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It Was Her World, Too—Translating Biljana Jovanović

By John K. Cox

John K. Cox’s translation of Biljana Jovanović’s “Lida, Danilo, and the Others” appears in the June 2017 issue.

For Words without Borders’s Queer Issue VIII, I translated a set of excerpts, called “Lida, Danilo, and the Others,” from the novel Dogs and Others by Biljana Jovanović. Although I think the linguistic and stylistic challenges of all three of Jovanović’s novels would make interesting reading, I’d like to focus in this brief note on the author’s importance and the subject matter of her works. I specialize in intellectual history and am fortunate to have occasion to work with many literary texts from the Balkans and Central Europe. Since 2008 I’ve been publishing translations of the works of Danilo Kiš, but about a year ago I found a reference to Biljana Jovanović and now I am in the midst of a multiyear project to translate all three of her novels. Here’s why.

Dogs and Others was written in 1980; it was the second novel by Jovanović (1953–96), who remains a largely untranslated but highly regarded Serbian feminist writer. Jovanović was a Serbian intellectual who grew up in late Yugoslavia and studied at the University of Belgrade. She was an early and active member of a number of important human rights groups in Yugoslavia, beginning in 1982. She was also an organizer and participant in major antiwar campaigns and demonstrations in 1991 and 1992, and she helped found a “flying” (underground) workshop/university in 1992.

Jovanović wrote in almost all major genres; she published poetry, three novels, four plays, and a number of nonfiction pieces, mostly connected to her time in the anti-Milošević opposition of the 1990s. She died in Belgrade at the frighteningly young age of forty-three. Widely known among intellectuals and activists for her feminist and antiwar work, she was also an innovative and courageous writer of fiction and drama. Although her literary work has not yet received its deserved institutional recognition in Serbia, this is beginning to change, with a small but growing number of scholars in Belgrade, and beyond, now taking up her work from literary and theoretical perspectives in addition to celebrating her contributions to civil society.

The novel Dogs and Others (Psi i ostali) displays a fragmentary approach to a brief period in the 1960s in the life of a family living in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. It is a rich amalgam of unvarnished bohemian life in socialist Belgrade, narrative experimentation, a sensitive but provocative depiction of family life in the shadow of old age, disability, and “madness,” and what is apparently the first extensive and detailed exploration of a sexual relationship between two women in Serbian literature. The main character, Lida (Lidija), lives in Belgrade with her troubled brother, Danilo, and their elderly and infirm grandmother, Jaglika. The siblings’ mother, Marina, lives in Italy and appears only sporadically, each time with a new lover or husband in tow. The family hires an odd man named Čeda to serve as a home health aide. Danilo does not work, uses drugs, seeks constant psychiatric care, sometimes creates huge scenes in public, is addicted to pornographic movies, has slimy pathetic friends, and is occasionally institutionalized. He kills himself toward the end of the book. Mihailo, the siblings’ father, also killed himself many years before. Lida, on the other hand, can hold a job, albeit with difficulty; she works at a factory library and has an extensive, though seldom revealed, familiarity with European literature.

Lida has many flashbacks, especially about family life, featuring vacations all over Yugoslavia, uncles she detested, memories of her mother, etc. Sometimes Lida goes to a philosophy circle (a kind of intellectuals’ book club that was popular in the cities of Yugoslavia), but more often than not she spends her time taking care of Jaglika and her brother, having affairs, going to doctors (to cure her STDs and come to terms with her depression), dreaming, daydreaming, and talking to Jaglika about the latter woman’s youth in Hungary and Montenegro. As Jaglika enters a steep physical decline, Lida is sexually assaulted by her psychiatrist; she suffers from terrible insomnia and the callousness of various members of the extended family, while she receives a series of anonymous letters, sometimes perverse and sometimes vitriolic, but always painfully obsessed with gender and sexuality. Lida meets an attractive young woman, Milena, through friends, and she falls in love with her; their affair is depicted over many chapters in the central part of the book. Milena abandons Lida unceremoniously, ironically for a man also named L., and Lida also loses her grandmother and brother in rapid succession. The novel closes with Lida trying to regain her footing in the world—feeling not only battered but also haunted by a vivid childhood recollection of her mother and grandmother abusing her for not knowing what one can dare to think and do in the real world. The end of the novel refers back to the cryptic foreword, regarding the grim and indeterminate (or is it interminable?) tasks of self-assertion and social adaptation.

In 1971, the Hungarian scholar and politician István Bibó wrote about the “disillusionment” and “hesitancy” in post-Stalinist communist states, as people realized the difficulty of achieving social justice, even in personal and family terms. One very much sees this lack of “clarity” in the world of Jovanović’s protagonists. Another very powerful woman-centered novel, Love at Last Sight, by the Croatian writer Vedrana Rudan (and recently published in a pitch-perfect translation by another Words Without Borders contributor, Ellen Elias-Bursac), depicts a woman’s desperate struggle against “Church, State, Men, Power, [and] Authority,” which turn women into the “under-est of underdogs.” This work is in some ways an appropriate parallel to Jovanović’s. These South Slavic literary voices are extremely important, inter alia, to historians of all fields, in part because the issues they raise should have implications for the topics we study from a variety of angles, from nationalism and militarism to urbanization and communist modernity.

Communism was a man’s world, including in most of the best-known literary and other narratives that it produced about itself. But overlooked and undervalued sources await us as we seek to make historical narratives more inclusive and, therefore, write better history. Jovanović was a vulnerable, extremely observant and eloquent, and challenging witness to nationalist, authoritarian, and patriarchal anachronisms. She was, as the title of a major anthology released recently on the twentieth anniversary of her death reads, a “rebel with a cause.” Her prose is both descriptive and normative in new ways, just as the written word can be either constitutive of or reflective of social conditions. Jovanović grew up as the unsolved contradictions of the reign of Josip Broz Tito and the League of Communists were emerging from the shadows of the antifascist moment and the Cold War. We owe her a huge debt of gratitude not only for her civil courage, but also for her intellectual perspectives and her bracing, rewarding writing.

Published Jul 3, 2017   Copyright 2017 John K. Cox

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