About a Certain Door to Post-Yugoslav Literature

Since the Serbian author, Srđan Srdić, entered Serbian literature, things have not been the same

Srđan Srdić is one of the most important authors of post-Yugoslav literature. In fact, along with a few others, he is a writer whose primary interest is literature. He knows it and loves it, and is someone who, if he doesn’t live off of writing, which is hardly possible these days, he lives for reading and writing. In today’s world, this is an achievement, especially when the logic of the literary market no longer exists, where everything is turned into wild plunder, into a futile rat race for a piece of glory and small amounts of cash. Srđan Srdić is a long way from this. He belongs to the authentic and important tradition which he chose for himself, which he gained with his own education and knowledge, and which he inclined towards with his writing, and all without paying too much attention to what is going on in the literary field around him. Although he did not appear out of thin air, one can claim that he entered literature in the most classic way, through magazines and literary competitions. It could be said that he rose like a comet and, since his appearance, things have not been the same in post-Yugoslav literature. This does not mean that everybody approves of him. On the contrary. But this relationship is changing, and it is not straightforward. 

In the beginning, the critics were overwhelmed by him, but the readers were a bit appalled. Today, it seems that his readership is growing, but the critics are not as univocal as they used to be. The truth is that he does not care for either of them. He is treading the road he has paved, and with every new book he tries to cross new barriers and set new goals, to overcome the so-called ‘petrified form’. Srdić does not do this because he is vain or shrewd, but because he takes himself and his job very seriously, and this is a rare thing around here, no matter what work you do.

Outdoor installation by Nicole Evans and Pat Farrell

I do not want to explore matters that are not connected to literature, so I will try to go swiftly through every book Srdić has written – three novels, two collections of short stories, and a collection of essays. I would like to present to you the scale of his talent and his hard work, because we seem to forget that talent only constitutes ten percent of success: Work, order and scrutiny do the rest.

Srdić’s first book, the novel The Dead Field, was published in 2010. It was kind of a precedent of the new Serbian literature, because it resembled the stream of consciousness and modernistic type of novel, similar to Joyce’s Ulysses, not only by its free use of other generic structures, but also by its use of an experimental mode of language. The metaphor in the title instantly tells the reader what the book is about, but when one plunges oneself into the seemingly complicated jungle of the text and its meanings, it becomes obvious that the plot is set in what may be the worst year in modern Serbian history. Mad and inflicted with war, poverty and economic inflation, the year was 1993. Like his great Irish role model, Srdić set his narrative over twenty-four hours of a terrible day, and just like in Ulysses, in Srdić’s novel nothing much happens, or one could say that everything that happens is merely the overflow of the Lacanian Symbolic in the reality created by the novel. Two guys flee Belgrade because of the draft, while a girl flees Kikinda for Belgrade; their meeting, along with their deaths and love, occur in the middle of the story, in a village called Perlez. What is important is the story, and as a character called Srđan Srdić says: ‘Every story is significant’.

Bakhtin determines polyphony as the main feature of a novel. In his study about Dostoyevsky, Bakhtin states that polyphony characterises the novel through different uses of language, by means of which it creates and resembles reality. In a similar way, Srdić’s use of various perspectives, his constant change of viewpoint, the rhythm of the narration, the style, enabling the characters to use different languages, and their significant silences, all contributes to the enormous richness and fullness of the text. The question of polyphony inevitably puts the question of the Other and the Different in focus by giving the right type of speech to them, without the slightest intervention. Through this approach, Srdić’s novel becomes a study of character, a precise sociological analysis based on language and language behaviour. Polyphony also brings to light intertextuality which, in The Dead Field, is not only based on literary sources but also on music, popular culture and film.

Why is it important to write about 1993 today, after seventeen years have elapsed? The simplest answer is that 1993 is key to understanding the dominant Zeitgeist of today’s Serbia. This shows us who we really are and highlights, unfortunately, that we have not really changed since then. The coda in the last chapter is a kind of pessimistic conclusion to our lives. Srdić will blatantly tell us to our faces that everything has stayed the same. When looking at the past, his novel is an open fight against forgetfulness, against the illusion that we can negate what has happened and what is happening by turning our heads away, or by sticking them in the sand.

Finally, Srdić’s novel is the justification of the tragic sense of the world, which stretches from Homer to the present day. All of the characters are based upon this premise. Following the logic of hubris, which is reflected in the state of being different, the lovers, who are united by fierce passion, have to discover that they are related. There is the Angel of Destruction walking through Serbia: His name is Captain Zoran Cukić. Before him, even those who believe in the logic of blood and soil, and who are basically of his kind, cannot be sustained. Only those close to power will prevail, like Inspector Braca Josijević. In short, in a dramatic tour de force the reality confirms its brutality and spits in our faces.

