ON THE HIGHWAY before the turnoff to the tranquil village where my small house sits in the heart of Europe – in Vojvodina, an hour from Belgrade; near the Romanian border; and on the edge of a nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian estate, launched with a performance by the young Franz Liszt and originally devoted to hunting, fishing, naughty parties and inevitable confession in a purpose-built Catholic church with Flemish frescoes – there’s a rusty metal sign swinging on a creaking hinge. The sign promotes a roadside kafana called karakter, in giant lettering that’s a throwback to the ‘glory days’ of Vojvodina as the engine room of mechanised agriculture in post-World War II Yugoslavia. Today’s karakter is a scattering of vinyl tables frequented by a few old Balkan men. They gather to savour close human company as much as kuvana kafa and rakija. Each time I have driven past that sign I’ve wanted to stop and photograph it for posterity.
But across these past few years I have been too rushed to pause. Somehow always too late, coming out of the big city, or trying to get back to it. Seated at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Belgrade mashes up Manhattan (without American money or attitude) and Berlin (without German money or discipline). Belgrade is Orthodox-with-Ottoman, Tesla-charged with human energy, intense, filthy, elegant, vulgar, unsuburban, post-communist, charming, sexy, addictive…and bombed to bits by so many, most recently by NATO in 1999.
The resulting dynamic is almost the opposite of anywhere in Australia – where I was born and raised by a mother whose mainly Irish and Swedish family have been here since the 1850s, and a father who arrived in 1960 from the former Yugoslavia. Our family home is in Tasmania – and here I’ve been since COVID-19 stopped the music of everyone’s freedom to move. The mountain-meets-harbour city of Hobart makes a picturesque backdrop for Zooming. And Zoom I must, because right now I can no more visit the heart of Europe than fly to the moon.
Being able to travel exactly nowhere seems to bother me more than most, and the longer it continues the more I sense I am becoming an outlier. I feel ripped in half. For me, Europe is so much more than an opt-in holiday destination.
WHEN I BEGAN scoping The European Exchange with Griffith Review editor Ashley Hay and its publisher Julianne Schultz, we inhabited a different world. We teleconferenced through the European summer/Australian winter of 2019, when I was gliding smoothly between Belgrade, Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Szeged, Athens and the mountains of Montenegro, before I flew back to Australia through London (another place that’s happily been my home). For 2020, I was also planning new projects in Helsinki, St Petersburg, Berlin, Paris and Provence. I wasn’t an outlier – Ashley and Julianne also were in Europe, or planning to return soon, as part of a normal professional rhythm. We framed this edition expansively, around our common understanding of the continuing and complex flow of people, experiences and ideas between these two epic continents. The ultimate Old and the freshest of New.
What was most curious to me at that time was the question of why latent opportunities – so many, and so remarkable – around the exchange between Europe and Australia had been overlooked for so long. These stretch beyond Australia’s British connections, which have sometimes evoked an overcooked Christmas goose with fat spilling onto the floor. My personal metaphor for that public excess remains exactly that sight – and then some (think bird stuffing beyond your wildest imagining) at a genuinely glorious college scholars’ feast of a squillion courses with paired wines, lavishly funded across centuries by a trust fund – back in the 1990s, when I was a doctoral student at Cambridge with lots of other sons and daughters of the Commonwealth. Why hasn’t Australia been savvier about scooping up our wider European connections, to run adventurously across that northern continent to build smart new deals? One inhibitor in recent decades has been our often blinkered focus on Asia and the United States, chasing what have looked like easier and better wins. We’ve also been handbraked by the unfinished justice business with our Indigenous peoples, still pressing and distressing. For sure, colonisation was a European process. What might that experience enable Australia to say back to Europeans now and in the future, as they struggle with their own postcolonial legacies, and persistent nationalisms of a negative kind? Brexit is just one of the newest chapters in that story.
Nobody clear minded can overlook the strong European flavour of Australia’s grassroots multicultural reality. Yet a stunted style of identity politics has arisen here from the failure of Australia’s leadership class – in parliaments, business, the academy, the cultural sector – to prosecute important arguments around what our historical connections to Europe might generate in our favour in the future. That is not just about Australia’s engagement with the ever-evolving political and economic entity that is the European Union, thin as that relationship currently is relative to possibility. Mainly, and profoundly, it is about Australia’s lack of maturity around another key cohort of our own constituent peoples: European Australians. In the vacuum of cumulative inattention on this front, Australia has seen the rise of a reactive style of discrediting important arguments and perspectives – especially when advanced by people who deeply understand Europe – as Eurocentric. In some quarters this has become a label of shame.
