Interview with Izet Sarajlic, Bosnian historian, philosopher, poetPoetry has been part of your life for half a century. How do you see this art-form today?
Izet Sarajlic: I'm sorry to see that poetry has lost the place it should occupy in people's lives. Poets are partly responsible for this, but the spirit of the age is also to blame. When I was young, Neruda, Sartre, Malraux, Camus, Tuwim, Frost and Ungaretti were the important writers. Living in that world brought responsibilities as well as pleasure; you had to surpass yourself. Imagine having a poem published in a magazine next to one by Neruda! We couldn't afford to be mediocre. In today's literary world, it's not difficult to pass yourself off as a poet. The poet will soon belong to an extinct species. I fear that people will eventually stop reading us altogether.
Are you equally pessimistic about the future of prose?
Izet Sarajlic: Yes, because I think that modern novelists couldn't care less about that essential thing known as love. I can't remember the last heroine I fell in love with. The age of Anna Karenina is gone for good. Today's novelists write against a background of violence, and they want to shock their readers. In modern novels there is a kind of indifference, a failure to connect, whose causes I cannot fathom. Is it because writers are trying to appeal to the culture moguls who announce a "new sensibility" every five years or so?
After the Sarajevo tragedy, I had the opportunity to make several trips abroad. I was amazed to see splendidly bound works by so many nonentities displayed in bookshop windows. There are so many bestsellers and so few great writers. The era of great art is over. It seems as though we've lost the joy of creation.
A Russian poet once said that even sadness is joyful in your poetry. But your recent war poems give the opposite impression.
Izet Sarajlic: The fact is that all values have been turned upside down, not only for me but for everybody. All the old landmarks have gone. Immorality will soon replace moral values and lies will replace truth. This change has happened very quickly. If the world had moved more slowly in this direction (which actually leads to a dead end), people might have had the time to prepare themselves psychologically. But this is impossible because of the speed at which things are moving.
I feel that civilization took a wrong turning about thirty years ago, as if the powers-that-be had pointed it in a direction in which I can see no future. It appals and depresses me that this utter confusion is accepted as the normal human condition.
Was it the war that changed your view of the world?
Izet Sarajlic: To some extent, yes. I've always thought that humanity needed responsible politicians and that there were fewer and fewer of these. It's no accident that the war which has destroyed my former homeland should have happened at a moment in history when there was no longer anyone capable of giving a constructive turn to political events and leading this poor world, so rich in trivia and so poor in basics, into the twenty-first century.
When foreigners who came to Sarajevo during the war asked me what I thought about the West's attitude to Bosnia, I used to tell them that while Tito had had the guts to stand up to the might of Stalin, nobody today - neither the United States, nor France nor Germany - is capable of saying "no" to a local bandit.
The war also taught me something else. It showed me that the behaviour of the world's thinkers is not only irresponsible but immoral. And so was the conduct of some of the generals stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I'm thinking of one of them in particular who was reported to have raped young Muslim girls who were brought to him in brothels. Everybody knew about it. Everybody turned a blind eye.
The war also showed me the meaning of solidarity. We received great support from ordinary people, especially in France, Italy and Switzerland, and without it we would not have survived. I used to think that the Swiss were people who didn't show their feelings. Well, it was the Swiss who showed us more kindness than anyone else.
Cultural life in Sarajevo was pretty dynamic, wasn't it? Musical life, theatre and publishing all went on.
Izet Sarajlic: The Latin saying whereby people fall silent when the guns roar is false. Some very fine work was produced in Sarajevo during the war. It would be a good thing if foreigners could read some of the stuff we wrote, so that they could understand that civil war is a plague, that it is contagious and that it could happen elsewhere in the world, in an even more terrible form.
In one of your books, Recueil de guerre, you say: "If I've survived all this it's thanks to poetry and to a dozen or so people, ordinary folk, true saints of Sarajevo, whom I hardly knew before the war."
Izet Sarajlic: I wrote my two war books in my cellar as shells whistled overhead. I couldn't, like Eluard, paint the word "freedom" on the walls of Sarajevo because no walls were left standing. So I said to my wife: "Look at me, I am like a late twentieth-century Milton, writing a Paradise Lost by candlelight."
But I didn't start out with the idea of writing poetry. I didn't care about poetry. It's a long time since I was interested in poetry. Just before the war, I wrote that the worst places for poetry were the very places where poetry could be found.
When I said that poetry had saved me, I meant that these extremely unhappy war years were perhaps the happiest years of my life as a poet. I was motivated, I had readers, or rather listeners. We had no paper for printing and I was not on close terms with the few publishers who had any. In any case, they specialized in pseudo-religious work and propaganda, and so I wasn't very keen on being published by them. Nevertheless, my poems reached the public, which made me very happy indeed. During the war, my literary and moral standing in the eyes of my fellow citizens seemed to be high. I saw that they wanted to help me in one way or another. They would step aside for me when we queued for water, although I naturally never took advantage of that, and they would give me a cigarette, or an apple for my grandson.
