It has been nearly 12 years since the death of writer and academician Milorad Pavić, but interest in his works remains strong throughout the world, according to his wife Jasmina Mihajlović, especially in the Far East. Mihajlović, herself a writer, has for years been diligently taking care of Pavić's estate. In her interview with Kurir, she reminisced about the times she had spent with the famed writer and talked about why the Nobel Prize had slipped away from him, why the author of Dictionary of the Khazars was targeted by a portion of the general public even after his death, and what her final wish was.
I know that you are working on a book featuring people's stories of their dreams of Pavić. How far along are you with that project?
"I have let that project fall by the wayside, although it's incredibly interesting and mystical. Just imagine people who have dreams resembling Pavić's prose in different cultures and languages. I was planning to work on that book, i.e. edit other people's dreams of Pavić, once my own work, The Boring Book, was published. However, because it was published just as the state of emergency was declared in 2020, the socially and emotionally nasty pandemic has for the time being taken away imagination, creativity, and intrigue from me. Forced self-isolation has brought me no spiritual opening."
Is it true that interest in Pavić remains strong throughout the world, especially in Dictionary of the Khazars? Where is he the most popular?
"Of course it's true. But not only in Dictionary of the Khazars, but in all his books – all his works have been translated. I'm expecting the Spanish-Mexican edition of all Pavić's stories as we speak. About one hundred translations have been published posthumously: Italian, French, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Czech, Slovakian, Albanian, Georgian, Korean, Azerbaijani, Japanese, Romanian, Armenian, Iranian, Bulgarian, and I've probably left some out… All the book covers and information on the translations are available on the official website and the official Facebook page. The Far East has shown the greatest interest – in China, Japan, India, and South Korea. Pavić has repeated his success across the globe posthumously, except in Germany and the United Kingdom. He is unofficially blacklisted there. At any rate, in these countries, as well as in Serbia, Pavić has been declared a nationalist by globalists, and a globalist by nationalists."
How many languages has Dictionary of the Khazars been translated into?
"As many as 40. In this decade, it has been translated for the first time, posthumously, into Farsi (Persian), Tamil (India), and Albanian. I'm also proud of the fact that Amazon Kindle has published all the novels in English, in the electronic format. In Serbia, no book has been published in a digital form. Although Dictionary of the Khazars is precisely an example of hypertext literature – there's a reason why critics worldwide said in the 20th century that it was 'the first 21st-century novel'. So, it has been produced in the electronic format in English, Russian, and Chinese. There isn't even a single audio edition of Pavić's books in Serbian, but there are many in other languages."
What is your take on the interest in and treatment of Pavić in Serbia?
"The posthumous absurdities of Serbia's treatment of Pavić have been around literally since his death to the present day, over a decade later. Skipping over and ignoring Pavić in Serbia is an efficient method in the society's treatment of the most translated Serbian writer, scholar, historian of literature, translator of Pushkin, academician, university professor, one-time dean of a faculty in Novi Sad… Ultimately, it's the treatment of the only Serb who has a monument in the centre of Moscow, in the Alley of the World's Greats, which was erected while he was still living. A couple of day ago, I asked a shop assistant in a reputable bookstore in the centre of the capital whether they had any books by Milorad Pavić. She gave me a puzzled look. I started to list the titles. She was still 'caught off her guard', so she walked over to the computer and said, to my amazement, that 'that writer' was among the domestic classics. Only the short story collection Horses of Saint Mark was on the shelves."
Still, he has a monument in Belgrade, and a street has been named after him…
"It was Azerbaijan that erected the monument in Belgrade, the Russians put up the memorial plaque in the street where he used to live, and Belgrade, the city where he was born, gave him a street – a blind alley in Kaluđerica. His entire oeuvre during his lifetime, and what was published after his death – over one hundred editions – hasn't been enough for any institution to launch an initiative to set up an award that would bear Pavić's name, or to name a bookstore after him… Milorad was a full member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, a full professor at the Belgrade and Novi Sad universities, an editor at Prosveta, one of the founders of the Crown Council, a member of PEN and the Serbian Literary Society, and his works have been published by nearly all Serbian publishers… I should stop here, I'm sick and tired of this state-wide, cultural, political, and institutional disgrace."
