Predrag Matvejevic’s “Borders and frontiers”: what is the price paid by the participant observer?

As promised, here you can find the book review published (in Italian) on DADA (click here to download the Italian version).


Predrag Matvejevic’s “Borders and frontiers”: what is the price paid by the participant observer? 

140 pg
2008, Asterios Editore, Trieste.

Predrag Matvejević, one of the most controversial and internationally renowned experts on the Balkans, in “Borders and frontiers” draws a personal and peculiar picture of the political experiences in the region, before and after the violent implosion of former Jugoslavia. His work contains a variety of concepts and ideas worth analyzing from an anthropological perspective, especially in the field of political and juridical anthropology. At a first glance, the book would not be enlisted on the vast anthropological bibliography regarding the Balkans. Although, as for his famous “Mediterranean Breviary”(1), the poetic and dreaming style of Matvejević hides a more vigorous and deep message, the structure and objective of which are typical of the anthropological method.

Matvejević:“poethical prose” with anthropological message
In order to fully understand the value of this production, it should be placed on a timeline: the book gathers articles and memories converted into a written testimony between 1990 and 2002. The articles can be found in chronological order; each article is inspired by a concrete event, but goes beyond the pure analysis of this event, mixing the memories of the author with the history of the region marked by a series of milestones. However, Matvejević manages to compress in these 140 pages even a longer period of time, characterized not only by his personal experience, but especially by the societal changes of the Balkan communities, well-known by the author.

It would be of no anthropological interest to compare “Borders and frontiers” with previous ethnographical oeuvres on the Balkans(2). Nevertheless, general awareness of the ethnic composition of the Balkans is necessary to comprehend the inner and perceptive anthropological value of this book. The oeuvre lacks clear and notable ethnographical description of the groups: the author frequently uses quotation marks referring to Serbs, Croats and other ethnical groups. In spite of the phenomenal practical value of such approach, the proper meaning of this wording is clear for the reader initiated to the Balkan specifities.

“Between asylum and exile”: Matvejević as participant observer
Philip Bock describes the responsibilities of the anthropologist as following:

“l’antropologo ha certe responsabilità nei confronti della sua professione. Come scienziato sociale, egli è tenuto a usare la sua intelligenza critica, a scegliere argomenti sociali autentici per la sua ricerca, e a portare avanti tale ricerca con energia e immaginazione. […] L’antropologo, inoltre, ha la responsabilità di lavorare per una scienza integrata dell’uomo.”.(3)

Following these enlightening words, Matvejević work can be considered free from any political, ideological or historical “pollution”. He uses a very descriptive and “poetic prose”(4), depicting the reality of the current Balkan society from the perspective of the pure participant observer, as derived from Malinowski’s(5) work.

Before any further content analysis, it is worth to focus on the fundamental and unique situation in which the author finds himself. By the frequently repeated periphrasis “between asylum and exile”(6), the writer describes the peculiar position from which he analyses the Balkans: born in Mostar from a Jew Russian father, Matvejević fully lives the socialist dream of modern Jugoslavia. This will clearly leave its footprint on his life. The violent implosion of the Jugoslavian dream brought the seeds of a cultural and personal “renaissance” for Matvejević, forced to move from Croatia to France and then Italy. Here he refines his role of “conscience of the Balkans”, cubing his importance: if the Balkans are the superego of Europe, Matvejevic can easily be addressed as the superego of the Balkans. The Balkan “dark hole” gets discovered, almost violated by the simplicity of Matvejevic’s message, who is able to transpose his deep knowledge of the region in the mind of the Western reader, demonstrating also wide awareness of Western culture and values. For this reason, Matvejevic is a perfect example of participant observer, since his status of exiled/asylum applicant makes him detached enough from the political contingency of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, from the dark chronicles of the last years. On the other hand, his cultural knowledge and deep interest in political issues, enable him to produce a perfect political anthropological perspective of the present situation in the Balkans, saving years of ethnographic research, indispensable for any other political anthropologist. His state of being attached/detached to the region, his fresh, succint and expressive style make us the gift ofthis insightful, sharp and concentrated anthro-political analysis of the most controversial years of the Balkans.

Responsibilities of historical mistakes: the role of the literate
Matvejević’s deep knowledge of the functioning of Balkan societies clearly emerges in his harsh and merciless critic of the Jugoslavian inteligencija after the passing of Drug Tito. The ultra-nationalist wave endorsed by several politicians back then is unconceivable for the uncompromising moral of the author. However, while the struggle of power leads(especially in the Balkans) to fight and clashes far beyond community values, the behaviour of the “sage”, of the poet, of the artist should be free from any political influence or, rather, should find its roots in an authentic and shared common cultural background, endorsed by the society or by a minority of it. Matvejević attacks those manneristic artists who passively served the several regimes responsible for the surge of violence and chaos in the ’90. Nevertheless, his pitiless judgement moves from an interesting, although hidden comparison between the responsibility of the intellectual towards the society with the traditional political structure of the Jugoslavian tribes.

