The colourful life of Slobodan Tišma has been filled with conflicting interests, such as his adoration of rock music and endless enjoyment of classical music, primarily that of Wagner
Witty, charming, spontaneous, creative, intellectually curious… These are the kinds of threads woven to form Novi Sad-based artist Slobodan Tišma, who at first glance leaves the impression of being a shy man, somewhat distinctive, focused on himself, invisible to others in his sense of self.
It is fascinating that Tišma, with his gentle and fragile outward appearance, is actually an artistic giant: he is a writer and poet who has been awarded multiple times – he is the recipient of many awards, including the prestigious NIN Award for his 2012 novel Bernardi’s Room…
Prior to becoming a writer, he engaged in conceptual art and was also a talented musician who was particularly active on the former Yugoslavia’s local rock ‘n’ roll scene. He will remain remembered as the frontman and spiritual leader of former popular bands Luna and La Strada. Although Luna had only one album, Nestvarne stvari [Unreal things], the group gained the status of an indispensable element of the Yugoslav rock avant-garde. Those who attended Luna’s concerts remember his unique authorial vision and the band’s fierce performing energy. Tišma is unique in every respect. A Novi Sad native from head to toe, he describes himself as a Yugoslav. The collapse of the great Yugoslavia, with its six republics and two provinces, didn’t impact negatively on his sense of belonging to one nation; he remains a “member” of the state in which he spent most of his life. He was and, as he says, will remain – a Yugoslav. He is the subject of the documentary film Masks, while a monograph of Luna, entitled Mirrors of the Moon, was published a few years ago.
Almost everything is known about your creative work, both literary and musical. And life has unfolded between those creative endeavours. If you were to write some kind of autobiography, what would you say about yourself?
“I’m actually just finishing a book that’s a kind of autobiography, or better to say an autograph, which is called Astal tiš riba friš, so I’m Astal [Table]. Everything is on the table, like a buffet, everything is on display, so who wants what can find it. I don’t hide anything, everything about me is known; I have no secrets, whether it comes to pleasant or unpleasant facts. That’s what I’m like, open. And the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. Light and darkness. I sometimes find myself disgusting. That’s because I have no interest, I don’t deal in politics, I’m free from the desire to possess, I’m free from the will for power. Although that’s said to be impossible, that some desire always exists, i.e., a will for power, and is inexhaustible. There is actually a reluctant will for power that is a kind of animosity, which is something very bad, whining and accusations that lead to war and conflict. Serbia is a country that suffers from animosity, which is why life here is so bad.”
You love Novi Sad and are very attached to your city (although you just happened to have been born in Stara Pazova) and to Pap Pavla Street, today’s Pavla Papa [Pope Paul] Street, where you spent the first two decades of your life?
“I was just born in Stara Pazova, in the house of my aunt Mara, my father’s sister. Her husband, my uncle, was famous Pazova-based tailor Dušan Surdučki. We lived in Novi Sad at that time, in Ritter’s Garden, today’s 1st May Square, just behind the Assumption Cemetery. Betanija (the Novi Sad maternity hospital) was problematic in the sense of hygienic conditions and it was thus safer to be born in a private family house, so my father took my mother to Stara Pazova and brought us back to Novi Sad around ten days after the birth. We moved to Belgrade when I was two years old, and my sister Natalija was born there. My father got a job at the Ministry of Justice. We lived in the Kalemegdan area, in 7th July Street, in the so-called Spasić’s Endowment, in a huge apartment that we shared with the owners, the Atanacković family, which had no children and comprised only an elderly couple. A very ugly custom of the then new communist authorities was to move you into someone else’s bourgeois apartment. However, the Atanackovićs benefited from my father, who had access to the so-called diplomatic warehouse, where – at that time – you could find all sorts of items that were otherwise unavailable in regular shops. My mum generously showered them with gifts in the form of food products, as well as the luxuries that were then presented by things like coffee, chocolate, liqueurs and American cigarettes.”
Given that the Atanackovićs had no offspring of their own, they probably loved little Slobodan, i.e., you, in particular… How do you recall that time?
