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The Culture of Lies
Dubravka Ugrêsic’
Translated by Celia Hawkesworth
Phoenix, London 1996



My First Primer
This happened during the war, somewhere roughly around nineteen forty-three. It’s all absolutely true, the portrait of a life, a life story. I have no idea how else it could be written. I have realised that there’s no special biographical order of events and that everything is in indescribable chaos. It still is.
Bora Cosic, Tales about Professions


The other day chance quietly placed in my hand an innocent little key to the door of the not so distant past. The role of Proust’s madeleine was played by my primer which slunk out of a dusty box along with some old papers.
            The first four pictures filled me, just like Proust, with the joy that comes when chance brings us ‘true remembrance’. Or perhaps more exactly with the mixture of feelings brought by belated sudden recognition. I remembered staring long and fervently into those fresh clear colours, mostly bright blue and bright green. I remembered adding depth to the simple, flat lines through my entranced gaze. It was not that I was thinking up stories, I was just meticulously examining every detail, every smallest detail. I examined the pictures with my gaze as a fish does the limpid river bottom.
            And now I recall the pleasure with which the pencil in my hand multiplied the apples, pears, plums, the joyful little spheres (clusters of grapes); the pleasure with which it drew symmetrical little tails on tree trunks, green pines. I filled my notebooks with orderly forests of them. I remember those endless rows of orderly carrots, onions, beetroot, potatoes. I recall the touching optimism of that endless multiplication. And I can almost hear those pears and apples of mine now soundlessly rolling out of the notebook and filling another imaginary space. All those lines and streaks, thick ones and thin ones, all those little windows, circles and snails, all those little hooks and snakes, all those loops and dots - they all rustle, crinkle, mingle in that imaginary space, they have not disappeared. Perhaps one day someone will let them out to become a real window, a real pear, a real word, a sentence.
            I scrutinise the pictures. I can’t read yet. I notice the brightly coloured, pleasing harmony of the most various objects and concepts: here are a horse and a harp, a man and a mouse, fingers and a flower ... Each of them happily (as I would later discover) pronouncing their own sound: a boy - ah, a girl - oh, a sheep - baa, a cow - moo. I notice the objects: an antiquated radio, archaic pens and erasers. I notice the passionate faith in progress: on one picture children are waving at an aeroplane, on another a happy family is gathered round a table. And on the table - a radio. An antique steam engine is racing into a cloudless future. Bridges span rivers, chimneys puff cheerful smoke, tractors plough the soil, and ships the sea. The ship is called Bakar (as I would later discover). People (men, I see now) are working cheerfully: pilots and tractor-drivers, doctors and miners. Like Colin Collier digging coal.
            Women are only mothers. Or little girls.
            The sky is blue, the sun is shining, there are no clouds or rain anywhere, not even at the letter C, nor at the letter R.
            I learn the letters. A for apple, E for elephant, 0 for orange, U for umbrella. Seka, see the sea! Hooray, hooray, the sea! Bit, sit, hit, bat, sat, mat, how now cow!
            I learn sentences. Jemal and Jafer are good friends. They come from Bosnia. Jafer has no family. He lives with JemaL Jemal’s mother loves him like her own son. Jemal and Jafer go to a distant town to learn a trade. Jemal’s mother puts an apple in each of their pockets. As they leave she says: Work hard, children, light of my life. Gladden your mother’s heart with good reports!

 

