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Content

RELATIONS

Literary Magazine

The Journal of Croatian Literature


3-4/2010

Editors Word

.............................................................................................................................................................................................

Publisher

Croatian Writers Society

DOSSIER: MIRKO KOVA

Editorial Board

An Interview: Mirko Kova [Interviewer: Sreko Horvat]


The Elite Worse Than The Mob .....................................................................................................................................

[ Editor in chief ]

Roman Simi Bodroi

Mirko Kova

[ Assistant editor ]

The City in the Mirror. Family Notturno

Jadranka Pintari
Proofreading

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18

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32

(Ill)adapted [From the book of essays Writing or Nostalgia ] ..................................................................

44

Mirko Kova

Day and Night

Tomislav Kuzmanovi
Mirko Kova
Address
Croatian Writers Society
Basariekova 24
Tel.: (+385 1) 48 76 463
Fax: (+385 1) 48 70 186

www.hdpisaca.org
hrvatsko.drustvo.pisaca@zg.t-com.hr

Mirko Kova

Hamsuns Star [From the book An Elite Worse Than The Mob ] ........................................................

52

Mirko Kova

Memorial Service [Extracts from the unpublished novel Receding Time ] ..............................

63

Price 15 3
Design and Layout

Crtaona, Zagreb
Prepress by

A YEAR OF EXCELLENT WOMENS NOVELS


Jadranka Pintari

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

............................................................................................................................

75

Printed by

Sibila Petlevski

Profil, Zagreb

Time of Lies ....................................................................................................................................................................................................

76

Kreo Turinovi

Olja Savievi Ivanevi


ISSN 1334-6768

Adios, Cowboy .............................................................................................................................................................................................

83

Ivana Simi Bodroi


The journal is financially supported by
the Ministry of Culture of the Republic
of Croatia and by the Municipal Funds
of the City of Zagreb.

Hotel Zagorje ................................................................................................................................................................................................

97

Marina ur Puhlovski

Love ..............................................................................................................................................................................................................................

107

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SREKO HORVAT: ESSAYS


Sreko Horvat

The Paradoxes of Suicide

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115

Sreko Horvat

How Common People Become Monsters?


Goli Otok or Sadistic Masochism in Its Purest Form

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124

The Future Is Here. The World of He Dystopian Film ...........................................................................................................................................................


What Inside of Me Is More Than Myself ....................................................................................................................................................................................
My Husband Is Not My Husband ......................................................................................................................................................................................................

132
132
137

Sreko Horvat

Sreko Horvat

Why We Can Love Only by Means of Signs?

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142

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149

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154

JADRANKA PINTARI: PROSE


Jadranka Pintari

Magic of First Meeting


Jadranka Pintari

The Mistress Parting


Jadranka Pintari

Fingers Crossed Behind the Back

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156

SHORT STORIES AND ESSAYS


Zoran Tomi

Thanks for Kazakhstan

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160

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163

Maja Hrgovi

Whales Ass

Zoran Malko

When I Was Nana Pila, Dead, But in My Prime ...........................................................................................................................................................................


elentanos Bestiary .................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
How Little Sleepy Death Dumped Me ...........................................................................................................................................................................................................
Mario Kova
EXCLUSIVE: Croatian Emigrant Lynched by an Angry Mob of U.S. Nationalis

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How and Why to Kill Your Ex-Girlfriend? ..............................................................................................................................................................................................


Breathing and Blinking .....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

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168
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Content

Neven Vuli

The Crap Master ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

177

Dinko Telean

Desert

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180

Nenad Popovi

Little European Psychiatry

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183

A LITTLE MUSIC ANTHOLOGY OF CROATIAN POETRY


Arsen Dedi

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

187

Mozart Year [189]; Back Home [188]; Final Song XIII [189]; * * * [189]; * * * [190]

Vesna Parun

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

191

You Are Hungry, Yet I Am Singing [191]; Knowledge of Dependency [192]; Call [192]; Goodness and I [193]; Proscription
of Music [193]; Mother of Man [194]; The Rock In Which a Ballad Should Be Written [194]; White Nocturne [195];
Maidenhood [195]; Were You Close [196]

Ivan Slamnig

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

198

The More I Look, the More I See [198]; I Like Places Which Are Very Damp [199]; Earth I. [199]; White Sand [199];
It Always Used to Be One Way or tOther [200]

Boris Maruna

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

201

Instructions for the Time Bomb [201]; When I Think About You, You Old Poets [203]; Croats Get on My Wick [204];
Message [205]; Ill Defend My Fathers House [206]; It Was Easier to Love You From a Distance [207]

Josip Sever

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

208

Pornographers Panegyric [208]; People, Save the War [209]; Monday [209]; Funeral [210]; Music of Sight [210]; Battle [210];
Philosophers from China [211]

Ivan Rogi Nehajev

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

213

How I Remember Mother [213]; In the Bay of Foam [214]; Tango [215]; Vanish, I Command Reality [215]; The Laurels
Smell [216]; Angels Must Have Been Designed on the Model of Plants [216]; Izabella [217]; Lili [218]

Gordana Beni

Ballad of Unutterably .................................................................................................................................................................................................................

219

Tahir Mujii

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
We Dream [227]; A Little Restaurant Out of a Little Tin Box [228]; Why Didnt I [232]; The Old Ones Have Sat [233]

227

Content

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Delimir Reicki

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

236

What Would You Ask the Passers-By. If You Were by Chance a Sphinx? [236]; Happy Streets [237]; Joint of Moonlight [238];
Scherzo [239]; Doctrine About You [240]; Mantra for Your Headboard [241]; Paranoia [242]

Dorta Jagi

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

243

Hotel Rooms [243]; You Build Womens Rooms [244]; Scorpion Rooms [245]; Room of a Lady Traveler [245]; Rooms
from the Suburbs [246]; Childish Rooms [246]; Lukewarm Rooms [247]; Opus Emily, Poem 288 [247]; Antimartini [248]

Simo Mraovi

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

249

Its Nice in Paradise [249]; You Have Vanished [250]; Dead Jaguars [250]; Where Are You, Bird [251]; I Am He That Keeps
You By Day [251]; Things That Are Good [252]

Ivica Prtenjaa

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

253

Stroll [253]; Friday, Radio [254]; Take Everything That Calms You [255]; I Spend My Summer With a Girl [256]; Dangerous,
Beautiful Jewelry [257]

Marko Pogaar

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

259

Domes [200]; My Tongue Is a Dark [200]; What Is a Brim? [200]; Technique of a Poem [200]; Its Nice [200]; Over an
Object [200]; Permanent Revolution of Love Poetrys Language. To the Tired Trockists [200]

Predrag Luci

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

264

(It) Aint No Reason [264]; Man Is Not a Bird [265]; Hamletting [266]

Ana Brnardi

Poems ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
Airport [267]; Paradise [268]; The House in Miamisburg [268]; The Plain [268]; Insomnia [269]; Writing on Keys [270];
My Castle in the Bark [270]; Ebony Box [271]; Old Peoples Love [271]; Room [271]

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Editors Word

Dear Reader,
Before you lies Relations in the new
robes and at least partly in the
new media.
Our disposition has, however, remained the same. This double issue opens with a segment dedicated
to the literary work of Mirko Kova, an author of a rich and inspirational opus, whose work and life
show most clearly that good literature knows no boundaries and that
a great writer can enrich more than
one national literature. Kovas novels, stories and essays not only by
these editors opinion make up one
of the most representative and most
prominent opuses of contemporary
Croatian literature; completely immersed into the present they lack no
timelessness.

Introductory interview with Mirko


Kova was done by an author who is
presented in the pages of this issue of
Relations with a series of essays dedicated (among other things) to love
a young philosopher and a publicist Sreko Horvat. Love and essays,
it was our intention, meet in the center (of life, of the magazine). The same
topic, though from a considerably
different angle, is explored in the
texts written by an editor and a nonfiction writer Jadranka Pintari, an
author whose selection continues this
chain reaction and presents yet another segment of this issue: four novels
by female authors who marked the
literary 2010 in Croatia the works
of Sibila Petlevski, Olja Savievi
Ivanevi, Ivana Simi Bodroi, and
Marina ur Puhlovski. As a mandatory and already customary review of

(excellent!) this years production in


the field of short stories and essays,
we come to a treat that (this time on
a CD) comes at the very end: a little
music anthology of Croatian poetry.
Whoever will read and listen / listen
and read the poems included in this
selection we are certain will feel
the same we feel: immense creative
energy and vigor of the poets and the
musicians, all the diversity only good
art can offer, all the pleasure it can
give.
Photographs in the pauses, not pauses by any means: by Martina Kenji.
Please enjoy this issue (at least) as
much as did the people who worked
on it!
Editors

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

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MIRKO KOVA was born on December 26, 1938 in Petrovii near Bilea.
Wanting to become a writer, he left home early, supported and educated
himself changing high schools, most often because of conicts with his
teachers, he attended the Department of Dramaturgy at Drama and Film
Academy in Belgrade, but never graduated because by then he had already
published his rst novel Gublilite, which immediately made its way to a list
of ideological head-choppers. The hunt against the young writer, accused
of a dark portrayal of the world lasted for almost a year. His escapes from
Belgrade became more and more frequent, in most cases taking him to
Zagreb where he wrote six screenplays for Jadran Film. Many lms made
after his screenplays won awards at home and abroad; Lisice was voted
one of the best Croatian lms of all times, and his Okupaca u 26 slika, Pad
Itale, and others also won many awards. Kova also wrote for theatre: his
play Osipate se polako vaa visosti was performed at Sarajevo Chamber
Theatre, but after its premiere the play was banned, while its author was
accused of making allusions to President Tito. Mostar National Theatre put
his play Iskuenje on stage, and his work was once again banned. He wrote a number of TV dramas out of which two
were ordered by Vlado Gotovac, the editor of drama section, and performed at Zagreb TV. His collection of novellas
Rane Luke Metrovia voted the best book of ction in 1971 and awarded the Milovan Glii Prize was published
in Belgrade. Two years later the book was withdrawn from libraries and banned as a dark image of reality, while
its author was called the leader of the black wave, a movement treated as a deviation in culture. At that time,
Kovas grows mroe and more attached to Zagreb where he works for lm and television and publishes novels Ruganje s duom and Vrata od utrobe, which won him many awards, among others, the NIN Prize for the best novel.
The novel came out in pocket edition and was published in thirty thousand copies. In the second half of the 1980s,
Kova becomes engaged against Miloevis regime and Serbian nationalism, with Filip David and other followers
he founds an independent association of writers called Nezavisni pisci and distances himself from Serbian Writers
Society, he takes part in founding Beogradski krug and from Belgrade collaborates with Danas, Zagreb based weekly,
one of the most popular magazines of the time. At a meeting in Belgrade eeljs supporters break his head, he
receives threats, and nally at the end of 1991 leaves Belgrade and moves to Croatia, Rovinj, where he still lives. He
works with the Split weekly Feral Tribune and continues to write against Croatian nationalism with unchanged energy.
In Rovinj he writes his best books: Kristalne reetke, Grad u zrcalu, a collection of stories Rue za Nives Koen, a new
version of his novel Ruganje s duom, and two plays, performed at Montenegrin National Theatre in Podgorica. With
Filip David he publishes a book o letters called Knjiga pisama 1992-1995.

Kova won many international and domestic awards, including the Herder Prize, the Tucholsky Award, the Vilenica
Prize in Slovenia, Bosanski steak and Mea Selimovi awards in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 13 Jul and Njego awards
in Montenegro, and Vladimir Nazor, August enoa, Kiklop, and Jutarnji list awards in Croatia. His books have been
translated into more than dozen languages. Fraktura Publishing House publishes his collected works since 2003.

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An Interview: Mirko Kova

The Elite Worse Than The Mob


Interviewer: Sreko Horvat

SREKO HORVAT: For starters, be-

fore we delve into the concrete aspects


of your work, first and foremost you
are known as a writer, moreover,
you have written countless essays,
published non-fiction, and you also
worked on the scripts for some of
the best-known Yugoslavian motion
pictures. How did you connect all
these various fields? If I remember
correctly, in your book Elita gora
od rulje (The Elite Worse Than
The Mob) you say that you are
sorry you couldnt devote yourself to
writing novels all the time. What is
your view on this today? Would you
give up on some of these numerous
forms of your creativity?
MIRKO KOVA: Perhaps it had to
happen precisely that way, for now
it seems to me that in my case the
genres intertwine, that there is something in the novels that is common
to the essay or the film script and the
dramatic text, and that these experiences have all been useful for what I
might call my entire literary work.
I am fond of saying that all of my
non-fiction books were sort of extorted, and that I wrote them under
some duress, in some hellish times,
out of resistance and to support the
truth, morality and some lasting values that in that period, starting in
the mid-1980s, began to deteriorate

and were replaced by the horror that


actually befell us a bit later. On the
other hand, when I mention the novel, then I am talking about the most
important part of my writing, but
still, you cant write novels one after
another, for that is a serious and time
consuming effort, sometimes even
explorative. Somehow it seems arrogant to me to write novels one after
another, even if I could do that. Danilo Ki used to say that it was best
to make a four-year pause between
two novels. Since I was a professional writer from the very beginning of
my literary career, I have used those
Kiovian pauses mostly to work
on film scripts, and so I appear as a
screen-writer of about ten movies,
and ten successful movies if I may say,
which was not entirely my own but
also the directors doing too. Anyway,
the film is a fantastic experience, some
kind of maturation in the dramaturgic sense, in the sense of bringing the
novel closer to the reader and opening
up from creating the hermetic content
that I sometimes practiced as a novelist. I would even go as far as to say
that the novel must learn a little and
accept a little from the film script.
And the other way round.

