Vilenica 2010 Prize Winner: Dževad Karahasan
Dževad Karahasan’s books are largely set in his native Bosnia, portrayed as a mosaic of cultures, traditions, and worlds of living. His plays, short stories, novels and essays shed light on the border between East and West, a border which runs through the European continent and through European culture. His whole oeuvre speaks of contact, of mutual immersion and fertilisation of cultures, for the author’s mastery of two traditions – that of European Christianity and of Islam – allows him to interweave the motifs, symbolism and historical traditions of both.
Dževad Karahasan, who devoted the greater part of his academic and professional career to the history and theory of drama and the theatre, first joined the ranks of literature as a playwright. He has written a number of plays since, including Al Mukaffa (1994), The Withdrawn Angel (Povučeni andjeo,1995), Bird Concert (Koncert ptica, 1997) and Feast (Gozba, 2005). A quality of dramatic dialogue is also maintained in his novels, which are open to dialogue with another human being, another culture. His first novel, Eastern Divan (Istočni diwan, 1989), for example, was conceived as a dialogue with Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan. Karahasan’s interest in the Other is not limited to representatives of various human communities, whom he observes and describes, time and again, solely as individual, unique and unrepeatable human beings; rather, he encompasses the reader as well, as he has explained in an interview with Iva Ćurić: “I dream of every character in my novels, as well as the trees, streams, rain and wind, speaking in a voice of their own. And most importantly, I dream of half of the novel being written by the reader in his own voice. My novel, as I conceive it, should be an ambience of conversation in which we open ourselves to each other, talk, exchange our spiritual energies” (Internet source, 15 April 2008).
Karahasan’s literature demands the reader’s attention and time but yields in return an extraordinary reading pleasure. The intricate, arabesque structure of his novels skilfully plays through a variety of modernist and postmodernist techniques yet never neglects to tell an interesting story. This story is in turn often interrupted by essayist discourse – a trademark of the author’s style – which may well expand into a full-fledged treatise, such as the reflections on the threat of uniformity posed by cheap self-assembled furniture in Chapter One of The Ring of Shahryar (Šahrijarov prsten, 1996), or on the advantages of the traditional Bosnian house inCharlemagne and the Sad Elephants from Reports from the Dark Country (Izvještaji iz tamnog vilajeta, 2007).
Dževad Karahasan usually looks at man, at his character and destiny, through the lens of history: his first short-story collection, Royal Legends (Kraljevske legende, 1980), is set in the European Middle Ages, and his second, A House for the Tired (Kuća za umorne, 1993), in post-World War II Bosnia, while his first novel, Eastern Divan (1989), is set in the Islamic Middle Ages (8—11th c. AD), in the Iraq cities of Basra and Baghdad and in Persia. In the framework of Islamic culture, the novel explores the relation between orthodox faith and mysticism, between the Arabic and Persian worlds, between male and female emotivity and experience of the world. The Arabic-Persian writer al-Muqaffa, the poet, mystic, and Sufi master al-Hallaj, and the philosopher and writer al-Tauhidi, all portrayed in confrontations with their persecutors – policemen and spies, profess esoteric teachings, and all esoteric religious and spiritual orientations are, as Dževad Karahasan says in his essay Through Secret Gardens from Book of Gardens (Knjiga vrtova, 2002), characterised by a belief that the world is divided into an outer and an inner sphere, of which the inner is the more valuable and the more real. This esoteric orientation leads the novel’s protagonists into a conflict with the world: according to Dževad Karahasan, the rifts breeding hatred, excommunication, crime and war are engendered within the cultures and civilisations themselves rather than on their margins or borders. Each society has its ‘different ones’, the outcast, the persecuted, and the violence projected by us into the Other is actually present within the society itself.
The other theme of Eastern Divan is the dialogue between male and female perceptions of the world, a dialogue established through the correspondence between al-Muqaffa, a Persian convert to Islam, and his wife. Their love letters crystallise two cultures, two views of the world, two ways of thinking and feeling. Throughout the novel runs, as its dominant orchestration, the motif of all-pervasive, paralysing fear. Fear occurs as the title theme in Karahasan’s early essay collection, On Language and Fear (O jeziku i strahu, 1987), most prominently in its second part, Notes on Fear, where the author writes out his own typology of fear, an emotion no more foreign to the modern world than to the fictional reality of his novel. To be sure, history in Eastern Divan, including the historical space and time, is precluded by the very genre from being an accurate description of what actually happened to the historical characters in the real world. Nevertheless, it is through these fictional stories from the eastern world that the novel speaks to us of a destiny which can be universally human: of fear, metaphysical void, despotic violence.
Karahasan’s narrative style evokes Oriental storytelling, such as we know from the Arabian Nights: three main stories flowing into each other and expanding into a number of inserted narratives. Of these stories, mirroring each other, the first two are annulled by the third in retrospect, or rather, relegated to mere fiction even in the fictional world of the novel itself. A closer reading, however, reveals that the individual parts of the novel are bound by a perfect web of correspondences, associations, motif similarities, analogies and symmetries. These spring from the methods of thinking in which, according to Dževad Karahasan’s essay Through Secret Gardens, esoteric currents differ from exact thought much as myth does. A novel which draws, pastiche-like, on a number of literary genres – epistolary novel, diary, crime novel, historical novel – maintains firm contact with extratextual reality both by its ethical orientation and by the multiple – psychological, social, historical – motivation for its action.
