Vilenica Prize recipient 2019: Dragan Velikić

Prepared by Kristina Sluga, the editor of Vilenica Almanac

Dragan Velikić Photo: Milovan Milenković

Dragan Velikić was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1953. Since his father worked as a naval officer, the family moved to Pula five years later, where he spent his childhood and youth. He returned to Belgrade to study comparative literature and literary theory at the Philological Faculty. He wrote his first short story at age 26 and, after receiving a warm welcome by reviewers and readers alike, decided to become a professional writer. From 1994–1999 he also acted as the editor of publishing house Radio B92 and as a columnist for several Serbian newspapers; as well, he wrote about the social and political climate of the time for Austrian and German media. Since he could not accept the position of “ours” and “yours” in the wartime in the 1990s, he publicly criticized Slobodan Milošević, Croatian and Serbian nationalistic politics and strongly opposed the war, he was soon branded as a national traitor. He left Belgrade just a few days before the NATO bombing in 1999 and lived for a period in Budapest, then moved to Berlin and later to Vienna, where he was the ambassador of the Republic of Serbia between 2005 and 2009. It is precisely these stays in different European cities, from the childhood on, that have enabled him to never feel fear of something “different”. In the essay Voice from the Crack, he writes that he most highly values tolerance, understanding of other cultures, traditions, habits.
Velikić is one of the most prominent and distinguished contemporary Serbian writers, and in the view of literary experts he is already one of the classics of Serbian literature. He has written eleven novels – the last one, Adresa (The Address), being published in April this year – three short story collections and six essay collections. He also published two collections of columns and interviews. He is not only praised by the reviewers but also very popular among the readers. His works sell in incredibly large numbers, at least in comparison with authors from the former Yugoslav space, and are usually reprinted several times. The novel Islednik (The Investigator) has thus far sold 50,000 copies and was also the most borrowed book in Serbian public libraries in 2016. He is also well known in the international space; translations of his works have thus far been published in 16 European languages, Arabic and Persian. We can read the following novels in Slovenian: Astrahan (Astrakhan, Cankarjeva založba, 2004, trans. Maja Kraigher), Dantejev trg (Dante’s Square, KUD AAC Zrakogled, 2013, trans. Urban Belina), Rusko okno (The Russian Window, Društvo slovenskih pisateljev, 2014, trans. Matej Krajnc), Bonavia (Cankarjeva založba, 2014, trans. Dragana Bojanić Tijardović), Preiskovalec (The Investigator, Cankarjeva založba, 2018, trans. Đurđa Strsoglavec), the essay collection Glas iz razpoke (Voice from the Crack, Wieser, 1992, trans. Boris A. Novak), and another essay collection, O pisateljih in mestih (On Writers and Cities, LUD Literatura, 2019, trans. Mateja Komel Snoj). Velikić has received the most prominent Serbian literary awards for his works: for the first novel Via Pula (1988) he received the Miloš Crnjanski Award; for the novel Ruski prozor (2007; The Russian Window) the Nin Award and Meša Selimović Award – both for best novel of the year and Austrian award Mitteleuropapreis for a special contribution to the Central European space; for the novel The Investigator (2015) he received the second Nin Award for best novel, alongside the awards Kočićevo pero and Kočićeva knjiga and also Vital Award.
A writer who often explains he is “a poet that writes prose” – his writing radiates a rhythmically harmonious character – Velikić polishes his style, burnishing even the tiniest of details. The constants of his literature are a regression to childhood in Pula, his “spiritual homeland” and the experience of the journey. Literary protagonists, family members or fictional anonymous characters often travel around; they “circulate” among the well-known Central European cities, all with the intent of being able to return in the end to the point of their initial departure, enriched with experience and insight. In his complexly built works, Velikić masterfully shifts between the (auto)biographical and the fictional, between the intimate and the social, between the past and the present, all until he manages to assemble a wholeness out of these fragments that tells us about one single spiritual space in spite of the borders.
Dragan Velikić currently lives in Belgrade as an independent writer. He still represents the uncompromising voice of reason, tolerance, firm ethical beliefs, and he remains a harsh critic of Serbian and international political reality; this means he is one of those European literary voices that are desperately needed in times of rising nationalism, not only by Europe but by the whole world. He is still the voice from the crack.
Translated by Urban Belina

