The highly-acclaimed Slovene writer and film director Goran Vojnović has written a novel about emotions. After the provocative titles Southern Scum Go Home and Yugoslavia, My Fatherland (published in translation by Istros Books and praised in The Guardian, the Irish Times, and the Times Literary Supplement) his new novel carries a gentle, tasteful title – The Fig (not yet translated into English). His first novel came as a blast, it opened up the door and heart of Fužine, the only self-proclaimed Ljubljana ghetto, where “chefoors” (a pejorative term of ex-Yugoslav first and second wave immigrants in Slovenia) live. The novel speaks in the name of young Marko Đordić, who vividly and wittily comments on his everyday reality, the perils of not really belonging to society and to witnessing the decay of his community. The second novel changed its course and its tonality, and focused on Yugoslavian war crimes and their heritage.
The Fig is a guide through relationships for all those who have a home. It's a novel about eternal love, about all that happens before a family is coined, it is also a program for self-acceptance and a novel about migrations, departures and wanderings on the way home. The main protagonist questions freedom as the possibility of imagining, as an alternative to love, as an escape. It turns out that the really important kind of freedom, if I borrow David Foster Wallace's words, “involves attention and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in a myriad of petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
What is the difference between newcomers and immigrants?
I am not sure there actually is a difference. The feeling of foreignness is quite similar. The feeling that you don't belong to a certain place is so intimate that it's not connected to where you're coming from and why you came.
Your novel, The Fig, resembles the work of the Slovene writer Lojze Kovačič, it is also connected to his grand novel, The Newcomers, in terms of content.
I am glad about that, because Kovačič is by far my favorite Slovene writer, and The Newcomers is definitely the best novel written in Slovene that I have ever read. I know that the things you read infiltrate what you write. I am glad this has infiltrated.
In Kovačič's novel, German is the language of the other, and in The Fig, Serbo-Croatian is not the language of the narrator anymore.
The hero uses that language differently. For him, it becomes the language of memories. This is typical for most immigrants who used to belong to a specific language environment and have changed it. The language bonds with childhood memories and has a different function and a new force, it can speak on a new level. Among Slovenes, these childhood languages might be the dialects. We speak in a common tongue, but the dialects remain the languages of childhood, of growing up, of the family.
In The Fig, all those themes that you have accumulated in your previous novels gain seriousness. In Southern Scum Go Home, divorce is ridiculed. In The Fig, it is already a serious thing. When did divorce cease to be a comedy?
In Southern Scum Go Home we can still ridicule divorce, because it never happens. That way we decrease our fear. In the conservative world of Chefoors in the first novel, children ridicule their parents who are afraid to divorce, but that way they speak about their own fear. A divorce has become mundane, we don't regard it a special, harmful event, but it is so. A commonly-used phrase says that after the death of a fellow man or woman, a divorce is the second most serious thing in one's life. The fact that society doesn't enforce its seriousness is only a mitigating circumstance. We know that sometimes a divorce is necessary, but it remains a traumatic, painful event.
In The Fig the divorce is connected to the liberation of a woman, the hero's grandmother. In the novel freedom has many faces, it represents the opposite of love as well.
Freedom is an invented thing. We yearn for it, although it does not exist. When we are born, we are immediately placed in a context of relationships to which we have obligations and responsibilities. The freedom we dream of is tied to cutting all our threads, intimate as well as societal.
The absence of responsibilities towards others brings an experience of freedom?
A lot of people think it is enough to break a relationship to live freely. You will have one responsibility less. The book speaks about the notion that the alternative to love is not freedom, but loneliness. Today people are irrationally and unreasonably obsessed with freedom, and choose to be lonely. I think a human needs a partner, a family, relationships with others. If she has that, she of course is not free. If we don't have that, we can't be fulfilled nor happy. It is a situation in which we have to let something go. The problem with relationships is that we want love and freedom, which isn't possible.
Is that feeling connected to the line “Maybe we've grown up at last” from the novel? What does this adulthood mean?
I understand adulthood as losing all adolescent illusions, and as a realization of what type of world you actually live in. In a way, it is about deciding whether you will still try to create the illusion, or accept the world as it is. Young people accept the iniquity of the world, the order of things, their own irrelevant position, with great difficulty. Adulthood begins when you are forced to accept all of that. There is nothing positive in adulthood, but it's necessary. If you remain young for too long, the iniquity might break you. You have to grow up, so you can live your life, regardless of it. We might call that conformism, indifference – you just enclose in your little world of the family and friends you take care of.
