Davor Špišić is a prolific writer both of plays (Alabama, Welcome to War!, South 2, Rubber Sky) and of prose works (Undressing the Stench, Ventriloquists, Ham Hooks, Slavonian Blood, coauthored with Dario Topić, Koljivo and others) that have won numerous prizes and have been performed in Croatia and abroad. Born in Osijek, Špišić is sensitive to the eternal questions on both sides of our measly national barriers, the fratricidal wars he witnessed firsthand as well as the fates of so-called ordinary people whose hopeless Balkan destiny never ends. His new novel Wolf on the Snow (published by Hena.com) is just such a saga, where the heroes are harsh and callous one page and melancholic on the next, and love and warmth are intertwined with a ruthless struggle to survive.
Your novel is a dystopian story about our people and region in 2035. Given the schizophrenic landscape of the story with many aberrations, which we already see today, and the feeling of our civilization accelerating to a breaking point, we might ask ourselves if we will live to see 2035 at all.
That’s a good question. Will we open the champagne on New Year’s Eve in 2035, when the story in my novel takes place? We really cannot know for sure. The world has gone mad; we live in a state of an undeclared third war, and, despite the misery of these apocalyptical threats, the madness of human greed doesn’t stop.
On the corruptibility of souls
Societal and human hypocrisy are the silent heroes of your novel. Generally, the image of humanity does not look good today. How much courage do you have to peer into the dark soul of today’s man that you follow in the novel, and what do you see in its depths?
I don’t know if I’m especially brave in that sense, but I do try to keep my ethics and aesthetics firmly connected so that one doesn’t eat the other. As an author, I am very interested in following the corruptibility of our souls – how much we are able to repeat our old, outworn, mindless short-term actions with long-term consequences. At the same time, if I step out of the position of the writer, all I can do is hope that with these writings of mine I also fight for the wounded, whose numbers are increasing daily in our marvelous society.
In your novel, we see barons of the market, money and power and ordinary people as their victims. Is it really so? Didn’t we all together get what we wanted?
The wild evolution from socialist Yugoslavia, where “only one type of yogurt was produced,” to capitalist paradise turned out lucrative only for a handful of potentates. They are those sinister types whose greed uses nationalist tricks to copiously overstate the expected purchasing power. This happened on all the fiefs that sprung up on the ruins of civil wars in the early nineties. Globally, rampant greed has consequences in every sphere of existence, from starting wars and mass crimes to “benign” bullying in classes. Reviewing Wolf on the Snow, the attentive editor Jagna Pogačnik took one of my sentences: “There is no time for the downtrodden of the world.” That fact is terrifying.
You ironically play with faith and religion in the novel. Churches of the world could be rightfully reproached for many things today, as well as people in general, who have completely forgotten about the mystery of the spiritual side of their being (whatever it may be like) and founded everything in their life on reason, mildly put, and more severely said – on material pleasures or simply survival.
These questions are constantly brought up in Karamazovi, the powerful play by Oliver Frljić at the Zagreb Youth Theater and truly one of the best works of theatre in our region. Where are those intimate inner depths in us, composed of everyday doubts and hopes? They have been annulled in the shameful appointments of sanctimonious patriarchs of all provenances, who participate in or inspire bloody battles for social power. Croatia is still a secular country on paper, but this interference of Catholic prelates in all the institutions of society is unbearable, and we must scream: “Enough!”
Flashes of humanity
How do we return to the rhythm of our own heart, regardless of whether we belong to a religion or not?
As a kid, I was raised and cared for primarily by my two grandmothers, one Catholic and one Orthodox. They had a normal, traditional attitude toward customs and traditions without any trace of fanatism. They gave their best to ensure I enjoyed the double holidays and gifts. My grandma Slava’s first husband had an icon of Saint George slaying the dragon on the wall of his small Belgrade apartment. I remember being terrified of the monster, but grandpa Tanasije patiently explained to me that the monster had been killed once and for all. So, since various monsters wave their tails today, the artist in me deals with that. By the way, one of the truly spiritual men I have had the chance to meet is the bishop of Pakrac and Slavonia Jovan Ćulibrk. I enjoyed talking to him for hours about Dostoevsky, Joy Division, Laurie Anderson or Idoli and their masterpiece, the album Odbrana i poslednji dani, in which such heavenly heights were reached that the petty hypocrites of our region could never dream of.