In your opinion, what is the reason for this sort of treatment?
"I'll name only a few reasons: Pavić wasn't a member of any political party, he was too successful during his lifetime, and his worldwide fame hasn't diminished after his death. On the contrary. You could say that it's unforgiveable that he broke away from the home turf sort of model. A part of this 'impropriety' lies perhaps in the fact that I didn't curry favour with any political or institutional establishment following his death in 2009. I worked hard and silently on promoting Serbia in the world through Pavić's works. So, a guaranteed failure in the showbiz Serbia."
Do you still only wish to be buried next to your husband, who was laid to rest in the Alley of the Greats at the New Cemetery?
"Yes, that is my one wish. I would like to appeal again to the relevant officials to have me buried next to my husband, so that we could be together in eternity. I don't want the fate of Vida Crnjanski, who despite the many efforts of the literary circles couldn't be buried next to Miloš Crnjanski. It is sacrilege to separate great loves in death."
Why the famed prize slipped away from him
'He didn't get the Nobel Prize because of politics'
Could you tell us why the Nobel Prize for literature slipped away from Pavić?
"It slipped away primarily because of the political situation in the Balkans. The wars, Milošević, the bombing, and subsequently the assassination of Đinđić, the unresolved Kosovo issue… It was very difficult being a well-known Serb abroad in the last decade of the previous century and the first decade of this one. And on top of that, being a man of letters, not an athlete or a film director, for example. It's difficult for them too. We know! The next crucial thing was the fact that we didn't emigrate. After the Dayton Agreement was signed, there were hints that the Nobel Prize could go to Serbia. At a private dinner in Paris, organized by a well-known French publisher, a question was asked whether Pavić would accept political asylum in France. Miloš Šobajić and Ljuba Popović were in attendance too, but, sadly, they are no longer with us… Pavić refused to emigrate straightaway, saying that only Russian writers could be dissidents, and that it didn't pay off for the rest. I thought then that my husband was right. Now, given that I still live in a Serbia in which Pavić has been suppressed in the social and media sphere, I don't know what to say. Pavić has had two deaths. The natural one, when he stopped living, and the second one, when Serbia killed him by shameless marginalization. And the worst thing is that this story is being told by a woman, a wife, a widow…"
You two talked about your private life in public for years, without hesitation. I read somewhere that you wanted to make love days before his death, while he was in the hospital… What was your last encounter, last conversation, like?
"There were many controversies surrounding the last year of Pavić's life, so allow me to clarify. Milorad died aged 80, from a cardiac arrest caused by a blood clot that developed after his hip surgery. He'd had a heart condition for years. In 2008, his daughter died a tragic death aged 43, after a long illness. Rumours had it that we had divorced, separated, etc. And 2009 was a horrible year for me. A total of 11 hospitals. My mother and husband would alternate there – my mother had a hip surgery and a stroke from a blood clot in the same year. I didn't know what to do first… It was horrible. Years like that happen in our personal lives, and now we see that they happen across the planet as well. My God! Pavić died in the Clinical Centre's emergency coronary unit. That fall a swine flu pandemic was declared, so no one could enter the hospital or the ICU. They snuck me in a couple times, so I got to see him a few days before his death. We talked on the phone all the time. He was very calm, even witty, although his condition was serious, attached as he was to all kinds of tubes. I still thought he was handsome, I loved him without pity. The skin on his face was cracked, so I would put cream on it, and he remarked that I wanted him to be all nice and mummified. Goodness … He meticulously listed the things I needed to do after his death business-wise, and gave me priorities and guidelines. There was nothing pathetic there. We had always talked openly about his death anyway, because he was 31 years older than me. Even today, 11 years after he left us, each morning I wake up thinking about him, and that's how I bring him back to life, over and over again. I suppose it's clear that I'm keeling over with the daily work on his legacy throughout the world. My day starts in English because I reply to emails first."