As long as a person is still sensitive, she cannot grow up?
You remain sensitive, you are still moved by it all, but you don't feel a need to let everything go and go change the world. Something ties you to a specific place and people, more so than before.
In all three stories, a family pattern is repeated: Daughters, too tied to their father and fathers who are leaving...
In a family, certain patterns are repeated over and over, they are not innumerable. We always spin around those few which are hard to break. They have their own historical logic, which people accept and enforce further. Of course sometimes these patterns are positive, whereas sometimes these patterns are also such that need to be dismantled. A typical example is patriarchy, which is transposed into our space and time, although we believe we have dismantled it already. It doesn't show itself as brute inequality of women, but is expressed on a very subtle level, in the relationships between partners, the relationships with sons and daughters. People who carry the most responsibility for this will not admit to it at all.
In the novel, the pasts that the protagonists supposedly left behind are returning and overpowering them.
My wish for the message of the book is that you can break with the past, if you are aware of what is happening to you, of what you have inherited and what you are passing on, unconsciously. Awareness is the path to confrontation. You can't just want to move on, before you have dealt with certain things. A lot of people want to move on, before they have confronted the past.
And this will catch up with us?
Of course. More cruelly on the level of society, more than in our intimacy. It is a long, hard process that not everyone is capable of realizing, a lot of people still resist it. It's easier to say that you are not interested and just keep on enduring it.
How did the Bosnians become the unconscious of Slovenia?
Well, this is how a protagonist of the novel sees things. It's about this judgment that there is always something else that controls things. As, for instance, our left blames the right for pulling strings from the background – and vice versa. One side blames the other for what it's doing itself. Slovenes – Bosnians. Left – right. There needs to be somebody to blame for your own misery. It is easiest to blame someone different. In the final instance, this leads to fascism.
I didn't understand this as a judgment. Bosnians worked in mines and were involved in construction work, they mined and built Slovenia, from the bottom up, pushed it further.
This judgment works in both ways, also in terms of positive discrimination. “If there wouldn't be any Bosnians, there'd be nothing.” But that is as far from the truth as the other side is. A person who arrives in a new place is forced to be more active, she's forced to create herself, because she doesn't have any connections. People here don't have a positive attitude to those who network, who seek opportunity, offer ideas. Some are passivized by this situation, it stops them and disables them in their creativity. Both types of judgments are only simplifications.
In the novel, you write against documentation. “What an ugly expression – to document – this story is still beautiful, because nobody documents it.” Can this undocumented picture be recorded?
I have to admit that I don't believe in documentation in film either. When we aim to document, we change reality. Documentation is not a document, but already a record of a document. Today, film documentaries evolved in the direction of art films, authors have realized that nothing can be documented just as it is, you can only recreate it, comment on it. It's the same in life.
How does memory work then? In an un-documentary way?
Foremost, it is unreliable. Memories are stories which we ourselves told about memories. When we start narrating, we create an order to our associations and that opens up a new order of events. The way a story was told will remain in our memory for a longer time than what we have actually experienced.
So memory can be held together better by literature than film?
A film is a story, as well. Producing an associative chain is characteristic of film more than it is of literature. In that regard, a film imitates memories more. An image which awakens an image which awakens an image and sums up into a narrative. Words function in this way as well, they arouse certain associations, especially in poetry. Words have that power too, they connect our memories and have a history in us.
Does the path to Slovenian film lead through literature?
It was the opposite with me. The path to literature led through Slovene film.
But stardom came in literature first.
I think this will remain so. I can't imagine repeating the success of my debut novel with a film. It is impossible to repeat it, at the same time, I don't even have the desire to create something so popular. Do Slovene film directors have stronger literary visions than cinematic ones? I don't know, maybe.
Is literature privileged in comparison to film in Slovenia?
They are both disadvantaged. There are less and less readers and same goes for film audiences. The attitude to literature is as indifferent as it is to film. The only difference I spot is that in Slovenia around 100 novels are published a year, and only three or four films are made. A reader can find something he likes, whereas spectators are forced to watch what we have. Spectators are more critical, because they watch less favorable authors and genres. We don't read the same novels, but we all watch the same films.
Translated by Ana Schnabl