SERBIA: Today, we have invited Vladimir D. Jankovic to walk us through his Belgrade for the Informed collection (Beograd za upućene). Vladimir also provides the Transcontinental Times readers with the unique opportunity to read the book in Serbian online and for free on Calameo (link at the end of the interview).
Who is Vladimir D. Jankovic
Vladimir D. Jankovic is a Serbian literary translator, poet, and essayist. Born on 16 October 1968 in Belgrade, Serbia (former Yugoslavia), he has published more than 300 literary translations from French or English into the Serbian language, including some 110 novels. He is also author of five poetry collections, a collection of short stories and essays, and more than 600 poems, essays, and short stories published in the press, periodicals, and the Internet.
Jankovic drew the attention of the general public mostly with his translations as he has helped enrich and foster a culture of reading and writing throughout his entire career. He has translated authors such as Michel Houellebecq, Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, Frédéric Beigbeder, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michel Tournier, Ann Enright, Amélie Nothomb, Jean-Michel Guenassia, Leïla Slimani, and others.
Appointed as the Vice President of the Association of Literary Translators of Serbia (ALTS) on January 13, 2018, Vladimir D. Jankovic is also a member of the Association of Writers of Serbia.
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Interview with Vladimir D. Jankovic
1. Vladimir, thank you for this interview, and congratulations on your recent book Sveta Jelena by Stella Polare! What is it about and where can people find it?
VJ: You’re welcome, dear Maria! It’s me who should thank you for your invitation.
It’s impossible and absurd to say what a collection of poetry is about as it must be about everything. When someone asks me what I write about, I answer: “about everything” in a very sincere and direct way. Although people may think that I’m playing with them, I’m only teasing them in exchange for trying to make fun of me.
As for Sveta Jelena, it can be found only in Serbia at the moment. I translated three or four poems a couple of months ago, but the promotional campaign here in Serbia is so fierce that I have to travel a lot, plus attending too many events with readers, media, libraries, and literary critics. When I reach a peaceful harbor, if it exists at all, I will translate it and eventually push for a breakthrough on foreign markets.
Besides, it’s not easy, oh, not easy at all to get even on former Yugoslav republic markets as even for Croatia and Macedonia, I have to advance a great deal of money only to be able to sell there. Of course, my major interest is first there as readers from those territories would be able to read me and understand the poems without translation.
2. In “Geometry of a woman” (Geometrija žene), you speak about two- and three-dimensional perception of human vision and say that “Only in the place of birth does a person wake up grumpy. […] The compulsion of exile is more bearable.” Further on, you mention a phenomenon called “Belgradeization” along with the “Belgrade prism.” What is “Geometry of a woman” about? What does “Belgradeization” represent?
VJ: Geometry of a woman is the opening short story from Belgrade for the Informed collection. It is about our women from Belgrade, but also about women who recently arrived in Belgrade, mostly from other parts of the former Yugoslavia. Belgradeization is the process of becoming a Belgrade citizen, plain and simple. There is no mystification here. A simple story that uses some geometrical, spiritual, and pictorial elements, nothing special.
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3. In “Bela” (Bela), you write “Today, every other girl in the eighth grade of elementary school wears the number 43, but in Bela’s generation, there were exceptions.” Balkan humor is very unique and at times it can sound quite strange to the West. What is this essay about and is it a true story about shoe size in Serbian schools?
VJ: Well, telling the truth and nothing but the truth is not my duty or obligation. Exaggeration provides a better understanding. Of course, in Serbia, we have girls and women with delicate, fine, small, or medium feet that are also beautifully shaped. They are dominant. However, Bella is a short story about a real person, a lady who lived in my neighborhood.
Based on mixed feelings, Bella is somehow motivated by this woman’s dictatorial and autocratic nature, but also by a hidden warmth that was always perceivable in her … An unhappy, predominantly tragic figure, who fought against her bad destiny as a tyrant, she was my neighbor and also a friend who married another friend of mine. As we had some moments of shared trust, respect, and sympathy, I decided to immortalize her character.
4. In “Shipyard” (Brodogradilište), you write “Being a shipbuilder in this troubled mainland is even harder and gloomier than being, say, a New Belgrade retiree.” The comparison is striking, but it can be said about the Balkans too. How hard is it to survive as a retired person in Serbia?
VJ: It’s not more difficult than in any other country in this part of Europe. It was just a reflection. Let’s say that the Shipyard was, and still is, empty as only a waiting room for death can be from the perspective of any living human being. Empty but not static: it is waiting for something or someone.
Retirees in Serbia are no worse off than their fellow retirees in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Yet, each person’s situation is unique.
5. In “Sweet regret” (Slatko žaljenje), you use the expression “plavušine rečenice.” How is it translated in English and what does it mean in Serbian culture?
VJ: These are the “dumb blonde” sentences. The expression makes reference to the blonde stereotype and is about a girl with blonde hair that’s saying something to a guy who is sitting next to her. The blonde in this story is quite expansive, outspoken, slightly aggressive, and very eloquent. Anyway, in the newer Serbian popular culture, blondes have become a pseudo-symbol of stupidity and ignorance, which is outrageous. Sheer nonsense. Of course, I only wrote what I saw and heard. The girl had blonde hair. If her hair had been black or red, I’d have reflected it as “black” or “red” too.
6. In the same essay, you write “[…] the poet, allegedly, is not interested in destinies but in souls, while the prosaist of the soul means nothing if there is no destiny, that is, a plot.” Have you ever had trouble with the premise of your literary curiosity? Was there a moment people became hostile against you for purely subjective reasons?