Espirandois Srdić’s second book, and his first collection of short stories. After the success of The Dead Field, Srđan Srdić was given the chance to present himself as a storyteller. And he did not disappoint. He continued with his authorial voice, as he did in his breakthrough novel, and it seemed that in some of the short stories he went even further. Right from the start he shows us that he has mastered the form of the short story which, unlike the novel, demands certain artisan skills, almost technical trickery. In a few stories he did something that I consider to be a masterful touch – he managed to deconstruct the form, to reshuffle its pieces, and by doing so gained something completely new and different. He showed us that he mastered different modes of narration, that his intertextual scale is almost unprecedented in today’s fiction, and that he can juggle the elements of humour and seriousness, and that, finally, he can, by the use of language, present authentic and profound emotions. If The Dead Fieldwas an extraordinary experiment, the proof of authorial potential and bravery, then Espirandois the book that will bring Srdić to the highest peaks of Serbian and post-Yugoslav fiction. It is the testimony of the powerful and authentic narrative voice which (pardon my metaphor) can whisper and roar, scream and sing lullabies.

The architectural structure of the collection, which consists of nine stories, already tells us that the author knew exactly what he was doing. Not only do the stories have certain thematic similarities sketched into the titles, but they somehow melt into one another, which helps to create a loose novelistic structure. The common theme of all of the stories is death and its nearness. They represent the last breath, the moment in which the characters are still alive, before the end. In other words, these stories are about the border between life and death. Or are these stories focused on the thin line in between life and death, that exact libidinal experience?

In accordance with this theme, Srdić uses literary models which stem from high modernism. Although Thomas Mann and William Faulkner, whose story ‘A Rose for Emily’ has been paraphrased or pastiched as an unveiled literary inspiration, one could claim that the true father of these stories is Samuel Beckett. The Irish author’s breath can be felt behind every story, whether the story was written directly under his influence or not. Maybe Beckett’s influence could be felt most in the building of the characters, which are similar to his Molloy, Vladimir and Estragon, or Malone. The characters are always in a sur-tragic conflict with the world. They have reached a state of disgust with life. In this sense, the way in which Srdić shows his masterful narration, and which brings him out of his generation, is his use of strict and concentrated language, which is similar to poetry. By his use of language, Srdić manages to represent that exact state in which the characters find themselves, and which is very close to the inexpressible, as in the case of his protagonists in the stories ‘Regarding the Death of the Best Among Us’, ‘Medicine’, and some of the characters in ‘Mosquitoes’.

What is truly powerful is the picture of human consciousness in a hostile environment whose hate and envy are best felt through the impersonal ‘we’, something which Srdić adopts from Faulkner. Perhaps ‘A Rose for Emily’ is the core of Espirando, even though this story is further away from the atmosphere of the collection. Narrated from an atypical perspective, this story gives us, as in an inverted mirror, insight into the inner life of all of the other characters in the collection. It convincingly describes the nature of the conflict that an individual can have with the world, even when he is a complete bastard, such as the characters from ‘Mosquitoes’ or ‘Regarding the Death of the Best Among Us’. Every time ‘I’ gets into a conflict with ‘We’, this conflict is fatal for the self, and this is the point in which we discover the tragic nature of the world, at least as it is seen through the eyes of Srdić’s characters.

As in The Dead Field, where there was a chance for redemption which was lost in advance, in Espirandothere are two stories which, regardless of the known closure, give us a glimpse of something different and better. ‘Medicine’ and ‘Slow Divers’ are extreme love stories, in terms of the emotions displayed and the extraordinary settings, but also through the portrayal of longing, as well. One story is a romance between a guy and a dying girl, the other is a lesbian relationship with a flavour of antique bacchanals. It is clear through the narrative construct that both of these relationships are going to be fatal, but this intense tenderness which Srdić depicts is something that we don’t see very often in modern post-Yugoslav fiction. In other words, no matter how short-lived these relationships are, no matter how far the fall from grace, which is inevitable, terrible and disastrous, the moments of bliss are the most important thing: They give meaning to life. Just like Bataille, by putting together Eros and Tanathos, Srdić stands on the side of the former, because it represents the possibility of redemption from a gloomy everyday life.

The novel Satoriwas published in 2013. It begins with some quotes from Barthes, Lyotard and the Scottish band, Mogwai. If nothing else, we (the reader) should be aware that we are in the post-world: Post-structuralism, post-modern and post-rock. This is extremely important because the whole novel is set in a world that cannot be defined clearly: It does not belong to a unifying theoretical model. It can only be described as a world that comes after. It does not have a foundation, it does not have a basis on which you can build, it is a ruin which merely pops up. The protagonist exists and survives in such a world (or is he a ‘postagonist’?), who goes by the nickname the Driver. Satoriis a Bildungsroman, or educational novel, in which the reader follows the process of acquiring knowledge, revelation and ‘satori’, which in Zen-Buddhism means the moment of seeing the truth of the world, something which the Driver will not experience.

