Life, Novels

Home Out of Harm’s Way
Raised and classically educated in the West, gazing towards all sides, far and deep. He writes in French, translates from five European languages. Among the poplar trees on the Mitrovica bank of the Sava in Srem, he has his own Stražilovo. He says that the technological human is an invalid in a rapid evolution towards the state of an obese worm. On the fronts of the media war, he realized how the Empire lost control over ”the narration of world crises”. In difficult times, besides Christ’s prayer, he repeats several Baudelaire’s and Akhmatova’s verses. This is how he defends his sanctuary from ugliness and transience. This is how he brightens up the day

By: Branislav Matić
Slobodan Despot and from the family album

”Gallimard” published his first novel in 2014 in its famous ”white edition”, which is a literary award itself. Serbian Krajina passed with dignity all the doors shut by then. He himself is a ”man of Krajina from both sides”, born in Srem in 1967, due to the will of (post)war storms. His father’s origins are from Knin Krajina and the Catholicized branch of the Despot family, which returned to its Serbian roots, as he says, thanks to his dragon-grandma Slavka, from the grim Bačković family. His mother comes from the ”honorable Santrač and Marjanović families, openhearted and wild as if they were invented by Branko Ćopić.” He has been living in the West since the age of seven. As an eighteen year-old, he was introduced into Orthodox Christianity by Bishop Atanasije Jevtić in the Monastery of Mesić in Banat.
He writes in French, translates from Serbian, English, German, Russian and Italian. He translated Ćosić, Crnjanski, Kapor, into French. Between 1991 and 2004, while he was editor-in-chief in ”L’Age d’Homme” Publishing House and Serbian Institute in Lausanne, Slobodan Despot did more for the Serbian truth in the ruins of Yugoslavia than the Serbian government. He is doing the same now, in charge of his own publishing house ”Xenia Editions” in Sion since 2006. He is paying all the visible and invisible prices which must be paid for it, both there and here. He learned a lot from Vladimir Dimitrijević. He was a close friend of Alexander Zinoviev and Dobrica Ćosić. He whispers to the generations of ancestors, in many languages.
During a strange journey, in Calcutta, he realized: Tam tvam asi. What is not the other is you. The shortest and most refined metaphysics. The presence of God, without mediators and interpreters. Without doors and doormen.
We ripped these pages from circumstances and non-existence, by the Rhone and the Sava, down roads and winds, from Sion to Belgrade, for months. It was said, so be it.

Homeland. Don’t ask an emigrant about homeland. Homeland is where my heart has been pulling me to ever since I was born. In my Srem, simply, in the city of Roman emperors and St. Demetrius, on the Sava bank with the fine silvery sand and scented poplar trees, which are my first image of this world, the first thrill and pre-art. My own personal Stražilovo.
That space and that time are tied in a knot, and the knot is in my soul. It is an oasis, a river island away from the mainstream of life. А home out of harm’s swift way, as in Robert Plant’s wonderful poem.
Even those who have never moved away from their homes leave their homeland. You can be still in space, but not in time. Besides, the image of homeland in memory takes golden, unearthly colors of the Empire we have come from and which we return to. It gradually separates from its factual basis, becomes a foundation and carrier of another, refined reality without earthly shape.
One can’t live without it, can’t live with it. Killing nostalgia on one side, falling into triviality and winter of the soul on the other.
I don’t know about others. I know that homeland defines me greatly. Do I define it as well? Does a wave define the sea?

My Europe. Strangely, I consider the entire European heritage as my own, as if I spent at least a lifetime everywhere. I like the comfortableness and warmth of English local civilization. As much as they can be beasts towards others, the more they are nice and intimate in their own world, or at least used to be. I also love the style of French villages, hard, noble, built for eternity without a single excessive detail, proving that the best architects are anonymous. I like the tastes and scents of Italy, the tragic simplicity of Greek islands, the genuine politeness and cheerfulness of the Austrian people, the crazy cheekiness of Spain (people, landscapes and buildings), numerous Finish lakes with colorful log cabins on funny islands under the infinite sky… I admire Russians, although their sentimentality gets terribly on my nerves. Let alone the Swiss wonder: 26 independent little states in a weak confederation lasting already for seven centuries. My biggest joy is living in the heart of the Alps, near the spring of the Rhone, surrounded by eternal snows, walking for hours every week in that cool, clear, intoxicating air. I dedicated a book of mystical walks to my canton, for which many Swiss people said that it is the most wonderful description of their natural and spiritual treasures ever written. All that is… Mine! And I belong to all of it.

