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Interview with Serbian wordsmith, attorney, library curator, author, story-teller and tourist guide Viktor Lazić

 

Viktor cropped



Jonathan blue shirt snipped

Viktor Lazić
Interviewee

 

Jonathan G.
Interviewer

 EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW -
conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Belgrade

  Lazik - LA - Belgrade  

 

JG: Before we speak about the two incredible family libraries that have been in your family for 9 generations, (and which now also serve as museums) would you introduce yourself?

VL: I am 35 years old. I live in Belgrade.  Previously I had a translation agency. (I am still a member of the Serbian Union of Scientific and Technical Translators.) I speak English, German and Russian and of course my mother tongue, Serbian. Today I am a practicing lawyer, specializing in corporate law and the restitution to their former owners of properties confiscated by the Communist regime.  I am currently working on a doctorate degree in the field of Chinese law: "Confucianism and Legalism as the dominant schools of Chinese law".

JG: You are also an author.

VL: In addition to my law practice, my academic pursuits, my extensive travels (to 90 countries on six continents), and my work in running the museums, I am a member of the Association of Writers of Serbia and a licensed tour guide. It has been my family tradition for many generations to have multiple degrees and professions. It has been used as a safeguard against the instability of life in the Balkans.

JG: Which books have your written?

VL: Lazik - book coverI have written 6 books and about 1000 articles in Serbian, mostly about travel, but also history. In my book, "The Great Adventure.", translated into 6 languages, I describe my journey of 421 days made in 2009/2010. I went from Kosovo to the North Cape of Africa and continued to Russia, then on to North Korea and Australia, and then I drove back to Serbia from Vladivostok, crossing the Gobi Desert on my own. Particular media attention in the Balkans was drawn by my description of the life of pirates in Malacca Straits, life of believers of sects of the self-proclaimed Jesus, Vizarion, in Siberia, and the life of ex-cannibal tribes and matriarchal tribes in Indonesia.  

JG: Where did you acquire your excellent command of English?

VL: I spent several months every year visiting an aunt in London. When I was 14, my country was at war and my city was very badly bombed. In the course of the bombing, my home was damaged, and my parents decided to send me to my aunt. After the horrible, 10-day ordeal of leaving Belgrade on which bombs were raining down, crossing a bridge that was bombarded only minutes later and dealing with unfriendly Hungarian officials on the other side, I arrived in London and stayed there for 5 months.

JG: Your love of books began at a very early age.

VL: I began writing poetry at the age of 6 years. At 8, I made an inventory of the family library, and at 12 I had 2000 books in my bedroom. Since childhood I dreamed of continuing the family tradition by creating an institution to maintain and expand the library, something that my family already tried to achieve before. I realized then that there were many family friends, famous writers and families owning large libraries and archives, who no longer had trust in state institutions but at the same time had no place to store their collections and needed to entrust their treasures in a safe place.

 

  Lazik surrounded by books  
  Viktor Lazić = bibliophile par excellence  


JG: Moving on to the collection of books that were handed down from generation to generation in your family, and the owner of which is now a cultural foundation [1] of which you are the President, tell our readers about its current situation, and we can then talk about its fascinating history, and about some of the unusual items in it.

VL: We estimate that the collection contains at least one million books. The collection serves both as a library and museum – divided into two parts, one containing books of Serbian literature and the other books, manuscripts, typewriters, etc. from all over the world. Most of the books are offered for reference purposes only and may only be read in situ in our reading room. At the moment capacity of the reading room is only 8 people but we plan to expand its capacity to 60 readers soon. But to a large extent, it is a museum, which attracts visitors from all over the world. The intake of books, which are often donated from other libraries that are closing or from individual collections, is about 5000 per week. Many of the books donated are not suitable, and we give them to other libraries.

JG: Are the visitors mostly librarians or scholars?

VL: No, many groups of children visit us, and it is our educational aim to open their eyes to books of many kinds, from far-off places, as well as other items of interest. It is an exciting way to spread knowledge, love and tolerance. But many experts from all over the world also come to use our material. Just recently we allowed researchers from Humboldt University (Berlin) to use one of our archives.