HORVAT: Luckily for all of us, you

did take these excursions. As for the


film, did the form of the film, that

is the film medium, help you in


your literary work? I mean, either
in the development of the dialogue
or in the creation of the characters
and the like...
KOVA: Yes, of course. I have al-

ready made a hint in that direction.


Now, at some mature age, you see
how I avoid the term aging, for old
age is not something separate from
what I am, I am trying to bring the
novel closer to the film, which means
to the reader too, and so, for example,
my novel Grad u zrcalu (The City in
the Mirror) has had a few editions and
attracted a greater number of readers,
and not only here but also abroad, at
least in the languages it has so far been
translated into. However, my writing is different nowadays, although
my view is that each book must be
written differently, that finding out
new ways and keys is an important
component of every literary and artistic work in general. It is undeniable that the film influenced me, that
it influenced my literary procedures.
And I am no exception. Many writers dealt with film and some of the
great writers too, like Graham Green,
Faulkner, Marquez and others. As a
young writer, when I just stepped
into literature, I hanged out in the
Belgrade film archives theater, and
what encouraged me to persist in

Photo by: Jakob Goldstein

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Mirko Kova

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that maniac film-watching was that


I used to see there, quite often, at
the matinees, and even at the morning projections, the great writer Ivo
Andri. When I later on got to know
him, he told me his favorite director
was Bresson and that he had seen his
movies A Man Escaped and Diary of
a Country Priest many times.

HORVAT: When we read again your

short stories, which were originally


and mostly published in the anthology Nebeski zarunici (Heavenly
Betrotheds, 1987) and reprinted
relatively recently, together with a
few new ones, in the book Rue za
Nives Koen (Roses for Nives Koen,
2005), we cannot but notice your
editorial interventions. Some parts
are left out, and the lascivious eroticism, which was one of the most
prominent characteristics of your
literary work, is now constrained
(which is particularly noticeable
in your last novel The City in the
Mirror, where you literally leave
the eroticism to some more talented authors). It gives an impression that you are constantly coming
back to your own literary works,
that they are not relics belonging to
some other, past time, but are open
forms that you keep rereading and
reworking over and over again?
KOVA: You are right. It is not all
finished that seems to be finished. I
dont know any more whether I was
coming back to my early works because I wasnt satisfied with them or
because I wanted to say more, to say
something else, prompted by that
perpetual aesthetical need to express
everything in a new and different way.
Borges once said that he would have
liked to correct and rewrite all his
books. Many writers have changed
their works, from Krlea to Piljnjak
who was even transferring the whole
passages from one book into another,
and so was named self-plagiarist by
some critics. After all, it is some sort

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

of obsession to clear out what every


writer desires, and that is to reach the
impossible, which is perfection. So, it
sounds great: to rewrite ones books
means to search for the impossible. I
have never changed some parts, and
the erotic parts I changed only for the
sake of aesthetics, for they were written in some other time of communist Puritanism, when the eroticism
was something subversive, when it
was looked upon as something western, decadent, trendy etc. To me, the
eroticism then meant a certain degree
of freedom, but was also a challenge
to counteract against literary an ideological Puritanism, even to shock,
and so the book Rane Luke Metrovia
(The Wounds of Luka Metrovi) got
me into a lot of trouble; the book
was rewarded and then the reward
was taken away from me. The book
was withdrawn from the libraries,
it disappeared from the bookstores,
the war veterans asked for a ban and
criminal persecution for the author.
I was on thin ice. And it went on until Predrag Matvejevi did not react
to it in an insanely courageous way,
which was his way of defending and
advocating all the writers who were
persecuted by the regime. And when
a new, slightly improved and edited
version came out, when the erotic
passages were diluted, they started attacking me for spitting myself in the
face and removing all those shocking
parts in order to suck up to the authorities and admit my mistakes, and so
proved them to be right. But, it is not
true, nobody demanded that I change
anything, I only wanted to say the
same thing in a more subtle way, for
the eroticism is no good if it is explicit. In my new novels, Kristalne reetke
(Crystal Grids) and Grad u zrcalu (The
City in the Mirror), the erotic aspect
is somewhat understated, but it came
out much more effectively.
HORVAT: If I am not mistaken,
in one letter Borislav Peki warns
you of Danilo Ki who, due to

his own perfectionism, actually cut


his Peanik (Hourglass) half its
length. Do you think an author can
be satisfied with the final version of
his book?
KOVA: It is difficult even to talk
about satisfaction, for as Kafka put
it beautifully, I am dissatisfied even
with my satisfaction. The writer
must be dissatisfied, even with his satisfaction. There is always this inclination toward perfection, which Peki
mentions while writing about Ki.
Ki really was some kind of a maniac,
and not only while he was working
on his manuscripts, but as a reader
as well, for he could not stand sloppiness or any kind of imprecision.
I will tell you an anecdote about Ki
and the great French writer Marguerite Yourcenar whom Ki adored as a
writer. He gave her a copy of Grobnica za Borisa Davidovia (A Tomb for
Boris Davidovi) in Paris and asked
her to meet him after she read it in
order for the great writer to tell him
her opinion of the book. And indeed
they met, and she gave him many
compliments, but she also added one
remark. In his story Psi i knjige
(Dogs and Books) Ki described a
kind of cheese from the 16th century,
and Yourcenar told him there hadnt
been such a cheese at that time, that it
was manufactured almost two centuries later. This remark overshadowed
all compliments to Ki, and he was so
miserable that he once told me: You
know, I would gladly withdraw all the
copies of A Tomb. Nobody else noticed it, did not even know anything
about it, and it was not all that important after all, but he knew about
this imprecision and that bothered
him, so later on he found out the exact information and corrected that in
all the subsequent editions. In addition to exact facts, conciseness is the
essence of literary creation. For one
symposium on Ki I wrote a paper
entitled Estetika saimanja (The
Aesthetics of Conciseness). For con-

10

ciseness is a procedure. If someone


cannot do that, I dare say he is missing something as a writer.

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

HORVAT: Being concise indeed is

one procedure, which brings us to


some other literary choices. What
characterizes your entire work is
definitely the narrative I which
you could not shake off since the
earliest phases of your literary work.
Regardless of whether you are writing about the surprising encounters
with fascinating people (as in the
short story anthology Rue za Nives
Koen/Roses for Nives Koen or in
Uvod u drugi ivot/An Introduction into Another Life), about the
chronicles of a time long gone (as in
Kristalne reetke/Crystal Grids) or
about childhood reminiscences (as
in Grad u zrcalu/The City in the
Mirror) there is always this traditional form of narration. I would go
as far as to say that this narrative I
often assumes a distant perspective
in regard to the plot, as if this mannerism, taking digressions, is used
to disturb the monotony of narration. And so, not a small number of
the passages in Grad u zrcalu (The
City in the Mirror) end with one of
your musings about literature. Are
you faithful to your own narrative
tradition in your new novel that
you are writing right now or have
you taken another direction?
KOVA: I think that this autobiographical I is not only a procedure,
but also a form, a manner of narration, and, if you like, even a game I
play with the reader. Or, as Philip
Roth would put it, this is concealing trails, the meddling of the right
and wrong sources. I dont know if
I would even be able to write in the
third person. True, I wrote many
chapters in the third person, but I
really cant say if I would be able to
do the intimate parts without the autobiographical I. To put it simply, it
is nice to hide behind this I, for it

seems to me that it allows me to do


many things, and yet it is somehow
conditioned and somewhat limited.
Besides all that, writing in the first
person singular brings me a lot of
pleasure; it enables me to put in personal experiences much easier than
by using the objective perspective of
an omniscient writer. Many of my
favorite writers wrote in the first person; Knut Hamsun wrote in the first
person until he was almost fifty, and
only later did he write his great nov-

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Roth wrote about this magnificently


in his novel Zuckerman and brought
that question onto a perfectly theoretical level through the character of
some reader.

HORVAT: We have now mentioned

Hamsun. He definitely exerted an


influence on what was the best
in Yugoslavian literature. Tell us
what other writers made a significant impression on you and your
generation?

Mirko Kova and Danilo Ki

els The Wayfarers and The Growth of


the Soil in the third person. I prefer
his novels written in the first person,
for example, Hunger and Pan. Singer said Pan was the most wonderful book he had ever read, and even
wrote a preface for its American edition. Knut Hamsun himself once said
he was sorry to have left his narrative
I. Personally, it would be very difficult for me to give up on this I,
although it brings you a lot of trouble if you are in contact with your
readers, for you will inescapably be
asked by someone if all that actually
happened to you, and even the critics make such mistakes by identifying
the writer with his character. Philip

KOVA: Knut Hamsun was a translated and well-known writer in former Yugoslavia between the two world
wars. He brought something new,
different, humorous and intelligent,
and above all, he proved that writers
coming from small countries and
writing in small languages could win
prestigious awards and achieve literary glory. He was read and loved; he
was published even in the postwar
communist Yugoslavia in spite of the
fact that he took Hitlers side and believed that Hitlers New European
Order was a good thing for Europe.
Although he was anathematized after World War Two, even sent into
an asylum, he was defended even by

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

precisely this ambition to reach stylistic playfulness?

such preposterous characters such as


Stalin. All in all, his illusions were
below his work, somehow they remained at the foothills of that mountain. Danilo Ki was the first who
drew my attention to Knut Hamsun
and his novel Hunger, and that book
circled among us. I dont know how
much it influenced us, but we really
were his devoted admirers. However,
it is rarely only one influence; there
are many influences, many different
writers, the whole cultural situation
of an epoch, the tradition etc. Influences are a good thing. We must stick
to the saying that literature is fed on
literature, that writers are inevitably
someones followers and successors.

HORVAT: There is an interesting

scene in Kristalne reetke (Crystal


Grids), when the main protagonist
jumps off the chair out of excitement while reading Knut Hamsun. This brings me to the next
question. It seems to me that in
one interview you point out that
as a reader you are interested in a
game in the style of bravura used
by the writer to unexpectedly twist
a sentence and surprise the reader.
Do you agree with the opinion that
the contemporary literature in the
countries of former Yugoslavia lacks

KOVA: But even today, just like


my character, I too jump off the
chair when I am reading a writer that
knocks me off . Even today I cry
out in excitement when I am reading Kafka, Canetti, Tolstoy, for there
are writers that can be read over and
over again and that keep you jumping off the chair. This is where the
magic of writing happens too. If
there is no that magic, I usually give
up reading the book. It is very difficult for me to read a writer who is
not humorous, so to speak. Perhaps
that is my weakness, but I have always
liked writers who are charming, no
matter how much priests and clerics
deemed charm to be the work of Satan. In Belgrade we used to call such
writers cakisti (gagsters); caka (gag)
is probably a slang word. Makavejev
was a great master at that. I want to
say that I like a twist in a sentence,
a witty writer. Hamsun himself had
such puns, such word games. Its a
gift to be able to make fun of oneself. Even Ivo Andri, apparently a
stiff sage, had an extraordinary sense
of humor, especially in his ingenious
stories about friars. The greatest part
of my resistance to Crnjanski is pre-

11

cisely this lack of humor. I dont know


how precise and appropriate word
humor really is in this case, but Peki
called it a distance. Writers who are
nationalists usually dont take this
distance; they dont have a sense of
humor, for they are tortured by the
heavy worries of their nation. I dont
know what to say about my contemporaries, I am not savvy enough, but
I have encountered writers capable
of having a good time. However,
having a good time must not be in
the forefront; it is only an occasional
spice in the writers attempt to express
what he thinks is the essential. There
are writers who can, as you say, become playful. And that is much better than being wiseacres.

