(Ivan Antonovski, On the Other Side of Not-Being: conversations with Svetlana Shopova on Aco Shopov. Skopje: Dijalog, 2023)
On the Other Side of Not-Being by Ivan Antonovski is a rather singular book; it is a celebration of the dialogue that helps draw the labyrinthine, mosaic portrait of Aco Shopov from a different angle, hitherto unknown. It starts from an insider perspective, I would say, that of his companion who is also a witness to all the literary and life storms through that he had to go through, of the personal and intimate drama, of all the “scars” and of that “heavy blood” that “lies and burrows like a mole” – as the poet states in one of his poems. Hence, Svetlana Shopova is our Sofia Tolstoy or Nadezhda Mandelstam.
The poet and translator Aco Shopov is one of the founders of contemporary Macedonian literature, an academician, diplomat and active public figure who participated in the establishment of the most important institutions in our country, creator of cultural policies in a wider context – both in Yugoslavia, but also globally. His commitment “for Macedonia to shine in the cultural mosaic of the world” is a message that has not lost its meaning even today and which, at the same time, obliges and warns!
Apart from being a “gentle lyricist” – the usual, stereotypical image of the poet Shopov, Antonovski’s conversations with Shopov helps us to discover him also as an uncompromising satirist and a sharp critic of societal anomalies, a world class intellectual and a great humanist, a person full of warmth and humanity, a devoted husband and father, thus making him even closer and more familiar to us, making him our contemporary. This is especially significant for all those who, like the author of these lines, did not have the fortunate to personally meet this “poet from Mount Olympus” (as Shopova calls him), the “reader of ashes” and the poet of silence, a man of discreet and staunch, yet distinctive, bohemian spirit with exceptional charm.
This book offers us an opportunity of an extraordinary adventure, to glimpse into the synergy of Aco Shopov’s personal and poetic world which also serves to confirm his selfless dedication to poetry – “he thought poetically and understood life poetically”, at one point Svetlana Shopova says and adds: “the rhythm of poetry was the rhythm of his life”. Furthermore, “his legacy are the poems he wrote about his ‘burning dream’, about love and restlessness, about this country (…), about ‘youth and dreams, hope – that which is eternal in every person”. The conversations are also seasoned with numerous anecdotes from everyday life that contribute to the living image of the poet – on this occasion, I will share only one: “Aco did not like to go shopping. Only once in his life did he go down to the market because I was sick and came back with three cans of sardines and a bouquet of flowers. I’m not exaggerating, believe me. I had also sent our daughter with him, but she was too young to help him in that, for him, ‘helpless situation'” – recalls Shopova.
As the author of this book of conversations, Ivan Antonovski shows extraordinary knowledge of the life and work of Aco Shopov. What is fascinating is his conceptual prowess and creative skill in composing this book – a world “from the other side of not-being” which, in an extraordinary way, manages to convey a harmony between the facts and emotions with which every answer of Shopova is steeped, which is understandable. But it is Antonovski’s “view from a distance” that contributes to the symbiosis achieved between the emotional and the documentary, between the personal and the literary and historical memory. The book of Antonovski’s conversations with Shopova is not just an intimate record of the past, but also part of our cultural memory, a bridge between our past and our specific present, a dialogue between generations. Today, perhaps much more than ever before, corresponds to Aco Shopov’s “not-being” and confirms the relevance of this poet who still radiates and provokes.
This unusual, but honest, “open” book is key to preserving and nurturing the memory not only of Aco Shopov, but also of our cultural history. Because its rich factual material, in addition to portraying the character and work of Aco Shopov, also provides a panoramic view of the state of Macedonian literature during the second half of the 20th century. Hence, the intention of these conversations is to contribute to our cultural heritage, as well as to serve as a benchmark for the care of that heritage. Ivan Antonovski’s book of conversations with Svetlana Shopova about Aco Shopov, On the Other Side of Not-Being, is a rare and precious gift that offers readers a literary, cultural and social adventure of the finest kind. I will end with a quote from the poem by the Belgrade poet Milenko Vucetić dedicated to Aco Shopov as emblematic of the personality and work of our poet, as well as his place and significance in the Macedonian cultural pantheon: “I do know who Aco is. / He is the one without whom all tunnels would be dark!”