  Lazik (AO1)  

 

JG: The collection contains not only traditional paper books, but those written on bamboo sticks, silk and sheep fetuses or made of elephant excrement. Could you explain how and why these unusual materials are used for “books”.

VL: One of our aims is to showcase the history and richness of the world. This is why we brought books from all over the world, especially trying to obtain unusual books that bear witness to the diversity of the human mind. For example, we have books made on rice paper so that they can be eaten if the reader is hungry! These were traditionally done in China, where fear of hunger is deeply rooted in people’s minds. Or books from Thailand, created from the dung of elephants that Thai people still sometimes keep as pets at home! … Or tribal books on palm or banana leaves. We even have books with covers made of what were probably human bones…



Lazik - typewriter cropped
 
Lazik - Rare_books_and_artifacts _Adligat _Belgrade

Books are just the beginning. Typewriters and other literary objects are part of the collection too. MOMIR ALVIROVIC / COURTESY ADLIGAT 


JG:
You have a manuscript signed by Napoleon Bonaparte.  What is the story behind this item?

VL: I was in Parma, Italy, last year with an old friend of mine, a French woman from a noble family. We visited a museum dedicated to Marie Louise, Napoleon’s wife. My friend asked me what object in the museum my first choice would be to add to the museum’s collection. There were original Napoleonic objects around us, and I expressed my admiration of Napoleon, and of his famous Code, in particular, as I am a lawyer too. I stated that it would have been so amazing if we ever obtained any object related directly to Napoleon… After only a few months this lady found an original Napoleonic document and donated it to us, but she insisted on remaining anonymous. Behind the document is the story of Bernard Radelski, a Slavic soldier, either Russian or Polish, who most probably deserted the Russian army. We can only assume this, as the document states that he was a member of French military but belonged to the special unit comprised of ex-enemy soldiers, either war prisoners or deserters. Obviously that man did not like war, because he ran away from the French army too! Lazik - CambaceresUnfortunately, he was caught, tried and sentenced to 16 years with a prison stone tied to his leg, and he was ordered to pay a huge fine... Later the Emperor pardons him. The original document containing the pardon joined our collection. One interesting facet of the story is that the pardon reveals how bureaucratic the French state structure was, because even this simple pardon had to be signed not only by the Emperor, but also by his Ministers and Chief of Cabinet... So we have three more signatures on the document, those of Jean Jacques Régis de CAMBACERES, Hugues Bernard MARET and Claude Ambroise REGNIER – all of them extremely important people in their time. Mr Regis de Cambaceres is actually the real author of Napoleon Code, and he presided over the special commission that created the final version of the Code!

JG: Which other signatures do you have of famous Frenchmen?

VL: Our collection of books in French language and about France has more than 300.000 titles! French Revolution and French culture had significant impact on Serbia, and we are proud of this connection. Our First World War collection is especially important and has a strong connection to France. Of great significance are four documents signed by French kings - Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. This collection was bought for us by one donor, but it has not yet arrived in Serbia. We are also proud to have a small collection of Jacques Prevert signed editions and photographs, a donation by the famous Serbian journalist Kosta Dimitrijevic, who actually met Mr. Prevert and interviewed him.

JG: You also have the handwritten letters of Nikola Tesla, the iconic Serbo-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer and futurist, best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC), electricity supply system. What are the contents of these letters?

VL: Tesla PupinaMihajlo Pupin, like Tesla, was a Serbian-American inventor, and holder of the Pulitzer prize, one of the most important American inventors of the 20th century, thanks to whom the phone and radar became useful instruments. Both lived in the USA. Tesla’s letters to the General Consul of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in New York, written three months before Pupin’s death, express great concern for Pupin’s poor health, rebutting previous rumors about their hostility. The relationship between those two giants is very important in the history of science and especially for Serbia. in 20 countries, in 10 languages (including the New York Times and the Washington Post). [2]

 

JG: The book collection was started by your ancestor in 1720 and opened to the public in 1882. It has undergone the vicissitudes of two world wars and many upheavals in Serbia and elsewhere. The stories you tell about some of these events could fill a book. In fact, you have agreed to write an article for us containing the story of how the library was tended for more than 50 years by your illiterate grandmother, who, in her old age, designated you as its heir. For present purposes please relate the efforts made by your great grandfather to save books during WW1.