The Balkans and Europe. The Balkans is, before all, a political concept. What is the relation between a mountain range in Bulgaria and landscapes and people in Albania or Dalmatia? When you say ”Alpine arch” or ”Pyrenees”, the geographical determination matches the cultural and ethnic continuity. In the western view of the world, the Balkans is only a synonym for an old limes, a gray zone between ”us” and the barbarians. Limes, Мärchen, confins, confini, are nothing but western words for borderlands. Since we are the ”middle world”, the western man doesn’t know about us, therefore is afraid of us. It is easier for them to determine themselves towards Turkey, for example, than to the tampon-zone they created to protect from Turkey. In the collective consciousness of Europe, ”the Balkans” matches another unpleasant term: the contours of the disappeared Byzantine Empire, the second Rome. The first Rome plundered it, robbed it like a godless land, then left it to Turkish occupation and simply deleted it from history. Present Europeans know something about the western Middle Ages, about inquisition and cathedrals, but nothing at all about Byzantium.
The misfortune of the ”Balkan people” is that many of them took over the superficial and contemptuous presentation as an image about themselves. I like to remind that, a thousand years ago, the center of civilization was here, at the so-called Balkans, while they, the Latins, were in chaos and cultural darkness. All in all, the term Balkans is inappropriate and I don’t like to use it.

Russia. When I first landed in Moscow, the first word I read in Russian soil was ”Tesla” – the brand of airport radars in Sheremetyevo. From that moment on, I lived in a waking dream. It seemed that I arrived home, that it was all Serbia, but Serbia in different dimensions. Everything was huge, as if I was, like Alice, suddenly reduced to the size of a child or squirrel. Not only the geographical and human vastness, but also everyday details such as the size of the cobblestone, the caliber of the kennel, the width of streets, the height of the church doors. Huge, infinite, yet familiar. We are same people in different lands, with different dialects and ethnic mixtures. We also have a similar idea: the megalomaniac idea about our own distinctiveness, our historical mission. And a similar historical fate of Theodoulos, the people of God’s servant and prophet beyond his own consciousness and will.
No one has seriously raised the question about how these fools for Christ, this impossible, generous-fainthearted nation succeeded in conquering one sixth of earth’s land! What is the skill and understanding of other nations and mentalities with which the empire has been surviving for centuries despite all invasions and plagues? At Yeltsin’s time, there were stories about dividing Asian Russia between China and Anglo-Saxon companies. It was the plan and then it seemed inevitable. And now? All of a sudden – economic recuperation, diplomatic self-confidence, improving healthcare and demography, even the most unbelievable: the beginning of establishing the middle class. Attributing all that to Putin and the last fifteen-odd years, both the good and the bad, is simple and childish. This nation has a matureness within, vitality, even discipline all other nations could only wish for.

Serbia. Desanka resolved it for me a long time ago: Serbia is a great secret! In every sense of the word. I’m not a conspiracy theoretician claiming that ”Serbs are the oldest nation”. I don’t speculate about the distant past. I see the visible, what is there and what is known, and say: a secret!
What is the simplest way for me to describe Serbia to foreigners? I try to translate the word ”inat” (spite, stubbornness), but I don’t succeed. So I say: there, you see… Incomprehensible!
The most meaningful here are human stories and fates you cannot find anywhere else, starting from Nemanja-Simeon and Sava, the king and his runaway son, who becomes his father at the end. My Honey is, finally, another one in the series of wondrous stories about Serbian fathers and sons. The essence of Serbia on a spiritual level, political as well, is its unique position of a hinge between two worlds, Rome and Byzantium, and the ontological non-alignedness resulting from it. It is simply impossible for us to align with anyone, except ourselves (also rarely). It is an exceptionally difficult and narrow path, with many sideways. Those who have remained on it until the present time are hardened and dug into a rock like an old ocean lighthouse, without even being aware of it. We carry within much of the primaeval, from language and folklore to the ancient warriors’ ethics, epics is both our holy book and our guide. We are pristine in faith as well, pious without excessive religiousness, meaning without puritanism, pharisaism and formalism. We are on first name basis with the Savior, flat-out, as if we have been sitting with him last night. These are all things I love.
However, this ”load of distinctiveness” (the lucky aphorism of unlucky Balašević), has its inevitable ugly side and implies flaws that make me jump out of my skin.