My First Primer
The sentences make soft imprints, outline common coordinates in the empty fields of our future personal biographies. Some letters stand out: F for family. (There are mummy, daddy, brother, sister ... ) H for homeland. (Like a mother, with its Plan, the state takes care of every man.) The state is something quite incomprehensible. The homeland is sea and mountains, and that’s entirely comprehensible. B for brother. All people are brothers, especially Africans. (A long way away, in Africa, live peoples with dark skins. They greet our sailors joyfully. They point to the red star on our flag. They shake our sailors firmly by the hand and shout in their own language: ‘Yugoslav sailors are our brothers!’)
            There are Serbs and Croats. They are brothers too. And when brotherly hearts unite - nothing can oppose their might! So my primer proclaims.
            The coordinates of the primers system are not built on opposites. In the world of the primer there is no evil. There is only good. It’s good to learn, to be clean (Every day / come what may / wash the dirt / and grime away) and diligent (All young and strong who never shirk / Come along, and join in our work!). For the moment only the fascists are evil. They usually come with the adjective black.
            The primer gives us new faithful friends. This is written in large letters in my primer. These new friends are letters. Bad luck all those who are without them! - the last page of my primer threatens.
            I started school in 1957. That year I got my passport to the Gutenberg galaxy, and another, inner, indistinct one. The primer is a kind of passport for several generations. Several generations are a whole nation, of a kind.
            We all have our own primers. I don’t know the nation which hatched out of the primers of a few decades before me. They were taught about an orderly, righteous, strict world in which not only did Africans not utter strange sentences, they simply didn’t exist. This strict, orderly world is suggested by the hardback price printed on the first page and the publisher: ‘The Royal Regional Government of the Croats, Slavonians and Dalmatians’, 1885. As for the nation which is about to emerge from the new primer (I have the one for 1990 in my hand), I shan’t know them and they won’t interest me at all. I don’t like their primer. The title to start with. Good Morning 1 and Good Morning 2!
            The world of the last-century primer is dominated by absolute certainty: it has a God (Oh gentle Jesus, meek and mild / Send blessings on your humble child, / Give to him drink and food each day / And teach him how to work and play). This primer is a guarantee of indisputable truths (The beech is a tree. The ropemaker is a craftsman. The wolf is a savage beast). In the world of this primer the borders of the homeland are clear (the homeland is Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia), and letters are learned with the help of the villages, towns, rivers and mountains within the borders of that homeland. K for Krizevci, P for Papuk, P for Petrinja.
            In my primer the homeland has no borders, there is Pula. (Let’s send a postcard to our pal Pero the pioneer in Pula. We are proud of our new pen.) There is Filip from. Slavonia and Frane from Dalmatia. There are sailors (again!) and our sea. (There’s the sea!’ shouts Slava. ‘It’s big and blue. There are big waves on the sea.) But it’s not called the Adriatic anywhere.
            In the primer from the last century you acquire knowledge about life (about flour and wheat, about the Gospels and ploughing). The words are broken up, you learn by syllables. Be devout, humble and industrious - these are the virtues of the orderly world of last century’s primer. The rules for life are: Fear God! Respect your parents! Obey your elders! Learn willingly! Do good! Tell the truth! Be honest! Don’t touch what’s not yours! And that’s all, the beginning and the end of it.
            That primer teaches children about coins, measures, months, seasons, holidays and holy days, work.
            There are lots of names in that primer. Ladislav, Sisman, Ljudevit, Sofija, Gavrilo, Cvjetana, Cestislava, Cutimira. Silver is white, the sun is bright, reeds are green, melons are succulent, conch shells are long. Cestislava is a name.
            In my primer the names, Croatian and Serbian, are equally distributed. As many Petars as Mitars, Djordjes as Ivans.

 

