The Surrealism of the Everyday in Serbia

The author interviews Aleksandar Zograf, who first gained notoriety for his political cartoons during the NATO bombing of Serbia.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

ZografPancevo is a small Serbian city located just northeast of Belgrade. It has some lovely Habsburg architecture. There’s a thriving arts scene and a growing Chinese community. But this city of about 73,000 people is perhaps best known for the damage it sustained during the NATO bombing in 1999, when an industrial park containing an oil refinery, a petrochemical plant, and a fertilizer factory was hit.

The most vivid reporting from Pancevo during the NATO bombing came from a cartoonist publishing under the pen name of Aleksandar Zograf. His weekly dispatches, Regards from Serbia, appeared in various magazines and websites, and were translated into several languages. A collection of these columns, plus the emails that he wrote during this period and some work from both before and after the bombings, is available from Top Shelf Productions.

In a drawing style reminiscent of R. Crumb, Zograf produces frequently acerbic cartoons, for instance one that depicts the residents of Pancevo welcoming the “smart bombs” and “cute little cluster bombs” of NATO. He catalogues the victims of the Yugoslav wars and the NATO attacks. He chronicles life under sanctions. He struggles to put pen to paper. “Invisible NATO bombers, hundreds of thousands of refugees, crazy dictators, army moves, explosions, propaganda lies,” he writes in one panel. “Hey! Somebody wake me up! I just want to sit and draw my pathetic little cartoons!!”

In late September, I took a bus from Belgrade to Pancevo to meet Aleksandar Zograf, who turns out to be Sasa Rakezic, a thoughtful man who was born in 1963, the same year I was. He rode his bike to the bus station to meet me, then pushed it along as he took me on a tour of Pancevo. He showed me the cultural center, and we talked about one of his recent fascinations: Neolithic life at the confluence of Pancevo’s rivers, the Danube and the Tamis. Eventually we sat down at a café to talk about life during wartime, the challenges of lucid dreaming, and the surrealism of the everyday. During our conversation, I realized that Rakezic was very much an archaeologist by inclination. He likes to dig into history, into the substratum of human experience, into what lies beneath consciousness.

The collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars that engulfed the region had a profound effect on the cartoonist and his art. “Before, I was just another guy in a small town in a small country who was not asking himself very important questions,” he told me. “After that I began to question everything. A time of crisis can be horrible, it can bring doom to a person’s physical existence. He could kill himself or be killed or kill someone else. He could become depressed. But in a crisis, you begin to question things you take for granted. But in a psychological sense, it’s good to go through the crisis. You learn something about yourself.”

The Interview

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall fell and how you felt about it? Your book begins with 1993-94. There’s nothing before that. Were you doing comic strips at that time?

At that time, I was not really doing comics of the same type that I did later. I was still at that point experimenting with comics. I was also a writer, and I was writing about mostly rock music and art and also a little bit about comics and literature. It was at that point that I started experimenting with publishing comics.

It was different here in Yugoslavia — at that point, Yugoslavia still existed – since we had a different history compared to the rest of Eastern Europe. We were a mixture of a socialist bloc country and a more Western country. We were somehow on the brink of the two worlds. So, for us, it was not so dramatic, the end of the Berlin Wall. It was happening elsewhere.

Most people here, if you ask them about normal life in the time of socialism, they would say it was more comfortable than now. I have this feeling that 80 percent of the people, particularly if they are old enough to remember these times, would say that their life was easier then. It was not the same as it was in other Eastern European countries. But still, I would say that we expected that things would change in many ways. We were not sure if it was going to be for the better or the worse.

And how did you feel personally about life in Yugoslavia?

Generally I would say that I had a happy life in those days. For example, life was cheap and you could live with a small amount of money, which is good for artists. The level of stress was somehow much less. But on the other hand, some of the opportunities that you have now were not present at that time. For me, I wish that I had used this time better than I did. I was not very clever when I was younger. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen.

