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from the April 2019 issue

Biljana Jovanović‘s Daring “Dogs And Others”: Growing Up as a Queer Woman in Communist Yugoslavia

Reviewed by Hannah Weber

Since its original publication in 1980, this genre-defying book has gained a cult reputation that established Jovanović as an important counterculture figure in Serbia. Written in a highly experimental style, the book follows a woman’s coming of age in 1970s Belgrade, creating a fragmentary amalgam of life in socialist Belgrade, intense sexual relationships, and family conflicts in the shadow of old age.

“You have to push a dying person into talking about love,” declares the narrator of Biljana Jovanović’s Dogs and Others (Psi i ostali), recently released by Istros Books in John K. Cox’s dynamic translation. The narrator, Lidia, lives with her mentally ill brother and their elderly, infirm grandmother. Written in a highly experimental style, the book follows Lidia’s coming of age in 1970s Belgrade in something between stream of consciousness and the flat tone one might find in postwar existentialist fiction. The complicated prose, compounded by the protagonist’s combative personality, makes the novel an uncomfortable read; the translator’s endnote calls it “strong medicine.” While translation always requires a degree of compromise and flexibility, Cox performs lexical acrobatics to capture Jovanović's dark humor and double entendres. Jovanović clearly intended the bumpy ride, however, taking a unique and challenging approach to the traditional Bildungsroman, especially in regards to women’s sexuality. For all its difficulties, Dogs and Others is a vital part of the emerging canon of queer literature in post-Communist Europe.  

Jovanović was born to a journalist and a well-known Montenegrin politician in the Yugoslav parliament, spending her childhood in Belgrade among books and ideas. She studied philosophy and was an active member of several human rights groups beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, when she devoted herself to the peace movement during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Her activism encompassed all manner of causes, including environmentalism, feminism, ethnic diversity, and campaigns for artistic freedom. As a public intellectual in Belgrade, she wrote across nearly every conceivable genre—poetry, plays, letters, novels, and a considerable nonfiction output related to her work as an activist. Dogs and Others is her second and arguably most avant-garde novel. Since its original publication in 1980, it has gained a cult reputation that established Jovanović as an important counterculture figure in Serbia. She died from a brain tumor in 1996, when she was forty-three years old. What recognition she failed to receive in life has been growing since her early death—while official critics initially balked at her unorthodox and often electrifying ideas, her bravery in both civil and literary life is finally being recognized.  

Although Lidia displays a certain grasp of the tenets of philosophy—she references Schopenhauer and Dewey, among others—there is no mistaking the novel for autofiction. The book is written in a fragmentary style and is not concerned with giving its protagonist a clear or explicit storyline. It is a rich and innovative amalgam of unvarnished urban life in socialist Belgrade, intense sexual relationships, and family in the shadow of old age, disability, and “madness.” At times, one is hesitant to call it a novel at all because the plot is so frequently interrupted by childhood recollections, vitriolic letters from an anonymous writer, changes in pace and structure, and the sporadic appearance and subsequent disappearance of new characters. The rapid and disorientating pace is bound to Lidia’s internal tempo, but what this fragmentation achieves is neither fully explained to us nor entirely understood by her.

Lidia’s intimate world comprises her brother, Danilo, her lover, Milena, and her grandmother Jaglika. An absent, abusive mother makes occasional appearances, always accompanied by a new boyfriend or husband. Unlike Lidia, Danilo does not work, struggles with drug use and addiction, and often requires psychiatric care. The siblings’ father took his own life many years before the narrative begins. Danilo’s struggle with an untreated mental illness, likely the same as his father’s, becomes progressively hopeless and culminates in an important turning point.

Lidia meets Milena through friends and is utterly captivated by her. She initially brings a refreshing joie de vivre to Lidia’s otherwise unhappy life. “If I thought of someone’s neck, then it was Milena’s,” she thinks. Milena is self-assured, acutely aware of her own sex appeal, and seemingly uninterested in the opinions of others. “Milena only came over so she wouldn’t have to be alone when she talked to herself,” Lidia remarks. She also introduces several radical ideas into the text, lamenting how women go to great lengths not to insult men’s sexuality, likening male genitalia to worms, and questioning where this “compassionate relationship to worms” comes from. Their affair plays out over several central chapters before Milena leaves Lidia, echoing much of the casually cruel treatment Lidia receives from mother and grandmother. 

Lidia suffers merciless mistreatment from members of her immediate and extended family. Her mother and grandmother routinely call her a whore, “bullshit-nik,” or sometimes simply “that girl.” Furthermore, sexual abuse is also glaringly pervasive throughout the novel. Jovanović takes care to underscore its domino effect: Lidia is raped by her psychologist and her brother Danilo finds out, driving the siblings apart; Milena is assaulted by her dentist and, in turn, Milena assaults an intellectually disabled teenager, describing it as a gesture of goodwill. 

While Dogs and Others is widely hailed as the first recorded sexual relationship between two women in Serbian literature, it may also be a pioneer in its time and country in the way it depicts mental health issues and their implications for prevailing views on gender differences. Mental illness in men is often presented in literary works as a sign of covert genius, whereas in women it is usually a mark of weakness and hysteria. Jovanović challenges this idea by giving sufficient space to both Lidia’s depression and her highly rational, critical self. She offers a detailed exhumation of the violence and sexual abuse that Lidia must come to terms with in a way that highlights the whole person—strengths and shortcomings—without giving in to either cliché, the genius or the hysteric.

Lidia thinks of herself as emotionally orphaned, with a dead father and absent mother, and resents her grandmother Jaglika, but she still looks for familial warmth and approval. This is most evident in an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment between Lidia and Jaglika:

 [...] every day I’d ask that dying figure from the doorway, wrapped in her fifteen blankets—in her rocking chair with her glasses on the tip of her furrowed, likeable nose, her swollen feet in slippers with black tassels, the same thing:

"Do you love me, grandma?"

"What’s that you’re saying?" (The first thing to go is ears, and then it’s the eyes and the heart, when you’re dying.)

"I was asking . . . whether you love me?" (I was screaming; you have to push a dying person into talking about love.)

"Why’s that? Do you love me?" (This only makes it look like a dying person has a greater need for love than the one who’s asking [. . .])

The tenderness of the interaction is soon lost when Jaglika begins, feebly, to beat her granddaughter (“the immobile Jaglika lurched forward—really, like in a bad movie”) and call her derogatory names, bringing us back to a dire reality. 

Though it tangos with these topics, the novel is never all that concerned with actually dissecting sexuality or sexual politics in 1970s Belgrade, despite several overt narratorial interventions. Instead, it addresses the more universal categories of family, the psyche, and personal trauma. Dogs and Others is Jovanović’s first novel to be translated into English, and it arrives nearly forty years after the original publication. From a writer fixated on social problems, the degree of sexual assault, harassment, and sexism in the novel is too high to be ignored. Nor can its feminist voices of dissent, such as Milena, however flawed they appear. That these issues continue to have a painfully contemporary feel speaks to their deep roots and the long, ongoing excavation. The novel comes to an uncertain end as Lidia tries to find her bearings after considerable loss, still tormented by a host of family memories—some melancholy, others excruciating. Dogs and Others questions how much one generation’s trauma can be inherited by the next, while it also gestures at vastly diverse forms such trauma can take.

Read an excerpt from Biljana Jovanović's Dogs and Others in our June 2017 issue of Queer literature

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