Daring to Remember

Communist Memory

Foto: Thomas Diekhaus
  • Read in Macedonian by the author
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  • An excerpt from Communist Memory by Jasna Koteska
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An essay by Macedonian author Jasna Koteska, translated by Vera Trandafilovska and Rodna Ruškovska.

Photo: Thomas Diekhaus

1 Numbers to Compare

Numbers to Compare
Jovan Koteski

            To my children Vasil and Jasna

During my imprisonment
my prison number was: 6412.

In Homer's Iliad
line 6412 reads:
"Now for your father
you will pay for his grave mistake."

Sometimes things
in time and space
rhyme without our willing it.
So be it.

(From the collection Live Ember 1990)

For many years, I read my father's lines as a mistake. My father's communist file was kept under number 5622, which meant that there was no way that the number 6412 could be correct. When in 2006 I first published the analysis of his file Jovan Koteski, file 5622 in a journal, the number of the file was left in the title, probably as my unconscious attempt to avoid the Homeric call, the dialogue of judgement, which these lines implied.

What was a ‘release’ for me simultaneously meant that my father, on the other hand, would have to accept the only answer I could give. It was only when I was writing on this topic that it suddenly became clear to me that the number my father was talking about did not refer to the file, but to the prison. That was the moment when I accepted, for the first time, the last line of the poem as the only possible one.

2 On the Emotions that Remained on a Bus

My father was a poet. Later, I was told that such a profession does not exist. My father was my love, joy and pride. Even so, there is no street from my childhood I do not hate. Now I live on the other side of the city and each visit to my childhood district depresses me. I hadn't crossed a single street in my childhood, holding my father's hand, without his making me look back at least three times. If he didn't make me, I would make him. We were parent and child, and allies. But this is not a biography of my father. Of all the people on the planet we know our parents least, that is the Hegelian dialectic and it would be vulturous to claim the opposite. My father, be it as it may, at least found his freedom in his death. From everybody, including his children. My father wanted to be remembered by his poems. They are his biography.

These few lines are mine. My father was arrested the same morning I went to the high school with the ominous name Josip Broz Tito. I submitted my documents together with my friends from school, we all had best grades. Unlike the others, I had a lot of awards and diplomas. Unlike the others, my name was not on the list. Actually, it was, but below the line. On 2 September 1985, at 6 o'clock in the morning, while my father was seeing me off to my first school class, less than an hour before he was arrested, he was consoling me that certainly a mistake had been made, that it was impossible I had been left out, they would certainly accept me. And he was right. I was crossed off the list below the line with a pen and added above the line. I went running back home to tell my father the happy news. But my father was no longer at home. I was the 35th student in the class, limited to 30. At that time I didn't know I was an extra student, as were four others. I’ve never found out what other sins our renegade group of five shared. In the years that followed, I won many competitions for my high school. In the years that followed, I forgot that they once had forgotten to accept me. And I never thought my name was added to the list by the UDBA1 people. Today it turns out, everything I know, I owe them. So, it is logical to dedicate these lines to them.

In our high school we had a work experience session at the Josip Broz Tito metal works. There, we were introduced to the working process of socialism. The factory was situated near the city’s racecourse. While the others were grouping themselves to watch the horses, I stayed with the working class. At that time, the prisoners from Idrizovo prison were grooming the horses. I was afraid that if I saw my father with the horses, I wouldn't know what I was allowed to do. Once, in the school library, the librarian whispered to me that my father was a great man. In the letter to my father that month, I wrote that the librarian sent him regards and said he was a great man. My father asked me not to mention any name in my letters anymore, we mustn't hurt people. My letters became even colder, if that was at all possible.

People lie when they say they have memories from their traumas. When you are in a trauma, you build a parallel world. While we were jolting along in a crowded bus on the way to Idrizovo prison, I always imagined the same scene: walking my dog, which I didn't have, in the city park. Always the same scene, always the same dog. In the canteen in front of Idrizovo, we waited for hours and looked towards the main gate. The visitors were either very loud or very quiet; there was no misunderstanding among us. We were taken into a big hall, called the ‘dining room’, and although dining rooms are cosy, nothing was personal here. We always sat at "our" table, on the left side of the buffet, which offered the same five things sold in the canteen, always the same table, always the same five things. My father would come out first, which was not a small thing considering the heavy prisoners who pushed from behind. Once he was seated at ’our’ table, he talked neither much, nor loudly. On our left, the policeman, who in the spirit of Lenin was called a militiaman at the time, always walked up and down. Afterwards, we took the same bus home. I stuck to the window pane, looking with open eyes at my dog in the park. I must admit, the city park is disgusting to me to the present day.

