From the Carpathian Mountains to Vojvodina and Back

The writer Ivan Medeši (1982) lives in the Serbian village of Ruski Krstur and he works in Novi Sad. His collection of stories Jedenie (Eating, p. by Valal in 2018, translated into Slovak by Maroš Volovár) has won the Anasoft Litera Award 2019. Ivan Medeši is the co-author of the collection of poems Trilogija, which has won the Alexandar Duchnovič Prize for Rusyn literature in 2006. In Serbia, he published the short-stories collection Chtoška od mňe dvoch ňenormalni in 2007 and the “novel of a generation” Špaciri po spodku dunca in 2011. In Slovakia, his book Kvašna kňižka (Valal) came out in 2010. 


Andrea Makýšová Volárová talked to the author who writes in Vojvodinian Rusyn, a language very close to the dialects of Eastern Slovakia, while he was visiting Bratislava. 

I have read the book Eating but I would like to hear it from the author: What is it about?

The book is about certain people who have carved their way into my brain and created these paths in there. I just needed to send words down those paths to get them on paper. Six stories were created this way and they made it into the book. Perhaps one more story would have fitted in but we didn’t have enough paper (he laughs). 

One part of the book is an ode to alcoholism; another deals with the problems of paranoia and drug addiction. Other parts are about sexual frustrations and frustrations arising from working in education. I have one more short story in there, which is about the decent life, about trying to live a decent life after thirty years of indecent life, about the problems and challenges such life presents. 

The stories – except for one – take place in Ruski Krstur. To what measure does the literary depiction of the place correspond with reality?

I write about the place through a sieve of my imagination. So it doesn’t have to be precisely Krstur. I’m simply inspired by a small town where people live their isolated lives, as if in a microcosm. It can be this town to a 90 percent but the imaginary world is what gives it the pep. 

In your writing you work with the lowest human instincts and needs. At the same time, there are references that call for a rather sophisticated reader. What were your intentions?

I wrote those short stories at a time when I was extremely unhappy, frustrated and stressed. When we find ourselves in such a state or in a situation charged with negative emotions, we all think in a similar way. When I’m happy, I don’t write about being happy. My writing helps me in situations that are unbearable. And these situations produce a language that corresponds with the extremes of my thinking. This is the language of the book. 

In my private life, there is variety of positions I can occupy, but when I write, I am in these extremes and they get transferred onto the paper. When I’m having a happy moment, I live the happiness. It lasts a day or two and then I’m back to the unhappy state for another month. 

Your book came out here in Maroš Volovár’s translation. Did you authorize the text? Were you able to have at least some control over it, to make sure it didn’t loose what the original has had?

It’s hard to have control when it’s a language I don’t speak. I needed to trust my translator and I did trust him. Maroš was quite immersed in the project so I let him do it according to his concept. It seems like the translation was successful. 

I have tried to translate my stories into Serbian before but it was hard work. I know it’s not an easy process because when you write something in a certain language, translating it doesn’t just mean transcribing it into a different language, the whole poetics needs to be translated; the whole energy of writing needs to be poured into the second language. Sometimes the text needs to be rewritten, so to say. I helped with the translation but I was unable to have total control since I’m not that familiar with Slovak. If I learned it, I would surely translate myself. But it isn’t so easy to learn a new language. 

One reviewer wrote that you appeared on the Slovak literary scene like a forgotten relative. What do you think of the comparison?

Every time I come to Slovakia, I sort of feel like I’m home because we don’t have our own state. We live in Serbia but we aren’t Serbs, we are a minority there. It feels like home here and I’m glad when people say things like this. When I travel east, the language sounds like ours. So those words have some truth in them. I have found a long-lost home here. 

Since we are talking about lost homes – what is Ivan Medeši’s relationship with Slovak literature?

I have a rather limited knowledge of it. Maroš Volovár has suggested some books to me, but if they’re not in Serbian translation, I don’t get everything. I could force myself into reading them but I wouldn’t comprehend well. It’s like watching a Chinese film…, well, maybe not Chinese, but I don’t understand all words of the literary language and so I don’t feel like reading it. The experience is not that great. 

