ESSAYS ON RADOSLAV BRATIC`S FICTION
YUGOSLAV AUTHORS' AGENCY, BELGRADE
THE DEATH OF THE SAVIOR (SMRT SPASITELJA)
Prosveta Beograd, 1973
Radoslav Bratić is a young writer, and the novel titled “The Death of the Savior” is his first book. The critic has favorably reviewed it. The reviews in the press contain many praises stressing the author's fresh and opulent vocabulary, a wild imagination, and the skill of arranging the material that is almost amazing in view of the writer's young age.
The novel is mostly composed of the monologues of a Belgrade student who recollects his childhood spent in a village in Herzegovina. A backward world flooded by superstition and misery emerges in our minds. The hero's relationship with that world is marked by ironical demystification. Especially successful are the pages in the novel in which the numerous popular legends and sorcery have been listed. They introduce into the atmosphere in the book that is both bitter and sarcastic elements of fantasy and a sense of humor.
The novel is a kind of the author's reckoning with his own illusions as well
as a feverish effort to rescue something of popular traditions where a century-long
experience has been perpetuated.
Radoslav Bratić, DOUBT ABOUT BIOGRAPHY (SUMNJA U BIOGRAFIJU)
PROSVETA, Beograd 1980. 252 pages
Doubt About Biography is a novel with an individual literary
structure that can pose the reader with a certain number of complex problems
that are relatively easily solved. In this novel, the author combines several
levels of occurrences and insists on the contradiction that exists between the
so-called truth of life and that which is formed into a literary text. The writer
is not so interested in the event itself which he narrates as he in the story
as such and in the very act of narrating. Various traditions handed down and
fragments of history live on in the mind of the hero; he remembers what he has
been told and at the same time compares it with events from his own life which
have inexorably had to undergo a certain and indeed considerable transformation
in his memory. Bratić has an enviable skill in combining various creative processes.
His doubt in the possibility of knowing objective truth is not directly stressed
here. He introduces his reader to a kind of creative game and encourages him
to discover by himself that which is fundamental and to differentiate
between what is essential and what is not. Bowing to the cause and effect method
of narrating. Bratić wishes to conjure up and present the chaos of life and
memories as authentically as possible.
Doubts on a Biography, a novel by Radoslav Bratic Published
by Prosveta, Belgrade 1961
The biography of a Belgrade student, Jakov Miketic, is the background to Doubts on a Biography. This novel concentrates on recording and checking the details, documents, primordial life events, memories, stories, etc; in short everything that could constitute an authentic presentation of a consciousness that saw the light of day in a village in Eastern Herzegovina and finally formed in the student protests of 1968. Stretching the hero's memories from the first epic-tinted stories from everyday village life all the way to the customary urban stresses, the author, Radoslav Bratic, rigorously avoids pathetic situations; through the skilled use of humour and a systematic doubt he reduces them to documentary data, to pieces of evidence which a reader can arrange within the given framework. Bratic is not a writer who tries to persuade and patronize; he lets the reader build and add up for himself. By numerous bracketed comments he leaves the reader without any illusion about the novel's construction. Bratic consistently enriches the narration with interesting "documents" both authentic and apocryphal: his habit of very personal, subjective interpreting of historical persons and events testifies to that. Using such twofold prose—writing technique the author has produced a narrative Romanesque whole of a somewhat loose composition but with authentic "montage" of the skillfully selected fragments which gives the impression of a mosaic completeness while constantly intertwining past and present. Appearing as a re-examination of the past at the moment of the story's commencement this gives the impression of the everlastingness of life's basic experience. The novel is a kind of self-examination played to intentional slow motion. The first part, written from the narrator's point of view, is dominated by the boy's memories and experiences of a clairvoyant of whom he stood in fear and yet saw a chance of learning life-perception.
The second part of the novel — apart from a re-examination of the experience from the first part — is dominated by documentary details from the student days of 1968. The intertwining of past and present wasn't intended to produce a psychological prose-work. By documenting the most characteristic events from Miketic's life, the author has brought to the fore experiential strata that form a single consciousness. The work is, therefore, more of a document than a finite, completed story. Bearing in mind that Radoslav Bratic treats equally humorously fables from folk-mythology and complex social phenomena, it is no wonder that he is considered a mature writer of, what is termed in contemporary Croatian literature, the Borgesian line.
