Siniša Kovačević: Gone Underground

Art is obliged to bear witness to its time, to leave traces of its feet or its own heart in the dust of its homeland

From „Hotel Evropa“ (Hotel Europe) to „Srpska Drama“ (Serbian Drama), but definitely „Bolje od Bekstva“ (Better than Escape)… This how the titles of Siniša Kovačević’s dramas portray his approach to life and politics. Hardliner but dedicated to the right political option, as the only true political direction for him while contesting leftist ideas as relevant political values are the principles on which our distinguished novelist and screenwriter bases his position on the most important social topics. Under new circumstances, he became a novelist, so in 2019, he published his second novel „Osvajanje Zavičaja“ („Conquering Homeland“), for the Vukotić Medija publishing house. The novel’s topic is familiar to readers, as Kovačević returns to the story of the Vučić family and „Velika Drama“ (The Great Drama). This anthological piece is translated into a novel. In an interview for Diplomacy& Commerce, Siniša Kovačević talks about why he became a novelist, the heroes in his books and plays, future novels and how does all of that tie in with the present moment.

“Osvajanje zavičaja” is, in fact, a romanticized version of “Velika Drama.” How difficult was it to translate such a timeless piece into a novel?

— It was difficult as writing a new novel from scratch. Of course, these difficulties include a certain amount of pleasure. Creating on its own is about solving technical and creative problems and concerns that you encounter. Nobody has ever solved any problems by ignoring them, hence the satisfaction of solving a problem in a way that you are comfortable with. There was no rational reason for ‘disrupting’ „Velika Drama“ in any way. This is one of the few best plays written in the Serbian language which has been staged at the National Theatre for over twenty years. Besides dramatic component, it also has a romantic structure, which was well-spotted by the publisher Manojlo Vukotić who insisted that I make a novel out of it. I am grateful to him for doing so. It was necessary to write and describe in the novel what was not mentioned in the drama, to compensate for the beauty of performing arts with other literary means, to deal with time, landscapes, inner states of main characters and to apply restrictions on the dialogue. It turned out well.

You said that, at first, you wanted to write something completely different – a novel about a person who came back from Canada. Will this novel see the light of day, too?

— Of course, it will. We are healthy and of course, alive. Art is obliged to bear witness to its time, to leave traces of its feet or its own heart in the dust of its homeland. Considering that our diaspora is bigger, better and more educated than the homeland, in a phantasmagoric sense, I am interested to see how would someone, who returns from a regulated political, economic and ethical value system, function in this ‘septic tank’. We are used to this ‘mud’ and are no longer bothered by muck or faeces, the stench of ammonia and false diplomas and doctorates, autocracies, crooks in the government… The bottom line is that the system determines the quality of life and the behaviour and moral principles of an individual. It forms a person and their worldviews. Of course, the family does that too, but there’s a slight oxymoron there. Naturally, the family shapes its members, but we should not neglect the influence of socio-political contingent on the family.

A few years ago, you applied to the Serbian Film Centre for funding to make a movie “Osvajanje Zavičaja”. You also said in interviews that you were banned from Belgrade theatres. How did that come about?

— The script, which is based on „Velika Drama“, was offered repeatedly and was always rejected. During that time, certain people’s school buddies and friends from the neighbourhood were approved funding. I hope that this does not sound like lamenting. As civil servants, they are just doing their job which is censoring. I have my job so we’ll see who lasts longer.

One of the dominant themes of your body of work as a playwright is the destiny of an ordinary person in a war situation which is also the theme of both your first and second novel. What particularly inspires you about this topic?

— War is a constant companion to humanity. Don’t ever think that Europe and the more sophisticated segments of humanity will never be engaged in war again. War is destiny in unfortunate parts of the world, like the one we are living in. We had six wars here in the 20th century alone. Nobody of us got to know our fathers well, or sit in their lap when we were little while inhaling the scent of tobacco from their moustache. Here, grandfathers are not tied to memories or emotions. They are just a noun. Of course, I am not interested in the destiny of Francis Joseph, Kaiser Wilhelm, Stalin or Churchill. By default, their destinies are not tragic at all. Even if a certain leader is doomed in a way, that’s not a tragedy, but rather deserved justice. It is the ordinary people’s destinies that are tragic. While they are freezing in trenches, the powers to be are drinking champagne in Vienna. It is the people who are stabbed by a bayonet while defending their own country who are tragic; not Roosevelt and Stalin who were busy with dividing humanity with their buddy Churchill. I am talking about those people who will die from typhoid or hunger, the postwar hysteria of the victors, those who burn their parquet floor to keep their children warm. Ultimately, I am talking about those people who, if they were not already slaughtered by ‘the canines’ of the war, would die under its ‘hoofs’ as it is leaving.

Can we say that the given word and honour still exist in our society or are they lost forever?

— Honour as an ideal, as a sacred word, as a general place, as an oath, no longer exists. Do you think that braggers would adorn themselves with bought or stolen diplomas if honour existed? Do you think that the owners of „political slaughterhouses“, so to speak, would advocate veganism if there was honour while, in doing so, they are still binging on lamb chops in secrecy? Honour is not lost; it’s is slowly dissipating. If you lose something, it means there is a chance you can find it very soon. If something has been dissipating over a long period of time, one or two generations, it will take the same amount of time for it to become whole again. Thank god, that germ, that embryo from which honour will grow again, is guarded by rare individuals. I am pleased that I can call some of them my friends.

You are very active on social media. Are they the only space where freedom reigns today?

— Twitter, until they abolish it, is that figurative caisson on the bottom of the sea that contains a precious amount of oxygen. Remember that we can maybe do without oxygen, although we have never tried it, but as people, I am sure we cannot do without freedom. Some have tried it and those empires are now long gone, as are individuals who had the same intention. Take my freedom and there is nothing left. Freedom is conquered and defended, it is nurtured and protected. Even if all hell breaks loose.

You wrote the following on Twitter – „I live in a country where the authorities cannot distinguish between a character from an art form and an actor who interprets it or a writer who creates it”. What is it like to create in Serbia today?

— Well, you would have to ask those who are creating in Serbia today. What I do is underground work; valuable but not sufficiently influential. Those who do create have, for the most part, been kissing the sultan’s feet, so to speak. You see, I have a hard time being spineless. Also, my late father and mother would be furious with me if I were spineless.


How do artists find their way in politics?

— By having a lot of experience in both segments. Artists find their way in politics in the same way as doctors, lawyers or industrialists do. If they have sufficient talent and charisma, they will leave a legacy like Vàclav Havel, Árpád Göncz and Ronald Reagan did, or maybe Zelensky will do in Ukraine. If you don’t have the talent or at least a little bit of historic luck, your profession will not help or hinder you, even if you are a schooled politician. Unfortunately, there are no schools for successful leaders. It’s all in God’s hands. Either you are or you are not one. In my case, I never saw myself as a politician. My existence in politics was either fleeting or forced. When your ship is sinking, no amount of prayers will help. Trust in God, but hop in a boat and row.

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