A little bit like wog, when I was growing up.
Nobody has ever dared to throw that word directly at me. Except other wogs, with humour and affection, because there can be safety in tribal numbers. People did throw it in less lovely ways at my father. Including people in my own Australian family. His saving grace seemed to be that he could really cook, including with garlic. In reality, he made a place here because of his character, through situations requiring an extreme-sport-style combination of optimism and self-control. Whenever that mix is expected of me in a similarly one-sided way, I existentially check out and head to Europe. There it’s never been demanded of me.
From my Australian childhood, I have all those hackneyed stories about my friends arriving at primary school in a beachside suburb called Blackmans Bay with white-bread sandwiches filled with raspberry jam – while I had rye, salami and pickles. But it’s not the 1970s anymore, and I hate the idea that multiculture is still defined by dinner, dance and dress, as though that is the outer limit of possibility. This constrained understanding has not adequately equipped many offspring of European migrants to believe they can become the CEO of a major Australian business (unless it’s been built or bankrolled by their own family), a senior mandarin, a vice-chancellor of a university, an ambassador – or maybe a prime minister. Despite the real and flaunted success of Australia’s post-World War II immigration program from Europe, very few European Australians – at least those of what used to be called continental background, and there’s the continuing rub – have gained and held that kind of position here, relative to capacity. ‘Think Yiddish, act British,’ was the best career advice someone influential here once privately offered to me.
WHEN COVID-19 HIT, my suitcase was packed and ready for an Easter swing-back into the European half of my larger life. Storing it under the house again was a bad day in a worse month, in this confronting year. A handful of people I know in Europe have died of coronavirus, another handful have been hospitalised. European borders look to be opening again now, way faster than Australia’s internally. More people might get sick and die, there and here, and that might end up being a lot of people; we just don’t know. Then there’s the economy. This looks like an ideal time for optimism and self-control. So I am using this period to pivot, as we are told we must, and become the best exiled Europhile – by which I mean simply someone who loves Europe, Europeans and European culture – I can possibly be.
It’s heartening to remember that European arrivals of my father’s generation, especially those who moved to Australia for political rather than economic reasons, were much more profoundly cut off from their original or other homes than anyone here is now. The dislocation was similar for the generation of his own father (who left the Balkans for Oregon at the start of the twentieth century, before returning to Europe in World War I to serve with the Allies on Corfu). Today, instead of the Iron Curtain we have Instagram. We don’t need to wait for weeks for wafer-thin aerogrammes to land – to be read and re-read until committed to memory – nor do we need to find the hours to compose them. Europe and Australia can talk across the internet in real time on platforms of our convenience, and pretty much for free. That was impossible even in the 1990s when I first went to live in London, and when the Balkan Wars smashed so many human connections. I’m perpetually struck by Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon’s account of being unexpectedly and utterly stranded in Chicago as a tourist in 1992, with very little English and less money, when violent conflict exploded in his hometown of Sarajevo. He went on to write deeply into that displacement experience, won a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ and now holds a position at Princeton. But if we’d had smartphones and social media in the 1990s, I am not fully sure he’d have found himself writing in The Book of My Lives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013): ‘If Chicago was good enough for Studs Terkel to spend a lifetime in, it is good enough for me.’
During my COVID-19 confinement, I have tried to balance my spiking screen time by reading works that illuminate the meaning of Europe to me, sitting in Australia. I started with Granta’s autumn 2019 compilation Europe: Strangers in the Land. This included an affecting essay on being ethnic Chinese in France by Tash Aw, one of those sons of the Commonwealth from my rich Cambridge years, and left me with this most sadly prescient of statements from its editor, Swedish philanthropist Sigrid Rausing – ‘Brexit note: I apologise in advance if this issue reaches you later than normal. We have printed Granta in Italy for many years now, transporting it across open borders – good luck with that, someone said. Good luck indeed. We all know that our mother is mortal, none of us knows that our home is mortal.’
