Aleksandar Zograf Nato a Pančevo nel 1963 con il nome di Saša Rakezić, è presto diventato una figura di raccordo tra la rinascente scena jugoslava e l’underground internazionale. Nel 1999 ha raccontato la vita sotto i bombardamenti NATO, collocandosi così tra i padri del graphic journalism. Nella poetica di Zograf, l’osservazione della realtà e l’esercizio della memoria storica sono inscindibili dai poteri costruttivi e proiettivi della mente che esalano da un segno comico e spettrale, e che hanno nutrito centinaia di pagine basate su esperienze ipnagogiche, come le storie della Seconda Guerra Mondiale del recente Il quaderno di Radoslav (001 Edizioni, 2021).
Aleksandar Zograf racconta le storie e i sogni dei Balcani. Conversazione con Alessio Trabacchini in occasione del Baba Jaga Fest
Quali sono le ragioni che ti hanno spinto a studiare questo periodo della storia balcanica? E quali strategie creative hai adottato per trarne delle storie?
Quello che faccio sempre è, sostanzialmente, andare alla ricerca dei modi in cui le nostre esperienze (individuali o collettive) aprono a intuizioni più profonde. Potrebbe trattarsi di una storia normalissima, che parla del momento presente, o come nel caso de Il quaderno di Radoslav – di una raccolta di storie ambientate durante la Seconda Guerra Mondiale. Il compito di una storia è farti chiedere: perché le cose sono andate così? Cosa hanno dovuto passare le persone che le hanno vissute e cosa arriverà al lettore?
L’umanità è riuscita a superare gli orrori prodotti dal diffondersi del fascismo. Non si è trattato solo di una battaglia tra bene e male, ma di uno sviluppo complesso in cui il bene e il male spesso producevano una serie di relazioni complicate e ogni individuo doveva decidere per sé. La fine della Seconda Guerra Mondiale, lungi dall’essere l’alba dell’armonia mondiale, ha coinciso tra le altre cose con l’inizio della Guerra Fredda. E le mie storie sono per lo più incentrate sul destino di persone normali sotto il radar della Storia ufficiale. Un esempio è il fumetto basato sulla lettera inviata al quartier generale nazista da un allievo di un ginnasio belgradese, il quale, rinfacciando agli occupanti la loro vanagloria, li informava che erano destinati a perdere la guerra! Questa lettera, trovata dopo la liberazione di Belgrado negli archivi della Gestapo – dove era stata debitamente timbrata e archiviata da qualche solerte impiegato – era anonima e probabilmente non scopriremo mai chi l’ha scritta. Il fatto che un ragazzino abbia avuto il coraggio di scrivere una lettera del genere ai tronfi ufficiali dell’esercito di occupazione, parla tuttavia del potere simbolico delle persone comuni.
Volevo raccontare le loro storie e il modo in cui hanno affrontato queste difficili prove. Sai, all’uomo qualunque a volte viene da chiedersi quale sia il suo posto nel mondo, e lo fa quasi sempre in tempo di crisi. Fa parte della nostra natura: gli esseri umani hanno fondamentalmente bisogno di affrontare una difficoltà per iniziare a ragionare sul proprio ruolo nell’universo. Non è niente di nuovo, l’Odissea parlava di questo migliaia di anni fa.
I tuoi fumetti storici hanno un’atmosfera particolare, come se il mondo fosse sempre popolato da fantasmi, o come se il presente e il passato, la veglia e il sonno fossero sovrapposti.