Your heroes live their lives as they can in the chaos of today’s world. Where is the small point of humanity in which we can see them and in which they can see themselves, at least a little bit?
There are quite a few of these points of humanity: in Danko, seemingly rough but exceedingly vulnerable on the inside; in his best friend, Boško from Belgrade, who, like Danko, earns a living as a hired muscle in the largest shopping center in the Balkans… The problem is that flashes of humanness are often neglected and overlooked because the brutal rules of the game require it. Danko is like a modern Oedipus. He is essentially good at heart, but he is too late in realizing things, in understanding the true nature of his son Vuk. Already under pressure, fearing he will be unable to provide for his son, Danko is unable to understand the fragility of Vuk’s feelings and his budding love for a foreign boy – a refugee from Syria.
By the geography of their relationships and family relations, the characters in the novel seem like a kind of Croato-Serbian alchemy, characteristic of our region. Ethnic tensions seem to take second place, although interethnic wars in this region, as the director Paolo Magelli recently said, never stop…
In my novel, the hysteria of the Croatian authorities turned towards the exodus of the unfortunates coming in waves from the eastern steppes of Europe, Ukraine, Moldavia, Africa and the Middle East. Boško, whom I mentioned, is a “foreigner” in Croatia, a Serb who, for a miserable pay, works at a job that implies violence against the same unfortunates as him while nobly lying to his parents that he is a banker in New York. Magelli is right in saying that interethnic wars in our region are stoked unceasingly, and that is because that suits the ruling scum.
I’d say that the lenient treatment of xenophobic incidents in order to gain favor with the resurging nationalist right is the state of affairs in Croatia today. Along with direct hateful and chauvinist messages from graffiti as well as parliament lecterns, we still see those idiotically absurd instances of petty bourgeois, seemingly harmless nationalism. Rajko Grlić depicted that perfectly in the prophetic film In the Jaws of Life, filmed back in 1984. A bizarre situation, just like from Rajko’s film, happened to me. At a party in the late nineties, in the small hours of the night, when we were all drunk and merry, a well-known actress approached me and muttered: “You’re Serbian on your mother’s side?” I told her I was but that I really didn’t understand why that was on her mind in the wee hours of the night. “Nothing, nothing, just asking…” she answered and strolled away. Well, that famous “just asking…”, casually dropped in the midst of a party but hiding intolerance buried under the surface, is wicked. In the long-term, it creates fertile ground for never-ending slaughter, as Magelli says. We must fight it, if we can, until our dying breath.
In the novel, in the year 2035, the sarcastically named “Government of People’s Salvation” appears. Is politics in our region a kind of a bad endlessness without escape?
My imaginary Government of People’s Salvation was installed after a military coup d’état. The prime minister is a vain, operatic maniac with unlimited power. The parliament no longer exists – it was bombed to the ground, and there is no longer any intermediary between the people and tyranny. It is an SF dystopia but yes, politics in our Balkan backwaters is a flaccid endlessness without escape, and the patterns keep repeating. That creates problems and errors in the imagination of us writers, for I cannot possibly invent characters like those that appear as the leaders of our nonexistent countries.
Hang onto love
The late Igor Mandić once said that this insane world can be changed only through a radical upheaval. Since this upheaval would cost millions of lives, it will never happen, Mandić said. Today, we again have to guess whether there will be a world war or not. How would you respond to Mandić’s words?
I think there will have to be a new upheaval, a new revolution. This has gone too far. We must have time for the downtrodden of the world again, and that won’t happen without millions of deaths. And I am truly afraid of that.
The troubled younger generation sees a lot of negative energy in the world today but not many good role models. What fate awaits them tomorrow?
I don’t know how the younger generations, neglected and sacrificed by us, will behave… We left them a world in chaos, isolated them and taught them the wrong, false values. It’s not easy for them, and we have yet to see what they will channel their apathy into, what it will escalate into. If we survive.
The last sentence in the novel describes your heroine “waiting for her love.” What is there to hope for if we have missed so many chances for love?
Despite everything, I believe there is a chance for love. Life is too short to waste it on hate. So, hang onto love… or this really is the end.
Translation from Croatian: Jelena Šimpraga