There was this famous musician from Belgrade, who said — not about these times, but about the wars in former Yugoslavia — that “we’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to understand what happened during the wars of the 1990s.” This is also true about this socialist period. We will spend ages thinking about what happened and what was good and what was bad. It was far from a black-and-white picture, especially for the artists. Artists are never satisfied with the general atmosphere of the system in which they live. They always feel a little to the side of society, rejected in some way. They would have to struggle in any form of society anyway. They also learn not to be excited by the system they live in. I could imagine that someone with a steady career and a job in a society that would enable him to live comfortably will be excited about the system that allows him to live like that. But for the artist, he knows that he will have to struggle in this system as he would struggle in any other one.

I’m against this idea that the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially in former Yugoslavia, was exclusively bad. Every time that you live in, you have an opportunity to live the best way that you can. There is no perfect society.

I was just now reading an anthropological study about cannibalism. It’s horrible. I had to read only a small portion of the book at a time because it is so difficult to take. A lot of different cultures practiced cannibalism throughout human history. For us, in this age, it’s something horrifying, and I was horrified to read about it. But generations were born within this different social and cultural framework, within these societies that are called “primitive” and where such practices were part of the belief system and sometimes simply because they were using humans as food. It was very widespread until the 19th century, which was just yesterday. Within these cultures, they also produced great stories, great traditional dances, great thoughts.

It’s not that I would enjoy being a cannibal. But I should understand that this was part of the human experience, and there were people who were born and died with this mind frame. Someone living in a different society in the future would probably say that Western European people who lived in the European Union in 2012 were primitive idiots, just as we think about cannibals today. It’s all relative.

The fall of the Berlin Wall itself, do you remember thinking that this was great for the Germans and then you went about your own life? Or did you say, that will have implications for life here in Yugoslavia?

I didn’t really realize that it would have any impact on our life. I didn’t realize that it would have such an impact on Yugoslavia. It was just like a foreign affair. It was maybe silly of me. That’s why I say, sometimes when you live so much in one society, in one society’s mind frame, you just don’t see what’s going on. Someone from outside can see things more easily.

I’ll give you an example. I have a friend who did an interview with the British music deejay John Peel, a very interesting personality, a very clever man. This was in 1991 just shortly after the first incidents in Croatia with the Serbian minority there opposing the Croatian government, which would eventually lead to the war in ex-Yugoslavia. When the interview was over, my friend was asked by John Peel, of all people, “Okay, can I ask you one question?”

My friend said, “Yeah sure.”

John Peel said, “What is going on in your country? It seems like there’s going to be a war over there. ”

And my friend said, “War? No, no. They quarrel all the time over some stupid thing. But in the end they eventually end up in a bar getting drunk. It will be like an affair that lasts a few days and everything will be fine after that.”

My friend never mentioned this in the article he wrote for a paper here. I remember this incident years after the interview because I was just like my friend. I thought everything would stop after a few days. So, I was thinking how was it possible that a disk jockey understood what was going to happen in Yugoslavia? But we the people living here couldn’t understand.

I want to talk about your work. What struck me the most about Regards from Serbia is the reluctance. So much of your work is about your dream life. At several points, you say that you started observing the life around you, that there were interesting things if you just paid attention to them. But you often were running away from this. At some points you were just drawing things in your head – demons, and so on. Can you talk about this dream life and this reluctance?

It’s connected to my own personal quest. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, just a little before the crisis started, and just when the crisis started, I stated to explore these inner realities. I was very interested in presenting different material from the dream states in comics. Comics are a very good way of presenting your dreams. You can use pictures and words to explain these different experiences. I was also interested in different dream states. I started to practice lucid dreaming. I was successful to a certain extent. I was able to wake up in my dreams and explore the reality of the dream.

It was a very overwhelming thing to experience. Suddenly I was becoming aware of another state of being. There is wakened reality, there are dreams, and there is the state of lucid dreaming. I managed to look at my hands in my dreams and become lucid while I was dreaming. I was able to go very deep into all these things. It was very exciting, as if I were conquering a distant country or another realm. I was trying to capture a lot of information coming from inside, from these very deep inner realities, and turn it into artistic material.

