Thursday, October 26, 2006

The writer in exile

This fragment has been originally published in “Pisma iz tudjine”, “Znanje”, Zagreb; pp. 13-16. © Borislav Pekic; English translation ©Zdenka Krizman and Maja Samojlov, as “Letters from London”.

You may wonder – not without reason – what a Yugoslav writer is doing in London. Why isn’t he in his own country, where – by the very nature of his calling – a writer ought to be? Why isn’t he with his own people, immersed in the reality of his land, in the environs of the language in which he writes?
Why isn’t he living among the people he is writing for?

S.Reames_Dichotomy At first glance, this is an unnatural state of affairs. But, if we look back in time, we will see that history is full of such “unnatural” situations. It is almost unnatural for a writer to live at home. The great figures of the future of Russian literature, from Solzhenitsyn to Zinovyev, are writing in the West.

Ionesco, Milosz, Kundera, Kochout, and Szkvoretzky are here. Marguerite Yourcenar lives in the United States, Robert Graves on a Spanish island. The English poet Auden is dying in Switzerland and the Columbian Marquez gained fame in Paris for the Hispano-American literature.

Between the two World Wars, the “lost generation” of Anglo-American writers moved to Europe, into voluntary exile from the way of life they had renounced so that, paradoxically, they might portray it more profoundly and deeper, from the farthest possible physical distance and from the most exclusive spiritual independence.

This is not an acquired state. It is an inherited one. Since the days long past, men of letters have spent longer or shorter periods of their lives, often forcibly, rarely willingly, sometimes in consequence of a confused welter of motives, in what we tend to call exile, but what is, in fact, this same world of ours observed from a different vantage point.

Dante, Rousseau, Hugo, Zola, Byron, Rimbaud, Wilde, the Mann brothers, Hemingway, Joyce, Pound, Beckett, Vuk Karadžić, Matoš, Crnjanski, Dučić, all spent their lives alternating between the Purgatory of Exile and the Purgatory of Home, thinking and writing in the language of the country which had rejected them, or had been rejected by them.

But this rejection never was, and never could be, lasting. Wherever and however he may live, a true writer will always belong to the history and the destiny of his people.

The inevitable reconciliation between Power and Spirit, History and their rebellious black sheep is aided by the fact that, owing to the progress of technology, the world is now one, with people more fatefully dependent on each other for survival than ever before in their tormented history. It no longer consists of isolated human enclaves, separated by bare areas of wilderness.

No longer can a man be banished from it, or escape it. When Caesar Augustus banished Ovid to what is today’s Crimea, the poet understandably felt that he had been banished from life itself; for all that represented life to him occurred exclusively in the Mediterranean. Ovid’s world stretched no farther than the reach of a Roman legionnaire’s javelin, and whatever happen beyond Romulus’ shield was also – outside the world.

This is how he came to write the lines which are the cry of all outcasts: “Let my bones be brought back, in a small urn, so that – though dead – I shall not still be exiled”. Ovid died in exile. His bones were not returned to Rome. They were returned to the foundations of European culture, where they rightfully belong, but where the relics of Augustus belong also, the man who banished him.

Because, a poet is a messenger, both for his own village, and for the whole world. He can not be banished into obscurity. He can only be thrust – into glory. There are signs that the Power That Be are beginning to appreciate this fact.

Talking about a writer in exile is not the same as talking about any other man in exile. For most people, language is a supplementary means of existence, adaptable to the society in which one lives. But for the writer – it is the sole means. He may change everything, even the country, but with only rare exceptions, not the language, in which he works.

Being for a long time outside the realm of one’s mother-tongue means taking a risk. The bonds with one’s origins and land are genetic and mythical. In human and artistic temptations, they are known Antheically to revive used up forces. Outside one’s country, the life giving roots dry up, the source for the renewal doesn’t exist.

The language is then present only in one’s memory. The memory is a cemetery, and like every cemetery is not fit for living. That is why the writer in exile walks a knife-edge between new experiences and old memories, the only two sources of his inspiration. It is uncertain whether the new experiences will destroy the memories, or enrich them with improved understanding.

But, if the risk is undertaken, there are good reasons. Mine are of a professional nature, if this is not another word for my personal reasons. In principle, a writer expresses not just his own, but also the collective experience. Both spring from reality. But being sunk into reality like a heavy stone is just as dangerous as living outside it, like an echo or a ghost.

In order not to escape from it in my confusion, but also not to sink in it, nor to lose my independence of thought and my ability to raise my subject-matter to some universality – without which there can be no artistic truth – I withdrew, to be able to look upon that reality, the reality of my country and its destiny, and to observe it also from outside.

If I have succeeded, the results will speak for themselves. If I have failed, I will pay the price.

Since I am not here to learn about the British, but to find out more about my own people, I am afraid that in my Letters from London you will be hearing more about us, than about them. Because, from the way a man from the Balkans observes the world, it may be possible to observe more closely what we are ourselves.

In others, like in a mirror, we will see us; in their virtues, our defects; in their abilities, our limitations; in their capabilities our weaknesses. And we hope, although the hope is not great, in their defects, limitations, weaknesses, a certain chance for self-respect.

The field in which two races, traditions, histories, destinies – even civilizations – converge and separate, is an endless one. Where to begin? We can begin from the fact that, at least we in Serbia, got an English ambassador before we obtained an English toilet, but that we killed our King much later than they did, seems to me premature.

We might begin from the one reliable fact: we belong to the same Species – both we, and they, are human.

However, if you look around, you will find, that sometimes this means all too little

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