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VJ: I think something similar has never really happened. Well, it happened, but I didn’t suffer any serious consequences. Thank God! I was more direct when I was younger and, paradoxically, more direct when I wrote for newspapers. In that period, a long time ago, I have seen somewhat hostile reactions to my writing. But, to tell the truth, I didn’t care much. When you don’t seem to care too much, your potential enemies think you’re nuts, and they tend to let you go.
7. In “Master Vučić Street” (Gospodara Vučića), you write “The houses […] dilapidated art in the depths, the backyard overgrown with a monstrous, Hollywood creeper. A finer, suspicious world.” What is your opinion on contemporary movie productions? Are they good for all audiences, or does Netflix’s business model for targeting by location seem much more reasonable and culturally appropriate?
VJ: I certainly am not a connoisseur of Netflix’s business model and must admit that I’m not aware of what Netflix really is. Obviously, I’m not interested in it.
Contemporary movie productions shouldn’t be appreciated and evaluated as a whole. There must be some good things, as well as some bad things. Movies are mighty weapons. They say that for words, but movies can be even more powerful. If we contemplate the recent history of civilization, we may conclude that the United States, for instance, made its first great global move through cinema. First, they released movies accompanied by some music; then, just movies; then, movies and bombs, and so on … that’s the way they do it.
Cinematography left impressive traces in the history of humankind. There is a lot of beauty, kindness, emotions, and love in movies seen by millions or hundreds of millions of people, and there should be even more.
8. In the same essay, you mention “the unconvincing roar of collective nothingness, in slogans, in the minds of people unaccustomed to opinions.” Is the era in which we live better or worse for literary creators compared to the 80s and 90s of the last century?
VJ: Well, it may not be better, but it surely is not worse. Personally, I think we live in the best of all times. This is the best time for us. This is how I also see the position of the writers. This moment, this today, isn’t it the best we have?
We are allowed to live between the incomprehensible past and the unpredictable future, and the past can be even more unpredictable than the future. So it’s not bad at all. It is only important that we struggle. You have to struggle. Everything else is pure theory, fruitless fantasies. The struggle is good as it is the present.
9. In “Signs of Bad Times” (Znaci nevremena), the reader discovers a girl wearing a T-shirt with the feminist message: “Good girls go to Heaven, bad girls go to the backstage.” What is your opinion on the feminist movement? Is Belgrade perceptive to gender equality? What is your message to future generations in this regard?
VJ: Belgrade is very insightful. Sometimes overly perceptive and open to literally anything. While this may be a notable virtue of this city, people should be aware that it is also dangerous. A very stubborn nation, the Serbs are at the same time very tolerant, and we have always been. Our seemingly stubborn attitude is contrasted with a very open-minded approach to all kinds of people and situations.
10. You conclude the same essay with “Between that openly inhuman and benevolently false, Belgrade pulsates, like some lively, nervous sow …” What do you mean by that sentence? Why is Belgrade “inhuman” and “benevolently false”? Why does the town pulsate like a sow?
VJ: These words could be used to describe any big city in the world. It is a universal image. This is what a great city is. As for Belgrade, it is also a place of great freedom. Here, you can still be free. Numerous tourists and guests from the West feel it all the time and are more than welcome. Then, the expression pulsating like a sow is a pure poetic depiction. A city cannot be a “little pig,” it must be a sow. Cities pulsate. Sow pulsates.
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11. In “Whitewall” (Beli zid), you write “A much greater effort requires you to stumble into poverty than into wealth. Having nothing – that stage is convincingly the hardest to reach.” Although the essay was written before the pandemic, how did the crisis affect society in Serbia? Is there still a “middle class” or is polarization increasing?
VJ: Yes, that one was written almost 10 years before, after many successive phases, we entered the pandemic phase, which is a natural section of the road we are on. The middle class still exists. It is impossible to extinguish it and keep society going. Everybody needs the middle class: both the poor and the rich. Consequently, society as a whole always finds its ways to preserve the middle class. The important thing is that the middle class remains productive, innovative, and creative.
12. In “Sonata for the Spahinica” (Sonata za spahinicu), you write “[…] a man always wants bread over bread, such is his spiritual grain, and physical yeast, so in the past, he seeks better than the present, even and when the present suits him.” (Spahinica is the Ottoman title for the wife of the Spahija) This is very true. In relation to that, what is your message for future generations of literary translators, poets, and writers?
VJ: My only message for them is to work, write, live. If they are meant to do something, they will do it, but they have to persist. When someone asks for advice, one feels compassion, wants to soothe, even to indulge others. Yet, there is no need for that kind of slackness: you just have to live, to feel, to work, to write.
13. Thank you for your time, Vladimir. Would you like to add something else?
VJ: Yes, I’d like to invite Transcontinental Times readers to read “Beograd za upućene.” I’ve made the book accessible for free on Calameo for that purpose.
Some more literary extracts from Beograd za upućene
“Sonata for the Spahinica”
She had a fairytale, elusive name. When the satirist introduced her, I yawned. That’s all I remembered from her name; that I ran out of breath and stared.
“Rada’s children” (Radina deca)
She had a sonorous voice, a conductor’s posture, and a hairstyle that seemed to be finished in a pastry shop after the hair salon. She wore glasses, and despite her austerity and even rigidity, her smile was beautiful.
“A man in civilian clothes” (Čovek u civilu)
The authoritative look on his face never revealed to me any tender feeling in that man to whom, again, a smile would fit nicely because neither his face is ugly, nor malicious. In fact, he is not grumpy, although he is silent and, it seems, he cannot hang out with anyone.
“Dr. Jekyll in Hyde Park” (Doktor Džekil u Hajd parku)
He certainly didn’t come to enjoy it, where even the birds don’t sound like they’re singing for free, but for a fee.
“Dogs of peace” (Psi mira)
Dogs are an important part of Belgrade’s reality, and not recently. They are, at the same time, a barometer of human loneliness.