Flaws. Vassalage and sycophancy are the first. As Andrić wrote somewhere in his Signs, the price of surviving in these lands is sometimes higher than the price of life itself, since we provide our own preservation at the expense of those who will inherit us. When I hear the word ”diplomacy” from Serbian lips, I immediately shudder, because, with honorable exceptions, in our case it only means capitulation and submission to the orders of others. We don’t have diplomacy, because we are incapable of determining what is important for us, up to which point we can give in, and from which point on we mustn’t. Thus we go for all or nothing, mostly nothing, after the true heroes who had gone for ”all” die in battles or end up in dungeons.

Awakenings. It is difficult to think about oneself in one’s own element. Reading Times of Death irrevocably sobered me up from Yugoslavism, Zmaj, Dučić, Crnjanski and Desanka imbued me with the music of this language, while crucial was probably Rebecca West. Her travelogue Black Lamb and Gray Hawk, regardless of how much Vinaver ”complemented” it, confirmed me in the external, western admiration of Serbian distinctiveness, at the same time opening my eyes about some of our mechanical prejudices for ourselves. Her criticism of prince Lazar as the forerunner of European ”leftists” is an absolute masterpiece of political psychology and the climax of well-intentioned arrogance!

Control over the narration of crisis. Despite my mixed origins, Serbo-Croatian, I undeniably feel like a Serb in my psychology, meaning a freelancer, hayduk and stubborn man. That blaze, that delirium of anti-Serbian mood in the nineties, is impossible to describe today. You had to experience it, not from Serbia, but there, where it took place. People were hiding, changing their family names to preserve their peace and jobs. Unfortunately, we were the first usual suspect after the downfall of USSR and contemporary withdrawal of the Russian bogey from world history, prior to the counter-information over the internet and some kind of return to multipolarity. We were, literally, alone against everyone, without any means, without any idea about the battlefield. (...)
Today it’s completely different. No, it’s not that the media and politicians in the West have ”come to their senses” on the ashes of their ”well-intentioned” powers. Far from it! They repeat the same nonsenses about Bosnia and Kosovo, only no longer on the first pages. The same pervert schemes are not applied on Ukraine. This is not about current propaganda operations; it is an ancient and deep civilizational gap. However, they are not monopolists any more. There is much reliable information or at least counter-information that could be found over the internet and through alternative, anti-globalization movements. As one worried American expert admitted recently, the Empire no longer has control over the ”narration” of world crisis. The authority was, however, questioned for the first time during the Yugoslav civil war.

Man and Technology. Let’s not beat about the bush. All the worst things prophesied about technology came true, even beyond. Already Rousseau – yes, Jean-Jacque, the clairvoyant and sentimental grumpy – clearly warned that the development of science happens at the expense of human virtues and spiritual life. With whatever tool we afford for ourselves, we take away one of our capacities, knowledge or virtue, without which life was not possible up to then. Who can calculate by heart today, as we used to before calculators? Who can handle a sharp knife like those poor kids in Asia while they prepare you a coconut? The technological man is an invalid in the rapid evolution towards the state of an obese worm.
As for modeling, things are pretty clear. My Alexander Zinoviev explained it at a symposium in the simplest way: a hundred years ago, he said, man used to take 90 percent of all necessary information from his immediate surroundings and the reports of his own five senses. Contemporary man takes the 90 percent from the ”media”: newspaper, internet, school and all conceptual channels the government controls like the waterworks: with faucets, dams and various disinfections.
The saddest thing in my life is that I witnessed the withering of the last genuine people and their replacement with products of the information industry. It’s like when, after eating a tomato from a village garden, you bite into the monster growing on glass wool in the Netherlands. I described the pain for that irreplaceable, civilizational loss after the death of my grandmother in 2007, in my book Despotica.

Role models and influences. If I were writing in Serbia, it would be Crnjanski, without any doubt – however I mostly write in French, and my style is very distant from his. I hate repetitions, too strong and Baroque expressions, adjectives and adverbs, mystifying sentences. I write elliptically, trying to build as much as I can ”between the lines”. Is there a Serbian word for ”understatement”? In that aspect, my writers are George Simenon, Henry James, Paul Morand, Thomas Hardy because of his magical ambiance, then Bunin, Kipling, Maugham, Montagne because of his wits and irony, Tanizaki… On the other hand, I also like those who open the hidden windows towards the unfathomable. Proust. Dickens. Bernanos. Borges, Hawthorne. Hugo. Lawrence Durrell. In Serbia no one even notices the almost abstract, metaphysically-literary work of Zoran Živković, the most read Serbian writer in the world, yet at the same time – as it usually happens – ignored at home.

