The following is an interview with the Bosnian writer Nihad Hasanović, one of the most interesting and intriguing young writers in the space of Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian language. A literal translation of the Nihad's new novel's title, that has been published for the Croatian publishing house Algoritam would be "Concernig barbecues and various interludes", or something like that. What is important to mention is that his novel has already started stirring controversies and questions, as it should be the case with every remarkable piece of literature.
Let's start right at the beginning, with the past. Can we talk about the writers who have been a major influence on you? And about the decisive moment, the one when you knew you were going to be a writer?
I think it happened while I was still at high school. And what was crucial was the influence of the Latin American writers, Borges, Márquez, and Cortázar, as well, though in Cotrazar's case it was mainly based on what I imagined him to be and what his works were like – I’d read very little of his prose at the time, maybe just a few fragments.
I was in Zagreb once, about a year or two before the start of the war, with my parents. We were in Ilica Street and I went into an antiquarian bookshop. On the top shelf I saw “The Collected Works of Jorge Luis Borges”, in hard cover. I stared at it, mesmerised. My parents bought it for me and that was the birth of my passion for reading.
Danilo Kiš was another writer of particular importance to me. I read his books with Klaić’s Dictionary in my other hand. I was developing my own identity as a writer, a sort of alter ego to my identity as citizen Nihad, the ordinary guy who exists side-by-side with the guy who writes and is greatly influenced by Danilo Kiš. Kiš was very important also because he encouraged me to think of literature not just as belonging to a particular nationality, nation, ethnicity, but as belonging to humankind. And the way he influenced me directly was by encouraging me to start learning foreign languages in a more focused way.
I'd started off doing the opposite. The great man was fortunate enough to learn Hungarian from his mother, he also spoke Russian fluently, and French as well - he was a lecturer in Serbo-Croat in Bordeaux. I was pretty much self-taught to begin with. I taught myself French and I studied a bit of Latin as well. English I picked up via the media, from television, films, rock music, and then increasingly through books.
You have mentioned others and yes, there were the Russians as well. Like Gogol - Dead Souls - and Dostoyevsky with The Possessed and Notes from the Underground. I laughed and I learned what it was to feel despair reading Turgenev, Zamyatin, Gazdanov, Kharms ... and although many might disagree, reading Tolstoy has its pleasures as well.
I mustn't forget too the debt that I owe to the writers of Ancient Rome - poets, prose writers and historians, including Catullus, Ovid and especially Petronius and Tacitus. The names I have mentioned are only a few of the literary masters who come to mind. Inevitably I have failed to mention others who were just as important to me and still are.
So it's fair to say that your decision to become a writer was already formed during your high-school days?
That's right. At that time, during my final years in high school, in third and fourth grade, I used to spend a lot of time with my friend Feliks Plohl who my teacher of Serbo-Croat considered the most linguistically talented student in the class . He always used to get A+ whereas my efforts at essay-writing were a complete disaster. I used to suffer from a sort of horrible mental block when I was told to open an exercise book and write down my opinions and reflections. Faced with a blank sheet of paper I was unable to think.
So Felix and I used to hang around together. He had a big influence on my early literary efforts. When you know someone who is more than a few steps ahead of you, practising at home to improve his style, that acts as a kind of stimulus, it energises you. It was around this time I wrote my first story, a piece of science fiction.
What was the title? Can you remember?
I can't. But I do remember that it was about miners working like dogs on a faraway planet, wearing shoes with no laces. Their clothes were worn-out and they had no money.
At the time I was reading the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, texst that I can't say I remember with any degree of affection. Perhaps I was under the influence of some strong prejudices. They may be literary works of extraordinary brilliance but some of the novels and short stories of the Latin American prose writers were much more important to me than the omniscient scriptures.
So the Latin American authors were a decisive influence in encouraging you to take up writing yourself?
