“Literature and academia in the former Yugoslavia are obsessed with identity issues and cultural relativism”: An Interview with Bosnian Author Nihad Hasanović
In autumn 2018, the Bosnian author Nihad Hasanović read from his novel “The Basement Man“ (Čovjek iz podruma, 2013) in Regensburg. Hasanović is a non-conformist author from the former Yugoslavia who in 2017 has received the Skender Kulenović Award for his latest novel Laki pogon [Light Engine] (2016). His characters are rooted in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but their stories are stretching through the US, France, and Mexico.
The students Denise Trzka and Bastian Arnold (Southeast European Studies at the University of Regensburg) interviewed Nihad Hasanović about his writing as an author from a small, ethnically fragmented country at Europe’s periphery who is striving to overcome those limitations. The author was invited by the COURAGE project that has between 2016 and 2019 researched the cultural heritage of dissent in the former socialist countries in Europe. The Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg (IOS) was one of COURAGE’s consortium members.
Denise: The young woman Rejhana is the main character in your novel “The Basement Man”. Her quest is sort of the drive of the story. Rejhana stems from the town of Bihać in Bosnia and Herzegovina, studies classical guitar in the U.S and spends her summer vacation back in her hometown, where her brother Nedžad has had a strange accident. Besides her eccentric brother, Rejhana’s family includes also her mother and one ghost, her father Kemal, who lost his life during the recent Bosnian war under unresolved circumstances. But neither the cover nor the title of your book really represents Rejhana’s story, they seem to focus more on your other protagonist Zuher. He is a stranger sending her emails containing supposed facts about her father’s death, expecting her to fully participate in a game, in something that starts to feel more and more like a detective investigation in which the young musician’s task is to assemble various pieces of a puzzle and fit them together into a bigger picture on her own. Zuher is the so called ”man in the basement“. How come?
Nihad: Both Rejhana and Zuher are main characters and equally important. As I tried to find the best title for the book, I got hooked on the metaphor of the basement, which appears in many places and shapes in the novel. It is one of the basic ingredients of the whole story, which orbits around Zuher’s workplace located somewhere in Brooklyn, a few floors below ground level.
Denise: What is the meaning of the story to you then? And in what way exactly does he represent it?
Nihad: It is possible to approach the title of the book ”Čovjek iz podruma“ in different ways. The word ”podrum“ can be understood simply as a basement, yeah, but it doesn’t have to be seen in negative light, as a dark and unwelcoming place. For Zuher it’s kind of a hidden underground empire where he can create, invent, thrive, and suffer as well. The meaning of the word ”podrum“ can be also extended to the concept of subconscious or to the problem of repressed memories from childhood or war. I deal with these phenomena too in my book.
Bastian:The main characters stemm from Bihać, a town in North-Western Bosnia. The chapter you have read started with a description of how the valley of Bihać was shaped by the impact of a meteorite. Do you think that such theories are still commonly believed among the people living there? Do you think they are valid?
Nihad: Well, first of all it’s not my opinion, it’s the opinion of one of the protagonists, Rejhana’s brother Nedžad. It’s a hypothesis he likes to play with. That’s the way he imagines the genesis of his native town: in the beginning there was a catastrophe. I thought it was appropriate to highlight, in my novel, this point of view cherished by Nedžad.
Denise: Does this tie in with his psychological issues? And his attempted suicide maybe?
Nihad: It could be. But I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t like to be too explicit about the way my characters think and feel and see the world. You learn about who they are by what they say and do. A reader should interpret their behavior instead of being given an abstract analysis beforehand.
Bastian:In your reading in Regensburg we have heard how the main character Rejhana observes her neighbor with her lover on the balcony. The lover is called Ahmed, a traditionally Arab name. Is this a hint towards the migration of many younger men from the Orient to Europe who are passing the Balkans?
Nihad: I wouldn’t see it like that. At the time when the novel takes place, there were little to none refugees coming to Bosnia from Asian or Arab countries. People with these origins or looks were almost an absolute exception. The aforementioned situation described in the novel is only a marginal scene, without any reference to the actual ”migrant crisis“.
Bastian: To what extent can this book be seen as autobiographical for you? Have you also been hanging around there at the described promenade nearby the Una River in your youth or have you mostly been an observer seeing the teenagers drinking and smoking there?
Nihad: There are of course autobiographical traits in all my books. They are unavoidable. Even if you write from a completely different perspective than yours or if you invent a whole new fictional world like, for example, Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin or Philip K. Dick did, you must use some parts of your own life and incorporate them into the story. In ”The Basement Man“, I wrote about Bihać, the town where I grew up, so I suppose I know it a bit better than someone who has never visited that region of Bosnia. Young people really used to gather at the outdoor place called ”Beton“ in Bihać, which I mention in the novel. This spot was popular as a meeting point several years after the war. Many adolescent boys and girls liked to go there; they didn’t have money to hang around in the bars so they would meet up there instead.
