In last month’s post, Eloise Roberts talked about the challenges and perks of interdisciplinary work, bridging the gap between history and literature. In my project, I too attempt to straddle two ‘academic worlds’ – studying at two universities in London and Berlin and combining German Studies with South Slavonic Studies.
In fact, managing my own life while living in two different cities often proves more challenging than establishing intellectual links between Germany, Austria and former Yugoslavia. For centuries, the history of these cultural realms had been deeply intertwined – through the influence of the Habsburg Empire in Croatia and Bosnia, the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, or the mutual fascination which linked Yugoslav, German and Austrian intellectuals after the Second World War. In the 1990s, Yugoslavia came to function as a mirror to the new unified German state, when the violent disintegration of the federation contrasted with the building of a peaceful, politically mature and tolerant Germany (which, ironically, participated in the air strikes in Serbia and Kosovo in 1999).
My thesis is looking at this key transitional period in both Germany and Yugoslavia, and its representation in German-language literature. I am focussing on the work of the so-called ‘Ex-Yugos’ – people born in former Yugoslavia, for whom German is not their first or only language, such as Saša Stanišić, Marica Bodrožić and Alma Hadžibeganović. It is indeed extremely difficult to find one neat category which would adequately describe these authors. Are they ‘exophonic’, ‘second-language’, ‘Germanophone’ or ‘post-monoligual’? The fact that I have decided to include Peter Handke in my thesis, who was born in Austria and grew up speaking German, further complicates this methodological conundrum (on the other hand, Handke’s mother was Slovenian and therefore Slovenian is quite literally his ‘mother tongue’). In fact, in literature, as in fashion, there is no ‘One Size Fits All’ formula. What is a baggy T-Shirt for one person is a crop top for another, and the fact that certain writers share a connection to Yugoslavia does not mean that their texts are similar and easy to fit into one category.
The redeeming feature of my thesis, or so I like to believe, is the fact that I am focussing on the thematic and stylistic aspects of the texts, and not on the biographies of their authors. And – as it turns out – the texts approach the issues of language, history and belonging in a number of very different ways. Peter Handke’s controversial travelogues about his trips to Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo do not tell the reader much about the region itself but rather offer an insight into Handke’s troubled relationship with his own German/Austrian heritage. Handke’s narrator’s preoccupation with his own persona leaves out the voices of the actual victims of the wars. In contrast, Saša Stanišić’s acclaimed novel Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert is a polyphonic text, which constantly undermines the authority and integrity of the writing subject. Stanišić enters into a dialogue with other authors who wrote about Bosnia, such as Handke or Ivo Andrić, and thus challenges their omnisciently masculine narrative perspective. In turn, Stanišić’s style, filled with neologisms and often revealing the absurdity of linguistic clichés, couldn’t be more different from Bodrožić’s texts, whose literary project aims at reclaiming and re-cycling some of the most over-used German words, such as Seele, Herz, or Stern.
It is the diversity and multifaceted nature of this literature which makes my project into a mind-boggling yet fascinating journey which doesn’t just take me to London and Berlin but to Zagreb, Sarajevo, Višegrad, Belgrade… And yes – challenging your own categories is part of the fun!
For more about Iga’s research interests see: