PART ONE: Beginnings
PART TWO: Is There Such a Thing as a Universal Ethics
PART FIVE: My Borges


Are monkeys really our ancestors? My answer would be to ask what's so terrible about monkeys anyway? Some people have fathers a hundred times more unpleasant than the average chimpanzee.
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(Blog Jasmin's Heart, october 7, 2008)

I'd also like to repeat what I said before about the malign influence religious organizations have on people. Their institutions, which are effectively political structures, are used to instill an irrational fear in uneducated individuals lacking self-confidence and willing to believe whatever they're told. The nationalist political parties in Bosnia are simply reaping the harvest of the anxiety and paranoia that has created. Even many of the Western nations who pride themselves on their secular status have still not completely severed this regrettable link between government and religion.

Don't you find it rather sad that here we are in 2008 still talking about the separation of religion and state?

The fact that it is impossible to open up any form of dialogue on the subject here is a real problem. We're not able to debate ideas considered sacred from an Islamic point of view because any sort of robust criticism risks provoking unnecessary conflict. The critic is liable to be labeled an Islamophobe or a fascist or an irreverent cynic. But without this kind of discourse we are never going to be able to achieve a free society that will allow people to get rid of the irrational fear that religious ideology draws on.

There is something I want to say here that I hope isn't going to sound too simplistic. Bosnia is a microcosm where the three principal monotheistic religions meet and mingle. Perhaps that holds out some promise for the future, if we can ever re-establish normal relations here, relations based on solidarity, rather than the way they are at present. It's that very diversity that might even prove useful in today’s highly polarized world. Put to different use and exercising discretion, Bosnia's special attributes could even work to our advantage.

Sadly as a country on the brink of disintegration Bosnia doesn't have much working in its favour. The threat of falling apart is an ever-present reality. We face this two-fold challenge. Firstly the burden of a collective experience of war that is both fear-inspiring and oppressive. The trauma that people have experienced, which is often deeply suppressed, prevents them confronting and overcoming their personal, family and collective nightmares. And secondly there is the incredible, irksome injustice initially imposed above all by the unscrupulous chicanery of mainly Western diplomats. Bosnia was divided in two unequal parts and Republika Srpska brought into existence as an entity created out of slaughter, blood-lust, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The progenitors of Republika Srpska were the ruthless and bloodthirsty partnership of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić.

Their political and military deeds were untouched by the spirit of the New Testament or respect for the Commandments that Orthodox Christianity supposedly observes. Even so the majority of Serbs in Bosnia still hail these monsters as heroes. Republika Srpska, the partnership's officially approved creation, still hopes eventually to be able to secede from Bosnia and become an integral part of Serbia. That prospect is a constant source of dissatisfaction for me.

In spite of this pretty gloomy picture we shouldn't abandon hope that one day our current crop of third-rate politicians in Bosnia will be replaced by new people with no history but a special capacity to find new solutions and bring about change for the better. This may sound naive but perhaps one day we really will have our own home-grown Martin Luther King or Patrice Lumumba who will stand up for “the rest of us”, those of us who choose not to define themselves according to religion or ethnicity, and will find a way to set us free from the ethnic and religious structures that enslave us.

History suggests that unexpected developments of this kind are not particularly rare. Nor are they frequent, but innovative politicians capable of rescuing a society from the mess in which it is mired have a habit of emerging. Not messiahs, just practical but visionary individuals who have absorbed the legacy of the past and understand how to extract a solution from it. What makes these people special is the unique combination of political conviction and fearlessness. Bosnian society is extremely complex, so we need individuals with a particular capacity for political innovation.

By all means let Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats all have their own means of parading their membership of their particular ethnic community, and let them all have special access to the structures of government on the basis of nationality. But I fail to understand why it should be so difficult to create a fourth way, for people who identify themselves by their civic status, as citizens, registering as “other”, not as Croats or Serbs or Bosniaks, choosing not to identify themselves with a label of nationality. This section of Bosnian society should be allowed to have its say in the business of government.

We have looked at the problems of Bosnian society. But what about Bosnian literature? What sort of works do you like reading in our local languages (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian and Montenegrin) - which some might refer to as a single language?

Whoops (laughter), this is a very hard question. I never read books just because they're from a particular country.

Yes, but I'm sure you're familiar with the literary output of the people around us.

I keep in touch but I don't think I'm any better acquainted with their literature than I am with, say, American literature, which I am not particularly familiar with, or French literature, for that matter. I don't feel myself at home in the literature of any specific country. Veličković, Jergović, Šehić, Arsenijević, Vešović, Edo Popović are just a few of the names that first spring to mind. I am usually able to derive some sort of melancholic pleasure from their books, even Veličković’s first novel “Konačari”, which is a humorous account of life in Sarajevo during the siege. You can sense an unspoken urgency in the works of these authors, a need to communicate something imperative, uncontrollable, more than just the simple desire to be a writer.

What specifically is there to say about the literary scene in Bosnia and Herzegovina? I think that it takes enormous strength of mind to break the mould and come up with something new. In this country everything conspires to hold you back.

It is very hard to pierce through the miasma of cultural cliches and find the energy to create something fresh and original. And the war, useful as it may be as a source of narrative material, can also interfere with the way the writer thinks. I am referring to the attitude exemplified in statements like “I was in the war so I know all there is to know.” I don't believe that an experience of war, however significant, entitles you to make superficial pronouncements and assume you have the ability to tackle highly complex issues that require considerable study and effort to understand. The experience of war is a priceless, unique experience but it is not the key that opens every door. War can be a stimulus to literary creativity but it can also lead the writer astray. It can create a sort of egotism of victimhood. The expression "the vanity of victimhood" has been used in relation to the Holocaust. When you carry with you the burden of an apocalyptic experience, you can sometimes be deceived by your awareness of that exceptional experience. You begin by believing you have the ability to analyse the essence of any topic. But that's not quite how things work, it's a cognitive trap.

The endless falsification of our recent history means no prospect of any end to writing about the war - to the despair of those readers who open a book in the shop and scream “Another book about the war?” I am referring to the fabrications concocted by Western diplomats, lawyers, journalists, lobbyists and the likes of (Peter) Handke and (Eduard) Limonov. The task of disposing of the constant stream of rubbish produced by these people is a never-ending one.

Writing, and writing prose above all, means more than simply transcribing the personal experience of life gained from bending your knee, for example, or gritting your teeth, or punching the wall as you go through the breakdown of a relationship or a marriage. Writing prose is also a process of transcribing the writer's experience of reading and intellectual activity. It implies studying, reading books, engaging in conversation with other people inhabiting the world of books, philosophy, sociology, literature, people who are the source of a different form of spiritual nourishment than can be got from passing time in the company of “ordinary” people.

No matter how domestic or location-specific the subject of a work may be, its narrative must unfold in a way that allows us to discern the sound of a voice that reminds us of our common humanity. The same voice that we can sometimes detect in a melody or a phrase, a few seconds of remix - in the interwoven pattern of music sampled from every continent.

World literature means more than just a quote from a foreign writer or movie director or a reference to an American or a French movie. What is important is how particular situations in people's lives are analysed and how they relate to one another, along with the ability to construct dialogue and string a narrative together, and the ability to distinguish between what is important in the narrative and what is marginal, what the author has chosen to leave obscure and what he or she is putting under the spotlight. It is irrelevant whether the action is taking place in Ćoralići or London, what is more important is how the narrative is structured, the route it follows and the conclusion it eventually leads to. All this is part of what a universalist perspective implies.

Writers working in less widely-used languages are in a more difficult position than writers in the major languages. It's as though the latter have access to an enormous megaphone that enables their voice to be heard by millions of people. Allusions to, say, New York or London are common. Everybody has an idea, however vague, what London and New York represent. On the other hand there are very few people who have even a stereotypical impression of any particular city in Bosnia, Croatia or Serbia.

Paris, London, New York, Buenos Aires are all cosmopolitan megacities where every culture in existence comes together. These complex encounters are the spark that kindles a light similar to a universal language. The Buenos Aires described in Sabato’s novel Of Heroes and Graves is in an exciting way my city as well, Gibbon’s Rome is mine too, Kureishi’s London is mine and Auster’s New York is mine also.

In small, homogenous communities it can be hard keeping your head above water in the sea of provincial prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Sarajevo is no exception, despite all the talk of a multiculturalism that is in reality tenuous and illusory. It is far harder for writers from a circumscribed background to get rid of their shackles than it is for writers from the major cities of the West, with their cosmopolitan sophistication.

That’s a rather sad observation. But then we also have the examples of Kiš, Pekić, Kovač. It is obvious from their writing how hard they had to work as novelists, studying and reading in order to be able to universalize their experience of a small country, and also how difficult it was for them to break through the iron gates of provincialism and find a way of speaking about those small worlds as a part of the experience of humanity, not some strange form of extraterrestrial existence. To make that transposition possible is a titanic undertaking.