But it stopped when the crisis emerged in ex-Yugoslavia. You have to use a lot of your energy connected to your awakened reality to achieve the state of lucid dreaming. Since I was a very poor artist who didn’t have any savings when the crisis started, it was very difficult for me. I started to struggle with everyday reality. I realized that what was happening around me were these tragic things – the splitting up of the country called Yugoslavia. Like many other people I had to struggle just to be alive in this situation. There was not enough food, for instance. I had to go from this inner reality to an outside reality that was very dramatic and sometimes even more surrealistic than what I would find inside.

Can you give an example of something that was more surrealistic outside than inside?

Everything was more surrealistic. In 1993, when I started to make comics about what was going on around me, we went into a period of hyperinflation that was very much like what happened in Germany or Hungary after the first World War. You go to buy bread. In the morning, the price was 10 dinars. At noon it was 100 dinars. In the evening it was 1000 dinars. It was a completely crazy situation just to buy regular things. I remember thinking that it had been like this forever, ever since I was born.

I was very curious about these quests that I was doing in lucid dreaming – and several other dream states that I tried to explore – and I was not very happy to return to the grey and stupid reality of being in a country that was on the brink of a war for an unknown reason with a crazy leader leading everyone straight into a catastrophe with an economy that was completely destroyed. It was not a reality that I liked very much.

I started to think that at least I should take the premise of this and use it for the scripts of comics. If you take it as it is and make a script for a comic strip, it actually functions like an appealing description of the most surrealistic things on earth. It was strange to become awake every night and be inside the dream reality. It was just as strange to wake up and find yourself in the midst of the huge crisis going on all around. I tried to struggle between these two strange realities.

Both of these experiences changed me for good. Before, I was just another guy in a small town in a small country who was not asking himself very important questions. After that I began to question everything. A time of crisis can be horrible, it can bring doom to a person’s physical existence. He could kill himself or be killed or kill someone else. He could become depressed. But in a crisis, you begin to question things you take for granted. But in a psychological sense, it’s good to go through the crisis. You learn something about yourself. You learn to ask yourself questions. It’s horrible to go numb in very comfortable circumstances. A lot of people have enough to eat, they have enough material goods, they feel safe within their social situation, and they don’t want to change it. That’s also dangerous. Sometimes you need a slap in the face. You need a crisis. You need to get wild. You need to ask yourself questions. That’s what happened to us. I should not be complaining.

One of your stories is about your Hungarian colleague who set up an exhibition about life in Serbia under Milosevic and under sanctions. He said he would keep it going as long as Milosevic was in power.

This was a friend in Hungary who did an exhibition of my stuff and he said it would last until the fall of Milosevic. It opened in 1999, when the bombing of Serbia started. I was thinking that it was going to the longest running exhibition in the history of Hungary. It’s another indication that if you live inside a reality you cannot judge it. I thought he would rule forever, that we were doomed to live under his reign for the rest of our lives. The exhibition lasted until the year 2000 when Milosevic fell from power. I guess this friend in Hungary was able to detect something that we were not aware of. I can go into the underground levels of society, just like many artists do. But somehow I can’t predict what will happen in the surface reality the next day.

You talk about outside perceptions of Serbs in your comic strip. You travelled some during the time you were making the strips. Were you surprised at the reactions when you said you were from Serbia?

Basically, I should say that we are living in a different time. It’s not like the 1940s. At that point in history, even in Western Europe, people were relying so much on national identities, also religious identities. These were much more important than in modern time, when we live in an ambiguous culture which can be very narrow-minded but which can also accept many different types of information from many different parts of the world. I didn’t encounter any problems from most people when I said that I was from Serbia, which was at that point a place with a burning crisis with a crazy president Milosevic in charge. I think people understood that they were meeting somebody from another country where the situation is not so stable. Basically they were polite. Maybe because I was in my circle of friends and acquaintances. They were mostly artists. It might have been different if I’d gone to a bar where truck drivers were hanging out.

For most people, if you said you were from Serbia in the 1990s, it was scary. You were part of a reality presented like it was Nazi Germany, which was not really the case. It was very much a society that turned the wrong way in many ways, that made many bad decisions politically and also strategically. But if I had to judge it now, it was a confused country with confused people who were not able to realize what was going on around them. Sometimes when you are confused, you act violently. It’s again this psychological thing. I think most of the atrocities done on the Serbian side were done not with some strict plan, like was the case with Nazi Germany, where they had a plan of the different society they wanted to build. Here, the people were bewildered by everything going on.