You said once that you "suffer from self-censorship", so you couldn’t provide "the information on Pavić's last years, which were very difficult for both of us as a result of the underhand, behind-the-curtain actions of the Serbian literary circles, and due to illness, misfortune, and controversies." Could you perhaps tell us a bit more about this?
"Pavić was hated by the intellectual elite during his lifetime but, to my amazement, they hate him more after his death. This is why I said publicly a couple of times that I would request a non-Serbian citizenship for him posthumously. This hatred is furtive and underhanded, it's about silence and ignoring, and it manifested in various ways while he was still living. Although he was born and raised in Belgrade, Milorad taught literature in Novi Sad, because he wasn't suitable for his hometown. He earned his PhD in Zagreb, with a thesis on the poetry of Vojislav Ilić. He couldn't get it in Belgrade. I think he was hated the most by certain academicians, i.e. the Serbian Academy. Its members were behind many improprieties that went as far as family- and health-related machinations and personal blows. In the public arena, Pavić's health was seriously affected in the first decade of this century by a book targeting him, written by an academic from the Novi Pazar University, Jasmina Ahmetagić, because of a media campaign that followed, spearheaded by Olja Bećković and Teofil Pančić. But they are all pawns. Behind all this, via some European media, was the Croatian lobby, which worked to prevent Pavić from receiving the Nobel Prize. In my opinion, behind the Croats were the British, or certainly the Anglo-Saxons. What can I tell you – Serbia has been treating Milorad Pavić posthumously in exactly the way in which its spiritual enemies would like. And what they want is for Milorad Pavić's oeuvre to be forgotten, misplaced, hushed up, and consigned to oblivion…"
If it is true that crises inspire creativity, a question poses itself regarding the extent to which the coronavirus pandemic has affected your creative efforts?
"It has had a big effect. Not only was I not able, and remain unable, to write, but I cannot even focus on reading. I'm listless, zombified, dejected. We had this incorrect biblical image of the apocalypse as a quick end of the world. No, it's evident that it is a prolonged torment. The pandemic and the accelerating climate change are the two horsemen of the apocalypse. The other two are still missing. I'm tired of the local Balkan crises as it is, and now we have the global ones too… It's too much. As a travel book writer, I find that Covid kills my profession and inspiration."
'Fear in love is one of the strongest fears'
Lastly, why do you think, as you write in your new book, that fear in love is one of the strongest fears?
"It's relaxing to love nature, animals, plants, but when a human being enters the scene, things get complicated. The ties of love between partners, parental love, friendships – all these loves are marked by fear. "May God forbid what is on your mother's mind!" – isn't that a horrible fear in love? Not to mention the heterosexual and homosexual relationships – they're overflowing with fears, doubts, secrets, self-censorship… Love is not a pleasant thing at all. Once I wrote a column on small, medium, and big loves. Only the medium loves pay off. Small loves are close to nothing, the big ones are traumatic, dramatic, epic, to put it in modern terms. I think that the future of intimacy has been decided by digital technologies and viruses. Intimacy is gone. Touch is gone. Now everything is dangerous. Except for distance. So there, that's our emotional future. At long last, we can all wear masks in public."
On her latest novel
'No one reads serious literature anymore'
You have written several books. Your latest book, The Boring Book, published on the eve of the pandemic, is anything but boring. Why is it also your most intimate book?
"I don't think that it is my most intimate book. That is what literary critics think. The Boring Book has a subtitle – A Book of Miscellany – and it is truly a patchwork of various topics: folly, the analogue-digital civilization, travelogues, even romantic, love notes. I termed it boring because no one reads serious literature anymore. It was as if I knew that worse times were still ahead, when even the trivial would be boring in literature. Nowadays, you read a sentence or two on the cell phone or another gadget."