I'd like to come back to what is perhaps the central event of our lives, the war. I was 15-16 years old, I remember I owned one of the first computers, a Commodore 64, and I used to draw comic strips - I had a huge collection of comic books and when I was that old that was what first inspired me to read books. Then 1991-92 suddenly arrived and that whole world disappeared. All of a sudden medieval preoccupations became the focus of our lives. What did you feel you missed out on, as a teenager at the outbreak of war?

There were a lot of things I missed out on, all the sort of things you would normally be doing at that age but were now simply impossible. I volunteered to join the army. I wanted to be in the army even though I didn’t spend much time on the front-line because I was in administration. Once I was wounded by a piece of ricocheting shrapnel, in a trench on the Lohovo Hills. I was lucky. Other people were wounded and narrowly escaped death several times. The decision to join up was mine and mine alone, no-one forced me. I was in a position to avoid army service for the whole period of the war if I'd wanted to, but I was attracted by the challenge.

Of course, it would have been better if the war had never happened – but perhaps there's a useful lesson to be learned from that madness: you find out that politics is not an abstract concept, it's something that can come crashing down on top of you and swallow up the best years of your life.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to Bosnians who were born in the nineteen-seventies but I believe that it was the older generation, the generation of our parents, for example, who were worst affected by what no-one had anticipated - the great cataclysm of 1992.

We, after all, were just adolescent kids while a generation in their middle age bore the full brunt of the collapse of an entire system, a way of life. Their lives had been built on the foundations of a system that came to an end and suddenly collapsed into utter chaos. Everything fell apart.

What replaced the old system wasn't another new one, it was a tidal wave of blood. Those people ceased being Yugoslavs and became balije, the pejorative term for Bosnian Muslims. Former work colleagues betrayed them in a very inexplicable way. All they had worked to achieve over the course of decades lost all its value overnight. They lost their homes, their jobs, their Serb friends - even their children's former babysitters, who were now shelling and shooting at those same kids from the surrounding hills - Mount Grabež where Bihać was concerned.

My heart aches when I think back to those last few years before the war. The Cure, Stone Roses, Pixies, Ekatarina Velika, Partibrejkers, Dino Dvornik, Miladojka Youneed – when I hear their music I feel a foolish nostalgia for those times.

What was it like then? It was like writing with a pen that's just about to run out of ink. That's when the pen starts to get messy and you think there must be still plenty of ink left when in fact there are only a few drops. That’s what it was like just before the war started, but with the JNA (the Yugoslav People’s Army) already casting a shadow from their brutal intervention in Croatia. Those summers immediately before the war had begun like a big farewell party for everybody to say goodbye to the good life.

The middle class were particularly hard hit, the same people who are so humiliated and messed up today. Under Ante Marković the middle class had never had it so good - all those school teachers and professors, executives at Kombiteks, all the different kinds of government employee, civil servants, engineers, military officers, railroad administrators …

And then suddenly everything fell to pieces. Half my classmates went over to the other side and there was no more contact with them.

I miss some of those things that we were supposed to be enjoying at the time, romantic episodes … In fact I am quite sensitive and susceptible, more vulnerable than I would like.

It was a life of strict discipline in the army. There was no freedom. You're eighteen years old and instead of studying, having fun and chasing girls on the beach, you are obliged to subject yourself to the iron rod of military discipline. Other people may have managed to adapt better than I did; my temperament and my impetuousness cost me a lot. I yearned for my freedom; I was young but I was very much knew what was going on. A couple of times I thought about running away from Bihać. Fortunately the impulse was never strong enough for me to do anything about it. Each time that I had to confront a difficult choice it was always the thought that I had to stay and help out that prevailed, the thought that I could never live with my conscience if I ran away, Once the war was over I sadly dumped my uniform in a bin full of garbage, to be consumed by silent flames as a memorial for all that time lost during the war.

And then came the post-war years, studying in Sarajevo. We found our own therapy in a bar by the name of King Kong, that bar was our substitute for psychiatric counselling.

I sometimes wonder what sort of a person I might have turned out if there'd been no damned war.

In my novel I examine the question whether an individual finds themself psychologically messed up as a result of their war experiences or simply because they are the person they are?

That's a question there can never be a definite answer to. The war provides you with an excuse for every mistake you make in life. You can always blame the war and say: “That’s because I was wounded, you see, because I wasted all those years in the trenches.” And you might well be right, of course.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend who is much younger than me. Everyone in her high school class was the same nationality. My class was a kind of ethnic mosaic that fell to pieces in the spring of 1992 when our final high school year came to its abrupt end. Our form teacher, the chemistry teacher, was married to a man who held a senior position in Radovan Karadžić's SDS party. She disappeared off to join the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army), leaving our high school diplomas locked in a drawer that the other teachers were forced to break open in order to let us have our certificates.

