Author: Bert Rebhandl
Published: REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, November 2007

Bora Cosic (born 1932, Zagreb), writer became known through his novel “Die Rolle meiner Familie in der Weltrevolution” (“My Family’s Role in the World Revolution”). In the 1950s and 1960s he was a staff member and editor for a number of literary journals (“Mlada kultura”, “Delo”, “Knjieevnost”, “Knjieevne novine”, “Danas”). He later worked in the dramturgy deparatment of the Belgrade production company, Avala Film. In 1992 Bora Cosic left Serbia as a protest against the Milosevic regime and went to Rovinj (Croatia), and later to Berlin. Since then he no longer mentions Belgrade, the city in which he grew up by its name. During the Yugoslav wars he called it “the city from which the war is directed.” In 2002 he was awarded the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding and Communication.

Bert Rebhandl lives in Berlin as a freelance journalist and author.


Bora Ćosić


Cold War and Coca-Cola

Under Tito, how did the intellectual class orient itself in world politics? Does there exist among writers a positive understanding of non-aligned Yugoslavia?

Bora Cosic, who has lived in Berlin since the mid-1990s but also regularly spends time in Rovinj, takes a backward look: “Part of my generation regarded itself as cosmopolitan from the very start.” Cosic represents a European biography that has no understanding of terms such as “native country” and “national pride”: he has lost touch with both. East and West are no longer defined, neither geographically nor intellectually. The Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was a unique entity during the Cold War. A communist country that was not part of the communist bloc, a state made up of many different ethnic groups with a tightly organised national ideology, a cultural laboratory that regularly produced something of interest. The writer Bora Cosic, who was born in Zagreb in 1932, and later lived for a long time in Belgrade, became known in the West through a novel whose title ironically refers to the relationship between Yugoslavia and the rest of the world: “My Family’s Role in the World Revolution” was to some extent a satirical response to the fact that Tito’s Yugoslavia always took itself a little too seriously. The Belgrade writer could not accept this. Cosic studied the Russian avant-garde as well as American novelists such as William Faulkner and to the present day it is impossible to overlook in his texts the fact that there was a large surrealist group in the capital of former Yugoslavia. Under Tito how did the intellectual class orient itself in world politics? Was there among writers a positive understanding of non-aligned Yugoslavia? Bora Cosic, who has lived in Berlin since the mid-1990s but also regularly spends time in Rovinj, takes a look back in a discussion with Report: “I don’t remember that during the time when Yugoslavia seemed eternal ever attaching much importance to being Yugoslav; a part of my generation felt very cosmopolitan from the very start. Others naturally lost their way in nationalistic regions when the country started to break up into several different nation states.” The wars of the 1990s also had a cultural background – the international inheritance increasingly lost its importance, it is not an accident that Radovan Karadzic, one of the greatest war criminals, was also a poet. In Bora Ćosić in contrast the playful forms of deconstruction are more important. The writer describes his influences as follows: “I loved and translated the poets of the Russian avant-garde from the days of my youth, but they were only one source for my education, for my development as a writer. As well as reading the Russians I spent a lot of time studying American novelists such as Faulkner and Hemingway. And then there were the French surrealist poets, modern prose writers in German such as Thomas Mann or Musil and many others from the rich history of the 20th century, up to Pessoa or Nabokov. Years later the models of one’s youth seem like dear friends, sooner or later everyone has to find their own way.“ The nature of this path is described in “My Family’s Role in the World Revolution”, using also the example of American culture. While the entire world was fixated on Hollywood and consumer goods from the victorious Western power, Bora Cosic worked out his own interpretation: “During my youth and for my book the American actors signified only what they were, actors playing heroes.” In the Cold War era Cosic was not particularly fascinated by the West, nor by western goods, whether nylon shirts or Coca-Cola. For him there was neither a “positive”, nor a “uniform” feeling for the West. There are so many definitions of this “West”. There is a West of sophisticated technologies, a West of enormous cultural traditions, a West that is insensitive towards its own minorities or socially marginal groups. Cosic believes that the void between American and Europe comes initially from the economic and political spheres. He does not show any great interest in these areas. Nor does he have a tendency to confront different nations, to measure them according to their different, individual traditions. On the contrary: “I am always in favour of allowing these traditions to complement each other, of encouraging mutual incorporation.” The process of literary translation contributes to this process of incorporating and complementing. Boris Cosic has studied world literature most closely. When asked whether he ever wanted to be noticed by this world literature or wished before 1989 to live in one of the Western countries into whose language his books have been translated, Cosic responds: “For a very long time I hadn’t the faintest idea that I could ever live anywhere else. For years it was of no importance at all to me whether one of my books was translated or not. The political circumstances that destroyed my country led to my exile. One could therefore say that I didn’t go abroad because of the foreign country but because my own country had become foreign to me.” Nevertheless it seems as if he has “arrived” in Berlin, as if Berlin “suits” him: “Coming to Berlin brought me unexpected experiences. I was able to get to know a large city that is not just geographically large but also intellectually expansive. And so I quickly appropriated this place without thinking about where it lies exactly, about to what nation this city belongs or to what state. And, as my Slav forefather had made their senseless way to the south precisely from here, I think that it is in fact entirely natural that I should feel the way I do in Berlin today.” Nowadays Bora Cosic again spends a lot of time in the country that is no longer his own. His language also no longer exists. He writes in Serbo-Croat, the idiom of the old Yugoslavia. For a long time only a few of his books were available in German editions, it is only since he found a new “home” with Suhrkamp Verlag that such important works as “Die Zollerklärung” (“The Customs Declaration”, about the difficult “emigration” of his library) have appeared in German. Does this mean that Bora Ćosić has arrived in Germany, in the West, without ever having planned to? “I have said already that I feel very much at home in Berlin, in Germany and in Europe. This doesn’t mean that I have become ´Germanised`, on the contrary, the German environment allows me to stay neutral, also with neutral emotions towards my official origins.” Today the Republic of Serbia is regarded as the loser of the states that have emerged from the former Yugoslavia. Nor are its chances of EU membership rated very highly. Is Bora Cosic of the same opinion? “Without the help of considerable concessions on the part of the EU Serbia can have no great hopes in this direction at the moment.“ Soon after 1989 the first theories about “The end of history” emerged, with the victory of the West in the Cold War. Bora Cosic does not write victors literature, nevertheless the question is permissible: has the West won? “In history it is never certain who in fact is the victor or for how long.” The conversation ended with a playful question: what might the role of his family in world revolution look like today? “The world revolution, like every revolution in general, these are terms that I only use for pejorative and literary purposes. I do not wish anybody to have to experience or take part in this in practice. It would be better if each person could ´revolutionise` his own individual fate through his own development, so that he improves and furthers his abilities, and also his own civility and as a result the general level of civility. And this can’t be done by storming the winter castle or by descending on Havanna from the Sierra Maestre.”