Mirna Šolić, Bosnian writer Ivan Lovrenovic has tried to capture the enduring substance of his country

In many ways, Ivan Lovrenovic is a typical member of the Bosnian literary scene. Born in Zagreb, grow up in Mrkonjic-Grad (small town in western Bosnia), he moved to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo when he was in his 30s. He fled the country during he fighting in the 1990s, living between Berlin and Zagreb for four years. But Bosnia never loosened its grip on his imagination and continues to influence his writing to this day.

This is a telling characteristic of Bosnian literature today–the writers who have contributed to it were spread out all over the world in the 1990s, writing as refugees, as journalists, as philosophers, or intellectual critics. The geographic space of Bosnian literature extends beyond the territory of the country itself. In effect, it has been “deterritorialized.”
And, just as the writers were geographically spread out in space, their work was spread out in its diversity. The fragmentation and ethnic divisions of Bosnia and Herzegovina over the past decade have witnessed a massively diverse outpouring on the country’s literary scene, as writers delved into a wide spectrum of topics and used various genres in their attempts to reflect Bosnian reality.

During this creative explosion, the older generation of Bosnian writers, which includes Lovrenovic as well as such writers as Dzevad Karahasan and Semezdin Mehmedinovic, was joined by a younger generation whose work is dispersed through various anthologies and compilations and who wrote under conditions of siege or in refuge.

The continuity of Bosnian literature–which was once dubbed “the Bosnian narrative” by local literary historian Nikola Krsic–took on a new meaning in the 1990s as new genres emerged in various reflections on the war, from inscriptions and impressions to essays, philosophical treatises, journalistic reportage, and short stories. Again, Lovrenovic himself–a novelist, poet, journalist, scholar, and editor–reflects that diversity.

But while Bosnian literature is marked by the individuality with which the country’s various writers have approached their writing, it has at the same time acted as one of the main factors of unification among the ethnically divided areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The specific and unifying character of Bosnian authors is their public and political reaction to the war and the destruction of a multicultural community. They are also characterized by their attempt to revalue the cultural history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to define the creation of arts and literature not only as an individual act, but also as the freedom of creativity and the human spirit against the backdrop of closed, repressive political structures and a militarized reality.

In a demonstration of that attitude, Lovrenovic joined a group of other Sarajevo intellectuals in 1992 to sign an open letter addressed to then-Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, warning him about the dangers inherent in his view that a division of Bosnia could serve as a “permanent solution of the Croatian-Serbian-Muslim relationship.” Those writers opposed the idea–a sort of Croatian version of the Greater Serbia idea–arguing that the “political destruction” of Bosnia and Herzegovina was not in any nation’s interest.

An abiding fascination. Lovrenovic  is one of the most prominent writers of contemporary Bosnian literature. As a student of ethnology and South-Slavic languages, he has long been fascinated with the history and culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He left the country with his family in 1993 after the fighting broke out and lived abroad until 1997. Today, he is one of the editors for the Bosanska knjiga (Bosnian Book) publishing house and an editor for the Split-based Croatian weekly Feral Tribune and the Sarajevo-based weekly Dani.
Lovrenovic started to write prose and essays in 1969, mainly dealing with Bosnian history and culture and with something he calls “the fine poli-perspectivity of Bosnia.” Before the war, he wrote Obacasca i basanja (Sarajevo, 1982), The Journey of Ivan Frano Jukic (Mostar, 1977), Bosnia and Herzegovina, An Illustrated Monography (Sarajevo, 1982), The Literature of Bosnian Franciscans, Hrestomany (Sarajevo, 1982), Sketches and leit-motifs (Banja Luka, 1986). During the war years of 1993 and 1994, Lovrenovic helped to establish the Bosanska knjiga publishing house, an institution that has been called one of the “nice miracles” of those otherwise bleak years.

In Lovrenovic’s work, war and devastation emerge as individual experience, but also as an intellectual responsibility to explain something he calls “the anthropology of evil.” His 1994 novel Liber memorabilium, which has been described as one of the best novels dealing with the war in Bosnia, is an homage to the devastated and burnt private library and all the libraries, funds, and artistic pieces destroyed during the war, including the destruction of the National Library and the Oriental Institute. Another key work by Lovrenovic is his book Inner Land, A Short Survey of the Cultural History of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which the author takes the reader on a journey through the cultural history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The journey begins with the early prehistoric era, from the paleolithic age to the times of the Illyric tribes and the first known descriptions of Bosnia in Byzantine Emperor Konstantine Porfirogenet’s De administratio imperio, written in the 10th century. And it continues down through history, right up to the 1995 Dayton Accords that brought an end to the war.