I remember three of my peers in high school. I used to wonder what they had made of their lives. All three of them were highly intelligent, articulate and gifted. Interestingly enough each of them had a very individual sense of humor. To use the well-worn cliché, they all had a bright future ahead of them, they certainly could have done something with their lives. All three of them remained in Bihać during the siege. Once all three were my close friends. And what happened to them?

One of my friends, who I used to hang around with since we were kids, he committed suicide during the war - he pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and jumped in the river holding it. Another volunteered to join the HVO (the Croatian Defense Council forces). One night he killed a child by mistake while firing a hail of bullets at some guys who had insulted him by calling him a Vlach (a pejorative term for non-Bosniaks). The third was a member of one of the Bihać brigades and spent the whole war in the firing line. Later he ended up hooked on heroin.

Was it the war that was to blame for all that?

You studied French language and literature. As your friend I also know about the interest in neuroscience you have been nurturing for about ten years. I know that you keep up with the scientific literature on the subject. Does all the time you have spent studying the subject mean that we can talk about your other, scientific, side?

I'm not a scientist; you need qualifications for that. I’m just a curious individual with a keen interest in certain areas of science.

I wasn't talking about academic status, I was hoping you might tell us something about how you became interested in that particular field of science, what you find particularly interesting about it, and do you have any views of your own concerning the major issues in neuroscience?

My interest in neuroscience, in the problem of the relationship between consciousness and the brain, stems from an earlier interest in science generally. I was a decent mathematician and physicist during my high school days. I attended the “Moša Pijade” high school in the days of Šuvar's system of early academic specialisation - I specialized in mathematics and computers. Once they even sent me to take part in a nationwide physics competition in the city of Doboj, though I hardly covered myself with glory. I think I came last or last but one. We were supposed to solve an extremely difficult physics problem. All the same I was pleased to find myself in the company of kids much better at physics than myself. That said, my memories of the couple of days I spent in Doboj essentially have nothing to do with the competition.

I remember I slept through a whole movie in a cinema that showed only Westerns, and one morning my host, the boy whose parents were putting me up, woke me up by tapping me on the head with his finger. Sometimes you get brought back to reality that way - it hits you on the head.

My father is a mechanical engineer and air-conditioning specialist; he has an enormous collection of tools in his garage. He is also partly responsible for my love of science and my interest in discovering things for myself. It's not just neuroscience I am interested in; I used to get very excited - and I still do - learning about discoveries in physics and biology, genetics, evolution science, astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology … I got to know about these subjects through reading popular science books. Some of the authors were simply specialist writers but others were scientists with literary skills like Lee Smolin, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku … Among the scientists who have written about the relationship between consciousness and the brain I'd pick out Todd Feinberg, Jeffrey Schwartz, Oliver Sacks, Nicolas Humphrey, John Eccles, Antonio Damasio…

I have been reading works of popular science for as long as I have been reading the works of more literary authors. At certain points in my life my interest in the mysteries of popular science has been rekindled. And I have long been interested in how consciousness and the brain are related and the question of what is consciousness and how do neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists deal with the problem.

Some scientists think that consciousness is nothing more than the result of biochemical processes taking place in the brain. Others, like the Nobel Prize winner John Eccles, argue that consciousness is a phenomenon that exists separately from the material world, assembled , if I understand correctly, from special “mental events”, called psychons. This is already starting to sound like science fiction. He also proposes the courageously extravagant theory that consciousness is derived from quantum processes in the brain.

I’m not sure what to make of all these hypotheses. I am not sure whose explanation to accept. I tend to follow the principle of Ockham’s razor: if something can be explained in a simple way then all explanations that complicate that simplicity should be discarded. If it's the case, at this moment in time, that we are unable to explain the phenomenon of consciousness existing separately from the material world than it’s better that we stay within the realm of biochemical processes. We shouldn't be afraid of that kind of explanation, just as I believe neither should we be afraid of the fact that human beings are descended from incomprehensibly simpler and more primitive life forms. That anxiety is often summed up in the question: “Are monkeys really our ancestors?” My answer would be to ask what's so terrible about monkeys anyway? Some people have fathers a hundred times more unpleasant than the average chimpanzee.

Translated by Jasmin Čaušević