“They would look after me if my parents attended an officers’ ball in the evenings, which was the most common night out at that time. The only thing that I remember from that time is a blue tricycle that I rode in the building’s entranceway. However, we only spent a short period living in Belgrade. It just so happened that my cousin, my father’s nephew, was accused of being a Cominformist as a twenty-year-old. He was sentenced to serve a year at the Goli Otok prison, neither guilty nor deserving, just because he failed to report his schoolfriend for possessing some compromising material. My father tried to prove that his nephew wasn’t guilty, and that was the end of his political career. He received a pre-Party expulsion warning and was sent back to Novi Sad as a punishment. That’s how we ended up in Pap Pavla Street, at number 1, behind the Mlinotehna shop, where we resided for 15 years, until 1966, when we moved to the Liman area, to Fruškogorska Street.”
It isn’t well known that you loved classical music?
“Already back in primary school, I had several classical music records, such as the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor by Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski, which I adored. I also enjoyed the music of Chopin, his mazurkas, nocturnes etc. At the same time, I enjoyed listening to the then popular Adriano Celentano, especially his song Ventiquattromila baci [24,000 kisses].
“I later enriched my collection with records of Wagner operas. I didn’t like going out, I preferred sitting at home and listening to my records. I was also a regular listener of the Third Programme of Radio Belgrade, where you could hear good music and they also broadcast good shows from philosophy and literature. I learned from that.”
There is actually a reluctant will for power that is a kind of animosity, which is something very bad, whining and accusations that lead to war and conflict. Serbia is a country that suffers from animosity, which is why life here is so bad
Having long hair was part of the image young men in the 1960s and ‘70s. How did your parents and teachers react to that novelty?
“Well, differently, but we weren’t banned from having slightly longer hair. My parents were very liberal. My father never told me it was time to get a haircut. I remember that my school friend Mića Jokić and I had problems on the promenade because of our longer hair. Some Montenegrin wanted to cut our hair. When that was heard by Mića’s father, who was actually provincial minister for religious issues Marko Jokić, he wanted to go and personally deal with that guy and we barely talked him out of it.”
You grew up during the time of socialism and communism. How much did that ideology interest you?
“It didn’t. We were the first post-war generation to be indulged, so to speak. No one pressured us to join the Party, or to attend work actions. There were two or three kids in our class in high school who were in the youth organization, thus they were communists. Although the vast majority of us were Partizan children, we were free of ideology. I was in the same class as the sons of two national heroes: Ratko, who was the son of Marko Peričin Kamenjar, and Stevan, who was the son of Đorđe Nikšić Johan.
At that time, Yugoslavia was already focused completely on the West, so cultural influences were completely acceptable, especially when it came down to individual lifestyles.”
You showed your fascination with the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll firstly by listening to that kind of music and later by playing it. It was following their example that you founded your first band, “Tile and the four cripples”, in high school. That name caused certain associations and even problems among the citizenry?
“It did. I was called Tile at school, and it is known who else they also called that, out of mercy, at that time. Of course, the problem was the context, Tile was not allowed to have anything to do with cripples, which is a political incorrectness, and I apologise to people living with disabilities. However, no one touched us because of that, I mean the police, but we weren’t allowed to print posters with that name or to perform in public.”
Due to the band’s “problematic” name, you performed under the name Shadows. You performed popular rock songs of the period, and you looked so attractive on stage that you even attracted the attention of famous actress Branka Veselinović?
“We performed under that name at the famous Belgrade Guitar Festival. That was in 1965 at the Belgrade Fairgrounds. It was customary to form so-called phantom bands, with someone announcing that there is a group under this and that name, when in fact that group does not exist, there are no members. We couldn’t register for the Guitar Festival under our own name. The list of registered bands was published in the newspaper Večernji novosti. We saw that some band called Senke [Shadows] from Petrovaradin was registered. We enquired around the city as to who that could be, but no one had anything to tell us about them. We concluded that it was a phantom band and decided to go to the Guitar Festival and register under the name Shadows.