HORVAT: Currently you are work-

ing on a new book, you are also


writing it in the first person singular; you have labeled its genre
as novel-memoirs and entitled it
Vrijeme koje se udaljava (Time
Taking Distance). Will you in that
book, perhaps, remind yourself of
some of your relationships with the
writers belonging to your generation? And where are you with that
book now?
KOVA: Now that this book is being outlined, when it is taking the
shape of a novel with memoir-like
parts, when these two layers, the
memoirist and novelist, are becoming inseparable and make for the material of this book, then I can confidently say that it is the novel I have
been working on my whole life, for
the range of it and what is happening in it are temporally encompassed
within fifty years. The novel starts
as an autobiography, which it partly
is, and then all kinds of known and
unknown characters step up onto
the scene, and all that is taking place
from the end of the 1950s to the
present time. I have never kept diaries, but I have, from time to time,
written down some crazy ideas, jotted

12

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

Filip David, Pavle Ugrinov and Mirko Kova, Belgrade, 1974

down something bizarre from many


encounters; I have never given any
significance to it, but I did manage
to save many paper slips, notes and
notebooks. A lot of it got lost, and
what has been preserved, was used as
a reminder. All those paper slips, and
there were several binders containing
all kind of things, and literally a bit of
rubbish, attracted my attention and
I started rummaging through it all
at the beginning of the 1990s when
I was already living in Rovinj and
when I thought my only perspective
was looking back into the past. So,
as early as that, I entitled the novel
Vrijeme koje se udaljava (Time Taking
Distance). In the meantime, I wrote
or worked on and finished off as
much as seven or eight other books,
but I have, simultaneously, always
tapped this Time of mine, keeping
it a secret even from myself.
Sometime at the end of the 1960s,
when I worked as an editor of Knjievne novine, I began working on an
interview with Crnjanski, but I didnt
finish it because that editorial board
was dismantled since it was thought
to be reactionary and anti-communist. When Crnjanski realized that
the editorial board and me in it were
about to go down, he stopped coming to our conversations. So, part of

what I managed to put down about


that will now probably be published
in this book, if I succeed in turning Crnjanski into a literary character and attribute to that some of the
novelistic significance, so to speak.
For, meeting well-known personas
is of no interest to me, I am not a
journalist, if I dont turn them into
my protagonists. That was the reason why I determined the genre of
my book as a novel-memoir, as some
sort of a spiritual biography, to use
this Singers phrase, for he maintains
a biography cannot be written; it can
only serve as a basis for a spiritual
biography, in relation to which a
writer can see himself regarding the

TIONS

things spiritual. And if I succeed in


making a record of our age, the destruction of an entire world, through
the destinies, characters and stories,
of course, then I am confident that
this is going to be my best and most
comprehensive book. I wont say my
last will and testament, for I want
to write books after it is done and I
know what I want to write about. You
have asked me if this book is going to
talk about somebody from my own
generation of writers, about some of
my friends. In one way or another,
definitely so, and a space in the novel
will be filled with someone of whom
I have an interesting story to tell, an
event that has an artistic value. For
example, Peki was interesting as a
person, he was fun and lucid, and I
had all kinds of experiences and anecdotes to tell about him, but it is still
not enough, or it belongs to what
is called para-literary material, if
there is no novelistic potential in it.
When I am writing a novel from the
present perspective, I also deal with
some small side-events, accompanying stories that help me relax the
core, as Shklovsky would put it. It
will be important to me how to come
up to the 1990s and the war, especially the war in Bosnia that took its
toll on me too, for I, living in Istria,
became a witness to a whole series
of destinies and stories, because Is-

Mirko Kova and the film director Lordan Zafranovi


at the filming of Gosti i radnici (Guests and Workers), Dubrovnik, 1976

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tria was a way to exile. Through my


house, and so through me, a great
number of those unfortunate people
went, including some of my friends,
painters, artists, writers. Some of
them, in their prime years, I would
say still young, died somewhere in
Italy, Canada, America. I mean to say
that this book is very demanding and
very ambitious as a project.
HORVAT: If we go back to your nonfiction, precisely to the texts pub-

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

tics in this country, only a mere and


cruel struggle for power. And to be
in power, also means to have a possibility to get rich. A forgotten philosopher, Vladimir Dvornikovi, said
that people enter politics penniless,
and leave it loaded with money. You
have mentioned my text Ostavka ili
kazna written 12 years ago. And, has
anything changed? No? We witness
unbelievable scandals; a vice-president of the government is on trial

government, and the poor press has


started writing about that ferociously,
analyzing who is and who is not going to stay in it, who is going to be
swept out by her mop and who isnt.
And none of it has happened, nobody
was replaced and nobody resigned.
Even Sanader didnt screw around
with the press like that, although he
is sly as a fox and has a mentality of
a non-democrat. I wrote about him
in Feral in 2004 and denounced him
as a hotheaded narrow-minded nationalist. I included that text into the
book we are presenting this evening
and even then I said he was a better
man than all of his collaborators and
ministers in the government, which
is now proved to be correct. I also
quoted Goethe who said: The worst
of countries have the best patriots.
The masterminds of all this ruination
are exactly the best patriots.

Borislav Peki and Mirko Kova, Budva, 1980

lished in the 1990s and during the


war, it is still very relevant today.
For example, in your text Ostavka
ili kazna (Resignation or Punishment) from 1998, originally published in Feral, and commenting
on the demands for the resignation
of Franjo Tuman, you quote de
Tocqueville who says that the end
of a government begins when the
government starts limitlessly and
irrationally amplifying itself . Is
this applicable today? What is your
comment on the recent corruption
affairs, from Polanec to Barii,
going as far as the very cabinet of
the Croatian Government?
KOVA: I agree with you that many

of those texts are still relevant today, for there is no practicing poli-

for corruption, and he is saying that


the biggest criminal in this country
is his college, also a vice-president in
the Croatian government, and that
he himself in relation to that man is
an innocent child. Every member of
the cabinet is connected with some
scandal. A whole silo of wheat gets
stolen, and nobody is held responsible. No resignations are submitted.
And the prime minister is the one
who should resign first. Instead of
doing that, she is handing out laughing material under the pretence she is
fighting corruption. This very prime
minister, in my opinion an unstable
and narcissistic person, has recently,
from somewhere during her tour in
the United States, pompously announced to the press that there are
going to be some replacements in the

13

HORVAT: So, no changes really took

place. For instance, in your text


Mediji na strani zla (The Media
on the Side of Evil, Feral, 1996)
you say: The media in power have
their hierarchy, their censors, their
police officers and soldiers, their
sergeants, whips, persecutors, suckups of smaller or greater caliber,
careerists, informers, servants of the
servants, etc. This whole brigade is
nothing but a fraction of the gang
in high places. What is your comment on that situation today, which
is really no different, except that
it due to the free economy has
even gotten worse?
KOVA: Not only due to the market economy, but government in general becomes worse the longer it stays
in power, because it gets deformed
by power itself. In the Croatian political arena the power is completely
deformed, and the same can be said,
I am afraid, of the people living in
the country, for our election rules are
democratic, but still we choose the
worst to lead us. We as an electorate

14

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

probably dont know how to punish


the government for its misuses and
crimes, our public opinion is powerless, the power-holders keep messing up the value system, everything
is turned upside down, everything is

is more than obvious it had to be that


way, it had to go to the marrow of
the bones, as the saying goes. That
newspaper meant a lot to me personally, in every sense of the word;
in the moral, psychological, political
and even in the literary sense, if you
want. Owing to that magazine, it was
easy for me to exonerate myself from
all the accusations I had to face both
here and abroad, that I have from
one type of fascism escaped into another of the same kind. That is why
I often point out that Feral was my
spiritual medicine.

deranged, a criminal is a hero, a thief


is a righteous person, etc. I think that
the intellectuals and the media are
very much responsible for this state
of affairs. Many things need sorting
out; I even think things were clearer
in the Tuman era. It is paradoxical
that Feral stopped being published
in a time that we call democratic,
or more democratic than the one in
which it functioned and managed
to survive. I wrote about the media from the principal point of view,
but I think they began playing a bad
role as early as the mid-1980s, especially during the war when poignant
words, as my friend and brother in
arms Filip David often pointed out,
were the same as bullets. When I
think about Feral for which I wrote
for about ten years, I get more and
more convinced that this newspaper
was an exception, even a cultural
and historic asset in this country, if
you like. It was a hard pill to swallow even for the liberals, and now it

HORVAT: The dying out of Feral

actually meant the disappearance


of satire from the Croatian media
coverage. However, only recently a
newspaper of the Serbian minority in Croatia has come up with a
controversial headline Obadva su
pala (Both Fell Down), which
stirred a lot of commotion. In your
text Humor i diktatura (Humor
and Dictatorship) you speak about
the relationship between political
power and satire, and about the
need for the existence of humor in
every society to disclose all kinds of
machinations...
KOVA: Indeed, ever since Feral is
gone, we have lost our sense of humor. Satire existed even in notorious
dictatorships, both fascist and communist. Dictators were provoked
more with satire than with any kind
of the deep and clever texts that analyzed their misery. Now, on the plane
of satire, on the plane of humor, we
have a wasteland. Instead of mocking, we now moan, and that is already
the last phase. Brecht beautifully said
that moaning is a pre-fascist state.
But, if you ask me about that controversial headline of the weekly Novosti,
I dont think this should be connected with satire; it was more like some
sort of provocation that also can be
effective. Provocation is a measure
of how much a society is democratic.

TIONS

The reactions to that headline are


reminiscent more of the communist
or the Tuman era. There were reactions from various associations, organizations, war veterans, so called
independent intellectuals, and then
the newspaper got burned publicly.
You remember well that Tuman
said that having Feral is a shame
for Split. Right after that there was
a public burning of it. The Head of
the State should not have interfered
with that, for he is an institution. It
could have been discussed, but everything else was a manipulation. It
is obvious, however, that there is always a need to divert the attention to
something else in order to cover up
the real issues. It reminded me of the
time when a trifle was often put into
the forefront. I myself, at the beginning of the 1960s, was a victim of a
witch-hunt when I published my first
novel, and it lasted for more than a
year. If we looked into that now, it
would appear ridiculous. A whole

generation in Croatia already doesnt


know what it is all about and what
the meaning of both fell down really is. But, it is an ideal opportunity
to accuse somebody else, especially
if that somebody is a minority. And

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again, the intellectuals contributed


to that accusation by blowing it out
of proportion.

HORVAT: Unfortunately, in the

nearby Belgrade the situation is


not too good either, and so as much
as 6,000 hooligans swarmed the
streets to disrupt the recent gay pride
parade. When we read your texts
about the masses, we see they are
perfectly applicable to this situation too. You exhibit an enormous
aversion to the masses; you even
mention that you get intentionally
hurt whenever you find yourself in
a mass of any kind... What is your
perspective on that phenomenon of
the masses, which in Belgrade too,
got formed in its worst aspect? Do
you think a mass can be a positive
thing if channeled in some other
direction?
KOVA: I keep in touch with my
Belgrade friends and they all, more or
less, are telling me that this mob was
turned against the very government
itself more than against that parade
that was a handy excuse to come out
onto the streets. The same kind of
excuse was Kotunicas meeting in
Kosovo when the American embassy
was burnt down. Tomorrow it will
be some football match, etc. For, the
mass is always manipulated, and it is
always propelled by somebody and
directed by somebody. It turned out
that this time the Serbian Orthodox
Church was behind the mob, and
various right-wing parties. A mob
can never be directed in a good way
or in a positive direction, for essentially it is destructive. What we have
just seen in Belgrade is absolutely a
picture that Canetti would define as
a mass, a mob. They cant see further
than the nape of the one standing
in front, as Walter Benjamin put it
beautifully and correctly.

HORVAT: Now that we are talking

about the mob, we must say that

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

precisely the mob was responsible


for the rise of the Miloevi regime.
You have written many texts about
him, many of which have been published in foreign magazines. In one
of them you say you are reluctant
to write about him any more since
that makes you feel as if you were an
accomplice in creating his cult and
enhancing his glory. What is your
view on this today? All things aside,
those texts were quite important at
that time...

15

on a war criminal that is currently on


trial in the Hague, with around twenty of his Chetniks who broke into a
happening I attended and busted my
head. True, he was after the young
Albanian politician, Veton Suroi, a
friend of mine, but later he himself
said: Suroi is our enemy and we are
going to fight him, and Kova is a domestic traitor. Filip David nicely observed that that was the beginning of
eeljs rise and my fall. It is funny, but
it was not quite so. I wouldnt like to

Mirko Kova and Vlado Gotovac, Rovinj 1997

KOVA: Some echoes are coming to me from Serbia suggesting


I was writing only about Belgrade
and Miloevi, without criticizing
the events in Croatia. I think this
is not quite true. I also wrote very
critically of Tuman here too. However, Belgrade, whether we like it or
not, was the epicenter of evil, and
Miloevi started an aggressive civil
war. My first texts about Miloevi,
written while I was still in Belgrade
and published in the weekly Vreme,
including some of my interviews,
challenged the little dictator, so he
started sending messages that reached
me, and one of them was the coming
of his favorite politician eelj, later

be in his shoes. And I had no reason


to be afraid of contributing to creating the cult of Miloevi by writing
about him, for it eventually turned
out that such texts, as well as the texts
of many other writers, slowly undermined and overthrew his authority. It
was not easy to denounce a pet politician of a whole nation. Miloevi
was loved by all strata of the Serbian
people. I believe today that we were
those who managed to undermine
that cult little by little after all. And
he was beaten to the ground with the
bombardment of his country by the
NATO forces. And he was actually the
first and only one to be blamed for
the bombardment. It was the great fi-

16

nale of his genetic predisposition for


committing suicide. But, he wouldnt
die alone; he had to drag with him
his whole nation.

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

HORVAT: If we go a few decades

farther back into the past, you,


unlike many others, were never a
Marxist or a supporter of Marx
although you werent against him
either. In one of your texts, entitled
Tko se boji Marxa jo (Who Is
Still Afraid of Marx), you have
described in great detail the Praxis
crew and those people that Milan
Kangrga called the smugglers of
their own lives. Have you, during
the current economic crisis, perhaps
gone back to Marx; that is, have you
stared reading his works?