When the educational novel arose, sometime in the seventeenth century, authors such as Grimelshausen, who is the father of the genre, or Goethe, whose novel Wilhelm Meisteris considered the generic paradigm, had a completely different vision of human nature from Flaubert in L’Education Sentimentale, or Srdić in Satori. Every agent of education whom Wilhelm Meister meets along the way brings him some kind of enrichment of the spirit and expands his education. Unlike Goethe, Flaubert’s Frederick Moreau regresses, i.e. his education does not flow in a logical sense from not knowing to knowing, but instead follows the protagonist’s emotional development, which is not balanced and teleological. Srdić’s post-educational novel negates every kind of education which leads to knowing, because there is no world in which progress and/or regress would be possible. The world is a big ruin in every sense of the word, and the Driver and his friend Moki are like zombies, the living dead, shells that are bound to become part of the scenery. Their return to a place where they felt more alive than before is as devoid of purpose as anything they had done before, because nothing fulfils them. Meetings that occur along the way, which are not straightforward, follow the shortest line, but in a round way and are, in fact, goalless. These meetings will not enrich their knowledge, will not allow any insight or any satori, but merely serve to prove to the reader that the world does not exist, that it is completely ruined. Duma, the half-witted keeper of a farm which is also a mass grave; the Hun and his mother, who live by the river and who will help the Driver cross it in their boat; nameless gas stations; the motel on the motorway; the officer who became a cleaner; the truck driver who takes the Driver to the wanted destination, and in the end Moki, whose name may stem from the verb ‘to mock’ – all live in a senseless world, whose existence is completely irrelevant, insignificant.

Srdić does not escape the frame he set in his previous novel or in his collection of short stories. His closest literary cousin is still Beckett, but Srdić’s theatre of absurdity is enriched with a subtle ironic distance in the form of a key to understanding the novel. He is well aware which corpus texts he comes from, and at the end of the novel he extensively quotes from Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. This quotation has a double function: It helps the reader to organise the text with hindsight, because sometimes the novel seems like a puzzle of narrative pieces and scenes, and this quote gives a certain teleology. On the other hand, the quotation refuses to be what it should be, according to the title – satori, revelation and epiphany. If the Driver and Moki spent their most valuable years imprisoned—they weren’t living—then the big question is whether such a life is worth living. The dark side of Srdić’s poetics, which is set out in his earlier works, including those published in literary magazines, is enriched with the aforementioned ironic distance, which makes Satorithe best in his oeuvre. Readers who love to play intertextual games, who love to explore soundtracks, who like self-quotations, will certainly enjoy this novel. It is based on a certain post-emotionality, on de-composure of every closure: From the narrative to that of the created world, to those characters who are not able to dream one dream but dream two, ruin of the ruin. Nonetheless, Satoriis a convincing mimetic picture of today’s world, not only in Serbia, but much further afield. Also included in the novel is Srdić’s political statement about the existence of PTSD, even against those who did not take part in the war directly. It is as if the narrative poses the question: ‘What is your world, what makes your life?’ I am not sure that there is an answer to this question.

In 2014, Srdić published his second collection of short stories, Combustions. It comprises nine stories which can be clustered into three groups of three. The first group, which provides immediate joy, includes: ‘The Daydreaming Rat’, ‘Good Night, Captain’ and ‘Summertime’. The second group, the one in which intertextual examination is dominant, includes the stories ‘Golem’, ‘Espirando’ and ‘Leng Tch’e’; while the last group consists of ‘The Leaden Carousel’, ‘The Tale of How I.I. Settled the Quarrel with I.N.’ and the closing one, which in my opinion is simply marvellous: ‘About a Door’. This division into reading classes should be taken with a pinch of salt, as a critical praxis which helps to ease the presentation of this narrative structure, and to show that Srdić does not give way to chance, because chance is the greatest enemy of art.

I have said enough about Srđan Srdić’s masterful use of language. I could add that, in these four books, Srdić managed to tame the language and put it into the function of what he basically does with his writing: This is the description of condition humaine, which is not cheerful at all. Srdić goes even further in these stories, and the question that seems to interest him is the one of communication or, to be precise, the lack of it. This is where the title comes from, because his characters burn out in a fruitless attempt to communicate with one another, and with their surroundings. Whichever story from the collection you look at, you will see that the real communication is directed inward; there is also no significant Other. Even when real communication is present, as in ‘The Tale of How...’ (which is a very gloomy paraphrase of Gogol’s story), it is false, incomplete, one could say paradoxically unnecessary. If we raise this thematic level to an auto-poetical one, we realise that this is what literature does, it tries to communicate, but it often burns out in the attempt. It stays unread or is either falsely or partially read. Its messages are like the famous Sartre’s claim of singing in the desert (also quoted by Danilo Kiš).

