April 2007

Joanne McNeil


An Interview with Muharem Bazdulj

No list of promising young writers is complete without the inclusion of Sarejevo-based Muharem Bazdulj. Northwestern University Press released his book of short stories, The Second Book, as part of their series “Writings from Unbound Europe.” Given the daring intellectual rigor of his writing, it is nearly inconceivable that the Bosnian edition was published in 2000 -- when Bazdulj was only 23. Bazdulj’s writing is a unique blend of fiction, philosophy and history, featuring Amenhotep IV, Nietzsche and Henry and William James. Spanning “thirty-five centuries” and several countries, the book only casually mentions his own country’s recent history. Over e-mail, I asked Muharem Bazdulj about work in translation and whether a Bosnian writer should feel obligated to write about war.

On Bookslut recently there was a mini-debate over just how much we can understand books in translation. Your book The Second Book includes a pretty helpful key to more obscure terms, but are there any other puzzle pieces missing for English readers?

There were always two radically opposed views on... literature in translation: literature can never be really translated against good translation is not easy, but it is possible. I tend to agree with latter statement. I recently read Milan Kundera's last book The Curtain in which he wrote that [the] history of literature is unimaginable without translations. My experience with The Second Book additionally proved my conviction. To use your phrase: I think that there are no puzzle pieces missing for English readers. However, the credit for that goes to my translators Oleg Andric and Andrew Wachtel and their terrific work as a team. As a Bosnian Oleg was able to perfectly "catch" original text while Andrew, as an American, managed to transpose it in English in the best possible way. The fact that I speak English also helped of course; I was able to check... things out and make sure there were no mistakes. The real problem starts when your book is translated in a language you do not know anything about. Danilo Kis, [the] famous Yugoslav writer, used to say, “Oh, God, only you know what is written in my books translated into languages I know nothing about."

Have you ever thought about writing in English? 

The shortest possible answer would be: both yes and no. However, I never felt that my English is good enough for writing fiction the way I want to write it. A serious writer writes fiction with the concentration and inspiration one usually associates with writing poetry. It is hard to acquire such mastery with foreign language. Emile Cioran wrote this fantastic aphorism: "To write in a foreign language is like not being able to write a love letter without dictionary." Very few serious writers managed to write really good fiction in a foreign language: Conrad, Kundera, Beckett, Nabokov. I insist on the term "fiction" here because I feel somewhat different about writing nonfiction in English. Not only have I thought about it, I even wrote some essays in English already.

You were also influenced by Kundera's definition of what essays might fit properly in fiction ("hypothetical, ludic, or ironic"). Were any of your stories in The Second Book originally conceived as nonfiction?

What I like most about Kundera's definition you mentioned is the dichotomy it implicitly creates. Basically there are two kinds of essays: solemn, critical essays which can stand for themselves and these other essays which -- as Kundera says -- may fit properly in fiction ("hypothetical, ludic or ironic"). We can also describe them with that famous pair of the most mysterious antonyms (as Kundera would put it): the first are heavy, the latter are light or easy. My stories are always originally conceived as stories. Nonfiction elements, including these "easy essays," are techniques in [the] formal organization of stories.

Were you writing these stories in school? What did you study?

The stories in The Second Book were written between 1997 and 2000, in my early 20s, so to say (I was born in 1977). As a matter of fact, it is precisely the time when I also studied at Sarajevo University. I graduated [with a degree in] English and American Literature. However, when I think of that time now, I do not see the connection between my writing and the things I studied at the university. I think I would have written the same stories even if I had studied atomic physics for example.   

I really liked your take on the Rousseau quote, "fortunate are a people whose history is boring to read." Is that why this book spans several countries and "thirty-five centuries"?

Well, yes and no again. In my first book (it is called One Like a Song) I tried to write some sort of fictionalized and personalized Bosnian history. I was very young then and it was also wartime in my country and it seemed to me that Bosnia was, in a way, the navel of the world. You know, that was the time when news from my homeland [was] on CNN... and on the front pages of the most famous newspapers all over the world. However, in my next book (that is The Second Book), I wanted to write stories from all over the world and from many epochs. My intention was to explore importance of some issues for mankind regardless of time and place, and, of course, I also did not want to repeat myself. I guess that no history is always boring to read and it was (and still is) very interesting for me to find similarities between William and Henry James on one side and some Turkish sultans on the other, or to try to capture "the spirit" of an epoch in one man's semi-fictional or totally fictional biography.

Is Muhamed Dzenetic from "The Poet" based on a real person?

Muhamed Dzenetic from "The Poet" is perhaps the best paradigm of [a] totally fictional character in The Second Book. Nevertheless, many readers (mostly foreigners, but some Bosnians also) thought that he was based on a real person. Some of them even had theories about the identity of the person he was, supposedly, based on. I [take] it as a compliment, as evidence that the story is good and compelling.

Tell me about your more recent projects -- the novel especially. Will we see other works in translation soon?

My most recent novel is called Giaour and Zuleika. It is a story about Lord Byron's travellings through the Balkans. It is very loosely based on Byron's biography. I wanted to retell the ancient and eternal tale about East and West through [a] particular love story. I assume this book will also be published in English. A translator is working on it, but at this moment I still do not know who [will] publish it and when.

Who are your major influences?

Very interesting question. People generally presume that writer is able to "choose" his or her influences. It seems to me, however, that usually it is the other way round. I was born in Travnik, a pretty small town in Bosnia, famed throughout the Balkans and Europe for its historical significance and as the hometown of Ivo Andric, Nobel Prize winner in literature. Andric died two years before I was born and I consider him as one of my major influences. I must also mention Danilo Kis, Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Auster, Milan Kundera, to name just a few. Such lists are always incomplete. I also want to point out that for a writer in our time these influences do not come only from literature... and I do not want to forget: U2, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen...

In another of Kundera's recent essays, he has this great comment about his emigration to France -- people "saw me as wrapped in an aura of respectable sadness" -- as at that time, Stalinism was just finally understood from outside. What's your take on kitsch? 

Kitsch is banality, of course. There is the famous maxim about possibility [of measuring] kitsch by the degree of banality of its associations. General Western perceptions of Kundera's work in the first years of his emigration were greatly influenced by the most banal associations, and regarding time and place it is obvious that those associations were the political ones. Balkan writers in our time are largely dealing with a similar problem. People from the West usually expect that these writers (including myself) should only write about war, in the same way as... 20 or 30 years [ago] they expected that the only literary topic for Eastern European writers should have been communism. "To always write just the kind of book that the public is most likely to expect from you" -- I guess that can also be a good definition of kitsch, at least sometimes.