È vero, anche se il mio approccio alla Storia si basa su un’attenta ricerca documentale, mi trovo sempre sull’orlo di un sogno o di un’allucinazione e vedo la realtà come un misto di cose vive e morte, reali e immaginate. Le nostre esperienze quotidiane sono più vicine alla poesia di quanto ci ostiniamo a credere. Ti farò un esempio: la parte dei Balcani in cui vivo ha un clima continentale. Le estati possono essere molto calde e gli inverni freddi e con la neve (be’, ora sempre meno a causa del riscaldamento globale). Quando parlava dell’inverno, mio padre lo chiamava spesso Baba Jaga. Nonostante sapessi che era il nome di una figura mitologica dell’antico folklore slavo, e che mio padre si stava effettivamente riferendo alle condizioni meteorologiche, ciò non mi ha impedito di fruire (e godere) di una comprensione sia mitologica che oggettiva delle sue parole. Come se esistessero due occorrenze parallele.
Perché pensi che sia importante ricordare e raccontare il passato?
Il passato è una raccolta di esperienze ed è importante rendersi conto di ciò che hai passato (se parli di eventi più recenti) o che altri esseri umani hanno vissuto (se rifletti su un passato più lontano). Molto spesso, sia a livello individuale che collettivo, abbiamo difficoltà a capire cosa sia realmente accaduto nel passato. Ciò su cui ci concentriamo è e sarà sempre il momento presente, ma rimanendo consapevoli del passato, perché ci rende più saggi. Mi ha colpito il proverbio dei Maori della Nuova Zelanda (o Aotearoa, come la chiamano loro): “Cammino all’indietro nel futuro con gli occhi fissi sul passato”. Per capire il passato bisogna essere cauti, è un lavoro impegnativo, quasi cerimoniale. I fumetti possono essere un modo per riuscirci? Be’, io ci provo.
Molte delle vite che racconti sono vite di artisti, poeti o più in generale persone capaci di immaginare mondi diversi. Come senti e vivi il legame con queste figure?
Penso che gli artisti siano una sorta di sciamani; l’atto stesso di produrre arte è qualcosa che richiede una connessione tra questo e altri mondi. Ecco perché non mi sorprendono le frasi profetiche sulla propria morte di Radomir Prodanović, il poeta dimenticato, ucciso insieme alla moglie e al figlio nel bombardamento di Belgrado del 1944. La bomba caduta sul suo palazzo aveva bruciato anche i quaderni con tutte le poesie che aveva scritto. Prodanović non era mai stato pubblicato in vita e nel dopoguerra i suoi amici raccolsero e diedero alle stampe alcune sue poesie, che erano sopravvissute attraverso copie. (Solo di recente ho scoperto che il poeta d’avanguardia Radomir Prodanović era anche sacerdote della Chiesa ortodossa serba!). Ad ogni modo, mi ha colpito molto che, nonostante fosse stata esposta al totale annientamento, la sua letteratura avesse continuato in qualche modo a esistere… Così ho realizzato un fumetto basato su una sua poesia, poiché credevo che fosse un altro modo per ridare vita al suo lavoro.
Nel libro c’è anche una parte della tua storia famigliare, e questa volta hai scelto di non raccontarla a fumetti, ma con un testo accompagnato da foto, come se ti servisse un altro tipo di mediazione. Vuoi parlarci di questa scelta?
Sono giunto alla conclusione che il testo scritto riflettesse meglio il contesto degli eventi. Per spiegare cosa avevano fatto i miei nonni come membri della Resistenza clandestina, dovevo raccontare la situazione in quella parte della Serbia durante l’occupazione. La Serbia era stata punita a causa del rifiuto di aderire all’Asse, proprio mentre la Germania nazista aveva mostrato la sua superiorità prendendosi un paese europeo dopo l’altro. Era un Paese diviso in zone diverse, controllate da tedeschi, croati, italiani, ungheresi e bulgari. Avrebbe richiesto troppo spazio spiegare tutto a fumetti, e probabilmente avrei solo corso il rischio di creare confusione, quindi ho deciso di affidarmi alle parole.
Nei tuoi fumetti l’attenzione è spesso catturata dai misteriosi glifi e simboli che occhieggiano sulla pagina. Sono indecifrabili, eppure sembrano suggerire significati, un po’ come quelli che si trovano nelle tavole di Krazy Kat.