I started studying my father's file led by a completely urgent, personal need. I was neither hungry to find out who my father's spies were, nor why; I wasn't led by the need to understand the great history; I didn't want to dismantle the logic of Yugoslav communism, and even less the small-town version of Macedonian communism. This came later, when the emotions were released from everything that eventually made any difference, or could still make a difference. I had to leave them at a bus stop so I could continue. At that time, you know, there weren't many bus-stops where our buses stopped…

I wanted to come to peace with my family past. I felt some kind of past loss, some unrecognizable sadness. Imagine for a moment a person living with the burden of a sadness which cannot be publicly grieved. I seized the meaning of this when I was reading Antigone's Claim (2000) by Judith Butler. The last paragraph of the first chapter reads: "Antigone refuses to obey any law that refuses public recognition of her loss, and in this way prefigures the situation that those with publicly ungrievable losses - from AIDS, for instance - know too well. What sort of living death have these people been condemned to?"2 Knowing that the total number of personal communist files in Macedonia is more than 15,000, I started counting the children and the relatives of those pursued in communism and asking myself: Where are these people today? What are they doing now? What are they doing with their sadness?

Once, on the day of the anniversary of my father's death, in 2002, at the commemoration at the cemetery in my father's birth-place, the village of Prisovjani, my best friend asked me: "We all cried, why didn't you?" I answered: "If I start crying in public now, I will never be able to stop."

Once, much later, I read The Good Stalin (2004) by the Russian author Viktor Erofeyev. Erofeyev - a child of the political elite, the golden youth under Kremlin protection. His grandmother once called his mother to tell her that the child had vomited because he had eaten too much caviar. Here no one ever wrote such a book, the sons from Dedinje, Pantovcak and Vodno3 played rock-and-roll, watched ‘black wave’ films (they were allowed), and they brought Buddhism from India and started living the ‘avant-garde’. That sado-masochistic relation between art and ideology finally ended when the majority of these sons later went "too right to remember their childhood". The Good Stalin describes how young Erofeyev's literary outbursts prevented the Old Erofeyev, who was at the top of his Soviet career, from becoming Andrei Gromyko's Deputy Minister of the Interior. Erofeyev concludes: "Who am I to condemn the fame of the 20th Century? If there was a bullet less, just one crematorium oven less, I wouldn't have been in this world either."4 And it turns out precisely that they, damn it, had always had a more interesting story than ‘ours’. We emerge from the scum of life, from the displaced. "They" were born as heroes, from the blood of those who had fallen at the altar of their lives.

3 Biographies - Wishes

They bring neither the treasures from the peaks, nor those from the wombs of the hills. But there is a vivid memory which, like a caressing hand, mildly passes over all things worthy of remembering.  One cannot inscribe himself in that memory with a clumsy hand and rough tools…

Biographies. Biographies are wishes, most frequently wishes to keep, to retain the Platonic memory of the person who is the subject of the biography. Even in the driest biographies there is a hidden but megalomaniac ambition (recognized at least in that unique trivial detail), the ambition to grasp that something from that side, where the person who is the subject of the biography sang, loved, thought, danced, created, lived, the ambition to meet him in that singing, thinking, creating, living...

And yet, not all biographical meetings are the same, there are at least two types of wishes connected with the wish to commemorate a life… The first type of wishes are the meetings with the aim to greet, led by the need for an impossible touch with the one who is no more, those are meetings like greetings, meetings in search of a mutual blended scent. And the other type. The others are wishes for a hard repetition of certainty, meetings like a terrible need for re-memoration, for the reproduction of the primal sight, for the first picture of the person who is the subject of the biography, a need to capture and freeze his cause, his movement; the wish to reach that invisible detail by which everything from his life will open, will spread out, everything that can be (and because it can - it will be) served to the hyenas from the city, the wish to capture everything down to the ‘sediment’ of one human life, so that this firmly established sediment will become a condition for distortion, for punishment and annihilation.

Of course, both types of biographical meetings are records, they are records consisting of words, words that penetrate the innocent paper, destroy its smooth surface, its constant readiness to accept the record. Because of that penetration, the hand which writes the record is important, the hand that moves the paper's penetration. Therefore, the wish which moves the search for the lost past is important for the memory of a life, for its remembrance. A biography, as we said, consists of words. Those words are here to remind us. But how can words remind us at all?

A biography, like a scene from history, and, particularly, a literary biography as a memory of literary history, will always have to be a record that is gentle, a record that caresses, a record that hasn't set off towards the wish to cement, to kill and destroy. A biography cannot be established by reproduction - each acceptance (which together with the mystery makes a human life) is possible only in a symbolic way, in absence, in absentia, only when a biography itself stops at the doorstep of an entrance into somebody else's life, and at the doorstep it will decide to stop itself....

4 Biographies - Lexicons

It is early for the last word, I say,
I am talking almost from the end - first,
I wasn't at the scene you are accusing me of
I myself was a scene in blood!

