To mark the anniversary of the Asymptote Book Club, we’re delighted to be publishing our first author-translator interview. Ivana Bodrožić, author of The Hotel Tito, speaks to her English translator, Ellen Elias-Bursać, about the events that led to her debut novel, the book’s initial reception in Croatia and Serbia, and how she went from being “everybody’s sweetheart” to being attacked by nationalist critics.
In a conversation that gets to the heart of the novel, Ivana Bodrožić reveals which scene was most difficult to convey on the page, and explains why she needed a police guard for her book-signing in Belgrade.
Ellen Elias-Bursać (EEB): What started you writing The Hotel Tito?
Ivana Bodrožić (IB): Ever since I first learned how to write I have been writing down anything that seemed important, the things that formed me and my world; in my pre-teen years it was wise sayings, when the war was raging around us I copied out the lyrics of Nirvana and R.E.M songs, I kept a diary. Then I tried my hand at writing my own poetry: when I was sixteen I’d shut myself in my room and by the light of a candle, with a little bottle of vodka, I’d imagine I was Yesenin—until my mother knocked at the door. Writing was always something important for me and a little exalted; I see this now as an attempt at interrogating the world around me. When I came to understand, as an adult, that my childhood had been out of the ordinary, I began to think that in time I’d forget, as people do, all that had made my life what it was, what made my world and me as I am today. That is when I began jotting down fragments of memories and after I’d written out some forty pages I realized I was writing prose that said something, to me. That was the point when I realized I needed a protagonist through whose eyes and heart I’d narrate this piece of my life and the life of my whole generation who grew up during the war. My love of reading and writing and my specific life experience quickly gave The Hotel Tito its shape.
EEB: When you started writing it had you already fully conceived how you would tell the story, or did the novel evolve as you were writing it?
IB: I knew I wanted to tell the story of the children who grew up in displaced-persons housing, but in such a way that the story would come from them, the story of a family which fell apart and how even though the war ended, nobody won. I had as my overall framework the six years I spent displaced, but many of the episodes surfaced as I went along, while I was writing. I knew I didn’t want to fall back on the wisdom of hindsight, I tried to set aside my adult perspective. I also didn’t want to spare anybody, including myself, in terms of treating with honesty the emotions I’d felt and my memories. What surprised me, and what I hadn’t been planning to write about, was the episode in which the protagonist, when she’s drunk, allows herself to imagine how her father, who disappeared during the siege of the city, was killed. I had to face that the narrative was taking me there. Sometimes there’s a subterranean logic to a novel which the writer should listen to, and there was a moment when I feared I might not be able to do it justice. The ferocity of such terrible events is sometimes difficult to convey on the page, but I’m glad now that I did.
EEB: How did you balance the fictional and non-fictional? Why did you decide to treat the subject matter as a novel rather than as a memoir?
IB: Simply put, art allows more room for the truth, especially if your goal is not merely to tell your own story, if there’s a writer inside you who wants to tie together events which are otherwise distant, and expose the logic that exists among things. That’s one answer. Another would be that while I was writing I always had the genre of the novel in my ear, and it guided me, steered me toward the understanding that while things follow after one another in life, they happen in a novel because of one another. That world was more appealing to me and although the underlying motive grew out of my wartime childhood, I genuinely enjoyed writing about it as a novel and probably compensated, through my enjoyment, for some of the things which hadn’t been so enjoyable in my life. The life of the protagonist and the other characters is much more important, fuller and more engaging for readers, than my actual life would have been. As an author I don’t think I’m particularly well suited to memoir, either because of my age or because I’m a writer—and producers always say that writers are the most boring of characters.
EEB: How was The Hotel Tito received in Croatia? When it came out in Serbia, did critics review it?
IB: The novel quickly became a bestseller, it was very well-received by critics and the general public. I think this was because everything that happened to us in the 1990s was, for the first time, being narrated by a child who wasn’t voicing political preferences, a child who with her gaze was able to look with fresh eyes at the evil we’d become inured to and could no longer even see. A child who always stirs empathy in the reader, particularly if the child has been the victim of violence. For a time I was “everybody’s sweetheart.” That lasted until my second novel was published—the thriller, Pits—which explores the responsibility borne by the Croatian side for atrocities committed during the war, for corruption and crimes, for communities that were split apart in the post-war years. Writing about “our sins” is much more threatening and complex—especially as narrated through the perspective of a self-aware woman—than to write about war through the eyes of a little girl. With this novel, the reception unfolded a little differently, and, though it received awards in the regional context, it was slammed and attacked. In Serbia, The Hotel Tito was read by the small circles of writers and readers who had been fighting for years against the regime that brought about the war in ex-Yugoslavia—at the Belgrade reading and book-signing, police were on guard outside the building.
EEB: When you come back to The Hotel Tito today, are there aspects of what you wrote that surprise you?
IB: More surprising than any one aspect of the novel was the fact that I wrote it with such a natural ease, slipping effortlessly into the perspective of the child and reconstructing my memories. I have thought about this a lot and this was, I think, because I hadn’t shared with anyone what my many years in the refugee camp had been like. When the war ended, and when I began living a more “normal” life again in an apartment with my mother and brother and going to secondary school, all I cared about was fitting in among kids my age. I never told any of my new friends about my father who’d disappeared, about the years I’d spent living in that one room, about waiting for word about my father, about my mother who never slept. All those stories were buried deep inside me. When you tell and retell something, sometimes you reach a point when you can no longer remember the event itself, but only the story you’ve been telling about it. Maybe this is why the story inside me was so intact and full of details that hadn’t been lost in the retelling, so when it began to emerge, I had no trouble structuring it because it was alive and untold. What always surprises me is the sad fact that stories about children in war are still so relevant, and that despite all our achievements in human rights, all our technological advancement, there are still so many children who, tragically, can identify with this, children who have been forced to leave their homes and live in permanent uncertainty as refugees.
Ivana Bodrožić was born in Vukovar in 1982 where she lived until the Yugoslav wars started in 1991. She then moved to Kumrovec, where she stayed with her family at a hotel for displaced persons. She studied at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb. Her first novel, Hotel Zagorje (The Hotel Tito), was published in 2010, receiving high praise from both critics and audiences and becoming a Croatian bestseller. Her most recent novel, the political thriller Hole, has sparked controversy and curiosity among Croatian readers.
Ellen Elias-Bursać is a translator of fiction and non-fiction from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. Her translation of David Albahari’s novel Götz and Meyer won the 2006 ALTA National Translation Award. She taught for ten years in the Harvard University Slavic Department, worked as a language reviser at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, and is a contributing editor to Asymptote. Her book Translating Evidence and Interpreting Testimony at a War Crimes Tribunal was given the Mary Zirin Prize in 2015.
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