Vladislava Gordic writes from Novi Sad to a friend in London (1998).
"It is strange and unnatural," said a student I was examining in English Literature, "that Robinson Crusoe takes no notice of the beautiful nature while on the desert island. He thinks only of practical matters."
This analysis would have been worth a laugh had it not been quoted from a Yugoslav textbook abounding in similar funny statements. It is practically the only reference available to students, since they cannot afford The Penguin History of Literature. The students take it all in stride: Robinson Crusoe was a geek who sought only to accumulate capital; he did not care about anyone except himself. Not even about nature!
"Wait a minute," I said. "Don't you remember he had to survive there?"
The student looked puzzled. It had not occurred to her that fighting for one's life usually does not allow indulgence in the beauties of nature.
These days, my dear friend, I think of survival very much. The word implies different things for different people. By that word, some mean bread, some books.
Just a few days ago, the EC banned flights of Yugoslav airline companies. In the opinion of Yugoslavia's First Lady, who once wrote in her diary that we should better look at the beautiful nature around us rather than at the hostile outside world that imposes sanctions on us, this would probably be just another unjustified act of repression. For me, however, this is the issue of survival.
I flew with Yugoslav Airlines to London this June. There was the inevitable delay; you, my friend, cited David Lodge's remark from Small World, that the Airline acronym, JAT, stands for "joke about time." The flight was a unique chance to see the beauties of nature from above. I was not impressed - green and brown stripes, patches of blue, nothing special really, nature always looks the same from above. I was more depressed than anything. I wanted milk in my coffee, but the flight attendant said there wasn't any. Funny though, now that seems to be another issue of survival. Do I care about the beauty of nature if I miss the taste of coffee and cream in my mouth?
Then it took only two hours of an otherwise pleasant flight to reach London. Now, when this flight ban forces us to take the plane at Budapest instead of Belgrade, it will take much longer and cost more. Besides, my country suffers a serious shortage of milk at the moment, and I cannot wait to arrive in England to have my coffee creamed. I have to stay here and buy milk imported from Hungary at twice the usual cost, but there's nothing else available.
As you can see, Hungary helps us survive. But everything costs twice as much that way.
Still, we've seen worse. There were times, four years ago, when my monthly paycheck was enough for only one toothpaste tube (today I can buy twenty toothpaste tubes if I want, but the problem is that the paycheck comes only once in three months). In those days of rough sanctions and even rougher inflation I used to go to the market where people sold clothes, screws, smuggled goods, whatever was sellable, so to say. Once I ran into a man who was selling second hand books. He was the only one selling them, I was the only one who stopped at his counter and started browsing. Couldn't help it. I bought a book by Claudio Guillen called Literature as System. While the whole of Yugoslavia was desperately seeking its last nickel to buy bread, I was buying books. You cannot eat books, that is true, but sometimes you need literature as a system of survival.
I am not the practical Robinson Crusoe type at all, but still, to me the beauty of the sky cannot compensate for the milk missing from my coffee. I do not live on a desert island, I am rather an Alice living in a Sanctionland where everything you say or do comes out the wrong way. Still, Alice, Crusoe, and I have something in common - we all remember how things should be and try to set them straight. All of us try really hard to survive. We do our best not to be eaten by cannibals, not to be drowned in the Pool of Tears, not to be tied to the ground if we can help it.