According to our interpretations of Matvejević’s condemnations, the role of the literate resembles that of the kneža, of the vojvoda, of the serdar in traditional Balkan societies. It is possible, in fact, to make a comparison between segmentary societies existing in the region till the late ’70(7) and the way culture is administered in the Balkans. An excellent description of the leadership role is the one by Sahlins:

“ The typical leader of a tribal society is nothing but the distinguished copy of the authoritative elder […]. Here [in the tribal societies], is an interpersonal relationship based on charisma.”(8)

In the same line of argument, the artist, as the cultural and intellectual leader of the community, has the responsibility, along with Matvejević, to guide the members of the group, although considering their common background, working to find the compromise between stillness and changes, homeostasis and transistasis(9) in that society.

However, the slavish alignment of the same intellectual with Milošević, Izbegović, Tuđman, Karađić induces a fight between those responsible literates, aware of the roots of their culture and able to contribute to the common good, and those exploiting the gap between their culture and the general perception of the same culture, plagiarizing, raping, bending the traditions for the sake of political power and fake consensus.

When will the Balkans look themselves in the mirror?
Matvejević’s bitter criticism of the Balkan societies costed him 5-month imprisonment sentence by the Zagreb Court. An EU membership candidate country, demonstrated the lack of self-criticism and perceptibility towards what should be its own  voice of consciousness. However, Matvejević addresses problems too big and involving the totality of the Balkans beyond his person. In his most interesting articles “On the Danube”(10), and “Our Talibans”(11) he touches upon fundamental hot topics of international law andinternational relations such as the issue of global justice (ICTY mandate) and international economic cooperation. Furthermore, the criticism of the author towards his homeland can be interpreted as a feeling of closeness, of involvement, of care and missing, nostalgia and a hope for a better future.

In the end, however, it’s not Matvejević who is putting the Balkans on a trial, it is the rest of the international community who is asking uneasy questions. Matvejević’s questions to the reader are,  the ones that many countries posed when the madness of the ’90s Balkan wars exploded. In fact, regarding Milosević’s trial, the author asks:

“Perché Milošević deve essere giudicato all’estero, da giudici che non parlano la sua lingua, in una città olandese scelta dalle Nazioni Unite, dentro una prigione sterilizzata, automatizzata, ultramoderna, invece che da giudici serbi, dentro un carcere belgradese dove i rumori e gli odori della vita balcanica scavalcano le porte e le finestre e arrivano fino alla cella dell’imputato? […] Veramente la giustizia serba è inferiore a quella di altri paesi sparsi in Europa e nel resto del mondo?”(12)

Today Serbia, together with the other former Jugoslavian republics, is facing the utmost difficult obstacle of overcoming their past. “Ghost that we weren’t able to bury”, as Matvejević says in a subtitle of his oeuvre. Although a part of the world is currently speaking instead (and in the name of the Balkans), the fundamental question is when will the Balkan themselves find the ability to take the constructive criticism and act. That day, probably, people like Karađić and Mladić would have already been judged and sentenced by foreign tribunals supporting the non-genuine nationalism. That same nationalism so brilliantly criticized by Matvejević in his current work. And then, hopefully, he will be remembered as one of the first grasping and naming the core of the problem from such an internal/external perspective.

[1]P. MATVEJEVIĆ, Breviario Mediterraneo, Zagreb, 1987.
[2]Among the others, we mention the estimable effort made by the local author CVIJĆ, Peninsule Balcanique, Paris, 1918, whose compoeuvre inspired and resuted as a fundamental basis for further research.
[3]P. BOCK, Modern cultural anthropology, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, 1969; Italian edition: Antropologia culturale moderna, Giulio Einaudi Editore, Torino, 1978, pg.476. Translation: “the anthropologist has certain responsibilities towards his profession. As a social scientist, he has to use his critical intelligence, to chose authentic and origianl social topics worth to be research upon, and to continue the research with energy and imagination. […] Moreover, the anthropologist has the responsibility to work for an integrated science of mankind”.
[4]C. MAGRIS, Matvejević, triste farsa di una condanna, Corriere della Sera, Milan, 8.XI.2005.
[5] B. MALINOWSKI, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Routledge, London, 1999.
[6]P. MATVEJEVIĆ, Confini e frontiere, p.79 Trieste, 2008.
[7]It is well known that C. BOEHM produces one of its most appreciated oeuvres on the Montenegrin society based on research held yet at the end of the ’60: C. BOHEM, Montenegrin Social Organization and Values, political ethnography of a refuge area tribal adaptation, New York, 1983.
[8]M.D. SAHLINS, The Segmentary Lineage: an Organization of Predatory Expansion, in American Anthropologist, vol. LXII, 1961, pg. 327.
[9]Homeostasis (from Greek: ὅμοιος, hómoios, “similar” and στάσις, stásis, “standing still”; defined by Claude Bernard and later by W.B. CANON in 1926,1929 and 1932) is the property of a system, either open or closed, that regulates its internal environment and tends to maintain a stable, constant condition.W.B CANON, Organization For Physiological Homeostasis. Physiol Rev. 1929; 9: 399-431.
[10] MATVEJEVIĆ, ibid, pg.43-100.
[11]MATVEJEVIĆ, ibid, pg 113-133.
[12]MATVEJEVIC, ibid,  pg 96-97. Translation: “Why Milošević has to be judged abroad, by judges who don’t speak his language, in a Dutch city chosen by the UN, in a sterilized, automatized, ultramodern prison, instead of being judged by Serbian judges, inside a Belgrade prison, where sounds and smells of Balkan life overwhelm doors and windows and arrive till the accused’s cell? […] Is Serbian justice inferior compared to the ones of other countries in Europe and in the rest of the world?”