| Diwan Special issue|
Born in 1962 in Kamenica (B&H), lives in Sarajevo (B&H)
(Kikić’s Imperial Night in the context of avant-garde and post-avant-garde prose)
It seems that the generalised literary criticism and literary historicism concept of Kikić’s narrative process based, according to traditional criticism, exclusively on poetic models of folklore romanticism, the so-called new realism, i.e. social literature, can be challenged by a detailed analysis of perhaps his best story the Imperial Night (Carska noć) and its relation to the vertical of the development of the short story in Bosnian and Bosniak literature. The traditional approach to Kikić singled out, according to aesthetic value, his collection entitled Backwoods in the Background (Provincija u pozadini) in which criticism, based on the theory of reception and Marxist thought, found a stronghold for its postulates, so that in the analysis of the reception of this work, one often gets the impression that the critic wrote more about his own ideas and methodological postulates than about the literary text, that the text was used as an argument for imposing on the practice of criticism the ideological attitude within the Ketman critical scope, and that the writer irrevocably lost the race against the critic and the ideological system.
Regardless of whether it was based on the parallels Krleža – Kikić, Kikić – Dizdarević, or on generalised relations such as Kikić and our revolution and inter-war struggle, this approach did not significantly touch upon the development of Kikić’s opus, its disjunctions and shifts on the scale from folklore romanticism to critical realism, or the lyrical phase and that final mosaic structuring of narrative cycles in which a change in viewpoint in the stories also changes the narrative method. The variability of narrative viewpoint in these cycles by Kikić does not allow them to remain strictly in the scope of social prose, as is the case with the novels Heave-ho (Ho-ruk) and Beeches (Bukve), which, it is necessary to note, do not achieve particular aesthetic value.
The writers work became on that basis a victim of the critical method which needed social verification, and Kikić as a member of the communist ideology and political orientation was a rewarding, even an ideal object for the, in essence political, subjugation of literature to the current totalitarian social practice cloaked in the humanistic slogan and disguised by the ideologem of the free individual as the peak of the hierarchy of social values. This particular reading resulted in the phrase of Krleža’s influence on Kikić being defining, even crucial, so that Kikić cannot be pulled out from under the bulk of Krleža’s work that swallows up Kikić’s opus, precisely to the extent to which the contents of that phrase were never relevantly explained. The stronghold for the thesis on Krleža’s influence can be found in the sentence scheme of Backwoods in the Background, in the thick layers of foggy ambience that cover the Posavina plain deforming all phenomena of reality, as in Krleža’s Croatian God Mars (Hrvatski bog Mars) the ambience of historical mire and earthy mud, and that phantasmagorised atmosphere of the battlefield deform all human content. The thesis about this influence can be confirmed through the derived messages of the Croatian God Mars and Backwoods in the Background. However, that is only one aspect of the problem, where both writers cleave themselves from the synchronous poetic context, so that complex relations and mutual influences of a greater number of writers are obscured leaving only those of two writers belonging to the same formational and stylistic period n which the spirit of the times dictates, as a rule, the aesthetic and poetic scope of literature. I the wake of that context, both Krleža and Kikić ”suffered influences” of one and the same sentimentality in the post-avant-garde literary situation, where the one-dimensional relation great Krleža – mediocre Kikić disappears and instead things are made complex within a synchronous plane of the European post-avant-garde situation in which both the Croatian God Mars and Backwoods in the Background are contextualised. This is what Kiš calls the dynamics and dialectics of literary phenomena listing in the Anatomy Lesson (Čas Anatomije) fifty, and later in the Warehouse (Skladište) through Marsel Švob even fifty-one writers whose influences were suffered by that genius Argentinean, Borghes. Bosnian critics are unable to see this scope in connection with Kikić’s work1, because they do not understand even the elementary basis of the museum concept of literature, nor do they view literature as a complex system of textual and inter-textual relations. This sort of criticism, or a part of it, should finally be detected for what it is, namely, a uniformisation of writers and works, in which entropy is substituted for clear wording, and the critical text exudes the boredom and laziness of a cocooned mind.
