Daring to Remember

Izet - Portrait of a Friend

  • Read in Bulgarian by the author
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  • An excerpt from Izet by Valeri Petrov
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An essay by Bulgarian poet Valery Petrov; also a selection by the author of poems by his Bosnian colleague Izet Sarajlić, translated by Irena Zlof.

Let me warn the reader against a possible mistake. The photograph, which you see is not that of the writer of this essay but of the man about whom the essay was written. I feel I shall only be acting in the true spirit of our joint project if I make my contribution to it not by composing a poem but by introducing to you a brother-poet from a neighboring country. The country is Bosnia and the poet is Izzet Sarailic.

About thirty years ago, his name rang no bell. Not that I knew much more about Bosnia, either. Small wonder, since it is a disheartening fact that – as a result or a consequence of more than one thing – Balkan peoples hardly know each other. We have been neighbours for thousands of years yet we know next to nothing about each other’s cultures, past and present. This is especially true of recent times. While aspiring to its culture, we feel righteous anger when the refined West ignores a priori our respective literatures, without deigning to learn more about us. Yet we, too, find no time for as much as casting a glance at our neighbours. As a young poet, I succumbed to the strong literary influence of the geographically distant France, Italy, Germany and Russia; but I had a rather vague idea as to who were the greatest poets of Romania, Turkey and Greece, or ex-Yugoslavia for that matter. My close communication with Izzet made me feel this paradox even more strongly.

Until recently, I was not quite clear as to exactly how and why we became such friends. We met for the first time many years ago, at a writers’ conference in Budapest. The only thing I remember from that conference is the lapel badge of one of the delegates, which read “Heinrich Heine, Yugoslavia”.

That was he, that was Izzet. I felt intrigued by the unusual manifestation of a free spirit shunning conventions. He, in turn, was open to new friendships. I cannot remember what we did in the few days of the conference. Somehow I do not believe that we had been reading our poems to each other, or swapping details of our respective lives (it was a year later that I learned he was a Muslim from Sarajevo). However, we parted as friends and kept in touch by correspondence, which albeit irregular, proved our strongest binding link.

Our first meeting was also our last. The events that followed changed completely the very image of the Balkan Peninsula. Links were severed. I was asking myself what could have happened to my Balkan Heine and what was he doing in his truncated Bosnia, an ex-part of truncated Yugoslavia; what poetry was he writing, what stand had he taken in the fratricidal war. I did not trust postal services so my questions remained unanswered. It was only very recently, while reading his latest poems, which he sent me from besieged Sarajevo, that I realized my silence had been a big mistake. He had been waiting for his friends from abroad “to press the bell on my door” as he wrote in one, incredibly sad, poem, while his friends from abroad, including his friend from Bulgaria, never even tried to get in touch! To save face, two years ago I decided to give him a pleasant surprise by translating into Bulgarian, and publishing some of his poems.

It was only when I actually started working on the translation that I fully identified the person behind my friend’s kind face.

Words fail me, so I cannot adequately express the degree of excitement I felt when I started interpreting the poetry created by him, especially the verse written in the years of war. The analysis of the poetic structure showed clearly that in his poetic form he followed the classic rules albeit not blindly, while all the time deliberately aiming at honest, overt prose. As an adept of traditional verse techniques, I ought to have resented this. Quite the opposite happened however. What was the reason for that? I believe that everyone who would care to read the poems will find this question easy. The answer lies in the incredible truthfulness and sincerity of every single word. The poet seems to have recognized that himself, since he claims, rather paradoxically, that “poems are at their weakest when they want to be poetic” and that, “with the emergence of truth, the poet’s intervention becomes totally unnecessary”. Half-jokingly, I argued with him in my mind maintaining that writing would then be even easier if you opt to write about yourself, your family, your friends, and all the things that had happened to you - that would truly make a poem!

Easier indeed! In practical terms, it could only be easy if everyone shared Izzet’s mentality, and therefore used his particular manner of writing not as a literary technique but as the sole vehicle for communication with the other person’s mentality. That was what made his poems unbelievably captivating. Thoughts and feelings merged, transforming poetry into the nearest approximation of prose while at the same time going against prosaic core. There was no artificially introduced beauty in his verse. Kind, soft and warm, they confirmed what I had already heard of Izzet’s life in his suffering city, and of the stand he had taken at the face of bloodshed and ruins. Having lost his nearest and dearest, he had succeeded in preserving his human face; while suffering like all other survivors. He wrote his verse while working alongside his fellow-citizens at the most difficult and trying moments and won the unconditional love of his fellow-countrymen, remaining their best-loved modern poet.

