Viktor Lazić – Marco Polo of the Modern Age
- Written by Mirjana Backonja
BELGRADE – A writer, lawyer and holder of a PhD in Chinese law, a polyglot and licensed translator and tourist guide, associate of the Geographical Institute of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, an ambassador of the Serbian Bibliographic Society, a philatelist and numismatist, a Renaissance personality which the media have described as Serbia’s biggest travel writer – these are the characteristics and achievements of a mysterious and very interesting figure, Viktor Lazić.
Lazić has proved that it is possible to tour more than 70 countries, covering over a million kilometres on four continents, in just eight years. The longest of the journeys lasted a year and half, from which he returned 22 kilos lighter, but ‘heavier’ for a ton of books, several tens of thousands of photographs, and countless adventures.
Viktor enriched his family library, which has a 200-year tradition and in which nine generations of the family collected and preserved over half a million books and other publications, as well as a museum with about 100,000 books, by numerous valuable souvenirs and books he brought from his travels around the world.
Fleeing from his own wedding, organised for him by a tribe of former cannibals in Sumatra, released from jail eight days after being arrested as a spy on the border between Georgia and Southern Ossetia, he finally returned to his family. He did what no one before him has probably done – he prepared exams in the crater of a volcano in Java, he received Communion from a fake Jesus in Russia, he courted a girl who danced barefoot on broken porcelain in a matriarchate tribe in Indonesia, he lunched with pirates in the Malacca Straits, talked to Father Christmas in Finland, and ironically received a beating in peaceful Australia.
Lazić wrote about his travels and adventures in five books, the last of which will be published this November
Lazić talked about his travels, adventures and wished to the Serbian House of Good News.
What sort of artifacts (souvenirs) did you bring with you after your travels around the world?
I only bring objects which should be exhibits in the Museum of Books and Travels, or the Museum of Serbian Literature. Primarily books, postage stamps, examples of money, but also artifacts – exotic status and others. In order to be able to carry everything to Belgrade, very often I was forced to jettison my entire personal luggage, clothes and everything else.
By this important work my travels acquire a new dimension – they turn into a mission of creating an important institution, and Belgrade becomes a centre of books collected and usually dissipated around the whole world.
Among others we have books whose covers are made of bone, Buddhist prayer books written on bamboo sticks, books printed on rice paper which can be eaten in the event of hunger...
Did you ever search for books connected to the tradition of the country in which you find yourself, or did they simply find you?
The paths of books are unusual, a little magical, perhaps. For many examples even now I cannot say whether I found them or they found me. I found a magical book of the Batak tribe in Sumatra at a medicine man who healed me when I fell ill, after a horrible misunderstanding, after villagers organised a wedding for me from which I fled. While the medicine man healed me, he read lines from a beautiful little book whose pages were hand-written on palm leaves and the covers made of bone. Once I was well again, I did not want to leave until he either gave me the book or sold it to me... After two days of persuasion, I managed to get it for our museum.
In every country I acquire several types of books. Most importantly, I get books about Serbia, or books by Serbian authors printed in local languages. They are often very rare editions even in those countries, and our museum is the only place where they can be found in Serbia. We managed to find the first edition of the ‘Bridge on the Drina’ in Chinese, with an inscription by the translator! I would never even have known that this was the book were it not for the inserted picture of our Nobel laureate, Ivo Andrić.
I also collect books about the country I am visiting. In this way we are forming a collection which provides an overview of each country – its literature, history, ethnography, geography, etc. It is important because many people forget that besides the 50 most advanced countries there are also 150 lesser known ones, about which it is virtually impossible to find any sort of literature, here as well as in our entire region. We have comprehensive collections of publications about Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Burundi, Zambia, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Australia (with a special collection on Aborigines).
Where was it that it was hardest to find and get books?
It’s a very difficult question, because every book has its life story, and has a story of how it came to us. Exciting thrillers could be made about the lives of some books. We have a book signed by the famous Serbian author Miloš Crnjanski which had been confiscated by the Germans, taken from the Germans by Communists, and finally retrieved from the library of the Party Central Committee by its rightful owner, to whom it had been dedicated... In South Ossetia, where I was held in prison for a while, I bribed the guards to visit the bookstore across the road and bring me several books in Russian. In this way even in my cell I had a small library, which meant a lot to me in my hardest moments. I have a special connection to those books even today.