A careful analysis of Kikić’s narrative method, however, reveals quite a complex system of relations that establish his narrative work, at least in its aesthetically most significant segment, in accordance with avant-garde and post-avant-garde European prose that is based on the visualisation of expression, procedures that could in a somewhat approximated correlation be called the filterisation of narration, whereby a specific filter is introduced into each viewpoint and through this filter the immediate reality in the literary text is refracted, as in a photograph, and also on the framing, editing and mosaic structuring of the story, the story cycle or collection of stories. Just as in the story itself the principle of editing directs the arrangement of angles and their respective frames, relations between the frames and relations between the whole of the story and each individual frame and vice-versa, so on the level of the entire cycle or collection, editing determines the relations between the stories, that are no longer separate, but as a mosaic unity they make up a new semantic order within each story and also as a mosaic entity they achieve new aesthetic series.
Backwoods in the Background, using that type of formative principle, builds a mosaic of dramatic situations, confessional courses, thickly painted pictures in which the immediate realistic image is decomposed and acquires ironic, satirical and even sarcastic and grotesque deformations. The story is de-fabularised by poetic and dramatic strategies, and the ”spacious homeland” within a historical excerpt becomes a symbolic stage on which all human constituents are overwhelmed by a drama of the absurd whose semantic circle expands cyclically from the individual,
1 This approach is not taken by Midhat Begić and Enes Duraković, since they search rather for Kikić’s genotype than for the contextualisms of his work. Their readings of Kikić’s opus can, therefore, be classified as belonging to the immanently-inductive approach, because they are based on the analytical component of Kikić’s text as an autonomous world.
through the social to the metaphysical plane of existence. At his worst in places where he juxtaposes the idea of social revolutionary change to the absurd, Kikić has, like most other writers of the South Slavic linguistic region, but also those of European left-oriented literature, paid a considerable tribute to the idea of politicisation of literature. Regardless of the fact that through the terms of desire and ability2 he attempts to separate the utilitarian from the artistic plane of the text, he often juxtaposes the bare political-revolutionary slogan to the automatised absurd that transpires according to the inevitable logic of deleting all human content from reality. Or, in other words, as much as, on the one hand, his image of dehumanised reality and the absurd that roll through history and the satirically filtered and deformed Posavina plain is artistically convincing, on the other hand, Kikić is often unconvincing in his explication of the absurd, an explication that is manifestly flat, without a deeper cut of the critical scalpel into the tissue of the revolutionary idea. Here, the revolutionary idea is necessarily portrayed as sacred and the didactic-utilitarian foundation of the text dominates over its artistic basis.
The visualisation and chromotisation, as well as the sonority of Kikić’s prose expression are inseparable, as prose methods, from the experiences and reaches of avant-garde prose, the discovery of film, Eisenstein’s definition of editing, whereby the semantics of the text are not merely reduced to the poetic, factual or other functions of language, but the narration is also subjected to the precepts of the language of film. In that dimension of the organisation of the story, and even the entire cycle, the filmic quality of Kikić’s prose method can be seen, in which frames are placed in a series making up individual but also collective semantic entities. Frames arranged one following another, regardless of whether they portray the total, long or close-up shot, mutually exchange meanings, condition one another, and in that sense the long shot of the soles hitting the muddy cobbled road in the circus celebration of the imperial birthday are inseparable from the total shot which portrays the dehumanised de-individualised procession that shouts homage to the ”royal excellency” by automatism and by order. That circus, from which
2 Midhat Begić: Kikić’s Goodness of Being, introduction in: Hasan Kikić: Backwoods in the Background, Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1991.
all human content has been swept, that passionate entertainment and celebration of the imperial birthday that is revealed in the symbolical framework of the Imperial Night as the key element of the historical wasteland and social deceit, namely, those masses infected by madness within a carnival ambience that rolls through ”our town” and ”spacious homeland” proves to be a dominant, a key element for defining the absurd as a historical constant. In the same way that the masses are infectiously submerged into the absurd, all the participants of the procession are submerged into the masses, de-individualised and dehumanised, and the story proceeds in a quick shifting of frames in the symbolical shot of those masses trudging through the muddy cobbled streets of ”our town”.
Actually, the Imperial Night is framed in a form of a filmed report of the king’s name-day in ”our town”, where the abstention from naming the town implies every town, all ”our” towns, and Kikić underlines that form, not without reason, in the story titles Report on Copper (Izvještaj o bakru) and Report on Urlapčad3 (Izvještaj o urlapčadima) thereby ironising the form and content of a bureaucratic report as the basic form for the construction of a false image of themselves by the authorities, on which the structure of power and violence of the authorities over the individual is based. The duality of ironic perspective, within which both the essence of authority and its manifestations are considered simultaneously, is completely novel in the context of the Bosnian story as a whole. This aspect will considerably later be adopted by Derviš Sušić, and after him by stories based on postmodern poetics at the end of this century.
