THE HEART OF THE MATTER
by Goran Stefanovski
(Keynote Speech at the Heart of the Matter (What Future for the Balkans and the EU?) Conference, European Cultural Foundation, The Hague, 1 December 2005)
I am a playwright. I was born in the Republic of Macedonia where I lived most of my life. For 18 years my English wife Patricia lived there with me. Then, in 1992, with the collapse of Yugoslavia, she moved back to England. I started flying to and fro, between Skopje in Macedonia and Canterbury in England.
In the early years of my living in two worlds, I was lucky enough to work on a number of European projects. Most of them were in some way connected with the issues of civil society, “Enlargement of Minds”, cultural encounters, cooperation and shared visions.
I worked with a friend, a partner, a producer, an Italian American living in Sweden, called Chris Torch. Our projects included collaboration with various Eastern European artists, but were primarily co-financed by Western European countries and aimed at Western European audiences.
This packaging caused confusion and consternation in some quarters. I witnessed a series of misunderstandings and dramatic ironies, traps and pitfalls, hits and misses. Chris Torch believed he was championing the cause of sharing cultures, crossing borders, re-mapping, making sense of the new European challenges. He believed he was a mobile cultural operator, a pioneer of European integration, citizenship and community-building.
But on the ground, I heard libels, loud and hushed, aimed against him, but which reflected against me as well. Some folks saw him as a cigar-smoking slave driver. I heard the terms “cultural imperialist”, “multinational trickster”, “globalisation shark”. Both sides of the fence suspected him as someone who buys cheap artistic labour in the East and sells it for profit to the West. Many people didn’t care what the performances or the actual artistic articulation were like. They hated the idea on principle.
I was bewildered. Suspecting my friend, Chris, of all people? The actor from the Living Theatre, the ultimate anarchic wild bunch of the Sixties? The man who founded a theatre commune in Stockholm? I thought he was cool. But other writers didn’t, they told me to be careful. Especially as he was working with me and not them.
One day there was a meeting between some Macedonian actors and Chris in Skopje. They asked how much money they would be paid for their work. He answered it would be standard European wages. One of the actors sniped, between his teeth: “I can find that kind of money in the street.” He was lying. There was no money to be found in the streets of Macedonia. Chris said: “I thought you wanted to make theatre and not look for money in the streets”.
This conversation has stuck with me over the years. To this day I wonder about the mindset of my actor friend, his manoeuvre, his mental calculation. He probably thought something like this: “I know I am worth little in market terms and I am quite resigned to that fact. But now here is this guy who comes from the market place and is showing interest in me. Why? What’s in it for him? Maybe I am worth something after all. What if I am priceless and don’t know it? This is a conspiracy. I won’t sell. I’ll wait for better offers.”
One day in 1995 Chris and I went from one Macedonian theatre to another trying to garner interest for our multi-ethnic project. We were working on a remake of Euripides’ Bacchae where the Bacchantes were all male. We wanted actors of Macedonian, Turkish and Albanian ethnic origin to dramatise the reality on the ground. We went from door to door, from the Macedonian National Theatre to the Drama Theatre to the Theatre of Turkish and Albanian Nationalities, inviting them to collaborate.
This turned out to be an explosive proposition. “Collaborate! We’ve never collaborated before. We are suspicious of each other, we protect our interests, we are almost enemies. What do you mean, collaborate? We are trying hard to rid of those socialist-realist ideas and you want to sell them back to us? Are you trying to sell rope to the family of a hanged man?” Incidentally, that was the very day when there was the assassination attempt on the life of the President of Macedonia, Kiro Gligorov.
It became obvious to me that one humble producer like Chris Torch can shake the very centre of a small, national, macho, patriarchal cultural mindset. That one person can become a screen for every passion and fear, desire and paranoia which happens to be flying around. Like a lightning rod, that one person attracts whatever energies and anxieties people have about the world and themselves. With best intentions of soft-core integration you can go straight to hard-core nationalist hell.
This mindset is a maze of contradictions, half real and half virtual, half genuine and half artificial. It is so convoluted that it is difficult for outsiders to understand it or probe into it. It’s a mindset of bi-polar divisions, a melodramatic world of black and white. You’re either my bosom friend and I love you to death or else you are my arch enemy and I am at war with you. The changes from one pole to another are swift and volatile and you never see them coming. It’s slippery ground. Mercurial stuff.
Let me try to dramatise this acid mindset in a little imaginary and ironic soliloquy. I hope it might throw some light on the heart of the Heart of the Matter:
“Hello. My name is Zoran. I am a poet. Many years ago I used to live in a country called Yugoslavia. I loved my fatherland and our leader Tito. I used to say: if you cut my heart in two you’d find the Yugoslav red star there.
I worked as a kind of a journalist in a factory paper. I was an artist. I felt that my place and role in society were crucial. I felt I was a part of Europe. I wrote a long poem called “The Heart of The Matter”. It was a patriotic poem which said we should all be prepared to die for our fatherland. Here’s a little excerpt:
“When it comes to the last battle
I’ll give my life for you, oh Fatherland!
Knowing what I give
and why I’m giving it”.
Important men of letters have told me that it is a great poem as it makes very good use of metaphor, simile and other poetic things. It was published in numerous publications. I got a prize for it.
Now some say that it was a Yugo-nostalgic poem. That the Communist regime paid for it. What an ugly phrase: the Communist regime? Those were my people. My generals, my comrades, my teachers. You have to trust somebody. But I say, hey, that was then and this is now. We’ve moved on. It’s progress. Let us not look back.
