A few years ago I happened to be in Tuzla. The reason was utterly pleasant, I remember that strongly. I was supposed to talk a little, and to have endless fun. Dear people, dear memories. A question was asked about Kikinda, where I come from. There’s plenty of things in Kikinda: remains, mainly. This thought occurred to me, but instead I said that by the disappearance of Kikinda from the geographical map of modern Serbia nothing would disappear. The same, I added, is true of Zrenjanin. There were some people from Zrenjanin nearby, and local-patriot squabbles never get old. Nevertheless, I behaved extremely fairly, perhaps in that counterfactual situation, in which neither Kikinda nor Zrenjanin exists, literature would still de facto suffer. I am not certain that the proud owner of the question was happy and satisfied with the offered reply.
A shorter while ago, I found myself in Split in a situation surreal as much as unexpected. That after-party situation entailed the presence of a certain Croatian female writer, probably also a Croatian football player’s ex-wife, in close proximity to me. Count on miracles and they will occur. All kinds of miracles. This lady’s appearance at the festival whose guest I myself was, too, boiled down to a heart-breaking pro-Ustasha lament which led to at least one loss of consciousness in the audience. How sweet are those creatures, such ladies, constantly ready to play safe, allowing for losses in advance. As I was saying, the after-party, the two of us close to each other, which necessarily involves joys of communication. The diva addresses me, am I from Macedonia, I pass her naïve conclusion through a prejudice filter, no, from Serbia, she doesn’t get confused, saying she’s been to the Book Fair in Belgrade, she’s never had a better time. I say I am not from Belgrade, I am from Kikinda. She’s heard of it, that’s a very important place for literature, what is it like there, is it nice. Aha, I reply. Like in Birmingham. In 1971. For a reason incomprehensible to me, further conversation mysteriously vanished. So much for language and problems it causes among men and women.
James Caan, an Oscar winner, gave a speech for a documentary recorded in the nineties about the miserable last century. The film’s subject matter was the difficult destinies of forgotten film stars, even a laureate such as Caan. He explicitly provided an image of a dead end in which his career had found itself by ill fortune: there were simply no right roles, excluding indecent offers by b-trash producers. All this forced Caan to get a regular job, like the majority of American white middle-class members. In order not to go insane, Sonny Corleone set a basket in his backyard. After any completed shift he would shoot a basketball, as many times as possible. In order to preserve his sanity.
You can do plenty of stuff in Kikinda, in a Caanian fashion. I ride a bicycle. It’s a good thing. New perspectives open up. For instance, I saw a punk last summer, I swear by holy cross. A punk, barefoot, naked down to his waist, with a tattoo which was obviously the doing of a blind bard of this art, drinks up his beer on a wooden bench before one of the last classic mini-markets in town. Those where neighbours take bread, milk and salami on tick. And beer – it goes without saying. A genuine punk, straight from a time machine. Sitting and drinking. On the western edge of town, Kraljevića Marka Street. One expects industry, shifts, socialist self-management, provincial dissent which can be touching. However, there’s nothing behind the image. It is merely itself, an image. The horizon of expectation has thoroughly been disturbed.
Or like this: the northern edge, towards Romania, the territory of the European Union. Nikole Tesle Street (yes, indeed), viewed from the bicycle. Signs have survived, serious trade used to take place there, real business used to be done. Rust on the slanted metal boards, a useless alphabet of a historically dead time. Ideologically dead, for sure. For good. The first impression is of the façades: all are wet and green, decaying. Multi-storey buildings which appear to be squatted, as if an idea of squatting had ever taken root in Kikinda. The entry door ajar, careless negligence. Apparently, it’s all the same. The daily ride on the bicycle along this street leads to an illusion of its increasing curvature. Porters look after the extinct factory facilities.
The railway station is in this street. No one loses sleep over this. Trains rarely arrive, two per day from and to Zrenjanin, a sporadic freight train, none to Jimbolia. There’s no ticket for the European Union, which is nine kilometres away. No one is concerned. Kikinda natives’ heads are equipped with an archetypal idea of a Romanian, who, dressed in a pile of rags, sits next to his sack full of hardware which no one needs, with the intention to re-sell it at a local market or barter it for chocolate and medication. Up until 1991 no one had entered Romania. Almost no one. Those who had would seem to the others like returnees from Vietnam. Romania, it’s Ceaușescu. Securitate. Lasting power cuts. Lack of almost anything. Something other than us. It’s, fuck it, Dracula. After 1991 everybody wanted to go away. At least to Romania. It wasn’t feasible then. It isn’t easy even now – there are no trains for Jimbolia, there have never been coaches for Romania. There are some for Zrenjanin, if anyone feels like going there at all. Radu Pavel Gheo, a writer from Timişoara, told me about his tears after the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars. It used to be my country, he told me. We used to listen to Yugoslav radio stations. Gheo can list the titles of all the records by Riblja Čorba and Bajaga from the first decade of their careers.