The gathering place was in the editorial office of Borba, across the street from Trade Union Hall. It was a Saturday when we arrived in Belgrade by train and checked in there. The organiser packed us into a van and headed for the Fairgrounds. We were mods. That’s how we dressed, in three-quarter length jackets, with obligatory long white scarves, we looked very attractive. When we appeared on stage, comedian Branka Veselinović ran in from the front row with a camera and started filming us. We saw that a man was lying under the farfisa (electric organ). He asked Mića Jokić to pay two hundred dinars to turn on the organ. It only worked for the second song. We played Green back dollar by the Kingston trio and Till I met you by the group the Searchers. The Guitar Festival was otherwise very well attended, with several thousand people in attendance at the Fairgrounds.”
Who were the members of that band?
“Alongside side myself, as the vocalist, the band included Mića Jokić as keyboardist, Zeka Koldžin as rhythm guitarist, Ruja Radujkov as solo guitarist and Tomica Tkalac on drums.”
Between Dobrica Ćosić and Bora Ćosić, we always opted for Bora. He represented the spirit of modernity, the spirit of the new, and possessed destructive irony. We weren’t attracted to tradition; we had an ironic attitude towards both the nation and Orthodoxy; we were areligious and antinational
You have remained remembered for the music of the groups La Strada and Luna, with which you organised unforgettable concerts in Novi Sad, Belgrade and elsewhere… Which members of La Strada deserve most of the credit for the music that the group performed gaining a reputation that endures to this day?
“Those are: Daniel Stari as bassist, Jasmina Mitrušić as keyboardist, Horvat Žolt as solo guitarist and Robert Radić on drums. That’s the line-up that recorded La Strada’s only album. However, also performing during the early days of La Strada were Ivan Fece Firči, Zoran Bulatović Bale, Siniša Sekulić, Boris Oslovčan, Dragan Nastastić Gane and Predrag Ostojić Preža, while performing in the final line-up were Ilija Vlaisavljević Bebec and Zoran Lekić Leki.”
Unfortunately, the members of La Strada came and went often. The group disbanded and Luna was formed.
“After 15 concerts and two years of activity (1981-83), Luna recorded its debut album, Unreal Things (Helidon), in 1984 and then promptly disappeared from the stage. We got together again in 2004 at the Exit Festival. It was a nice comeback after twenty years, albeit a short-lived one, just that one concert, but it was worth it. Thanks to the internet, which has come to the fore in the meantime, Luna has gained popularity.”
Having assessed that your music sounds better live, at performances, you re-formed the group La Strada? The music you performed sounded extraordinary. You considered that the other members of the band deserved more credit for that, that they were more talented than you. And then you decided to leave rock ‘n’ roll for others to handle?
“I was a weak performer, I sang badly, I faked it, but in a creative sense I was the soul of La Strada; I composed all those songs and wrote the lyrics. My poor singing was a special problem for Luna, because they performed at a very high level. With La Strada that wasn’t as important and that slight faking it even gave it some charm. La Strada stopped working because we didn’t have a real production company, and Oliver Mandić, who was the editor at PGP, didn’t want to release our record. We also didn’t have adequate access to the media, television specifically. The editor of ‘Hit of the Month’, Dragan Ilić Ilke, hated us, and we had songs that were better than many of those that he pushed on the show. At the last concert in Subotica, in the theatre of Ljubiša Ristić, there were about ten people in attendance, and that was the end.”
You arranged a real delight for fans of Luna’s music when you held two concerts in 2017, one in Belgrade and the other in Novi Sad, at the promotion of the monograph Mirrors of the Moon by Predrag Buca Popović, Goran Tarlać and Saša Rakezić. The members of Luna then gathered again, which apart from yourself include: Jasmina Mitrušić Mina, Ivan Fece Firči and Zoran Bulatović Bale. How did you feel on stage after such a long time?
“Exceptional. I enjoyed it. My voice served me better than it had at Exit. There were more than a thousand people in Mixer House, we’d never performed in front of a larger audience. The audience is very important. They carry you and you feel that feedback, the eros that flow towards you, and then things unfold in the best possible way.”
The youth forum was a revelation of freedom for you. There people listened to psychedelic music and smoked hashish… From today’s perspective, how would you explain that need to try everything and to quickly come to adore everything that represented the cultural life of Novi Sad during that time?