Dževad Karahasan’s latest three novels address, more or less directly, the war in Bosnia. The Ring of Shahryar, set on the eve of the war and in the first months of the Sarajevo siege, describes a pair of separated lovers: Faruk leaves for abroad, while Azra in besieged Sarajevo peruses his manuscript on the apprenticeship of Sheikh Figani, a tenth-century Ottoman poet, withdrawing ever deeper into her inner world. The title of the book alludes to the story of Scheherazade and King Shahryar: Faruk is a storyteller, and the enchantment of Oriental storytelling is again evoked by the intricate, skilfully crafted structure of the novel, which might well be perceived as nothing short of an apology for the art of storytelling: from the frame story set in wartime Sarajevo, we descend through ever new inserted tales as if down a well, ever deeper into the past, to the very beginning of time, when the thought of the Sumerian god Enki called into existence his female half and, through her, the world.
The novel Sara and Serafina (Sara i Serafina, 1999) is an almost documentary portrayal of life in a city under siege, as well as a penetrating psychological portrait of the title heroine, Sara-Serafina, who will not leave the city because of the fatal split in her psyche and because she is fast bound to it by a traumatic experience from the earlier war, World War II. Serafina has longed to turn into Sara ever since her girlhood, attaching the former, her Christian name, to that facet of her split personality which seeks to use goodness to control other people and is associated with the will to life, with external aspects of the world. Sara, by contrast, is good without ulterior motives and associated with the inner world, with sacrifice, death, and her youthful mystic experience of the “white wedding-guests”. One of war’s greatest humiliations is identified as the transparency of life and death in a besieged city – the loss of privacy.
The Night Meeting (Noćno vijeće, 2005)takes place just before the war, at Foča, where the last two wars exacted a particularly cruel toll. Simon, a Foča Serb and a doctor, returns home after years of working in Germany because he is haunted by involuntary reminiscences of his youth. On Simon’s arrival at Foča, his perspective is a naive, alienated gaze, unable to read the signs of an imminent war and calling to mind, in its goodnatured bewilderment, Dostoyevsky’s idiot. No-one but Simon could find, on the eve of the latest Bosnian war, the view of his native Foča marvellously rounded and perfect, “like a lovely ripe plum”. The Night Meeting draws on the traditions of the Gothic novel and fantasy, and the evil in it is as condensed and palpable as in Dante’s Inferno.Simon descends into the cellar, among the dead souls of the Muslims butchered there in the wars gone by, and together with him the reader is confronted with descriptions of hell, a horrifying encyclopaedia of martyr’s deaths. Whether read as a fantasy or as the protagonist’s descent into his own or his nation’s collective subconscious, the passage addresses the relation betwen evil and literature, more precisely: Just how much horror, suffering, violence can a description encompass, and in what detail? Other Karahasan’s war-related works include the well-known Diary of Moving (Dnevnik selidbe, 1993) about Sarajevo under demolition and siege. Sarajevo has changed into an esoterically perceived “inner city”, and when this esoteric label comes literally true, the city begins to move into the realms of memory, of the ideal.
The four novellas in Dževad Karahasan’s book Reports from the Dark Country bring together diachronic views of Bosnian history. In a style imitating a document or approaching an essay, the country is portrayed as a special, precious society with a culture of its own. Accordingly Bosnia opens up this time to an outside gaze as well – a gaze from modern Western Europe, as in the stories An Anatomy of Sorrow or Letters from 1993. Through his description of the exchange of gifts between Charlemagne and the Baghdad caliph Harun al-Rashid, the narrator of Charlemagne and the Sad Elephants alerts us to the utter ignorance and lack of interest which may prevail between two cultures despite superficial acceptance and contact. Once again, variety and diversity, represented by the mismatched striking of the Sarajevo church and minaret clocks, are set above the monotonous uniformity and orderliness of the western world, which are fit for little more than the train schedule. By a string of associations, their sterility leads to images of the desert – and of death: “In a garden or forest, everything is different and distinct from everything else; each part is distinct from all other parts, guarding these distinctions like its own existence, everything is colourfully changing and shouting, everything quarrelling with everything else,defending its own difference. In a desert, by contrast, everything is ordered, beautiful and uniform, all grains of sand having accepted one colour and one shape, all dunes looking like each other, all in accord with the supreme principle of unity. With death.”
The common denominator of the stories is the metaphor of the folk-tale phrase “dark country” as a name for Bosnia. According to the author’s conclusion, Bosnia is characterised by a high intensity of reality – everyone is your ‘other’ in Bosnia, and your differences drive you to pay particularly intense attention to each other, as is explained by a protagonist in Letters from 1993 – and by containing the seeds of everything that exists or might exist. This is the country where the twentieth century began and ended, according to Karahasan, between two Sarajevo bridges and two wars. Yet also a country where – in its best and happiest periods – all oppositions are innerly balanced like the old Mostar bridge, which stood only “thanks to the balance of forces produced by its stone blocks in relation to each other” (Reports from the Dark Country, Profil 2007, p. 169).
For Karahasan’s writing, this “dark country” is an exemplary subject-matter which proves, time and again, that there has existed and may exist yet a model culture of tolerance and mutual understanding, which no war has succeeded in eradicating forever. At a time when Islamic culture, as well as literature, is often in the spotlight, when we daily encounter presentations stressing its positive or negative aspects, the works by Dževad Karahasan can bring it closer to us in the shape which is most familiar to us, having developed in our neighbourhood, but is all too often cut from our angle of vision as incomprehensible, exotic and foreign.
Translated by Nada Grošelj