Zarko is a major Serbian writer, with a dozen novels, joint works, and a long list of translations. Laguna Press, Serbia’s premiere literary publisher, has published some of these, including our recent book We: On Friendship. Thoughtful reviews continue to come in, including this one. I’m less well known in the US and my books are of an eclectic sort. There are still no English-language reviews of our book, beautifully published by Elik Press. Fortunately, Google Translate makes it possible to pass on the Serbian reviews as they appear. This one is especially intriguing to me.
Magazine “Dometi”, Nr. 190-191, p. 151, http://www.biblioso.org.rs/…/uploads/dometi/190-191_1.pdf
READY MADE BOOK (ready-made)
(Scott Abbott and Žarko Radaković: The Book of Friendship,
Laguna, Belgrade, 2022)
One of Radaković’s key artistic obsessions is connecting with twin souls, artists with similar poetics and attitudes, whose work in cooperation with his will form a whole, creating mutual bridges between similar interests, tastes and poetics beyond language barriers. Some of them are writers like Albahari, Miodrag Vuković and Peter Handke, others are artists like Era Milivojević, Juli Knifer and Nina Pops. With Albahari, Radaković has already written two books about the passions that connect their friendship – about music and about photography. And through the collaboration with the American, Scott Abbott, before this Book on Friendship, two more titles written in four hands were created – Repetitionsand Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, as a pledge of a four-decade-long friendship since they met at joint doctoral studies in German studies in Tübingen. Since then, the two have shared a passion for writing books as a literary duo, as well as the fact that they are both translators of the works of Peter Handke.
The book is divided into four unequal parts, the last two of which belong to another pair of their artistically related friends – the poet Alex Caldiero and the painter Nina Pops, whose contributions provide an alibi for the entire idea. The first part, On Friendship, is written by Scott Abbott, whose intention is to write an unconventional biography of Žarko Radaković through three chapters. In the style of free jazz, Abbott collages his memories of time spent together, events, insights into the artistic attitudes of Radaković, but also his own angles of observation of concepts that remain inspirational for Abbot until the end. Going to concerts, listening to music together, then getting to know Serbia and Serbian writers, socializing with Handke, introducing the reader to the facts of Radaković’s life, above all his acquaintances and work with Era, Marina Abramović, Knifer and others, it all very successfully portrays the lives of two friends in a documentary manner. Of the numerous memories, the story about Radaković’s meeting with Handke is one of the most picturesque, not only because it is about Peter Handke himself and the story of how he and Radaković met and how the decades-long collaboration between the two writers began, but also because on at this point, the reader for the first time cannot be completely sure whether there is a slip in Scott Abbott’s handwriting and whether this anecdote belongs to imagination or reality. The rest of the manuscript insists that the entire story cannot be seen as the story of an unreliable narrator, which is not the case with the second part of the book, when Žarko Radaković takes over the helm, and Abbott’s part is more of an anchor capable of ensuring the smooth sailing of this literary ship and anchoring it if necessary, in documented reality giving it an alibi. There are a lot of details and data in the text where Radaković’s biography is intertwined with insights into different thematic contexts. Perhaps the most interesting for American readers is the attempt to put the political, social and cultural changes in Yugoslavia into context. Žarko Radaković will not answer the challenge of explaining what happened in Yugoslavia in this book, but he will do so in the novel Putovati when he writes about going to the abandoned house of his ancestors. Abbott himself points to numerous differences in the origin, upbringing, experience of their ancestors and themselves, from the experience of communism, the difficulty to understand the similarities and differences in the language and identity of the people of Yugoslavia, the inability to understand the wars of the nineties and the destruction of the nineties, etc. In addition to all the facts, the thematic layer in which one penetrates into the very essence of creativity, into the essence of the emotional and spiritual connection between people and works and creators, which has no clear answers, is shown to be far more important. One of the most memorable segments is Abbott’s [in fact, Alex Caldiero’s] reading of Žarko’s untranslated books in Serbian, a language he does not understand, but believes that if he keeps reading, he will begin to understand. With this act, Abbott points out the essence of this book, entering the mystical otherworld of friendship and art at the same time, and all of this is part of a biographical collage that speaks as much about the friend as about the writer himself. The second part of Abbott’s book consists of alternately transmitted parts of the correspondence between Žarko, Alex, and himself, and excerpts from the correspondence between Goethe and Schiller. For Abbott, the epistles are a way to understand and compare the extent of the connections between the personal and the artistic, as well as to specify in terms of genre the creative dialogue present both in this book, where independently created parts joined by the same cover inevitably lead to dialogue, and to point to the more widely present practice of both authors to create in dialogue with other authors. After all, epistolary prose was also the starting point in the jointly written Book of Music by Žarko Radaković and David Albahari. The intimacy of the epistle is that place, meeting point and intersection of the documentary and the factual that starts from the event, the impression, and ends in lyrical contemplation, going beyond the starting point of the event.
