Ideas Letters on Democracy | 2

Dear Arnon, Let’s give this Europe of ours the soul it deserves

In response to the letter in which the Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg compared Europe to a ‘swingers' club’, Slovenian author Drago Jančar emphasises the need for deeper understanding and empathy among Europeans.

Published on 30 May 2023 at 16:43

Dear Arnon,

Thank you for calling to mind in these uncertain times a certain war of long ago and the people of Sarajevo, who often felt isolated and forgotten by Europe and the world at large during the many years of siege. Now, it seems to be different with Ukraine, and there appears to be much more solidarity. But it is for the people of the occupied towns and cities, who are woken up by air-raid sirens, to say whether they can really feel that solidarity. Oksana Zabuzhko is undoubtedly the person to talk about this in our debate.

Less than a year after Susan Sontag directed Beckett's play Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo, I found myself in the besieged city too. I was part of a group of four writers who had travelled to Sarajevo to express our solidarity with our fellow writers living in the city, which was exposed to constant shelling from the surrounding hills.

But they were in need of financial help more than friendship and kind words, so we had cash physically strapped to us under our flak vests, quite a substantial sum of money, raised by PEN International to make life easier for Bosnian writers. It really wasn't easy for them; one of them burnt almost his entire library to keep himself and his family warm in the freezing Sarajevo winter when there was a power and heating blackout.

Susan Sontag in Sarajevo

A question about civilisation and barbarism in Europe that Susan Sontag had posed in Sarajevo was echoed by all four of us, a bunch of rather odd and bizarre travelling writers, wearing military helmets and bulletproof vests. When we arrived at Sarajevo airport in a military transport aircraft, surrounded by tall fortifications, machine guns and barbed wire, we were greeted by the ironic signpost for the UNPROFOR airlift: Maybe Airlines. And on the narrow strip of land that we had to cross to leave the airport, French peacekeepers had nailed up a street sign they had brought from Paris: Champs-Elysées

As the tragedy of people dying amidst gunfire and shelling unfolded, and immersed in deprivation on the brink of starvation, the will to survive was often sustained with quite dark humour, and by cherishing the hope that Europe, the beacon of civilisation, would come to the rescue. Waiting for Godot? A taxi driver who had become highly skilled in dodging the streets targeted by hilltop snipers told me he drove a taxi by day and spent his nights crouching down with his rifle in the defensive lines above the city. “I’m waiting for my Godot there,” he joked.

Life under communist dictatorships, with their pompous illusions of social equality, was completely different from life under parliamentary democracy and capitalism

Susan Sontag, who came to Sarajevo from New York, might have had a better understanding of the intertwining of Europe's wonderful cultural and social achievements with its unbelievably brutal nationalist and ideological delusions, which took place during the turbulent century that began in 1914 with the assassination in Sarajevo.

Perhaps she understood it better than many Europeans. And I can see that you too, Arnon, understand it very well. Of course you do, since you are a writer, and it is our job to talk about good and evil, about light and darkness, which, like civilisation and barbarism, dwell not only in one nation, but often in one person. I fear, though, that many, perhaps most, Europeans are prone to prejudice and simplification.

The tribes of Europe

In February 1993, I was invited to Paris to attend a debate ...des écrivains, des intellectuels, des politiques, des plasticiens, venus de toute l'Europe… as the invitation said. It was to be about the massive changes that had taken place in Europe after the violent political and social upheavals in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war in Yugoslavia. When I arrived at the Palais de Chaillot, a giant banner with a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the background had been unfurled in front of the large windows, which read “Les tribus ou l'Europe?” 

The tribes or Europe? It dawned on me immediately that I had been invited to the event as a representative of the tribal part of Europe. Seemingly, for the organisers of this grand debate, the economic and social disintegration of communist societies after street revolutions, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of Yugoslavia (where nationalist and partly also religious struggles were raging) was nothing but a treacherous road to tribal societies – to barbarism. A French philosopher and a Polish essayist objected to this simplification from the outset. Nevertheless, the debate that followed elicited many words of hope for a united, tolerant Europe of solidarity and human rights.

But I simply could not shake off the caption at the Palais de Chaillot; it came to me in a flash many years later, at the beginning of the new century and millennium, when the “big bang” also brought about a formal unification, or rather I should say incorporation of the countries of Eastern Europe in Western Europe. I often think that this process failed to bring about any deeper insight into how the people of Eastern Europe actually lived.

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A person who had spent a large part of their life in, say, Lyon or Ghent had a different life experience from someone who had lived in Prague or Vilnius. Life under communist dictatorships, with their pompous illusions of social equality, was completely different from life under parliamentary democracy and capitalism. Thirty years on, the Berlin Wall is still in the minds of many Europeans.

Wagging finger at Eastern societies

Poland poet Czesław Miłosz speaks vividly about this. To quote from his book Native Realm (Rodzinna Europa): “The rotating apple of the Earth is tiny and there are no more white spots on it. But it is enough to come here, in Europe, from one of its eastern or southern provinces, where travellers rarely go, and you are already a newcomer from Septentrion, about which it is known only that it is cold.”

Many people in the West still believe that their index finger should be wagging at Eastern European society as if to lecture them on democracy and the rule of law. In the East, however, there are many people whose high hopes were dashed once they realised that their incorporation in the European Union would not change their lives overnight from misery to heavenly prosperity. For years, they had been brought up in the utopia of a communism that persistently failed to materialise. 

