By Jovo Anđić
There are people who left their trail imprinted with the printing colour on brittle paper. They are the creatures of arts, the people with gift that only those ready to perfect their mastery get and those trying to elevate life. Their human duration is just a drop in the ocean of eternity; their masterpiece supersedes time and shines like a star even when they cease to exist.
We’ll start the story of Borislav Pekić, one of them, at a Pannonian plain farm, in an attic of his grandmother’s home in the village of Bavanište, at the time when he, as an eleven-year-old researcher discovered a treasure chest. But the treasure that he found in the chest with a rusted frame, a kind of across-the-ocean travel case, is not of ordinary kind. This one included: the dates of birth, marriage and death, joyful and sad events recorded in birth certificates, marriage certificates, records, family documents, and memories: a handful of clippings from newspapers, letters, daguerreotypes, and a gallery of unknown men and women and faraway cities, a whole mysterious world that would spark his imagination. Many years later, he admitted that there, on the lost continent, his Atlantis, he had experienced adventures that would not be surpassed by anything in terms of excitement, and that with the breaking of the case he had started his transgressive career of a novelist. That discovery affected his career more, he wrote, than reading Dostoevsky. As if the spirit of the past was then released, that had seized him and forced him to collect old newspapers, magazines, almanacs, letters, documents, and even receipts and prescriptions, and to make his home a kind of a tomb, where, he didn’t hide that, he felt the liveliest.
THE REBEL WITH A REASON
Borislav was born into a middle-class family as the only son of Vojislav and Ljubica Pekić. When the Second World War broke out, his father was the head of the administrative department of the Zeta Province in Cetinje, from where the Italian authorities banished him and his family to Serbia. Mother Ljubica was of Greco-cincar origin, and before she got married, she taught mathematics. She was a strong and practical woman. She used to say that no one had died from work, and that good upbringing was a universal weapon against all adversities. From her mother, to who he was closer, Borislav inherited rationality and the sense for organisation and from his father high moral principles and the sense of humour.
Since after the war he was not convicted, his father, as an experienced lawyer, received a highly ranked position in the federal administration of the new state in 1945. The Pekić family moved to Belgrade, to Malajnička Street, in Vračar neighbourhood. Borislav enrolled in the Third Men’s Gymnasium. It was as if the moving to Belgrade marked an end to a nice, certain period of his life. It was a much bigger change than just changing the scenery; the end of the war and the victory of the revolution made him aware of the decline of the middle class. “As a member of the class that had the power I felt defeated, dispossessed”, he later said. Already at the age of six, he learned to read from the “Politika” newspapers, and he was “politically” active already as an eight-year-old, and at the age of eleven, as a participant in the demonstrations against the Tripartite Pact, he was detained at his father’s police unit in Cetinje. Already as a high school student he began forming secret organisations that would fight against the new regime. His political maturity will be accelerated by the so-called “high school defascistisation”, a brutal process that he had experienced as an avowed opponent of the new regime in February 1946. He and 42 of his high school fellow students were publicly condemned as opponents of the regime, they went through the crowd of their ravaged peers, who beat them with their hands, sticks, and even chains. This kind of beating-up would later often be practiced on Goli Otok (N.B. an island in the Adriatic Sea where political prisoners were kept at the time of the communist regime in Yugoslavia) and it would get the name “hot rabbit”.
FIRST SCHOOL OF LIFE
Although he did not care much about the real school, he was in circumstances that to a wise man could be the school of life. Pekić himself did not believe in trouble as the sole master of life and inspiration. “Maybe happiness can teach a man something”, he would say.
The first opportunity to gain new experience will follow as a result of illegal anti-regime activities. As a direct response to the “high school defascistisation” the organisation “Union of the Democratic Youth of Yugoslavia” was formed. He was involved in its formation in the summer of 1947, during, lo and behold, the construction of the railway, in a youth work action, a typical model of shaping the collective spirit of the new young generation. As the political secretary of the General Board he wrote the statute of this anti-communist organisation. In youthful enthusiasm, the organisation functioned well; it had a lot of members in all Belgrade gymnasiums as well as in the majority of faculties.
On one November night in 1948, he was arrested and taken to the investigative department of the State Security Service, to the “gloomy house” at Obilićev Venac. That was how “a criminal investigation against Borislav Pekić, an art student and a journalist of Glas, began.” He became one of, as he wrote, “people from the attic”; actually, there were cells there. Pekić would refer to his nearly six-month stay here as his imprisonment “apprenticeship” days.
At the age of eighteen he was sentenced as a serious criminal to “detention and hard labour of 15 (fifteen) years in prison… confiscation of all property and loss of civil rights… for three years…” He spent five years in penal and correctional institutions in Sremska Mitrovica and Niš after having been pardoned. One of the most important things he learned was discovering himself. He wrote: “You learn how fast you are only when you are faced with a tiger; how honourable when you find the money and no one sees you; how sensible when you are asked to do the impossible; whether you are brave only when it is not necessary to be brave; how good only when you are to cope with the evil; and how crazy when you are standing on the bank of the river where a child is drowning, and you can’t swim…” as if this was written by an ancient Chinese wise man and not someone who was doing time in communist jails.
