| Diwan Special issue|

Nedžad Ibrahimović

Born in 1958 in Tuzla (B&H), lives in Tuzla (B&H).

EXAMINATIONS OF EMPTY SIGNIFIERS

(Cultural Tropes in the Novel ”Sun over the Right Shoulder”)

”Are we there already. Or are we already there where we cease to be.” (Alija Isaković1) ”Radioactivity – the property of some elements to transform spontaneously into others while emitting invisible particles and beams of great energy” (Alija Isaković2) ”That is why it seems to us that Isaković’s diverse literary opus is some kind of continuous and passionately inscribed travelogue…” (Enes Duraković3)

The Protean Travelogue Form

I believe that the novels of Alija Isaković, Sun over the Right Shoulder (Sunce o desno rame) (19634) and The Revolt of Matter (Pobuna Materije) (19855) have not been adequately read (and interpreted) in Bosnian literary histography. While the former novel was not interpreted (I know of no relevant text about it6), I believe that the latter was symptomatically misread. For example, in a synthetic text Ivan Lovrenović writes that the first novel is characterised by a particular ”transparent simplicity”7. Apart from that, he will also conclude that ”the spiritual world of Isaković’s literary work is marked by a high degree of

1 Alija Isaković, Once, Prva književna komuna, Mostar 1987, p. 40. 2 Sun over the Right Shoulder, Contemporary Literature of the Peoples and Nationalities of B-H in 50 Volumes, Svjetlost, Sarajevo, p. 224. 3 E. Duraković in: Bosniak Literature in Literary Criticism, Volume IV, Alef, Sarajevo 1998, p.

571. 4 First published by Matica Srpska, N. Sad, 1963. 5 First published by Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1985. 6 At the time of writing of this text, the reviews of Ivan Šop (”Književne novine”, Belgrade, 26.

12. 1963.) and Vuk Krnjević (”Odjek”, XVII/1964, 7, 9) were not available to me. 7 I. Lovrenović in: Bosniak Literature in Literary Criticism, Volume IV, p. 568.

coherence”. Enes Duraković, on the other hand, diagnoses precisely that ”Isaković’s diverse literary opus is some kind of continuous and passionately inscribed travelogue”8. Further on in the same text he will point out how ”Isaković’s heroes live in a deserted world of existence, in a world without God, which is why in his prose works everything is shifted into the absurd tendency of characters to sum up the reason for their own life at least in a single moment”9 Writing about Isaković’s travelogue, Tvrtko Kulenović will significantly notice that ”the absolutely fantastic literary details are those (…) in which an existential state is combined with a spiritual, a metaphysical longing and pain, manifested by the fact that everything is elsewhere and that everything is only once”10. Critics do not fail to mention the explicit ideologicity of Isaković’s novellas, while they overlook its implicitness in his novels. Apart from the fact that the metamorphosis and transfer of ideologems throughout Isaković’s opus has not been evidenced, the fact that his novels occur outside of themselves has also been overlooked.

I believe that in view of his entire literary accomplishment and the place that he may hold in the (newly) outlined history of Bosnian literature, Isaković certainly deserves a more careful reading (and interpretation).

The Context of Alice’s Looking Glass

I think that the anthologies of the Alef11publishing house have most probably completed a phase of literary development in B-H (and especially pertaining to Bosniaks) and have in their critical-historical volumes (as for example in the Bosnian Literature in Literary Criticism) summed up and concluded the global literary-scientific paradigm of Bosnian literary modernism. Today, both new and different readings (rereadings) of Bosnian (and Bosniak) literature are necessary. Above all, these readings should relativise and relationalise the structure of the above-mentioned Bosnian historical literary paradigm ossified by acad

8 E. Duraković in: Bosniak Literature in Literary Criticism, Volume IV, p. 571. 9 E. Duraković, ibid. p. 572. 10 T. Kulenović in: Bosniak Literature in Literary Criticism, Volume IV, p. 573. 11 Editor: Dr. Enes Karić

emism and bring us out of understanding a text as a fortress towards contextual readings that will, above all, abandon the modernist sceptre of a literary guard and lead us into the hermeneutics of (con)text (as) culture. In my reading of Isaković’s novels, I will, therefore, address cultural phenomena whose domicile area has recently become that of cultural studies: models of class representation, the issues of different emanations of power, the marginalisation of social groups, cultural figures and stereotypes, colonial centrisms, et. al. One of the key questions is that of the way in which cultures (are) re/produce(d). All of these tropes/places of cultural analysis are, by the nature of things, perforated by recent social ideologies (Ideology). Although explicit value judgements are not the aim of cultural readings, it should be noted that their aims are mainly inherent to their hereditary left-wing political beginnings, regardless of the extent to which individual theoreticians negate this12. Unfortunately, with their multi-disciplinary analytic methods, syncretic and comparative cross-sections and analyses, they remain ”inapplicable” within the conservative studies and institutions of if (our) literary-historical academism.