His fellow-poets on the other side of the front line may have been serving the cause of their own truth, different from his truth. I was aware of that yet it was not for me to judge who was right and who was wrong in that conflict. The only thing I could be certain of, because I felt it in my heart, was that Izzet’s poetry was seeking to soar high above hatred. Obviously, it was an uphill task because I could see how, at certain moments, the poems I was translating succumbed to angry condemnation of “the other side” – yet who am I to know whether this was justified or not? I confirm that the poetry I was translating is of a very high order and as such would not, and could not lie.

And another thing. I believe that the brotherhood of poets should stay above the myriads of arguments, whatever their nature.

Thousands of reasons made me feel a strong affiliation to the poet I had decided to translate. Too many things transpired that were binding us. We seem to have been marked by the same social ideals, which had burned through our youth; and to share admiration and respect to the same writers, artists, film directors; we seemed to have the same urge towards what is new in the world culture of today. As though that was not enough, it became clear to me while reading his autobiographical verse, that the trial and tribulations of our respective lives were also identical. We seem to have faced them very much in the same way; we seem to have felt the same embitterment. The same sadness, although not completely deprived of hope, weighed upon the collapse of our youth dreams and the world of aspirations of generation upon generation. How true, how beautifully has he expressed it: “Our dreams of Communism, he wrote, were worth all our later disappointments…”

I have mentioned earlier that I did not understand why, without actually knowing each other, we became such friends. I gradually realized that this was intuitive, that, following some subconscious urge, we felt that the things that linked us were more than we could be aware of during the few days of the conference of so many years ago. These things were hidden like the mass of the iceberg… I realize this is not a suitable comparison since icebergs stand for the cold, while our meeting was incredibly warm.

We are not going to experience another meeting like that. My wish to pleasantly surprise my friend from Bosnia could not materialize. I was still in the middle of translating his things when the news came that he had left our sinful world. The sense of bereavement made me decide on broadening the scope, and translate not just a few poems but enough to compile a volume of “Selected Poems”. I also wrote the introduction to this selection; in fact, most of what I am writing here, I am quoting from my Preface. Even though I had been too late in my homage to him, I am comforted by the thought that poetry outlives its creators, that poets continue to live beyond their death and that my translations would enhance a second life for this wonderful poet and human being, Izzet Sarailic.

This is what made me include some of his poems in my essay. I have deliberately selected some works from the second period of his creative life. Considering that they will be translated also into German, I have opted for the poet’s blank verse period so that their translation into two foreign languages would make it possible to preserve their original form and content. However it works, it is my hope that the readers will appreciate their beauty and keep it in their hearts the way we in Bulgaria preserve our friends’ images in our hearts.

 
Twelve Poems by Izet Sarajlić

HIS STREET

He too dreamt of flattened grass, of unbuttoned
woman's blouse.
He was young.
Not counting his afterlife years,
he was but eighteen.

You never saw him as years changed his face
You only know his honorary place.

But I knew him
when he used old engines and planks to make an airplane which
never took off.

when he told his father
that in their battle someone might have to fall,

when in between two arrests he asked his mother
Mother, do you love me?

- and over her clouded eyes he gazed for a long time down
the street,
the very same
which now carries his name.

(1963)

 

HANDS

For five long years
it held a rifle butt
the hand of a soldier.

Its duty was
to finish off a beloved dog:
the hand of a hunter.

Its whole life
it struck blows:
the hand of a boxer.

Its whole life
it carried a glass:
the hand of a drunkard.

And here's a lucky hand
the past twenty years it's been
caressing you.

Here's a lucky hand!

(1968)

 

NOTHING WOULD REVIVE ME SO

Nothing would revive me so
like a chance to once more
in my twenties
on that same wooden sledge
in that same spring rain which poured upon us
then
with the future Mrs Sarajlić
I ride to Željo's Popovača.
Though I may no longer
considering the appalling level of morality in the country,
trust to ever walk in Socialism down the street of
Ognjen Prica,
That Popovača from 1950 I still have every right
to hope for!