Ah ah, in realtà, non ho idea di cosa siano veramente. Ho iniziato a disegnarli di getto, molto probabilmente sotto l’influenza di Krazy Kat, che avevo letto molto negli anni Ottanta. Immagino che sia un modo per includere un elemento irrazionale nella storia, senza pensarci troppo, e sicuramente senza spiegazioni.
In “Radoslav’s notebook” you tell about World War II in the Balkans and its legacy. There are many ways to read, remember and interpret history. Your historical comics have a peculiar atmosphere, they are precise, very direct and at the same time suspended in a magical time, as if the world were always populated by ghosts, or as if the living and the dead, the present and the past were superimposed.
Can you tell us how your research is carried out? How do you choose the subjects and how does the creative process take place?
I mostly search for the ways that our experiences (singular or on mass level) open for the deeper insights. It could be just a regular story, speaking of present moment in time, or – like in the case of Il Quaderno di Radoslav – collection of stories from WW2. But it has to be a story that makes you think about – why things had to be like that? What the people involved had to go through, and what it speaks to the reader? In Il Quaderno di Radoslav, a lot of stories are about the way that hardships reflected through people’s lives. It should be pointed that we are speaking of quite difficult period in the entire history of the mankind. And yet, humanity succeeded to overcome the horrifying situation created by the expansion of fascism. It wasn’t just the battle of good and bad, it was a complex development where good and bad were often producing a lot of complicated relations, and each individual had to decide for her/himself. The end of WW2 was not the beginning of the World Harmony at all; it was beginning of the Cold War, among other things. And my stories are mostly centered on the fate of the regular people, who are under the radar of the official History. Just one example is the comic based on the letter of the regular pupil of the gymnasium, in Belgrade, who sent the letter to Nazi officials headquarters, saying that they are acting very boastful now, but that they are bound to lose the war! The letter was anonymous, and we will probably never find out who wrote it, but it was found in the Gestapo archives after the liberation of Belgrade, orderly stamped and archived by some Gestapo clerk. The fact that some school kid had a nerve to write such letter to ego-driven army officers of the occupants, speaks about the symbolic power of the little people, young or old. I wanted to tell their stories, and about the ways they confronted difficult situations. You know, the little man sometimes wishes to question his place in the world, and mostly his questioning happens in the time of crisis. It is part of our nature – humans mostly need to go through some difficulties to start thinking about their place in the universe. It’s nothing new, Odyssey was speaking about it 1000s of years ago. But you were right – even though my approach to historical stories is based on careful research of the facts, I am always on the edge of a dream or hallucination and I see reality as a mixture of things dead and alive, real and imagined. Our everyday experiences are closer to poetry than we are eager to admit. I will give you one example – the part of the Balkans where I live is a place of continental climate. Summers could be very hot, and winters cold, with snow (well, now less and less because of the global warming, most probably). When speaking about cold winter, my father would often address it as “Baba Jaga”. I knew, of course, that it was the name of mythological figure, part of the ancient Slavic folklore, and that my father was actually addressing the meteorological conditions. But it didn’t prevent me from allowing (and enjoying) both mythological and…hmm, “objective” understanding of his words. It exists as parallel occurrence.
Reading, and thinking about the importance that dream activity has for you, a quote by Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce “Ulysses” came to mind: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, but in your comics there is also a strong playful element, which coexists and mixes with suffering, injustice or horrors. More generally, what is it for history? Why is it important to remember and tell the past?
Past is the collection of experiences, and it is important to realize what you (if you turn to the more recent events) or other human beings (if you reflect on deeper past) went through. Very often, individually or en masse, we can’t easily understand what really happened in the past. Our focus is, and always will be, in a present moment. But we should also have to be aware of the past, it makes us wiser. I was stroke by the proverb of the Maori from New Zealand, or Aotearoa, as they call it: “I Walk Backwards into the Future with my Eyes Fixed on my Past”. To understand past, you have to do it cautiously, it is a demanding task, almost ceremonial. Could it be done in the form of comics? Well, I am trying…
Many of the lives you tell are the lives of artists, poets or more generally people capable of imagining different worlds. This is also your skill. How do you feel and live the connection with to these figures?