So, there are at least two types of biographies. And, certainly, there is a third type, the most frequent biographies – those which more or less consist of facts. The facts about Jovan Koteski, compiled from different lexicons – here is what they say:

Jovan Koteski (1932-2001) is a poet who belongs to the third generation of Macedonian writers which begins in the 1950s. He was born in the village of Prisovjani, Struga region, as the fourth of the five children of Petkana and Vasil Koteski. He spent his childhood working as a hired herdsman, looking after other people's livestock. In 1946, he enrolled in Ohrid High School and lived in a school boarding-house. In 1948 his father, who worked as a migrant confectioner in Bratislava, Slovakia, was imprisoned by the Slovak Informbiro and sentenced to 9 years imprisonment. The reason being that the Slovak secret services found a picture of Josip Broz Tito in my grandfather's apartment in Bratislava, the same Marshal, in whose name, for the irony to be greater, my father faced many trials later. Jovan Koteski met his father only twice in his life, once when he was seven and the second time when he was 26. Of the second reunion, in 1958, Jovan Koteski later wrote: When he came back, he called one of my aunts, and she brought him to my hovel, which I rented when I was a student. At dusk, when I came back from the Faculty, in my room I see a guest. And there it is a hug from a barren, miserable life.

Jovan Koteski was detained for the first time in 1948, when he was 16 years old, probably because that year his father was imprisoned in Slovakia. It is known that the Yugoslav secret services collaborated with the secret services of the other communist countries. Koteski became suspect to the Interior Service because of the communist logic which says – your father is suspicious, thus you are suspicious, too. In 1950 Jovan Koteski was detained again, and this time he was sentenced to three years in prison for slandering Marshal Tito, but he was released some days later. The third time he was detained in 1952, while working in a youth brigade in the Mavrovo mountains in Macedonia, the fourth time in 1954, etc., while his police file under the code name Intimist was not officially opened until 1961.

In 1954, he moved to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, enrolled to study literature, which studies he never completed. He worked as a journalist on Radio Skopje for three decades. In 1958, he published two collection of poems: Land and Passion and A Smile before Dawn, followed by: Evil Times (1963), Heaviness (1965), Peplosija (1966), Shadows (1972), Green Gates (1975), Heraklea (1978), Sea-boards (1981), Waking and Dreaming (1982), A Chandelier (1983), Fruits and A Title Deed (1985), Live Fire (1990), Grindstone of the Sun (1990), Shivers (1991), A Mouse with Binoculars (poems for children, 1991), A Plough Handle (1992), Evil Times (1992), A Cradle (1994), Loneliness (1994), Festivity (bibliographical edition - manuscript, 1995), A Searcher (narrative poem, 1995), Bars (1996), Dowry (1997), Landslide (1998), Destruction (1999) and  Molehill (2000).

On 2 September 1985, he was arrested and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. He was convicted for actions against the Yugoslav Federation and for creating an independent Macedonian state, which actually happened seven years later. He belonged to the last group of political prisoner intellectuals in the Former Yugoslav Federation. Jovan Koteski stood trial behind closed doors. One of my father's prosecutors asked for a 20-year sentence.

His release from prison was not initiated by the Macedonian writers, but by the American poet Allen Ginsberg, at that time President of the Committee for the Protection of Writers’ and Journalists' Rights at the world PEN Centre. In 1986, Ginsberg attended the Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia, as the laureate of the Golden Wreath, the poetry award. After the intervention of the Yugoslav PEN Centre (based in Zagreb, Croatia) in July 1987, after almost two years’ imprisonment, Koteski was set free. The one who did most to bring about his release was the Croatian writer Predrag Matvejević, who at that time was the Vice-President of the World PEN Centre and the President of the Croatian PEN-Club. He organized a petition for my father's release with world-famous writers. During the 1990s Matvejević himself fell out of favour with Franjo Tuđman's nationalistic regime in Croatia and fled the country. With letters to the District Court in Skopje and to the Federal Court of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, Matvejević succeeded in obtaining a re-investigation of the sentence on Koteski and his express release from prison in July 1987. Koteski was employed as a librarian in the small library near his home, where he worked until his retirement. He travelled to Croatia and met Matvejević.

Koteski spent the last decade of his life in relative isolation in his home in Skopje, suffering from paranoia. In November 2000, seven months before his death, he managed to see selected parts of his file. It is written on more than 300 pages that he was a subject of surveillance for at least 40 years of his life. The last document from my father's file is from 1988, but there is no reason not to believe that the surveillance lasts until 1990. If (rightly or not) we believe that the surveillance of my father stopped in 1990, then the surveillance lasts for 42 years. If (with interruptions) it continued until his death, then my father was a subject of police surveillance for a whole 53 years. He died on 12 July 2001, in Skopje, surrounded by his closest family.

5 Biographies of "One One"

Oblivium is that which effaces - effaces what?
The signifier as such.

Then there are those biographies which are not that; biographies consisting of instinctive memories, those in which you have been constituted as "one one" (Lacan’s first signifier, that, for instance, I got to love one animal). And then there is "one two", when I place myself where the amount is, not on the level of "one", but on "one two". Where the thing which is a record that penetrates the innocence of the paper starts to operate…

In the place where "one one" is, the place of me, his child, there are some isolates of memories, secretions, interjections which are (already) lame for all the reasons and for all the work behind the reconstructions. In that place I can see how I look at myself, but I cannot see anymore. That is the space which talks from a point that cannot remember anymore. That is a place of loss, where an exchange of phantasmas for reality happens, something irreducible, something that may function as that initial repressed signifier. Thus, from the place of "one one" here are some memories.

