlocutor that humanity’s greatest fear lies in the fact that each man must carefully conceal an animal within. That animal is, to a man, the object of the most profound hatred. What we call biography is nothing other than a set of strategies for hiding, keeping, obscuring that animal inside, because we know that the moment it becomes evident, we will be destroyed by our surroundings. That is why, according to the rabbit-man, the hatred of animals and the fear of madness are essentially one and the same thing.

Elisa Biagini

born in Florence in 1970, has lived, studied and taught in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. at Rutgers University, taught Italian there and also taught at Columbia University and New York University. She translated Louise Glück, Sharon Olds and other American poets into Italian for the anthology Nuovi Poeti Americani (Einaudi, 2006), and her translation of Gerry LaFemina's collection, The Parakeets of Brooklyn, won the Bordighera Prize in 2003; it was published by Bordighera in a bilingual edition the next year.

Her poetry has been translated into a dozen languages or more, including French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.

Elisa Biagini lives in Florence and teaches creative writing, literature and art history in Italy and abroad.