I think that artists are sort of shamans; the very act of producing art is something that demands connection with this and some other worlds. I didn’t have a problem understanding the prophetic remarks on his own death by Radomir Prodanović, the “forgotten poet”, who was killed in the bombing of Belgrade in 1944, together with his wife and son. The bomb that fell on his building also burned the notebooks with all the poetry he ever wrote, and he didn’t have official publications. But yet, his friends collected and published few of his poems in the post-war period, it were poems that were preserved through copies. (Only recently I found that Radomir Prodanović , an avant-garde poet, was also a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church!). Anyway, I was amazed by the fact that, despite exposed to complete annihilation, his literature somehow continued to exist… So I did a comic based on his poem, since I believed that it is another way to revitalize his work…
In the book there is also a part of your family history, and this time you have chosen not to tell it in comics, but with a text accompanied by photos, as if in this case you needed another type of mediation. Do you want to tell us about this choice?
I came to the conclusion that text will better reflect the CONTEXT of the events. In order to explain what my grandparents did as activists of the Underground Resistance, I had to tell about the situation in that part of Serbia, during occupation. Serbia was “punished„ because of the resistance to join the Axis, in the moment when Nazi Germany showed its superiority by taking one European country after another. So it was a country torn to different zones, controlled by German, Croat, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian forces. It would be confusing and take too much space to explain in comic, so I decided to do it as a text…
Nei tuoi fumetti l’attenzione è spesso catturata dai misteriosi glifi e simboli che punteggiano il design. Sono indecifrabili, eppure mi appaiono carichi di significato, reali, simili a quelli che si trovano nelle pagine di Krazy Kat. Puoi parlarci di questi segni? Quanto sono automatici e quanto risultato di progettazione?
Ha ha, actually, I don’t know what these things really are. I just started to draw them, most probably under the influence of Krazy Kat, which I read a lot in the 1980s. I guess that it is a way to include an irrational element into the story, without much thinking, and certainly without explanation…
In the following pages we also publish some pages of Veljko Kockar, a young Serbian author shot in 1945 (in 1944). But first I would like to ask you to tell us about the comic scene in the Balkans before the war.
It is one of the less known chapters of European comics. In the 1930s, Serbian dailies began to publish American newspaper comics. Suddenly, comics became very popular, and many comics magazines were published as well, with a lot of young people starting to draw comics. How it happened in a rural Balkan country, where majority of the people still lived in the villages, is still a matter of debate ( a lot of them were actually Russian emigrants, who were trying to get any paid job, and arguably took comics as a way of surviving in a new country. This is recently taken with an increasing interest in Russia, because in the 1930s there were no comics in USSR). Anyway, the entire regular production of comics was stopped in 1941, with the occupation by Nazi Germany.
Did this inheritance act in any way in the following years?
The comics were so popular, that they continued in some form even under the German occupation. It wasn’t possible to publish American-heroism style comics, but some of the local artists who were producing, for example, comics connected to national history, or humor, etc, were able to continue ( even though under limitations) in the magazines published during the occupation, under heavy control by the Nazi authorities. Actually, even though practically there were no comics in Germany at that time, Germans understood that they can use comics for their own means, and they hired some of the local artists to do Nazi propaganda comics and illustration. At the same time, you had comics published in the underground Partisan press, so comics were on all sides. Shortly after the war, when the Yugoslav system under Tito’s reign was formed by the Soviet model, comics were considered “too Western”, and somehow pushed aside. Some of the cartoonists from pre-war era stopped producing comics, some were already dead, and some emigrated from Yugolavia because they did Nazi propaganda, so things shifted and “golden age” was over. Yet, with Tito’s parting with Stalin in 1948, comics started to return, and in the 1950s already there were a number of magazines etc., but interests of the readers was changing, and it is the job of the comics historians now to recreate our own past in that field… I tried, through journalistic work and research, to join this quest.
