An interview with Damir Karakaš

"You should look for the reason my character ended up the way he did in that context. Although this isn't an autobiographical novel, but a fictional novel with autobiographical elements, I happen to have ended up in that hell so I know very well what I'm talking about. It's a beautiful building that tourists like to take pictures of, and I passed by it a hundred times and admired it, but I never dreamed that some day I'd end up deep under its foundations, in the catacombs where during the French Revolution they kept people who were about to be sent to the guillotine. This is a novel about a different Paris, a novel about demystifying illusions."

Published in the Quorum (2010) literary magazine - interview by Zoran Pilić

Although it may not seem like it, a lot of time has passed since Damir Karakaš appeared on the local prose scene with his debut novel Bosnians Are Good People (way back in 1999). A year later followed the novel Kombetari, which it is now, just like Bosnians, virtually impossible to find in bookstores. In 2001, Kino Lika, his collection of short stories (by now truly a cult favourite), was published, and in 2008 it was brought to the cinemas by Dalibor Matanić. With Lika Karakaš attracted attention to his work for the first time, and since then he has been cooperating with Robert Perišić, who has edited both Lika and all his later works (How I Entered Europe, Eskimos, and A Perfect Place for Misery). While to this day Croatia is stuck in its EU accession negotiations between blockades, deblockades, and real or feigned efforts to fight corruption and crime, this tall, thin, at first sight quiet and morose Lika native already entered the EU in 2004, armed with an accordion, in a sort of reality show entitled How I Entered Europe. In this documentary novel Karakaš only made a surface cut into the tissue of 21st century Western Europe, with which he'll be done in Perfect Place for Misery, completely uncovering the dark, hidden face of Empire. Just like Eskimos (2007) follow Kino Lika, so Perfect Place continues where How I Entered Europe left off. In Perfect Place for Misery (a title that hits the bull’s-eye), everything starts almost idyllically, success seems like a realistic option to the protagonist, one of the publishers will contact him soon enough and his novel will see the light of Parisian day, and until that happens, all he has to do is remain patient - and survive. Not just for him but the whole orchestra of characters marching through Perfect Place that proves to be more difficult than they could have imagined in their darkest nightmares. From the outside, it's a City of Light, from the window of your tiny room you'll see the legendary Tower shining like a Lighthouse of promise, and somewhere in its bowels, in the suburban slums, there's a battle waging for bare life: explosions of hatred and violence, hopelessness and finally a descent into Hell itself.

Let's start from the end - in the last stage of this story we enter the Paris underground, into the dark labyrinth of dungeons where even the most optimistic immigrant, whether he's from Croatia, Serbia or Senegal, abandons all hope. The "firm hand" policy of French president Sarkozy is conducted in a kind of Dante's Inferno. You lived in Paris for years, you know many sad or horrible immigrant stories. What's the situation in Paris today really like, is there any hope for those the gendarmes pick up in some routine control or raid or do they get deported on short notice? The Paris of George Orwell in his day and your Paris in Perfect Place seem not to have any mercy?

In France there's often that discourse - if you're a writer, actor, painter... from Croatia, Serbia or Bosnia, you should be happy for the very fact you're there. My publisher Ivan Sršen spoke to the editor of a large Parisian publishing house in Frankfurt recently, and she told him only the French can write critically about Paris. Unfortunately, it's pure cultural racism. Generally, since Sarkozy came to power, France has been closing itself off constantly; foreigners don't have an easy time. Luckily, I was used to all these things like a donkey's used to beatings because I've been oppressed since the day I was born. I was a kind of a freak where I come from, the first to get my ear pierced, the first to have a mohawk, people would run away from me, parents, cousins, neighbours, acquaintances. It was very dangerous to come like that into my home region. In the worst case scenario some drunken hunter could mistake you for a rooster or pheasant and shoot you. And it wasn't any better elsewhere, either. I remember in my youth I was attacked by an angry mob in a night bus in Zagreb because of my hairstyle. They beat you because of your hair, stomp you, because you're not like them, it's horrible. Since Sarkozy's been in power, the police apparatus has been strengthened to the max, consequently they let all sorts of people into the police. Then they hunt people across town like people in my home region would hunt stray dogs, kill them and get points for that in the hunter's society. So the cops in France get points for everyone who's not from the EU, the statistics matter to them. You should look for the reason my character ended up the way he did in that context. Although this isn't an autobiographical novel, but a fictional novel with autobiographical elements, I happen to have ended up in that hell so I know very well what I'm talking about. It's a beautiful building that tourists like to take pictures of, and I passed by it a hundred times and admired it, but I never dreamed that some day I'd end up deep under its foundations, in the catacombs where during the French Revolution they kept people about to be sent to the guillotine. This is a novel about a different Paris, a novel about demystifying illusions. Kundera said the mission of the writer is precisely demystifying the illusions under whose hypnotic influence we live today.