Maybe this is going to sound awful, but in many sense, these were crimes of passion. Most of the people liked Yugoslavia and they didn’t want it to split apart. Sometimes if someone very close to you betrays you, you have violent feelings and you want to kick him or kill him. A huge part of it was done in this strange state of betrayal, like the lover who has been betrayed. And this society was very irrational, and there were a lot of con men who could use that, who said, “Okay, we are going to do everything for you and you just sit there and be quiet. We are going to clear things up for you.”

I was not participating in any of that. Like many artists, we were feeling like we were watching not from the inside but from a point outside. We were disgusted by everything. For many people, for instance in Western Europe or the United States where it is more rational and not so emotional, it was very hard to understand.

But as you point out in one of your strips, after 9-11 the United States was in a similar situation, with big flags and emotional reactions.

Yes, in some way, it is universal. We are not Martians here in the Balkans, and our experiences are similar to other human experiences in other parts of the world. And that’s why it’s so difficult to talk about this. If someone wants to explain what happened here in one sentence, I would say, “Be careful!” I have spent years trying to understand this, and still I don’t understand why it happened or how it happened.

How much do you think people in Serbia or in Croatia or Bosnia have decided to understand this and how much do they want to forget about it because it was so horrible?

People want to forget. That’s certainly the case. Most of them don’t want to be reminded. I mean – look at me. I don’t say that I’m very different. I don’t like to think about these things. It was very difficult. It was very hard to go through all that. I also want to forget about it. I don’t wake up every morning and think about it. It was so horrible and unpleasant that I understand why people don’t want to go back to it. For most people it was like a trauma.

You have to know that something bad happened on your side. You can be a patriot who says “Yeah, we did the right thing.” Still, you know that somebody did something. Maybe you would like to hide this from yourself. So, it’s better to forget than to be reminded of that.

When you look back at the work that you’ve done between 1992 and 2001, can you give an example of something you think you did very well and another example of something you wish you did a little differently?

Whenever I look at my work, I think it could be different. Usually after I do a drawing, I just flip the page over because I always see the wrong things in my drawings. I don’t like to concentrate so much on what I did because I will probably find something that could be changed. I did it with an honest perspective at that point in time. But later I think I could have done better.

I’m proud of some things. I ‘m glad that I used my time in a useful way. At least I tried to make something out of this horrible situation.

And you have a record of it.

Yes.

At one point in your book you are reproducing emails when Pancevo was being bombed. I’m wondering why it was easier to write this in email form rather than make strips.

It was easier because in the emails I was referring to things that were happening on a daily basis. Some of the details weren’t easy to illustrate in drawings. At the same time, I was so depressed that I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to draw. You go through all the different phases in situations like that. Some things were easier to express in drawings, sometimes it was easier to express in words. So I made a combination of these two media, which was based on my mood, nothing else.

The Chinese have a curse: may you live in interesting times. You were obviously living in interesting times. Since the end of these wars, and the end of hyperinflation, the end of sanctions, things have become more normal. Has this been a challenge for you artistically to live in less interesting times?

I have found different challenges. After the end of the crisis in the Balkans, I have started to work on comics for Vreme magazine, a political weekly published here in Belgrade. I do two pages in color every week on a different topic. Usually it doesn’t address the political situation in a straightforward way. I find old articles, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, and then I illustrate them in the form of a comic strip. It was a golden age for the press. You can find many intriguing articles back then. Now the press is becoming less interesting and more analytical and with much less fantasy than in the past.

Even if it is not a political commentary, it also speaks about the people here. People, they don’t change. You can go into the past, and you can find some of the same elements. People were probably in a bar 100 years ago and speaking about similar topics as we do now.