Superficial readers could claim that Srdić did not move on from what he has already done in his previous books; instead, he entered a vicious circle of his own reading and writing obsessions. Nevertheless, in the story ‘About a Door’, we can see clear signs of the development of this still relatively young author. Not only intense emotional levels of the story, which are visible during the mixture of narrative planes, skilfully jumping through narrative time, crossing from third to first person narration, or the tone which is obviously more melancholic, even melodramatic, which could be compared to Bruno Schulz, but it seems that there is something else. The ironic distance of the previous text, which had been extremely important, changed to auto-ironic because it brings about a further distortion of the perspective for the reader, as well as the writer. All of this ends in a magnificent glorification of literature, a marvellous auto-da-fe which enables life-in-art. If ‘Good Night, Captain’ and ‘The Daydreaming Rat’ depend on a completely false interpretation of reality by the characters, then the mild tone which the narrator takes, describing the kid/himself, presents a very important and valuable leap from negation to affirmation, from Beckett to Thomas Mann, especially the Thomas Mann injection of irony and love. Satoriends with a long quotation from Flaubert, and Combustionsends with a sentimental tone in which there are traces of an almost classic beauty. 

Srdić published another collection of essays, Notes from Reading, in the same year. Fellow critic and editor, Ivan Radosavljević, said that the book gives its readers insight into the master’s atelier, as well as insight into the books that influenced his own work. Srdić believes that no literature was created ex nihilo, or with a simple touch of a muse. His deepest conviction is that literary artworks lean on one another and that they are born through the experience of reading. The nine essays deal with seemingly disparate subjects, from popular culture to Japanese literary modernism, but each essay shows us the depth of insight into the nature of the artistic world that Srdić has in the academic field, while also revealing the primary level of pure joy in the text. If his fictional books are sometimes gloomy and obsessive, then his dealings with other authors texts is, in fact, an opportunity for sheer plaisir du texte, as Barthes put it. This is why this book is a cheerful diary of his reading and thoughts about literature, while also an excellent introduction to the books these texts deal with. His research is thorough, his texts meticulously studied and written in a very clear, approachable and understandable way, as one cannot think about literature in blurred metaphors, but through well-argued and clear sentences. Srdić’s relationship with the literature shown in this book is distanced from the dominant theoretically non-defined blurriness which is, more often than not, just a mask for complete ignorance. For this reason, this book is a key to understanding his fiction.

Finally, the novel The Silver Mist Falls, published in 2017, marks the peak of his career so far. Radically different from anything he has done before, and from anything that could be read in the post-Yugoslav literary scene, this novel introduces an almost experimental prose which stems from the most radically modern and post-modern models. Although it should be read as a novel about the impossibility of communication, which is the closest encounter between two human beings, I would say that it is basically a love story or, if it is possible to say, it is an anti-love story. The book opens with a woman who is involved with a very complicated, self-absorbed and secluded man, who is also an author. This is probably the most testing love story Srdić has ever written. But the novel has much more to offer. It produces as many meanings as there are readers and, according to sale figures, the numbers are constantly growing. Which is kind of a surprise, because one has to be patient to make it through this novel. Readers have to accept that it is written in two voices and two perspectives, but they also have to understand a strange pagination, sentences that begin and end in unusual places, to be in something paradoxical – the author is trying to communicate the impossibility of any communication – through language. If Derrida had written novels, he would have loved to have written this one. To make it easier for the reader, Srdić begins with an almost classic detective plot. But even if the person who Sonja has been looking for is found, the quest stays unrewarded.

The Silver Mist Fallshas so much to offer to its readers – it is filled with almost everything that is important and terrifying in today’s world: Violence as its most banal emanation, the digital world in which we look for everything we cannot have in the real one, enjoyment in terror and horror, which are enabled through social networking and new media. Our scopophilia has peaked. However, the novel ends on a positive note, with a kind of dedication to the famous monologue of Molly Bloom from Ulysses. The world will endure, we cannot destroy it fully and someone will get out of this ill communication as a better person, as a lucky loser. In this sense, we could even talk about The Silver Mist Fallsas the most optimistic of all of Srdić’s novels.

Srđan Srdić is the most important author in post-Yugoslav literature. He is someone who shifts it from its inherent provinciality, whereby it was judged not only because it does not belong to the Grand Cannon, but also because it is self-absorbed. The opportunity for the reader to read Srdić’s stories in English is very important, not only for the author, but also for spreading the word that, in this part of the world, there are authors who are definitely worth reading.