The aim of the journey is to avoid getting caught up in the question of identity and instead to follow the development of culture on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina and to define it as deserving of its own equal and unique space in the framework of European culture.
The title reflects the idea that the Bosnian identity is based on a historical process during which particular cultures were woven into a multicultural pattern–a concept that differs substantially from the linear discourse of national history that is dominant in Croatian and Serbian historiography.

The other idea visible from the title is the term itself, “inner Bosnia” or terra interior, taken as Lovrenovic explains, “from one old Latin inscription about Bosnia.” Lovrenovic consciously refers to the old tradition of chronicles and itineraries and marks down his own short inscriptions at different spots along his journey with dates as witness to the destruction of war.

Dzevad Karahasan, one of the contemporary Bosnian “inscriptors,” says the short form typical of this style reflects the need people have to express and to describe the trauma that they have experienced. The act of marking down the dates of such tragedies is of great importance because it retains their individuality by stopping to take note of each particular event, each particular moment.

Bulgarian historian Marija Todorova coined the term “imaginary Balkans” to describe a journey through the cultural and chronological space of the Balkans, to explain a metaphor about the Balkans itself, and to deconstruct all the negative meanings of that word summoned up by recent history. Perhaps the term terra incognita could reflect an attempt to discover its meaning in the itineraries of Arabic and Turkish traders and writers, such as Evlija Celebi in the 17th century, and later in the works of travelers from the West who discovered Bosnia as a romantic land in the heart of Europe.

“Terra interior”. In his 1996 book, Bosnia, The End of the Century, Lovrenovic writes: “‘Terra interior, dark vilajet, inner roses’–such a tangle of terminological-imaginative meanings. Wash those words in three waters, clean them from banal connotations of physical and political geography, and from cheap sentimentalism as well–and you will get key-words, words that make you enter into Bosnia through the main doors. Those are the doors of history and culture, of ‘the history of mentality.’ Those are not the doors of politics, of political ideology to which everybody suddenly rushes, form both the outside and inside. Those doors cannot ‘open’ Bosnia; they can only close her even deeper or break her.”
The social and political organization of the region is only a frame for Bosnia’s multicultural identity, which was shaped over centuries by various “ethno-confessional communities” (Bosniak-Muslim, Catholic-Croatian, Orthodox-Serbian, and Sephardic-Jewish). The Bosnian identity is more readily apparent in the cultural artifacts of the region, such as architecture, which reflect the interwoven nature of the culture. It is particularly evident in the country’s spiritual buildings, which represent Bosnia’s rich cultural identity and which were therefore targeted for destruction in the divisive war.

Lovrenovic’s Bosnia, The End of the Century is a collection of war and post-war chronicles, and picks up where Inner Land left off. To understand Bosnia, says Lovrenovic, it is necessary to avoid “ahistoric determinism and fear of the ‘other,’” making a reference to the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin defined two separate types of culture–one “high,” elitist, and untouchable and the other based on the popular and vernacular culture of meetings between people where information is shared and exchanged, fostering mutual understanding.

This theoretical distinction, produced by a Russian in the first half of the 20th century, found fertile ground in contemporary Bosnian literature. Along with Lovrenovic, the Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan underlines the importance of the “architectonic principle” of urban organization and everyday life reflected in the mahala (neighborhoods of towns where separate ethno-confessional communities live) and carsija (the main streets, which are important as markets and public meeting places)

The meaning of architecture is a leit-motif of contemporary Bosnian literature. This is particularly evident in the metaphor of the Old Bridge in Mostar, which was built in 16th century and destroyed during the fighting in 1993. Lovrenovic argues that when the Old Bridge was attacked, the “meaning and spirit” of Bosnia itself was attacked. He defines the essence of the bridge as “reunion,” which contrasts with the divisiveness of the war. “That is why the destiny of that bridge is the destiny of the country itself–it is one destiny. Like the bridge, this country was established on meeting and uniting, and divided only by sheer force and brutality.”

As a traveler through the Bosnian cultural landscape, Lovrenovic proved that the theories about Bosnian multiculturalism are not merely a lament over the destiny of the country. Such theories help to place the historical identity, language, and cultural tradition of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the reality of a displaced and devastated country and its “deterritorialized” literature.

 

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