The drive titled "You Are the World", through which the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade honours the Serbs who have left a legacy for the world, marking the 100th anniversary of flying the Serbian flag over the White House, has recently caught the public eye.
The list of luminaries includes Serbian writer Borislav Pekić, introduced in a video about his life and work, released recently, with the following words: "One person among you left the past behind, received awards and recognitions by literary, theatre, and film critics across the world, and has been compared to the greatest writers of all time. He suffered through injustice and spent his youth in prison for the sole reason of pursuing the right to think freely. He returned to the country that he had been banished from so that those who stayed could win their freedom."
This was an occasion to have a conversation with Pekić's wife, Ljiljana Pekić. In an exclusive interview with Kurir, she spoke about the video, the monument erected in Belgrade to honour the illustrious writer, his legacy, life in Yugoslavia and the years he spent in emigration, as well as the recent screen adaptation of Besnilo (Rabies). She also responded to the criticism that the author of such great and important works as Godine Koje Su Pojeli Skakavci (The Years the Locusts Have Devoured), Zlatno Runo (The Golden Fleece), and Kako Upokojiti Vampira (How to Quiet a Vampire) was a nationalist – a claim often used to depict him in a negative light.
How do you comment on the fact that Pekić's name is among the Serbian greats who have left a legacy for humanity? How did you like this homage to Pekić?
"We are delighted, of course, as are his readers and admirers. It's an incredible homage to Pekić, so warm and moving, succinct and yet saying everything of importance. Our sincere congratulations to all those who were involved, as it was no mean task. A wonderful idea was put into practice in the best possible way. And just generally – the whole idea to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the unique day when the Serbian flag was flown over the White House, a singular event in history marking the Serbian people's heroism. An occasion to recall our luminaries: Nikola Tesla, Mihajlo Pupin, Milutin Milanković, Ivo Andrić, the Serbian Apollo Seven, and Borislav Pekić among all these, is indeed a great honour."
How has his legacy fared? It seems that he is more relevant now than ever before, and that his words can teach us a great deal. You yourself said at one point that Pekić's time was yet to come.
"Absolutely. Pekić is a writer for all time. He never dates, and the more time goes by, the more relevant he becomes. His essays, plays, diaries, books published by Laguna and Službeni Glasnik, are true gems. The more we read them, the more hidden treasure we find in his thoughts, ideas, and observations. He needs to be read and re-read, at different times, in different moods, and on different occasions. Each reader will find something different as, once a book is presented to the readers, it becomes the subject of conversations and various interpretations; it no longer belongs to the writer, nor can the writer influence the thinking process of a wide readership tackling different topics – its starts to live a life of its own. Precisely because he took up such diverse topics, there is going to be enough material to study for years to come."
A monument was erected a few years ago to honour Pekić. How significant was that gesture for you? And was such a long wait necessary?
"As has been said before: 'To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to break down, and a time to build up.' It was necessary for many things to come together for this to happen. Goran Vesić and the City of Belgrade, the Pekić Foundation, the Cvetni Trg site, the amazing sculptor Zoran Ivanović, the posture while sitting on the stairs, his stance, the casual look – all that fell together into this one monument and hit the bull's eye in the best possible way. Not a single person walks by without feeling the warmth radiating from Pekić's figure. Since day one, when children started to hug him and treat him as their own, you could tell that this great writer couldn't have been presented better or in a more authentic way. People leaving flowers shows how much he means to them. In a general sense, he wins people's hearts, and they themselves don't know what it is that attracts them to him. He has magical powers, powers running through his works as well. The sincerity, the directness, the authenticity, that is what people feel as they read his books and look at his monument."
Pekić was imprisoned because of his beliefs in Yugoslavia. As one of the best-known dissidents, he emigrated to London, where he lived from 1971 to 1990, when he returned to Serbia. How did he cope with Tito's regime, and what was Yugoslavia to him?
"In his diary, printed under the title 'Life On Ice', he says at one point: 'Regardless of all the difficulties, troubles, misfortunes, and injustices; of the 1945-1948 grammar school terror, the years in prison, the forced silence as a citizen and as an artist; the injustices inflicted on me in public life in which, in order to be what I am, to survive, I actually have to invest far greater efforts than people without my past. […] My greatest revenge lies in the fact that they have never succeeded in making me hate them.' One of the most difficult periods was when his passport was seized and when we lived away from each other for a year. What saved us was that we wrote to each other constantly. That was our conversation, because we couldn't talk over the telephone. It was horrible when there was an interruption due to a postal strike – we felt as if we were being strangled and couldn't breathe. There were other difficulties, of course – when no one would publish his books in Belgrade for five years over some intrigue or other. But he was stoic about it. He had faith in himself and would always say, 'My job is to write. It will be published eventually.' And that's exactly what happened."
How did he cope with life in emigration?
"He never saw himself as an emigrant. On the contrary, he travelled to Yugoslavia every year, to see friends, visit the Book Fair and the publishers. He never stopped receiving all our newspapers and kept himself updated on the developments in Yugoslavia; he refused to be forcibly separated from his environment. Friends visited us whenever they would come to London, and some even stayed as guests for shorter or longer periods of time. Then we would have these endless conversations that he enjoyed immensely."
