The President Shop by Vesna Maric is one of the four books in world publisher Sandorf Passage’s inaugural season. It is a novel that examines the conflict between people and ideologies – their own or those forced onto them, though even this distinction has a certain amount of bleed. Taking as its object a family who runs a president shop – a place where citizens can buy Party paraphernalia, like busts of the President – in the Nation’s collapsing days. Student protests are on the rise in the capital, the President himself is getting old, and everything is poised to change
Kyle Williams: To start, I’d love to ask you about how it was to write this novel after your first book Bluebird, from 2009. The most obvious different, sentence-by-sentence, is the lack of the essential “I” present in that memoir, as the scope of the novel widens itself to this family in the Nation. What did the shift to fiction, and to the third person, allow for your writing of this story that perhaps couldn’t have done with the “I”?
Vesna Maric: The difference between Bluebird and The President Shop sits mainly in the fact that Bluebird, as a memoir, demanded a first-person narrative in that it was an account of my own experience – though it involved narrating the stories of other people too – and with The President Shop I wanted to tell the story of an entire family, and a country, through the voice of an omnipresent narrator who could move between characters, unimpeded by the limitations of a first-person narrative. The shift to fiction allowed for a greater playfulness of interweaving historical facts – I mixed personal recollections of growing up in Yugoslavia with historical facts that I researched – and simple imaginings of characters and events and how their lives might interact with the circumstances in which they find themselves. There is an expansiveness that comes with fiction and a third person narrative, one can roam around (re)imagined landscapes and work within a cosmos that is at first invented and which then takes on a life on its own, and has its own rules. As we know, real life imposes certain limitations on storytelling, and sometimes fiction is more truthful than fact.
Not only is this book fiction, where your mode up to this point in your memoir and your essays has been rooted more essentially in “fact,” but there is a speculative element to the novel that is – not to spoil anything – downright science fictional. What about this story made you want to turn to the speculative?
I was really interested in the concept of Fate – a powerful concept in the Balkans and many “old cultures,” to use this expression – the idea that there is this greater something out there that holds our lives, or simply that we are actors in this predetermined script of the world and life as it unfolds. The very idea of the gods and superstitions and the traditional society are rooted in this idea of Fate, and I guess the 20th century was all about the rooting out of the old ways. This is where, I think, the modern and old worlds often divide – personal agency vs. something that is unchangeable. The book plays with these two things by portraying a country that is made through the agency of ordinary people, their work and dedication – yet is at the hands of tradition and in some ways, Fate itself. So my interest was in exploring the idea that we are here to learn life’s lessons in different ways, and that these lessons are pre-determined, and it’s up to us to work out what they are and accept them with grace. We live these individual lives, we think, yet we are part of this deeply intricate universe, and it often takes “historical events” to understand how interconnected we all are – perhaps this is Fate, in that our interdependence is inescapable, that we always affect each other.
The science-fictional elements are also a good way to write about the political – and I use this word in its widest sense – in how the collective and individual co-relate and how humanity interacts with power. We like to imagine the future, to know it, because it holds power to know the future – it gives us a sense that we’re beating our worst enemy – uncertainty. Science fiction as a genre plays with that, and while this is not a science fiction novel, the elements that are speculative play with these ideas.
As well, rather than name names, the novel employs an almost fablistic use of capitalized terminology like “the Nation” and “the President,” though the geography is still rather firm. Why opt for “the Nation” rather than “Yugoslavia,” and “the President” rather than “Josip Broz Tito”? What compelled you to use that device? Did you find it in any way freeing, as a novelist?
You’re completely right, of course. I did not name names simply because it helps lift one out of history in the geographic sense, and lends the story a greater universality, I hope. The fate of Yugoslavia was not unique in the human sense – the tragedies of nations are simply the tragedies of humanity, so this book can be read by anyone and it does not require historical or geographic or cultural knowledge or interest. There are so many nations and presidents that are built and adored and destroyed throughout history that it can be read as the story of any place. I did, however, include many historical details in the novel because I wanted to tell the story of this special place that was Yugoslavia, but to liberate it from the associations that the name Yugoslavia carries. There was a great deal of devotion to the country’s formation and construction, there was this incredible architecture (MOMA dedicated an entire exhibition to it), and there was also the simple life, with its oppressions and difficulties. Considering that it is a place that has ceased to exist and exists largely in the memory of those who lived in it, I think fictionalising it is also a great metaphor for the place itself and the former-Yugoslavs’ relationship to it.
So much of The President Shop concerns the particular psychological distresses of living under a regime enforced by ideological propaganda – or, as you said, “the simple life, with its oppressions and difficulties.” Each character reacts to the Nation’s political machine in their own way, even if they putatively agreed with the supposed ideology fed to them (as with Ruben). Some of these psychological struggles meet extreme ends. Is this psychological distress the result of being faced with Fate? And, if so, what does it mean to face our psychological distress with grace?