This is the fourth of your books edited by R. Perišić. Did it always go smoothly or were there any situations where you had differing opinions. It's known you always spend a long time working on a manuscript, sometimes a couple of years, developing the thing, as Perišić himself says, like a nuclear programme. What happens when the editor says: you'll have to do it all over again? Were there situations like that, how much do you acknowledge editorial diagnoses and how did that collaboration go on this novel?

Now you've reminded me of the time I first met Perišić, in that dive Jazovka, he and some crew were doing a literary magazine, and I was there drawing caricatures for people in exchange for beer so we sort of talked about me drawing to them, but I wasn't planning on working for some magazine Although, I did like the name of the magazine, it was called "Minus Zwei". Much later, while I was living in Split, I often didn't know what to do with myself because winter in Split is pretty fucked up, so one night I arrived by train from Split to Zagreb. In a bag I had the manuscript of Kino Lika, stuck around Zagreb, went to see a comic book exhibition, and then back to Split. A small digression, a friend of mine keeps travelling by air from Velika Gorica to Split and back, it relaxes him. I used to ride around on trains that way. That's how I met Perišić in Zagreb, but I didn't really know him that well. I gave him the manuscript at the end of the evening. He's an editor who really gets my writing, and besides, he's honest and fair, and I highly admire those qualities.

George Costanza, played in Seinfeld by the one and only Jason Alexander, in one episode differentiates numerous grades, versions of himself. In your case it's even more complex, we have Karakaš the writer, Karakaš in the theatre, on film, Karakaš the cartoonist, accordion player, journalist. What are your experiences with Magelli and Matanić?

Drawing was always very important to me, as a kid I was already being published in the best known newspapers in Yugoslavia, got a few very reputable awards. As for the theatre, when I was living in the ‘Ghetto’ neighbourhood of Split about fifteen years ago, I would crawl through fences to look at Magelli's rehearsals, which I found very interesting. Then he called me after Eskimos was published, said he thought the book was great, that he'd like to work from it. And the movie Kino Lika? The director Matanić and the screenwriter Živković wanted a film where they'd get a broad panoramic view, a film with a lot of characters and I was very pleased with how it all turned out in the end. Matanić acquired the rights for Eskimos as well, so I believe that book will get to the big screen as well.

Speaking of Split, you’ve worked there as a journalist on the crime beat. You mentioned somewhere that after some time on the "dark side" you lose your connection to the real world very easily. You look at various horrors from our alleys every day, which on one hand can be an inspiration to a writer, but on the other hand - you can sink?

