A Conversation with Jovanka Živanović by Jovanka Kalaba
Fragile Travelers is now available for purchase.
- How do you see your book “Putnici od stakla” (“Fragile Travelers”)? What impulse drove you to write it?
It’s a story about longing for beauty and harmony, about the need for love in the most sublime sense of the word. It’s about searching for something that can’t be found in this world. Now, if one’s hunger for harmony is insatiable, a prerequisite for a life worth living, then such a world needs to be constructed. I constructed it.
I don’t write every day. I write only when I have to, which is when haunting themes refuse to be ignored any longer, when they have to be written down. The creation of the novel “Putnici od stakla” was not strategic, and it wasn’t long. It somehow “spilled” out of me. The preparations were long, though, and they weren’t visible. Everything about writing a novel like this is an internal thing—that’s where it all begins, happens, and ends. External events such as writing, as esthetically spectacular as they may be, are just a creative reaction to a great agitation which takes place deep inside the writer’s being.
- Who are the fragile travelers? There’s a chapter in the book titled Travelers Made of Glass Tread Thorny Roads.
They’re hypersensitive people, loyal servants to empathy, those tortured by that hunger for harmony I’ve already mentioned. Since reality is often harsh, they suffer a lot. They’re like slippery slugs looking for shelter and finding themselves among prickly weeds. It can have only one meaning for them: every move they make will be accompanied by stinging pain. There’s a sentence I wrote down when I was a high school student. (Unfortunately I don’t know who the author is.) It says: “Peonies find natural what happens to peonies, but it scares them to see the same happen to lilies”.
It’s lilies that this novel is about.
- The novel makes it clear that you, as the author, feel comfortable in the realm of the imagination. Dreams, illusions, longings—what are they for you?
They’re often signs and signposts. They’re part of the thought process and they guide the hand that writes. It’s hardly unimportant, don’t you think?
My experience tells me that illusion isn’t some feathery or inconstant thing. It has the vitality, and caloricity too. Being able to produce longing, it’s wholesome food. And longing, as I see it, is the energy that keeps us alive when all other life supports are shut off.
- The main protagonists, Emilija and Petar, barely know each other in real life. In the realm of dreams they achieve the utmost degree of intimacy: their two heads think as one (“…[their] brains liquefied and were flowing one into the other, becoming one in a way that denied a possibility of them parting ever again.”) What’s the nature of their relationship?
Most of people who’ve read the novel understood it as a love story—as a dreamed but never realized love between Emilija and Petar. For me, as the author, that was unexpected. Yes, it’s a story about love, but in a form unattainable in real life.
The communication between Ema and Petar happens in a transcendental space, beyond the limits of experience. Their relationship isn’t founded on the real. They aren’t attracted to each other by the magnetic force of falling in love, which is how, as we’ve all experienced, falling in love usually works among us earthlings.
Petar’s recurrent presence in Ema’s dreams is the one of a guardian angel, which is a spiritual category. She gets used to his presence in her dreams. She begins needing him. After a nightmare from which she wakes in tears, it’s his name that she, quite naturally, calls out, the same way people utter prayers in the moments of danger, or call out the name of any archetypal figure in charge of love and caring: the name of the Mother, or of the God one believes in. The protagonists’ perception of their transcendental experiences in real life is one of wonderment, and they don’t seek to find each other there—they wait for the next dream. The place of their encounter isn’t on firm ground.
- Emilija and Petar don’t develop physical intimacy outside this very special dimension of their communication. Why is that so? What would they lose if they did?
They’d lose everything. They’ve experienced sameness, the union of two souls, a feeling which surpasses the pleasures of bodily gratification. I hope that the readers of this novel will come to love and understand fragile travelers, and be able to connect with the idea that there are things we can admire so much that we tremble before the secret they carry. These are the situations when our corporeal selves make a dignified retreat, when we feel our very unworthiness of their presence.