Kikić’s story thus appears as doubly revealing. On the one hand, in the implicit layer of poetics, in the plane of innovation of method and prose techniques, it reveals an anachronistic situation in Bosnian prose that rests on the epic narrative with the ritualisation of the story and story-telling4, towards which he has an indubitably polemical attitude. On the other hand, Kikić’s story reveals the disguise of the world into an ideological-political slogan based on a structure of lies and a process of dehumanisation. That is why Kikić’s story cycle Backwoods in the Background in the vertical of urlapčad: children conceived during leaves of absence from the army; derived from urlap meaning a leave of absence from the army 4 For contents of the concept and its theoretical examination and definition see: Zdenko Lešić:
Story-telling Bosnia I and II, Svjetlost – Literary Institute, Sarajevo, 1991.
The development of Bosnian and Bosniak literature marks a complete break from the tradition of stories based on epic narratives and a dominant story-line series in which the mimesis was the foundation for the prose method, regardless of whether the story was folklore-romantic or realist, that is neorealist. Kikić’s break with tradition will prove effective only in our age, when prose discovers irony and humour, abandoning the code of excess seriousness and the sanctifying of narration that tells only sacred, super-human truths. At the same time, Backwoods in the Background also signifies a break with the tradition of a lyrical story based on the formative concordance with the tone and sensibility of a sevdalinkas5 and ballads, that had lyricised Bosniak and Bosnian stories enabling their lyrical-symbolic effectuation.
It is a paradox, but the same Kikić that critics claimed only followed Krleža’s lead (although in the prose works of By the Smokehouses (Kraj Pušnica) our writer, actually, represented among other things that folklore-romantic spirit that Krleža would later in the case of Šantić attack polemically), in this type of reading reveals himself to be a story-writer of indubitable innovation in his native context, but also in the context of the South Slavic story. The method of editing, visualisation, symbolisation and the parabolic prose expression, where the story is polemically juxtaposed to the political and social plane of reality, indubitably make up the total of Kikić’s innovative principles of the organisation of the story and the story cycle. His innovations signify a break with the dominant ritual storytelling in which the bare immediate life provides finished story-lines, without a more significant construction of the story, which are the basis for story-telling that aspires towards moral-didactic and therapeutic effects, but they also signify a break with the lyricisation of story-telling which had dominated the Bosnian prose situation since Ćorović and later through Humo.
Kikić’s strategy of poeticisation of the story is significantly innovative, in the sense that it betrays his native prose situation and opens up to the experiences of the avant-garde and post-avant-garde prose method. Its basis is infantilised confession, where the visual aspect of perception dominates in the infantilisation of expression. The impressionistic description of the traditional story is substituted by the expressive function of confession which portrays sensations, a series of shocking situations viewed by an eye-witness, but also a witness that remembers them. In that expressiveness, the stress is put on the experiential nature of the image, and not on the development of events in time. In fact, these stories are somewhat dramatically static, since events are removed from life, and life stirs and trudges in the spacious stagnation. Instead of events, only their contours exist in the scope of stopped time while waiting Godot-like for the dissolution of the absurd. Of course, this is only true of stories in which Kikić does not directly and through slogans evoke the revolutionary transformation of social horrors, but, like in the Imperial Night, only hints at it through voices from the margin, from the corners of the stage of the absurd, in the form of the necessity of a certain evolutionary flow of life that has become stifled, dried up like a river, but that is also about to become a torrent.
However, in the Imperial Night, the infantilisation of the narrative perspective, within which the writer in the present time recreates a child’s experience of the background of war, enables processes of estrangement. Seen through the eyes of a child, the celebration of the king’s name-day seems like pointless trudging of the mob through the streets of ”our town”, where the staging of that circus act becomes, in the experience of a child, overblown, and in the quick change of frames, in the dynamic mixture of angles from which the automatised images are portrayed, the structure of lies is revealed, in which the dehumanised participants of the circus have been united into a senseless whole. That is why the Imperial Night denominates nothing, it has no characters apart from those, as Mak Dizdar noted in reference to Backwoods in the Background, swelling masses reduced to wooden soles that disharmoniously beat against the muddy cobbled streets. In truth, the real heroes of this story are those soles, because they reflect the rarefaction of man within the dark and foggy environment in which all colours become infectious strikes into the psyche and the reader, who cannot only read the story, but must also see it due to its visual effectuation.