Cultural studies presuppose a living author/writer13 although, in their analytic method, they treat him in a way similar to postmodernist literary theories. The difference is to be found on the second ontological level. While postmodernism sees the author as an inter-textual product, equal with all the others (some sort of zombie-persona), cultural studies see him as both more vigorous and more real, but still as a proletarian subject-object entwined up to his neck in concrete stratifications (wider than the text) of the cultural text (he is mainly freed from the ownership of means of production). Such an authorial position also takes away the autonomy of the narrator (the indirect communicational system) who was, in classical literary theory, mainly linked to the phenomena of internal literary context.

12 Even though he ”entered cultural studies from the New Left” (p. 1900), Stuart Hall says that ”the encounter between British cultural studies and Marxism has first to be understood as the engagement with a problem – not a theory, noth even a problematic,” Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies in: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, p. 1901.

13 See: E. Baruh Vahtel, The Creation of a Nation, the Destruction of a Nation. Literature and Cultural Policy in Yugoslavia; Stubovi Kulture, Beograd 2001.

In any case, in cultural analyses, the context becomes the central figure on the other side of the modernist looking glass. Instead of the text within a context, I will, therefore, be more interested in the context within the text of Isaković’s novels. In the (opposite, or upright?) postmodern looking glass, the contextual room cloaks Alice’s character.

Travelogues from Deserted Regions

”’Rich people, how do you like us, I mean the whole crew?’ He waited for the answer, in suspense. Boris jokes: ’Transcendentally!’” (Sun over the Right Shoulder14) ”I have myself in another place, too” (Ibid.15)

Isaković’s letter in the novel Sun over the Right Shoulder has rhizomic characteristics (U. Eco16). You can enter the text at any place and also exit at any other place without foregoing any of its significant meanings. Structured in a non-topical way (Lotman), and occuring on journeys through Serbian neverlands in the tri-border region between Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia, the novel leaves you with the belief that, just like you can leave it, it can also (rhizomically) leave you at any moment. It is simply too difficult to predict the place and manner in which it will end. The final ”epilogue” (”Two Years Have Passed”, p. 220) taken from the romance novel provides the reader with information about ”what happened later”. That later comes after nothing. Apart from the wandering of a uranium researcher (the prospector), some regional descriptions and short-lived youthful adventures in love (that Isaković’s characters fall into headfirst as if they were running away from some

14 Sun Over the Right Shoulder, Contemporary Literature of Peoples and Nationalities of B-H in 50

Volumes, Svjetlost, Sarajevo, p. 28. 15 Ibid. p. 219. 16 According to Umberto Eco, the following are ”aspects of analogy between the rhizome and the

encyclopaedia: a) every point is connected with every other point, b) it can be discontinued at

any point and resumed at any other, c) anti-genealogical, d) there is no boundary between the out

side and the inside, e) it is under constant alteration, f) it branches out in all directions, g) nobody

can globally describe it, h) everyone is placed within it and i) it sees only the closest junctions,

i.e. it walks in place in its blindness using hypotheses,” V. Biti, Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory, Matica Hrvatska, Zagreb 1997, p. 346.

thing in terror), there is little else in the novel. In that way the dynamics of content (travelling, travelling…) are finally seen as a strong structural hibernation. On the other hand, the minute landscape descriptions and character croquis done to perfection make up an atmosphere of internal uncertainty using a similar principle to the one of tension building in a suspense-film. Reading the novel, you get a strong impression that something will soon, somewhere happen to someone. On the one hand, you (almost) cannot believe that descriptive immobility, while on the other, you cannot resist the impression that it is not all in vain, that is, that important things (meanings) are definitely occurring somewhere else. That feeling does not leave you until the very end of the novel, until the death of Boris Đaniš, the character who holds all of the narrator’s/author’s sympathies throughout the novel17. His death (in the Burmese jungle near the river Kwai which was mythical to him) necessarily imposes the conclusion that all the wandering and searching for uranium was unnecessary and pointless. Also the above-mentioned speed of content (movement, movement…) and stasis of structure (description, description…), when they are confronted by the hero’s death, bring about the realisation that life is (has evidently been) an illusion and that the entire story is just a travelogue18 from the deserted regions of a generation of young people that have measured the radiation of the absurd while looking for the element of Uranium.

It is well-known that the euphoria of wandering is most often provoked by the ordeal of stopped time. A frequent metaphor that precisely articulated the particular literary phenomenon of stopped time in Yugoslav literature and society of the 60s was the realised metaphor of the stopped train. (E.g. Mirko Kovač: The Execution Site, 1962.) In a story that functions like a stopped train, the characters have neither past nor future (”Geologists, like soldiers, have no clear concept of tomor

17 The same character appears in Isaković’s later texts (e.g. the collection of stories That Man) 18 The travelogue appears in the novel as a parasitic supplement. The genre constituents of a real

travelogue are mimicked by description of the destiny of travelling. The spiritus agens of the

genre, in this case, is the search, while, I believe, the end goal and the place where the circle of

internal genealogical (and phenomenological) mechanisms closes is settlement in the homeland.