Bratic intended to compose an integrated whole wherein each detail contributes to the core; seemingly unimportant events are frequently woven into the narrative and only later, in a new context, demonstrate their full meaning. Writing about his own experiences, Thomas Mann cautioned: "Thought, as such, is never a self-sufficient entity and value for an artist. He should be primarily concerned with the functional attributes of thought within the spiritual mechanism of the work of art".
Using a non-psychological prose writing technique the author presents the development
of the hero's character from the first impressions of a peasant child all the
way to the self-consciousness of a university student. It enables the author
to indicate the layers of collective consciousness and their influence on the
constituting of the individual one. In the rural environment that collective
consciousness appears very traditional while in Belgrade it shifts to opportunism.
These two basic attitudes intermingle and cancel each other out. Bratic has
chosen a complex prose technique to form a possible "hero of our times"; using
this twofold documentary-humorous technique and destroying all conventional
literary forms he has created an anti-hero whose inner contradictions are in
disharmony with modern times wherein lies the novel's eye-catching topicality.
WORLD LITERATURE TODAY, A Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma,
Norman, Oklahoma, 73019 USA, from the SUMMER 1990 issue
Radoslav Bratic. Strah od zvona. Belgrade, Srpska knjizevna
zadruga. 1991. 190 pages.
It is no wonder that the prestigious publishing house Srpska književna zadruga, founded in 1892, should issue as its 556th title Radoslav Bratić's fourth book, Strah od zvona (Fear of the Bell). His three previous works all received important literary accolades, including the Youth Award of Smrt spasitelja (Death of the Savior: 1971) and the Ivo Andric Prize for the short-story collection Slika bez oca (Picture Without the Father: 1986). Strah od zvona contains fifteen new stories plus a foreword by another noted Yugoslav fiction writer, Mirko Kovač.
In this fiction Bratić never abandons his native Herzegovina, memories of which are deeply ingrained in his mind. Again and again his stories evoke his boyhood and family circle in what may be the poorest region of Yugoslavia, an area of wilderness, hills, and rocky mountains. He knows and recalls all the fears, terrors, and everyday anxieties of the province’s destitute, God-fearing people, who regularly observe all church holidays and are afraid to revel or enjoy the small pleasures of life, ascribing them to the devil. Hence the emblematic title, as Bratić explained in an interview with the daily Politika.
"Nothing in my childhood so terrified me as the sound of a bell. The church bell always sparked anxiety in people, announcing a sudden death or the arrival of some unknown army, which occurred often. Destruction, fire, pillaging, and death followed. Even today the traces of such invasions are clearly visible, from Roman legions, Turks, Austrians, and various armies in later wars. Bells also sounded the alarm for fires, floods, and the issuance of new edicts or laws. Rarely did they announce such happy events as the birth of a child.
… Also, what fears did the school bells announcing a grim forthcoming inspection evoke? And then there was the fearful ringing of cowbells as the cows were chased by wolves, or the dread of the late-night ring of the doorbell announcing the presence of some unknown creature at the entrance to your flat."
The protagonist of most Bratić’s stories is a young boy, small but worldly wise and particularly adept at evading the beatings of blows that are continually allotted to him for every conceivable reason – bad weather, failed crops, lost items – and even for having been born. To him are ascribed all the evils of this world, the shortcomings of the living as well as the faults of the dead. He is a mute witness to all events and phenomena, both within the family and in the wider world of the village, and he is invariably a victim. Similarly victimized are the women who populate the stories: working from early morning until late at night, bearing the entire household on her shoulders, deprived of any voice or any right to influence or determine events, she is present only to listen to men’s stories, to be beaten sporadically, and to be attributed with all the evils of this world, if not deemed the very incarnation of evil, as in "The Devil’s Story". Considered almost as family members are the various pets and farm animals such as the mare Zeka ("Mare Zeka Neighs in the Night"), whose willfulness and seeming tenderness are viewed in virtually human terms and who saves the family from a fire that engulfs their home one night.
Bratić’s characteristic style is the most striking feature of his latest collection.
He knows his topic, and he is intimately familiar with the region’s language,
an idiom permeated with its own subtle humor. Irrespective of theme, this humor
runs like a red thread through all the tales, lightening the hardships of provincial
life and the roughness of the people. One also senses the author’s genuine fondness
for the poor, proud, fearful, miserable inhabitants of his native realm. His
works have been translated into English, German, French, Italian, Swedish, Polish,
Czech, Romanian, Chinese, and Hindi, and he has been widely anthologized in
short-story collections both in Yugoslavia and abroad.