How do you comment on the claims from certain quarters that Pekić was an ardent nationalist?
"I don't understand what that term means. I don't know how it has become a derogatory term. Pekić was a patriot. He was never a chauvinist, but being fond of one's own nation is so natural. I have never heard anyone holding it against the English, who are most certainly fond and proud of being English. The same goes for the French and any other nation. Try and criticise a nation in front of its members and see how quickly things go sour. I have to say that it annoys me that all members of a nation can be nationalist, but Serbs may not. I think that Pekić would have been proud to see Aleksandra [his daughter] return to Belgrade with her family, and all of us now working diligently on his works. The dedication of an army of people is needed for what he wrote by himself. The love that we put into his writings is immeasurable. In Stope u Pesku (Footsteps in the Sand), he says at one point: 'To be a patriot is not shameful.' He was in favour of joining the European Community, and said in this connection, 'Europe should want and understand us, rather than despise us, and we should understand and want Europe as well.' I think it's not natural to separate patriotism from a civic outlook on life. For me, they are inseparable. If it hadn't been for patriotism, what would World War I have looked like? Who were the people that took part in it? The citizens as much as the people – farmers, workers, everyone, without exception."
Was Pekić aware of all the flaws of the Serbian nation?
"'Of course he was aware of all the flaws of his nation, he knew them better than anyone else. But, we don't have another nation, we were born here and must share everything with it. We don't have a spare nation. And all of us have many characteristics in common. He criticised himself the most, so it's no surprise that he also criticised Serbs. We know very well what we're like, but I'm just sick and tired of us being blamed for everything. Those 'militant' Serbs sure were handy when, foolhardy, they fought heroically in World War I and II, and died in enormous numbers."
How important was the Democratic Party (DS) to him? He re-established it in 1989.
"In answer to the questions related to his motivation to join the Democratic Party, Pekić responded: 'It is in part in my biography and in part in my worldview. As a young man, I was one of the founders and the leader of the Yugoslav Democratic Youth Association, an illegal organization which, although never an official continuation of the pre-war youth wing of the Democratic Party, nonetheless followed its traditions as a liberal, civic, and democratic association. My role in founding the modern Democratic Party was therefore natural and a sort of payment of an overdue debt to my own biography. However, that would not have been reason enough to join if the Democratic Party, from where I stand at any rate, did not guarantee in its party platform the implementation of most of my political views – parliamentary democracy, civil rights, rule of law, liberal economy, the European outlook, and national reconciliation, with the general aim of ensuring Serbia's prosperity.' (Footsteps in the Sand) It was his old passion, for which he was imprisoned as a student. It was natural for him to take part in what had been his life's dream. Of course, he knew that it wasn't going to happen quickly or overnight. But, he was patient. He was familiar with the history of other nations and aware that it takes decades for all changes to take place. We were wrong to think that all the changes would happen fast. Pekić advises: 'The most essential thing is not to look at the watch. Victories aren't won in seconds, days, or even years.' And this should be taken literally! Have we forgotten that not too long ago we were still under Turkish rule, with no sewer system or municipal water supply, that Vračar was the remote outskirts, not to mention all other historical facts? Pekić gave much thought to everything, to all that's relevant to our future life. He never skipped anything, and that is why he is so all-embracing, with an idea for any age. 'Let us not doubt only what others think and do, as this is easy. Let us try, sometimes at least, to doubt what we ourselves think and do, as that is harder but bears riper fruits. […] Let us not allow ourselves, at the end of our lives, amid the ruins of our work, to have to explain what noble things we had intended to do and why we have managed to fail at all of them. Our sons will not believe us.' (Footsteps in the Sand, Borislav Pekić)."
On the screen adaptation of the famous novel Rabies
'He's watching from above and smiling.'
Firefly Productions have bought the rights to adapt Pekić's novel Rabies. What are your expectations? Can we say that this breathes new life into a cult literary work?
"The popularity of this work is incredible. Not even in his most optimistic dreams could Pekić have imagined that this work would make him so popular with readers. In a way, this book has shown that, above all, Pekić is not a "difficult" writer – a myth following him all his life.
"And now, this global pandemic has shown to many people how right he was in his descriptions of all the aspects of this calamity – people showing their good qualities more than the bad ones, being there for each other, being selfless. And we can see that wherever we go. We can also see that people have become inventive, finding ways to deal with every new situation, and that it's not true that humanity is going down the wrong path. On the contrary – it keeps coming up with new ways to live under given circumstances.
"In fact, we should meet head-on and with optimism the ever-greater challenges lying ahead. Because every new situation allows us to show what's best in us. I hope this will come through in the adaptation of Rabies, alongside many other aspects of the book. Ivana Miković is at the helm of Firefly Productions, so that's bang on the money – of course it's going to be done well. Pekić didn't live to see it, but he is watching from above and smiling – it wasn't in vain after all. The rabies is only just starting to spread … "