Every life is a novel, but not every novel is as stunning as the life of Dragoslav Mihailović. Early orphan, very young prisoner in a penal camp, sales representatives, workers in quarries and leather factories, travelling circus impresario, later first celebrated, then ostracized and then celebrated again – the volts of this life, which ended last Sunday in Belgrade in the ninety-fourth year, could have filled half a dozen existences. Born in 1930 in the Serbian province, barely two years old after the death of his mother. The father, a severe alcoholic, got into a state early on in which he "could no longer drink, but also no longer drink," as the son once said. The child has to take care of the father at an early age and is still a minor when he dies.

Michael Martens

Correspondent for Southeastern European countries based in Vienna.

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Mihailović is at most 18 years old when the communist secret service creates a file on him because, loving the truth, he had stood up for classmates who were falsely suspected of being enemies of the state. A later file entry states: "Mihailović, in the course of his hostile activity, among other offenses, called Comrade Tito an American spy." He didn't, but it didn't help him. Mihailović is arrested, comes to the notorious penal island Goli Otok. The Tito regime has devised a perverse system to incite the prisoners there against each other. Every "newcomer" has to pass through a trellis of prisoners who cruelly beat him with fists and clubs. Those who do not strike hard enough have to go through the trellises themselves as punishment, which some do not survive – which is why almost everyone tries to be particularly cruel for fear of being particularly cruel. Such is the whole camp: Whoever spies on and mistreats his fellow prisoners, who reports insubordinate behavior to the guards, even if it is invented, can rise in the camp hierarchy. Those who show compassion will be punished. Empathy can be deadly. Thus, many Otok prisoners suffer their entire lives on an island that no one survives blamelessly.

Mihailović is also suffering, but he is not silent. He dares to do what no one dared before him: he writes about Goli Otok. "It was as dangerous as dipping your hand in liquid lead," he says later. In his 1968 novel "Als die Kürbisse blühten" ("When the pumpkins bloomed"), published in 1972 in a brilliant translation by Peter Urban by S. Fischer on German, the name of the island does not appear, but everyone knows what is meant. Also Tito. In a public speech, he is outraged by the man who dares to describe the torture methods of the supposedly so progressive Yugoslavia. These pumpkins are "completely rotten", Tito says angrily. He is indignant: "People from our midst spit on us, spit on our achievements and spit on the sacrifices we have made."

Thus Mihailović was cleared for shooting, for the second time. After all, these were different times: The camp Goli Otok no longer existed, the author was "only" socially destroyed. But he survived Tito. The "Pumpkins" – the story of a boxer who fled to Sweden, recited in a Belgrade street slang that shocked the audience – became a cult book. In texts such as "Vagabonds drink tea", "Brief history of crushing" or "Charles Aznavour and his audience", Mihailović varied his theme magnificently. Even those who do not know and do not want to know anything about Tito and Yugoslavia can easily fall into the brilliant maelstrom of this prose. Also on German, by the way: The Slavist Robert Hodel, who lives in Hamburg, has translated a selection of them under the title "Wie ein Fleck zurückbbleibt (How a stain remained behind").