THE EXPERIENCE OF DIFFERENCE – AN ESSAY ON DANUBIAN CULTURES

I


I often wonder about how concepts of the Danube and Central Europe overlap. For me, the Danubian and Central European regions are not one and the same, yet I also feel a closeness between the two. This also applies with regard to that experience of difference that characterises the people of the Danubian region as well as those of Central Europe.

The Danube is a road without dust, as people in the Balkans used to say. In Serbia, the Danube was, for centuries, a meeting point of two civilisations, the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, as well as a point of contact between two religions, Christianity and Islam. Centuries of life under Habsburg or Ottoman rule have left indelible marks on the customs and traits of the Serb populations living under one rule or the other. For the Danube represented simultaneously a bridge and a boundary. This dustless road passes through the heartland of Serbia, dividing it even today into two distinct worlds, as it does its capital city Belgrade. Difference is always something to be treasured.

In multiethnic Vojvodina there are many communities in which large numbers of ethnicities live side by side. Consider the town of Zrenjanin (Nagybecskerek) where twenty nationalities live side by side, with four of their languages serving as official languages of the local government. Even though it lies on the banks of a tributary, the Tamish, not the Danube itself, Zrenjanin is still a Danubian city, as well as a border city, which it has been for centuries.

II


Whenever I came across a border town or city, be it Trieste, Subotica, Szeged or Zrenjanin, it always felt as though I was entering some kind of interspace. Perhaps, that is what happens to a person who lives too long in a small city on the coast, which, when viewed from terra firma, was at the end of it, but viewed from the sea is at the very beginning. I grew up in Pula, a city between a beginning and an end, a city-interval. It was the sort of place where, in the wake of turbulent moments of history, final accounts were settled. When in the serene surroundings of peace conference halls new borders were drawn, border towns suddenly wandered off a few kilometres to the east or to the west, to the north or to the south, while still remaining on one side of a border. Once the easternmost outpost of a state, they would find themselves the westernmost point of a new state, with a new flag, national anthem, official language and state holidays.

In these cities, the official languages may have been German and Hungarian, or German and Italian, or German and Serbian, or German and Croatian, but all of them used the same postage stamps, the same currency, in all of them the same forms had to be filled out, they were all on the same railroad schedule. These cities so different from one another could exist within a single network of national health insurance and other social security benefits, under a single judicial system, share the same national post office, armed forces and police. And when, as a consequence of major historical disturbances, new states were established overnight, old ways and habits went on to survive for decades, even longer, like stowaway passengers missing from the customs passenger list. They are living testimony of another age, much more reliable than dates and facts from history textbooks.

III

From an observation post atop our Kalemegdan fortress, we denizens of Belgrade observe the Danube and everything that it brings us through time with particular attention and a certain amount of anxiety, for we know all too well that, if we are to make our way through Central Europe, we must follow the Danube, but always upstream.

However much it may cherish and appreciate its seas, the fact remains that Central Europe consists primarily of river nations. The first major civilisation known to us came into being on the right bank of the Danube, a culture so ancient that it cannot be claimed by anybody today in terms of nationality. It is a marvellous paradox that the key archaeological site revealing the said culture, Lepenski Vir, lies on the Serbian side of the Djerdap Gorge. But, the Danube attains alternately, in its course through this canyon between Serbia and Romania, the largest and the smallest width of any major river in Europe, something that writers and politicians curiously ignore in cavalier fashion. CentralEuropeisanagglomerationofdifferentworlds;itconsistsofsomany different, yet similar “others”. Nevertheless, there are things in it that cannot be discarded as worn-out clichés, such as well preserved red velvet seats in first class railway cars, shiny brass locks and doorknobs in hotels in Opatija, the promenades of Viennese parks, marble table tops of pastry shops in Trieste or in Budapest, train conductors’ Franz Josef moustaches and blue bow ties, the same architectural style in train stations from Istria to Galicia, from the Tirol to the Banat. For, if clichés were the shorthand version of truth, it would be easy to reduce Central Europe to a need for order, for well-defined coordinates. But, we know better.

Few geographic entities contain so many nationalities, cultures, languages and religious denominations as Central Europe; so much living history, a breathing past embodied in its literature.

There are few regions on this planet whose myth has lasted as long as that of Mitteleuropa. Perhaps the reason for the popularity and enduring interest in this part of the world lies in the fact that its existence has been transposed into literature. Works of literature are the only territories one canal ways revisit. That is why literature is, in the long run, more powerful than any kind of daily politics. That is also why Central Europe has survived wars, peace conferences and iron curtains. Behind the Iron Curtain, the concept of Central Europe lived on in literature. During the Eastern Bloc era, the nations contained within were caught in a new kind of political geography. They were guests in a political construct, Eastern Europe, their new host from the end the Second World War.

As Europe was partitioned into blocs, the very term Central Europe in the East – wherever and by whomever it may have been used – carried with it an element of subversion. A Hungarian or a Slovenian, a Croatian or a Czech, a Serb or a Slovak, they all would have inscribed in that term a degree of dissatisfaction with the actual world in which they were living. Bureaucracy was the operational system on which their world was based.

The Danube is not only an artery of Central Europe. It is today a mighty royal house, which has united an area containing so many different identities. The crown the Danube wears can never be lost. Its banks got closer again.

IV

For centuries, the Danubian region has brought different peoples together. They would live side by side whether the river were a boundary separating them or a bridge between them. Hence, the region is inhabited by a multitude of “others” who lived together for decades, sometimes even for an entire century within the same state, sharing the same everyday reality, exchanging and assimilating each other’s habits and customs over time.

