“Every city is full of ghosts.”

Florian Hirsch talks with author Barbi Marković.

2. October 2017
Magazine > Interview > “Every city is full of ghosts.”

In her latest novel, Barbi Marković, a Vienna-based writer from Belgrade, who will be debating with Romanian author/activist Mircea Cărtărescu at Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz in November, unleashes three Superheroines on Vienna, Berlin and Sarajevo. With  Florian Hirsch, editor-in-chief of BURG Magazine, she talks about super powers, Bernhard and the Balkans, and a swaying ship called Europe.

I read you like it if people asked you how you were doing: How are you doing?

(laughing) Appearantly I should be more careful what I say. I’m fine, thank you.

I’m also asking due to the fact that your novel Superheroines starts with a description of the female protagonist‘s fundamental pessimism: They are „completely convinced nothing will ever be good“. Do you share this attitude?

Yes. Well, I don’t know. The phrase in the book is, of course, a satirical exaggeration of a certain attitude towards life. But I’m definitely not the biggest optimist who ever entered this world. However, not as bad as the Superheroines.

If you could pick one super power—which one would it be?

Actually I never really thought about that. Something with … time, I guess.

Time travelling?

Either time travelling. Or time … stopping, pausing it.

Time and how it is literally passing is also an important theme in Thomas Bernhard‘s prose piece Walking. Let’s talk briefly about the book that kind of made you famous, Going out, a Bernhard-pastiche: It’s not exactly the most obvious thing in the world to transpose Walking into Belgrade’s night life. How did this happen?

Back then, I was doing German studies and working for a publishing house in Belgrade. For one semester I went to Austria, where I took some classes, but I couldn’t really speak German yet. There was this class dealing with Walking, and I liked Thomas Bernhard. Still, my German was so bad, I took the book home without ever getting a grade. Wenn I went back to Belgrade, it was the time of the the climax of German Pop Literature. Even in Serbia, for instance, Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre’s book Remix was published. And I thought: Kind of a shame, actually, someone calling a book Remix without really using the technique.

In fact, Remix was more like a sham package containing a variety of outtakes than an actual remix.

Exactly. On the one hand, I had been dealing extensively with translations and had always wanted to do a „false“ translation. That is, again and again taking something semantically out of context but still producing meaning. For fun and practice I started translating Thomas Bernhard. But I was too lazy to look up every single word, so a story of its own kind of developed moving parallel along with Bernhard’s story, keeping his characteristic style: actually something like a remix.

“Kind of a shame, actually, someone calling a book Remix without really using the technique.”

At that point there was no Serbian or Serbocroatian translation of the text?

No, there wasn’t any until recently. While translating, I thought: Let’s kill two birds with one stone. And frankly, I was quite delighted with my own idea. And it worked so well! Only towards the ending it got difficult, like a mathematical problem, because I kept the structure of Bernhard’s sentences and just changed the variables.

Will there be any more Bernhard variations, such as, „Superheldenplatz“?

A possible title for a mash-up! But no, I think once was enough.

Unfortunately the debate with Mircea Cărtărescu, a prominent voice of Romania’s opposition movement, will, once again, be dealing with Europe’s misery.

It’s not my fault. (laughing)

Cărtărescu writes: „It is our fault Europe looks like Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat today.“

Who’s „we“?

I think, in his opinion, anyone who still keeps ignoring that Europe has reached a crucial crossroads and doesn’t do everything in their power to promote its ideals. Which dark super powers should be blamed for Europe’s fundamental crisis?

Right now, I’m lacking context and time to think about this. But in general, I hesitate to blame people, particularly when it comes to complex questions like this one. I can vaguely feel dark times approaching myself. And increasing insecurity always brings out the worst in people. I just don’t think it very easy to say what kind of crisis we’re dealing here with exactly.

Maybe Europe was just a „total collective hallucination“, like Belgrade’s night life?

One would have to make a difference between the European Union, the continent and the „idea“ of Europe, whatever that is. It’s funny, as a child I still learned in school that I’m from Europe. Today it’s not so sure anymore. Because Europe is always being equated with the European Union.

“As a child I still learned in school that I’m from Europe. Today it’s not so sure anymore.”

To paraphrase Martin Pollack: Are the Balkan countries going to become more European in the future – or is the rest of Europe going to become more like the Balkans in recent times, that is, more fragmented, nationalist, religious?

Yes, as a matter of fact there are certain terrifying analogies. Various kinds of hatred and intolerance are becoming more and more socially acceptable, echoing the Belgrade of the Nineties in my mind. But it’s still a different ballgame. Over and over again I think: It’s like back in those days. But my memory has been completely fictionalized by now. Furthermore, the crises back then was undoubtedly a bigger one. It’s not the Balkans yet, it’s ok.

Superheroines describes Sarajevo as a „city full of ghosts“. Would you say the same thing about Vienna?

In the context of the book this is about the wars of the nineties, of course. But then again you can say this about every city. Every city is full of ghosts.

Barbi Marković

born 1980 in Belgrade, studied German literature in Vienna and Belgrade. In Belgrade she worked as a publishing editor for Rende Verlag. She has been living in Vienna since 2009, 2011/2012 she was Writer of the City of Graz, a literary residency that resulted in “Graz Alexanderplatz”. In 2009 she entered the German literary scene with “Ausgehen” (Going out, orig. published 2006 “Izlaženje”), a remix novel of Thomas Bernhard’s story “Gehen” (“Walking”). The pop literature sensation has followed up with short stories, plays, and audio plays and has received several prizes and grants. “Superheroines” is the first novel the author has written partly in German, partly in Serbian.


Grenzgänger / Grenzdenker

“Swaying like Rimbaud’s drunken ship”

on 16 November 2017, Martin Pollack will meet Mircea Cărtărescu and Barbi Marković at Casino am Schwarzenbergplatz. Actors Philipp Hauß and Marie-Luise Stockinger will read texts by the authors.

More about the event here.

The discussion series “Grenzgänger/Grenzdenker” presents authors from Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe, and is curated and moderated by Martin Pollack. It was launched in 2013 as a cooperation of Burgtheater, ERSTE Foundation and the daily newspaper Die Presse, and examines the growing feeling of crisis and insecurity in Europe.