Although he used to say that prisons were to him just a waste of time, the result of his stay in them was not at all insignificant. From a temporal and spatial distance, Borislav Pekić wrote nearly fifteen hundred pages, fictionalised biographies in three volumes “The Years Eaten by the Locusts”. This kind of anthropological study of the so-called prison civilisation, which represents an anatomical cut into the fabric of a time, has put Pekić side by side with Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Shalamov, among the great writers who, writing about life on the other side of the wall, created masterpieces. Apart from the prison experience, he also earned tuberculosis, from which he had never fully healed.
He started writing seriously, as he revealed in one of his interviews, when, as advised by his mother, he started writing a diary, in order to improve his terrible handwriting. At one point, during the convict days, those diaries grew from a personal confession into a story about others.
He was pardoned on the Republic Day in 1953. Soon after, he began studying experimental psychology at the Faculty of Philosophy and writing screenplays for which he was awarded at anonymous competitions. Then he got married and had a daughter. He dropped out of university and started working in “Lovćen Film” as a dramatist and a screenwriter. He confirmed “his definite commitment to art, literature and public life” with the publication of articles under the pseudonyms in magazines “Vidici” and “Danas”.
“Borislav, I’ve read the manuscript of ‘The Time of Miracles’, you are a writer,” Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz solemnly told him on the phone. It will be his first published book that came out public in 1965. Mihiz will forever remain Pekić’s first privileged reader and a unique critic, the person whose judgement he trusted the most.
“I used to dream,” Pekić said, “about becoming an explorer of unexamined areas, the discoverer of undefined secrets, a scientist, a traveller towards the stars, an archaeologist, in short, someone who has found something, something particularly important for Mankind (in which I believed then). I became a writer when I realised that I had neither the mental nor physical nor social conditions for all that. But now I regret it.”
LIVING IN A FOREIGN LAND
“I went to a foreign land for two reasons. I felt fallen, sunken, ‘stuck’ in reality deeper than my idea of independence of art allowed… So, I went afar to regain the inner artistic freedom. And even more – my time.” His wife, Ljiljana, an architect, got a job and moved with their daughter, Aleksandra, to London. Bora’s passport was confiscated, and only after nine long months, after WINNING the NIN Award and after the foreign press wrote about it, his passport was returned to him and he joined his family.
Now he could engage in writing, he had the time, liberty and existential security, provided by his entirely devoted wife. Thousands of pages of novels, plays, screenplays, essays, diary entries emanated from his workshop. He retyped his novelistic cycle “Golden Fleece” of SEVEN books, on three and a half thousand pages, as many as six times on an ordinary machine.
He wrote in “Letters from Abroad”: “the right place is where you grow. Because, of all the lands foreign that the man is convicted to, his own one is still the most tolerable.” He extended his stay in London, originally defined as “some time”, to twenty years.
DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
He was saying that while staying in a foreign country, he learned more about us than about them. He wrote about them and us in “Letters from Abroad”, “A Sentimental History of the British Empire” and he spoke via BBC Radio in London. An exciting time came with the announcement of democratic changes. He was one of the founders of the Democratic Party, a vice-chairman and a participant in the reconstruction of the magazine “Demokratija”. He considered it his duty to help the restoration of democracy. He was a democrat both in the private and public life, aware that democracy was a compromise above all. “…I was brought up as a democrat,” he used to say. “I try to act like a democrat, and to overcome in myself the innate human, totalitarian, I would say, almost anthropological antidemocratic features that originate from selfishness, lust for power, vanity and wicked experience with people. I believe in democracy as the BEST of all wicked systems, and certainly the most bearable one…”
THE PRESENCE OF MR. PEKIĆ
Of fragile health from his youth, he lived with the knowledge that would not live long so he kept rushing himself to complete as many things as he could: “There’s so little time left before 1990…” He thought faster than he could write. A whole decade after his death, with the help of the magic that is called tape recorded, the recorded voice of Pekić reveals his thoughts and himself to even those who spent decades with him, his wife, and through her to his readers too.
“Soon after my husband’s death,” Ljiljana Pekić says, “I found his tapes on which he recorded ideas for his future books. I listened to them for the first time then… I had the impression that Pekić was retelling me a story over the phone what he was doing, what problems tortured him while he was writing…“ Then came new pages, new volumes of books containing diary entries, notes, and correspondence. She paid yet another tribute to Borislav Pekić when she submitted a rehabilitation request to the democratic authorities, which the court adopted in 2007.
“I think that to be a gentleman one first of all needs to be generous, brave, honest, modest and tolerant.” This sentence would briefly describe Borislav Pekić, but he would add that he is not tolerant, but rather well brought-up.
He approached any matter that he dealt with meticulously, whether he was writing about it or dealt with it practically, such as garden cultivation. He went to London, as I said, given his modesty, as an uneducated man to become one of our most educated writer, a true erudite. He died in London of lung cancer. The urn with his ashes was transferred to Belgrade and rests in the Alley of Deserving Citizens in the New Cemetery. On a marble plate on the wall of the columbarium there are eight digits that bound his earthly time, 1930-1992, and one word which should summarise all that during that time he dealt with – writer.
We thank the Pekić family on conceding the photographs and documents.