Denise:Apart from that – can you also identify with your characters? Not just the setting they’re in?
Nihad: I ask myself: How many of me exist? I’m not just one person, I am divided into many personalities, which I discover over time. When I develop a literary character who can be totally unknown to me – step by step, I become that character. Parts of her or his being modify me in a considerable way. For example, Zuher is a video game programmer. His job inspired me to refresh my knowledge of programming, which I used to practice at high school on my Commodore 64. As regards Rejhana, the fact of her being master of classical guitar motivated me to immerse myself into the world of Western classical music.
Bastian: You studied French Language and Literature. To what extent has this influenced your way of writing?
Nihad: Enormously. But not only French literature and culture in general did influence my way of writing. I also drink from the sources of Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon civilizations. It is very important for a writer coming from a small culture, a small country such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, to become deeply acquainted with some widespread civilizations. In my case, it helps me to think outside the box when I write and to break down, at least in my prose, some prejudices and mental schemes that are rooted in my own culture.
Denise: And the other way around? What do you think about the people who grow up with one of the ”world languages“? Is it important to learn less well-known languages, too?
Nihad: Maybe it should be compulsory to teach kids at school at least one language which is on the verge of extinction. Learning a foreign language, is the easiest path to create someone new inside of your brain. So you’ll never be alone again. The rarer the language, the rarer your new personality.
Denise:You’ve been talking about how literature and writing has been important for you and important for shaping identity. During the discussion after your reading you mentioned how your book displays the relationship of modern technology and literature. Can you elaborate on that?
Nihad: The topics of technology and science, especially natural sciences, are not very common and not very welcome in what I would call mainstream literature in the former Yugoslavia. Literature and academia are obsessed with identity issues and cultural relativism, which are, in my opinion, totally overrated. It is a miserable state of affairs, almost a sort of pathology. Technology and science as two realms of creativity are essential and indispensable for everybody who wants to better understand our age. That is why they should be more integrated in literature. Primo Levi wrote about this in his essays. Also, back in the 1950s, the British author C. P. Snow delivered a famous lecture on the chasm between two cultures, literary and scientific, between humanities and art on one side and science on the other. It is curious why such a high percentage of literature completely ignores this huge problem. So many novels and short stories limit their scope to the relationships between human beings. They remain stubbornly in the cage made of intimacy, intuition, emotional interaction and pure individual experience. The new universes discovered by telescopes and microscopes are being disregarded. In my writing, I try to put the duo of science and technology, and particularly digital technology, in its rightful place. Without doing it, I would feel as if I am lying about the world I live in, as if I’m closing my eyes in front of a herd of elephants passing by.
Denise: It’s been said that your books are different than other contemporary literature in Bosnia because they’re not focused on the war. But when you talked about your inspiration that seemed to be one of the main topics especially with the background of Rejhana’s father and the unsolved circumstances surrounding his death. Would you like to comment on that?
Nihad: It is not true that I don’t write about war. I just do not write only about war. If you want to grapple with the contemporary Bosnia in your books, the consequences of the 1990s bloodshed should never be underestimated. I’ll go even further and say that it would be unethical to overlook those events that turned millions of lives upside down. The residue of our recent war exists even in the minds of the people who didn’t experience it. So, it would be as if you tried to write about the Danube without accepting the fact that the Danube is a river, a big one actually. Even if you want to create a poem about the Danube as a sea or as a mountain, the verses will not be fully understood without accepting the factual, physical truth about the Danube. For me it is crucial not to stick to a sheer description of the events related to warfare. These make up only one part of my prose. I also explore other issues such as secularism, religion vs. atheism, and, like I said earlier, the role of science and technology in society. Like it or not, these questions strongly influence me when I develop my storylines and characters.
Denise:So do you want your characters to help the reader grow?
Nihad: I’m not sure about my readership, but I certainly would like it to happen. Anyway, I believe that the characters of my novels have been helping me to grow as a person. The connection between a writer and his characters is mysterious. You may think you know your characters inside out but they suddenly double-cross you and then you are forced to change the direction of the story. I hope that in my novels people will neither find their own reflection in a mirror, nor a bunch of stereotypes with regard to the socialist Yugoslavia or the postwar Bosnia. I hope that in my books they will discover the segments and layers of a reality unknown and weird to them. I’m one of those authors who look for the experiences and ideas which are severely underrepresented in literature. Experiences and ideas, which are underrepresented in literature, but widely present in our lives.