When the utopia ultimately collapsed, they immediately clung to another utopian idea: Europe. Prosperity; democracy; paradise valley; everything will come naturally. But nothing comes naturally. I myself said it once in a debate, “We dreamt of democracy, but woke up in capitalism,” – and in a rather ruthless form as well, since all Eastern European societies had to deal with transition problems: privatisation, social divisions, and the influence of powerful groups of nouveaux riches on politics, the media and other spheres of life.

In Germany, which you obviously know very well and appreciate highly, even now a person who lived in the GDR is called an “Ossi”, which implies something quite different, and not necessarily good, compared to someone who lived in the West and is called a “Wessi”. Perhaps, Arnon, some may find your affection for the Germans a bit strange, especially if one comes from a part of the world that has had, to put it mildly, a bad experience of them in the past. But I can understand you to a degree. 

Know what democracy is not

Perhaps it is the Germans who now understand the European idea best. Anyone who wants to understand Europe should walk through Berlin's museums of the 20th century or talk to educated Germans who, owing to their experience of living under two dictatorships, have outdone the nationalist and ideological insanities. Heiner Müller describes it well in his autobiography, which he subtitled, Life in Two Dictatorships

It is therefore a good idea to gain at least some knowledge of European history in order to contemplate the future. It is only when we know what democracy is not that we can have a fair understanding of what democracy is, or should be. 

As writers, we would prefer people to engage with our literature more than with our public interventions on social issues. Sometimes this is simply not possible. It was during the war in Yugoslavia that my first major translation into German (and, incidentally, into Dutch shortly afterwards as De galeislaaf, 1995), the novel The Galley Slave was published. What a thrill for a relatively young writer! The book had been beautifully designed, and the author prepared a number of lovely things to say about it for an interview – if anyone was interested in it at all, which hopefully they would be. 

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the lights were on all day and the TV cameras were buzzing at the stand of an Austrian publisher that also published books by Serbian and Croatian writers, as we explained our views on the war... My beautiful book lay unnoticed on the table and hardly anyone looked at it. In the evening, as the publishers were tidying up their stands and the lights were being switched off, a female reporter from a German radio station came to see me. “Madam,” I said, “Would you be so kind as to ask me something about this novel that has just been published?” The lady smiled amicably. “Of course,” she said, “tell me.” And I did talk for a few minutes. “Very well,” she said, “but I would like to ask you: did Slovenia, by seceding, cause the war in Yugoslavia?”

The future as a whish list

Where is the point at which we stop being artists and become perhaps merely a tad more original as interpreters of social and political situations? I think that our books could often provide a deeper insight into the social circumstances and human fallacies that have caused major crises – provided they were read, of course.

The future? It could be just a wish list. For now, it is good to know why and how we have arrived at the Europe we have. For now, it is good to know that we have arrived at this state by way of the majestic heights of civilisation and the deep lows of barbarism. It is good to know that, at least in my opinion, the Enlightenment was the turning point that instilled into European societies the most important social and cultural postulates that now allow us to speak of liberal democracy, openness, solidarity and tolerance. 

Surely, the Europe of tomorrow will not be the Europe of today. Generations are coming of age who are broadening the horizons for understanding the “other” and “inclusivity”, whatever we mean by that. Of course, who can understand this if not the writer? But it was the Enlightenment, along with human rights, that set the framework for and restrictions on the ensuing, i.e., liberal, democracy of today.

It is not a limitless space for arbitrary social experimentation, but consists of the rule of law, secularism, freedom of speech, and therefore also a set of rules that make living together bearable. And these factors will have to be respected in the future too, if we are not to find ourselves being caught up again, as we have been so many times in European history, in violent social experiments in which we grab each other’s throats.

When we are tempted to talk about the old, tired Europe, about the sometimes pointless labyrinths of European bureaucracy, about egoism and intolerance, when angry thinkers forecast Europe’s decline, let us remember why, after all, so many people beyond its borders want to live in it? Let us ask the Ukrainian people why they are prepared to fight for such a life? Could it be that the idea of European values is more visible and better understood in societies beyond its borders than within Europe itself?

The soul of Europe

One of the architects of the pragmatic Europe that we have today, and in which we feel relatively comfortable, and which so many people beyond its borders find so attractive, was Jacques Delors, the architect of European integration. It was Delors who saw in the early 1990s that political and economic unification alone was not enough to sustain it in the long term. As if frightened by his own pragmatism, he cried out that Europe needed its “soul”. 

Even for a writer, the notion of a “soul of Europe” sounds somewhat fictional. But isn't it art, especially literary art, often critical, ambiguous, uncertain, uncomfortable, the very European soul, which reflects what happens in every soul: moments of joy and sadness, elation and despair, moments of self-love but also of the guilty conscience that pounces on us in the wakeful hours of the night because of our actions? 

Needless to say, I don’t offer our books as textbooks on understanding and tolerance. “All art is quite useless,” said Oscar Wilde in his sarcastic style. Nevertheless, I humbly imagine that our books can, in their own way, answer the question of who we are, where we come from and also where we are going, to those who want to read them. As individuals and as a community in all its diversity.

All the best, Arnon; see you soon in Amsterdam.

Drago Jančar

This letter is one of the “Letters on Democracy”, a project of the 4th Forum on European Culture taking place in June 2023 in Amsterdam. Organised by De Balie, the Forum focuses on the meaning and future of democracy in Europe, bringing together artists, activists and intellectuals to explore democracy as a cultural rather than a political expression.
For the “Letters on Democracy”, five writers envision the future of Europe in a chain of five letters initiated by Arnon Grunberg. The writers – Arnon Grunberg, Drago Jančar, Lana Bastašić, Oksana Zabuzhko and Kamel Daoud – come together during the Forum, in a conversation about the Europe that lies ahead of us and the role of the writer in it.

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