My father, the man entered under the name Jovan Koteski in the Lexicons, reads Lorca's poem "Two Sailors on the Beach" to his child. And he interprets the poem to her, explaining that those are not two but one and the same sailor, while the one in him continued to travel by ship over the seas in the world, and the other in him stayed at a port in Asia with the woman he would love all his life.

Another memory, another isolate. My father bought a painting. There is a vase with three flowers in it, Picasso-style. Three hands are holding the vase. "The painting is nothing special, I can draw a better one," I say, and I am a child. My father smiles, asks me to get a piece of paper and try. I go to my room and I draw the same picture from memory. I show him the paper, my father says that I have drawn the same picture. "But better." "Yes (smile) but the whole thing is not to draw the same picture, but to draw your picture, just as the painter drew his…"

Third: my father rings the doorbell that Friday. It's the second year nobody rings our doorbell. The ringing - it is a movement of threat… in prison from this side of prison… That Friday, I open the door and I see my father, coming unannounced from prison, expressly released, that morning, in a prison uniform, he didn't have time to change, all he thought about at that moment, that morning, was to get home as quickly as possible. I don't realize that in the meantime, in place of my great love, a great dull hatred is born. My first impulse is to close the door in front of him. So that each of us will continue living in prisons, each in their own. I didn’t realize that if he had known how to love me a little less, if I had only known better how to understand what was happening to us, I wouldn't have hated him as much as I did from the moment he disappeared. Each love seems self-sufficient. Love in the time of bloody systems, as well. You are not prepared for loss. I wasn't....

Fourth memory: my father in the house that is dilapidated from poverty and hunger. My father in 1994 comes from work and as usual asks if anybody called him. Nobody?

Fifth: My brother graduates, that March, now he is an atomic physicist. My father, drunk, holding my brother's graduation paper goes out to find money, my brother has to go back to Belgrade, Serbia, he will be working at the Vinča Institute of Nuclear Sciences near Belgrade, they have an extinguished nuclear reactor. My father comes back and throws 400 German marks on the table. He is swaying. “I was sitting in the company of young people, businessmen, Jasna. One of my generation was sitting there… he said to me, oh Jovan, don't make a fool of yourself, come and sit with me, don't sit at a table with children… And then he saw, when the kid started to count, 100, 200, 300, 400... I stopped him; that's enough, I said, I will give it back to you, and he replied: Uncle Jovan, if you give it back to me, I'll beat you up. And I will give it back to him and that's why I say to him, beat me up, I'll count it out to you as you did now.” Swaying, holding the blue binder with the title Graduation Dissertation, candidate: Vasil Koteski, Faculty of Physics, Belgrade, 1994, he sits on a pile of books, the pile falls, but my father is still tightly holding my brother’s graduation dissertation.

Sixth: The process of long reconciliation. A man who I accidentally met at a conference calls me to work on a project. We don't have any money so I do anything. For months he has been persuading me to go to Budapest where he is a professor, he enrols me at the University where he works, he invites me to stay with his family, he opens the door of his library to me, he gives me Foucault and the Russian dissidents, I read everything that has nothing to do with my studies. I avoid going back to Macedonia, even during the holidays, the country is as disgusting to me as it was when I ran away from it. Several days before the end of my studies, my professor shows me his grandfather's thick dossier. My professor is, in fact, a grandson of one of the leading communist snitches in Hungary. This is by way of a payback. After me, a girl moves into the house, she escapes from Slobodan Milošević's Belgrade. She is also broke, she also reads books our professor gives her… He helped us find a vocabulary to explain to ourselves the things that were happening to us in our historic times… The last morning, on the train from Budapest to Skopje, for the first time after many years, I felt immeasurable happiness to be going back home, after a whole Century, to my father again. Yes, my professor was a child of a former communist snitch.

My father, the day before he died. "This home is not a home. And we tried. Look, your mother put a picture here, and a flower here, and these shelves. Wonderful. But this is not a home. You will understand me, won't you? Everybody has to go home. I have to go home now..."

6 Biographies of ‘Friends’

You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

And then, of course, there are hard biographies. They are usually written by those who smile at you and hold a knife behind their back. Your friends, the Macedonian poets and writers.

When in November 2000 my father showed me the dossier for the first time, it was only a few months before he died. That much time we had, time for reconciliation. Some among us, the children of political prisoners, didn't have even that much luck. The first thing he showed me was the section: "Cooperation with Internal Affairs: None!" And then he read 300 (of who knows how many) pages which he was allowed to see from his file and to have them, with just a few names, half the pages crossed out with felt-tip pen, so as to find out what he had known all his life. That he had been the subject of investigation for at least 42 years of the 69 years of his life. And then we realized that the paranoia was not paranoia, that the fear was not an irrational luxury, but a higher state of acknowledgement. And then you read; it hurts, but at least you see you are not crazy.

