Beyond the Limits of Genre: An Interview with Muharem Bazdulj

By Nina Herzog

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Muharem Bazdulj lives in Sarajevo, works as a journalist for Oslobodjenje daily, and has published more than ten books (novels, short stories, essays, poetry). His books have been translated into English, German and Polish, and his short stories and essays into a dozen more foreign languages. He has translated a book of the selected poetry of William Butler Yeats into Bosnian. He has two short stories forthcoming in Best European Fiction 2012.

Nina Herzog: There is a strong sense of the importance of Bosnian identity to your characters. Do you feel this has become more of an imperative as a result of the last war?

Muharem Bazdulj: Well, the word "identity" is not among my favorite words. I guess the last war had its impact on me in that sense because many people were killed because of their identity; to make things worse, if that’s possible, it was not the identity the victims chose, but the identity their killers imposed on them.

However, that does not mean that a Bosnian identity is not important to my characters, as well as to the majority of contemporary Bosnians. When identity becomes a thing worth killing for, it also becomes a thing worth saving and preserving.

NH: For me, your work has overtones of Nabokov and Chekhov. Were these influences? Who are your most significant influences in Eastern Europe and in general?

MB: I am glad if you found overtones of Nabokov and Chekhov in my work. These two writers, of course, belong to the list of my influences. But what is also important with those two writers for me, other than their writings, is the fact that they symbolize two aspects of literature I like: the ones mastery of form and artifice in his language games and puns (Nabokov) and the ingenuity of the descriptions of human emotions of the other, and his ability to sum up the key events in a life in just a few pages (Chekhov).  When speaking about most significant influences in Eastern Europe, though, especially in the former Yugoslavia, the most prominent figure is Danilo Kis. For me, personally, along with Nabokov, Chekhov and Kis, other major influences are Ivo Andric, Emil Cioran, Witold Gombrowicz, Ismail Kadare...

NH: Writers from the former Yugoslavia are growing in popularity in the US: Tea Obreht, Aleksandar Hemon, Dubravka Ugresic, to name just a few. What do you make of this Novi-Yugo wave?

MB: It is great that all the writers you mentioned are popular in the US, although there is a big difference between Obreht and Hemon on the one hand and Ugresic on the other. Obreht and Hemon write in English, and they do not belong to the "translated literature" group, while Ugresic does. And as far as I can tell, much of the public in the US seems to have some sort of animosity toward translated fiction, comparable with the similar animosity toward "movies with subtitles." If you are not a Nobel Prize winner, W.G. Sebald, or Roberto Bolano, your literary status in the US is usually marginal, even if you are a really terrific writer. But of course it’s great that Obreht and Hemon, besides being American writers, are also part of this (I like your term) "Novi-Yugo wave." It would be amazing if their success in the American literary market shed some light on translated fiction from the Balkans.

NH: In your pieces published by WWB, literary crime dramas figure prominently. Have you found any contemporary writers that rival John Le Carre and Agatha Christie?

MB: When I started loving literature as a kid, my favorite genre was mystery. And that affinity still exists to some extent. Among the contemporary writers of mysteries, my favorite is Ruth Rendell. I also like Stieg Larsson very much, as a writer of mysteries, but also as a writer whose works became bestsellers in the US, though they weren’t written in English. I think that the best crime novels and mysteries often surpass the limits of their genre and thus develop into real art.

NH: The last book you had published in English was The Second Book (Northwestern University Press) in 2005.  Will we be seeing more of your work in English in the near future?

MB: My two short stories (“Magic”and “Sarajevo”) translated by John K. Cox will be published very soon in the anthology Best European Fiction 2012. Also, Natasa Milas translated my novel Transit, Comet, Eclipse (originally published in 2007, with a German translation published in 2011) into English. Our first pick for the American publisher was Northwestern University Press again, but unfortunately they’ve since closed their “Writings From an Unbound Europe” series, so, we are still looking . . . If some American publisher is interested, hurry up!

NH: The bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia and the war in the ’90s left very heavy consequences on the countries that emerged. Do you see progress being made in that regard? For example,I wonder whether your work is published in Serbia, in Cyrillic. I’m assuming it’s published in the other former-Yugo countries.Is there an interest in Serbia in literature from neighboring countries, which not so long ago all formed the same state.I know you’re writing to me from Belgrade, where you are visiting a friend.

MB: Of course my works are published in Serbia. As a matter of fact, in the last three or four years, the first editions of my three books were published in Serbia. The language spoken in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia is one and the same, but it seems to me that the majority of my readers are from Serbia. However, none of my books was published in Cyrillic so far, not because I did not want it, but because my publishers in Serbia generally don't print books in Cyrillic. But some of my essays and short stories published in Serbian literary magazines were printed in Cyrillic. Generally, the more traditional and conservative parts of Serbian society tend to prefer Cyrillic and usually publishers who belong to that part of society print their books in Cyrillic. My books were published in Bosnia and Croatia, too. In the last few years, the literary market in the former Yugoslavia, but also the literary scene,  have shown signs of reuniting.

Read Muharem Bazdulj's "The Other Letter" here, in the October 2011 "Homage" issue of Words without Borders.


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