I came back from the war, graduated, hung around that Jazovka, it was all full of drugs. There I saw some redheaded girl with freckles, I thought I had to get away from it all with some girl, Amsterdam I thought, I could already see myself sitting with her in a tin bathtub like in the Westerns. Then I met another girl in Jazovka, I remember she worshipped Hendrix. We had a baby and I was working freelance for a newspaper. That was something horrible, I had to spend the whole night sitting next to some radio stations in Večernjak and listen in on police radios, in case there's an accident, so we get the story first. We lived terribly, holes, mice, damp, it was like that for years. Then we moved to Split, they needed a crime journalist there so I signed up, like you sign up for the Foreign Legion. In the beginning these things shock you, but as time goes by you start to get used to it. You even reach a point of insanity, so you find yourself feeling glad people are dying because that means more work. You start to subconsciously look forward to all that. Then they started attacking me, I got hit on the head with a lead pipe, ended up in hospital... Then I had burly guys waiting for me late at night, there were all sorts of things... Then the Split police started harassing me as well, it's all connected, uniformed beat cops followed me around Split, shouting I was a faggot, a junkie, a lowlife, provoking me. At the time I was writing prose and poetry on a typewriter, and I had published poetry in student magazines as a student. I had about a hundred poems. Some people said it was great, that I should publish the book, but I found that poetry suspect, it started to annoy me more and more so one day I burned and destroyed it all.

In what way did the poetry seem suspect to you? Is there anything left or did it all disappear in the ashes?

In what way did it seem suspect? Fuck it, I didn't like it. Just recently I found a couple of poems from that time among my old papers. When I look at it now, I see it was really bad, stupid and pretentious. Sometimes when I read poetry, and we have some excellent poets and poetesses - it happened to me sometimes when, for example, I read Šalamun - I get an urge to start writing poetry myself, I feel like I'll write a whole collection, I start, but I shut down soon afterwards. Thy say novels are horizontal and poetry is vertical, because the language is structured differently so poetry allows us to reach the most distant things, and a novel stretches itself horizontally, but then again Kafka's novels are poetry too. What I find most difficult about writing is that I have to sit, I don't like that at all, just like I don't like to play while sitting. I'd prefer it if I could ride a bike and write simultaneously, chairs always got on my nerves. Perhaps it's another reason why I'm attracted to poetry, you can write it and ride a bike at the same time.

You have experience both with small and big publishers. What's the difference? Can anyone in these parts live from writing today? More things are published than ever, which might lead someone to conclude there's big money involved?

In Split I started with samizdat, I invested in everything myself, my by then ex-wife did the graphic work on the book, and the proofreading was done by Katja Tresić Pavičić, the copy editor of Feral. I lived in a small room, and when they brought 700 books to me in an old Skoda, I nearly buried it. At the time we did some excellent promotions, where you had good music, booze, reading. At the time I was trying some things with playing music too. But soon it all went under. Anyway, back to publishers, for this novel I really had my pick of publishers, but I gave it to the small publishing house Sandorf. With a big publishing house you get strong advertising, beefed up top lists and a lot of other things, but to me a book is a lot more than a mere product for which it's only important that it sells. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I don't depend on anyone, and I'm in nobody's pocket, as they say where I come from.

Says Mirko Kovač in his book Writing or Nostalgia: "I've met some happy writers in my life and not one of them was a good writer" - How much truth is there in that, I mean, were all great writers fucked up in one way or another?

There is truth in what Borges said, that misfortune is richer than fortune, that fortune is its own goal, and misfortune transforms into something else, into a work of art. There's also that bit in the Odyssey, that God gave people misfortune so they can sing about it. But, then again, I don't believe in that romantic myth, that the only good writer is a starving writer, a poor writer, or a fucked up writer. Besides, you can be a fucked up writer and a bad writer at the same time.

Let's go back to the Nineties for a bit. We went once from Cvjetni Trg to the Seven and back, we talked about that period then. It seemed like nobody could stop the chaos anymore. Can the war be forgotten, or, if not that, can it at least be suppressed deep enough into the subconscious in order to continue with some sort of more or less normal life? You come back from the front and you see life unstoppably going its own way, and yet, somehow, you know, you have a feeling that nothing will ever be the same again?

It's terrible to be in war, but how should you act when your house is on the frontline, and the crew is on its way to rape your mother and burn your house down? Throw books at them? A few days before it all started, I was in Kulušić listening to the Pixies, and then suddenly I found myself in a trench. I thought they were making a movie. I thought I'd lose my mind. Anyway, I'm very saddened about this situation in Croatia because I see nationalism is still thriving. One day I took a can of white paint and painted over all the Ustasha and fascist symbols on the walls in my neighbourhood, because they make me sick, just like the people that write them out. I'm sickened by all the politicians, all these people who lust after some kind of power, as well as all those writers who lust for power, although in some way I understand the unfortunates, because there's truth in saying that lust for power is a consequence of an inability to love.

