The BackShop Journal

A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

The Ultimate Remedy

"There are countries where buses have a longer life than borders" (Despot 2014, 9)

"[...] Lika, where heads are as hard and as burnt as rocks in the summer" (Despot 2014, 30)

"During that fateful August 1995, when the homeland of my Despots was erased from geography and history, I asked myself: what can I do for them?" This is how Slobodan Despot, the Serbian-born Swiss author of the acclaimed French novel, Le Miel (Honey), describes the birth of the idea for his work. "How can I present to the indifferent world that tragedy to which nearly no one even paid attention, and was ignored even in Serbia?" He lived with that hardship for years, he says. "Then an extraordinary person told me the story about a Krajina beekeeper left by everyone somewhere in the mountains, until his alienated son, a Belgrade resident, sets out to find him in the devastated Lika. I immediately perceived the power of the parable that sums up our contemporary fates" (Despot 2015). Surprisingly, his synopsis won a contest for a national grant. Despot saw the fact that the Swiss were supporting a story about the fall of Krajina by a notorious Serb as a sign, and he knew he mustn't fail.  Writing the novel meticulously, he tried to reach "the most human core" of the tragedy, so he could be understood by everyone, even those who had never heard about Krajina. He would stop writing, he testifies, whenever he would feel a need to settle accounts or to prove something (Despot 2015).

The political backdrop for the story is extremely delicate to this date. It is the August 4, 1995 expulsion of the entire Serbian population of 200,000 from Croatia, the part known as Krajina (the frontier land), inhabited by the Orthodox population for centuries.  The massive exodus of Serbs, precipitated by the military attack known as "Operation Storm," was planned and supported by the American army, tacitly approved by the European Union, and endorsed by the Western media.  It represents the largest ethnic cleansing in modern European history. It also led to the sentencing and subsequent acquittal of three military leaders of the Croatian army at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The date is still celebrated as a national holiday in contemporary Croatia, and mourned as the day of greatest tragedy among the refugees in Serbia.

Slobodan Despot was aware that essays, debates, gatherings and proclamations have little effect other than to comfort and encourage the people who think alike. Very few read the writings and the press of their political opponents. So he turned to literature, because it "speaks the all-human language." As Despot put it, "conceptual and cultural borders recede in front of a true story" (Despot 2015). He stuck to a personal tale, therefore, using political and social context only as background. He relates the circumstances that led to the formation of the Republic of Serbian Krajina and explains the fear of the Serbs whose ancestors were slain in the WWII concentration camps by the Croatian Nazi puppet regime. The murder of around 700,000 ethnic Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia had been largely covered up or minimized by the post-war communist regime headed by Josip Broz Tito. These historical digressions in the novel seem as concise and relevant as possible, though. The main focus is on the individual fate of the main character, a short-tempered and rather egotistical Serb named Vesko the Hot Head, who, nevertheless, undergoes a transformation toward the end of the novel. 

It is evident that Despot tried not to be one-dimensional or biased. He concedes the dark side of the Serbian camp, and describes the generosity of a Croatian family. He manages to present the story as a personal misfortune and relate it in a detached way that provides wisdom rather than desire for revenge to the participants. "If injustices in the mediatised-political treatment of this terrible Yugoslav conflict are shown and dismantled without fear, this does not entail a preemptory judgment in regard to men and women," Thierry Jolif writes. "With Honey, Slobodan Despot delivers an appeasing tale" (Jolif 2015).

The plot of the book is novel in its details, yet it feels archetypal in its essence. If we accept Christopher Booker's argument that there are only seven basic plots in any given story, then the storyline in Le Miel would correspond to not only one, but two of those universal tales. The first one is "the quest," in which a protagonist, often accompanied by a sidekick, goes on a search for an object and/or a person, facing innumerable physical and mental challenges (Booker 2004, 69). In this case, the sidekick, a confident, tacky Russian UN official disappears soon after they enter Croatia via Hungary. The main prize - usually a girl the main protagonist rescues from a hostile environment - is Vesko's father, Nikola, and the treasure he captures are the eight large, metal containers of honey produced by the father's bees. The second archetypal plot Le Miel could fit in is "the voyage and return," in which a normal protagonist is suddenly thrust into an alien world from which he has to come back (Booker 2004, 87). Vesko's shortcomings, like his short temper and his uncontrollable fears, as well as his job in a state firm, wife and two children, and residence in a New Belgrade apartment, would qualify him as "normal," even average. The "alien world" in the story - the new, independent Croatia where national ideology is partly based on the propagated hatred of the Serbs - is not alien in itself, but is alienated during the four years (1991-1995) of bloody civil strife. The armed conflict came after four-and-a-half decades of fraternal bliss during which most people believed in the infinite nature of "brotherhood and unity" between six or seven ethnic groups in the socialist Yugoslavia. This sudden, unexpected face-heel turn is what makes the present situation seem even more like a nightmare.

