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STORY ABOUT MY WRITING

Gordana Kuic - STORY ABOUT MY WRITING

There is nothing without a story. Il faut que le roman raconte, a novel must have a story, says the great Stendhal and I agree. I started writing or started with written storytelling not realizing what I was really doing at the beginning of the eighties of the last century not with the idea to become a writer but to preserve the memory of five exceptional women, sisters Salom (my mother Blanka, and my aunts Laura, Nina, Klara and Riki). What really happened was that in my first trilogy I told the history of all Sephardic Jews of Sarajevo, Bosnia, even the Balkans in the duration of one century! I realized this fact only when I read David Albahari’s review.

My first novel The Scent of Rain in the Balkans was based on family fortunes and misfortunes told by my mother who has been spiritus movens of all my writing attempts. I wrote it and rewrote it for years. Though simple and chronological in form my first novel was important because it represented the initial capsule of all the other novels that followed. It takes place in Sarajevo where I never lived, and in Belgrade where I was born and lived all my life but after the period that I describe (1914-1944). Neither milieu was familiar to me, so I was afraid I will not be able to describe them properly. It seems that I succeeded because when I came to the Sarajevo Jewish Community everybody was shocked to see someone "so young" (which I certainly was not especially for a person who wrote her first novel) since they expected someone who lived between the two World Wars.

So, I continued writing, unfortunately without my leading supporter, my best friend, without my mother, but with great enthusiasm that I gained from the fact that my first novel was such a tremendous success so unexpectedly. Without a word about it in Belgrade newspapers, without a single "official" review, without a literary evening, book signing or anything, The Scent of Rain in the Balkans found its way to the readers in a miraculous manner that I could not understand. The novel was included in all the lists of the most read and most sold books (at that time we did not use the word bestseller). Three thousand copies were sold in no time at an incredible price of 600.000 dinars since the publisher thought that it would lie in the storage for years (prices at that time could not be changed later). My second novel, The Blossom of Linden in the Balkans, takes place in Belgrade with several jumps to Israel from 1945-1965 and it touches upon a sensitive topic (at the time when it was written) of disintegration and total disappearance of the Yugoslav middle class due to the establishment of the Communist regime. I paid my courage with two-year delay of having the novel published until the political situation changed and when it did The Blossom of Linden in the Balkans followed the footsteps of my previous novel. It was the mostly read book in Yugoslavia!

This unthinkable popularity pushed me into writing Twilight in the Balkans which represents the painful end of the trilogy. It describes a marital triangle taking place at the beginning of the wars triggered by the disintegration of Yugoslavia. At the very end, the main character of the novel, Vera Korach, also disintegrates. Since everything disintegrated I was convinced that with this novel my storytelling efforts had come to an end and that there will be no continuation. I concluded that from one novel to the other effortlessly and naturally without any planning short term or long term I came to the end of all my stories: family saga of the Saloms and the Koraches I described two generations, deaths and births of numerous main and supporting characters, entered the souls of many people as much as I was capable to do so, depicted the divided Sarajevo and the non-divided Belgrade environments between the two Wars, after the War and before the most recent wars (no end to wars in the Balkans) and finally killed the heroine! In my opinion, the end of all ends! This is what I thought at the time.

But, once in the world of imagination (although based on historical facts) I could not get out of it because in such a world I, as a writer, am omnipotent – not only that I manage human destinies, I create happiness and unhappiness, I manipulate with justice and injustice, laughter and tears but I also dictate life or death of my characters, in other words I get the divine powers, and you must admit that this is a very attractive state of mind! This is why Ghosts over the Balkans appeared. My favorite novel. It represents a connection between the first finished trilogy and the second which I did not anticipate even in my wildest dreams at the time. In this novel I bring to an absolute end the stories of all of my characters and start (without being aware of it) life stories of the new ones. I went back to the XV century, the time of the Great Expulsion of Jews from Spain, and I touched upon the idea of the purity of blood, i.e. the idea of conversos. Huan Garcia Galan de Olivares, the evil Inquisitor on Horse, discovers that his ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity and becomes Solomon been Israel been Salom of Toledo and instead of persecuting Jews which he used to do enthusiastically until then becomes one of the persecuted! The idea of islamization, christianization, judaization, that is to say, changing faith inside of the three monotheistic religions, whether willingly or unwillingly, is present in all the novels that follow. In my opinion, purity of blood is a very slippery statement, an uncertain ground, a doubtful idea.

In the novel A Legend About Luna Levi I move my characters from Barcelona that they leave by the last ship ironically called "Felicidad" on July 31, 1592 to Istanbul, to the Ottoman Empire where most of the exiled Jews settled because sultan Bayazid II welcomed them with open arms and by accepting them provided the middle class – merchants, craftsmen, printers, bankers – which was almost non-existent in the Empire that consisted of the military, peasants and the ruling family, the Ottomans. After many troublesome moments, historical and natural (the great earthquake and fire) disturbances, and unthinkable personal events, the main character Luna Levi and her male counterpart Marko Orlovich, alias Orlu-pasha end up in the Republic of Dubrovnik, an area of flexible views, from one side turned towards Christian world and from the other to the Islamic East.

It is from Dubrovnik that the story of my next novel, The Fairy Tale of Benjamine Baruh starts. He is a man of medicine, an herb collector, an absent-minded, clumsy little herbarian from Travnik who does well to all beings around him because he finds himself always at the right place in the right time. The places are Travnik, Sarajevo, Belgrade and the time is the second half of the XVII century. The families involved are the Baruhs, the Pereras, the Atiases, and the Abinuns. The story about this unusual tiny seventeenth century doctor is written by Laura Levi-Papo, Bohoreta, and the oldest daughter of the Salom family (from The Scent of Rain in the Balkans) in the occupied Sarajevo in 1942. She is in hiding and she wishes to leave this manuscript to her two sons who have been already taken to the concentration camp of Jasenovac.

This is how I came to my last novel... by "last" I mean last in this second trilogy, entitled A Ballad about Bohoreta. This diary-epistolary novel follows the youth and growth of an exceptional woman who, at the time en of XIX and beginning of XX century when this was not women’s job, especially among the Sephardic women, wrote poetry, numerous plays, studied great philosophers, collected Sephardic romances, proverbs, and expressions, explored the Spanish language (judeo-espagnol) that they all spoke as their native tongue five hundred years after expulsion from Spain, (all Sephardic Jews all over the world until the Holocaust preserved their language!) and various influences of other languages such as Turkish, Italian, Serbian that their Spanish adopted. Among other fortunes and misfortunes that strike the Levi family, Bohoreta corresponds with a renowned Spanish composer, poet and professor of romance languages, Manuel Manrique de Lara. Throughout years they establish a specific emotional link, but she also meets young Daniel Papo, a fervent Zionist and an extraordinarily vivacious man. The story of the novel develops in Istanbul, Sarajevo and Paris and it ends right before the World War One exactly at the time when my first novel The Scent of Rain in the Balkans started. Who’d believe that I haven’t planned it carefully?

So, here I am with two trilogies plus one novel to link them and what is next I truly do not know.

Let me add at the end: there is no greater acknowledgement than being widely read. The reading population (during these twenty years that my novels are being published) no one and nothing could attract forcibly by some propaganda campaign or ever-present reviews which, by the way, did not occur anyway. The reading public cannot be bought. It is only because of my readers that my novels last. Their lasting is the proof of value. In other words, if my novels are read in a hundred years it means that they are valuable. However, I will not be able to enjoy my success.