My poets. Strangely, Serbian literature lives within me mainly through poets: Zmaj, Dučić, Raičković, Desanka, Danojlić... I admire Njegoš, but he is somehow egsoteric, does not create an internal empire like the others. Poetry is a shortcut to knowledge, and at the same time a sanctuary from ugliness and transience, another ”home beyond harm’s swift way”, just like childhood memories. When I feel bad, besides Christ’s prayer, I often repeat several verses of Baudelaire or Akhmatova: ”Тихо льется тихий Дон / Желтый месяц входит в дом”... I don’t know many, but the ones I know mean a lot to me.

If the Musicians Stop. With music it’s similar as with literature: always against time and trends, with several constant values. Beethoven, Prokofiev, Respighi, and our entire folk music passed on to us by Carevac. However, the first and biggest shock: the occupation of my ears, imagination and entire life by the album Led Zeppelin III in the summer of 1980. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a universe filled with ghosts, mythology, unbelievable rhythms and screams. And all that, again, simply derived from familiar folklore: the blues, Celtic music, the orient. ”Zeppelin” songs are curtains hiding uncatchable secrets. From that time, I have been searching for the key of that mystery. I recently discovered that one young Frenchman is suffering from the same obsession and that he wrote an entire wondrous esoteric book named Cabala. We translated it immediately. It is just about to be published in Serbian.
I love the South, Macedonia, I like everything related to folklore, but I’m mostly touched by the songs from my plain, Slavonija and Vojvodina. When I’m coming by car and hear tambouritzas on every second radio station, I know I’m there. I also suffer from old urban folk songs, like Marcel Proust used to suffer from madeleine cookies. They are connected to something dear and important from my childhood, probably to my grandfather, a bohemian. Whenever I can, I ask musicians to play me ”Fijaker stari” or ”Što se bore misli moje”.

Genius loci. I am very sensitive to places, like the dowsers’ rods. I could write books about it. Well, I did write one, the mentioned Valais mystique. Twenty-four excursions to the secret places of Canton of Valais, where I live. One of them is the ruins of a prehistoric fortification or temple at an altitude of 2.700 meters. I had to spend the night there with my daughters: one of the most impressive experiences in my life. Everyone should sense their own places of energy and balance. They are important for spiritual life. Even industrial ruins suit me sometimes. There was a concept in the middle ages: locus amoenus, a convenient place, for love, dreaming, quiet conversation…
Once, in a delirium as a consequence of a very serious flu, I clearly dreamed the place in my birth town, Sremska Mitrovica. It turned out that a temple used to be there.
There are, however, also evil places. When I look for an apartment (luckily not often), I immediately reject many houses because of their unhealthy atmosphere. Unfortunately, most of the post-war constructions have the icy breath of death flowing inside. Once I went with my father to help our friends, doctors from Lausanne, move. They left me, a kid, alone in an empty apartment for an hour. It was in the middle of the day, but I thought I would die of horror. However, the villa they were moving to was even worse, like a concrete coffin. I felt a tragedy was bound to happen. Those people disappeared several years later under terrible circumstances.

Travels. I travel, all the time, most often on the route Paris-Switzerland-Belgrade. Of course, the objective is to change myself, not the outside world. In time, however, I learned to travel far within a very small space; for example, from here to the neighboring village in the hills. I liked to hitchhike or go by train, without an itinerary. Even now I sometimes put the tent and sleeping bag in my car and go wherever the road takes me. I brought about fifty kilos of gifts, silk, statues, carpets, a full room… from India. I threw away my own clothes and shoes into the garbage to be able to carry more. But that’s an exception. Most often I’m imbued with scents, tastes and sounds. And of course, I take pictures.

Workshop. I still don’t take my literary work seriously enough to organize my life around it. It’s a sin I’m fighting against. If I had the guts, I’d write until 4 in the morning, sleep until 9, finish some practical tasks until noon, then read in the afternoon, walk or perhaps take a nap. But I still didn’t succeed in achieving this. I write when I have the inspiration, often in cafés and trains. Strangely, that is where I can concentrate best. I put the earphones and play Arvo Pärt, some baroque music or qawwali – monotonous Sufi music from Pakistan.

