It is hard to start writing about your hometown, not simply because it is only natural that you have some strong feelings towards the place you live in, but also because you have to start somewhere, regardless of the fact that your readers do not know a single thing about Zrenjanin, and the real craft is not to bore them. So I decided not to follow the usual Wikipedia pattern; for those interested, that article can be found in as many as forty-three languages. I guess this is more than one could expect.
For me, Zrenjanin is like a boxer who's suffered one punch too many, but still refuses to fall, as in a memorable scene from Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull, known as the “St Valentine’s Day Massacre,” when Sugar Ray Robinson punches and punches Jake LaMotta, but “never gets him down.” It is a small miracle how this town, after more than thirty years (some would say even longer) of being ruined is somehow still holding itself up. It is losing its population: from the 2001 census to the 2011 one, it was down 3,262 people, which is a bit more than 4%, and this is no a trifling amount. You can find a clip on YouTube that was shot on the streets of Zrenjanin only two years ago, and it shows its emptiness. The day is Saturday, the time is around 8 p.m., the location is the corner of the main square and the main street, and you cannot see a living soul out there. By the end of the footage, you see a couple of people with suitcases, as they are leaving. Probably never to return.
Just the other day, I was waiting for a friend at the central bus station, which was built in the mid-80s. She had to change buses and hand me a few books, so she got off the bus, and we had to enter the building for her to buy a ticket for the next ride. The main entrance was closed, and we were a bit startled. So we went to the side one, and finally entered the ticket hall, which is quite large. Next to the main entrance, we saw a pool of water, and a waterfall above it. However, it was not an artistic installation, but a big hole in the roof, and the leakage was enormous. The funniest thing was that, outside, it was just a cold and misty February day, the rain having stopped an hour before.
In front of the apartment building where I live, there was a problem with the sewers. It was solved, but in order to reach the pipes deep underground, the workers had to pull out a street lamp post. But nobody came to return the lamp post to its original place, and since it is still winter, we are in the dark from 5 p.m. onwards. Like in the Middle Ages.
I hear voices telling me not to overreact and to stop complaining. To find something nice and write about it. Well, there are/were more than a few nice things in Zrenjanin. Three of my favorite men of letters were born here, and I am very proud that, in a way, I am continuing their work by editing a literary journal called Ulaznica (which translates as The Entering Ticket). The first of the three, Todor Manojlović (1883-1968), was of one the most influential figures of his time, a man who, along with Stanislav Vinaver, introduced modernism to Serbian literature. He spoke several languages, wrote poetry, drama, and criticism, both literary and artistic. He translated and taught, and was the key, almost the father figure to the other two: Vujica Rešin Tucić (1941-2009) and Vojislav Despotov (1950-2000). The former was one of the leaders of the neo-avant-garde movement, and the latter was his disciple, but also a guy who promoted American beat poetry, and edited a magazine devoted to it, symbolically called Hey Joe. He also translated Jack Kerouac’s classic, On the Road.
All three of these wonderful poets and thinkers are related to Zrenjanin, and they influenced not only the local, but the Yugoslav poetry scene, in more than one way. Nevertheless, all three of them left Zrenjanin at the peak of their creative powers; only the oldest of them returned after the Second World War, and not of his own accord. He was exiled to the town of his birth, because he’d taught at the university during the Nazi regime. This was his only crime. But it was a very important twist of fate for the local kids who started hanging around with Todoš, and listened to his stories from Nagyvarad, Budapest, Florence, Paris. Without these stories, there would never have been Ulaznica.
As you might assume, in every town there is a local legend, a story of origins, a myth, if you will. I like these, because I, too, am trying to be a man of letters. Were I a painter, I would probably tell you a story about more than one-hundred visual artists who live in the town. Ironically, it seems that Zrenjanin is the most artistic town in the world, per capita. And of course, I could go on bragging about our splendid but under-budgeted National Museum, the oldest theater in the country (which lacks adequate productions due to expenses), or the library which is...well, I work there, so I’d better keep quiet. But you should come and see for yourself.