Then I sped through The Shortest History of Europe (Black Inc., 2012) by Australian historian John Hirst. I met him just once before his death, and found him clever and crotchety. Based on a series of his university lectures, the work deals ‘chiefly with Western Europe’, because ‘not all parts of Europe are equally important in the making of European civilisation’. I see why he believed that might be so, and wish he was still alive so we could talk Belgrade and beyond. Next came American artist and philosopher Adrian Piper’s Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir (APRA Foundation, 2018), mainly because it is about exile from the New World to the Old, and because her treatment of cultural identity is bold and sophisticated. And then Paris Savages (Ventura Press, 2019) by Tasmanian novelist Katherine Johnson, a tale of a German-sponsored performance tour in the 1880s by three Badtjala people from Fraser Island to Belle Époque Europe. I wondered – is this writer also feeling trapped in Tasmania, and where would the far-travelled ‘living exhibits’ in her novel (Bonangera, Dorondera and Jurano) choose to place themselves right now? Then I returned to The Australian Ugliness (FW Cheshire, 1960) by architect Robin Boyd, a modernist from an established and influential Anglo-Australian family, who with newer arrivals like Viennese Harry Seidler shook up Australia’s approach to urbanism after World War II – and remembered how ‘I recognise myself and recognise my world in this book, all the ugliness and all the beauty’, as Christos Tsiolkas puts it in the foreword to the 2012 edition published by Text.
This was followed by Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (Zero Books, 2014) by London-based Polish cultural critic Agata Pyzik – a Eurocentric bite-back to Hirst, based on the contemporary experience of promiscuous movement across older borders, including the Iron Curtain. I picked this up a few years ago on an outing to Tate Modern with the artist Gergelj Urkom, who was born in a Hungarian village in Vojvodina and now enjoys moving between London, Budapest, Vienna and a Serbian spa town where he paints. In the 1970s, he was part of a group of Belgrade conceptual artists whose most famous member today is Marina Abramović. (‘That’s me!’ Urkom had shrieked in the gallery’s bookshop, ‘Poor! But sexy!!’) I then revisited Raki (Marion Boyars, 1994) by Serbian-born novelist Sreten Božić, writing as B Wongar. As a refugee in Paris in the late 1950s he was supported by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. In Australia, Božić spent around a decade in the Northern Australian desert with his Aboriginal wife Djumala, then became the subject of unresolved controversy in relation to his accounts of the impact of uranium mining and British nuclear testing on tribal Aboriginal communities. In the 1970s his Totem and Ore photographic exhibition at Canberra’s Parliamentary Library was banned soon after it opened, and in the 1980s police in Australia confiscated the original manuscript of Raki (first published in German translation by Heinrich and Annemarie Böll). Almost ninety years old, Božić now lives in suburban Melbourne with a dingo.
Last but not least came Romulus, My Father (Text, 1998) by the German-born philosopher Raimond Gaita, who arrived in Australia as a young child in 1950 with his Romanian father and German mother, and who for decades has divided his professorial life between Melbourne and London. Since publication, Romulus, My Father has stayed on my absolute A-list of Australian writing. Strangely – and let’s blame this pandemic – I couldn’t focus on this most familiar and favourite of stories for more than a few pages this time.
Instead I rewatched the 2007 film inspired by the book, which tells the story of Gaita’s European parents, Romulus and Christine, and their tragic, passionate life in rural Victoria when he was a child. Directed by Australian Richard Roxburgh (whose own wife is Italian), with screenplay by Londoner Nick Drake (whose mother was English, and father Czech), the main adult characters are played by Australian actor Eric Bana (whose father was Croat, and mother German), German Franka Potente (whose surname is Sicilian) and New Zealander Marton Csokas (whose father was Hungarian). As I was writing this piece, out of the blue came a call from my friend Robert Connolly in Melbourne – also usually too rushed to pause – who happened to be one of the film’s producers. He isn’t a wog, but I want to keep thanking him for making one of the best wog movies of my Australian lifetime.
‘So, what are you up to now?’ he asked.
HIS QUESTION BROUGHT me full circle, in spite of the epic distance, back to that kafana called karakter near my home in Vojvodina. It happens to be near the birthplace of Romulus Gaita, who fled his home in 1935 aged just thirteen to find work as a blacksmith. I won’t spoil the plot of Romulus, My Father for those who’ve not yet had the pleasure of encountering it, and I won’t disclose Gaita’s reflections on the meaning of that movie in his follow-up book After Romulus (Text, 2011). It is enough to say that these cultural works are mainly an interrogation of character and values, including in response to all the pain and the joy that can come with shape-shifting between Old and New Worlds, whose own contours also continually adapt around us.
For me, exploring challenges of this nature always will be the most compelling kind of exchange between Australia and Europe – and one that delivers the most enduring legacy.
16 June 2020