Radaković will address Abbott in one place: “We, you and I, are not conceptualists.” We process experience, nothing but experience.” Should we trust the writer, and Radaković in particular?
Did living with the Conceptualists shape him as an artist? Certainly not to the end, because one of the basic starting points of his writing is a “literary ready-made” procedure in which already completed scenes, documentary fragments of time, are taken over and “hung” on the “walls of the novel” to form a collage of experiences. And in this sense, Radaković can be trusted that experience (that is, the life situation that forms experience) for him is the material from which a “prose ready-made” is created. Already in the novel Era, and then through all the later novels — Krečenje, Kafana, Putovati — he shows how this literary conceptualism arises: by taking over situations from the past that have already happened. Reconstruction of evocation is a procedure in which the event is constructed anew in the smallest details by combining the past time with the present time (Eliot’s procedure: “the present time and the past time, both are… contained in the future time”) and thereby raise both attention and the importance of everyday and imperceptible situations. Just as a painter gives a landscape a modernity and importance, just as Duchamp makes a urinal an art object, so Radaković observes and records; he bestows the significance and context of artistic prose on anything he turns his attention to as a writer. And the very beginning of this narrative process is found, Radaković reveals to us in this partially autofictional text, in an event in the distant 90s. In the moment of realization after the concert of the group Naked City, (John Zorn, saxophone and Bill Frisell, guitar) when a critical judgment emerged from the musical collage of recycled motifs of commercial music, unmasking everything sick arising from the appearance of health, he decides to change his status of himself as the reader and to accept the role of the writer to describe what the transformation from the semblance of a healthy society into a metastasis of evil. Is the questioning of the writer himself important in this uncertain memory? Was that crucial biographical moment at the same time the moment of greatest closeness with his friend Scott Abbott? All of this is part of the process of searching for a related view of the world through self-examination, which is enough incentive to create a narrative.
The “literary ready-made” is also present in the second part of the book. Radaković does not give up on other friends with whom he is in cahoots, so they are mentioned as heroes, but they also participate as authors in the part of the Book on Friendship that belongs to Žarko Radaković and is titled “We.” In the course of three chapters, Radaković develops a slightly different strategy, we could say directly complementary to Abbott’s. Starting from a pseudo-detective and adventure motive of the search, at first, he meets Abbott in an unknown city in the hope of meeting Handke, a mutual friend. From the story about the missing character of Handke, it soon turns to the story about the missing Abbott, and Radaković is completely open to all the possibilities for literary mystification and the search for an authentic experience, an experience without narration, without context, with the consistent breaking and deconstruction of the fable, like any other unity: time, action, characters. The desire to liberate the text through deconstruction was also described in the novel (published almost at the same time as the Book of Friendship) Travel: “Finally without auxiliary props,” “final storytelling without those shortening terms (like “narratives,” “suspense,” “plot,” “retardations,” “catastrophes,” “catharsis,” etc.) Quotation marks are another of the stopping points of Radaković’s prose, the hand that pulls the reader by the sleeve to constantly remind that the meaning of each word must be reexamined in order to take on a new meaning in a new context. “… I considered it my ‘duty’ to write primarily about my personal experiences of the events around me, but not as they actually happened, but as they could be… The intention is to completely escape from everything given, even from the narration itself.” Radaković puts “experience” on the pedestal of personal poetic thought; the “logic of writing” for him is “transmitting experiences into text”, i.e. balancing on the border “between life and art, between immediate and artificial experience of the world.” As in conceptual art, following Eliot’s thought – the present, past and future time are found in one single, present moment, in the moment of the event itself, Radaković does not stop searching for ways to convey this unrepeatability in the text, as do all his artistic friends present in this book. The book also contains the works of Nina Pops and Alex Caldiero as a kind of alibi for the truth of the story. And as proof of his own existence, Radaković repeats the final chapter from the novel Travels titled “Notes on a Writer and in the Book on Friendship.” Here, under the title “Accomplices (witnesses)”, it will be expanded with new characters who offer additional testimony (Danka, Monika) in addition to the written testimony of a character whose name has been changed times in two different books (Rastko/Vuk, Am/Vum). The testimony tells about the stay of Ž.R. on the Ljukovo estate and it is completely unreliable, like everything narrated by the unreliable narrator Radaković:
“And since Scott and I started, recently, on the ‘adventure’ of writing our books, … the ‘logic’ of writing as the transmission of ‘experience’ into the text became even clearer to me, the realization of writing as wandering on the border between immediate and artificial experiencing of the world, even if it was also about ‘inventing’, allegedly, ‘my own stories’, I could here, at least that’s how it seemed to me now, confirm it even more convincingly (at least to myself).”
This book is another in a series of proofs that the idea of the unrepeatability of personal experience and ways to transfer it into an artistic form can be fruitful. And that one of the possible ways to spread and develop an idea is precisely this – to express and embody it through a joint work of art.