 

THE THEORY OF DISTANCE

The theory of distance was invented by the post festum people,
the same ones who never wish to take any risks.

I am one of those
who believe that Monday
should be discussed on Monday;
doing so on Tuesday might be doing too late.

It is hard, of course, in a cellar
with grenades whizzing above your head
to write poems.

The only thing harder than that would be
not to write them!

 

WARS IN OUR LIVES

Marko Bašić has lived through
two Balkan and two World wars.
This is his fifth.

To me and my offspring—the second.

And as for Vladimir
with his eighteen months of age
it could be said at this moment
that one half of his life
he spent in a war.

 

AFTER THE WOUNDING
to Mika Maslić

Last night
Slobodan Marković came to my dreams
to apologise to my wounds.

That was the only Serbian apology
I got for all this time,

and even that one was just a dream
the apology of a dead poet.

 

TO MY FRIENDS FROM EX-YUGOSLAVIA

What is this that descended upon us,
my friends?

I don't know
what you're doing.

What you're writing.

With whom you're drinking.

Which books you're reading.

I no longer know,
if we are friends any more.

 

FAREWELL TO DERVIŠ IMAMOVIĆ

Derviš Imamović has died,
a good person
not from Szechwan
but from Zenica.

Another life which was more than a novel
expired.

Others have on communism
earned palaces,
Derviš –
prison sentences

For Derviš
it would be most accurate to say
that by occupation
he was a camp prisoner.

Ustaša's,
German,
Norwegian,
Soviet camps
this is his biography.

He ended up
in the Sarajevo camp.

Had those like Derviš Imamović
been heading the Cheka
the international and humanist spirit of October
would still have been alive.

Had those like him
been in place of Zhdanov

Zoshchenko would have died
the most respected senior on Leningrad.

Had those like him…
Paul Éluard would have been spending his summers
In Mala Duba.

Had those like him…
Risto Trifković would never have slaved
on Goli Otok.

Had those like him…
Konstantin Biebl would never have thrown himself
from the thirteenth floor  

Had those like him…
Simone Signoret and Yves Montand would never have torn up
their communist party cards.

Had those like him…
Kundera, the poet of Prague,
would never have thought of
leaving the Wenceslas Square
or would have exchanged café "Slavia"
for a bistro on Montparnasse

Had those like him…
"Aurora" would not have humbly dock
in front of the Nakhimov naval academy

He did not
like Picasso or like Ivo Andrić
flirt with the communism,
he lived it.

For him
even his dying in a camp
was almost entirely normal. 

 

Valery Petrov © Ivo Hadjimischev
Valery Petrov from Bulgaria
Valery Petrov was born in 1920 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and where he lives today. He studied medicine at the University of Sofia. He was a co-founder of the satirical magazine “Hornet”. Due to his political commitment, he became a member of the left-wing political group of the VII Great People’s Assembly after the collapse of the socialist regime in Bulgaria. He is a poet, playwright, screenwriter and translator who has published numerous works, some of the most recent of which are: “Избрано” в 5 тома  (“Selected Works” in 5 Volumes) (Zachari Stojanov, Sofia, 2006), “Лирика” I u. II том (“Poems”, Volumes I and II); works for the stage: Когато розите танцуват (When the Roses Dance), Тeатър, любов моя (Theater, My Love); Screenplays: На малкия остров (On the Small Island), Рицар без броня (A Knight Without Armour). None of his works were translated into German between 2000 and 2010. The most significant awards he has received include the National “Paissij Hilendarski” Prize and the “Stara Planina” Medal. He is a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

 

Translation by Thomas Frahm
Thomas Frahm, born in 1961 in Duisburg, now lives and works as a journalist and translator from Bulgarian in Sofia. At present, he is working on the translation of the second part of the Bulgarian novel trilogy by Vladimir Zarev, the first part of which was published in 2009 by Deuticke in Vienna as Familienbrand (first published as Genesis in English, and later on as The Being). Frahm was also awarded a grant by the German Translators’ Fund in 2009, and in 2010, he was nominated for the Goethe-Institut’s Brücke-Berlin-Preis (Berlin Bridge Prize) for Bitieto (German title: Familienbrand) by Vladimir Zarev.