Review of our We: On Friendship, published this month in Zagreb

Radaković is one of the authors who, in addition to the basic flow of his work, also turns to other forms of writing, and his books in four hands with David Albahari and Scott Abbott are proof of that. They are in agreement with his prose works, but they also represent a leap into something new, unexplored.

By Dragan Babić

Writing in four hands is not as common in our country as it is in the world; the very principle of co-authorship has long been considered common and expected in world literature. Authors who agree in the domain of literature, sharing the same view of art and the act of writing, belonging to the same generation, or devoting themselves to the same thematic-motive-poetic frameworks, or if they are privately close or in a kind of collaborative relationship, such authors can significantly enhance each other’s work. Such creators gravitate towards each other and collaborations occur that give birth to joint books. Within the framework of Serbian literature, such titles are more in the domain of essays and correspondence, while in the form of prose only a few authors appear who dedicate themselves to this type of writing. One of them, Žarko Radaković, has been doing this persistently for several decades, collaborating with different co-authors, and his new book with American critic, professor, writer and translator Scott Abbott, The Book of Friendship: We, reached our and American audiences almost at the same time.

These two writers have been friends privately since the mid-1980s, and have been creating together since the 1990s. They previously published the books Repetitions (1994) and Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary (2008), which, unfortunately, did not have the same reception among our readers as Radaković’s other titles. His novels and short stories constantly played on the thin borders between emigrant impressions, the problem of defining one’s own identity, the search for the family past, the attempt to understand the transition of the present, the unstable travelogue (the flâneur nature of his heroes), the research into different narrative forms and concepts, and the prose concretization of ideas that lie at the core of the artistic-performative movements of his youth and early creative period. In short, his thematic plan is very broad, and his poetic framework constantly varies, still managing to stay within the boundaries that he more or less outlined in his early works. More recently, his books Kafana (2016), Krečenje (2018) and Putovati (2021) form an almost independent trilogy that awaits its subsequent derivatives to which readers will return again and again. His position in contemporary Serbian prose production is clear and unquestionable. Beyond that work, Radaković also turns to other forms of writing. His books in four hands with David Albahari – Book on Music (2013) and Book on Photography (2021) – and Abbott are proof of that. They augment his prose works, especially on the thematic and poetic level, but they also represent a leap into something new, unexplored, unexpected and unusual, and precisely because of this they deserve additional attention from readers and critics.

The Book about Friendship: We continues the works by Radaković and Albahari from the “book about” series, but now with a different co-author. The book is divided into two parts: the first, translated by Ivan Jovanović, is dedicated to the American poet and performance artist Alex Caldiero, and the second is focused on Serbian artists. In such a rigid organization it seems as if the conversing, supplementing, and commenting that enables joint work will be missing. Still, the division imposed by this kind of organization is clear, and it concerns the way the two writers see their friendship: one is more concrete and closer to reality, while the other is in an associative-meditative mode and leans more towards fiction. Abbott’s contribution to this work is more focused on the various facts that describe his relationship with Radaković – when, where, how, and under what conditions they met; in what ways they collaborate on new manuscripts; how he observes Radaković and his creative process; how they spend time together and what activities they engage in; how his friend treats other important people in his life, etc. That is why this first half appears as a clearer passage through the history of a friendship, from its formation and all the circumstances that surrounded that moment, through home visits and relations with the other friend’s family. Of course, this means that this segment of the work will be fragmented, interrupted, and allusive, but this does not tire readers. On the contrary, it drives them to greater interest and a higher level of textual understanding.

Abbott focuses on several thematic units that are also geographically determined – the beginning of friendship with Radaković in Germany, socializing in Belgrade, and the Serbian writer’s visit to his home in America – constantly varying between those three planes and approaching the text in the manner of a jazz musician who can play the same theme endlessly in several different variations. He writes an imagined biography of his co-author, which is based on reality and facts of Radaković’s life, but is presented here in a much broader perspective and in much more detail and imagination than would be the case in a conventual biography. Starting from his parents and the circumstances that led to their meeting and his subsequent birth, Abbott presents details that changed his friend’s life – his departure to Germany, work in the media and literature, active commitment to translating the works of Peter Handke into Serbian, language itself, the trips he goes on, the people he meets, the artistic practices he borrows from them and incorporates into the poetic framework of his literary work, and finally, the prose works he works on. He knows all these things from his close friendship with Radaković and therefore asserts himself not only as a commentator on his life, but also as his accomplice, an important figure with whom the writer exchanges ideas and who, in the end, directs his creative attention in certain ways. The central part of this segment by Abbott is dedicated to a trip to Belgrade where he, Radaković and Peter Handke meet, the latter a character who, more and more powerfully, becomes an important figure in this book. There are several reasons for this. The Austrian Nobel laureate is the main link between the two writers, since both of them have written about his work and have translated it into English and Serbian. That’s how their friendship began, and Handke’s work, in one way or another, is mirrored in theirs. Therefore, their joint meeting in Belgrade and the gathering, attended by other figures from the world of Serbian art and literature welcoming a guest from Austria, is the cornerstone of the Book of Friendship, and from that meeting, which recapitulates the previous relationship between the three artists, one can see the essence of Abbott’s and Radaković’s friendship, as well as their relationship with other creators in their environment. The poet, artist and performer Alex Caldiero becomes an important figure in Abbott’s last segment, “Amiable Correspondence,” which represents the email correspondence in which all three friends participate. Their sentences intertwine, complement, comment and harmonize, offering a unique experience in which fragmentary confessions from emails are transformed into a polyphony created by decades-long close relationship and which is brought into a strong connection with the friendly-collaborative relationship between Goethe and Schiller.