KOVA: I didnt read Marx not be-

cause he was not a good writer or philosopher, but because he was a mandatory read and because everything
around him was turned into an ideology. However, I must say that during one period the Marxists were the
best deal in former Yugoslavia, part
of the European spirit and European culture, as Kangrga once put it.
In my text Tko se boji Marxa jo,
I immediately distanced myself from
any kind of Marxism and any kind of
doctrine; I assumed a bit lighter tone
in writing about the subject, for it
would have been ridiculous of me if I
had gone into some discussion about
Marxism which I am almost totally
ignorant of. However, I knew some of
those philosophers, they meant a lot

Mirko Kova and his Polish translator Dorota Mentzel, Rovinj, 2003

TIONS

to me, for they taught me how to resist nationalism, totalitarianism, and


it was precisely Ljuba Tadi who was
my role model in the moral sense and
his book Je li nacionalizam naa sudbina (Is Nationalism Our Destiny) was
some sort of my favorite reading. And
then an incredible turn-about happened: when the nationalists came
to power, the Belgrade Marxists, with
some honorable exceptions, gave up
their philosophy and became staunch
nationalists gathered around Dobrica
osi, once an opportunistic Marxist and later on a chauvinist. That
turn-about prompted me to write
not a scholarly, but a literary piece,
a spirited and mocking one. Some
people got angry with me, reacting
to my text in Feral, pointing out I
was writing about something I knew
squat about, and I was writing exactly
about the stuff I am well acquainted with, for I know how to mock
those who have totally changed their
colors. The philosopher and Marxist Tadi became, it seems to me but
dont take my word for it, president
of the supreme court, the philosopher and Marxist Sveta Stojanovi
became advisor to Dobrica osi,
President of the Socialist Republic
of Serbia, the well-respected, translated philosopher and Marxist Mihajlo Markovi became an ideologist of Miloevis Socialist Party, and
later on eeljs radical. Those were
the big names of Marxist philosophy. They often attacked the Zagreb
Marxists who proved to be totally
different; they remained the fierce
critics of Tumans nationalism. It
challenged me and inspired me to
write a funny piece, a literary text that
could have easily transformed itself
into a short story if I had been just a
little bit more inspired to make use
of the narrative procedures. Anyway,
among my non-fiction pieces, this is
one of my favorites. To find oneself
in an unknown field and make fun of
all those chameleons is a sheer pleas-

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

17

ure to everybody engaged in writing. And finally, I want to say that I


would gladly read Marx, if I had the
time, especially now, in the times of
the dollar tyranny and increasingly
heavier load of liberal capitalism.

HORVAT: Here is another question

that brings us back to the beginning. Irrespective of the ideological


frame a writer may accept or not,
can he be devoted exclusively to
his own creation nowadays at all,
without having a connection with
the outside world and without a
need to react to it? You told me at
the beginning of the interview that
there was an inner urge to make
comments on the social and political situation...
KOVA: Brodsky used to say that
the greatest obligation of a writer
was to write well. Nevertheless, it is
not possible to turn a blind eye to
what is happening in our world and
around us. A writer draws not only
from within himself, but also from
the outside world. It is a happy coincidence when a writer writes well
and honorably and fairly reacts to all
that is wrong in our world.

HORVAT: What is Mirko Kova

reading today? What are his favorite authors?


KOVA: My reading is simultaneously working. The books are placed
on my desk. Some of them I read
only occasionally, some I read several times. I keep coming back to
some books I read a long time ago.
I have never abandoned some of my
favorite authors. Among these authors are Kafka, Tolstoy, Hamsun. I
love reading younger authors coming from small literary traditions, if
they are translated. For example, the
Hungarian authors. And of course,
our Croatian writers.

Translated by Domagoj Orli


Mirko Kova, Rovinj, 1992

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18

TIONS

The City in the Mirror


Family Notturno
Mirko Kova

1.

large house in L, a two-storey


building made of cut stone, was
inherited by my father as the oldest and the only of eight children to
whom his father Mato, my grandfather, in his will left a legacy to continue the family tradition, just as he
had inherited the trade of his father,
and become a mule trader, as they
used to call cattle merchants; most
often they only bought and resold
cattle, because the vicinity of Primorje, the coastal lands, was fitting for
trading livestock, meats, calf skins,
wool, hairs, etc.
County books listed everything my
grandfather Mato had earned in his
lifetime, there was no contract of
his undeposited at the notarys office, he paid all the taxes, so when I
first peaked into those books, those
land and tax files, I thought that each
document could be of use to a writer
or chronicler because, no matter how
meager or minute the record may
be, it could give him a firm ground
to stand on, yet as I wrote I pressed
and pushed into this ground as hard
as I could in order to distance myself
from my family and any kind of heritage, and in order to succeed, I also
had to write about my kin (hmm,
my kin) because after so many years
and dealings with others I wanted to

descend deep, into darker chambers


of my childhood, and say something
about myself, not because I think it
might be of interest to someone, but
because the urge to write, just as selfadmiration perhaps, pulled me into
a period I had written about before,
sometimes with irony or mockery

toward history and tradition, and


now I was to do it seriously, from a
distance and from todays position,
like some kind of autobiographer,
with all suspicion in the genre, but I
needed to try and descend into the
glory of writing to its very bottom
and gather images I remember, im-

ages that reached me from somebody


elses stories, more than anything my
fathers, and thus this manuscript
will see characters from my immediate and more distant family; most
of them seem like apparitions to me,
and someone said long ago, I think
it was Poe, that true writers are only
those who fight against their apparitions while the rest are mere clerks
of literature who from it make a
living.
This manuscript spent a lot of time
hidden in the drawer, although I
intended to publish it when I first
thought it was finished. I made the
last corrections and fixed some mistakes, I even cut two sheets, or six to
seven chapters, and then the night before printing I had a dream as clear as
a vision, which actually turned into
nightmare. I dreamed that the book
came out and that they invited me
to the printing house to have a look
at the first copies. I held the book
in my hands, I was happy with its
wonderful design, but I had no one
to share my happiness with, around
me there were only print workers,
faces completely unknown to me.
They watched and waited for me to
take the book into my hands, to take
a peak and leaf through it, which I
did, but then something dreadful
happened, something that saddened
me and appalled me at the same time,

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because as I leafed through the book,


its pages started coming off, spilling
all around me, and the workers just
stood there, laughing and enjoying
their prank. I took another copy, and
another and so on, but each of them
fell apart in my hands; only the covers
remained like skeletons, and then one
of the printers told me, You wrote a
crumbling book. I went down to my
knees and picked up a couple of pages, wanting to read a line or two, but
I couldnt pronounce a single world,
my own voice had given up on me; I
was so astounded because the book
was printed in a script I didnt understand, in the letters I didnt know;
the only thing I understood was that
on each page there was my name. I
woke up with a start, all sweaty and
out of breath, and so under the influence of all that the next day I withdrew the manuscript from the press;
perhaps that was nave and rash, but
I interpreted that disquieting dream
as a ban to publish the book, a ban
issued by some internal censor of
mine because I was not ready to once
again go through all those trials and
traumas as I did with my last book,
which was destroyed and cut into
waste paper. When I called the editor
and told him I was taking the book
from print, he asked for an explanation for such a decision.
Every writer needs one unfinished
manuscript on which to work and
which to correct at all times because
writing is intimacy, an act of adultery,
so I will kept this one to fornicate on
for the next couple of years, I said.
It has been twenty or so years since
then, all the fornication is long gone,
the book was finally published under
completely different circumstances,
its version polished to perfection, so
if someone decides to peek into it, if
something, anything, leads him to
the vice of reading, it might seem
to him that in these pages I gave too
much room to my father, and that he
lacks substance for a character role in

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

this book, but I introduced him into this book, just as I did with other
members of my family and many other unimportant persons whom I barely touched upon, in order to shine
more light onto my own position,
and not to show some special affection for them. I was already sick and
tired of riding the narrow tracks of
my family train, riding it for so long
and then finally realizing that I was
still at the same station I embarked
on, because theres no person among
us who has a permanent city, despite
the fact that we are constantly trying
to prove that this where we are is exactly where we belong, besides wasnt
it Pierre-Jean Jouve who sang so nicely, we are there where we are not.
Ill say it without beating around the
bush I grew tired of writing different versions of always the same
events, thats why on many occasions
I gave up on an already finished book;
I wouldve done it now too, hadnt I
realized that I am accepting all of the
contradictions with peace, without
regret and without nostalgia, and that
my story talks only about the events
that are vivid in my memory, sticking to the exact instruction of one of
the best story-tellers of our time he
is so famous that his name need not
be mentioned who said, what matters in life is not what happens to you
but what you remember and how you
remember it.
If this stone chiseling work is finished, I wish to add that while writing I allowed myself the luxury of
digressions because present forced
me to do so, more than anything
because going back to the old manuscript requires a new look at it, and
among all other things, present is so
painful that going back to past became a true pleasure.
10.
Father sneaked up to the still warm,
stone wall of the house and entered
through the servants door. He paused

19

for a moment and watched the dining room whose interior was already
disappearing under the cover of the
first darkness; the only trace of all but
extinguished daylight came through
the window, while on the western
side the redness from only a moment ago now thickened into a dark,
packed layer; actually, all that was
left of the crimson shine and fire of
sunset was the horizon that now appeared as something petrified and
eternal. What was that, no sound off
bells from the church tower? They
went silent a long time ago, on the
second year into the war, when they
were removed and turned into cannonballs. An owl hooted somewhere,
and near the main door, from the
magnolia bush, a bird fluttered. A
horse neighed in the barn, my father had put it there and went looking for a handful of oats or anything
else he could feed him on. Everything smelled of home, and behind
the carob trees large top you could
see the moon, still pale; it could not
shine without its ally, complete darkness that thickened more and more,
silently conquering the landscape.
My father saw his mother leaning
over the petroleum lamp, she removed the cklo, as we called the
lamps glass shade, lifted the wick,
struck a match, lit the lamp, placed
down the glass shade and adjusted
the wick, reducing the flame so that
now it barely smoldered under the
cap. The lamp stood on a table, while
his mother sat on the floor, next to
a cradle, the same cradle in which
shed rocked my father. It was a nice
cradle, carved, bought somewhere
in Dalmatinska Zagora; all of the
children were breastfed in it, even
the ones who had died, and as they
were born one after another, one year
apart, in this big family they inherited not only the cradle but also the
rags, diapers, baby bottles, clothes,
rattlers, toys, what not. For those
living in the house this was always a

20

RELA

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

crib or a cot, but if someone visited


the house and wanted to talk about
children and their upbringing, then
everyone used what they thought was
a more refined word such as cradle.
And as Vukava rocked the cradle and
hummed a lullaby through her nose,
my father stood at the entrance, in
the shadow, and then voiced his presence, but carefully, not to frighten
his mother.
I come bearing the news that in a
day or two your eldest son will arrive,
and for this good fortune I ask for a
place to stay.
Vukava opened the wick and the light
flooded the room, she got up with
a lamp in her hand, raised it above
her head to better see the stranger,
the intruder.
Oh, praise the merciful God, she
cried, but I think my son is already
home. She then burst into tears and
threw herself into her sons arms. It
was more by intuition that she recognized him than by his appearance;
the weak light and my father in the
shadow of the first darkness made her
doubt for only a second, although it
would not have been strange that had
she not recognized him at all, because
he spent those years when young
people suddenly change and quickly
mature far away from her. You left
home a child, and here you come a
man, said his mother the moment
she collected herself. My father didnt
know whose was the newborn in the
cradle, and when he heard that was
his brother, at first he winced because
at that age one no longer gives birth,
and then he took him in his arms and
lifted him high above his head. So
much misfortune fell on my fathers
mother Vukava in that war that even
this birth she saw as a bad omen, this
was the only male child no one was
looking forward too; his father, my
grandfather Mato, was interned to
Austria, and on the day the child was
born, a telegram arrived saying that
he died in the camp in Gmnd and

that he was buried at a camp cemetery under a number that would be


delivered to the family.
During the war my fathers two twin
sisters died of the Spanish flu that
ravaged the county and the whole region, while his third sister, Mila, not
yet of age, ran away with a Hungarian stable boy serving with the First
Battalion that was part of Trebinje
Regiment; this tarnished the name
of this respectable family whose head
was imprisoned by the enemy, so,
along all other misfortunes, stories
and guessing started on whether this
baby was a bastard, although all calculations indicated that it could have
been conceived at least a couple of
days before its father was interned.
People suspected that Vukava may
have conceived with Ivo, my fathers
hunchbacked uncle, who named the
child Anelko, and only a week after the baptism the hunchback cut
his own throat with a razor, which
only supported rumors and doubts,
because only by dying he could right
his sins.
The eldest daughter Vesela, first female child after Nikola, was so ugly
that she rarely came out of a small
farm building intended for curing
shed, that was a corner set for her
lodging, and whenever she came out,
she always had to wear a veil over her
face, because thats what her father
had ordered, her ugly face made him
sick; that unfortunate girl never sat
at the table and ate with her family,
her mother left food for her on a little table next to her bed. Once my
grandfather Mato caught her in front
of the house without a veil, he yelled
at her, and she buried her face into her
hands and ran away. She didnt know
how to read or write, she spoke little
and seldom, she never laughed, and
when she was outside, in the daylight,
she always ran into the shadow and
shade, and in the house shed crawl
into some dark corner, if ever they
let her in.

