After four years of serving as his country's ambassador to Austria, Dragan Velikić has returned home. The eminent Serbian writer, whose works have won him a following in many European countries, is now again a freelance artist and has begun writing a new novel, which he says might be finished some time in 2011.
While pursuing music in his youth and even playing in a few rock bands, Velikić's love for literature not only led him to master the craft of writing and produce successful works, but also drew him to study the history of world literature at the post-secondary level. As a university student Velikić discovered some of his literary role models, later moving on to himself write stories, novels, and even columns for some Belgrade magazines such as Vreme and NIN.
Velikić's works have won him high critical acclaim, including the prestigious national NIN Award for the novel The Russian Window in 2008. Speaking for Southeast Europe: People and Culture, Velikić admits that he holds dearest his first novel, Via Pula, as it helped him define himself as a writer.
As a child, I read a lot, and during one summer I wrote a novel in one of my school notebooks. I was 12 at the time, and didn't write anything after that. I devoted myself to music, later played in rock bands, and finished university studies in world literature. And although I didn't write, deep inside I always saw myself as a writer.
That school notebook was a kind of pledge, a bar of gold vouching for my future in writing. And then one summer, when I was 26, I wrote a collection of stories and called it Pogrešan pokret (The Wrong Move), borrowing the title from the film by Wim Wenders, and had it published by Matica Srpska from Novi Sad. I abandoned music and took to writing stories. Yet only after I had published my first novel, Via Pula, I decided to become a writer. As a writer, I am defined by the fact that nothing, absolutely nothing but writing is important to me.
Which writers, Serbian or foreign, have influenced your literary works?
There are writers you love and who impact your development especially when you're young. However, there are also writers which you don't read, who exist only by name, yet somehow invisibly vibrate inside you unread, and then you accept them suddenly and completely. This happened to me with Aleksandar Tišma.
But let me start from the beginning. First it was Karl May, then [Erich Maria] Remarque. Then [Italo] Zvevo, [Vladimir] Nabokov, [Isaac Bashevis] Singer. As for domestic writers, [Miloš] Crnjanski, [Ivo] Andrić, [Miroslav] Krleža, Vladan Desnica, Danilo Kiš. And later on also [Hermann] Broch, Joseph Roth,
[Robert] Musil, and Thomas Bernhard. I remain the same blood type as Gaito Gazdanov, whom I published some ten years ago in Radio B92's Apatridi Edition, and whom I'm trying to introduce to German publishers because Gazdanov is wonderful. And then there's Ernesto Sabato, [W.G.] Sebald, and Tišma. They are my favourite writers.
Which of your works do you consider central to you literary work so far?
My first novel, Via Pula. After it was published and achieved success, it was clear to me that literature had defined my life.
Your works are popular among German readers. How do you explain this success?
I wouldn't say popular, given that I'm not a writer with large print runs in foreign markets. But it's true, all my novels have been translated into German, there are important German language critics who follow and comment on my works; and, of course, I have my audience. I have been present in the German language for twenty years, but I couldn't say there's a particular reason behind that. The truth be told, it is certainly important that I've often stayed in Austria and Germany, and that I know these countries well, and that, therefore, I don't exactly communicate with these people as a mere foreigner would.
As a writer you meet readers both from Serbia and abroad. Have you noticed differences in how these two audiences receive you works?
The only difference is that during promotional nights in Germany and Austria the author reads for an hour, and the audience listens carefully because they've come to hear part of the work. In Serbia, promotional nights entail little reading and more loud and superficial promoting, like at book fairs. The reception, however, is a deeply intimate experience. The work travels through unpredictable paths. I've had the opportunity to meet great fans of my works in Germany and Austria, where I've had maybe even a hundred promotional nights over the past two decades. In Serbia, I spent five months on the road with my last novel "Ruski prozor” (The Russian Window), and gained a large audience considering that the novel had fourteen editions and a print run of 22,000. So my audience grew significantly.
In what other countries are you novels translated and read?
In Hungary, Slovakia, Poland. Almost all my novels will be published by Zandonai in Italy within the next few years. For a writer it's very important to be continually present in a foreign language. This doesn't happen often, and that's why I have a much higher opinion of those publishers who stick to a certain writer, rather than those who publish one work and don't look back.
Your novel The Russian Window won the prestigious national NIN Award for the novel of the year. The narrative is set in several Serbian and European cities and follows several different life stories. Can you explain the metaphor expressed through the term "Russian window?" How does it pertain to the novel's protagonists?
The Russian window is the "fortochka," those small windows inset in the corners of a larger window, which are used for ventilation in cold climates. Houses in Siberia have these small windows, and I saw one of them in a house in Hamburg when I was visiting Slavicist Jörg Schulte. And it was then that I heard and liked the term "Russian window," even though it took ten years for the phrase to win the position of a title. Metaphorically speaking, the "fortochka" is an attempt to inhale the outer world without losing our inner warmth.
Given your professional duties, do you currently have time for writing? When can we expect your next novel?
I completed my term as ambassador to Vienna three months ago and now I'm a freelance artist again. I've started a new novel. I'm in no hurry to write. You can never know in advance what awaits you by the end of a book. At least I don't. I think I could finish the novel sometime next year.
How influenced are you as a writer by life beyond Serbian borders and direct contact with other peoples and cultures?
Very much. Distances expand you and somehow make you more tolerant. Identity is not a fact set in stone, but constant change, motion. Identity is always an alloy.
What's your opinion of the current literary scene in Serbia? How close is it to trends in European literature? Which young authors would you mention as worthy to represent Serbia to Europe and the world?
I've never been interested in trends. A writer, if authentic, is the owner of a silence which he transforms into literary forms by virtue of his talent. I wouldn't want to do an injustice to any young writers whose works I am unfamiliar with. People are sensitive. But, of those whose works I know, and who perhaps are not that young, I'd mention Srđan Valjarević and Vladimir Arsenijević.
In 2011, Serbia will be the guest of honour at the Leipzig Book Fair. How has the presentation of Serbian literature and publishing been envisaged for this event?
Serbia will be the focus in 2011 and 2012. It's essential to bring good titles to this important European event, because this is an opportunity to present our culture in Germany. So not just our fiction, but other fields of literature, even our historiography and our visual arts. Serbia was recently visited by the director of the Leipzig Fair, Mr. Oliver Zille, and a dozen or so German and Austrian publishers. They met with our writers and publishers. I believe our presentation in Leipzig will be successful.
About Dragan Velikić
Dragan Velikić was born in Belgrade (Serbia) in 1953. He grew up in Pula, where he finished high school. He majored in General Literature and Literary Theory at the Belgrade University's School of Philology. He was editor in chief of Radio B92's publishing house from 1994 to 1999. From 1999 to 2002, he lived in Budapest, Vienna, Munich, Bremen, and Berlin, and served as Serbian ambassador to Austria from mid 2005 to the end of 2009.
Aside from Via Pula (1988) and The Russian Window (2007), Velikić has published the novels Astragan (1991), Hamsin 51 (1993), Severni zid (The Northern Wall) (1995) and Danteov trg (Dante's Square) (1997). He is the author of the collections of short stories entitled Pogrešan pokret (The Wrong Move) (1983) and Staklena bašta (The Greenhouse) (1985), and of several collections of essays.
The works of Dragan Velikić have been translated into German, French, Italian, English, Slovenian, Czech, Hungarian, Spanish, Romanian, Polish, and Dutch.