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Review | Manuel D’Exil, Velibor Čolić | Editions Gallimard

Manuel D’Exil − comment réussir son exil en trente cinq leçons (A Survivor’s Guide to Exile in 35 Chapters) by Velibor Čolić

Both World War I and World War II originated in the Balkans. Central-Eastern Europe is a region that is terra incognita to most Brits. Prime Minister Chamberlain famously remarked about the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938: “How terrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Dictator Marshal Tito held Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and others in a state of uneasy alliance until his death on 4 May, 1980. Ethnic tensions grew in Yugoslavia and war broke out in 1990

The Balkans are once again the crucible of crisis – this time as the main refugee route to northern Europe. Thousands have become trapped in Greece after Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia closed their frontiers.

August 1992. A twenty-eight-year-old deserter from the Bosnian army arrives in Rennes “with just three words of French – Jean, Paul, and Sartre”. His battered olive-green backpack contains a manuscript, a photo of Emily Dickinson, a rosary, two postcards of Zagreb, an old piece of soap, and 50 deutsche marks. Rootless, homeless, dispossessed and in a foreign land where he does not speak the language, or understand its customs, he is nobody’s nothing. “I’m just a refugee, as naked as a worm beneath a hostile sky.”

The country of his mind’s eye no longer exists, having been destroyed by war and ethnic cleansing. His house and manuscripts in the small town of his childhood had been burned to the ground. “I can feel my fatherland turning into a sad, black star.”  

He stays in a recently refurbished hostel for asylum seekers populated by Somalians, Ethiopians, Iraqis, and escapees from the former Soviet Eastern bloc. Two deserters from the Russian Soviet Army who fled over the Berlin wall befriend him.

A well-to-do gypsy, Mehmet Baïrami, visits the hostel. Philosophical, cynical and nihilistic he dishes out useful advice: How to Go Shopping ; How to take the tube without paying ; How scare old white ladies ; How to get social security benefits in Germany ; How to get two passports ;  How to sell rainbow pills ; How to keep healthy ; How to win a fight ; How to cross frontiers (Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria being the easiest, because of corrupt officials).

I see in the newspapers how my country is bleeding and burning.” Angry and traumatised, the narrator is comforted by jazz, alcohol and erotic fantasies. His closest companions: Levi, Camus, Borges, Llosa. He walks for miles and miles, hangs out in local cafés, lusts after waitresses and clings to his dream of writing and winning a prize – having already had three books published back home. His wartime experiences will provide good material for his first book in French, and he adopts the pseudonym Alain Balzac. His unwavering ambition and faith in literature are almost religious in their intensity.

He drifts through Europe and lives for a while in Paris, the home of writers in exile: from Joyce and Hemingway in the 1920s, to Iranian author Marjane Satrapi, Cuban novelist Zoé Valdés, and Afghan Goncourt-winner Atiq Rahimi today.

He is picked up by a French publisher, but has few illusions. The Balkans are “in” with the “it-lit” crowd. He knows that success is ephemeral. A promotional tour with three self-important French philosophers who excel in their intellectualism is described with dark humour. An encounter with Salman Rushdie proves to be frustrating.

More than ever I am lost in a Europe that is blind and indifferent to the fate of this new stateless generation. My dreams of capitalism and the free world, travel and those cities that are creative hubs, have become used tissues, momentarily useful, but a nuisance once used. Just ashes. I have exchanged the end of communism for the twilight of capitalism.”

Rootless and dispossessed, the narrator moves to Budapest, then Prague, and finally settles in Strasbourg, where he is welcomed by the international parliament of writers.

Velibor Čolić writes with humour and realism about the state of refugees, and how they are welcomed and looked after in their destination countries. Fantasy, dreams of suicide, irony and poetic imagery inform his narrative. You get a very real feel of what it is like to walk and see and feel as a person who, in the eyes of so many, either does not exist, or is a parasite. Every single refugee has a back-story. A life lost. A homeland left behind. An uncertain future. A refugee is not just a statistic.

After the fall of communism, Europe became a reference point . . . a beacon of hope . . . a solution to myriad problems: naïve perhaps. But the EU does have an important role in the quest for fairer societies. Shutting doors on each other solves nothing. European history has been marked by waves of people moving from country to town, across borders, fleeing persecution. Most refugees enrich the culture and society of their host country.

Velibor Čolić is a welcome new voice on the universal literary exile scene. I look forward to reading him in English one day.

French fiction | Editions Gallimard, Paris | 204 pages 17 euros ISBN 978-2-07-018671-6

Velibor Čolić’s first of ten books, Bosnians, describes the war in Bosnia through a series of sketches woven together from the notes he made during active service on the front line. Perdido is set in the world of jazz, and Archangel was his first novel written in French. Gallimard published The Sajarevo Omnibus in 2012 and Ederlezi in 2014.

Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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