Which works of literature in some way defined you as a writer, influenced you? If you had to select just five or ten titles, what would your top list look like?

I grew up with Quorum, it was an important magazine for me, I had all the issues. And as a student for a long time I constantly had in my pocket Handke's The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty Kick, that red booklet by the Publishing Work Organisation RAD, I like the Tomb of Boris Davidovič, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Babel's Red Cavalry. I like Kafka a lot because he doesn't imitate anyone, that's his strength and timelessness. I like Carver, that precision of his, then the stories of Guy de Maupassant, Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Perišić's stories... I also like the way Dostoevsky does his characters, in his case they're sometimes simultaneously both good and bad, oppressors and victims, intelligent and stupid. What annoys me the most in art are boring people. Boredom is definitely the death of art.

In one of his texts, Teofil Pančić writes about the "plague of cult books", and then mentions these essential books and authors like: Siddartha, by Hermann Hesse - once required reading for hippies, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, then, I don't know, The Little Prince, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Bukowski and so on. Not to mention the influence and popularity of Raymond Carver. Did you go through all that in your younger days and what's left of it all today?

Everybody has their own cult books, for someone it's Catcher in the Rye, for someone else it's Ulysses, for another person it's The Alchemist, I don't know what to say about that. Just like I don't know what to say when they ask me why I write. But there's at least some truth in what Faulkner says, that artists are creatures ruled by demons. My first library where I borrowed books was an ordinary or extraordinary outhouse, painted white, and I still remember the sound of flies buzzing madly around it in the summertime, and of course the smell. There was no toilet paper back then, so my neighbour Srećko put books he dragged in from somewhere into the outhouse for toilet paper. I used to steal those books from him, he didn't know who was doing it, I used to take them as a kid and bring them to the woods where I read them illegally while keeping an eye on the cattle. So at a very early age I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Gogol, Chekhov's stories. Then that neighbour would tear up books, so he'd leave half of one book, half of another, and some of them were missing pages from before, but I didn't mind that chaos, I read and enjoyed. Of course, I read all those books again later, but i often reread books. So I don't forget, recently some central axle broke on my king-size bed, something in the middle keeping the whole thing together, you had to put something there instead of it so it wouldn't all go to pieces. I couldn't find anything in the apartment, but then I remembered the books, stacked up about then of them, put them under the bed, and that proved to be the perfect replacement, so now I sleep on books as well. Anyway, my people in Lika were always afraid of books, they think a lot of books make you go mad. And speaking of this madness thing, there's a sentence in Ivan Meštrović's novella Crazy Mile which is kind of a leitmotif of the story, when Crazy Mile says: "I'd go mad if I hadn't gone mad."

Music, film?

Film and music were very important to me, alongside reading. When I was younger, my favourite thing was getting in the garage, putting a Ramones cassette into a stereo with enormous speakers, pick up an accordion, crank the sound up until the speakers were falling apart, then follow that thunder on the accordion. And I always loved film, Herzog, Fassbinder, Žika Pavlović, Kim Ki Duk... In Paris, cinemas are still temples, and in Bordeaux the church in the centre of town was even turned into a cinema, Try imagining something like that here.

Finally, you've been in Zagreb for a while now, does that mean you'll stay in this city or will you pull up anchor after some time? What are you currently working on?

When I came back to Zagreb from Paris because of the film Kino Lika, I thought I'd go back very soon, but then after the film came the show Zagreb Pentagram, then finally the completion of Perfect Place, and Zagreb, like Lastovo where I'd go in the winter months, served very well for that because I could get away from Paris a little and finally bring the story to a close. Then some other work cropped up, so I'm still in Zagreb, actually the Zagreb periphery. But, all my belongings can fit into a backpack, there's the accordion case as well, so I'm very mobile. And currently I'm not doing anything, I'm lying and watching snow falling outside the window.


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