“We disturbed the cultural stagnation of a small provincial town, and that is always dangerous. We were primarily hated by traditionalist artists, pathetic modernists or moderate modernists, and we were unrestrained modernists, those who overdid it. It is true that we tried drugs, but none of us became addicts. The five people from culture who spat at us the most and were the main culprits in some of us ending up in prison were notorious alcoholics, thus they were sick addicts. We brought the spirit of Europe and the world to Novi Sad. Everything that was then happening in the world was also happening here in Novi Sad. However, we were slave of fashion for those drunkards.”
A book of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, which was given to you by a friend, holds a special place in your life. Was it under the influence of this book that you become more interested in poetry, but also in writing your own poems?
“It did. I discovered French symbolism very early on and formed myself as a poet under its influence. I had the good fortune that my professor at the faculty was Sreten Marić, who was the greatest connoisseur of French symbolism in our country. Professor Marić was my neighbour in the Liman neighbourhood, so I often bumped into him on the street, but I also went to his house for coffee. He supported me; he thought that I was talented, unlike some other professors from the Faculty of Philosophy, who considered me an example of an untalented person. Apart from Arthur Rimbaud, I was strongly influenced by the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, as was everyone else at the Tribune, because he was the originator of what would later come to be known as linguistic or conceptual poetry.”
I don’t like what I see around me, it doesn’t make me feel good, and I only see snatching and rudeness, which makes me feel sick. But maybe I’m just an old grump, old man winter
During the ‘60s, our famous poet, Pero Zubac, who was then editor of the Index newspaper, wanted to read your poems and even published one of them. You even edited a cultural column for that paper for a while. How much did that mean to you, as a young poet?
“Well, it meant a lot. I was twenty years old and I had an open pathway into the literary world. However, I didn’t realise that in the best or most acceptable way. That’s because I wasn’t willing to compromise. I very quickly transferred from Index to the Tribune, where the real company gathered and where there was a real atmosphere of the spirit of rebellion and creative freedom.”
You were already attracted to literature in primary school, while you were completely enchanted by it by the time you reached high school. You often point out that your German language teacher, Marina Vasiljev Reich, contributed significantly to that?
“Marina Vasiljev, who later married to become Reich, was my guardian angel. In high school I was in a very difficult condition. As I’ve said before, puberty tore me apart. Marina understood that and paid me a lot of attention. But her lessons in German language and literature were pivotal. She constantly forced translation, so we very quickly became acquainted with German romanticism and expressionism.
During our lessons we would read and translate Adalbert Stifter, Gerhart Hauptmann and other writers. That literature trapped me in a web of love that hasn’t been broken to this day. What a thrill it was to read the original version of Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer.”
Yet, you initially enrolled in the Faculty of Law and only later transferred to the Faculty of Philosophy, to study Yugoslav literature?
“I did. My father, who was a lawyer and judge, insisted that I study law, that I continue the family tradition. I passed the first year and two exams from the second year of study, then realised that I was only interested in literature and enrolled at the Faculty of Philosophy.
My father didn’t object, as he was impressed that his son would be a writer. My sister, Natalija, still continued the family tradition, completing law studies and later becoming a judge in the court where my father was once the president. I had several exceptional professors at the Faculty of Philosophy, first and foremost the aforementioned Sreten Marić and Svetozar Petrović. One could really learn something from them. Professor Marić taught world literature, mostly from antiquity, ancient Greek literature, while Professor Petrović taught literary theory and baroque literature.”
That time was important for the development of literature and social thought. A rivalry emerged between realists and modernists. How much did that impact on you? How did you cope with that literary turmoil?
“Between Dobrica Ćosić and Bora Ćosić, we always opted for Bora. He represented the spirit of modernity, the spirit of the new, and possessed destructive irony. We weren’t attracted to tradition; we had an ironic attitude towards both the nation and Orthodoxy’ we were areligious and anti-national.”
When did you start writing and publishing prose? How did you experience your first book? Do you personally feel more like a poet or a prose writer?
“I published my first story, Uteha kose [the Comfort of Hair], in the Belgrade magazine Reč when I was fifty years old, which is very late to start something. I published my first book when I was 45, which was a collection of poems entitled Marinisms. The publisher was Miroslav Mandić’s Ruža lutanja [the Rose of Wandering], with a print run of some three hundred copies. That was something beautiful for me. My editor was the poet Nenad Jovanović, the previous author of the edition. There were no restrictions whatsoever. The design was done by Dragan Protić, aka Škart, who produced an extraordinary work for which he even received an award. I always say that I write poetic prose, poetry writing has always been a great inspiration for me as an author, for example, the life and work of Friedrich Hölderlin.”