VL: My great-grandfather Luka Lazic (1876-1946) was a true book lover. He spent most of his time reading or visiting the library that his father had opened to the public by in 1882. In 1908-1910 Luka Lazic took over the library. The family lived in small northern Serbian town, Kumane, which was then in the territory of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, and he was conscripted to the reserve troops of the Austrian army. Once Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, he would have had to fight against his own nation. So he decided to run away, to

Lazik - emperor
The entry of Emperor Francois-Joseph into Belgrade, by Frederic de Haenen, 1914

overtly cross the wide Danube river, and to join the Serbian troops. But he was concerned about the fate of the books back home, afraid that some Austrian officials or military personal might enter his home and destroy or remove them. So he asked his wife Marta to stitch his favorite, most valuable books into his jacket. The jacket was a very thick Hessian fabric, with a thick layer of sheep wool, which was perfect for putting objects inside it, and he chose 6 books to be stitched into the jacket. But he could not have known what awaited him. When Serbia was attacked from all sides at the end of 1915, the Serbian Command decided not to surrender, but instead to retreat in the middle of winter through the Albian mountains, in some of the highest, most unfriendly European territory, hoping to reach the Adriatic coast and be rescued by Allied ships. Many civilians joined the retreating Serbian army, fearing enemy revenge. Most of the 1.1 million Serbian victims of the WW1 died in this ordeal, considered to be one of the worst tragedies of this war, particularly for the Serbs. [3] Luka marched for hundreds of kilometers, through snowy mountains, fighting the enemy and withstanding the wind and cold, until he arrived at the Duress swamp more dead than alive. When allies sent ships to transfer the remaining Serbian soldiers to the Greek island of Corfu, a new drama awaited Luka – he boarded a ship that was soon hit by torpedo. He survived but had to jump into water to save a friend. Only one book survived this incident. However, what is even more

Lazik - digitized newspapers
These rare Serbian newspapers from World War I are among the works digitized by the Belgrade University Library, under a grant from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. MOMIR ALVIROVIC / COURTESY ADLIGAT

incredible is that once Luka arrived in Corfu, he continued to collect books… Our books and other materials published during the war that the soldiers were reading while waiting to fight, or even during fighting, are exceptionally rare. We received a grant from the British Library (in cooperation with the Svetozar Markovic University Library) to digitalize the collection under the world program designated for Endangered Libraries and Archive. Digitalization.

JG: To end this interview, I would like to quote Adam Sofronijevic, of the Belgrade University Library, who said about your museum. “These stories are fascinating. They tell us a lot about Serbian society and culture,” It is a story of book-loving, book-keeping, and extraordinary enthusiasm.” Moreover, your uncle Milorad Vlahovic has said “This is in Viktor’s blood,” “He was always obsessed with the collection. We are happy and proud that he has done this for the library, for the family, for the country.”

VL: I wanted to build a safe haven—a place where people of culture could entrust what’s valuable to them. My success is due to the fact that people trust me and my project as evidenced by the fact that 40 persons have donated their entire legacies of books, documents and cultural objects, while more than 300 donated their libraries in whole or in part. Support from State institutions has also been remarkable, and it demonstrates recognition of the fact that we are in a better position than the State to maintain this important project It is the fruit of work invested by nine generations of my family, and important to the nation. We hope to preserve it for many years to come.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

[1] ADLIGAT Society for Culture, Art and International Cooperation
Museum of Serbian Literature Book and Travel Museum 
Josipa Slavenskog 19a, 11.040 Belgrade – Banjica, Republic of Serbia 
+381 11 36 72 807+381 63 360 218 +381 63 88 54 927
muzejknjige@gmail.com

[2] « NEWS ON DISCOVERED TESLA’S DOCUMENTS ECHOED AROUND WORLD” http://www.srna.rs/novosti/678726/news-on-discovered-teslas-documents-echoed-around-world.htm

[3] Richard C. Hall (2014). War in the Balkans: An Encyclopedic History from the Fall of the Ottoman Empire to the Breakup of Yugoslavia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-61069-031-7.