I’ll give you one example. I found one article about a man who came back from the front after the end of the first World War. He lived in Zajechar, a town in eastern Serbia. He began to behave in a funny way. He went to his regular job, but he began to act a little bit differently. At some point, he burst into a strange kind of anger. He began to talk about how the human race is moving toward catastrophe. He went to his own house and burned it down. He ruined it completely and started to live in a hole in the ground next to his house. His wife and his children ran away. For me, it was this fantastical scenario. You can’t imagine that a human being could do something more drastic than that. This story is completely forgotten. I spoke to people from that town and there’s no memory of that man. Newspapers are supposed to live for a day or a week, and then it’s forgotten. But you can find some great stories from the past, and by bringing them to the surface you can learn something from them.

There’s a relatively new government here now in Serbia that at least outsiders call a nationalist government. We’ve seen the rise of some even more nationalistic groups like Dveri Srpske. I’m curious what you think about these formations. Do you think they’re temporary or represent a more fundamental shift?

It’s different from what it used to be. The nationalists of 2012 are different from the Serbian nationalists of the 1990s. The reason is that there is some sort of realization among the people to agree with Western values. The nationalistic government that is in charge says, “We want to play by the rules of the West.” Which means that our nationalism is not going to be like the time of Milosevic. Even these nationalistic forces that are now in change won the elections by speaking about joining the European Union. I would call them conservative-minded people who try to imitate the conservative-minded people in Western Europe. Milosevic didn’t feel like he was following this line. He expressed his nationalism in a much more straightforward and much more brutal way.

These new nationalists, they are politically correct nationalists. They know the line. That is the Western way. If you are polite enough, you can do everything. You can say that you don’t like Muslims, but you can’t say it like that, you have to find a way to put the sentence in a different way with that same meaning. If you say “I hate Muslims” in a correct way, it can pass. So these new nationalists learn this. Which means that Serbs can become part of Western civilization, for better or for worse. It doesn’t mean that these people are any better, at least for me. I despise them the same way I hated them before. But there is a different frame.

Or at least it seems to me at this moment. Maybe I will change my mind. Maybe I will be wrong again. I don’t want to speak in absolute terms.

The people who belong to the parties in charge, they pretend that they want to be part of the European Union, and the EU pretends that it wants Serbia to be part of the EU. So there is this strange game. In Serbia, people are afraid of change, afraid of becoming something else. They are afraid that their substance will be changed when they become something else, which is of course stupid. And the EU is in this crisis where they are very much afraid of having more irrational elements inside the union. So they gave some signals to the Serbian administration that were very discouraging. On the surface, they say they will bring you into the club tomorrow. But under the surface, there is the message: you better stay in your wild part of the world. There is this strange dishonesty on both sides, which is not permanent. It is going to change. Is it going to be a fast change or will it be an exhausting change that lasts for 10-20 years? I don’t know, but I think it will change.

So, that’s why you are reasonably optimistic?

We are living in a world that is transforming, that is reaching some sort of world civilization, a united states of the world. It’s not an easy process. We should not expect it to happen in five days or five years or 50 years. This change is going to happen. It’s just a matter for time. So I’m relatively optimistic. I don’t know whether it will take a long time or a short time. But things are going to change for everyone, including the cannibals and the Serbs and the Eastern European freaks. They will all become well-adjusted citizens.

For better or for worse.

Quantitative Questions

I ask all of those I interview in my travels through Central and Eastern Europe three quantitative questions to see if I can get, by the end, a quick thumbnail assessment, country by country, of what has and has not changed since 1989.

On a scale of one to ten, with one being most disappointed and ten being least disappointed, how do you feel about the changes that have taken place in Serbia since 1989?

I would say five. There are very good points and very bad points.

On the same scale, how do you feel about the changes that have taken place in your own life over the same period of time?

I feel like I’m older and cleverer than I was when I was a kid. So I would say a two. I feel now that most people are not comfortable with getting older. But with me, I feel like I’m getting better as I get older. Maybe I’m crazy this way, I don’t know.

And how do you feel about the near future for Serbia, on a scale of one to ten with one being most optimistic and ten being least optimistic?

I would say two here as well. I’m not very deeply pessimistic but I am a bit pessimistic. I’m not hugely pessimistic because I think that things will get better because here people feel so disappointed that it has to end at some point. We don’t know which point it is. But I believe that it will be change for the better. But I’m bad at predicting things, so who knows.