- I find the treatment of male characters in your novel very refreshing. None of them is a typical Balkan alpha male begging to be deconstructed. Žarko, the lawyer, is a tender soul, trying to find a way to reach the heart of his loved one. He hugs her while she, in her sleep, says another man’s name. Petar is at the same time a guardian angel and a very sexual man… You’ve absolved them all, male and female characters alike. Where did you find so much love for them?
You’re asking me about male characters. I find it easy to be a he and write from this grammatical perspective. The manuscript that I’m currently working on features a he as the main protagonist. I guess that, in my nature, anima and animus are quite evenly distributed.
I didn’t build my characters in advance. Sometimes when I’d finish a portion of the story, even the plot would be a surprise and a miracle to me. What I had in store were dreams, and nothing more. Are Petar and Žarko two beautiful literary miracles? That much I don’t know. All I know is that the story created them itself, driven by my need and desire for them to be exactly what they turned out to be. I’m sure that all of us have a Petar or a Žarko somewhere in our vicinity, however it’s difficult to notice them since they rarely appear in their pure form. Let’s assume that I managed to create them in pure form and place them in a book. I love them.
- How come that, in your novel, we find Søren Kierkegaard and Bishop Njegoš sitting at the same table and having a conversation? What are a Danish philosopher and a Serbian writer and philosopher from Montenegro doing together?
Those who are the same look for and find each other—if nowhere else, then in a novel. I thought that putting the two contemporaries at the same table was the right thing to do. They were born in the same year, however were separated geographically at opposite ends of the European continent; they were both sensitive and wise. As any truly grand person would do, they’ve forgiven me for making them supporting characters in this story. They’re important to me, each of them in his own way. For Søren Kierkegaard, the first existentialist philosopher, always in search for his own truth, the individual is all and the crowd is a lie. Reading his works was, for me, a dramatic and a quite personal spiritual revolution.
As for Petar Petrović Njegoš, he achieved in himself an almost impossible duality: he was a poet and a ruler. As the ruler of Montenegro he had to be primitive and tough—as a poet, he was a great thinker. He wrote Light of Microcosm, an important, ingenious, poetic and philosophical work, locked in his room for six days. Burdened with responsibility for his country, he couldn’t afford to create at a slower pace, in his moments of leisure. His work had grown and matured inside him, and when it was finished he had to put it down on paper—there was nothing else for the ruler to do but to let the poet take over.
As one of the most important Serbian writers, Isidora Sekulić, said about Njegoš, he had that greatest of knowledge, which you either have within yourself or you don’t have it at all. The same applies to Kierkegaard.
We can, and we should read our contemporaries, but we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that certain questions that trouble us today were answered already by people who lived two or more centuries before us. They’re our next of kin.
- I find this book deeply moral. It doesn’t preach, it isn’t dogmatic or pretentious, it’s simply moral. In these cynical times, whenever we come across the word “God”, we are inclined to assume that either some dogma or irony, negation, aggressive atheism awaits us further into the text. Your novel doesn’t fall into any of these traps. What’s your attitude to religion? Are you a believer? What is God for you?
I speak very rarely and reluctantly about religion in general, and especially about my own religious feelings. I’m very sensitive to verbal windiness of such a delicate area.
I believe that faith is a matter of every man’s innermost feelings and thoughts, and that it should stay there. I consider myself religious, but not in the ritual sense of the word. I believe that the invisible rules the visible in every aspect—from the senses which, inside of us, create stories and mythologies, to the less vocal, but not less convincing signals from the metaphysical, transcendental realms. The degree to which these signals are heard and understood depends on the degree of spirituality of each individual. Whether we call it logos, universe or God, it’s always light. Our place of birth, our family and our social environment place us in a pre-set religious mould. When I say God, I say Christ—it’s the archetypical offer I got, and it agrees with me.
And again—the light. I believe that everyone is born with a spiritual potential, with at least a tiny beam of the universal light of God. It’s the beam that comes into us from eternity, and it’s up to us to preserve it and carry it in us for the rest of our earthly existence. It isn’t easy: spiritual and bodily needs; hunger for all sorts of pleasures; our fight to survive and find our place under the sun—these all work against the most precious thing we have, our essential selves.