When my father got out of prison, it often happened that in the street his best friends, our literary doyens, on our reading lists, would turn their heads away from him. The same happened to all my family. We understood, it was difficult for them, they didn't know how to greet us, and not harm themselves. We understood them, but let's make it clear, they would never be understood by the poet and the child in my father, because for that child those mechanisms cannot be understood. And in the name of that child who didn't understand them, in the name of my father who is gone, I have just one message to send, from the mouth of the Croatian rapper Edo Maajka: Fuck you...

When my father left me the file, at first the basic question for me wasn't who, how or why, but a completely different, infrastructural question. What did that machinery actually look like? Who typed this page? What was the name of that typist? Who tapped my brother's telephone conversation while he was arranging his athletics training? Was that information worth it? What was the name of the telephonist? Did that actual informant, writer, our reading list, feel that he was doing something useful when he passed on that ‘information’? What did the ‘informer’ look like? What did he have for breakfast that morning? What line did he use when he saw his kids off to school? Did he make his children happy and good people with the salary he received from his underground work? Because if he did, that is at least some kind of galactic consolation.

Likewise, later, when you wait for a bus, suddenly a personal question comes to your mind. That bus experience happened to me one morning. When it became clear to me that the tapping device had been put in our home by the time when I said my first hello to my first infatuation. It was a secret to all my friends, but not to the state structure. If I had been able to choose, I wouldn't have wanted it to be like that. If my brother could choose, he wouldn't have wanted it to be like that either. But, you see, we had no choice.

These are fundamental issues and they are very important. You cannot tap the conversations of a nation without any consequences and then expect that nation to be normal. You cannot, later, one morning tell them: we should enter Europe, don't cross the street when the red light is on. They, with their tractors, had trodden down all the intimate coordinates of our human lives, always crossing on red, they had crossed all the traffic lights of human intimacy, and then they ask us to stop on green and be loyal to their conventions.

And precisely because entire generations of children of former political prisoners keep silent, as I do, that's why that omnipotence is possible, although nobody has or will have legitimacy to give it to them... One of the basic questions of ex-communist states is to create mechanisms which will make that page of their past visible, the suffering of entire generations and descendants of the victims in the political calculations.

7 The Violence of Macedonian Culture

Once more I am a wanderer, a pilgrim through the world.
But what else are you?

The ‘biography of the friends’, the one that your colleagues, the Macedonian writers and poets, in the long decades between 1960 and1990, wrote about you, without you knowing. What did those expert and creative quills manage to write in the genre ‘biography’ on the topic: ’a wanderer through the world’, in all these decades?

My father's file shows the principles on which the control strategy was built in the cultural sphere, in the years between 1960 and 1990. If you leave your home, then you are observed. The streets are circled by managers, municipal representatives, policemen, collaborators, informers, DBK5 servants, your friends, but you cannot distinguish who is who. You are tied to your place, your place has a name, and in my father's case that name is "Intimist". You are an intimist, and as such you are extremely suspicious. There is no reason to be "intimist" in 1961, when all the others are sociologists.

A terrible parade of living and dead poets, literati, accidental people – and policemen parade in my father's file. The world of my father's file is a world of obscene combination of Macedonian writers and policemen, who frequently merge into the same person. That is a world where you don't have stable coordinates of friendship. Most of the ‘friends’, colleagues and writers are here to tighten the ring around their target. Everybody and everything is an ear.

It is clear from my father's file that the type of control which was exercised on him was based on a system of continuous reports, lists and records. An informer submits a report to a manager, the manager submits that document to three other authorities: the information book, the UDBA Department and the file for a legal connection. In January 1988, a person X called my father at home to wish him: A Happy New Year. The content of this wish is forwarded to THREE other authorities.

The records connect the Centre (the heads of UDBA) to the periphery (my father's "friends"). Power is distributed in an exclusive way, in a proper hierarchical order, to the lowest authority, to the final pimp, who records every distress. That recording leads to tragicomic situations. In the informer's document, dating April 1961, my father, during lunch, complained to his "friend" that he was not satisfied with the system, X "well-intentionally" reminded my father that for him personally it was good and he had nothing to complain about. All of a sudden there is a "switch". I'm quoting from the file: Jovan suddenly left the restaurant to talk to a person passing by. In translation this means that my father went out to greet another friend. And that is a very good reason for an alarm in the hierarchical organization. In the operative note, it is required to investigate who the greeted one was, and to set him up as a new target of observation. This organization demands "the real" name of everybody you have greeted, wants to know the ‘real’ name of your permanent criticism of the system, your excess, your poetic sensibility, your ‘illness’.

If you lived my father's life between 1960 and 1990, your informers were always close to you. The system consists of many bodies. But, they don't sit at the table next to you, they don't peek from behind a pot, they don't pretend they are reading a newspaper in the lobby. This is not a film. This is your life, and the informers are your closest friends and colleagues, Macedonian writers. Like all the people in this world, you also talk to your friends about things that are important to you, things that hurt you, make you happy or disturb you. You are a Macedonian poet and everything is important to you which is related to Macedonian culture and the institutions leading it, the Macedonian language, Macedonian villages because you write about them in your poetry, the ideology is important to you because like every poet on this planet you also think that you have the right to have an opinion about it. But while you talk to your friends, you don't know that you are actually talking to a hybrid, two-headed creature who has one face - that of a poet, and another face – that of a plain-clothes policeman. Your best ‘"friends’ are always next to you: in some documents you are at their place, in others you are at a restaurant, in third ones in a club, in fourth ones in a hotel, at a reading, at a meeting, in their business car, in a bar, in an office, yours or his, or hers. All the places listed are actual locations from my father's file.

