Igor Štiks was born in Sarajevo, fled to Croatia with his family during the war, and now lives in Belgrade. He writes about citizenship in former and post-Yugoslavia and is the author of two novels, A Castle in Romagna and The Judgment of Richard Richter (originally published as Elijah’s Chair). His third novel, W, has just been published by Fraktura (Croatia) and is both a murder mystery and a reflection on a century of revolutionary struggle in Europe. Olivia Snaije interviewed Štiks via email.
Olivia Snaije (OS): What was your motivation to write W?
Igor Štiks (IS): I moved to Paris in 2001, just after the Genoa G8 summit and the police’s murder of young anarchist Carlo Giuliani, and just a few days after September 11. The experiences of the Balkan wars in the 1990s were still fresh in my mind. I asked myself how on earth did the wars happen in the former Yugoslavia, what on earth is happening in this world, and what can we do now to change it? This is how a long research project on utopian and revolutionary movements, actors, events, and personal destinies throughout the twentieth century started. Immediately after the publication of my novel Elijah's Chair (US edition: The Judgment of Richard Richter), I developed a structure. It then took me another ten years to actually write W. In the meantime, I lived in places as various as Paris, Chicago, Edinburgh, and Belgrade, taking stock of our contemporary predicament.
OS: How did you go about laying out what seems to be a very elaborate story line?
IS: W is a novel that you can’t easily summarize since it’s full of action and numerous twists and turns. However, the initial story is about Walter and Wladimir, two frères ennemis whose lives reflect the period between the 1960s—with a special accent put on May 1968 in Paris, left-wing terrorism in the 1970s, and the fall of Berlin Wall—and our own epoch. After the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, former Maoist Walter will turn into a reactionary, like so many people of his generation, while Wladimir will fight against the system until his bitter end. To find out whether I’m now telling you the whole story or not, you’ll have to follow the detective investigation of my characters Igor Štiks and Tessa Simon. Their appetite for dangerous truths and each other will take them from an island in Croatia to Sarajevo, where they’ll end up finding out more than they wanted to know; as always, curiosity and fatal attraction might kill the cat.
OS: As far as I can tell from your previous novels published in English, it seems like they were leading up to this new one. Is that assumption correct?
IS: Yes, as a writer I’m obsessed with the relationship between traumatic historical events and human agency. This is not that surprising for someone coming from Sarajevo and the Balkans. My characters are sometimes overwhelmed by events they can’t fully control or the past that determines their present, as in The Judgment of Richard Richter, but they are also, as in W, cocreators of their destinies and those of other people. In short, I’m posing a question: to what extent can we step into history and shape it, and at what price?
Violence is always just beneath the surface. Politics is entirely about managing that fact.
OS: Do you feel that former Yugoslavia and its breakup represent a microcosm of Europe’s struggles?
IS: There is an eerie feeling that this might be the case. But, instead of panicking, let’s see what we can actually do to not allow tragic and preventable destinies to be repeated over and over again. Socialist Yugoslavia faced questions to which there were no straightforward and easy answers, especially after 1989: how to organize a union among various nations and territories (sound familiar?), how to deal with economic disparities between North and South (I’m sure you know what I’m getting at), and, eventually, how to reconcile various and often conflicting visions of the future. If you observe the heated debates in the British Parliament today, or the conflicts between EU member states, you might get an idea of what we lived through before the war. Violence is always just beneath the surface. Politics is entirely about managing that fact. One doesn’t want to be there when it breaks open.
OS: It seems as though W is a novel that can be read on many levels—what are the messages that you would most like readers to get a sense of?
IS: We are the children of modernity in all its complexity, with its problems and faults notwithstanding; meaning that we are the creatures capable of changing the world. I’m obviously interested in those who wanted to make a better world for all, not just a few. The questions we have to constantly ask ourselves are therefore the following: What did we do when we were in a position to change the world, including our successes, failures, and crimes? And can we change things next time we get a chance? Joseph Goebbels once said that the year 1789 (the start of the French Revolution) should be expunged from human history. In this age of tribalism and obscurantism, our immediate task is to reinscribe the ideals he was criticizing in our contemporary action plan.
OS: The American writer Russell Banks has said that for him, being a writer is a way to try to understand humanity. Would you agree?
IS: Yes, to understand humanity’s historical and present potentials, vulnerabilities, and failures, but also to have the strength to emancipate oneself and bring about a different future.
OS: Are you still involved in the Declaration on the Common Language and is there anything new on that front?
IS: The Declaration states that we all speak a common language, whether we call it Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, or Montenegrin. It proclaims the freedom to use and develop all variants of the common language without uniformity or purist impositions. It states the obvious; but sometimes stating the obvious can be very radical. With Vladimir Arsenijević, I recently started a project called The Common Library. Together with other writers, we want to explore further our shared literary heritage and our contemporary production of one of Europe’s richest literatures.