Things changed. The regime died. I was a poet. I couldn’t publish anymore. I had to start again. Reinvent myself.
I got a job as a kind of a journalist in a front-line military bulletin. I redrafted my poem Heart of The Matter. Only this time it was dedicated to my new fatherland, the ex Yugoslav Republic which became a state of its own. I was an artist again, I felt my place and role were crucial again. But Europe was now my enemy. I loved my newly found old religion. I used to say: if you cut my heart in two you’d find a little cross in there.
My poem was printed in numerous publications. I got a prize for it. Now some say it was a nationalist poem. That the masters of war paid for it. What an ugly phrase: Masters of war? Those were my people. My generals, my priests, my teachers. You have to trust somebody. But I say, hey, that was then and this is now. We’ve moved on. It’s progress. Let us not look back.
Things changed. The regime faltered. I was a poet. I couldn’t publish anymore. I had to start again. Reinvent myself.
I met an English girl. She said they’re hungry for Balkan writers in London. She said I had sexy Balkan style, just what they were looking for in the European publishing circles. I said my English is not very good. She said, that’s what they like, they looove broken English, an authentic voice. I decided to try my luck. I emigrated.
I arrived at Heathrow, my heart in my mouth. I looked around. No one there. No Europe waiting. I joined a long queue, some immigration officials wanted to know my name and the purpose of my visit.
Months passed. I was waiting for a sign, a call. Nothing. I became depressed. Every day was like salt in my wounds. I planned to kill myself. A spectacular suicide, blaming it all on Europe. I spent my weekends imagining Europe coming to my funeral, swollen with grief, all sexy in black.
The English are strange. I find work in a hardware store and work like a dog – most of them live off benefits. I speak proper English – they speak with an accent. I have read Shakespeare, they haven’t. I go to evening school, they don’t. Now that’s not right. They should go to evening school. “English language and culture for beginners.”
One day this amateur English theatre director appears, invites me to work with him on a community project for hyperactive immigrant children. I said that’s insulting, I’ve come here for literature, a Literary Prize, signing at a major bookshop chain, a bestseller. He said I was wrong, he started telling me about schemes, funds and initiatives. “There’s a whole game out there”, he said, “quick money.” He told me I would be ideal as The Face of Cultural Inclusion. That sounded like a venereal disease.
He takes me to meet this woman in an office. She sits me down. She says she wants to empower me, draw me into the public arena, give me access to the debate and the political process, make me voice my interests, get a concept of my cultural affinities. It felt like I was at the dentist’s, but it gave me a brilliant idea. Why work for them when I can work for myself. It was time for a change. England sucked. I was a poet. I had to move on. Start again. Reinvent myself.
I went back home. Franchised my own NGO. I learned how to walk the walk and talk the talk and siphon funds, domestic and international! Now I know how to demand substantial investment in civil society, education and culture. I swear by the cooperation framework and the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe! Do I support the campaign for 70 cents for Culture? Unreservedly! Wholeheartedly! More money for them, more money for me.
I have a new draft of my Heart of The Matter. Only this time it’s not dedicated to my motherland, it’s dedicated to Europe. My place and role are crucial again. I feel I’m a part of Europe again. Now I say: if you cut my heart in two you’d find a little European flag in there. My poem was published in an NGO magazine. I got a prize for it.
Now some say it is a neo-colonialist poem. That the neo-colonialists paid for it. What an ugly phrase: Neo-Colonialists? These are my people. My NATO generals, my priests of multiculturalism, my teachers of the latest trends in democracy. You have to trust somebody. Let’s look to the future.
I hear that they are having a conference at The Hague in Holland one of these days. You’ll never guess what it’s called. “The Heart of the Matter”. Coincidence or what? They’re discussing stuff I know a thing or two about. I haven’t been invited. It’s all right, I don’t mind, I hope they have a good conference.
Had they invited me I would have told them a few things. I would have told them to be careful with their mechanisms of political correctness. For years before it collapsed, Yugoslavia believed it had all the necessary tools for lasting peace, reconciliation and prosperity and brotherhood and unity. Everyone pretended they loved everyone else. And then one day a strongman came and banged his fist on the table and said: “Gentlemen, the game is over. Fuck off.” And that was all it took for the whole house of cards to slip into civil wars.
Oh well! Wars. So what? Let’s think positive. Some redistribution of wealth, Smart Offshore Outsourcing, Cross-cultural conflict management.
The worse it is for the common people, the better it is for us poets. I mean for our inspiration. Things change. Regimes die. New ones are born.
If things don’t work again, I’ll start all over again. Reinvent myself. I keep all of the versions of my poem. Whatever happens, however history turns, I’ll have a suitable version to go with it. And I’ll be able to say again, with a smile on my face, hey, that was then and this is now. We’ve moved on. It’s progress. Let us not look back.”
Well, that is the end of the soliloquy of my imaginary character. And here I come back to my own voice. Well. Where do I go from here and what do I say now? You might ask me to what extent I agree with my character? To what extent I am my character? How much is his mindset also mine? It’s hard for me really know this or talk about it, but I do know that a part of him resides within me. He is someone I have daily arguments with, someone I try to tame, negotiate with, bring to his senses, wrestle with and agonize over.
Which brings us to moral of the story: did I hear us say we were in the business of Enlargement of Minds? Well then, that is the kind of mind which needs enlarging and demands our attention.
Good luck to us all.
And let’s not give up without a fight!
© Goran Stefanovski, 2005
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