Imperial Night is, therefore, a story that substitutes the story-line series with a filmic-image series, the narration with a strategy of mosaic editing of frames into a chain in which the stench of reality dominates; it substitutes the pathetic nature of tradition with ironic-humorous and satir-ic-grotesque angles, and the cathartic effect, a stronghold for the traditional and mainly moral-didactic story, with the effects of shock and stress over images in whose centre is a monster that realises the horror and absurd, where in ”the grey and muddy stupor, people squeeze by like elongated stains”. Kikić also underlines this transformation from the story-line oriented to the expressive-narrative and confessional-symbolic, and even the ironic and satiric-filmic series, in the introduction to the sotry: ”- and that time in that K. und k. occupied fasting Bosnia and B-H rainy night it looked like this”. In contrast with the earlier, traditional Bosnian story that is based on the aspect of event and not on that of experience, so that in this type of text intervention it insists on the expression that it was like that this time, which means that the story aims to truthfully render an even from life, Kikić in Imperial Night introduces a filter for events (and nothing actually happens apart from the circus-like trudging of the absurd), which analyses both ironically and satirically the absurd and searches for the appearance (experience) of events and not their causal series from the beginning to the end like in a traditional story. That is why Imperial Night is a sort of internalised exterior, an internalised text, because what is seen in the details of a multitude of tropes is visualised through a series of focus points that increase the semantics of a detail to the outer limit of what it can mean, but it is also visualised through a series of dynamic angles in which each has its own filter for the transformation of the exterior into the artistic, textual reality. In this process a fragment of (non)eventfulness is viewed from an angle, and its appearance is transformed through a filter so that a flag, for example, becomes a limp slimy rag sticking to the back of the head, houses one-storey, two-storey, three-storey are stone angular wet rocks with haunted rectangular eyes, gas lamps resemble cried-out eyes, car head-lights are watery eyes that appear spectrally behind corners and bounce on uneven worn streets.
In that sense, Kikić develops and entire strategy of comparisons and comparative plans, comparative mirrors, where the method of estrangement is dominant, and the visual accuracy of the comparisons is converted into its semantic-symbolic infallibility. This entire chaotic series of dense, trope images is framed by the ironic remark: ”So, that night the town lived as usual, perhaps it breathed differently, but everything else was the same as always”. That life as usual, as always, is nothing but a series of pointless images in which there are no people, but only a formless, dehumanised mass in the trudging circus, and ghost-like objects that, dementedly threatening, frame the complete absence of any form of authentic life. Life as usual, as always has been reduced to the pelting of green rainwater in drainpipes that washed the lichens on the roofs and washed away the white limestone in jets, or, perhaps, to the image of the fog, thick like dough in which droplets needled, sticking like grainy light-grey bulbs to the face and shoulders. And in that sick, fragmented environment from which every form of authentic life had disappeared, people are reduced to their mere functionalisations, small blue raincoats that drool, curse each other’s father and mother, beat each other with cans and shout senseless slogans in the trudging masses beneath the torches that stink and smoke blue, waiting to shout their LONG LIVE and GLORY, after a screeching voice tells them who they mean.
Imperial Night develops like a prose text in which each fragment of immediate reality in the ironic transformative game acquires a strong, poetic impressiveness, extraordinary poetic impact that is based on the principle of graveyard, avant-garde poetry, whereby Kikić’s imagery often builds associative bridges towards Trakle’s and Celan’s poetic fragments. This constant transference of things through estrangement and de-automa-tisation of perception from one context into another is nothing but an aesthetic game of removing masks from the masked world in which the ideo-logical-political slogan in all its bleakness of meaning and the pointlessness of the staging game of the great maestro, the screeching voice that says who the masses celebrate, has in reality annulled all human content.