There are no cinemas in Kikinda. There used to be three: Radnički (Emmanuelle, Friday the 13th, Gunan, King of the Barbarians), Zvezda (Rocky 4, Amadeus, a matinee for kids every Sunday from ten o’clock) and a summer garden. This garden is actually in the Jovan Popović National Library backyard. This old, majestic building, protected by one of the laws of the Republic of Serbia, has been leaking for years. Local self-government leaders provide financial means for the reconstruction of the ceiling, they issue a call for tenders and select a contractor, the contractor comes and goes, the deterioration continues in even greater measure. In 2010, from the mounted platform in front of a huge concrete screen of a deceased cinema, the abovementioned writer Gheo read one of his stories to the audience, as part of an edition of the Kikinda Short international short story festival. A couple of years before him, Clare Wigfall, an unobtrusive girl from Great Britain, was on that same stage. She read, brought the house down and left. Shortly afterwards I received an e-mail from her. She sent me a link to the broadcast of the final round of the selection of the best short story in a competition organized by the BBC. On that day I listened to the programme and realized that the winner of the BBC Short Story Award, the most prestigious of its kind, had been in front of about two hundred inhabitants of Kikinda, only a few days earlier. Clare Wigfall.
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
So, two or three hundred people commonly follow reading sessions at the Kikinda Short Festival. It’s summer, late June, rain has never spoilt the authors’ appearances before. Local journalists gather there, tired of traffic accidents, reports from the market and press conferences by useless leaders of town’s political party branches, librarians whose workplace is a reading environment, high school students, volunteers, reporters from the capital city, regional correspondents, Srđan V. Tešin is there, Mića Vujičić with him, too, unavoidable translators, and also some people never seen by anyone anywhere, among them, in Gogol’s words, Sysoy Pafnutievich and Makdonald Karlovich, otherwise not present in the registers of library members and even less present in any of the three bookshops in Kikinda.
The short story seems not to thrive so well elsewhere as in Kikinda. But then, when all is said and done, we are where we used to be, amid devastated façades and next to a dog park from which blissful fellow-citizens have stolen all the equipment. By now widely known, the protagonist of this story, a punk without punk, mirthfully states that nothing has changed. And he takes another beer on tick. Clare Wigfall leaves. Bernard MacLaverty leaves. David Albahari leaves. Fiction remains without its own fictional roots. The duration of the reading world finishes and it stays impossible.
Never before have hundreds of people addressed me as the editor of the Festival (while I held that position, later I didn’t, now I do hold a little bit of it again) with a wish to provide them with a copy of the book of stories by participating authors not even a free copy. Never has anyone from the library informed me about an increased number of borrowed short story books. Amateurs keep writing abominable amateurish poetry, stories aren’t what interests them, nor will they ever be. In bookshops, short story collections are placed somewhere unreachable and invisible, if there are any at all. It sounds like a total defeat, Sisyphus would be envious. A defeat of such epic proportions that I wouldn’t engage in questioning standard festival visitors, a simple survey consisting of a single question: mention your five dearest authors who have participated in the Festival in the last ten years. Most of them would have some trouble with a question formulated in that way. Dramatic trouble.
What have we learnt so far about the presupposed interaction of a literary festival and a town? Well, perhaps not a town in the full sense of the word, but a relatively urbanized human settlement. The town is motionless, such as it is it does not extend, its growth and development have long since been terminated. The town waits, let’s say it waits for the Old Testament death to come, but it adamantly refuses to show up. The static town waits, naked and barefoot, suspended in a place where nothing seems probable to happen. When it comes to such a town, everything has already happened. The remaining time is a surplus no one knows what to do with. Nevertheless, the town has remained benevolent. Partially so. Some simple-minded curiosity ekes out its days somewhere in the midst of numbness conditioned by deterioration. When, in the contextual perspective of this environment, someone emerges who does not speak its language, that is, someone who does not speak at all, someone who behaves in a different manner and appears to come from a better reality, someone who knows how to remain an aristocrat in the dark wasteland, this brings about a positive conflict a solution to which is an uncommon type of fictional spectacle.
The aura of any festival thus conceived is primarily verbal. Its root strategy is rudimentary, evoking ancient times of magical oral tradition and oral transposition of text, where the one who utters the text controls the listeners’ attention and time. Kikinda’s static all-time slides from its hinges during the Festival, all present listeners slide with it. Play victoriously grins behind any spectacle, with readers as its bearers, whatever they are called, whatever status they may be, whichever language they may speak. When they peter out, vanish, listeners stay all by themselves, at their homes, in their streets and their bends. This has never been the best of all options offered. On the contrary.
There is a photo taken two months ago, during the Festival’s off-programme. Three authors read in one of Kikinda’s clubs. Thirty-something listeners in a cosy atmosphere. The librarians are also there, as ordered by their job assignments. Their terrified, contorted faces, legible and visible nausea caused by literature and their primordial, ontological incomprehension of its purpose. Sometimes literature defeats the town, the opposite happens more often. A couple of festival (carnival) days are the exclusive response to the annually accumulated misery, nothing less than that is accepted. I forgot to tell the people in Tuzla; by the disappearance of Kikinda from the geographical map of modern Serbia, not only literature would disappear. Loneliness would disappear. I dare not estimate the proportions of damage incurred in any of the mentioned cases.