Your longest trip lasted over a year. Where did you travel and how do you remember it?
That journey lasted 421 days, including 65 nights sleeping in a bed, 308 in a Lada, and the rest outdoors. I toured three continents – Europe, Asia and Australia – a total of 32 countries. I used over 20 different conveyances, travelled around 140,000 kilometres, including 80,000 where I drove the car. The Lada broke down a total of 34 times, most often I repaired it myself, while during the trip I had three mobile phones and seven cameras stolen from me.
I travelled without any GPS, using a compass and old maps. The longest period without bathing was 16 days, and I returned to Belgrade no less than 22 kilos lighter! I sent home some 100,000 photographs and a ton of books and artifacts for the library and the museum – by lorry from Moscow! During the trip I collected materials for two scientific works and a doctoral thesis, and in various countries I held lectures and organised exhibitions about Serbia.
How much did your family’s support mean to you in your planning of new and perhaps even more dangerous adventures?
Danger is not the objective of a journey. The guiding star is knowledge, the promotion of Serbia and bringing the world to Serbia. Of course, my family suffered the most during my trips, especially my parents. That I why I dedicated to them the book about my longest journey, because that trip was torture for them, they suffered the most. Support from the family is always the basis of success. It is very difficult, almost impossible, to make great achievements if those with whom you live obstruct you every day.
Where did your first trip take you?
Like with all great projects, it is very difficult to determine a starting point. It is as if such projects exist and live outside us, before us, and will certainly exist long after we are gone. That is the case with my ambition to tour the world and leave a written description of every country I visit. I began travelling in my early teens, visiting relatives and friends throughout Europe. At that times I did not even dream about putting anything in writing, although I wrote quote a lot – mainly poems. My first major trips were in Europe, some of them I barely remember, as I was only 11 or 12. But those trips were exceptionally important, as I fell in love with travelling.
My first travelogue appeared by accident, at the end of secondary school, when I received a scholarship of the City of Belgrade as one of the best students in the town. After almost a year enough money was collected for me to travel to Thailand, I dreamed about riding elephants, to set foot in a jungle, to tour the city of monkeys and old cities lost in the jungle... I had enough money for about ten days of comfortable stay. I chose to sleep on the beach instead of a hotel, to be able to extend my journey from ten days to a full month... My desire to learn about the country was very strong, and the hospitable Thailanders opened both their homes to me and the doors to their souls. That is when everything started. It was then that I decided never to stop such journeys, which enrich the soul more than any other treasure.
You wrote your four books inspired by your own experiences travelling the world. Do you think that human talent for writing is helped by reading many books and by education, or is a person simply born talented?
The greatest writers are born with a gift. That gift is often also a curse. The need to write is, as Crnjanski used to say, almost physiological, like hunger or thirst. That is why sometimes uneducated people make exceptional poets. But reading and education do cultivate people, thereby also their writing. This means perfecting and advancing the gift. Humans’ perception of themselves and the world is broadened considerably by writing, as well as travelling, which is then also reflected in writing.
Your long and distant journeys require a great deal of money. Did you collect all your funds working in Belgrade, or did you manage it in other ways?
I made do as I could. There were all sorts of things. Often I took jobs during a journey to earn money for the rest of the trip. Every journey is unique as regards financing. On occasions the governments of distant lands invited me to visit their countries so I could promote their culture. At times I laboriously earned by translating over the Internet (I am a scientific and professional translator for the English language, and I also speak German and Russian). Sometimes I received scholarships, as an honours student, or travelled on study trips. A few dinars also come from my travelogues. My last trip through Russia was done with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Tver Oblast of the Russian Federation, after I had held a lecture and organised two exhibitions in Tver at a festival of Slav literacy and culture. One exhibition was devoted to the links between Serbia and Russia by means of books, and the other the forgotten corners of the Slavic lands, by means of photographs. I have been a lawyer for a year now.
You are a graduate of law and hold a PhD in Chinese law. Was Chinese culture and tradition what inspired you to select this for your doctorate or has it nothing to do with China?
My subject was Confucianism and Legalism as the Dominant Legal Schools of Chinese Law. It is the foundation of Chinese law, the philosophy of law and an analysis of specific (legal) outlooks of law and life. On my travels in China, I came to love their culture. I visited a small town named Qufu, where Confucius lived for some time. I was so enchanted by the town that I decided to bring their legal tradition and philosophy nearer to our science.
