The Wall and the Bridge

Shehu, Bashkim
Revista Literatures Núm. 3 1999

In attempts to answer the question of what the Balkans are, we have, on the one hand, the language of deconstruction which emphasises difference and, on the other, Western discourse which swings between politology and anthropology and back again, thereby reducing the Balkans to a negative cliché, motivated by geopolitical considerations, marked by primitivism, tribalism and cruelty, all this in order to legitimise political indifference or even disdain for the region.
This frozen Western idea of the Balkans and the historiography of the different Balkan countries are one and the same thing, as the individual countries represent their neighbours in the same terms as the Balkans as a whole appears in a certain vein of Western discourse. In the case of any one of the Balkan nations, with its historiography or any other kind of nationalist rhetoric, they are constructing walls of hatred at the same time as they are creating their self-image. These two approaches, the integrating and the differentiating, cannot be coherent in themselves, but they are realistic to the extent that reality exists. The distant echo of the Byzantine and Ottoman chronicles, making a kind of pillar with overtones of ancient legends, mixed with a dreamlike perception and the familiar echo of the everyday rumours which swaddle routine happenings and create new legends, is widely manifest in the fiction of four classic modern writers: the Greek Nikos Kazandzakis, the Turk Yashar Kemal, the Bosnian Nobel Prize winner, Ivo Andric and the Albanian Ismaïl Kadare.
The common precedents of the Ottoman yoke should not be monumentally erected as a reductionist argument which would convert the Balkan identity into something fatally undesirable. The Ottoman invasion or the schism between Oriental and Western Rome should not be viewed as if it were some Biblical expulsion from Eden, since this contributes to the idea of the incompatibility between the ontologically primitive Balkan essence and the idea of civilisation or Europe. The Balkans are much more complex than that. Considering, for example, the political realities of Croatia and Slovenia, we see that, for approximately one thousand five hundred years, they were at the edges of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and started to be considered as "Balkan" only when they came to form part of Yugoslavia, in other words, as a result of the First World War. Now that Yugoslavia no longer exists, the Croats and Slovenians reject "Balkanity" more resolutely and seek a Western or Central European identity. This makes it clear that the cultural dividing lines of what can be regarded as the Balkans do not coincide with the political boundaries. Is Danilo Kis a Central European or a Balkan writer? And, if he is Balkan, is he Serbian? A Jew from Vojrodina with Serbo-Croatian or Montenegrin as his languages? In short, national identity should not exclude the other identities of an individual.
As a result of its condition as a cross-roads, different traditions have met and clashed in the Balkans. It is a plurality of cultures crossing the boundaries of ethnic, religious or political loyalties, between which there are virtual bridges but also genuine and thick walls, old and new. Versions of historical events of bygone centuries, a toponym, an anthroponym, a word, a suffix, a vowel or a consonant become symbols of identity, loyalty and political correctness.
Often, a writer from the Balkans, especially in contacts with foreigners, will tend not to behave as an empirical individual but as the representative of a nation. The extent to which this affects the literary project depends on the quality of the writer. Ivo Andric signed petitions for ethnic cleansing, against the Kosovo Albanians, but his literary work has nothing to do with that. I am not suggesting that the best thing a writer from the Balkans can do is to avoid public discourse. The fact that he is regarded as the representative of a community should not constitute a limitation, but rather an opportunity to build bridges.

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