By Ana Lucic
Svetislav Basara, born in 1953, is a major figure in Serbian and Eastern European literature. He is the author of more than twenty literary works, including novels, story collections, and essays. He has received numerous literary awards and his novel Fama o biciklistima [The Fuss about Cyclists, 1988] was proclaimed by Serbian literary critics to be one of the ten best novels of the 1980s. In the recently released Chinese Letter, a man who’s unsure of his own name is ordered by two mysterious men to write “a statement of about 100 pages,” and so he records the absurd experiences of his daily life. The first of Basara’s works to be published in English, Chinese Letter is one of the most inventive works of contemporary literature.
ANA LUCIC: What are the origins of Chinese Letter?
SVETISLAV BASARA: Chinese Letter is my first novel, and it originated from the need to write a novel. Until that time I was writing stories and I felt that I had more to say than what usually goes into five or six typed pages. But it wasn’t an easy thing to do. When I started writing this novel I didn’t have enough life or literary experience. That’s why I opted for a method of writing a “report” to somebody about something, which resulted in a book that was extremely well received in the literary circles of that time, though I still think—I don’t know if it’s wrong to think so—that all the attention is somehow insincere. In terms of my motives for writing this book it should be known that I started working on Chinese Letter at the end of the seventies. Some remember that time as a pretty good one, but this was actually a time of terrible spiritual and psychological dullness, which was the result of the degeneration and petrifaction of a doctrine which was crazy from the very start—communism. So, I was writing this book in order to be somewhere else. To add some excitement to my life. That’s why I gave the novel the title Chinese Letter. China is pretty far from Serbia.
AL: I’ve read Chinese Letter a few times now, but I still find it incredibly funny. Is this a typical reaction that you get from your readers?
SB: Yes, everybody laughs. I, however, wasn’t laughing while writing the book. Even nowadays I don’t laugh when I write. Writing—art in general—has a lot to do with sadness. But I have to admit, the best quality of my books is that they provoke laughter. It’s very, very strange how close laughter is to despair and vice versa.
AL: Which authors do you consider to be your literary influences?
SB: My influences are visible in my books and I have never tried to hide that. I am not so stupid as to consider myself original. So, Kafka, Beckett, Borges. I would also add two writers whose influence is not that obvious in my writing—Proust and Augusto Roa Bastos. Proust has his place in the Canon, but Roa Bastos, it seems to me, is insufficiently recognized. Of course, there is also García Márquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ivan Alexeevich Bunin and Boris Pilnyak and a whole series of excellent writers whose names I won’t mention simply because this interview could go on forever.
AL: You dropped out of the Serbian Writers’ Association during the nineties—a period of turbulence and war in the Balkans. What were your reasons for doing this?
SB: At that time, the Serbian Writers’ Association turned into a parapolitical organization, a hot bed for a number of retrograde ideas headed by absolutely insignificant writers and I simply didn’t see the point to being part of such an organization.
AL: Do you still find time to write now that you’re the Ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro to Cyprus?
SB: Yes. Strangely, I now have more time for writing. I recently finished a long novel entitled Heart of the Country about the fictitious stay of Friedrich Nietzsche in Cyprus. It will come out in the near future, and the English translation will be published by Mouphlon Press in Nikosia.
AL: You said in an interview that from now on you’re only going to write love stories. Is this true?
SB: I said this to one newspaper that I don’t have a very high opinion of. Most of the newspapers in Serbia are frivolous publications, and that’s why I don’t take them seriously. Since these newspapers are shamelessly misinforming the public, I took the liberty to misinform them.
AL: You also said in an interview that you are always on the side of spineless characters. What is it that attracts you to write about such characters?
SB: I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but the majority of people living in this age, including myself, could be described as spineless. This isn’t so bad. It’s partly due to the speed of life nowadays. It’s the same with people as with money: the more of something there is, the less valuable it is. Hyperinflation of humanity. Fatigue. The crisis of meaning. It seems that nothing exists except for selling and buying. But I repeat—this isn’t so bad. It might sound strange, but certain experts say that it’s easy to find salvation in this age. The catch is that you then have to endure it.
AL: Do you feel like you’re part of some national or international literary movement?
SB: No. As Fritz would say, I feel averagely awful. And I do care about that very much. I have no proof, but I am convinced that people who feel great are, in some way, lost.
Selected Works by Svetislav Basara in Translation:
Chinese Letter. Trans. Ana Lucic. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
Selected Untranslated Works:
Bumerang [Boomerang]. Narodna knjiga, €9.33.
Drvo istorije [History Tree]. Out of Print.
Dzon B. Malkovic [John B. Malkovich]. Narodna knjiga, €9.33.
Fama o biciklistima [The Fuss about Cyclists]. Out of Print.
Fenomeni [Phenomena]. Out of Print.
Ideologija heliocentrizma [The Ideology of Heliocentrism]. Out of Print
Kratkodnevica [Winter Solstice]. Narodna knjiga, €9.33.
Looney tunes. Narodna knjiga, €10.89
Masine iluzija [Illusions Machines]. Glas srpski, €8.07.
Mongolski bedeker [Mongolian Guidebook]. Narodna knjiga, €10.89.
Na gralovom tragu [On the Grail’s Trail]. Out of Print.
Na ivici [On the Edge]. Out of Print.
Najlepse price Svetislava Basar [Best Short Stories of Svetislav Basara]. Prosveta, €10.67.
Napuklo ogledalo [Cracked Mirror]. Narodna knjiga, €6.22.
Peking by Night. Narodna knjiga, €10.89.
Price u nestajanju [Disappearing Tales]. Out of Print.
Sabrane drame [Collected Plays]. Out of Print.
Srce zemlje [Heart of the Earth]. Narodna knjiga, €7.56.
Sveta mast [Holy Lard]. Narodna knjiga, €10.89.
Tamna strana Meseca [Dark Side of the Moon]. Out of Print.
Ukleta zemlja [Doomed Land]. Narodna knjiga, €10.89.
Virtualna kabala [Virtual Kabala]. Out of Print.
Vuciji brlog [The Wolf’s Lair]. Narodna knjiga, €6.22.