The Culture of Lies
The names in the new primer are Bobo and Beba, Bibo and Biba, Nino and Nena. And Jafer. Somehow he got a ticket into all the primers. He’s here too. Without Jemal this time. And in a quite different text.
            In the pages of the 1885 primer there is no doubt in the truth of the world. In the 1990 primer the world does not exist. There are no towns, rivers or mountains, the homeland is not measured. There are no Jovans or Ivans. The alphabet is the same: an apple for A, a boat for B, the inevitable umbrella for U. The pages have begun to fall out of the new primer; mine was firmly bound.
            The drawings in my primer are realistic, with innumerable tiny details. The colours are clear, like freshly painted village houses. The drawings in the new primer are stylised, like caricatures or cartoon films. In pastel shades, pinkish, yellowish ... The children’s faces have dots for eyes, dashes instead of smiles. The faces of the adults are indistinguishable from those of the children. Boring dots and dashes.
            In the new primer there are pictures of a world which no longer exists, like old flags people have forgotten to take down. Tito and pioneers. The top children in their class, who are right now learning from this primer, are no longer enrolled in the pioneers (‘to enrol in the pioneers’ is a sentence from a bygone age), Tito is only a monument (a photograph of a monument), and in the children’s minds partisan might easily be confused with marzipan. No single reality matches the drawings, no single drawing matches reality. The world of the new primer resembles the world of cartoon films (Skipping in the sun / Oh what jolly fun! / Laugh the clouds away / What a lovely day! / Smile at all you meet: / Every day’s a treat!). The world of the new primer doesn’t exist, it’s a world of paper happiness.
            The world of my primer matches reality. The picture of a mother in a clean apron seeing her little boy off to school is overlaid for me now with a picture of my own mother. I remember clearly the snow-white aprons, the clean bedlinen, curtains and cushions, the aesthetics of poverty. In the general post-war deprivation we all shared, a vase of wild flowers, a little curtain and a cushion, and that faultless cleanliness successfully concealed the lack of material things.
            C for car - and the drawing of a car opens up domains of, unwritten and unarticulated (were we ashamed?) Yugo-mytho-logy. A car, a, fico, the first Yugoslav car. I remember that passionate faith that each new day would bring a better future (this year we’re buying a car, and next year we’ll go to the sea).
            The ‘Red Star’shoe factory (that’s what’s written in the primer) with a picture of children’s shoes with little straps (I had shoes like that, some with the toes cut out, I was growing and shoes were expensive) draws with it a whole history of Yugo-actuality: memories of real ‘winkle-pickers’, plastic macs, the first nylon underwear, white nylon shirts, the first orange, the first sweets, the first chocolate, the first trip to Trieste ... Seka, Sanda, see the sea! Hurray, hurray the sea was not an alliterative sentence to practise writing the letter S, but what we said every time we caught sight of the sea. The picture of the family at the train window (you can clearly see the initials of the Yugoslav State Railways, in Latin and Cyrillic scripts) matches the exciting reality of travelling by train (school trips to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, to Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia).
            In the drawing of the radio I clearly recognise the first ‘Nikola Tesla’ Yugoslav radio (I remember staring intently in the dark at the magic flickering green eye), and the family gathered round the table is listening trustingly to the ‘Sailors’ Requests’ programme broadcast every Monday at eight. It was heard by people on ships, people who had relatives on ships and people who had never seen either a ship or the sea. The attentiveness with which the family was listening to the radio concealed the reality of Yugo-daily-life at the time. It too was a substitute for poverty: huddled round the radio people listened to the magical names of distant ports and oceans, and also to Mato Matic requesting the song ‘Yugoslav Sailors’ for his family, his wife Kata, daughter Vlasta and son Josko. It had the same importance as the first landing on the moon.

 

My First Primer

            The Tito of my primer was a real Tito, the one to whom we sent letters on his birthday rolled up into tubes and pushed into handmade wooden batons. I remember rolling the letters into tubes and pushing them into that important object, and then it wasn’t merely ‘a letter in a bottle’ but a letter with a clear addressee which would be read. There was no doubt about that.
            I started school in 1957. That year I got my passport to the Gutenberg galaxy, and another, inner, indistinct one. The primer is a kind of passport for several generations. Several generations are a whole nation, of a kind. I recognise that nation of mine. It hatched out of the primer like those armies of pears and apples. It’s hard to recognise, it’s neither East nor West, neither Russian nor English. But I always do recognise my people. I recognise them at international airports, where they are more easily hidden mixed up with others. I recognise them by a kind of twitch, by their eyes, by the way they glance shyly around them, and the way they try not to, by the way they check in their luggage, I recognise them even when they’re travelling in the opposite direction, when they’re well disguised in foreign clothes, and pretending, therefore, to be something else.
            The people who will be writing the next primer for their pupils belong to a nation which has wrapped itself in national flags as its only identity. That identity makes it secure and gives it a sense of reality, like a coat with the trusty ‘Burberry’ label. They will pass through international airports as firmly convinced Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, with no twitch on their face and without glancing shyly around them. The language, alphabet, symbols, concepts of those primers will be different. But the new generation will get its passport too: one for the Gutenberg galaxy, and another, inner, indistinct one ... April 1991

 

Postscript
The primer, a little Utopia, which was initially synchronised with life, very quickly became a dusty document from the past. Life set off to conquer lovelier, richer images. However, in 1991, when the last, bloodiest phase of dismantling the Yugoslav Utopia began, time rolled up into a circle and everything went back ... to the beginning! Tired of the breathless strategies of the media war with all its ‘sound and fury’, the dismantling returned to the bare, clear little sketches from my primer! Jovans are attacking Ivans, the Cyrillic alphabet is quarrelling with the Latin script, Serbs with Croats, Djordje and Jafer are fighting, the green aeroplanes with a red star from my primer took off and began bombing first Croatian villages and towns, then Bosnian ones. From their ships our Yugoslav sailors shelled our ports, towns and our lovely blue sea. The homeland without borders began to carve its new borders. Books, our best friends, burned, splinters of centuries-old churches flew through the air together with splinters of Tito’s plaster heads. Letters, figures, symbols from my innocent primer rushed to annihilate themselves. Like Eristochtones, the Utopia was devouring itself before our eyes, and in the wastelands, like harmless little eggs, there began to appear the outlines of new ... primers!