TIONS

Such as yourself are a burden, they


live the longest because God awards
those whose life is of no use to anyone, of no happiness, no fortune,
with long living, my grandfather
Mato used to say scolding the poor
daughter who was not guilty of turning like that from the same seed.
On that first night my father stayed
up late with his mother; they went
over many things together, and truly,
it was not easy to take all those losses
calmly, so on several occasions they
cried together, more than anything
when my grandfather Mato was mentioned, because no one knew where
his grave lay, as both of them said
more than once. Just as my father I
thought, and I still do, that the memory of the departed is more painful if
we dont know where their grave is,
because in our imagination we conjure up some inexplicable and abstract images, we often wonder how
can it be that the destiny so patiently weaved its thread and who knows
when it decided that my grandfather, who cared about his hearth so
dearly, and loved his homeland as if
it were the holy land, who dreamt
about building a large family tomb,
perhaps even a mausoleum on a hill
above his house in L, ended up in
some small town in Austria, at a camp
cemetery.
Having heard the mans voice in the
house, my fathers ugly sister, aunt
Vesela, crawled out of her burrow,
snuck up to the window and took
her time watching a man whose large
shadow on the wall, in the lamps reflection, darkened the corner with
framed family photos; she was the
only one who had no picture there
because she was never recognized
as the familys living member. My
father adjusted the wick and lit his
cigarette on the flame, and then,
while smoking, he walked around the
room and talked as his shadow broke
from one wall to another or danced
at the ceiling like some giant figure.

RELA

TIONS

The croaking of frogs came through


the open window under which aunt
Vesela was hiding, and my father
came nearer and nearer to the window, pausing to breathe the air that
cures the soul, as he used to say. His
sister got up and said something, it
was indistinct and said under her
breath, and then my father told her to
come in and greet her brother. Vesela
ran in, joyfully grabbed my fathers
hand and showered it with kisses. It
was a big thing for her, she stayed
there with her brother and mother,
sat near the cradle and watched her
youngest brother Anelko, whom
my grandmother Vukava called her
little angel because that child never
cried. He laughed and cooed, waved
his tiny hands and smacked his lips,
happily threw his legs around while
his mother was changing his diapers,
sucked on his little fingers, but the
little angle never shed a tear.
That poor aunt, ugly as a dog, could
stare at that child for hours, she could
rock the cradle and do her chores, but
what would her brother, my father,
say, because now he was the head of
the family, his word would be listened
to, although he never cared about it
nor he ever took advantage of his authority, if he ever had one. He had
his own, somewhat confusing ideas,
it was difficult to agree with him;
personally, I dont think they were
good or true, but I never managed
to convince him that his philosophy
could not stand. In front of other
people he always talked about war as
something evil, but intimately he really believed, and on several occasions
talked about it with me, that wars are
the main moving force of progress,
that they bring great changes and
give birth to new civilizations. It is
true that wars destroy a lot of good,
but also a lot of bad things, people
change, the world moves forward, old
customs die, emancipation reaches
the most remote villages. And so on
that first evening upon his arrival, in

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

the name of the new era, he decided


to free his sister of the obligation to
cover her face, to remove all those
senseless patriarchal constrains that
lacked reason and that turned an innocent creature into a slave.
Now that weve lost our father, you
no longer have to hide, my father
told his sister. Hes gone and his time
is gone with him. We, as a human
kind, should be ashamed because of
the evil we are doing and not because
we are beautiful or ugly. The old age
will ruin us anyway, if we ever see it
come. So are we all going to need a
hijab when we grew old? Take off
your veil, he said.
My father ordered me to cover myself and Ill do that for as long as I
live, my fathers sister Vesela said.
Changing habits is most difficult,
said my father when he told me how
he tried to free his sister from the
slavery which she did not enjoy, but
which she coped with just fine. In
the end, the chains go rusty too,
added my father, so even the poor
woman caved at the age of twenty
three. Not only did she remove her
cover, but she bared herself naked
without shame, he said.
I loved watching the ugly face of that
outcast, my aunt Vesela, although I
never knew why it attracted me, but
I would sneak into her room and always bring her a candy or some other
sweet thing, she loved rahat-lokoum,
and then stay with her and stare at her
face, talking all kinds of crazy things
and lies. She enjoyed my company so
she let me touch bumps on her arms,
and rub all those warts and growths
on her face with my fingers, pluck
the hairs that grew out of her moles.
Once I talked her into showing me
her breasts; I was eleven then, and
she was already deep in her middle
years. I kissed her many times, that
would get to her, and she would bend
her head and cry. Theres no doubt
I was the only of her kin who had
ever kissed her. I dont know if in

21

those feelings I had from my aunt, in


those pleasures in ugliness, there were
any perverted instincts, I really dont
know, and I dont know who could
explain that to me, but I think that
I had pity for her, pity that, without
me being aware of it, bordered on
perversity. My poor aunt, Ill say a
bit more about her later.
12.
When I first saw Selim, my fathers
friend, he could barely move his fingers; they were covered in some stinky
black tar. He never married. Whenever my fathers travels took him
somewhere far from home, he got
various medicines, ointments and
teas for him, and I took them to his
house and I would always, even if for
a short while, sit down with him. To
whoever stopped by to see him, and
those were mostly people grateful for
nice gravestones he made for them,
he talked only about the stone and
the armature made of stone, about
nishans, bashluks, turbahs, and all
other ornaments and decorations.
The new Muslim cemetery, built after the First World War, was Selims
doing. From the outside it seemed all
of his headstones were the same, but
in truth each was different; nishans
for women, the front and back ones,
he mostly decorated with branches,
flowers and leaves, and sometimes
hed carve a figure of a finjan, an
ibrik, a surahia, and all other household items a woman might use in
her lifetime, while on male stones he
carved the lines from Koran, tespihs,
sabers, spears, maces, clubs, swords,
muskets, bows and arrows, and other
weapons, and on each of the headstones, at a special place, he carved a
crescent moon with its tips upwards
as his signature.
I honestly believed and hoped that
I would find Selim alive and well,
when in the mid seventies, I dare not
say what year it was because I might
be wrong, but I know it was the end of

22

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

summer, a particularly dry summer,


for the first time after twenty years
plus I drove into L, hiding behind
by my sunglasses and a light summer
jute hat, sometime around noon in
order to be as inconspicuous as possible, because in those years holy men
of home again wanted to crucify me
as a traitor of his hearth, and all that
because of a novel in which with dark
shades and irony I pained everything
they, the progenies of famed heroes bragged about; I truly mocked
their false myths, and in return they
banned me from coming back to the
village of my home.

Cover of Dani magazine featuring an interview with Mirko Kova upon the reception of
the Mea Selimovi Prize for his novel Grad u
zrcalu (The City in the Mirror), Sarajevo, September 12, 2008

Yet I got there secretly and I choose


noon, when the sun is scorching,
because at that time of day the villagers withdrew into shade, although I
think that those simple and ignorant
people knew nothing about me and
my writing, they could have maybe
heard something from somewhere;
things were run by half-intellectuals from the province, together with
politicians the worst kind of people.
I arrived from Dubrovnik, where
preparations for filming a movie after

my script were well underway, they


only waited for the end of the tourist
season to start shooting, so I used
this to find Selim because I was planning to write a script for a short film
about a nishan carver, which would
be some sort of a sequel to an already
made short film called Tombstone
Blacksmiths. Selims hands covered
in tar an image from my childhood
almost became my memorys permanent possession; no dream about
my home, no thought about the old
house, could pass without them. In
addition to all this I wanted to check
whether my memories were still firm-

TIONS

redirected, but I could not believe


what everything looked like now;
there was no trace left of my memories, as if my whole childhood had
been erased. Where the center of the
village once stood now only the minarets point could be seen sticking out
of the water, and further away, above
the road, I could see our house in the
distance; I would not dare go there,
and I didnt know who was living in
the house now.
Even the things that I did recognize
in these new surroundings seemed
so foreign and I thought it would
be best not to take in these new im-

Award ceremony of the Mea Selimovi Prize for the best novel (Grad u zrcalu) published in
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro in 2007. From left to right: Jasmin
Imamovi, writer and the mayor of Tuzla, Mirko Kova, and Mile Stoji, Tuzla, 2008

ly grounded or whether they had


turned into a fairytale.
There were few things I recognized,
the place was now completely different, it took me some time to find my
bearing so I stood by the road and
watched the water, the river that was
now turned into a lake. I knew that
the center of L, together with several surrounding villages and farming
fields, and even my grandfathers old,
rickety watering cart, were flooded
after the dam was built and the river

ages, so I closed my eyes in order to


see and remember as little as possible.
My proto-images surpassed reality,
and in that clash of the two worlds,
the imaginary seemed more real than
what I was seeing before me, and the
only thing that got to me and made
me fragile and sensitive was nostalgia. I dropped to the ground to collect myself a little, and after the respite and sigh, my mother always put
these two words together, I got back
in the car, turned it around on the

RELA

TIONS

road, and went back to the old bridge,


and from there I followed a narrow,
washed out road to the first houses. I
couldnt recognize anything, neither
a house nor some old tree, and in
this village there used to be so many
treetops giving a thick shade; wasnt
it that my father sat so many times in
their shadow drinking his fildjan of
coffee and smoking with his friends.
Where is all that now, can it be that
all of it is flooded?
I stopped at the side of the road
and walked to the first house. I was
lucky, I ran into an old man; his face
was unshaven, cheeks hollow, he was
dressed in rags and smoked from
a long chibuk, when I approached
him, he took it out of his mouth and
spat on the ground. He watched me
without returning my greeting, it
seemed he would not say one word,
and I immediately thought hed recognized me, although I knew that
was impossible, but paranoia slowly
conquered my psyche, although I
fought against it.
Im looking for Selim, I said.
Selim who?
Selim the mason, I said. I hope
hes alive.
Follow me, said the old man and
despite his age jumped to his feet
with ease.
He was barefoot, a living skeleton,
still I barely managed to keep up
him, as if he were an Olympics medal winner in walking. We hurried
in silence; without knowing why, I
was ashamed to slow down, catch
my breath, and fall behind this old
man that was at least twice my age;
his bare feet skillfully jumped from
one rock to another, then we quickly passed between small, rundown
houses, climbed up a gentle slope,
and then finally my guide brought
me to a low, shabby house; he put
his hand on the closed door, actually he slapped the door, as if in this
way he wanted to put a stamp on his
voiceless claim that this was Selims

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

house. But this took a while, he held


his hand on the door for some time,
listening to something, and then a
sound echoed from the inside.
This houses been echoing for thirty
years, said my guide.
He opened the door and we walked
into a small room. One light curtain, made of something like gauze,
covered the small window above the
settee on which Selim was lying. I
wouldnt have recognized him, no
one who had seen him twenty years
ago could have recognized him. Although inside it was hot, he was covered to his chin with a rough blanket on which his two huge, swollen
fists were resting, they were completely black, as if from back when I
last saw him he did not remove the
black tar from his hands. I sat down
on a settee next to his feet, and my
guide stood by the door waiting to
hear who I was and why I was here.
I took Selims hand into mine, it was
heavy, hideous, as if it were filled with
some hard, lumpy mass, some wild
meat piled up all to his wrists.
Nothing can help me, he said. I
pleaded with the doctors to cut them
off.
Why dont you cut them off yourself, said my guide and snickered.
Selim goggled his eyes at his neighbor, then slowly lifted his heavy hand
and moved his fat, dwarfish fingers a
couple of times, a sign for my guide
to leave, which he did, but his bleating could be still heard from the outside. It was completely clear to me
that there was no point in bringing
up the story about a film, I was no
longer sure that Selim would have
understood anything, so my idea
about him and his skill turned into
a film fell through; now I needed to
leave as soon as possible; something
else that may have brought me here,
perhaps that eternal doubt and wish
to what was left of my memories. I
was no longer hiding who I was and
whom I belonged to, I mentioned my

23

father several times, I even said that


the two of them had been friends, but
he didnt respond, although he did
listen to me like a man who doesnt
understand the person he is talking
to. After a short silence he laid his
heavy hand onto mine and asked me:
What good brought you here?
I wanted to see Selims nishans once
again, I said.
Theyre under water, he said. Even
before they started building the dam,
experts from some government office came here and said that those
nishans had no value and that they
needed not be moved, and if anyone
wanted, they could take the bones of
their close ones to the new cemetery.
Now the nishans can be seen when
the water is low, those stone turbans
come out of water like flowers. When
I get the strength to stand, I go down
and watch them every day until the
water comes back again. But I have
heard from people who would not
say a lie that during Bairam, when
the moon is young, my nishans rise
from the water and sway like stalks,
this doesnt last long, but it repeats
often. Could these be souls and do
they have a shape, I dont know. But
it is something, otherwise people
would not talk about it. When I was
still able to carve stone, while I was
making the nishans, I talked to the
dead and did what they wished. I
never carved what I wanted, but what
pleased the dead.
You knew how to talk to the dead?
I asked him, but he did not hear my
question or he did not wish to answer it.
Maybe thats why my headstones, as
those people from the governments
office said, have no value for our culture, he went on. They think that
dead mouth cannot speak, but it is
not so, and for the one who knows
how to listen, they speak in their
own tongue and in their own way.
Had I rejected their wishes with arrogance and did as I wished, today