Do your stories confirm the clichés about the wild Balkans? 

I guess in a way. However, I have to say that for a long time, I haven’t either read Balkan literature or watched Balkan movies. When I wanted to read or see a film, I reached for something foreign. So on one hand, my inspiration comes from elsewhere, on the other, I can’t deny being inspired by the Balkan reality. Since the 1990’s, I have been watching the local media where new traumas and frustrations stemming from the Balkan reality keep popping up. All of that surely made an impact on me; it had entered my being and resurfaced in my book, too. Naturally, there must be many Balkan elements in there. 

Is short story your preferred literary format?

I guess I feel most comfortable within the format of the short story. When you’re writing a novel, you need to carry it in your head nonstop because it’s a text that has its inner structure. It asks more energy of the writer. When you’re writing a short story, you’re able to keep the entirety of it in your mind – if you have the time for writing, that is. That’s the reason why I prefer short stories. I enjoy writing poetry, too. Recently, that’s what I have been doing. A faster life rhythm pushes me toward shorter forms, but, like I said, when I have the time, I prefer short stories. 

It’s refreshing how you combine trendy lingo with archaic, earthy expressions. Is it chiseled authorial style or just ordinary use of language?

Our isolation within Serbia might have something to do with that. We are an isolated nation in an isolated country. Our country has suffered from years of cultural embargo, sanctions, the closing of borders. Meanwhile we have lived in this country as a minority. When we descended from the Carpathian region to Vojvodina, we have kept our language that we had brought from our previous home. You view them as archaic but these are words we still use. It’s not intentional; I don’t like it when authors decide to use archaisms or “traditions” in their writing. It is, however, true, that we were isolated and that we have kept the language that had been used in Eastern Slovakia long time ago. 

The visual side of the book is interesting in that it uses the illustrations of the English surgeon Henry V. Carter who worked in the field of human anatomy in the late 1800s…

I have only seen the book after it was finished. I had no say in its design but I like it. It reminds me of a CD cover of a garage rock band. 

Have you ever fallen into a well? (Note: the motif appears in one of the stories)

No, but I came close. I once fell into a septic tank, but it was clean, freshly dug out. 

Kafkaesk motifs, magic realism made in Yugoslavia – these are some of the things reviewers have said about your writing. The Czech literary scientist Michal Jareš wrote:“A barbarian has entered the over-bred Slovak literary community.” Eating has been received favorably. Did you expect its success?

I didn’t. I didn’t expect anything. I enjoy the writing the most. When I finish, it’s done and I start writing something else. I really didn’t have any expectations when my Slovak publisher published the book. Of course, I was glad that it came out in another country. When it comes to reactions, I am happy people are interested in my book. 

Did you receive any reactions from people from Ruski Krstur? Did anyone find themselves in any of the characters? The dismissal of the village-people ideal is tangible in your writing, of that pure-rural-soul prototype…

This book could not be published in Krstur. It was deliberate that it came out here in Slovakia; I never planned a publication there. The people there are shocked by less significant things. I simply like this sort of literature, this type of rock’n’roll. I want to do it this way and this way I reach a writing-related catharsis of sorts and so I find fulfillment, too. I’m sure the book would be proclaimed a provocation and I someone who is not completely sane. Krstur is a small town and the people who live there are traditional, religious folks, they like folklore. My work would be too much for them; it’s not their genre, not their world. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to have it published there. Lets say it makes sense here since there is a wider reading public. 

The Rusyns from Vojvodina, as a minority, surely have their magazines and newspapers. Did you publish anything in any of them? 

Yes, we have magazines but I never longed for publicity there. I know people in the media, we’ve talked, but I never felt the urge to read a review or give a TV interview. One time, the information appeared in a magazine that Ivan Medeši has written a book which has been published in Slovakia and which contains six stories, and that was all. I don’t want to underestimate anyone but my book really isn’t for them; they like folklore. I’ve tried to publish my short stories there once, but I was only met with lack of understanding. It doesn’t make any sense. 


Ivan Medeši’s responses were translated into Slovak by Radoslav Passia. 

Andrea Makýšová Volárová is a radio host; she works in Rádio Devín.