After Abbott, the work and its readers are “taken over” by Radaković, and his segment “We” departs from the first part as much as he himself departs from everything that can be described today under the term “contemporary prose production.” Starting first of all from his own experience and feelings of the world, he takes a different position from his co-author and instead of returning the honor and now presenting his (pseudo)biography, he decides on the motif of the search. Starting from the idea that Abbott and he happen to be in some unknown city where they are looking for Peter Handke, Radaković starts looking for the American one as well, setting the framework of his “search” so broadly and imaginatively that he can do anything with them that the limits of fiction allow him to do. Thus, his friends enter and leave the narrative freely and without restrictions, while other heroes, completely fictitious, take the lead and draw the attention of the readers. Everything that Radaković’s narrator “sees” and everything he “witnesses” is broken down into the smallest elements, relationships and events that say more about Abbott and himself than it seems. In addition, this segment of the work strongly evokes the prose works of this author, above all the aforementioned trilogy, which was created at the time of writing the Book of Friendship, i.e. in the years before and after it, and these records can be described as non-fictional flashes of fictionalized events and thematic frameworks of Radaković’s recent novels. They feature other artistic figures and phenomena that also appear here, from Albahari and Thomas Bernhard to Era Milivojević and Julia Knifer, and that is why this segment could serve as a very adequate supplement for understanding the novels KafanKrečenje and Putovati.

The clearest connection between these separate, but still connected works, is revealed at the end of the segment “The Secret of an Absent Friend”: “Since I perceive myself as a writer – and what else have I been in life and could have been (?) – I felt that it was my ‘duty’ to write primarily about my personal experiences: about the events around me, not as they really happened, but as they could be.” Radaković’s observation regarding literature and its relationship with reality is key; he describes his reality, but from an unusual angle, upgraded with imagined segments and supported by earlier experiences of reading, writing, translating and listening. However, since he is aware that this is an idea many contemporary writers rely on, he goes a step further, explaining how he came to view the world of fictional art. In this process, the reader’s experience is crucial, together with the experience of a passionate listener of various musical genres, primarily classical music and jazz, in which the ideas of variation, free interpretation and upgrading of the already existing matrix with new individual artistic possibilities appear. Literature and music served Radaković as reading material with which he created his intimate corpus of knowledge of what came before him, and then the question arose of how to proceed and in what way he could realize his artistic destiny. Just at that moment, Abbott, Handke and Caldiero appear again, and after a spiritual and cathartic experience at a concert where the musicians completely deconstruct all musical laws and change the usual musical structures with fragments and cuts, he realizes the following: “But I could say with the greatest certainty that ‘now,’ ‘here,’ ‘in Cologne,’ I had to stop reading, and that I had only to write more. I had to finally tell the story. And that’s exactly the way [the musicians] did it, on that September evening in 1990, in the hall of the Stadtgarten cultural center. Because in those years I also had a ‘bad’ feeling. I clearly ‘saw’ that ‘approaching edge of the abyss,’ I sensed ‘doom.’ And I wanted to ‘narrate,’ to unmask the disease that was spreading at breakneck speed.” In that autopoetic statement describing the discovery of the key moment in which he “switched from reading to writing,” Radaković offers the essence of understanding his literature and also the essence of his friendship with Abbott.

After the ‘confessions’ of the fictitious heroes and epilogue contributions by Caldiero and the visual artist Nina Pops, a reader is left with a mixture of confusion and unusual satisfaction due to the feeling that the reader has participated in a conspiracy with the authors and has learned their secrets. Both Scott Abbott and Žarko Radaković manage to record something unexpected and unusual, recapitulating their previous work and anticipating the next, and precisely in this anticipatory factor is the greatest value of the Book of FriendshipWe, which will surely impose itself as an important detail in the oeuvre of both authors.

Translated through Google Translate, edited by Scott Abbott. Original text here:

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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