24

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

those headstones wouldve been our


heritage, and I wouldve been famous, and not like this, a forgotten
ogre, with punished hands, the only
thing about me and my life that was
worth anything. I wish to God I was
deaf, and the only thing comforting
me now is that my work, my nishans
under water will become more and
more valuable. It always turns out
that way, what we discover and dig
out is better and more valuable than
what we see every day, his voice was
getting quieter, and then he paused
and looked at me as if this was the
first time he had noticed my presence. You can spend the night here,
if you are staying, he said.
I have to go, I said and got to my
feet, and as I said my goodbye I held
those two huge, monstrous fists.
I stayed there longer than I planned.
When I walked out of his house,
I saw swimmers by the lake, and
close by, just under the road, there
were several fishermen busying themselves with their fishing rods. One of
them, suddenly yanked to feet by his
rod, stood up and started fighting
against something heavy, something
that pulled him so hard that he had
to put all his strength to fight it, he
was happy because of his catch, but
he was also facing the danger of being pulled to bottom. His fishing rod
was bending and straining, as if every
second it would break. I had not time
to wait and see his catch; I left the
fisherman in his struggle with that
underwater beast that got caught
onto his hook.
22.
In my grandmother Jelicas house
there was one nice antique mirror
that stood out among other furniture, not only by its luxury but also
by its history as well as many mystical
and strange stories that were weaved
and told about it. My grandfather
Tomo knew a lot of things about the
mirror, which came to L as a dow-

ry; his mother Petrua was a bride


from Konavle, from the Radonjii
family; her ancestors, from some
ancient times, were glaziers of good
reputation, but they all perished by
the black death, so it took half a
century before the family trade was
revived again. Petrua used to say that
even today their glassworks could be
found in richer houses, they were sold
all the way to Constantinople, and
the mirror she got as her dowry was
registered in the notarys office in Dubrovnik as a work of one of her ancestors. When Petrua was lying on her
deathbed at the age of ninety-eight, I
was by her side. Just before she died,
she told me to sprinkle her with water from a small crystal pail.
That mirror must have attracted other beautiful things that later came to
the house. Those were mostly bottles
of different shapes and forms, plump
transparent shells, slim, drop-like
decorative bottles, wicker-covered or
simple round bottles we called tikva,
buklija and demiana. New words
came with the bottles, such as patrine,
ingastare, karafe and so on, just as a
breath of some different world came
with my great grandmother, a simple, illiterate woman. It marked her
children too so that line gave many
learned and talented men, artists,
doctors, scientists that went all over
the world and some even ended up
serving as high officers in American army.
My grandfather Tomo knew many
stories about that mirror; I believed
to all he said and listened to his stories
gladly, although his mother Petrua
often said he was making up things
and lying, but he was really convincing and certain of what he was saying. No one listened to him as attentively as I did; my grandfather knew
this and thats why he often took me
to the field or to the spring and then
talked that mirrors were living things
just like water and that they also
flow and get cloudy, like rivers do.

TIONS

When he was a child, he more than


once heard a rumble just like that of
a waterfall, it came from the mirror
and put him to sleep. There were
moments when no one could look
himself in the mirror or when only
parts of some foreign faces could be
seen in it. But what attracted me the
most was a story about a late afternoon when from the highest point in
L, for only a second, exactly when the
sun touches the edge of the western
hills, contours of Dubrovnik could
be seen in the mirror; this hovering
scene disappeared the moment the
sun went behind the hill. A mirror
remembers anything that reflects in
it, and it offers a little of that plenty
only to the spiritual eye. It is a giant
collection of captured reflections.
I had to see that fleeting flash of Dubrovnik, so I spent hours staring at
the mirror, waiting for the sun to
touch the horizon, and then excitement and shivers would overcome
me, the rays would blind me for a
moment and the mirror would light
up like a forest fire, but at that moment I saw the contours of the famed
city, it walls, towers, and the Orlandos Column would rise up behind
the walls, show itself to me and then
go down to its place again. When I
told my grandfather about my vision,
he looked at me with suspicion and
disbelief, as if he caught me telling a
lie or stealing, as if I took his magic
and called it mine, and then he carefully looked into my eyes and said
puzzlingly: I too can see its glimpse
in your eyes.
32.
After the school bell rang and marked
the end of the last period, the teacher
whispered into my ear that the two
of us were going to spend Sunday in
the country by the river, and that we
would go there by bicycles and take
a basket with food for lunch. When I
heard this, I ran home, I jumped happily around and arrived home quick-

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TIONS

ly thinking that I would be the first


one to say this to my mother, but she
already knew it, she had even agreed
with the teacher that she would make
donuts for our fieldtrip. I immediately started working on my old bicycle,
I greased the chain and the gears, and
spent the whole afternoon mending
tires. Whoever talked to me that day
could clearly see that I was overcome
with happiness. And I truly did show
my happiness in many ways, I had no
control and sometimes I would go
completely wild and shout and walk
on my hands; I could have walked
about a hundred meters like that. But
that day seemed so long to me; time
had never passed more slowly. The
night was long too; I fell asleep late
and woke up early. My mother was
up before me, she made the donuts,
covered them with a kitchen towel
and placed them into a wicker basket. She also poured me a bottle of
mead, which was my favorite drink.
On one occasion, when I was ten, I
got drunk from it and entertained
some big gathering, and one gentleman, a distinguished actor and director, whose monodrama was playing
in our town, at our Culture Hall, patted me on the head and told me that
there was a fine comedian growing in
me. Since then I drank mead with
measure, one or only half a glass at a
time, and I never wanted more.
I put the basket on the left end of the
wheel, while on the right one there
was a bell, which I often used, when
needed and when not. I got on the
bicycle; my one foot was on the pedal,
while with the other I stood on the
ground. My mother was seeing me
off, she stood by my side tidying my
clothes and hair, and I resisted that
and pushed her away. I would eat
myself alive whenever I did something like that to her, something
rough. I rang the bell several times
and announced my departure, and
for the first fifty meters or so I rode
without hands, sitting straight on

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

my seat. After I put my hands back


on the wheel, I looked back and saw
my mother in front of the house; she
seemed somewhat low, sad, depressed
and she waved at me as if I were going
on a long, uncertain journey.
The teacher waited for me in front of
her school apartment, she was standing next to her new bicycle. She wore
light clothes, a dress with flowery
pattern, low, linen shoes, and short,
white socks. There was a very nice
scarf, also with flowers on it, around
her shoulders, and on here face she
had sunglasses; not many people had
such elegant and expensive glasses.
When she mounted her girls bicycle, she lifted her skirt and bared her
knees. She was not like our girls who
constantly pulled at her dresses and
covered bare parts of their body; her
behavior was completely opposite,
she often pulled her skirt higher,
sometimes all the way to the middle
of her thighs. Before she sat on her bicycle, she looked back again to check
if the food basket was tightly tied on
the back of her bicycle.
We rode toward the Dubrovnik Gets
and on our way ran into the citys
brass band, which, accompanied by
a bunch of unruly kids, played their
music and walked down a wide street.
Without getting off our bicycles, we
stopped and watched the orchestra
until it disappeared around the corner. Then we continued along the
dusty road; we rode our bicycles fast
and for some two or three kilometers
the gravel sputtered from under us,
the pebbles flew up from under our
tires as if fired from a slingshot, theyd
hit a rock or a tree and then whizz
back by us. When we passed by the
last of houses at the edge of the city,
we turned up the narrow path toward
the river. To the right there were tiny
patches of grass littered with rocks,
macchia, and low brush. As we came
closer to the river, gradually we entered the area of tall grasses and lush
clovers, and then we were met by

25

the croaking of frogs. Stands of osiers leaned over the river; we rode
past weeping willows backs following the course of the river. We went
around monks peppers and tamaris
bushes and then rode through the
tall grass to the damp area where
poplars grew.
The teacher found a place near a
spring of fresh water; she had come
here before, so she suddenly stopped
and looked around to make sure this
was the place she had known from
one of her previous visits. Rich grasses and colorful flowers grew all over
the place. We put our bicycles in the
shade, placed our baskets with food
in one of the bushes and covered
them with leaves and branches. It was
obvious that we were both happy so
we took a deep breath of air around
us, glanced at each other and smiled.
Her breasts went up and danced under her dress; this was so exciting that
I stared at her bosom thus making it
unnecessary for her to wait and hope
to catch my lustful gaze; it was so obvious. Her breasts got tense under her
shirt as she went down and then up
again in a couple of nice gymnastic
moves, especially when she lifted her
leg, as if she were a ballet dancer, and
held onto her toes with her hand; she
didnt care that her dress went up all
the way and revealed her thigh.
Our people are so primitive, she
said. If they knew I was not wearing a bra today, they would hold it
against me, because they, poor things,
dont know that everything in nature
has to breathe freely.
Seeing large blue, white and yellow
flowers, Jozipa ran to them, while
I just stood there and watched her
jump around, fall and stand up, as
if catching and grabbing something
with her hands. These were some
odd jumps from this very swift, long
legged young woman. She shouted,
sometimes in panic it seemed, as if
something was running away from
her. I thought she was trying to take

26

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

and steel as much as she could from


the nature and that all of that was
filling her with some special will to
live. At one moment she sunk into
the flowers; I could no longer see her.
As if she fell through into an abyss
that suddenly opened up under her.
I got scared, but I did not move. No
voice could be heard, only the crickets chirped and filled the space with
their uniform music. I dared not call
her, because what would I do if she
didnt answer? And my voice could
give up on my; my heart was beating
right under my chin.
After a lengthy pause I made a few
steps toward the place where shed
sunk, but I stopped because my knees
were buckling and shivers went down
my spine. No twig of grass swayed
there where she was lying. I decided
to let out a scream, a scream of panic,
in order to make her come back to
me, but this time my voice betrayed
me, like in that nightmare I had.
What did happen to me, what did
paralyze me at that moment, with
almost no cause whatsoever, because
it was completely normal that sometimes a person lies down and takes a
short nap in the grass, especially if
this person were, like Jozipa, so eager of nature. But when I think about
it today, then it must have been fear
that Jozipa died in the field, among
the flowers, and that every excessive
happiness, such as was mine because
of that trip with my teacher, was actually an introduction to death. Along
all this, there was so much talk about
her death and her illness, everyone
told at least one story about it, and
among these were some really gruesome ones, so all of this must have
etched it way into my consciousness like some ill-omened idea that
I would personally find her dead and
that it was destined to me to be by her
side at the moment of her dying.
When I pulled myself together and
cautiously approached the place where
Jozipa had sunk into the grass, I saw

a scene, which still, after all those


years, I remember as if I saw and experienced it yesterday.
Jozipa was lying on her back, with
her thighs completely naked, while
on her chest a beautiful big bright
butterfly was flapping its wings, its
flapping grew slower and slower and
it seemed it was not trying to fly
away. As if it was caught against her
dress. Jozipa had taken the scarf off
her head, and when I came close and
kneeled down next to her, I could
hear her breathing and I could see her
breasts moving ever so slightly. The
butterfly on her chests was pierced
with a needle and actually attached
to her dress; it still occasionally waved
its wings, but it was obviously losing strength. What cheered me up
and made my day was a realization
that Jozipas head was not completely
smooth and bald like it had been before, but now there were short hairs,
soft and dense, growing out of it, so I
gently patted her hair with my hand
and almost choked from pleasure. I
stared at her naked thighs and caught
sight of her really beautiful knees. I
watched her toes too, because she
took off her linen shoes, which she
placed on the side and within reach.
That was one of the most beautiful
days in my life. Never again have
I experienced anything like it, nor
have I had an opportunity to observe
a woman in that way, so intimately,
with so much emotion, in the field
and among the flowers.
Jozipa opened her eyes and saw me
kneeling by her side, overcome with
happiness; as if under a spell I was
still holding my hand on her head
and caressed those soft hairs. She
took my hand and realized my heart
was beating fast.
Youre excited and happy because my
hair is growing, right? she asked.
Although I was afraid that my voice
might give up on me, it had done
it before, I managed to utter several stuttering words of pleasure, and

TIONS

there were shivers in my stomach.


I thought that happiness took over
you in a much quieter and painless way, but now I know that it is a
great thing to chase away an image
of death, which I never managed to
separate from her person. And to be
perfectly honest, I was convinced that
that beautiful dress which we decorated and embroidered together she
was preparing for her burial dress.
Now I was relieved; my life changed
and became dear to me.
Jozipa removed the butterfly from
her dress; it no longer showed signs
of life. It was a beautiful butterfly; I
seldom saw such bright colors, such
artistic plenty that no brush in a hand
of a skillful painter could render.
Many years later, when I learned a
thing or two about butterflies and
became somewhat enchanted with
lepidopterology, I was sure that Jozipa had then come into possession of
a faunistically valuable and in our region very rare example of a butterfly
called the Purple Tiger, which most
often feeds on the swamp spurge and
marsh marigold. I will come back
to butterflies again a few times, but
only briefly, because thats less important part of my story, although I
have to say that my love for writing
and my interest in entomology came
from my teacher Jozipa, even though
these are not the only things she was
responsible for; she did much more,
she developed my sense of resisting banal, she refined my taste and
developed resistance for kitsch, she
nurtured many of my virtues and
discretely showed me that the order
in which we live limits our freedoms
and stifles our individuality, that it is
violent and unnatural, and more than
anything, thats what I think today,
she showed me what love is.
54.
The train from L to N took some
two to three hours, depending on
the schedule of passenger and freight

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TIONS

trains, and at Bilea Station it stopped


for at least half an hour because that
was where one track ended; the engine had to be turned in the opposite
direction I liked to stand next to a
turntable and watch and then it
took the sidetrack to the front where
it hooked with the car that was until
then the last in the composition. And
until this was done, we had enough
time to pour ourselves a bottle of water at the station fountain or buy a
drink, in most cases lukewarm sodawater, an odd fizzy mixture of sugar
and water we called the klaker, an orangeade, or something else from the
soda vendors who pushed his cart
along the platform, and at the newsstand we could buy newspapers and
cigarettes and then queue up in front
of a small fruit stand and get some
seasonal fruits.