Yes. There was a sort of "pizzazz" as the Americans might say, trying to find a way out, a sort of creative magma already present inside me, that I couldn't put a name to at the time, I didn’t know what it was, compelling me to become a passionate reader of their books. The magic of the story-teller in Borges, a special baroque flair in Márquez.
The most important thing about Borges was that he enabled me to understand what it means to be a writer in the world - a porteño teaching me about the dignity and the seriousness of the vocation of writing. Writing, according to Borges, is more than simply a creative game. Through his short stories, interviews, essays, Borges made the activity of writing significant.
By that I'm not simply talking about political engagement, in the same way as Sartre. Borges was not particularly involved in political issues and the complex narrative of literature is not something that can be reduced to a simple matter of politics, asking the question whether the writer is politically active or not.
Borges once remarked that languages are not synonymous, each has its own flavor, and some things, most things in fact, cannot be said in another language. So the writer and the translator are two entirely different creatures. To what extent is it important for a writer to have a knowledge of other languages? There are very many people today at the most exalted levels of literature and literary criticism who know no foreign languages. How do you view that kind of writer and critic, and do you see any parallels between your writing and your work as a translator?
As regards translating, taking myself as an example, if I was able to find another way of earning a living without having to translate, I would never have translated a single word. I translate out of necessity and for me it's a skill I possess that I can use in order to earn money. Writing on the other hand requires much more effort but I'm unable to survive by writing alone. Translating into and out of French is a kind of fallback for me, when times look difficult. I would prefer not to have to spend my time translating.
I think it is important to know a foreign language above all for your own benefit and in order to be able to put it to practical use. Nevertheless it is true that translating helps you develop a feel for language, and that makes it a worthwhile activity.
There are different kinds of translating, that are more or less well paid. For example, working as a simultaneous or consecutive interpreter it's possible to make a lot more money in just a few days than I could earn from the masochistic effort of writing a novel that could take years. But as I have already mentioned, translating, whether it's written or oral, provides a means of refining your appreciation of words, not just foreign words but words in your own language as well, because you are constantly having to draw distinctions and find equivalents, you spend a lot of time in the company of words that you imagined you knew well when in fact that turns out not to have been the case. To borrow a term from the translator's jargon, these are our so-called “false friends”. The reason I think it is so important to know foreign languages is, as I have mentioned, to help make you aware of the boundaries of your basic ignorance.
I think you’re absolutely right there.
Some people would say “It's possible to get by without knowing a foreign language”. Some people manage perfectly well without them, I agree. Here we are today, living in Bihac, a small town thousands of kilometers away from where the really important things are happening in the world. But I believe that there is an awareness of being part of humankind as a whole that is gradually taking shape and becoming more tangible, more real than it was a century or two ago, thanks to the media and the Internet and also thanks to the growing number of people who can speak foreign languages. So somebody sitting in Sanski Most with access to the Internet can feel the pulse of the world. That's something that would have been beyond the capacity of the imagination a hundred years or so ago.
It is easier now than ever before in the history of humanity to get hold of information unavailable in your own native language by downloading an article from the Internet. Here in Bosnia there is little popular writing on science subjects. That is a real handicap. Sadly we don't have any popular science magazines and no interesting or instructive initiatives for the popularization of science. Nor are there any reputable educational institutes or specialist scientific bodies or research centres capable of promoting interest in science or distributing that sort of information.
Not long ago CERN’s massive Large Hadron Collider was inaugurated. The subatomic particle collider was built underground on both sides of the frontier between Switzerland and France. Not one of the major Bosnian weeklies gave the event the coverage it merited. So what alternative is there except to trawl through foreign language sources if you want more detailed information?
Do you consider it a significant handicap for a writer not know foreign languages?
That’s a very delicate question. There are some notable literary celebrities who can't speak any foreign languages. I am thinking of people with insufficient grasp of a foreign language to be able to use it properly - to read books in the language, communicate and correspond in it.
It is possible to convince yourself that you're able to speak a foreign language when you have no more than a hundred or couple of hundred words at your command. I've studied French but I wouldn't say even today that I really know the language. That may sound like I'm being excessively modest, but as far as I'm concerned the process of learning the language, English as well as French, is an ongoing one. Even today I often find myself having to look something up in the dictionary as I'm reading something in French or English, making halting progress through the text in the same way I did in first grade. I never had the opportunity to spend years abroad becoming perfectly fluent in another language, but familiarising myself with other languages has been an immensely helpful part of my self-education.
You are being very careful in the way you approach this issue. I think being a writer today is not the same as it was a hundred or even fifty years ago, thanks to factors we have already touched on, like the Internet, etc. They have made some things very accessible that not so long ago appeared very remote. So the writer today does need some knowledge of foreign languages?
It’s a question of a paradigm shift, a different way of perceiving the world. A writer may be regarded as someone with linguistic skills, able to choose his or her words without difficulty and commit them to memory efficiently, someone with a feeling for words or a talent for description. I don't think the average writer should have problems mastering a foreign language.
They don't need to be able to speak the language perfectly but why shouldn’t they be able to communicate and read in it? That's something that it's possible to achieve with a bit of effort. Psychological factors are important. Someone who has spent forty years of their life without ever really wanting to learn a foreign language, who is unwilling to commit intellectual effort to that sort of task, that sort of reluctance, lack of interest, says a lot about the individual in question. I'm referring above all to people who have had the opportunity to embark on the adventure of learning a foreign language, not the people who for social or economic reasons didn't have that good fortune.
Perhaps the sort of person who deliberately restricts themselves to using a single language doesn't regard their monolingualism as a cause for regret. But for me it would be like finding myself just a mile or two away from a really beautiful city, with the opportunity to go there and look around, but unwilling to do so because of some obsession or prejudice, an excessive devotion to my own homeland and the society that offers me respect. So, instead stepping out in the direction of something new and exciting, I hold back for half a century from going there.
Studying a language is just that – an investigation that involves entering a different culture, exploring it, absorbing it. As Borges remarked, languages are not synonymous. They’re like human beings, each absolutely unique and original. Just because one individual differs dramatically from another that doesn't mean that they are unable to communicate with one another. The same is true of languages, with their similarities, overlapping, universal features.
Having said that, there are people who have learned a foreign language but the knowledge they have acquired suggests that parts of the brain were by-passed by the process - acquaintance with the foreign language has not made them any less rigidly nationalistic or narrow-minded. That nationalism and narrow-mindedness is still there. To go back to our image of the imaginary city, it's as if I'd gone on a visit to the city and come back without having discovered anything new, as if I'd wandered around with eyes shut and ears closed and then come home with the experience of nothing more significant than a bit of compulsive shopping therapy.
Some people learn to speak another language for practical reasons and they don't always understand quite what it is they've opened their minds up to. Others believe that everything worth knowing is to be found within the confines of their own language. I find that kind of attitude somewhat disturbing.
This is an attitude we come across in intellectual and literary circles in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I'm thinking of those 50-year-olds and older members of that milieu who claim to be able to speak a foreign language. But they don't really speak a foreign language. They don't practice it, they don't read any original writing in the language and they are incapable of carrying on a conversation in the language - a conversation that doesn't have to be perfectly fluent, it simply needs to take place.
We live in a small country after all. Our cultural institutions, media and educational establishments cannot hope to provide a comprehensive source of in-depth, wide-ranging information.
Ever since I read those stories by Borges and Kiš in high school, I have understood literature to be above all world literature. That is the way it should remain. I may write in a very specific way about very local issues in my prose but I will never forget that what I am writing is part of the mosaic of world literature and transcends its more limited national identity as Bosnian, Bosniak or Southern Slavic.
Perhaps that's an anti-postmodernist view but it’s what I believe. I cannot bring myself to be the mouthpiece of a single nation, of a self-important cultural or ethnic identity. And particularly not of a religious one.
Read the Part II here.