Prepared by Jutka Rudaš, member of the Vilenica Jury

Railway Car as Scene
‘Yes, the railway car as a scene. Everything is so concrete and clear. The problem is the plot. To capture that moment when everything gets entangled, when life wants to explode. The sign on my railway car: Belgrade–Budapest–Munich–Hamburg. And by the same route back.’[1] These are the protagonist’s words in The Russian Window (Ruski prozor), the most accoladed novel by the outstanding contemporary Serbian author Dragan Velikić. In fact, the train as the central motif of Velikić’s works takes us even further into the most intimate and extreme discourse field of his novels, into the inner world of wanderers through the history of the once-sprawling Austro-Hungarian monarchy, that is, into the Central European space.
Dragan Velikić, born in Belgrade in 1953, is one of the world’s most recognisable and distinguished contemporary Serbian authors. From his début novel, Via Pula (1988), to his most recent, The Investigator (Islednik, 2015), his works have gleaned all the most prestigious national literary awards: the Miloš Crnjanski Award, the Meša Selimović Award, the Kočić’s Pen Award, the Vital Award, and the NIN Award for the best novel of 2007 and 2015. He has been repeatedly recognised abroad as well, receiving the Award of the City of Budapest in 2013 for his magnum opus – The Russian Window – and the Mitteleuropa-Preis from the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe. His works have been translated into a number of languages and lauded by critics all over the world. The writer, now residing in Belgrade as a freelancer, traverses the distances between Pula in Croatia (the city where he grew up), Belgrade (the city of his birth), Budapest (the city of his temporary residence), Vienna (the city of his 2005–2009 appointment as Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia), Ljubljana, Trieste, and Zagreb, to examine the spaces themselves as well as the social and personal circumstances by which they are defined. In his own words: ‘The railroad car is the only real territory to me. To have one’s own conductor who always says at the right moment when and where one should disembark, just spend a few hours in a place and then continue one’s journey.’ His works are marked by the experience of the journey, which is uncompromisingly explored at both intimate and social levels. If the aim of literature is to speak subtly of the Whole, this Whole is ingeniously encompassed in the polyphonic, multilayered novels by Dragan Velikić. According to the first-person narrator of The Investigator: ‘The detail holds a record of the whole. Talent is nothing but an innate sense for recognising the essence under the guise of the peripheral.’ Vividly attentive to detail, his masterfully interwoven fragments provide a stylistic range for quest, anxiety, agony, disappointment. The protagonists in their various predicaments endure blows, pain, listlessness, humiliation, and want to tackle their past, their private fears and, above all, the mendacity of their fellow men. The embeddedness of one text within another further intensifies the emotional charge of the narrative threads. The interconnection and interaction of the subjective main text with countless parallel, self-reflective ‘additional texts’ – most pronounced in the novels Dante’s Square (Danteov trg, 1997), The Russian Window (2007), Bonavia (2012) and The Investigator (2015) – plumb the depths of Dragan Velikić’s creative expression. It is these extratextual references that imply an active, strategic, function-conditioned attitude to reality. The impact of reality, of facts, aided by memory leaves its mark on the creative energy which flows into the literary structure of Velikić’s poetics from higher and more powerful sources. With the entry of reality codes into the web of the text, fiction merges into biography, enlarging the scope of possible interpretations.
The peculiar creativity of Dragan Velikić lies in his preservation of duality – literary and historical. Removed from the context of reality, the factual elements are subtly, playfully woven into a new combination, a fictional context. His uniquely articulated literary horizon is transfixed by a range of discursive elements, while the topics of cultural history and biographic memory empower the text to engage in dialogue between life, history, society, family and literature. ‘The burgled railway carriage at Vinkovci – that was my first reaction to Mother’s death,’ recalls the first-person narrator in The Investigator, a literary masterpiece about mother and memory, subjectivity and collectivity, values, morals, lies. How does the strong dramaturgy drive the storyless stories? Bitterly humorous, Velikič’s works mirror the family’s moments of crisis, expose inhuman narrow-mindedness, provide confrontation with the real world in an individual’s situation, and hint at the collective/individual nature of psychological experience, the differentiation between the cognitive subject and the reality of the outside world. ‘It ended up by the merest fluke in the small collection of family photos I’d taken along when I left Belgrade at dawn on March 24, 1999. That same day in the early afternoon, a couple of hours before the first NATO bombs fell on my city, when I stepped off the train at the Budapest Keleti railway station […]. But the escapes had begun long before. The paths to be trod had been charted ages ago.’ Velikić’s protagonists live with their suitcases unpacked, always poised to leave, perpetually searching for a firm hold which would give them a chance to rest, perhaps discover their mistakes, discover themselves, and take, invigorated, the right direction. This is the practice of Rudi Stupar in The Russian Window, of Kristina, Miljan, Marko and Marija in Bonavia, of the investigator in the eponymous novel, of Marko Delić in Astrakhan (Astragan), etc. The protagonists experience the full dichotomy of life in the West and ‘at home’: the contrast between an ordered society with a long tradition and respected, clear-cut rules, which nevertheless carries an undertone of parochialism and anxiety, against a society with no regulations or firm structures, verging on a moral breakdown.