When you look at this diffusion of the State and its most perfidious penetration into the intimate world with the help of your friends, you cannot but ask yourself, where is the limit? Some of my mother's friends, our poets' spouses, are also unmasked as informants in the file. Where does the list end? What surprise awaits you behind the black felt-tip pens that hide the other identities?

8 How Much Can a Living Being Endure?

One eye sees, but the other feels.
Paul Klee

My father had manifested a disturbing awareness of being observed all his life. In one transcribed telephone conversation of 27 July 1987, my father complains to X that: All my life I have been constantly provoked, and a living being can endure so much… I will tell you, you will be disgusted… But the more you talk, the more you come across deaf ears and the more you complain, the more people wave you off. You have no way of proving your intimate feeling of being observed. Part of that obscene State structure is for you to become completely lonely. To be cornered in such a way that your informants will remain your best ‘friends’. Even with this vague feeling that he had been observed all his life, when my father opened his file he was astounded by the Kafkaesque scenario, by the rate of the ever-present look, by the long-lasting surveillance and finally by the observer's sadism.

Loneliness is a goal, it is good to be alone. They will do everything so that you are left alone, after everybody has deserted you. When my father gets out of prison, the operative note of 10 September 1987 reads: We find that Jovan was deeply affected by the fact he had been deserted by his former friends. At the moment he feels psychologically worse than in prison.

I was frequently asked how my father survived his political hounding. Only those who have lived through torture know this. The man who has been subjected to torture for many decades, at moments becomes only pain. The pain becomes an object without human attributes and content. I will describe an ordinary day in my father's life, for example from 1994, although all the years before and after were the same. 1994 is seven years later, after my father is already free, after Macedonia has its own state, after his heretical thoughts are not heretical anymore but lucrative.

My father tried to sleep during the day. It was unbearable for him to be awake when there was light outside. For a person who has survived torture, light is a particular problem. The one who is watched all his life, when he himself cannot see, the one who is an object of information and never a subject in communication, is afraid of light because visibility guarantees the functioning of the system. When he was awake, my father walked nervously from one room to another. He would go into a room and leave it immediately. He would stand in the hallway and listen to what my mother was doing in the kitchen; he would knock on my door to see whether something terrible had happened to me, he would find some excuse, for example "I'm reading Tsvetaeva" and without waiting for an answer, he would quickly get out. For hours, behind the curtain, he would worriedly watch the dustman who decided to spend the next three hours until the end of his working day sitting on the pavement under our window. What if he is not a dustman? Many dustmen in the file turned out to be ‘official persons from UDBA’. He would go to sleep. He slept with one eye open and jumped at each sound and asked for an explanation of what had happened, he wanted to see, to be reassured. He lived as if any moment the most important man would come and bring the most important decision that would realise the prophecy of his life. The man who has been through 40 years of political persecution builds strategies for survival. When the doorbell rings, he thinks: who is the next who will be tortured? If somebody rings the doorbell, he stops to listen to the breathing of the one that rings the bell. He barely finds courage to look through the peephole. Even when he knows the person who rings well, he watches him for a long time. Sometimes I try to open the door, but for him it's a matter of life and death to be the first to open the door, so nothing terrible will happen to me. And finally: "Ah Vera, come in… Jasna is at home".

The man who survives torture, after being a subject of observation all his life, becomes the one who cannot be reconstructed through identification with his closest. His world becomes a world which is not based on dialectics. That is an absence from the absence. It is pure presence. A man who survives torture develops an impossible paradox, disconnection at the representation and too many representations. He has a million pictures of the terrible possibilities of the system and pictures which do not bring a memory. That man who survived four decades of torture is my father, the Macedonian poet Jovan Koteski.

9 Application Adopted!

The repulsive courtesies began once again,  
one of them passed the knife over K. to the other, who then passed it back  
over K. to the first. K. now knew
it would be his duty to take the knife,
as it passed from hand to hand above him  
and thrust it into himself.

My father took his file in November 2000. All the people who took their files that year in Macedonia, knew that they had to sign a form. That form reads literally as follows: With regard to protection of data and information about private and family life I request that the entire content of the file shall remain secret until (100 years from my birth, and in my father's case it is entered - my comment) 2032, provided it is not destroyed but given to the Archive of Republic of Macedonia. When you sign that form, the cynical ending follows. At the bottom it says that the application "is adopted".

You see, the horror of the police file is not just the fact that my father lived a life where the police had the face of his closest friends. The horror lies in one supreme agency where his world is even narrower than the narrow world of the old Greek heroes who address the sky with the cry "I suffer injustice". The Greek suffers a terrible punishment, without subjective guilt, but when he wants to find out in the name of which agency he suffers, the sky and the earth will turn around so that he can see. When Oedipus wants to know what happened in his past, the witness appears in the very next act.

