A writer first creates a name for himself in his own language, then slowly, if they are lucky, in other languages too
In his book Estoril, Dejan Tiago Stanković, a Serbian writer who lives in faraway Lisbon, reveals the unusual historical connection between our two peoples. On the occasion of an important anniversary – the 140th anniversary of bilateral relations between Serbia and Portugal – we spoke with him about what exactly drew him to Lisbon and how he incorporated the experiences of translating the two different kinds of literature into his work.
Your books are very popular and appreciated in Serbia. What is the situation like in that respect in Portugal, where you live? Are they familiar with your work there?
Everyone has to start somewhere. A writer first creates a name for himself in his own language, then slowly, if they are lucky, in other languages too. I wrote only Estoril in Portuguese, hence I published it only in Lisbon. When I was included in the recommended reading list, I thought that the book would take off in Portugal, and it did, or at least I thought it did until I hit it big in Serbia. Then I realized that something was stalling for me in Portugal.
My publisher claims that the reason for this is that the Portuguese don’t have a developed reading habit, because, according to statistics, out of all European nations they read the last. Books are expensive here, even double the price of books in Serbia. My publisher also says that the circulation figures in Serbia are almost unattainable in Portugal, even for the most popular writers and that I am more socially engaged and visible in Serbia, but not as much in Portugal.
Your life journey led you to Lisbon. What influenced your decision to make your home in that city?
It’s a great city. The mild climate, both in winter and summer, is the most appealing thing here. Everything is very comfortable, except that we don’t have central heating, so we have to warm ourselves somehow during those few days a year when it’s cold. Lisbon is big, but not too big, and I live in a neighbourhood where everything is within walking distance. I live in a city where everything is within walking distance. My neighbourhood is predominantly immigrant and officially the most multicultural city quarter. It’s brimming with digital nomads, students who came here on the Erasmus programme and passing tourists. We are surrounded by many languages, we have excellent health care and good transportation. I live in downtown Lisbon so the airport is only a 15-minute drive away by Arodoro. Everything kind of goes my way. The locals are very peaceful and polite, and as merchants, they are used to foreigners in their environment, so they can get along with us just fine. Food is also a great passion for Portuguese and it’s tastier than anywhere else. I especially like the fish here. The only thing is that the Portuguese are not excessively rich, but we have no reason to complain.
As an architect, what is your perception of Lisbon? Why is the city so beautiful?
The city was founded three millennia ago and it is officially the oldest permanently populated human habitat in Europe. That’s why Lisbon is designed with a purpose and the obvious intention to please the people who live in it – the city dwellers. Everything is made with human standards in mind and not many things are wasted here. Not much irks you here. I think that in Lisbon, and Portugal alike, good things are created as a result of a mentality characterized by a striking knowledge of measure and an amazing ability to separate the essential from the unimportant. Buildings are expensive, and when you invest a lot of money in something, it is deemed important, hence people do not take unnecessary risks and usually hire experts like architects. Architecture is still today one of the most significant, if not the most significant, form of artistic expression in Portuguese culture. Álvaro Siza and Graça Moura are the two shiniest stars in the constellation of ingenious Portuguese architects. In terms of architecture, it is also important for people to be aware that in Portugal they build to last, so if your building collapses, it will most collapse by itself or in an earthquake, but it will certainly not be destroyed by bombs. Every building is seen as an endowment, to be recognizable, beautiful and moderate.
Architecture is still today one of the most significant, if not the most significant, form of artistic expression in Portuguese culture
As a writer, what is the literary environment in Saramago’s country like?
I have deliberately chosen not to be too visible in Portugal. I live in seclusion. I’m careful how much I socialize and I don’t overdo it. I don’t have a fabulous social life and nobody invites me to theatre premieres unless a friend is playing, I don’t get stopped in the street by readers and I don’t have television appearances, so even those people who have read something of mine don’t know what I look like. I spend part of my working year here. I wrote practically everything in Lisbon. And a good part of it was inspired by Lisbon itself, admittedly mostly by the world I live in, that is, foreigners and immigrants who live there in parallel worlds with the local population.
By the way, I met Saramago and spent a few days with him in Toledo, at the ‘Saramago and His Translators’ conference. I didn’t get the impression that he was a product of mainstream culture – on the contrary, he is a unique phenomenon among people who do not depend on the environment, but on talent.
This year marks the centenary of José Saramago’s birth. You once translated his works. How much did those two-way translations from Serbian to Portuguese and vice versa contribute to the two cultures becoming closer and how much did they influence your subsequent literary expression?
When I started translating, I could choose which book to translate into Serbian as there were no translations in Serbian whatsoever. I started with my favourite Saramago novel – „Baltazar and Blimunda“. Later, I also translated Andrić into Portuguese. How much did I contribute to the two countries becoming closer? As much as translated literature can exert influence in this day and age, which is not that strong. I have translated three Saramago’s novels and they all have been printed in Serbia in tens of thousands of copies each. Thus, Saramago has become one of the most popular classics in Serbia.
In the meantime, and thanks to the financial support that Portugal has been giving to foreign publishers for the translation and publication of Portuguese literature for decades, tens if not hundreds of Portuguese authors have been translated into Serbian. In Portugal, only maybe three of four Serbian novels have been translated into Portuguese – mostly Ivo Andrić and Dragoslav Mihajlović.
I don’t know exactly how much the translation work has influenced me as a writer. I’ve always used translation as an exercise in writing, and it would make sense that it influenced me. However, book critics never noticed that I was influenced by the writers I was translating. Unfortunately, no one has ever told me – “You write like Saramago” or “You form sentences like Andrić.” That would be great because they are really great storytellers, so it’s a fantastic sign when they compare you to them. But they don’t. Come to think of it, translating has influenced me by informing me how to imitate the style of other writers, which I think is fun.
In your novel Estoril, you wrote about Europe during the Second World War, where you can see how intertwined the political elites and national societies of that time were. How did you manage to make this novel so historical and believable in every other way?
Estoril is a historical and war novel, set in a neutral country, without a single shot being fired. In fact, I am an unaccomplished film director, so I wrote that book by playing it out in my head, like a movie, and then retelling it just like I had watched them. And you can notice that in the novel. Most people commented that the novel is very visual and cinematic. By now, a lot of people from the film industry, especially the Portuguese ones, have noticed it too, so I’ve been getting offers for a long time to sell the book rights to them to make a series.
Estoril is a historical and war novel, set in a neutral country, without a single shot being fired
I haven’t sold them yet because there hasn’t been a producer who would invest in making the series as much as I think they should. After all, this is a costume period drama and thus very expensive. I have also been contacted by quite a few American filmmakers with lavish budgets for TV series, but my impression is that they don’t understand or feel the theme, so such a story must be a European project. And it will be! It’s just a matter of time.