Your novel Bernardi’s Room won the prestigious NIN Award for Novel of the Year in early 2012. Many people were delighted with the jury’s decision, but how did you receive this acknowledgement personally?
“Well, it made me feel good even though I was aware of the relativity of the award. There are always those who are thrilled, but also those who think the opposite because they don’t like you. There were people, especially from the world of literature, who tried to question my success in the media. I spent a year in the media vortex, but that passed. I now live as I did before the award, far from the public eye, as if I never received it.”
There’s a big question as to whether art even exists today. There are no more artistic directions, everything has been flattened and relativised. Everyone has become an artist, even politicians, saying how their processes are just a kind of performance, as they jest
Let’s mention your works. What have you published to date?
“In order: Marinisms, Garden like that, Tame religious considerations (Blues diary), Urvidek, Quattro stagioni, Bernardi’s room, Great thoughts of little Tišma, Horror or…”
You are completely connected to Novi Sad through your literary opus. Why is that? “That’s because I haven’t travelled anywhere. I’ve always lived in that small area between Belgrade and Novi Sad. My experience is modest, restricted, not to say small town. That’s bad on one side, but it also has its advantages. I’ve always strived not to complicate my life, to live as simply as possible and to just deal with writing. I’ve never applied for any scholarships or residencies.
Apart from awards (monetary equivalent), I’ve never received a dinar from institutions or from the state; I haven’t been given an apartment or anything else. But that’s the best way, as you don’t owe anyone anything. I’m very shy, I never even asked my own father for anything, let alone some other strangers. When I received the NIN Award, the mayor and provincial first minister invited me to visit them, although they didn’t interest me, and I went just so I wouldn’t come across as being snooty. In our conversation, they promised me a small apartment that I could use as a work space, given that I write in my bedroom, with two computers next to my bed. They also promised to give money for the republishing of the novel. However, none of that ever came to be.
I probably didn’t leave the impression of a serious writer on them, so they behaved in a way: it’s easy to fuck with a crazy person. Interestingly, the then mayor was shocked to discover that I’m the brother of Judge Natalija Tišma Miloševski, whom he knew well because he was a lawyer. He had no idea that she had an artist brother. The then provincial first minister lived in Papa Pavla Street. But what did he know about that street?”
What are you writing about now; what are your topics today? Readers don’t like the speculation that you will stop writing… Isn’t a writer a writer until the end of their life?
“As I said, I’m writing an autobiography. That is the most unpretentious thing, and at my age is the only thing that makes sense. This is how most writers around the globe end their work. I’m trying to be honest, to open myself up, of course, as much as that’s possible, given that, as everyone knows, language always adulterates, it lies, as that is its nature.”
How much and in what way does life in Novi Sad, and Serbia generally, differ from the time of your childhood, growing up, youth…?
“It differs greatly. Of course, life was easier and slower, with more enjoyment. But every time has its own aesthetics and its own morals. I don’t like what I see around me, it doesn’t make me feel good, and I only see snatching and rudeness, which makes me feel sick. But maybe I’m just an old grump, old man winter.”
Changes have also occurred in the world of art. What is today’s artist like; how do you rate new ideas, directions, expressions, artists?
“There’s a big question as to whether art even exists today. There are no more artistic directions, everything has been flattened and relativised. Everyone has become an artist, even politicians, saying how their processes are just a kind of performance, as they jest. But maybe I’m not well enough informed; I don’t have insight into what’s going on.”
Although many people think that they know everything about you, most of them don’t even know that you are a family man, that you have a wife and a son.
“Yes, my family is my sanctuary; I’ve managed to provide them with a decent life and that is what’s most important. The group Luna has a song called I’m a Family Man, but that’s something much more poisonous and dangerous. However, that’s only art, and art is no kind of instruction manual for life.”
Author: Zorica Todorović Mirković, Photo: Nenad Mihajlovic, nova.rs