The plot is made more complex and interesting due to the fact that the story about Vesko rescuing his father from Krajina is, in fact, a story-within-a-story, since it is revealed to us by a Belgrade herbalist, a wise and unusual woman named Vera. The manner in which she met Vesko is archetypal in itself. She actually saves Nikola from the hand of the infuriated Hot Head, who had just lost a wheel on his car for the second time due to the excessive weight of Nikola's containers filled with honey. Providentially, Vera becomes witness to Vesko's assault on his father and a demand to give him 300 deutschmarks he owed him for the previous car repair. Without reflection, Vera gives the complete stranger the exact, barely saved sum she was carrying in her bag on her way to pay her long overdue taxes. Confused, the Hot Head accepts the unexpected gift. A week or so later, he finds Vera, returns the money and gives her a huge container with honey, the remedy indispensable in Vera's profession. Vesko then relates her the story about his journey to Lika, subsequently retold to the narrator. Vera, a wise and educated woman, compares her role in the salvation of the old man in front of the gun of his son to Yahweh's saving of Isaac under Abraham's knife. Both events served as a divine test of Abraham's and Vera's fate and their readiness to sacrifice the most valued person/possession. "Each of our gesture counts," concludes the narrator at the end of the tale (Despot 2014, 127).

The novel was not named arbitrarily. Vera is the overarching character who relates and interprets the story, Vesko is the main protagonist, and Nikola is the object of the quest and the person who tames and accepts his prodigal son with wisdom and patient love. The leading role, however, does not belong to a human, but to honey. Vera's entire little pharmacy relies on honey. "All our life, in fact, relies on honey. There is more honey because there are more bees. More bees - more pollination. More plants on Earth!" she says (Despot 2014, 39). Nikola achieves his peace of mind through working with those extraordinary honey-producing insects. "There is more intelligence in a beehive than in any human congregation [...] a beehive is a person, whose every bee is a cell. We think we are the only species endowed with spirit, because we can see the contours of the individual human," he tells his son (Despot 2014, 111). The word essaimer in French means "to swarm," and can refer to bees leaving or founding a new beehive, but it also means "to spread, to expand," and this is what Nikola, ennobled by his beekeeping and dealing with honey, does. He distributes it to mute the apprehension, to disseminate tranquility. "Everyone is in need of a little honey," Jolif explains. "Nikola knows it and he scatters it along the way softening resentment, dissolving tension, enriching acquaintances" (Jolif 2015). Honey has the color of gold, and honey in the novel represents treasure, both literally and metaphorically.

Le Miel is Despot's first novel, but his confident style, persuasive dialogues, and tight structure do not reveal his inexperience in writing fiction by any means. After years of working as an editor of the publishing house L'Age d'Homme, as translator and essayist, he recently founded his own publishing house, Xenia, which has already drawn admirable attention and praise of the francophone critique and readershipSome of Despot's essays about geopolitics, relationship between the East and the West, and about the Balkans have stirred exceptional controversy and created ubiquitous recognition. Le Miel, a short but profound and suggestive novel, opens up a new promising career for this compelling and gifted erudite.

LITERATURE CITED

Booker, Christopher 2004,  The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.  London: Continuum.

Despot, Slobodan 2014.  Le Miel  Paris: Gallimard.

Despot, Slobodan 2015.  "Svi živimo pod okriljem zapadne civilizacije."  by Vladimir Dimitrijević  Geopolitika 22 (02.16.2015). Available at: <http://www.vaseljenska.com/intervju/slobodan-despot-svi-zivimo-pod-okriljem-zapadne-civilizacije/>

Jolif, Thierry. "Viatique doré pour terre brûlée."  Unidivers.fr: le webzine culturel de Rennes.  Available at: <http://www.unidivers.fr/slobodan-despot-le-miel-roman-gallimard-nrf/>

Svetozar Postic

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