I think we all live inside ideologies, be they political, religious, economic, and so on. An ideology always supposes a system that involves a hierarchy, and this in itself is oppressive to the ways of being that don’t fit in neatly within the prescribed system. In this way, tradition is an ideology, because we often follow rules that have been followed by generations of people who came before us, and those who subscribe to it are able to live inside it more comfortably, at least up to a certain point – Ruben is a true devotee of the Nation’s project and of the President. Other characters struggle with how their freedom is impeded by the prescriptive ways of being – we are struggling with this right now, and always have, as human beings. It is one of the central – if not the central struggle of humanity: how do we live in freedom, without oppression, without harm? So if one is to see Fate as that which presides over us in the form of these apparently unequivocal rules – as was the case with mythical Greek gods who punished humans who got ahead of themselves and challenged the supremacy of the gods – then yes, psychological distress is the result of this encounter with Fate. In The President Shop, the ideology comes hand in hand with tradition, old ways of understanding the world and how life is lived – for example that duty is honoured, regardless of the value of doing so, that authority is a certain way and must be respected – so the characters who struggle with this are struggling with the old systems of thought that have had a particular political ideology imposed on it. An ideology is simply a compilation of ideas, and none of these ideas were created from nothing, in fact they always came from what was already there. And inasmuch as Fate is considered unchangeable, it is our duty to attempt to change our systems and our ideas. There are certainly things we come up against in life that are distressing and must be accepted with grace, although that does not mean that we do not challenge and try to change those systems that are oppressive.
The way psychology is mapped (but where the map is not the territory) onto ideology in your book makes me think of some old Russian masters, like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. Is there a tradition there that you were interested in?
Ah, well, that’s a compliment, so thank you. Any ideology, as I said earlier, comes simply from human psychology, so the rules of a country are just an extension of the rules of human kind, and as we hopefully evolve, so do our various systems. I studied Czech Literature at University and read a lot of the 19th and 20th century Russian authors, who were, in many cases, prophetic. But there is no tradition I followed, I read widely in general, and I am a huge fan of American literature, because it represents a wide range of cultural voices.
Do you see a line between having an ideology and being oppressed by an ideology? Or between believing and being brainwashed? Is this line the one between ideology and politics, if those are distinct categories to you?
I think the difference is always between personal ideas and beliefs and a systematic ideology that imposes a way of being that is singular and inflexible to difference, and which rests on the oppression of another. We always seem to worship the same set of things, in different guises – a god or a president, money, power, sex, etc. Whenever one is blind in one’s belief or refuses difference, whether privately or systematically, and oppresses another in order to keep oneself in their higher position, that is a point of danger. Politics, in its ideal state, is about a polyphony that is able to find its way into a coherent system that caters to a variety of needs and ideas. I see ideology as a fixed state, one that does not bend to human need as it changes, as it always does, whereas politics should be flexible, based on dialogue, improvement, and on community.
To finish up, I was hoping you could talk a little bit more about the president shop itself, within the novel. It’s a place where fetishes of the President and Party politics are sold, which presents a really compelling image of how propaganda is mass produced to be bought and sold, which would seem to be opposed to the Party’s Marxist principles. In the existence of the president shop, it seems to me, there is a kind of double consciousness. Even religion is supplanted for a gold statue of the President’s head. There is, in effect, a kind of totalizing: Everyone in the novel lives in the president shop. You’ll have to excuse my historical ignorance on this but, were these real places? How do you imagine the space as a construction of both ideology and commerce? And how do you imagine identity being drawn along the lines of the commercial interaction engaged with there?
Yes, this is interesting. These were not real places, no such places existed at all. But it is true that the picture of the President was everywhere, in every public institution, we had all the memorabilia around, there were volumes of books written by and about Tito in probably every home in Yugoslavia, and one was not to speak badly of Tito in private or public. But the commerce aspect did not exist in this way – in fact we had a system of self-management, in which workers owned shares of the industry they worked for, and were provided with housing and so on. So the fictitious president shop is really something that is a safekeeping project for Ruben, who is awarded this honour by the state for his sacrifices in the war – it does not matter whether he sells the memorabilia, although it is assumed everyone would purchase something. The commerce idea, or rather the idea of the shop was really about our agreement as citizens, or as human beings, to ‘buy into’ certain ideas and use these objects as objects of worship that represent that ideology. It is precisely about the shop being a symbol, a centre, for this place where the image of the President is sacred and omnipresent, a place of worship almost (not to stretch it too far), which is crowned by the gold statue, a statue that is indestructible.
The President Shop
by Vesna Maric
Kyle Francis Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is an MFA Candidate at UT Austin’s Michener Center, Interviews Editor for Full Stop, Director of Communications for Chicago Review of Books, and A Public Space’s 2019 Emerging Writer Fellow. He is on Twitter @kylefwill.