At different times, all the nationalities and ethnicities of the Danubian region have experienced both being in the majority as well as the minority. Either status was a result of the vicissitudes of history, for instance, Serbs in Vojvodina were an ethnic minority in the days of the K und K monarchy, Germans were an ethnic minority in post-WWI Yugoslavia.

 No matter how dangerously historical circumstances would occlude, at times, the vascular system of the Danubian region, and regardless of threats of gangrene in its various points, the overall bloodstream was never stopped. And these days, thanks to the disappearance of opposing blocs dividing Europe, the Danube is running faster.

When favourable historical conditions concur, border-crossing gates are lifted, and eventually removed by political decisions from above. Centuries-old enmity between France and Germany has been replaced by their role as dual pillar of the European Union. On the other hand, some regimes still subsist in which individual freedoms do not have convertible currency status, in which “the other” is experienced not as an opportunity for the enrichment of one’s identity,but as a threat to it. In those regimes, cosmopolitanism is a stowaway passenger, travelling in the hold. But let us not underestimate the power of the hold. Sooner or later comes a time for stowaway passengers to emerge on deck.

According to Bergson, there is no such thing as absolute oblivion. Even when we forget a password, we haven’t lost forever the content it protected. In the seeming banality of the habits of present everyday life survives remembrance of another time and space. The memories of good times on deck are kept in the hold. The remembrance of good old times of peaceful life grows into a myth, and that myth is encoded above all in literature.

Works of literature are places one can always revisit. They establish memory of times and places in which we have never lived, but which do not have to be excluded, for that reason, from our experience. How else I, who was born in Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia, would have any memory of everyday life in Italo Svevo’s Trieste, in Dezső Kosztolányi’s Szabadka, or in Elias Canetti’s Vienna. Where does this recognition come from? From whence comes my closeness to Joseph Roth, as if we were contemporaries, my ability to identify with his characters, strewn over the vast area from Galicia to the Adriatic Sea and along the Danube, all the way to the Black Sea? Presumably, it does not come merely from the few bits and pieces of the K und K monarchy still preserved amid the Fifties’ architectural style of socialist Pula. Much more plausibly, my world view has been influenced by the presence of other nationalities where I lived, and has been marked by their cultures and customs.

The biotope in which we grew up had inscribed in us programmes for recognising and experiencing the other. The very background of this situation is determined by whether our nationality is in the majority or in the minority in the society in which we live. The experience of being an ethnic minority teaches us to be tolerant, for it is a condition of orderly relations; it offers us an opportunity to think of the other in a subtler and more nuanced fashion, because that kind of situation changes our perspective. Nothing in it belongs to us as a matter of course; we are never given a blank cheque for anything. We are faced with a situation in which, due to our twofold affiliation, we have access to the territory of the other, acquiring thus the experience not unlike that of a double agent. For there are two sides of us, and our idea of loyalty is more complex. Multiple demands we must satisfy while defining our own position do not permit us to adopt any kind of simplistic world view.

V

I often think of Kafka. The lesson of his experience is unfathomable. Let us consider for a moment Kafka’s situation. He lived in the Czech city of Prague. Nevertheless, he did not write in Czech, but in German, which was a minority language in Bohemia. Yet, Kafka was not a German, but a Jew who didn’t write in Hebrew, to whom Judaism did not seem much of a solution, who once wrote to his father: “Your Judaism is an empty shell for me”. This, indeed, is Kafka’s monstrous  situation,  his  uprootedness,  homelessness,  privation.  A  German among Czechs, a Jew among Germans, and vice versa, a German among Jews, and a Czech among Germans, Kafka was always a member of a marginal minority without country or home. (It was, nonetheless, his choice among a number of possibilities.) Wasn’t it precisely Kafka who left us a legacy of experience of the necessity of dislocation, of slip sliding, of the necessity of rejecting an identity that would limit us to a single shore? For, if we are of more than one shore, the other may be an unfathomable whirlpool, but we are still safe from drowning in it. Identity is always an alloy. It is not a structure created once and for all, but rather a process without a beginning or an end, just like the universe itself. Life is growth, and growth is exchange, a physiological activity of the body and the mind. Exchange is only possible with the other. The other creates us. We too are somebody’s “other”. I believe that the Danubian region is the first part of Europe to have, willy-nilly, implemented coexistence. That has produced both sweet and bitter fruits. The reservedness, the tendency toward remaining more often than not within one’s own walls, always keeping closed the windows facing the street, the palaces built as though they were originally intended to house armed forces, but, for some obscure reason, that purpose was altered in the course of construction, all of that is, perhaps, due to the fact that the other had to be accepted, even if it would leave a sour taste in one’s mouth. On the other hand, non-interference with the other is also tolerance. But, the most important is the fact that the ethnicities of the Danubian region have a tradition of being accustomed, more than most of the others, to living together, even if they are not fond of each other, and have very different historical backgrounds and religious preferences.

Only in Vienna can one see a large number of cafés with rows of tables, with only one chair to a table. May it be an arrangement for those wishing to live as sideline observers, or for those taking only a brief time out to glance inside them, to survey their own magnetic field? It is not an accident that precisely Vienna, the unofficial capital of the Danubian region, should have created this peculiar institution – “the Viennese café”. Alfred Polgar proposed an exact and lucid definition of that institution: “Café is frequented by those wishing to be, simultaneously, alone and in the company of others”.

Such is the topography of the Danubian region: many nationalities, each at its own table, but together in the same café.
 

Translation by Vladimir Aranaelović

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