THE THIRD BROTHER
Radoslav Bratic, Slika bez oca (A Picture Without Father),
Prosveta, Beograd. 1985
A Picture Without Father is one of the best collections of short stories to have appeared in our midst in the past few years. Although each story stands on its own and, as such, can be read independently of the others, the book bears strong markings of a prose' cycle, and the best way for us to understand and experience the individual stories is to read them each in terms of the other. The most striking of these markings are the following: 1) there is a central narrative line that is made so coherent and individualized by the use of language that the reader will probably experience the book as stories told by one voice, although it is obvious that there are several narrators; 2) the real subject-matter is an imaginary village in Herzegovina, so that; 3) there is a collective hero whose portrait emerges by means of lots of more or less individualized, and sometimes only roughly sketched characters; 4) the stories are interconnected not only by means of using the same characters, the same setting, and the email time lapse between the events that happen, but also by the many details and episodes that modify the meaning the individual stories would have had without these cross-connections. Let me try to illustrate this point.
Two Brothers is a story about a clash over splitting up the patrimony, a clash that ends with the moral and physical collapse of the family. The eldest brother denounces the youngest brother as a Stalinist — because in 1948 this was simply an effective means for eliminating an opponent; the accused is arrested, the mother dies. And then, towards the tall end of the story, the narrator steps in and says: "Through the third door comes the third, middle brother, and that is me, the one who is telling this story, a silent witness to it all".
In many ways, the technique used in this story is paradigmatic of the collection: overshadowing the personal conflict that takes place at a purely fictional level are well-known historical events (the break with Stalin), and the narration implies an analogy between the private and the historical. The narrator is a "silent witness", but, by entering the third door of the shattered home (symbolizing the previous order), he confesses to complicity, putting himself in the position of someone who has no right to judge others. The death of the father marks the beginning of disintegration, the interregnum wrought by chaos.
In the story, the title, as is often the case with Bratic, is a kind of metaphorical capsule of the situation, yet the reader will not be able to grasp the actual situation until the very end. The two brothers are actors, and they do not seem to care about the existence of the third brother who is mentioned only in passing; the third brother appears when everyone thinks he has "long since been dead", and he appears to testify. Here, as in all the other stories, the narrator is someone who is ignored and who later testifies, relating what is remembered. He is also always a blood relative and, hence, a fellow-sufferer. The play on the words "brat-Bratic" ("brat" means brother) is no accident, as the discerning reader will realize.
This kind of narrator is one of the factors in the implicit poetics that come through in the very first paragraph of the first story: "If you never laid in ambush for the fox with Mijat and never inhaled the stink of the yellow tobacco from his coat (...) you won't grasp more than a fraction of how it was." Since we are not interested here in the theoretical implications of this notion, let us just note its "consequences". Its indicators are important to the literary technique. First of all, often hiding behind the use of "we children" playing with time and the distance between himself as he once was and his protagonists, on the one hand, and his later self (at the time of the narration) on the other, sometimes with irony and gentle ridicule, the narrator does not even dare to drew conclusions—lessons, but rather presents the interaction of fates and events, the merry-go-round of ups and downs, heightened by cruelty and evil, by showing that ever they are in win. This kind of narrator does not attempt to place the private and personal into the context of historical explanations: the personal is too close to him for it to be explained through some kind of impersonal events of a higher order: history overshadows all fates, but Bratic is less interested in history and politics than in the herd facts of personal experience: It would be forcing it to interpret this prose from some kind of historical standpoint. History here is only the form in which some of man's eternal problems appear: the death of the father here, and I quote, "annuls all politics, making them false".
