An Interrogation

At the USSR Congress of African and Asian Writers held in Tashkent and Bukhara in September of 1976, Predrag Matvejević recorded an especially telling conversation with the Uzbek writer Omon Mukhtabarov, who said that national boundaries did not exist in his country as they did elsewhere. “The steppe is flat. It does not divide well. If you drive in a border stake, the wind rips it out. Another stake, more wind. Conquerors moved the border as far as they advanced. When they retreated, the border went with them. Others came and put down no stakes. They understood that they themselves were the border.” The words strike a deep resonant chord, for Matvejević is himself one in whom we find the border, the bridge as it were, of diverse civilizations and different times.

Predrag Matvejević is a quintessential European Left intellectual of the mid-twentieth century–cosmopolitan, erudite, eloquent, but with a twist: his relatives died in the gulag. The son of a Russian speaking Ukrainian who left his country with the retreating White Army during the Soviet Civil War in 1921, Matvejević grew up in Mostar, city of the bridge betrayed, where his father had settled, having married a Croatian woman. Matvejević fils would become one of the leading intellectuals of post-War Yugoslavia, a champion of the cause of dissident literature, a staunch critic of the particularist nationalism that would eventually destroy his country, and an apologist for “socialism with a human face.” In the 1980s, Matvejević was subjected to a public smear campaign at the hands of Yugoslav apparatchiks. Unlike his close friend and colleague Danilo Kiš, he remained in the country afterward, still hopeful. But after Croatian independence in 1991, he collided with president Franjo Tudjman’s nationalist agenda and emigrated, teaching first at the Sorbonne in Paris and later at the University of Rome, where he is currently Professor of Slavic Studies.

To convey his convictions, his experiences, and the convictions and experiences of his generation, he has chosen unusual literary forms, hybrids like himself. Even beyond questions of genre, his works shift with time, betraying the possibility of definition in anything like its contemporary sense. When we agreed that I should translate one of his books, he sent me three, each with a different title. The Serbo-Croatian (not Croatian, for Matvejević was a Yugoslav) read simply An Eastern Epistolary. The French, published a year later, in 1995, read Between Exile and Asylum: A Russian Epistolary. Finally, the Italian added a different subtitle: An Epistolary Novel. The original, the only one without the words “translated by” on the cover, was the Serbo-Croatian text, but Matvejević suggested I should start with the Italian, “as it had come out last.” They are all the same book, of course, and not the same. The hybrid, it seems, changes with time, compiling its own self in something like the medieval practice that inspired his epistolary experiment.

In his person and beliefs, Matvejević is like that territory that Mukhtabarov invoked. On the surface he appears to be only a representative of the “Other Europe,” which is no more. But, more substantively, he incarnates Europe’s little known internal cosmopolitanism, the steppe-like political culture that Cold War terms like the “Other Europe” tended to eclipse. One cannot help but wonder, in confronting his work, where lies the connection between one part and another, or, to keep my metaphor straight, between one hybrid strain and the next? As this brief sample from Matvejević’s epistolary makes evident, in this case the bridge that connects has been destroyed, while the people it brought together, the people it made one, are a thing of the past. Where this leaves Matvejević himself is anyone’s guess.

Russell Valentino

The following letter was written before my native city of Mostar was destroyed.

To the Secretary of Internal Affairs, Mostar
Zagreb, June 30, 1991

My father, Vsevolod Matvejević, died in May of 1989 in Mostar. Several years before his death, he was interrogated by the Internal Affairs Police of the city. A friend of his, Vladimir Timofeev,a Russian by nationality, had been charged with collaborating with the Soviet intelligence services: among the relatives and friends who had visited him from the USSR, someone had spied in Mostar and taken information back to Moscow.

Timofeev, an engineer by training, was sentenced to a year in prison, but because of age and poor health he was released early. Russian books were found in his apartment, along with issues of The Russian Idea, which Timofeev had received from my father and loaned to two or three other friends. This was defined as “dissemination of enemy propaganda.” Timofeev had been a mineral engineer, hard working and cultured. Born in Moscow at the beginning of the century, he had emigrated in his early youth, just after the October Revolution. Yugoslavia had become his second homeland. He spent his working life in Bosnia-Herzegovina and was considered one of the highest qualified specialists in his field. The trial and sentence affected him terribly, and he died soon after.

My father was interrogated during the investigation. He was already an old man (more than eighty) and had undergone an operation for cancer of the larynx. He spoke with difficulty, in a painful whisper, a cannula inserted in his throat. He wanted to defend Timofeev but was afraid for himself, torn between friendship and fear. I find it difficult to imagine the two old Russians standing before their Yugoslav accusers, all the more so since the greatest blame was mine in having sent my father the incriminating texts.
In the desire to understand all the details of this investigation, I would ask you to please, considering the change of regime, allow me access to the dossier in question.

Post script. Despite the change of regime, I received no response to this letter.

On the eve of the Yugoslav war, I witnessed an especially revelatory event on the occasion of my father’s death. After his departure from Odessa, he had met Nikolai Berdiaev and adopted his ideas on Christianity. In rejection of the “folly of the schism,” Vsevolod Nikolaevich Matveevich had requested an “ecumenical funeral,” which would combine the prayer of a Catholic priest, an Orthodox priest, and a Protestant pastor. The religious authorities forbid their subordinates to conduct such a “metic” ceremony and allowed only the Protestant pastor to participate, as he had come from far away. A Muslim sage declared, “The misfortune fell upon a city where one cannot even say a prayer together.”

These words were circling in my mind when, in my native city, I saw the Orthodox church destroyed along with many mosques, while the Catholic church in which I had kneeled as a boy was irreparably damaged. In my father’s house, which was also destroyed, at the bottom of an old wooden trunk, tied together by a dark green string were the few letters that Berdiaev had sent to his young pupil, my father. My only hope is that, in the course of the interminable looting a thief might have carried away that thin packet before our house was burned down. In an “ex-world” where so many things have been overturned and distorted, even a thief can sometimes seem a good thing.

Russell Valentino is professor of Slavic languages in the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. He has written extensively on 19th century Russian literature, and on various aspects of Yugoslavia’s culture and letters.