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The City and the Writer: In Belgrade with Dejan Atanackovic

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Belgrade as you feel/see it?

Belgrade is very much loved and despised by its citizens—you can see and feel this when in the city. Belgrade is loved by those who try to reconnect the fragile ties that link place with identity. They love Belgrade’s delicate, fading details—its balconies, old pastry shops, corners and shades, the true names of things, the smell of trees, the sense of time. It is despised by those who see in Belgrade an instrument, an opportunity for or an obstacle to making dirty money. They despise Belgrade’s sense of humor and irony and its knowledge of better times. They stole much of Belgrade over the years. While love for Belgrade is open, unconditional, and sincere, contempt for it is concealed, masked, perhaps even unconscious.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Witnessing Belgrade ruled by those who despise it.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

During my childhood and adolescence, I failed to recognize how green Belgrade is. I grew up certain I lived in a very gray, cement city. I kept comparing it to the western European capitals that seemed to have more parks and trees. But perhaps those parks were simply more kept up. Belgrade has, in fact, many parks and green boulevards and they are truly beautiful, especially in the fall. Over the years, I realized that it is the grayness of the buildings and the cracked plaster that reveals the brick walls in combination with the trees, ivy, and smell of linden that make Belgrade authentic and beautiful. 


What writer(s) from here should we read?

The names that first come to mind are Danilo Kiš, David Albahari, and Radoslav Petković.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I live much of the year in Florence, Italy, so every return to Belgrade is for me, essentially, a return to one of my two homes. Places are connected to people. I return to people rather than to places. But whenever the weather is pleasant, Belgrade is a great place to stroll from one bar to another and sit outside in the shade. There are some excellent fish restaurants in the city.

Unfortunately, very few of the typical Belgrade taverns, or kafana, are still as they were thirty years ago. Nowadays people think a kafana should have an “ethnic” or “nostalgic” look, so they put all sorts of fake references to the “old times,” handmade kitsch that hangs from the walls. (It’s one small example of how some Belgraders unnecessarily reinvent their past; the secret of an authentic kafana is that it stays pleasantly undecorated.)

Also, there are some secondhand bookshops and street booksellers, as well as a couple of old vinyl record shops I often visit.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Café Polet is a place where many poetry readings and book presentations are held. It is part of a former industrial complex. Cultural centers such as Grad, Parobrod, and the Center for Cultural Decontamination are very active spaces for all forms of artistic, cultural, and civic activity.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Not so hidden but not so visible either: life by the rivers. It is even more important at a time when areas are being devastated in the name of the “Belgrade Waterfront.”

But the part of Belgrade that I can relate to is, in fact, a hidden, parallel city that still exists only in the memory of some of its citizens. Many friends feel the same way. It’s not really a place—it’s more a map of memories. We gather at times like members of some secret society and tell each other things we remember. It has nothing to do with nostalgia—we just try to make sure we all still exist.


Where does passion live here?

In civic protests. Belgrade as a city is truly passionate only when it expresses dissent.


What is the title of one of your works about Belgrade and what inspired it exactly?

My novel Luzitanija takes place in Belgrade’s psychiatric hospital during the First World War. All throughout the Austro-German occupation the hospital held an exterritorial status, possibly due to the occupier’s fear of madness, and it thus remained the only free territory. Those are the facts. In my novel, this territory becomes a small utopian state based on an alliance between madness and reason in a battle against human stupidity. The novel uses the historical context to talk about our current time.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Belgrade does an outside exist?”

Belgrade for many, and certainly for me, exists as a city within, a city inside. Outside of it there is everything else, including much of present-day Belgrade.


Dejan Atanacković (1969) is an artist, art educator, and writer. He teaches in Florence and is dedicated to art, visual culture, and the history of the representation of the human body. Since 1991 he has resided in Belgrade and Florence. His debut novel, Luzitanija (Besna kobila, Belgrade), was published in 2017. 

Published Jul 9, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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