(This can have two meanings: 1- either the travelogue is about the adoption of the other through

its treatment or 2- it is about the acceptance of the internal other as he is.)

row.”19), while the thin narrative line is developed/put in motion only by the literal (putting in) motion of the vehicle. In contrast with Kovač’s realised metaphor that develops obvious and quite (excess-prone20 and) pessimistic images of the Yugoslav community, Isaković’s dynamic heroes are euphoric like children who have been left alone shortly by their parents to play in peace. They perceive the supposition that the parents may return at any moment as a threat hanging over their heads and increasing the eros of their game21. Although always in the same Serbian regions that are vertically expanded through minute descriptions of details (so it seems that they are always new and different), their ramblings and journeys, on the level of meaning, become/remain movements in place.

The authority whose instructions and orders they follow without objection is an unnamed someone from an institution of the (federal geological) institute, so that the prospectors are, in essence, deprived of both the source, but also the purpose and objective of the search. Forced to search for something that could be everywhere and nowhere, and that can never be completely discovered/caught/reached, they follow the clues of the initial ”hoax”. We can conclude that, practically, the entire novel is built on the measurement of that essential emptiness: ”You never know what this damned uranium is thinking,” Boris says at one point22. However, if radiation is the energy of their search, where is, or what is, if we continue to unravel the tropes, the uranium that gives them dynamics while they search for it?

The novel Sun over the Right Shoulder was written at the time of European late-modernist quests for essences (e.g. French existentialism). Isaković’s two novels strive to question (measure) the ontological stability of objects such as Nature (Matter), Culture (Science), that is, Uranium. What catches the eye in all these examinations is the apparent and deliberate shunning of transparent ideologems so that their loud non

19 Sun over the Right Shoulder, p. 169. 20 Kovač’s novel received negative reactions from the cultural commissars of the time. 21 As children we used to play a game whose object was to find a group of hidden boys and girls

by following arrows-roadsigns drawn on walls, the ground, trees et. al. Of course, the allure of

the game was not so much in finding the hidden group but in finding the hidden signs. 22 Ibid. p. 153.

ideological nature begins to function like a smoke screen of a hidden ideology. 23 But, let us return to uranium. Uranium is the basic figure. Since it always evades the characters, at the end it becomes that ”greatest something (that has forever) passed”24 them by. In a different reading, it is the metaphor of ultimate acceptance, some kind of unwritten antiepilogue of the novel. Aside from that, if we remove the smoke screen of non-ideol-ogy, it appears as the untouchable and forever evasive object of desire. It is the epicentre and the empty signifier around which everything happens. It is, in essence, the frame for the picture of the ”non-conflicting” Yugoslav society. If we list the different variants of its possible meanings, we will arrive at the series:

I. Uranium = Desire (Eros)

II. Uranium = Ideology

III. Uranium = God

If we perform a trial commutation and exchange the set (as) opposite signs Uranium – characters (prospectors) in order to see whether and how this will change the structure of the novel’s context, we will arrive at the following opposite-complementary pairs:

I. Uranium = Desire (Eros); characters = Inhibition (Thanatos)

II. Uranium = Yugoslav Ideology; prospectors = characters in search of Meaning III. Uranium = God; characters = his followers

We will notice that the structural context is not changed by any commutation. The structures continues to pulsate and the novel and its narrative mechanisms continue to function in the same way. That which is invariable in the novel is obviously also primary. But what is that?

After poststructuralism dehierarchised the units within oppositional binary pairs that were the basis, first on linguistic levels and later on

23 The other loud absence is certainly the absence of historicity. Sun over the Right Shoulder is a

disguised new-historical novel precisely because it strives to escape history so loudly and persist

ently. 24 Ibid. p. 222.

general levels of culture, for the modernist cultural system, it has become apparent that the currents flowing between binary oppositional units, instead of being unilateral, are actually alternating. Apart from that, the trace that one unit leaves on another becomes its constituent part. If we reread Sun over the Right Shoulder with this knowledge we will encounter the (above) values and meanings that shed a new, different light on the novel. Since it is evident that the relationship between binary elements of this novelistic structure is continually (invariably) ”smeared” by mutual influences, and that the prospectors, whatever they might be doing, ”shine” covered with Uranium powder (whatever that Uranium stands for), while traces of the seekers of Uranium (whatever they may actually be seeking) are inscribed on it, we can conclude that this novel by Isaković is the first poststructural (and postmodern) novel in Bosnian (and Yugoslav) literature.

Made up of mild and nostalgic tones, narratively levelled in a way that nothing in it escapes the continuity of desire, it draws our attention by a description of an icy tranquillity in a society where time stands still.

That was all that was left to realise.

Translated by Ulvija Tanović

 

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