Central & Eastern Europe / Satellite Review / Literature

Kovač Through the Looking Glass

Marc Casals takes a look at Mirko Kovač‘s novel The City in the Mirror, a classic of post-Yugoslav literature that is yet to appear in English translation

Photo Jakob Goldstein

Lying just over the hill from Herzegovina’s austere landscape of rock and scrub, Dubrovnik appeared like a dream, an agglomeration of white walls and red roofs facing the vast blue of the Adriatic

The metaphor which underpins Mirko Kovač’s 2007 novel Grad u zrcalu (“The City in the Mirror”) is revealed towards the middle of the story, when the narrator remembers a ruse used by his grandfather to fire his imagination as a child. The narrator was told that if he took his grandmother’s mirror to the top of a hill at dusk, and pointed it towards the sea, he would be able to see, just for an instant, the city of Dubrovnik in the last flush of twilight. The image sums up the mixture of enchantment and distance that the inhabitants of Eastern Herzegovina, where Kovač grew up, felt towards the grand city on the nearby coast.

Beginning only a few kilometres inland from Dubrovnik, Eastern Herzegovina is made up of a succession of stony plateaus, where the sun reverberates on fractured rock. This is the landscape in which Kovač grew up. The sun appears in his work not as a symbol of vitality, but as an implacable force that reveals the weight of human suffering.

Born in a village on the Herzegovinian-Montenegrin border in 1938, Kovač would over time develop a vision of both the poetry and the harshness of the Eastern Herzegovinian universe, at times making it seem like a Balkan transcript of the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez, Kovač’s father was a modest merchant whose bohemian leanings were a source of much grief to the family. The narrator of The City in the Mirror recalls how he would frequently see his father off at the local railway station on one of his business trips to Dubrovnik, without ever being sure when and in what state he might come back. Sometimes it would take him a few days to return, at other times they had to go to the coast themselves to drag him drunk and incoherent from some drinking den.

Kovač's father went to Dubrovnik to order stock for his shop. As he got older, Kovač was often asked to go with him. It was on these expeditions that the young Mirko developed a fascination for splendoured Dubrovnik, a fascination common to many inhabitants of Eastern Herzegovina. Lying just over the hill from Herzegovina’s austere landscape of rock and scrub, the city appeared like a dream, an agglomeration of white walls and red roofs facing the vast blue of the Adriatic. The contrast between Dubrovnik and Herzegovina, separated by only a few kilometres, also had a crucial historical element: during the period when much of the Balkan interior was part of the Ottoman Empire, Dubrovnik (then known as Ragusa) was an independent republic and a major trading power. Despite their geographical proximity, the two areas spent centuries framed by different civilizations.

Although the Kovač family survived World War II largely unscathed, their lives were disrupted by the advent of communism, which involved the nationalization of the property of both peasants and merchants. Kovač's father lost everything: a small shop with a tavern, two houses, and a mill on the Trebišnjica river. To add insult to injury, these expropriations were carried out by his own store assistant, whom he had originally taken on as an orphan. The rapacity of the new bosses, hidden behind lofty proclamations, would become a frequent theme in Kovač's work, as expressed by a character whose cattle are requisitioned by the authorities: “I don't understand the freedom that takes bread from the mouths of the people ”.

Eternal misfit

Kovač himself encountered problems with the communist regime with his first novel, Purgatory (Gubilište; 1962), which provoked the anger of the regime’s moral guardians by presenting "a dark picture of the world." Kovač’s punishment for daring to question official triumphalism was the requirement to report weekly to the police headquarters and give an account of his activities. Major problems returned for Kovač with the purges of 1972, when ‘liberals’ were flushed out of Serbian political and cultural life. Proof of the political servility that prevailed at the time is the comment of a party functionary in Valjevo, a Serbian town that withdrew a literary prize awarded to a collection of Kovač's short stories: “For the moment, I condemn the book for being contrary to socialism and self-management, because I haven't read it yet. And when I read it I'll say what I think!"

Denied access to Belgrade publishing houses, Kovač moved to the Croatian capital Zagreb, where he began a successful career as a screenwriter. His first script, for Bahrudin Čengić’s Playing Soldiers (Mali vojnici), was selected to compete in the Cannes Film Festival of May '68, but the festival was called off in support of student protests after a boycott led by Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. The rest of his scripts focus on the period from World War II to the establishment of communism, with protagonists swept back and forth by the convulsions of history. The most successful of these ten films, The Occupation in 26 Pictures (Okupacija u 16 slika) by Lordan Zafranović, dealt with the fates of three Dubrovnik friends (a Croat, an Italian and a Jew) in 1941 and its aftermath, when the city was lorded over by Italian fascists and their Croatian collaborators.

During the 1980s, Kovač re-established himself on the literary scene in Belgrade, a city that awakened contradictory feelings. Although he was comforted by the indifference with which the capital received provincials eager for success, it was also a city that caused him to tremble with apprehension every time he returned to it. He portrayed some of the city’s most sordid aspects in his work. Despite feeling like an eternal misfit in the city, Belgrade was for Kovač the place of his confirmation as an innovative author with few equals. He became a close friend of Danilo Kiš, who dedicated to Kovač the opening story of his internationally acclaimed A Tomb for Boris Davidovič. Kovač shared with Kiš his enthusiasm for the cinema, the experience of ideological persecution, and even one lover, already advanced in years, who referred to them as “the twins”.