My father waited for 40 long years to see. And when he stopped, petrified, in front of the UBK6 door, before the authority that had tormented him all his life, as before the last chance to let him see, then the UBK services made him submit an application where he asks for his only hope never to be fulfilled. In the form, my father has to ask that the thing in the name of which he suffered will remain closed forever. He submitted an application where he asked for his file to be available to him in 2032. My father wanted to see that he was not crazy when he claimed that he had been observed all his life. But all he essentially wanted to see was what good all that was for. And he had to read that his application - never to see the resolution of his living tragedy - was “adopted"! 

My father, in rare moments of humour, called his file a "biography of friends". That is Quixotic humour. First you smile, then you assume a complex expression, eventually realizing that you are laughing at the face of pure sadness. That's the humour of somebody who being innocent survived prison. When you receive a document saying you are rehabilitated, that document is not worth the paper it is written on. You can be the best poet, you were born only to write about her beauty, her golden voice, to write about the ground beneath her feet. You could have written the most beautiful poem about the unfulfilled love of a generation, Anna, but it will never appear on a reading list, because for these dunces even Anna's hair is debatable. After you have survived the pogrom of your time, in which your colleagues wrote your biography without you commissioning it, all that is left for you is to live a Kafkaesque reality of the UDBA daily routine each day for the rest of your life. And to the infinity of your earthly loneliness repeat the verses: "Oh my friends, there is no friend!" Even so, my father left forgiving everybody. The day before he died, my father told me "he was going home".

10 Children to Compare

Parents are the shield between us and death. As great artists, they don’t have a right to age... Parents are our most intimate possession. But when family intimacy grows to the scale of an international scandal, as happened to us, even unwillingly, thoughts, memories, analyses come up.

It was a Saturday when I decided to deal with this topic. Five years have passed since then. I arrived at my mother’s with my (newborn) son, and my mother was sad. “They are talking about the Struga Poetry Evenings, your father is not mentioned anywhere.” I probably got cross with her and fell asleep with worry. The district of my childhood remained mournful, that never changed. I was getting all worked up, as if everything depended on me, I knew what my mum was talking about. All had some kind of life in the world, with themselves, some past to look back to happily. Only at my mother’s front door did the past and the world not ring the doorbell, not even us, ourselves - we rang it as if extradited from this world.

The philosophy of the victim popular at the end of the 20th century was not unknown to me. Had I nestled myself into this family story in that long line?  Couldn’t I have been brave and said that bygones are bygones, simply go on? Was I living with the trauma because the trauma had become such a great part of me, or was it precisely the opposite, because it never managed to really nestle in me, because it remained a ‘distant' theme; while others were rotting in prisons, I was the child with the good grades, 'the normal one'; is this text not the same?

Finally, where was my generation standing? What happened to my inter-generation, with us that were the children of that system, and the parents of this? What was the graveness of our doings - where the requirement for confronting the past was systematically necessary, proper in the sense of civilisation and historically important - and where did we pass the limit of not afflicting pain?

My brother went to army service two days before they arrested my father; the same morning when my father went to prison, I started high school. In a few days we were allocated to three different institutions, quite similar, actually. When he completed his army service, my brother chose a life turned towards the future. A psychologist that I spoke to several years later confronted me at one of our sessions with my first, private ‘prison dilemma' when he asked me: ‘Your father got out of prison in 1987, your brother in 1986, when did you get out?’

My brother has a letter which I donated to the State Archive. He wrote it while he was serving in the Yugoslav People's Armyin Mostar, Bosnia, to my father, who was serving his  prison term in Skopje, Macedonia. In it, our childhood is explained in one sentence, all that my brother didn’t like and despised in my father, and everything he realised when my father went to prison.

Today, my brother studies atoms, he became an atomic physicist and does not live in Macedonia. One morning (he had come on leave, he was 18, I was 14) while my father was in prison, my brother said that the time had come for us to part, the he would no longer recommend me books to read or films to watch. That he was starting on his own path and I would have to choose my own. I agreed, I had no choice. Today, my brother is researching atoms at the institute in Belgrade and in Berlin. Physics and metaphysics for him are things that are closely related, he is interested in the future, and not in the past. I somehow stayed with the family issues. Prison catapulted us in two different directions; we each unconsciously chose to continue one of the two themes of my father.

In the letter to my father, my brother explained everything I never managed to, although I intensely lived with it all. If my father hadn’t gone to prison, I would probably have dedicated my life to something else. I couldn’t even write a proper letter to my father in prison at that time. I wrote how many good marks I had, how much I missed him and how we spent New Year. That is what my letters were like. Later, I remembered Freud: 'What we cannot achieve with flying, we must achieve with limping.’

And this is my brother's letter. All I always wanted but never managed to tell my father was in these several lines:

Dear Dad!

