World Report Profile : Vladimir Arsenijevic : HOT YOUNG NOVELIST : At 29, he earns Yugoslavia’s top literary prize for a chronicle of his lost generation.
In a land where the young and talented are told to wait their turn, Vladimir Arsenijevic is the exception. He is the youngest writer ever awarded Yugoslavia’s most prestigious literary prize, for a chronicle of his lost generation.
Wearing wire-rimmed glasses and yesterday’s shave, the 29-year-old author explains that he inadvertently became the postmodern spokesman for urban Belgrade. “I didn’t intend to be identified this way. I wanted to tell a family story. I set it in the present--wartime--the time in which I happen to live. So my family tale turned into a nightmare.”
Convinced he had no chance to win the annual prize of the Belgrade magazine NIN, Arsenijevic was astonished when chosen over far more renowned authors.
The jury compared his debut novel, “In the Hold,” to “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. The work, the first of a planned quartet, is remarkable for its lack of self-pity and its matter-of-fact depiction of the hopelessness of life in monochromatic Belgrade. Despite the bleak scenario, it is not a cri de coeur , a work of passion. In fact, the subtitle is “A Soap Opera.”
Arsenijevic’s “family story” is about a husband and wife who, when war erupts, are expecting their first child. The conflict itself is peripheral--yet it tears apart their lives. In Serbia, where opposition to the war was tantamount to treason, the book is anti-war without mentioning details of the conflict.
“After all, nobody likes war,” the author says.
Arsenijevic captures the atmosphere of emptiness after the exodus of tens of thousands of people from Belgrade. His heroes, waiting for the birth of their son, cannot escape. But most of their friends have left rather than face a dark future.
“The telephone had stopped ringing. Before you could not get a moment’s peace,” he wrote.
“In the Hold” refers to the area below deck on a ship, where in the event of a wreck “you have little chance of surviving but you can remain alive the longest,” he says.
The anguished, yet at times amusing, story describes the mass draft in Serbia in 1991, when tens of thousands of Serbs were sent to the front against their will in an undeclared war against Croatia. Backed by the federal Yugoslav army, Serbs took up arms against Croatian independence in June, 1991.
While many went into hiding to avoid mobilization, one of the characters in the novel was so despondent when rejected by the army that he tried to join a Serbian paramilitary unit, only to be rejected again. Finally he swore he would go to the other side, to Croatia, because it paid better.
The main protagonists are part of urban subculture; Arsenijevic’s craft lies in making these antiheroes universal.
“People stop me on the street and say: ‘My brother was there’; ‘my son lives on the other side, in Zagreb, you can imagine how he feels’; or ‘he went to the front,’ ” he says. “They are ordinary people who identify with the characters.”
Arsenijevic believes that the older generation, which lived through World War II, has had an easier time adjusting to the violent disintegration of the former Yugoslav federation: “They could relate to what was happening (the war). They could get used to anything. We couldn’t.
“From the earliest age we traveled abroad, listened to music, watched movies, followed fashion and cultural trends. We see our generation as permanently disfigured by what happened.”
Arsenijevic himself is an unlikely celebrity, and he stands in stark contrast to Serbia’s popular culture, which overflows with gaudy stars.
In 1979, he formed the band Urban Guerrilla, which, he says, “was really bad. No one could play.” Then came Berlinerstrasse, which “was very highbrow because we had turned 17. We used to sing in German.”
He is well-read, but only finished high school. Under the Communist system, Arsenijevic was forced to choose a field of study early on. He picked cook-technician, because it gave him more time for his band. Later he did a stint as a chef in London.
Now just weeks after the NIN prize, “In the Hold” has won notice outside Yugoslavia. It will soon be made into a film, and is scheduled to be published this year in France and Sweden.
He is still surprised by his success, but life has changed little. He shares a two-bedroom apartment with his wife, son and parents. Unsure that he will be able to make a living as a writer, he has kept his job as a tour guide, taking groups to Greece.
Like the hero of his novel, Arsenijevic has remained in Belgrade, watching the exodus of his friends. The places he would like to visit, he says, must be “sunny with palm trees and nice architecture--either Catalonia or California.”
Arsenijevic is a remnant of a modern Belgrade that all but disappeared with the collapse of Yugoslavia.
“All of a sudden we were surrounded with very kitsch Cyrillic letters, and retro nationalist and monarchist imagery,” he says of the rise of nationalism in Serbia. “It is even stupider than Communist imagery, which at least is clean-cut with very nice red stars and hammers.”
He worries about the future for his family in Belgrade, irretrievably changed by three years of war in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia and by economic sanctions. “I look around and I see ugly faces, people with aggressive dogs, muscles and guns.
“When you’re a teen-ager you tend to follow the pack. I know the feeling. When I was 14 I used to get beat up all the time as a punk rocker. But they did it with sticks--I wonder what they do now. They probably shoot you.”
His novels capture the apathy gripping Serbia. “A few years ago, everybody thought if the people on top were removed, everything would be transformed. Ask them now, they would say that it would make no difference.”
“The Great Experimenter,” he says in reference to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who has been blamed by the West for the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, “tries something new all the time in his laboratory. From the rat’s perspective every new day brings another horror.”
But he doesn’t complain. “After all, history books describe the 12th Century in Europe as the Dark Ages. People were slaying each other. But somebody must have had a picnic.”