Alone on the road

Kovač wrote many of his books in the first person, exploring the possibilities of what we would nowadays call autofiction. Kovač’s narrators bear a strong resemblance to the author himself, and the action frequently takes place in Herzegovina or Belgrade. However Kovač takes pleasure in interrupting the flow of the story with scholarly digressions, meta-literary notes, and even ironic comments about the narrator himself, convinced that "it is an art to undermine the argument." Techniques such as these were far from usual in Yugoslav literature, but they did not come about as a result of calculated theorizing. Kovač gave his status as a writer an almost existential character: “Do your best to dedicate yourself to the vocation of writing and to justify the meaning you yourself have given it on countless occasions. And don't be scared if you're alone on that road”.

Born to a Croatian father, a Montenegrin mother and breastfed by a Muslim wet-nurse, Kovač had never attached any importance to national identity: "I know what I am until they ask me what I am." With the rise to power in Serbia of Slobodan Milošević, Kovač became one of the promoters of the Liberal Forum of Serbia, which famously described the early period of Milošević’s rule as being “pre-fascist”. Almost overnight, certain intellectuals and even some friends broke off relations with Kovač; he was rebuked by complete strangers on the street, received threats over the phone, and had his car tyres slashed. At a conference gatecrashed by Serbian ultranationalists, one of the radicals threw a camera at the rostrum, hitting Kovač on the head. Dripping with blood on the way to the hospital, he was asked by a journalist how he felt. “Like an Albanian” came the reply, alluding to the repression to which the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo was being subjected by the Milošević regime.

One of the main reasons for the harassment suffered by Kovač was his condemnation of the bombardment of Dubrovnik, which began in October 1991 and involved attacks from land, sea and air. Although the bulk of the troops attacking the city consisted of Yugoslav Army reserves and volunteers from Montenegro, the politicians of Kovač’s Eastern Herzegovina, mostly Serb, offered the region as a logistical base. Local nationalist leader Božidar Vučurević, based in the Eastern Herzegovinian town of Trebinje, saw Dubrovnik as a cesspit of decadence, whose inhabitants had to be taught “where Herzegovina is and that Herzegovina is always above them”. At the same time, a weekly magazine loyal to Milošević interviewed several Belgrade architects about the possibilities arising from the destruction of Dubrovnik (which was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site). According to these experts, it was desirable to topple the city’s Renaissance and Baroque churches, whose belfries would have been used by the enemy to install machine gun nests.

The other side of the mirror

When paramilitaries armed with submachine guns broke into his home and spent ten hours questioning him and his wife, Kovač decided to pack his bags and leave Belgrade. He chose the Croatian peninsula of Istria as his new home, a part of the country known for its tolerance, sheltered from the violence taking place elsewhere. Faced with accusations of having betrayed the Serbian people by going to Croatia in the middle of a war, Kovač reaffirmed his choice; it enabled him to make his moral position clear, and to stand on the side of whoever could be considered the victim. He cut ties with Serbia outright: "I have tried to attack the myths and delusions of Serbian politics, but now I can only distance myself from that shameful reality, from the entire existence of that sick country." After renting a flat in the coastal town of Rovinj, so cold that his hand shook when he wrote, he began writing a column for the Split-based satirical weekly Feral Tribune, a regular thorn in the side of authoritarian Croatian President Franjo Tuđman.

Published in 2007 by his Croatian publisher Fraktura, The City in the Mirror was immediately greeted as a masterpiece, the culmination of the author’s work so far. The book’s narrator recalls for the last time both his ancestry and his small homeland, a Herzegovina that had, since the war, become a landscape that was for Kovač no longer real, but strictly literary. The plot threads memories impregnated with childlike vividness, focusing above all on the figure of the father, a man both loved despite his faults and resented for his excesses, ultimately indecipherable in his own particular mixture of eccentricity, selfishness and tenderness. The history of this one family is interwoven with the history of Yugoslavia, with Kovač painting a vibrant fresco of the idiosyncrasies of Herzegovinian life.

Like any evocation of childhood, The City in the Mirror abounds in initiations, from the protagonist's terror when walking barefoot along a path lined with snakes, to his first contemplation of the sea, and the various stages of aesthetic and sentimental education offered by his schoolteacher. However Kovač pays particular attention to an episode concerning Dubrovnik. With the narrator’s father away in Dubrovnik looking for money to pay off a debt, and the authorities threatening to shut down the family business, the protagonist has to travel to the city for the first time alone. While searching unsuccessfully for his father, he discovers the world of ancient Ragusa: the vastness of the calm sea, the ships on which the seagulls perch, and the bustling embrace of the vegetable market. However he also experiences the apprehension of the roughly-dressed peasant from the interior, subjected to the urban contempt of the locals. Despite failing to find his father, however, the expedition has not been a failure. At last he now knows what lies hidden on the other side of the mirror.

Marc Casals has been living in southeastern Europe since 2005, first in Sofia (Bulgaria), then in Cavtat (Croatia), and from 2010 in Sarajevo (Bosnia-Herzegovina). He writes about the region for Spanish magazine Ctxt.

This article was originally published in Spanish by Ctxt