You are the heir to a family library that dates back two hundred years. How many books are in it? Which are your favourites?
My family on my father’s side has been involved in culture and collecting books for over 200 years. My great-grandfather, Luka Lazić, received in 1929 a gold medal for cultural achievements handed to him personally by the then King Aleksandar Karadjordjević. At the age of only nine I took over the family tradition, which should be crowned by this institution, which we hope will become one of the pillars of Serbian culture. Given that my soul is that of a travel writer, we are making a special collected dedicated to travelling, the first-ever such library and museum with exhibits from the whole world in this region.
The library and the museum now have over half a million objects, including around 100,000 books. Our dearest books are of course those passed on by earlier generations – I am the ninth generation in the family who is involved in books – as well as those very difficult to come by, for example those I brought with me from distant lands. My family leased out books from 1882, and often the readers did not value the treasure that stood before them and ripped out pages for cigarette paper, wrapping paper, etc... My great-grandfather Luka did not always have the necessary funds to buy the same books, so he embarked on a laborious task of copying by hand all the pages that had been torn out (several hundred pages in all!), and even painting in drawings! For me this is the best example of true love for books. The books holding such pages, written in his hand, are inestimable for me.
Your latest book will be punished in November. Can you reveal at least a bit of what we can expect in it?
The book deals with travels through Asia, my adventures in Turkey, the Caucasus lands and Iraq. I describe in detail events in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, visits to Tbilisi and Baku, Armenian churches …
Which book could you read over and over again?
Above everything else, poetry (also prose, which in its essence is poetry). My soul is that of a poet, and that is why poetry suits me much more than prose, although I write mainly prose. There are many poems which I learnt by heart by simply reading them hundreds of times. It seems to me that I can read the best works of poetry every day from the start, until the end of my life, and that I will never have enough of their beauty and spirituality.
Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church has blessed your idea and plan to open a museum of books and travels. What does this mean to you?
Our institution began as a collection of books of an Orthodox clergyman in the 18th century, my ancestor Mihajlo Lazić. The great majority of the founders of our project are of the Orthodox faith, our collection contains a special and very large collection of Christian Orthodox literature, and we are dedicated to the protection, preservation and promotion of the Serbian cultural heritage, so that Patriarch Irinej’s blessing is exceptionally important for us. It is both an honour and an obligation for us. We hope that by our work we will vindicate the trust shown in us at the very beginning. I should also point out that our collection contains large sections dedicated to Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Confucianism and other religions, and that everyone is welcome in our institution. But it is our belief that for respecting others it is primarily important to respect oneself and one’s own roots.
Are you planning more trips, and what are your plans for the museum?
I never plan journeys. They just happen, and guide me as if by a magical hand, mainly to places I never even dreamed of visiting. It was as if by accident that I reached Iraq, Cambodia, Svalbard, Sumatra; often days before I set off I had not even imagined I would be going there. Now I would like to set off to Africa or South America, but we shall see.
As far as our institution is concerned, under the adligat’s roof we are creating three important, separate but very intertwined and interlinked things: a public library, a museum of books and travel, and a museum of Serbian literature. Almost a year ago we registered ourselves as the Association for Culture, Art and International Cooperation Adligat. Adligat is a professional term designating several publications or books bound together. We selected it as a symbol for several peoples connected under one roof. Our main objective can be condensed into a simple syntax: to protect and promote Serbian culture, and at the same time to bring other cultures to Serbia.
We have already received support from the leading Serbian institutions, from the National Library of Serbia, the Association of Writers of Serbia, the Serbian Bibliophile Society, the Belgrade University Faculty of Law, the Association of Scientific and Professional Guides of Serbia, the Milutin Bojić Library in Belgrade, and others. Our founding members include very prominent art and culture personalities, like Matija Bećković, Pero Zubac, Dragoslav Mihajlović, Srba Ignjatović, Andrej Fajgelj, Sima Avramović.
We are preparing the exhibition space, completing the construction of a new building and working on collecting materials and organising the collection. We expect to be able to open for the public next year. We would like to invite all people of good will to join us in creating an institution of natural significance. Above everything else we need donations of books and artifacts which can be of interest. The books we do not need together with the Association of Writers of Serbia we send on to other Serbian libraries, many of which have not received books for decades.