The Investigator contains much factuality, that is, extratextual reality. The factual fragments in this intimate work mainly consist of the author’s selective memories, depicting through allusion and symbolism the sharpest edge of the social system – a system which permeated even the deepest layers and spheres of the family and of family life. Velikić’s topics, preserved in both individual and collective memory, endow the text with an enhanced, more mysterious creative energy. At the same time, these intertextual elements deftly trip up the role of the non-preaching author as well as dissolve the boundaries between the texts. The tones, undertones, overtones of this masterpiece hint at the chaotic state of contemporary society as well. ‘This is no longer the country where I grew up: rather, it is a field where frauds, thieves and braggarts enlighten fools. Things are no better elsewhere, I know. Such is the time that has been foisted on me.’ Or: ‘In this natural habitat of sin, stories have no beginning or ending but a perpetual in medias res. Inter-space and inter-time.’ This masterfully crafted work is composed of historical yet intimate fragments, drawn with the utmost sensitivity; of words pouring forth into the depths of one’s soul, into one’s very thought. Scenes from life and events, ranging from the 1950s in former Yugoslavia through its disintegration and the Balkan war to the present, draw a peculiar temporal and historical span through the stories, which are tinged with the typical Velikić hues.
I may confidently assert that each of the author’s novels offers an exceptional aesthetic experience. Replete with challenges and minute details, they unveil the spaces of everyday life, the complexity yet simplicity of male–female relationships. His novels are always intimate confessions, inevitably reflecting watershed historical and political events at symbolic and intertextual levels. This suggests that the macrocosm of human existence is ever encroaching on the space of human privacy. In the maze of fragments and self-references, scattered by Velikić on page after page, the narrator leads us into the deepest, mysterious chasms of historical reality and collective memory.
The aesthetics of his most translated and acclaimed novel, his supreme articulation of art, The Russian Window, overwhelm readers with their refined virtuosity, intellectual charge and perfectly polished language. Swayed by the aesthetics of sensual speech in the textual world, we become acquainted with the antinomy of love and hate, with the power(lessness) of sense perceptions, with jealousy, fear of abandonment… In keeping with the semantic and emotional fluctuations of the text, the author, a Comparative Literature graduate, engages the reader’s intellect, taste, preferences, feelings, viewpoints, thus adding an interpreter to the organic vitality of the art game. The title of the novel, the ‘Russian window’, refers to the window in a Siberian house which is opened solely for airing purposes. The Russian Window, on the other hand, is – or may be – a metaphor which functions as semantic identity within the discourse. The semantic innovation of this masterpiece lies in the logical remoteness of two symbols which nevertheless conjure up a new closeness: an airing of the soul, of the self. This challenging work – challenging even in structural terms since it is ‘a book within a book’ – follows the protagonist, Rudi Stupar, on his move from the countryside to Belgrade. Meandering through Budapest, Munich and Hamburg, he ends up in his homeland again. With the development of the heuristic power fostered by fiction, the book is uniquely stamped by its historical coordinates: the bombing of Belgrade in 1999, Budapest as the Serbian Casablanca of the 1990s, the western perception of Balkan reality… In the chaos raging outside and inside him, Rudi is faced with every form of bewilderment. The question arises: How can one understand one’s own life in uncertain, conflicting, risky conditions and relationships? Rudi seeks the essence of happiness through many superficial relationships with women. His boundless yearning for true love remains mere fiction in his consciousness. What emerges in the book is the Man–Woman structure. A harrowing intimate confession of Rudi’s father and mother – He without Her and She without Him, while their son yearns for a She–He life. The unconscious which finds its voice is intolerable to Rudi. A graduate in German studies, he hits rock bottom when he ekes out a living as an odd-jobman at the Hamburg morgue. Here, however, he has a momentary epiphany: the fragment becomes a new envelope, a whole. Henceforth Rudi’s deep conflict between world time and soul time is articulated as poetry. Finding the first sentence for his novel, he boards a train …
P.S. I am overjoyed that Dragan Velikić, a world-scale author, has again taken a train: the line running from Belgrade to Vilenica, where he can be awarded the 2019 Vilenica International Literary Prize for his outstanding achievements in the field of literature.
Translated by Nada Grošelj
[1] The English quotes from The Russian Window are taken from the translation by Randall A. Major (Belgrade: Geopoetika Publishing, 2010).