In those circumstances, poetry becomes something different, doesn't it?
Izet Sarajlic: When a man has a dressing gown, when he has enough to eat, when he can step out onto his balcony, eat cherries or drink his coffee with his own cigarette and not one he has had to beg for, then he can think about aesthetics and aestheticism. But when he's surrounded by misery and is a prey to it as well, when he finds himself completely isolated and degraded, he asks himself "Where are the simple, normal words? Have they abandoned art?"
I have had a portrait of one of my favourite poets, Boris Pasternak, in my bedroom for a long time. For me, it was a relic. It's still there, despite the three million shells that have reportedly fallen on the city. One day, when I happened to be in my bedroom and not down in the cellar, I looked at it and suddenly thought that even he, the wonderful Pasternak, no longer meant to me what he once did. So many fine words, such perfect harmony, yet nothing about my suffering, nothing about human suffering.
Has the war changed your poetry?
Izet Sarajlic: I don't think there's any fundamental difference between what I wrote before and during the war. The form may vary somewhat here and there. When shells are bursting around you, you have to get it down as quickly as you can, so you don't pay much attention to form. In any case, when you have something to say, the form chooses itself. I'm not the kind of writer who searches for a poem. A poet shouldn't do that. A poem should search for - and find - its poet.
I haven't changed and I haven't felt any need to. I got into poetry after World War II. In 1942, the Italian fascists shot my older brother. In everything I've done since, I've tried my hardest not to betray the memory of that young man. I'm now over fifty years older than he was then. He's the person I'm answerable to.
In today's super-ideological age which repudiates all previous ideologies, I stick to the position I chose at the end of what we now call the "other" war, 1939-45. That was a time when we all believed that love could be revived and we thought we had to write as if we were planting a birch tree in the municipal park or fixing a doorbell to a door. We were all in favour of love and remained faithful to it, except for some who betrayed it during this recent war.
Do you think that such idealism is still possible today?
Izet Sarajlic: I don't know. I can't think now the way I did when I was young. I'm no longer capable of being as generous as I was then. "Universal" thoughts are far from my mind. My doorstep is the limit of my world these days. I'm concerned about my wife's health, my daughter's job, my grandson's future.(1) I'm eager to redecorate my fiat and put my bedroom in order. If I write a poem or two amidst all that, well and good, but If not, too bad. Perhaps I have written enough.
A French television programme about Sarajevo and your family showed that part of your fiat had been seriously damaged.
Izet Sarajlic: One day, the Chetniks(2) shelled my flat three times. They thought they'd killed me, so they stopped firing and went away. I received a blow on the head and collapsed. When I came to, it was quite funny. A painting had fallen on top of me and I woke up with my head in the frame, like a Rembrandt!
I've known you since I was a child but I've never asked you about your religion.
Izet Sarajlic: I'm a Muslim. So what? I've never lived in a predominantly religious environment any more than any of my compatriots. I can't see people as Orthodox or Muslim or whatever. Religion may be important to some, but it's a personal matter.
I was in Strasbourg not long ago and I couldn't understand why everyone kept insisting on the fact that I was Muslim. They told me that it was important to say so. I didn't consider it to be important at all. In the same way, foreign journalists who came to Sarajevo would often ask me whether I thought that all these ethnic groups could live together. I would always answer by introducing my family to them and saying: "My wife is Catholic, her family came from Austria and our daughter married an Orthodox Christian. I hope that fifteen years from now, when the time comes for my grandson Vladimir to experience the same kind of sufferings as Goethe's young Werther, he will put his hand on the shoulder of a Jew. That would complete the family portrait."
Do you think that Bosnia has any future in the present situation?
Izet Sarajlic: I don't know. Like many people, rightly or wrongly, I support the Dayton Agreements. Yet I know that they are not the real solution. The people who are deciding the fate of Bosnia have not grasped the soul of the country, but they talk with amazing glibness about corridors, republics, federations, and so on.
There's one thing that the West doesn't understand, or doesn't want to. In Spain, we saw a dress rehearsal for Western fascism, and in Bosnia we saw the same thing for Eastern European fascism. In Spain, fascism came to power, unfortunately; as luck would have it, ours did not. But there is no proof that it has definitively failed. Anything is possible today.
Izet Sarajlic is widely regarded as Bosnia's greatest living poet. A member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Academy of Arts and Sciences, he has published more than 15 collections of poetry and a volume of memoirs. A volume of his works was published in English under the title Poetry by Dist 136 Press, Minneapolis, in 1975. His two most recent books, written in Sarajevo during the war, have been translated into French as Le livre des adieux and Recueil de guerre sarajevien (1997).
Here he is interviewed by Jasmina Sopova. UNESCO Courier, April, 1998 by Jasmina Sopova