In this collection, as in Bratic's novels Death of the Savior and Doubt In Biography, the father has the attributes of the creator and the always-absent savior. The father is a metaphor for the principle of order, for what one counterpoises to chaos. In the title story of the collection, we find a characteristic description of the summer in which the narrator-father dies: the description ends with the following words: "As though this summer had gotten out of control and as though everything were again plunging into chaos", to be followed a bit later by the boy's equally telling experience after his father's death: "You can still feel Father's eye on all things, controlling everything and managing everyone." The paradox, and Bratic's prose is full of paradoxes, is that even that previous order was not tailored to man: the father's eye and hand could be very heavy and cruel indeed, as witness the story Father and Son, where the motto has been taken from The Book of Prophets. The Old Testament motto is perfect here, the father torments the son, just as Jehovah, standing above or on the other side of good and evil, justice and injustice, tested Job, and the son strikes back the only way he knows how, with hate and insults. Using his narrative skill, Bratic takes the typically adolescent experience of the loss of a parent, the all-powerful figure in the patriarchal community, and transforms it into a symbol of the human yearning and need to resist chaos, while, and this is equally important, never once reaching for some lost paradise. In this context, when the savior is absent and paradise is only a year-need-for order, also symbolized by the absent father — literature emerges as the only haven left.
In Irons for the Fox, there is a detail that is quite marginal to the story itself: a hen comes up to the doorstep and starts "crowing like a rooster". According to folk legend, this means: "Somebody's wife will become cruel, will be older than her husband whom she will order and boss around." We take this as an element of strong local color, another thing that is common to the stories in this book. However, this superstition constitutes one of the connecting links between this story and the story The Runt, using the folklore motif of animal language. In the folklore version of the story, the man, who has almost had it because of his indulgence towards his wife, is taught a lesson by an ordinary rooster who shows him, that the male must always be king of his coop. Bratic wittily ties up this popular motif with the introduction of women's voting rights in the backwaters of Herzegovina. Only, as compared to the folklore version, here there is no happy end, because, to his astonishment and unpleasant surprise, his wife voted, showing that there is "something that depends" on her, too. Bratic's hero suddenly dies, and the whole thing is sealed, i.e. ended, with the sentence: "Nothing can abolish God's will when His is the strongest". This, basically humorous and ironic relativization of the new and old order brings us back to Brazil's poetics, where the tragic and the comic often converge, giving an ironic perspective, close to the modern reader, seeming to make hardship and evil more bearable. Literature is a kind of serious and necessary game where man and human affairs assume more adequate dimensions than those they usually acquire in 'more serious" circumstances and endeavors.
In Fall of the Plane, the narrator, remembering his own childhood, ends his description of a tragicomic escapade like this. "Assembly was convened — Spiro's finger again threateningly pierced the air. He said how it was all a deliberate trick, and that everyone would be punished. (As though there wasn't enough punishment at birth). But that did not soars the children as they ran around flying, buzzing and pretending to be the wings of a plane. Everything turned into a game, making fun of everything."
This ability to turn everything into "flying and buzzing", and so, in a way,
transcend it, is, with Bratic, a vitality that is inherent to literature. Combining
some of the finest traditions of the Serbian short story with great sensibility
and modern man's feeling of anxiety in a world no longer based on the principles
of harmony, i.e. a world no longer experienced as being based on these principles,
Radoslav Bratic has given us a book which will attract a wide reading audience.
Radoslav Bratić, Fear of the Tolling Bells
Srpska književna zadruga, Beograd, 1991, 190 pp.
In this sequence of fifteen stories entitled Fear of the Tolling Bells, Bratić describes his homeland of Herzegovina, created out of legends, miracles, archaic language and a powerful collective consciousness, seen through the eyes of a Boy who is characterized by resignation, fear and degradation at the hands of coarse and brutal adults. This child, guilty for everything from the Serbs' defeat at the Battle of Kosovo to small, daily mistakes that come crashing down on his head with beatings, is actually witness to the sad pictures of the present and someone who is expected in the future to rectify all the injustices which have been brought against his people. For his people live in the conviction that it has not been lauded enough, that it has been prevented from reaching its proper greatness, and that not even art can commendably express the glory of its past.
Bratić's Herzegovina, too often enshrouded in black in its history, created names of hundreds of devils and not one single name of God, uses dreams and legends, tales and a mythical consciousness to feed and care for itself, to glorify and mourn itself, and its inhabitants are the incorruptible guardians of language and memory, abstract goods and sparse karst; they are interpreters of world politics in which, they are convinced, some important Herzegovinian people, rebels and world travelers, babblers and lovers, have always been involved.
Bratić refracts Herzegovinian reality through mythical and literary marvels,
building out of Herzegovinian mysteries and legends a reality that increases
the mystical power of the stories which are concentrated around two basic themes:
fear of life and the power of narrative skill.