The first visual record of police interrogation we have comes from a XII Dynasty tomb in Egypt, two thousand years before Christ. The image shows a man being held by three others while the fourth one beats him with a bamboo stick and the fifth, who appears to be the one in charge, supervises the procedure. The sight is disheartening, Borislav Pekiå«c comments. In four thousand years not much has changed. Prisoners still get beaten. And that’s not the worst that happens to them, of course. There have been many refinements since the pharaohs in methods of inducing physical and mental pain. We must give credit to the Holy Inquisition, which contributed more than any other institution to the development of the role of the interrogator. The Inquisitors’ techniques of persuasion were especially admired by modern totalitarian states where ideological heresy likewise came to be regarded as a capital crime.
Only educated people conversant with nuances of doctrine and with a talent for abstract speculation could count on becoming inquisitors. Their task was no longer to bash heads and extract fingernails but to have the prisoner comprehend the nature of his transgression and make a public confession. Today, in the name of the war on terror, ill-treatment and torture in all their ancient and modern varieties are again being used more or less openly by some countries, including the United States. These practices, surprisingly, have the approval of a number of distinguished law professors and opinion makers who argue that to defeat evil we may have to do the unthinkable now and then.
Were he alive today, Borislav Pekiå«c would not have been persuaded. His interest in the abuse and torture of prisoners comes from firsthand experience. Unlike his better-known Serbian contemporaries, the novelists Danilo Kis and Aleksandar Tisma, who also wrote extensively about imprisonment, Pekiå«c actually spent time in jail as a political prisoner under the Communists. Born in 1930, he was arrested in 1948 in Belgrade while still in high school, and accused of organizing a conspiracy against the state. He did not deny his guilt. The secret student organization, of which he was one of the founders, planned to engage in sabotage in addition to proselytizing for democratic reforms.
This was an act of bravery akin to starting in Nazi Germany an association to combat the spread of anti-Semitism. He was interrogated, treated roughly, and made to sign a statement in which he admitted plotting against the state because, supposedly, he and his friends could not bear the freedom and happiness his fellow citizens now enjoyed. In other words, he was made to realize that rather than having fought for liberty as he had previously told himself, he had been a mortal enemy of that liberty. He served five years out of a fifteen-year sentence.
Exactly how he was made to confess the opposite of what he believed, Pekiå«c describes in Godine Koje su Pojeli Skakavci (Years Eaten by Locusts), a three-volume memoir, still to be translated, of his time in prison, published in 1991, a year before his death. As much as he dwells on his own predicament, he is even more interested in the stories of his fellow prisoners and his jailers. Prison turned out to be a pivotal experience in his life. When he was arrested, he was an upper-middle-class boy whose father, ironically, had been a high police official before the war. After his pardon in 1953, Pekiå«c was an outcast in a state where one’s political past and unquestioning loyalty to the Party were decisive factors in getting ahead. The best thing a man like him could do under the circumstances was to become invisible. That, however, was never to be Pekiå«c’s talent. The day he was to be set free, he refused to leave the prison until the fountain pen that was confiscated at his arrest six years before was returned to him. The officials showed him a large stash of fountain pens and implored him to select the one he liked best, but he continued to insist that his own be given back to him.
After his release, Pekiå«c studied psychology in Belgrade, and then between 1958 and l964, he worked in the film industry writing numerous screenplays and publishing a few literary works under a pseudonym. His novel The Time of Miracles (Vreme Cuda)1 came out in 1965 when he was already thirty-five years old. It turned out to be a success with both the critics and the reading public. The book is made up of stories based on Christ’s miracles in the New Testament. Pekiå«c re-imagines the events from the point of view of those on whom the miracles were performed by a passing stranger who did not ask for their consent or care much what happened to them afterward. In place of traditional narrative and theology, he offers his own counter-parables as a corrective. What interests him, as it does in his other books, is the gap between some religious or political doctrine and the actual outcome for a particular person.
The Time of Miracles is a blasphemous book with scenes and images that could have come from Gnostic gospels and the canvases of Hieronymus Bosch. The story of resurrection is also given a twist. A disciple, greedy for salvation, begs Jesus to let him carry the cross so that he may save his own soul. Jesus, who never refuses anyone in spiritual need, lets him take up the cross while he himself vanishes in the crowd. The Roman centurions in their drunkenness do not notice the switch and crucify the wrong man.
