Once she said: “Whoever survives this deserves a medal for bravery.” She didn’t survive, but she did earn a medal for bravery.
It’s been twenty years since the death of Biljana Jovanovic. A photograph of her stayed around in one of the rooms at the Center for Cultural Decontamination (CZKD) in Belgrade, and it’s still there. It’s the one from the exhibition called “Life is the Devil’s Business, So What Are We Angels Doing Here?” (This was an exhibition on the tenth anniversary of her death.) Rosa, Biljana’s aunt, asked me for the picture back, several times; and I always told myself I’ll do it, I’ll do it tomorrow – and now Rosa isn’t here anymore. I never did return the picture, and now I have no one to return it to.
Everyone who enters Room 101 (that’s what we call it) asks: “Who is this?” “Who’s that in the picture?” “Whose photo is that?”
Pavle, a psychologist and a very wise man, Biljana’s brother who lived in the canyon of the Moraca River, is also gone. He too spent his final days in the care of Professor Vasa Antunovic, the greatest of all neurosurgeons, to whom many of us feel an enduring bond because of his great devotion to Biljana Jovanovic and her illness, and to Pavle’s. He explained to her what was going to happen and how it would take place. Biljana Jovanovic knew how closely one could become acquainted with death.
My soul, my one and only.
If anybody can become unforgettable, then it will be Biljana Jovanovic, as I can see on Google, where lots of photographs of her are all jumbled together. A lot has been destroyed and created in the meantime, but Biljana Jovanovic still exists. When I think of her, when I remember, I always hear Hamlet’s sentence about loving Ophelia with the strength of a thousand brothers. She’s identified with everything that we lost, because Biljana was a homeland. And we are still losing, with ever greater intensity and in ever great quantities – not just in terms of money, but also meaning.
It is exceptionally important that we remember Biljana Jovanovic.
The time has come to recapitulate. While in Belgrade during one of his sojourns at BITEF (the Belgrade International Theatre Festival), a central figure in the relations between the two German states at the time, in the 1980s, the tremendous writer Heiner Müller, gave the following answer to a question about how it was possible for an intelligent woman like Ulrike Meinhof to resort to violence: “Sometimes a society is such that it leaves people no choice but to spit on it.”
Biljana Jovanović wrote a play about Ulrike Meinhof.
She also wrote the drama Leti u goru kao ptica (untranslated, Fly Like a Bird into the Mountains), which in the 1980s was put on by Atelje 212. Vladimir Milcin directed Soba na Bosforu (untranslated, A Room on the Bosphorus) in Bitolj; later, in the ’90s, the interruption of Milcin’s production of Sveti Sava was “arranged.” I always thought about what Biljana would have done on that evening, faced with the break with one world, the world of peace, and the establishment of another world, one of violence.
Prose, plays, and stacks of texts about a reality that seemed like a nightmare.
When we look at it “from a historical perspective,” the book Vjetar ide na jug i obrce se na sever (untranslated, The Wind Blows South and Will Turn to the North), her antiwar correspondence with Marusa Krese, Rada Ivekovic, and Radmila Lazic, is the most detailed and important document, written achievement, eyewitness account of the Civil Resistance Movement in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, of the organization of that resistance, and of the anti-war movement in general. Biljana was at the heart of every action and actually at the heart of anti-war politics in their entirety.
At the opening of the exhibition “Life is the Devil’s Business” ten years ago, Primoz Bebler was with us. He was the director of the Dusko Radovic Theater (where many anti-war activities at one time had their start, at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars, of course) and also a civilas, a civil society activist, not to mention being an ally and friend of Biljana. Right then, on the television set in our “garage” a clip was running of the coffin of Slobodan Milosevic on display, with some very gussied up Russian generals in attendance and a talk by the actress Ivana Zigon. We watched it and realized at one point that Primoz, who is no longer with us, was crying.
The sight of all of us there like that was very similar to what had transpired ten years earlier at the anniversary of the founding of “Women in Black.” Amidst all of our equipment, placards, and books, we had been in mourning for Biljana, who had just then, twenty years ago now, passed away.
That was 1996. Now it’s 2016.
“Alas empty sea, o barren waves.” (Laza Kostic)
There she was, in the churchyard at Sopocani, where she intended to disarm the soldiers who, under the guise of guarding the monastery, were also keeping watch over the city of Novi Pazar; and there’s Miladin Zivotic, a full professor and the oldest among us, trying to get her, Biljana, to “disarm” and calm down, before things got out of hand. “Put down that rifle,” Biljana ‘ordered.’
Fly like a bird into the mountains.
Later, in the bus, when we were returning to Belgrade, there was a steady stream of witty jokes by (Ivan) Colovic and Biljana and our friend Budo, until finally we were all singing.
“Black Veil” (1992, the largest antiwar demonstration in Belgrade, marking the blockade of Sarajevo) and Biljana’s pale, tender, kind face, looking like it was encircled by a halo of something special and untouchable. That is how righteous women look. Her “theater of cruelty” (first of all be strict and cruel to oneself) consisted of the proposition and intention of exchanging her life and the lives of thousands of other willing people for the lives of the residents of besieged Sarajevo. We go there, they come here. For her there was no “there,” and no “others” existed. Everyone was we, and I, I and we, freedom and responsibility.
The entire world, especially its better half, still talks today about the Resistance. The truth is, the talk is of resistance in the past, especially the European past. Isn’t this historicity also an alibi for the absence of resistance from today’s reality?
The energy of rebellion carried by Biljana’s heroes and heroines (the novel Avala Is Falling) was Biljana’s own energy, which launched her into every decisive moment of her life, political or artistic; she did not, you see, separate the political from the aesthetic, something that both signifies and will continue to signify the indivisibility of ideas and actions. That’s what is missing to such a great extent, missing to the point of pain and grief, right down to the empty eyes of people looking into the unknown, of which they are afraid, awaiting a non-existent certainty. She would do anything, Biljana would, for those eyes not to be empty. Above all, she fought against fear, in every way, with words and deeds.
Back in the early 1990s, and later, during the wars for the demolition of Yugoslavia, either hope persisted, or the awareness that Yugoslavia was destroyed had not yet prevailed. There was a trace, a bloody thread, of possibility for Yugoslavia – despite everything – to be saved, retained, not to be given up, for that to be averted; this thought and feeling, this thread, is what comprised, through its enormous propulsive energy, the resistance, and these things made action grow out of mourning. It wasn’t illusion, but power, wielded by Biljana Jovanović. Moving, traveling, in the epicenter, Belgrade, acting in opposition, while embracing and greeting everyone “outside,” everywhere. Back then this wasn’t called “sending a message.” It wasn’t a message; it was truth, and love. It wasn’t a message but rather a state of being, an attitude. Resistance is an act of love.
In CZKD, 2009: the play Zatvor podunavske regije (A Prison for Danubia), based on the four published dramas of Biljana Jovanovic: Centralni zatvor, Ulrike Majnhof, Soba na Bosforu, and Leti u goru kao ptica, adapted and directed by Zlatko Pakovic.
“A Prison for Danubia arose from the abridgment of and interactions between the dramatic works of Biljana Jovanovic, by which the more energetic and explosive aspects of her playwriting, latent in each of the pieces individually, were realized. A Prison for Danubia rests on the obsessive theme of its author: people as political and emotional animals in enforced isolation” (from the program).
It’s important to think about Biljana. It is important to remember. And to act on that memory.
“Long live the Civil Resistance Movement” (Biljana Jovanovic). Long live Oliver Frljic!
Translated by John K. Cox