úterý 25. března 2014
Total Balkans gets first international press coverage!
Since my innocent blogpost Mitro, je t'aime came out last month, an avalanche of letters, questions and words of encouragement crushed my mailbox. People asked when in the hell is Total Balkans scheduled to come out in English, French and Albanian, who was the publisher, why on earth were they hearing about the book as late as this, and if I needed any help organizing tours and readings in Kosovo. Most of them just said: thank you for loving Mitrovica - we thought we were alone. One of Mitrovica's proud natives turned out to be a journalist at the Koha Ditore newspaper. This is the result of our collaboration - an interview that came out in Kosovo a couple of weeks ago:
When did you come to Kosovo?
I came to Kosovo in August 2007, hired as a human rights lawyer at the OSCE. I was quite surprised to get selected: people were telling me it is almost impossible to get in an international mission, so just before I learnt that they chose me, I was actually packing my bags for England, to finish my degree in writing. I can still remember the concerned voices of friends: you are choosing Pristina over Oxford?? Many people thought that I was basically setting out for a warzone. The vision of Kosovo among people in Western Europe was very surreal then. And to a large extent, it still remains unrealistic.
What made you fall in love with Kosovo - was it the people or something else?
The people. The disarming atmosphere of Mitrovica. I claim that Kosovo is one of the very last places in Europe, where everything is possible. You run into infuriating or charming extremes at every corner, your mind and your emotions are under a constant attack. I travelled the world, but I only saw this in Kosovo. I was privileged to find friends with whom we became like family. Moreover, when you are lucky and you run into the right people, then you can be sure they will be more talented, organized and motivated than anywhere else. A recent example: I submitted a text to Kosovo 2.0, it came out in perfect Albanian and Serbian translation in less than three days. I received countless reactions of the readers, people, who offered specific help with a project I mentioned in the article. Where do you find this in Europe these days?
Can you share with me a story from Kosovo that you will never forget?
There are so many; beautiful, heroic, tragic, moving and humorous stories. Many. Some of them were the inspiration of my novel set in Kosovo. I won’t forget this: in 2008, Petar, a Kosovo Serb who was originally from Vushtrri asked me if I wouldn’t take him to the Vushtrri orthodox cemetery – he wanted to find the grave of his mother. We sneaked in through a hole in the barbed wire and started looking. For obvious reasons, I was nervous. Then I spotted a rusty “Danger mines” sign. I froze to the spot and yelled at Petar: we are walking through a minefield! – “Don’t worry, you are not,” – said a sudden voice. The voice belonged to Nesim, an Albanian builder, who worked on a construction site nearby. He helped us find the tombstone: it was split in two heavy parts. One person wouldn’t lift it. But the two could: without a word, in absolute coordination, compassion and harmony, Nesim and Petar carried the two parts together, so the tombstone was in one piece again. I stood there, speechless, ashamed, remembering dozens of trainings on multi-ethnic issues and security threats in Kosovo, but above all, I remembered a sentence that my great friend Agim from Bosniak Mahalla used to say: Ima samo čovek ili nečovek. - You are either human or you are not. This sentence has become one of the central thoughts of my book. And the scene at the cemetery became the final reason for me to resign from my position at the mission. I couldn’t picture myself with the staff-card anymore, driving around Kosovo in a bullet-proof jeep with the proud logo on its doors, building a multi-ethnic society. It is not difficult to realize that democratization is a noble pursuit that is very distant from the ordinary lives, needs and worries of most local people. But once you realize this, it is really difficult to step down from the throne of privileges. But I never regretted. Driving through Kosovo in my own car without the diplomatic plates, I at least got to know pretty much all of the traffic police patrols in Mitrovica region, and had plenty of interesting conversations. In my OSCE jeep, they never ever stopped me.
When did you realize that you wanted to write a book? What did the writing process look like?
I first wrote an English film script based in Kosovo, the script was my final project at the creative writing program in Oxford. But I wrote that when I was still in Kosovo. When I left for Prague, I terribly missed Mitrovica, but I couldn’t go back. So out of the despair and longing, I started writing. It really was like a letter to the city at first, then it developed into a full-scale novel. Total Balkan, was my third book to come out in the Czech Republic, and the first time that I decided to self-publish it, together with my brother. He was a law student back then, but he was so devoted, he did better than most established publishing houses. The first edition is nearly sold out.
Why “Total Balkan”?
It is a vague reference to the Czech expression of “total chaos”. But it is by no means aimed against Kosovo or its society, quite the opposite, actually. The readers soon find out what the title means in the context of the story and who, or, what actually is in total chaos.
Tell me more about the story of your book
The protagonist, a young Czech lawyer comes to Kosovo to work for a civilian mission. She soon finds out that things don’t work as she expected, or, in fact, most things don’t work at all, and hardly anyone cares about Kosovo and its people. She is disillusioned, but still desperate to do work that makes sense. Will she find a way? And can an individual make any difference inside a large organization? What is democratization and how do you specifically do it? And can a million be stolen hundred by hundred? – But don’t expect a classic narration: the style is sharp, ironic, humorous and critical.
After the book came out, what were the reactions?
It will not be an understatement to say that the reactions have been extremely positive so far. People keep writing to me that they read Total Balkan on trams and buses, and that they regularly miss their exit stations. There were people who even travelled to Kosovo and visited the places mentioned in the story. And one acclaimed Czech literary translator even wrote to me that the book would make Vaclav Havel proud. All of this means a huge recognition of the novel and of my mission as a writer.