- “Putnici od stakla” was published in 2008. To this day, its situation in Serbia has been paradoxical: most of people have never heard of it, and the handful of those who have are in raptures about it. How do you see this disparity and the fact that the novel received such negligible publicity?
The news that their work is going to be published is a joyful moment in every writer’s life. I experienced it when I received a phone call from Vladislav Bajac, the director of Geopoetika Publishing House, which eventually published the novel. He called me while reading the manuscript—I think he was in the middle of Chapter 7—in the voice of an exhilarated reader. Now I know that this was a meeting of two people with similar sensibilities, writer and editor, who then set out to find a third – the reader. The author – the publisher – the reader? It is a circle that needs to be closed in the best possible way. Reading is a voiceless communication between the writer and the consumer. What the writer gives of himself or herself needs to match the reader’s power to understand it. And that’s it. Misunderstandings happen if these two aren’t compatible. Also, if a literary work gets passed over in silence, with neither praise nor criticism, it becomes invisible, as if it didn’t exist, and in my opinion this always reflects communication problems on a larger scale, in the society and among people in general.
There’s a big problem with contemplative prose and poetry in this situation. Their authors don’t exercise their gift unless they must. They have a great urge to take all that has been maturing inside of them onto paper or onto a screen. Only after they’ve scratched deep into the place where it hurts the most, does a piece of literature come to life. Still, it’s a gradual process. The work in the making takes upon itself to communicate with future readers, to the highest possible degree, what the author feels and thinks. I’m talking about the minority that writes and barely gets published, or doesn’t get published at all; and those who wait for such books. They all wait, in fact, both writers and readers—in solitude! It isn’t something that bestseller charts talk about. I was fortunate to read some of the “difficult” books that, at certain points, speak to you directly. When they do, you literally drop them out of your hands—you’re never the same again after reading them.
- Do you think that the case of “Fragile Travelers” is revealing of the general state of publishing in Serbia?
I admit I’m not very well informed of the state of the publishing and literary scene in Serbia, or elsewhere for that matter. I manage to find the books that I want to read, and that’s enough for me. As much as I consciously try to find retreat in a private place where I can be deaf and blind to the general deterioration of social and human values, this cannot be escaped. It’s not just the case with the Serbian society; it’s a global matter. In any case, these are bad times for good literature. We hear about the commercialization of culture in abstract terms, and we forget that culture, real culture, cannot be commercialized. It can, of course, be marginalized and ignored; in the marketing sense of the word, it can be banalized. But a work of art will find its way to its consumer, however long and slow the path it must take. I truly believe that.
- How do you feel about the fact that your novel was translated into English and that it will find itself on a huge literary market?
It’s completely magical to me. You know, my works sometimes waited for a long time for an editor’s or publisher’s reply, and my sense of decency always instructed me to be patient. I’d get into a state of resignation, in which my desire to have a positive response still existed, but with less hope that it would ever happen unless a miracle occurs. This book had three very quiet and modest promotions in the vicinity of my town. Although deprived of any kind of media attention, the book was passed from hand to hand. The ones who liked it weren’t silent about it and recommended it further, and the book found its way to the readers.
I’m seeing my book off into the world with the best of wishes. Effective marketing always leaves a distinct possibility of the book ending up in the sorrowful position of an uninvited guest—by means of persuasion, by unhappy choice or ill-judged present, it will most surely reach consumers that will not be interested. However, such sacrifice is to be made so that the book can reach those it was written for.
Anticipating that my book will find its readers somewhere far away, in a different continent, in a skyscraper condo, or a cottage where they will savor a moment of solitude while reading it, fills me with great joy. If, by any chance, anything written in this book moves or disturbs them in the way that usually happens when we feel other peoples’ lived experience as our own, then we’ll achieve an intimacy rarely found even in our closest surrounding. Spiritual connections were never a matter of flesh and blood, anyway. When the author and the reader meet in this way, then writing is justified. When they don’t, there’s no justification.