I wonder about that because Yugoslavia has always remained open to comics, including Italian comics, and in the last few decades it has given life, even after its shattering, to one of the most interesting underground comic scenes in the world. And what does the current scene look like to you?
Yes, comics were gradually regaining the popularity, and when I was a kid, in the 1970s Yugoslavia, you were able to read not only Yugoslav but also American, British, Franco-Belgian and other comics, and Italian comics were among the most popular. Alan Ford had a cult status, I think even bigger then in Italy, and you can still find re-editions of (mostly) old stories by Magnus, even on the kiosks, where there are very few comics now. It is funny, because you can’t find Disney stuff here anymore, but Alan Ford is still present! In the 1990s with the decomposition of Yugoslavia, the underground scene was on the rise, with a lot of fanzines, small festivals and events. Now the comics are to be find mostly in the book shops, in the form of graphic novels and anthologies, and they mostly vanished from the kiosks. It is still an interesting scene, but perhaps not as popular by the general readership as before, at least that is my opinion. But I meet a lot of young people producing comics, so I think under favorable conditions we may expect new developments in this field.
Can you tell us how you came across Veljko Kockar’s comics? And how did the idea of dedicating a film come about?
I knew only a little bit about Veljk Kockar, mostly through the research by my friend Zdravko Zupan, who died few years ago. We were puzzled by the lack of information on Kockar, until Zupan found that he was shot in 1944, during the formation of a new government. This was done during the liberation of Belgrade, when Partisans, who lived the hard life mostly hiding in the forests, lacking arms and ammunition, and even food, and often being exposed to medieval torture if captured by Germans. After liberating the city, they were angry and some of the people who went on their way were shot without trial. Among the people who really were Nazi collaborates, and would probably be despised by any liberation army, was also a young cartoonist who was obviously killed by mistake, accused as Nazi collaborator. The real Nazi propaganda cartoonists have escaped Belgrade with the occupation army, and Kockar didn’t feel like he has a reason to flee. Even after the very detailed research we didn’t find a single cartoon (let alone comic) which could be viewed as Nazi propaganda executed by Kockar He obviously preferred to create cartoons with half-naked girls, and some humor and adventure comics too. So Zdravko collected Kockar’s comics, and I edited and wrote a Preface for the book of reprints. When it was published and seen by director Đorđe Marković, he was intrigued by the whole story and offered us to do a film based on the research on the fate of Veljko Kockar. We were surprised because we didn’t even have a single photo of the cartoonist at that moment, and actually we knew very little about what happened to him. So the filming lasted for 7 long years, and the facts were revealing literary in front of the camera. Film was made as a documentary-live action-animation hybrid, lasting 1 hour. I appear as a main narrator and researcher. It definitely was different from any existing genre, but we managed to engage some of the leading comics historians and authors from Ex Yugoslavia, and we have guest appearance by Robert Crumb, as well, whom we filmed in Belgrade and Paris…
Beyond his life and his death, what struck you about Kockar’s comics? How would you introduce Kaktus Kid / Kaktus Bata to a reader today?
Veljko Kockar was a talented young man, one of the emerging talents of the pre-war and wartime comics in Yugoslavia. He was only 24 when he was shot, his private possessions were not preserved, so there is just a small number of his pages saved through reproductions. One of his most striking characters was Kaktus Bata (Kaktus Kid), a walking cactus. He was presented as a honest little creature, obviously made after the influence of the Disney comics of the time. But of course, there is something strange about the cactus that walks like a man – he is shy and naïve, and as such very much exposed to become a victim, like his creator, Veljko Kockar was. It will be a thrill to see few of the preserved pages by this comic rarity translated to Italian, as the first foreign translation ever.