Through the narrative strategy of estrangement and comparison the traditional neutral narrator is individualised, in the way expounded by Kiš who claims that as soon as a writer uses a comparison, his voice in the text is individualised. The individualisation of the narrator’s voice in Imperial Night is not only present on the level of poeticisation of expression, or in the confession from two points in time, the childhood that is evoked through memories of the background of war from the present, and the story is told as a document of the recent past and dedicated to the generation of 1904 and 1905, but it is also present on the level of the individual comment that serves as a compositional framework for the story. The individualisation of the narrator’s voice is stressed in the final paragraphs of the story as a form of possible solution to the absurd through dialogue between comrades, and here the high aesthetic level of Imperial Night drops, coming closer to the utilitarianism aspect of the text through the idea of revolutionary transformation of society: ”Comrade, we are still not here that which is called might and we have no power, that glorious attribute of theirs, but the faith is here, comrade!” But, that faith will use, we know this from experience, the same means that the totalitarian apparatus against which it had risen used, thus confirming that totalitarianism and a structure of lies are the basic characteristic of any form of authority. On the other formative end, the writer’s voice is individualised in the horizon of the ironic framework: ”and then across our B-H backwoods, on those same trees from which our fathers and the fathers and grandfathers of our fathers once hanged, our fathers called those same our fathers to celebrate with patriotic excitement and give their respect and historical love and historical loyalty and faithfulness and constancy”. The domination of the bureau-cratic-patriotic phrase, camouflaged by general points, is a universal characteristic of every authority, and this is precisely why all particularity has disappeared from it, so it is a type of metonymy of every authority , where the ironic turnabout rests on the difference between the fathers that are called and the fathers that call. Both, as social functionalisations, are constants of history symbolically foreshadowed in the introductory comment to the story: ”There are pasts sorrowful and joyous, happy and sad, shameful and shameless, there are lives and deaths, there are presents and tomorrows and over all that shined and still shines the warm cake of the sun and swims like an empty pan at the bottom of past and present waters, people have been born and have died and were called fathers and grandfathers and have told invented stories and tales”.
These pasts that exist as invented stories and tales, while Kikić entwines into this attribution a polemically ironic attitude about the epic mental structure that dominates the South Slavic literary practice and sees the past as a space of heroism and the glory of grandfathers and ancestors, are, actually, phosphoresced by gnawed skeletons as a dominant mark of historical horror. With this, the absurd that has engulfed everything now stretches also over the image of the past, semantically framing all of human existence with all of its possibilities and creative potentials. A confession about childhood thus becomes a narrative comment about history as a refrain flow of evil and lies, where social functionalisation is complemented by biological functionalisation within the loss of all human individuality, of all forms of individuality. For, in the trudging circle, not only that celebrating the king’s birthday, but that of history in general, of history as an experience and premonition of principles and energies that are above time, people are reduced to the level where they do not have names or individual identities or historical effects, but achieve identification only through the trudging masses and bare biological reproduction in the series of grandfathers and grandfathers, fathers and fathers, sons and sons. These pairs establish semantic pairs of the oppressor and the oppressed, the torturer and the tortured, the executioner and the victim, the screeching voice that stages the circus and the masses of raincoats within that circus showing their respect and historical love and historical loyalty and faithfulness and constancy.
The innovative properties of Kikić’s prose method from Backwoods in the Background will disappear momentarily in the Bosnian prose of social aspectualisation of story-lines, only to resurface in the prose of palimpsest and Alexandrian formative principles and the so-called realistic prose. Even though it does not draw directly, but indirectly through the achievements of the European avant-garde and post-avant-garde story, the prose of the Bosnian, or rather the South Slavic linguistic area, will synthesise the innovative properties of Kikić’s prose method, if we read literature as a complex system of textual relations. In that perspective, Kikić is a writer, most prominently in Imperial Night, who breaks away from tradition, a prose writer who fruitfully completes the expressionistic examination of the prose method, but also a writer who, on the level of his entire opus, fulfils all the formative principles of the inter-war Bosnian story, both in the folklore romantic, the realistic, the avant-garde social, and the neorealistic aspect. Seen in that light, his work is a constant process of innovation and search for a text model that will unite and reconcile within itself the demands for the aesthetic dominant of prose and the requirements for its engagement and utilitarian aspects. Kikić managed to achieve that goal, one of the hardest an artist sets for himself. However, in the analysis of the reception of his works in our criticism, it often seems that it was the criticism itself that dissolved Kikić’s achievements in order to find arguments for the theoretical justification of outer-literary, utilitarian demands that will be in accordance with the totalitarian ideological matrix and social practice. Nevertheless, the concept, based on a series of examples from literary history, that the text almost always manages to defy outer-textual manipulation convinces us that the possibilities for readings of Kikić’s works in their entirety have not yet been exhausted. In literature as a system of textual and intertextual relations, the relation Kikić’s Backwoods in the Background – the context of the avant-garde and post-avant-garde story is only one of the possible readings of this poetically polyvalent work.
Translated by Ulvija Tanović
Diwan 2002. Sva prava zadržana.
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