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

My mother sat in a compartment


next to a half lowered window and
watched as I ran up and down the
platform; I was clever and quick, I
filled my bottle with water at the
fountain before everyone else and
bought my mother a bag of juicy
cherries. Many stared at my nice,
chubby bottle that could hold two
liters and that when filled with water turned bluish. I quickly returned
back to sit next to my mother and
watch her eat the cherries and share
them with me. The weather was humid and heavy, and the warm wind
threw dust into the cars window;
I rubbed my eyes because my eyelids itched and the little pieces of
dust irritated my eyes, although my
mother smacked my arm every time
I did it because I could have caught
some kind of infection from my dirty

27

hands. As always during summer


droughts, macchia growing next to
the tracks caught fire from the sparks
from the locomotives smokestack so
now there was smoke on both sides
of the railway. As the train slowly
started from Bilea Station, first following the track we had taken only
half an hour ago to get there and
then separating from it and leaving
it in the distance, from the window
we could still see the fire and the
thick smoke.
When the train passed through the
deserted Koravlica Station, marked
only by a small graveled plateau and
a sign attached to two iron posts,
my mother went into labor, and all
I could do was watch her face turn
pale as the sweat appeared on her
forehead and ran down her chin.
She opened her mouth gasping for

Mirko Kovas novel Grad u zrcalu (The City in the Mirror) won the annual Vladimir Nazor Award for the best work of fiction in 2007.
From left to right: Milan Mogu, president of the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts, Boo Bikupi. and Mirko Kova, Zagreb, June 19, 2008

28

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

air; it seemed she would suffocate,


and I didnt know how to help her
and ease her pain; what else could I
do but to cling to her and hold her
wet hands. I gave her a sip of lukewarm water and wiped the sweat off
her face with a handkerchief.
The passengers, mainly seasonal workers, crammed against each other on
the benches in the compartment,
were also caught by surprise, they
werent exactly sure whether these
were only passing pains or whether the head was about to pop out,
as one of them, a particularly crass
person, said and winked at others
to what they started giggling and
snickering, as if giving birth was
something one should be ashamed
of, they even went on to tell their
cheap, vulgar jokes about pregnant
women and making babies, and they
teased the green fellow saying that he
was about to see the devils thing
between the womans thighs; they
laughed so hard they could no longer
control themselves. I did not stand up
against them, even though I felt the
sickening stench of that foul world
and their primitivism; I never entered
duels with fools, not even later in my
life, nor I ever had any desire to correct someones faults; sometimes I felt
sorry for not giving such people what
they deserved, but I found excuse
in the thought that no outburst of
mine could change something thats
twisted and would instead turn me
into a bitter man and thats not what
I wanted to be.
It often happened that someone more
resolute and daring did what I was
supposed or what I wanted to do,
but I had neither will nor courage,
and this time two younger men, who
stopped by our compartment in passing and spent a moment or two listening to those uncivil and heartless workers jokes, yelled at them
so sharply and bravely that I envied
those foreigners on their authority
and compassion. My mother did not

see those things the way I did because


the pains howled in her stomach ever more agonizingly. One of those
young man, shorter and more fearless, talked wisely with his eloquent
words and Montenegrin accent, and
called those workers beasts, he even
said that beasts had more reason
than them, that they had more emotion, that they knew how to embrace
their young and offer it protection,
while you are making a mockery
of birth, cracking jokes with what is
holy, you dont respect the mother
and the woman. Thats how they
silenced our fellow travelers, who
immediately went quiet, but I still
think that those snooty men felt no
shame. Yes, the skin on those faces is
as thick as a bottom of a boot, as my
father would say.
My mother had to go to a toilet,
I have to go, she said; those bold
young men helped her to stand up
and pass between the feet of our fellow passengers. They took her out
into the aisle holding her under her
armpits, because my mother hugged
her stomach with her arms; it was a
pregnant womans instinct to protect
the baby in her womb.
I wasnt expecting it yet, she said
apologizing to the two dear young
men who jumped to help us. This
is too early, she said.
Everything will be fine, one of them
said, then turned to me and added,
Take your things, boy.
What were our helpers intentions? I
took our bag from the luggage rack
and went after them. I grew bold so I
turned around to the seasonal workers and stuck my tongue out at them.
My mothers walk was insecure and
difficult and she stopped every second waiting for the cramps to pass.
We carefully crossed from one car to
another, and at small moving iron
ramps between the cars we had to
hold her firmly; thats how we arrived
to the compartment on whose door
there was a sign: Private: Staff Only.

TIONS

The curtains at the windows were


drawn. Train conductor was lying on
a wooden bench and when he saw the
two young men he quickly jumped
to his feet and stood in front of them
like a soldier waiting for his orders.
Were turning this compartment into a maternity ward, said the shorter
one, who only a second ago lectured
those workers.
The conductor sprung to his feet;
I can still see the glow in his eyes,
those eager and obliging gestures of
a loyal man.
Were in luck, we have a midwife on
the train! he shouted with joy. Ill
go get her, let the woman give birth
as God commands.
He was quick, full of life; he hopped
down the aisle, and the other fellow,
the silent one, unlocked the door of
a toilet reserved for staff only, helped
my mother in and waited in front of
the door, while I stood in the aisle and
watched what was going on; I could
barely comprehend all that goodness
coming from those strangers, our rescuers. My mother came out of the
toilet, she was relieved and her contractions eased up a bit; she smiled
and said that this toilet, unlike other
ones on the train, was clean and tidy,
and then thanked the young men, I
dont know what I did to deserve your
help and care, she said. And I dont
know how to pay you back.
It was incredible with how much
kindness and gentleness they tended
to us, I cant remember seeing such
compassion ever in my life before or
after, even when behind me there
were years of travels and encounters with all kinds of people. This is
the first time Im writing about it,
Im not particularly good with kindness, theres not much of it in my
books, although all us have tasted a
drop or two of that potion; I really
dont know why I avoided to mention something good, was it because
maybe I was afraid that no one would
trust me. Or am I fed up with evil,

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TIONS

so now kindness seems more mystical to me. What I have definitely noticed, in all these years that Ive been
writing, is that kindness has no followers, while evil does. Perhaps thats
the answer to some of my doubts. I
should not loose my thread, so Ill
go back to the two young men who
put my mother in the compartment
and gave us the key to the toilet. At
that moment the conductor came
back with an old nun in her black
and white attire. She carried a doctors bag with her.
This is our frequent passenger, sister
Marija, a Franciscan from Cetinje,
said the conductor.
The young men kindly said goodbye and left. The nun entered the
compartment and patted my mother and then unbuttoned her blouse
and undid buckles on her vest to free
her breasts. She untied the belt on
my mothers wide skirt and pulled it
down. She lifted the blouse and revealed her smooth stomach, she began massaging and gently pressing
it, and then she went down and said
into my mothers navel, Hey, you!
Do you want to go out or are you
waiting to get to the hospital?
I laughed at the nuns magic; my
mother quietly giggled as well. Sister Marija gave me a stern look and
said, Its not funny. The child in
the womb hears and understands.
It answered to my question, but I
am deaf.
My mother broke out in sweat again,
her teeth started shivering. I told the
nun that towels and sheets were in
our bag. The nun dipped the small
towel in water from our bottle and
started wiping my mothers face.
Dont worry, dear, she said quietly almost into my mothers mouth.
Youre in good hands. Were not alone
and were not abandoned. Theres always someone with us, someone is
watching over everything we do.
She helped my mother lie down on
the bench and then took out a small

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

crucifix from her bag and placed it


on a small hook above my mothers
head. Then she turned to me and
watched me for quite a while as if
questioning me. What do you think
of God? she asked.
I dont know, I replied.
He knows, she said. God knows
exactly what you think. Now leave,
youre not supposed to see this.
She closed the door and pulled the
curtains. I stood in the aisle in front
of the compartment, pressed my ear
against the door and listened, but all
I could hear was the clanging of the
car and the monotonous rhythm of
its wheels. The locomotive whistled
every time the train entered a cutting in the track. All around, by the
railroad, there were remnants of fire;
black rocks, burned grass and charred
skeletons of rare trees.
As it entered Petrovii Station, the
train, its brakes squeaking, started
slowing down already at the switch;
the engine stopped exactly under the
water crane. When the train stopped,
and the clanging of steel went quiet,
there was such silence and some general state of laziness in which every
voice could be heard clearly; the locomotive released steam with a hiss,
and the conductor walked through
the cars saying that the train would
stop here for at least fifteen minutes
because it was waiting for the freight
train from N to pass. Whenever I
traveled, I regularly jumped out at
every station even before the train
came to a stop, now, however, I stayed
in front of the compartments door,
by my mothers side, waiting for her
to give birth. I pressed my forehead
against the glass, and at one moment
I managed to peek into the compartment; the curtain moved a little so
I could see part of what was going
on inside; I did this secretly, fearing
that the nun might notice me and
kick me out of the aisle. Her back
was turned to me as she busied herself around the mother. She pressed

29

that chubby bottle of ours onto my


mothers lips and made her blow into
it. Shed yell strictly, like some commander, her voice was sharp, biting:
Blow into the bottle, I want to see
it fly up like a balloon.
I saw my mothers strained face, her
goggled eyes and puffy cheeks; she
tried as hard as she could and blew into that bottle with so much strength
that it seemed to me the bottle was
filling up with air, changing its form,
becoming egg-shaped, expanding to
the point when it had to burst. And
then suddenly, in all that silence,
in all that expectation, my mother
screamed loudly and I saw the bottle
burst into thousands of small crystal
pellets, that explosion, that illumination blinded me and it seemed that
silver and gold rain was falling on
my mother and the nun. Rays came
out of those pellets and in a second
they weaved floating wreaths and aureoles around my mothers head. In
that fire of birth a child cried. Then
I opened the compartment door and
saw sister Marija, she was holding a
child in her arms, it was all wrinkled
and bloody, and from its navel a
bowel was hanging; the whole scene
seemed disgusting, I was shocked
and I thought the worst, that a freak
was born. My mother was exhausted,
her hair completely wet, and there
was sweat running down the nuns
face, her breathing was paced and
she licked her dry lips.
You have a brother, said sister Marija. The child is healthy and well,
she said, and then turned toward the
crucifix above my mothers head,
thankful Jesus, nailed and bent on
the cross, for giving her the strength
and knowledge to bring a life into
this world.
Sister Marija brought the child to
its mother and gently placed it into
her arms; her hands shivered so she
clenched her fists to calm them down
and restrain the shivers, and then
she pulled the bloodied sheets from

30

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

under my mother and put them in


the bag. At a folding table under the
window there was our chubby bottle
and next to it my mothers comb. The
bottle burst into pieces only in my vision, so the nun took it and shoved it
into my hands: Run to the fountain
and bring us some water!
The chubby bottle, one of the most
beautiful ones in my mothers parents collection, always had a special
place on the shelves, and my grandfather used it to serve wine only
when some refined and distinguished
guests came to the house. Now that
bottle in my hands seemed like some
precious object, like the most expensive of crystals, so I pressed it close
to my chest and loved it as if it were
a living being; it got a great meaning
on the day of my mother giving birth.
And as I walked toward the fountain,
along the Petrovii Station platform,
I made it know to the passengers that
my mother gave birth to a baby boy.
The newborns crying echoed in the
silence, and the engineer sounded his
siren to declare the birth; those were
happy and short whistles, everyone
found a symbolism of joy in them.
Train staff and many passengers, who
stuck their heads out the windows
or stood on the platform next to the
train, were truly overjoyed, although
they knew nothing about the mother, but sometimes kindness bursts
out of people just like anger, hatred
or envy. Many praised the mother,
many shouted: aferim, hats off to
the mother, may it be blessed, but
there were also malicious comments
such as: whose is it, does it have a
father, and so on.
The conductor wanted to give some
higher meaning to it all, so he said:
a new passenger is born, and his
life began on the wheels, hell get far.
One had to admit that the man truly
had honest intentions when he publicly said that God had already determined the nature of this little person
that had just come to the world. Not

many people expected such a spiritual position toward birth from a


conductor. He knew that God delivered all of us and that his seed is our
life, and that was a very profound
thought. So few people are like that,
only once more in my life did I meet
a man similar to him; he was a tinsmith and he spoke with much wisdom about many concepts that are so
vague to us; he spoke just as wisely as
the conductor. A postman from Knut
Hamsuns novel The Women at the
Pump was similar to them. He went
on and on about God and afterlife in
his discussion with the consul, but he
also said so beautifully: We come
to this world in order to amend our
own destiny. Doesnt this thought
touch upon the birth of my brother
at Petrovii Station?
When the train started again, my
mother was feeling much better, she
took several sips of water to wet her
lips and she appeared much livelier; it
seemed as if her tiredness had passed
on to sister Marija. She lay down on
the bench; her eyelids were heavy and
her rosary slipped from her hands
several times so I picked it up from
the floor and placed it back onto her
palm. He fingers went numb, she
couldnt say the rosary, and so she just
helplessly stared at the crucifix above
my mothers head. The baby was
wrapped in a sheet, my mother put it
on her breasts, gently patted its tiny
hairless head, while on her face there
was a gentle, wistful smile. We had a
special treatment, we had a compartment only to ourselves; could we anywhere else in our country, from our
people, get such comfort and such
sympathy for the mother? No one
complained about the babys crying;
on the contrary, all of the faces were
beaming with joy, each and every
person intimately celebrated the new
childs birth. Finally we learned that
the two young men who rescued us
from the company of those rude and
coarse people and placed us into this