Quite some time has passed since we last saw each other, so I decided to write this letter. I would have done it earlier, but I waited for my leave, to try to find you and to talk about this whole situation. Indeed, I came to Skopje (in the period from 2 -25 March), but my attempt to get in touch with you failed. However, nothing else remains but to try to explain in words what my opinion of this whole newly arisen situation is.

Five or six months ago, when I first found out, I was perfectly convinced of your innocence. Very well aware of your ideas and views (that I largely accepted), I knew that all you had done was done with a deep panhuman and humane intent.  I was sure that you were not involved in any terrorist actions because I knew that you never approved of terrorism, neither as a means or as a goal. Every human being who knows you at least a bit will confirm that in life you were led by one sole purpose – to help others, to give even your last piece of bread, if need be. Everyone who has ever been near you must admit that your endless fight against injustice not only does not put you in prison, but places you higher than all thrones. I don’t know. Maybe someone else thinks differently, but I know that everyone who thinks this way can only envy you. Many people, great in spirit and in deed, have been to prison.  Prove to all sycophants, mediocrities and evil tongues that you can be great even there. Here is a chance to confirm who were and who still are your true friends.

Coming to Skopje, not only was I not scared but, on the contrary, I was proud to be your son.  I was not the least concerned about people’s opinions, but soon I discovered that many of them gave me complete support and that they are convinced that your views are correct. If there was among them a pitiful or malicious look, from them I was only fed with more strength and stamina.

Now I must confess that maybe you and I have had our moments in the past when we have not agreed on various things. But that was only so because I was not capable of understanding that a father does not always have to be interested in driving cars, buying furniture for the home, not to mention all the other thing that average dads do. Only now do I understand that it is not most important who earns how much or whether someone has missed a film or a game on TV. A thousand times more important is the spiritual development of the human, that you nurture, and thousands of others abuse. Only now do I see that you are not a below average, but rather an above average father.

What more can I say? You and I are now in the same position. I know how you feel, but I believe that you will endure.  I am deeply convinced that people will realise their mistake and that soon, surely much sooner than you expect, everything will pass. I understand your being there not as a punishment, but as a test that life puts before a person. Endure, because not everyone gets an opportunity like that. Many live their life in the hermetical, semi-transparent atmosphere of their home that does not allow them to see further than their noses. They will never find their true purpose or the meaning of life. Only people like you have a true purpose; creators and ideologists, those that strive towards the universal, neglecting their own interests. These careerists, these feeders of their own ego are not worthy even of contempt. Maybe one day they too will realise that humanity has had enough separation and division, both physically and spiritually.  Maybe they will understand that by rising themselves, they will contribute to the panhuman good. Some are already aware of this. Some already feel that they are represented by something that is above them – as Tagore said.

I know that you are like that and that I share your ideas.  If one is put in prison for those ideas, then my place is there too. Finally, the whole of life is just a game, an illusion and nothingness compared to the eternity that awaits!



1 UDBA – Yugoslav State Security Administration.
2 Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 24.
3 Dedinje (Belgrade), Pantovcak (Zagreb) and Vodno (Skopje) were the famous communist political elite districts in Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia.
4 Viktor Jerofejev, The Good Stalin, Belgrade: Geopoetika, 2005, p. 50.
5 DBK – short name for State Security Administration of Yugoslavia, also known as UDBA.
6 UBK - State Security Service in today’s Macedonia.


    © Milan Strezovski
    Jasna Koteska from Macedonia
    Jasna Koteska was born in 1970 in Skopje, Macedonia, where she lives today. She is the daughter of Macedonian poet Jovan Koteski (1932-2001). She studied literature (degree completed in 1999) and gender studies (degree in 2000) and subsequently earned her PhD in Literature at the University of Skopje (2002). She is a lecturer in literature and gender studies at the Faculty of Philology in Skopje and is an editor for the Macedonian magazines "Blesok" ("Shine"), "Identiteti" ("Identities"), "Literaturen zbor" ("Literary World"), while also contributing regularly to literary magazines and journals. She is a free-lance author who has published numerous books, the most recent being Komunisticka intima (Communist Intimacy), a theoretical analysis of communism and personal narration (Skopje, 2008), Sanitarna enigma (Sanitary Enigma), Philosophy of the Pure (Skopje, 2006), Makedonsko zensko pismo (Macedonian Women's Writings), gender studies and literature (Skopje, 2003), Postmodernisticki literaturni studii (Postmodern Literary Studies, literature and post-modernism (Skopje, 2002).


    Translation by Alexander Sitzmann
    Alexander Sitzmann was born in 1974 in Stuttgart, Germany. He studied Scandinavian and Slavic Philology in Vienna, Austria, where he now researches and teaches the city’s University. Since 1999, he has been a free-lance literary translator from Bulgarian, Macedonian and the Scandinavian languages into German. He is the author of two linguistic monographies, as well as the editor of several anthologies and magazine features, an expert for KulturKontakt Austria and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture as well as various publishers at home and abroad. In 2004 he was awarded the Honorary Prize of the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, followed by the Translators’ Prize of the Austrian Ministry of Culture in 2007, 2008 and 2009, as well as numerous grants.