Books, publishers, reading. I think there is no more east and west in this aspect. People are generally reading less, with bizarre exceptions. For example, my daughters (age 18 and 20) swallowed hundreds of pages of some obscure Anglo-Saxon novels in the manner of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter every week. Some novels have mass sales and the publishing business is still surviving in Europe. However, the readers have changed. Booksellers live from 10-20 bestsellers per season and the rest is an abyss. The space between the circulation of 100.000 and circulation of 100 is pretty empty. A reader as such, a man of culture, with a library and established taste, has almost disappeared. Thereby the choice and contents of books is becoming growingly shallow and demagogical – again with honorable exceptions, mainly at the Anglo-Saxons. John Le Carré, for example, as a popular novel writer, gives a more precise and more daring criticism of the western system than any other publicist or politician.
Some countries, mainly France, have national culture protection policy. However, all this is a ”bandage on a wooden leg”, as the French would say, since this culture doesn’t pervade everyday life, education, entertainment and the entire life of people. I don’t believe in museums.

I wish. To see Scotland, Virgin and Easter islands, to build a house with my own two hands (because ”a man of forty builds his tower”, as Carl Gustav Jung said), to write three big novels about legends, wisdom and physical enlightenment, a biography, my memoirs and ”photo-biography”, as well as a votive letter about the Hand of Dobrica Ćosić. I wish, before all, to persuade myself that I can now withdraw from a hyperactive life and watch everything, like Montagne, with benevolent irony and very slow and careless reasoning.

Hope. In my arrogant and conquering mood, I proclaim hope as a consolation for the weak and lazy. Then I see the face of Christ and cry: who can I rely on, if not you, Lord? I’m a great pessimist in my head and optimist when acting: I guess this is the practical personification of hope. The entire energy is in love. The love of the woman who puts up with and supports me, of course, but not only that kind of love – however much they would like to be the source and axis of all our thoughts and longings. The love of my wonderful children, the beauty of animals, nature, seas I used to sail. The love of so many ordinary people, who touch me with their dedication and goodness. Thank you, Lord, for everything that happened to me! And this brightens up the day.

Honey. The creation of Honey, a story about a miracle, is a work of a miracle, just like its literary fate is. Sometimes in 2008, during my medical treatment in Serbia, I heard a wonderful story about an epopee of a father and a son in Krajina, immediately after the ”Storm”, a true parabola about good deeds and rewards. I thought then that I have to smuggle it somehow to the West, in order to describe them the terrible cataclysm, which even Serbs have covered up. But I didn’t know which form to use. Then, in the lack of everything, without any illusions, I applied the synopsis of the story for the literary scholarship in Switzerland. And won it when I had already forgotten the application. I was informed by phone, on March 25, 2009, before my plane took off towards an unknown continent, towards infernal Calcutta, in which I landed at three a.m., with an address of a small room on a piece of paper, with the last money in my pocket and no clear plan for further living. Even before it was born, Honey provided me three months of survival and redirected my view of the world and life in general. I lost faith in politics, in church and all other institutions and started off into the world like the flowers in the Bible: without worrying how I will dress or feed tomorrow. From that moment on, I felt materially better, although I became impossible for any home, family or social framework. I was writing this little book for four years and hardly changed a sentence or two afterwards. For four years I was trying to catch the real mood for a writer: absence of any rage, anxiety and need to prove something. I was able to write in such peace and the peace simply imbues the book.
The fact that two big publishers immediately accepted my book and that I had to make the choice, that I was nominated for I don’t know how many awards – three of them I received – and that I spent the year 2014 literally at fairs and literary debates throughout France, radically changed my presentation about myself and my further plans. It became clear to everyone but me that I am first a writer and then everything else: publisher, publicist, communications consultant. A year later, I still haven’t stretched these new shoes of mine; I still walk sprawled between the essential vocation and remains of my previous life.
It is hard for me to even imagine that my story about Serbian Krajina entered obligatory reading lists in high schools after a quarter of a century of demonization and defamation of everything Serbian, after so many documents, interventions and petitions no one in France reacted to. This testifies about the miraculous power of literature and culture, tools which all authorities despise.


Spirituality, Heroism, Taste
If I wish to quickly show a foreigner the essence of this country, where do I take him? If possible, to Chilandar, Studenica or Mala Remeta. Otherwise to Kalemegdan and then to a good kafana on the banks of the Danube or the Sava. Serbia is spirituality, heroism and taste altogether.


The Abolition of Man
C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is one of the books that define me and follow me permanently. A very short essay about the tyranny of rationalism and relativism, the man’s attempt to take his fate in his own hands through science and politics, believing that he can conquer both nature and God. Lewis prophesied, already in 1943, that all this will hit us back and that, attempting to become gods, we will achieve only regression, infinite totalitarianism and fall. We are rushing towards it in full swing, destroying nature, air, history and ourselves.


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