The Houses of Belgrade (Hodocasce Arsenija Njegovana, 1970),2 Pekiå«c’s next novel, has a far more conventional narrative. It tells the story of a well-to-do house builder and a landlord who shuts himself inside his apartment on March 27, 1941, the day street demonstrations in Belgrade overthrew the government, which had signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, and who doesn’t emerge from it until June 3, 1968, when once more he discovers that the streets are full of protesting students. As the novel opens, Pekiå«c’s hero, an elderly man in failing health, is composing a commentary on his life. He lives on memories of the houses he built, which he observes through binoculars from his top-floor window. During the Allied bombing in 1944, he at first refuses to go down into the cellar, insisting on remaining at his window and trying to ascertain if any of his houses are being hit.
“How does one tell a story that is outdated, pointless, incomprehensible, perhaps risky and yet touching?”3 Pekiå«c asks himself in one of his essays. Arsenie Negovan, his hero, is a member of what in Serbia turned out to be a quickly emerging and as quickly declining class of urban merchants and professionals whose fates were sealed by World War II and communism. The Houses of Belgrade is an elegy for that lost world, a world to which Pekiå«c’s own family belonged. Arsenie Negovan was a builder in a country in which cities are forever being reduced to ruins by some foreign invader or, as in the case of Sarajevo and Vukovar, by home-grown lunatics.
In 1971, Pekiå«c moved with his family to London where, except for a few extended visits to his homeland, he lived in self-imposed exile until his death. These were extremely prolific years for him. In addition to the books already mentioned, he published novels, plays, books of science fiction, and several works of nonfiction. His novel in seven volumes, Golden Fleece (Zlatno Runo, 1978–1986), is regarded as his masterpiece. In 1990, Pekiå«c participated in the founding of the Democratic Party in Serbia, to which both the recently assassinated premier, Zoran Djindjic, and the present one, Vojislav Kostunica, also belonged, before they became enemies. He also took part in the first demonstrations against the Milosevic regime.
The last things he wrote were newspaper articles and speeches and their theme was the democratic future of Serbia. Rereading the pieces today, I’m struck by his willingness to forgive his old enemies and by his rosy outlook. Like other moderate nationalists, he did not foresee what tragedies lay ahead, since, more than the others, he believed in compromise. Serious consideration of other people’s views and a genuine attempt to understand them was the essence of democracy for Pekiå«c. Without compromise, he wrote, there can be no normal life for us. He knew how difficult finding the middle ground politically had always been for Serbs; nevertheless, he hoped that for once they may come to their senses, seize the opportunity, and act wisely.
How to Quiet a Vampire, well translated by Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic, is a book without a trace of optimism. First published in 1977, it is the story of a former SS officer, Konrad Rutkowski, now a professor of medieval history at the University of Heidelberg, who like thousands of other Germans vacations on the Dalmatian coast, in his case in the town of D. where twenty-two years before, during World War II, he served as a Gestapo officer. His wife, whose idea it was to take the trip, has no knowledge that this is the place where he was briefly posted, and so remains oblivious of her husband’s inner turmoil. Rutkowski’s efforts to both renounce and justify his past are detailed in twenty-six letters which he writes to his brother-in-law back in Germany, who also happens to be a professor of history. Pekiå«c, writing as the narrator, depicts himself as the scholarly editor of the letters who provides a preface, numerous footnotes, and several additional documents and commentaries at the end of the book. In his introduction, he characterizes the writing as a mixture of personal confession and a historico-philosophical essay. These elements, of course, are present in Pekiå«c’s other fiction. He was always as interested in ideas as in his characters and his plots.
The former Gestapo officer, Professor Rutkowski, uses the letters to conduct a bitter polemic with the European intellectual tradition of which he proudly considers himself to be a descendant. He ascribes to it the great share of the blame for his personal tragedy as well as the moral ruin of Germany. The content of each letter is consequently associated with a different European philosophical school and a work of a particular philosopher. The Meditations of letter 1 belong to Marcus Aurelius; Matter and Memory of letter 2 to Henri Bergson; Thus Spake Zarathustra of letter 3 to Nietzsche, and so forth. By the last letter, Leibniz, Descartes, Freud, Schopenhauer, Berdayaev, Hegel, Spengler, Husserl, Erasmus, Plato, Hume, Abe-lard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Saint Augustine, Camus, Marx, and Wittgenstein have all been alluded to. In his view, these are the real culprits for the delusions and violence of the twentieth century. He writes to his brother-in-law: