Montenegro’s Literary Revival: Contemporary Voices from the ‘Black Mountain’

Photo of Tim Wilson
26 December 2016

Since establishing its independence in 2006, Montenegro has emerged as a cultural center within the broader context of the former Yugoslavia, and a handful of contemporary writers are receiving particular acclaim for their unique visions of modern Montenegro. Tim Wilson explores the work of three such writers: Pavle Goranović, Tanja Bakic and Ognjen Spahic.

Montenegro takes its name from the dark mass of forest that populated Mount Lovcen. This density apparently instilled the impression of a ‘Black Mountain’. Today, tracts of forest cover half the country. Its history and literature is equally verdant; the first state run printing press in the world came into existence here, run by monks printing orthodox liturgy. Other significant literary landmarks came later, in the form of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Montenegro’ and Petar II Petrovic Njegos’ ‘The Mountain Wreath’, both of which focus on the country’s famed resistance to Ottomon invasion. Leaving aside those erudite texts, the wealth of Montenegrin literature can also be accurately weighed by not just this heritage but by what is being currently expressed; contemporary offerings and talents, the wealth of which is manifold.

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Pavle Goranović

Born in 1973 in Nikšić, Montenegro, Pavle Goranović is a philosophy graduate who has written prose and literary reviews, whilst also dividing his time as a co-editor, art director and, primarily, a poet. He has previously declared that ‘the age of post-heroic Montenegro has arrived’ and his 2009 collection What Books Smell Like demonstrates this with poignant nostalgia rooted in existential anxiety. The doubts raised by the poetic subjects of this collection belie the all-encompassing stereotype of ‘Humanity and Heroism’ proposed as a national representative of Montenegro. In ‘On the International Route Munich – Salonika’, he charts a journey we may all be familiar with, where ‘banal substitutes’ are sought during a period of restlessness with a book; in this case, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Musil’s book concerns a protagonist in a crisis of apathy and detachment and this reference becomes tragically ironical when it is decided by Goranovic’s subject that ‘it is better to give up on reading’ (which is even more ironic considering the fact Musil’s book went unfinished).

Although the works cited here seem morosely opaque, the profundity of what Goranovic contends with and the nature of his engagement evokes powerful truths and beautiful reflections. He is a shining example of the significant faculties and prowess possessed by the many who occupy an often side-lined contemporary Montenegrin literature. His other collections include Ornaments of the Night (1994), Reading the Silence (1997) and Book of Apparitions (2002).

English translations of Goranovic’s works are available from the Blesok Cultural Institution.

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Tanja Bakic

Tanja Bakic, another Montenegrin poet, was first published at the tender age of 15. She has published five volumes of poetry, but like Goranovic, her literary pursuits are extensive and varied. As well as poetry she has also edited, translated, penned essays and scientific papers and promoted literary events for the prestigious Montenegrin publishing house, Oktoih.

An MA graduate with a Blakean style, who has also translated the Metaphysical and Romantic poets, her work often employs imagery which suggests the body and nature as divine consorts, brought together in striking, vivid bouts of imagery. 2012’s The Seed and Other Poems featured this precise highlight:

‘A Black lace
On the white wall –
The ocean’s scent
The light is still
Falling on us,
The presence of the day’

Her 2008 essay, ‘To Be a Writer in Montenegro’ signalled her relationship with her country and its national literature; she felt awestruck by inspiration before this tradition though not precious or naïve. She admits to the possibility of the inner sanctum provided by Montenegro – the ‘magical premises’ that she occupies – being a fanciful, romantic fiction: ‘Perhaps these images exist solely in my mind’. Nevertheless the humble beauty of her testimony convinces as she finally defines what it is to be a Montenegrin writer:

A writer who writes in a language not vast but unique, reaching each lonely heart, each rocky stone, each sea-gull, each fig, each grape, each morning, each eye, each thunder, each lightning, each autumn leaf, each sea, and each tear drop.

Some of Bakic’s works are available in English here: Amazon.

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Ognjen Spahic

Born in 1977 in Podgorica, Spahic is a civil engineering and philosophy graduate, lauded by many for his 2005 novel, Hansen’s Children (reprinted in English by Istros Books in 2011) as well as his tragic, surreal though undeniably bewitching short stories. He has received the Romanian Ovid Festival Prize in 2011, the 2005 Mesa Selimovic prize and the CEI Fellowship for Writers in Residence 2011. He bears a great number of influences; Danilo Kis, Ivo Andric, W.G. Sebald and Raymond Carver (whose death frames the disintegration of a couples relationship in Spahic’s ‘Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead’) though his literary voice is unique. In Hansen’s Children he tackles the realities of mortality and atrocity through the allegorical microcosm of a leprosarium. The ‘children’ of the story belong to Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen, the Norwegian scientist who isolated the Mycobacterium Leprae in 1873. The last leper house these ‘children’ occupy is located in South Eastern Romania, a ‘vast desert of fear, ugliness and disfigurement’. Through its complete isolation and the utter abjection of its inhabitants, Spahic manages to express the horror of political oppression and the dislocation of a cultural legacy.

His short story, ‘Aftermath of the Clothes of Text’ charts the descent of an already torn family further rocked by matriarchal suicide. Ana, the central focus and cause for concern for our narrator, is portrayed as sadly unhinged, seemingly consigned to a grief-stricken confusion. At the close, her dialogue falls apart, as loud, overpowering music drowns out her snatches of inebriated speech. This unsteady speech concerns the inclusion of a story detailing her mother’s death appearing on a dress, which she feels inexplicably compelled to buy, seduced by the idea that the whole body can become ‘legible’ with ‘meaning strewn all over it’. It perfectly captures the unreality of modern confrontations with trauma, limited and confined as we are today by diluted media representations. As a whole though, Spahic presents a modern tragedy, with events which linger in their awful effects, and actions which are not histrionic but framed within a depiction faithful to verisimilitude.

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