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Danilo Kiš and the soda siphon

By Blog Admin, on 23 April 2013

Danilo Kis Serbian Literature Great Men Stamps

Marina Kalezić/Srbijamarka CC BY-SA 3.0

Guest contributor Mark Thompson explains why he wrote Birth Certificate. The Story of Danilo Kiš.

In Belgrade in October 1993 to research a a book about the media in the Yugoslav wars, I stayed with a friend who shared my enthusiasm for the fiction of Danilo Kiš (1935-89). This friend suggested I should take a break from lies and propaganda to meet Kiš’s former wife, Mirjana Miočinović, who was a public figure in her own right, thanks to her fierce denunciations of the Milošević regime and its supportive crew of nationalist intellectuals.

Mirjana kindly invited me to the flat she had shared with Kiš before their divorce in 1981. As I sipped rakija and struggled with my Serbo-Croatian, an object on a chest or sideboard caught my eye; it was an old-fashioned soda siphon painted decoratively with names in Cyrillic. Then the object itself altered imperceptibly, when I recognised it as the original of the siphon in Kiš’s great and plangent story, “The Encyclopaedia of the Dead”, about a woman’s discovery of a miraculously complete biography of her father, whose recent death she is mourning.

Near the end of his life, the old man—a retired land surveyor—had taken up painting:

…he painted all day, unflaggingly, a cigarette dangling from his lips. (And in the silence we could hear the wheezing of his lungs, like bellows.) On the aquamarine background of a large soda-water siphon he painted the names of Belgrade cafés in the lettering he had once used for maps: The Brioni, The Bay of Kotor, The Seagull, The Sailor, The Daybreak…

The story had resonated deeply, no doubt in part because I had chanced to read it for the first time only a few weeks after the death of my own father. The sight of the ur-siphon, several years later, rippled around my nervous system like energy.

It took a decade longer to understand that frisson for what it was: the essential thrill of mimesis. For the representation of a remembered item, imbued by Kiš’s craft with emotion, surpassed the original in vividness and significance. (Kiš wrote the story in Paris; I read it in London; the syphon itself never left Belgrade, presumably.) The thrill was intensified by the circumstance, in Kiš’s story, that the siphon was an element in an impossible imaginary biography: it belonged in a fiction within a fiction. And yet the fictional item—so deftly conjured in the story—seemed more real than its three-dimensional analogue. Which was, after all, just a hand-painted soda syphon. (more…)

Milan Mladenović’s street: does a Belgrade alternative rocker belong to Zagreb’s cultural heritage?

By Blog Admin, on 21 November 2012

Bělehrad, Terazije, odpolední provoz

Photo: Aktron / Wikimedia Commons

An initiative to rename a Zagreb  street after Serbian ‘new wave’  rock musician Milan Mladenović raises complex issues about Croatian cultural identity, finds  Catherine Baker

In 1990, Milan Mladenović and the rock band he fronted, Ekaterina Velika, was part of a vibrant cultural scene – the Yugoslav ‘new wave’ – that connected large cities throughout former Yugoslavia. Bands and their fans regularly visited the major metropolitan centres of Yugoslavia’s six republics as routinely, taking their mobility for granted.

 In 1992, when the route between Zagreb and Belgrade had become a notional line crossing an international border, a front line and a UN protected area, Mladenović was among eight musicians from Belgrade alternative rock bands (EKV, Električni Orgazam and Partibrejkers) who formed a supergroup called Rimtutituki in support of the Serbian movement to resist conscription. Their one recorded song, Slušaj vamo (Listen here), is probably the most significant protest song of the Yugoslav conflict:?

 Two and a half years later, in 1994, Mladenović was dead at the age of 36. He would be remembered as a musician who had refused to be co-opted by nationalist politics, and as part of a music scene that had to be re-situated within new wartime and post-war forms of cultural memory.

 Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, the music of Mladenović and his counterparts in the Yugoslav new wave – novi val in Croatian, novi talas in Serbian – has formed part of a complex of everyday cultural references turned identity markers. The new-wave scene was irreducible to any republic, future nation-state, or ethno-national culture. Even as it played on and fixed images of particular cities and their urban ‘asphalt’, mobility around the country gave it meaning. Novi val and novi talas, with that mobility and that country gone, would come to stand for a moment and a milieu where the difference between those who said ‘novi val’ and those who said ‘novi talas’ was of no significance. (more…)

Eastern Europe on a roll

By Blog Admin, on 24 October 2012

The humble toilet roll offers unsuspected insights into the East-West relationships in Europe finds Wendy Bracewell

Toaletni papir nekrepovany JIP

Czechoslovak toiilet paper c. 1980. Photo: Ludek via Wikicommons

Why is toilet paper such a commonplace in writing about Eastern Europe?  Anglo-American disgust at local toilet facilities – or their absence – certainly didn’t appear with the Cold War: this was an old cliché in Western depictions of East European and Mediterranean societies.  (Reactions to postwar Greek plumbing –especially the little basket for used paper – continued in this tradition, showing that while Greece was on the right side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, it was on the wrong side of the Paper one.)

 But Westerners also attached new, more ideological connotations to toilet paper.  As early as 1948 commentators saw blips in supply as the Party-State’s contempt for everyday human needs. (Concern for the ‘ordinary citizen’ seemed less important a decade later, with Americans questioning whether their success with consumer disposables, symbolized by toilet paper, measured up to the Soviet conquest of space with Sputnik.) Toilet paper was handy for dramatizing the humiliations visited on dissidents: interviewers with Milovan Djilas in the 1960s were less interested in what he had written during imprisonment than in the fact that his words had covered thousands of sheets of toilet paper (supply clearly wasn’t a problem). (more…)