TIONS

compartment the conductor called


them the giants of generosity were
actually the officers of the Security
Service. People talked about them
with admiration, they called them
the heroes of new age, and only a
week ago they had killed a suspect on
this very train. Everyone approved of
that murder.
Here, on the floor, where your feet
are resting now, the body of that
fiend lay, said the conductor, and
then went on to tell us about a fly
that had its mind set on the corpses
half-open, bloody mouth.
Many passengers came to the door
of our compartment to see the woman who had given birth on the train
more closely, and some barren woman sat next to the nun and started crying and complaining that she hadnt
been able to see four pregnancy to an
end, and that the last time she was
with child she had touched death, but
no one offered her comfort or showed
sympathy, as if we were all superstitious because after giving birth every
woman still floats between life and
death, so it wasnt pleasant to listen
to her story, and we didnt even offer
her to sit with us, she did it on her
own and brought fear into the compartment. We all shied away from
her, and when she said she would
like to hold the baby, my mother
didnt allow her and she pressed the
child against her breasts even more
firmly. Were we really superstitious
or was that woman truly a sign of
death testing us at that moment? I
really dont know, she appeared honest and her intentions seemed good,
but sometimes our instincts are better that what we perceive with our
reason. The poor woman left and we
talked about her even later when the
boy grew and developed nicely into
a healthy child, we often regretted
our arrogance toward that innocent
woman who suffered for being unable to have a child. And just as she
disappeared into the next car, a his-

TIONS

tory teacher from Trebinje came to


the compartments door and said he
knew my father. Politely he congratulated us on a successful delivery and
kept his gaze on the crucifix above
my mothers head.
Im not happy to see the child was
born under this crucifix. Thats a
Catholic cross, he said.
Thats our, Christian cross, said
sister Marija. And why do you, sir,
worry about this. Its not your child,
is it?
No its not, but I know its father,
said the teacher. He wouldnt like
to see that. We have our Orthodox
cross, sister.
The mother doesnt mind our holy Catholic cross, said the Franciscan nun.
I have no interest in the mother, I
speak on behalf of the childs father,
he said. He would throw this foreign cross out the window, because
he has his own.
Here is his wife, sir. If anyone has the
right to speak on his behalf, then thats
she, and not you, said the nun.
Great evils were done under this
cross, you know that very well, sister! Remove it and put it in your bag.
If you dont do that, Ill throw it out
the window, shouted the teacher, his
voice shaking and his face completely
deformed.
Sister Marija did what hed said, calmly and rationally she took off the
crucifix and put it in her bag. The
teacher left. We were shocked by
this strangers incident and surprised
with this hysteria, and Marija had
too much experience to fight such
people, while my mother and I understood very little, there was no
such bitterness in us, in our family there were no such quarrels nor
we had any prejudices of that kind.
My great grandmother Petrua died
under the same cross, that stood on
the wall above her pillow. I couldnt
say under with kind of symbols my
ancestors were born and died. And

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

why would I look into that? Had


I had my present day experience,
I wouldve protected sister Marija.
Later I too ran into obsessed and sick
people like that unknown teacher. I
think I treated them the same way

31

sister Marija did; calmly, rationally,


and with a cool head. Theres always
someone to cast a shadow over joyful events.
Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

Photo by: Darije Petkovi

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Mirko Kova

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32

TIONS

Day and Night


Mirko Kova

had just turned twelve when it fell


to me to be the first one to enter
the parish house and make a list of
what was left behind Father Veselko
Kulji, a friar whod lived here until
the end of 1941. And we all know
how his life ended.
Father Veselko Kulji was court-martialed and shot by the Ustashe on
Christmas Eve of 1941, at that very
site where only six months earlier,
on St. Vitus Day, Serbian folk was
slaughtered. I remember the great
prefects plea not to dump the corpses in the Neretva, not to pollute its
clear waters, so from then on army
trucks transported the carcasses and
dumped them into pits. And then
the underground waters went mad.
I remember the stories from my boyhood saying that in those abysses waters gurgled and rocks collapsed, but
I never believed that those were devils
dancing, as my mother used to say. As
if even back then I knew what many
years later I read in a book called The
Moment Of Fear From The Great Satan Has Not Arrived Yet.
Father Veselko Kulji built the parish house immediately upon his arrival, sometime in the summer of
1939, after the old priest, Father Vjeko Milai, had unexpectedly died.
A long time ago people travelled to
the village by johnboats and hoys
and then wadded across the mud,
but Father Veselko Kulji arrived
more comfortably, on a horse cab,
taking those four kilometers or so

of the Black Road between the train


station and the village. The Black
Road got its name from the dross
left from burned coals from train engines. There was a road on the other
side too, but that one took longer.
Father Veselko easily won over the
benefactors with his eloquence and
reserve; these two moods took turns
with him. There were days when he
wouldnt say a word and the parishioners still showered him with gifts.
And then there were his grand sermons, his scolding and cursing, when
he clearly and precisely exposed all
of his parishioners faults, yet they
still awarded him with their money
and their affection. How else could
he have built such a nice two-storey house with a decorated veranda
sitting on two strong pillars? The
ground floor he set for St. Anastasias
Chapel, quite the opposite of what
Father Bono Vrki said thinking that
was St. Anastasius, a martyr of Solin.
As the parish house was built on the
foundations of a small church dedicated to St. Anastasia, dating back
to the early Christian period, Father
Veselko thought this was enough to
put an end to the debate whether the
saint was a he or a she and so he simply delivered his verdict: This is the
chapel of St. Anastasia, thats what I
say and thats what from now on it
is going to be.
They attacked him for being stubborn and rigid, and then the stories
went so far to say that the friar more

liked female saints and women in


general than the other side. People
said that he held Mary closer to his
heart than Jesus, and when someone,
crazy and boisterous enough, dared
to cast that into his teeth and provoke
him, he simply replied: I love them
all equally and they are all mine, like
fingers on my hand!
The first floor of the parish house
had four rooms; the drawing room
opened up to the veranda while the
rest were separate, each with two beds
in it, a wardrobe, night table and a
crucifix on the wall. One room was
always locked and it belonged to Father Veselko Kulji. The bed in it was
hard, with a pallet, as if for an ascetic.
He also had a secret room, and no one
but him knew how to get to it. Even
when he was a child and later as a
schoolboy, he devised a chamber that
could serve as an ideal hiding place.
He didnt know exactly who they
were, but he always counted on persecutors. If not the devil himself, then
his family would come after him, a
religious outcast, a brother. He would
get carried away with building such
a room, he drew underground passages and doors, fantasized about a
labyrinth and secret corridors. Some
of it hed found in church and theology, something intricate and inexplicable, at least to him. He didnt have
much education, but no one could
deny him the clarity of mind. He
knew how to seduce and charm people with his sweet words, but also how

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TIONS

to cut someone short and put a lid


on someones mouth, he knew how
to pretend when necessary and how
to puff up when he could and when
things were going his way.
We from the Orthodox parish always felt uneasy when the change was
about to come, we wondered what
kind of a priest would take over the
Catholic parish, what was his nature
and his soul, what he thought of us,
was he a bigot and a hothead? We
had to keep an open eye on whether he would incite his parishioners and instigate them against their
neighbors, whether out of malice he
would divide the villagers into those
for and those against, those here and
those there, those up and those down.
Whether he would call our houses
those barns of theirs scorching in
the sun, and look at our folk with
contempt and a jaundiced eye, see
us as intruders. Wed seen those too.
Theyd advise people against communing with each other, speak evil of
a boy or a girl of a different religion in
front of their sweethearts, talk them
out of getting before the altar, even
hold it against them if they went to a
sit-together or if they simply chatted
with someone from the wrong side.
Lets not even mention those devils
that cursed the newlyweds when they
got married out of their faith. No
wonder then that this time too we
were worried. My father worried the
most and he often said: A priest is
who harmony makes or breaks.
In that respect Father Veselko was received on both sides as a good priest
and an honest man. He immediately
took care to help our church, which
was in poor state of neglect. He visited our cemetery, spent time with
our leaders and better men, and with
our priest, Father Stefan Kadijevi,
he often shared a glass of wine or ate
figs from the same plate. From his
own dinars and donations he obtained a bell for the Eastern Orthodox Church of Our Lady. He helped

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

expand the poor and narrow little


house in which Stefan lived so now
it grew into a nice and comfortable
two-storey parish home. He himself
bought a lightning rod for the house
and cast his voice to turn the former
barracks into a lodging house, to attain the beds and some furniture and
open a malaria clinic. The war put an
end to all of his good intentions.
Thanks to Father Veselko Kulji the
lake was drained and turned into a
field. Digging the ditches was hard
work but the friar never shied away
from pulling up his sleeves because
that was the only way to turn the
reeds into a plow field. Just as he
planted the mulberry trees along the
road leading toward the Catholic
church, he did for the Orthodox one
too. Whatever lay in ruins or was
about to fall, he was happy to put
back up regardless of which church
it belonged.
Father Veselko was a young man; he
had only turned thirty. Large and
quite chunky for his age, red in the
face, serious, with dark eyes, attentive when listening and absent when
talking he often lost his train and
rarely managed to pick it up again.
They say he was from somewhere
around Duvno, and I remember that
with him arrived two suitcases full of
clothes and food. He was afraid of
hunger and cold; these were his two
archenemies. As soon as one winter would let go, hed start worrying
and preparing food for another. The
moment the northerly pinched his
cheeks a bit sharper he went collecting wood and spent days chopping
and sawing, storing it under the eaves
or hauling it in the basement. Never
did he throw anything away, no pot
was old for him or a shirt worn-out,
he piled it all up and hid it somewhere. With money he was careful
and sparing, yet in eating he had no
measure, but in drinking he did, he
would always stop himself at the third
glass of wine, and he seldom drank

33

brandy. In the evening hed come out


clean shaved and perfumed, his face
as smooth as a little girls, he visited
both Catholic and Orthodox houses
equally, he stayed at our sit-togethers,
took part in ring games, gave advice
to the youth, liked showing off with
his sayings and proverbs, tasted whatever was offered on a plate, preached
and listened, sighed and even shed a
tear when the gusle resounded and
the singer sang about the Neretva
pirates from Father Andrija Kai
Miois songbook. If he shied away
from anything, than that was the
Turkish religion. When in the morning or in the evening the khoja sang
from the minaret, he closed the window not the hear him. You couldnt
say he hated them; he only pitied
them because once they were Christians, and with any luck, they could
become Christians again.
The night teased and seduced him.
Sometimes in the dark, his arms
splayed, in his dark dress, gliding
past like an apparition, hed run along
the path from someones house to
his parish home, arriving before the
chapel out of breath only to collapse
to the ground like a fallen angel and
then lie there listening to the deep
of the night and taking pleasure in
it. And when a night bird, an owl or
a scops, cried from somewhere, or
when a blind mouse moved or a dog
growled, when there was a squeal,
a yelp of a fox or some other night
creature, hed shiver, overcome with
pleasure, as if he just touched a world
firmer than this one, and in him the
darkness of the ages opened and he
glided through it to somewhere far,
to somewhere primordial and deeper
than anything.
If the day pressed down on him, the
night calmed him and invigorated
his soul. For him the day was something limiting and agonizing, while
the night was spacious and enchanting. In it he sensed and saw everything that during the day was covered

34

RELA

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

with darkness. By day he was tired,


his limbs were heavy, and his body
sluggish, while at night everything
was different: his arms nimble, fingers quick, his body full of life. Days
were rough on him, dealing with people difficult and unpredictable, but
at night everything would become
gentle and simple, so fine under his
palm and available to his thoughts.
During the day he had to think and
worry, obtain provisions, store them,
and even hide something for darker
days, while at night hed remove himself from all that and let go to his imagination. Even though he went to

In 1941, at the time of Orthodox


folks celebration of St. Vitus day,
Father Veselko grew quiet and drew
into his shell, he held the mass reluctantly and without spirit, and in
his sermons he got angry and criticized our treatment of the brothers.
We are one Christian head with
two cheeks, if you deface one, the
other is no good either! thats how
he preached.
They told him about a husband and
a wife, a middle-aged couple, unrelenting in that cruel business. The
husband slaughtered, they say no
one was a match for him. He was

Mirko Kova

bed early, he would wake up at least


three times at night, and sometimes
hed even put his clothes on and step
outside, and then after wandering
around for a while he would lie back
again. If he had to spend the whole
day inside, he would make up for it
with his night outings, and then it
would take him an hour for a trip
that by day took him at least three.
His day name couldve been Father
Murky, while Father Veselko, which
means happy, was more suited for
his nightly life. He believed a man
could not find peace without a candles flicker and crackle.
1

(Tur.) a meal, a snack.

left-handed, his fist was light, he


just pulled the knife once across the
throat and never looked back, and
with his right hand he held his victim
tightly by the hair. His wife was quick
and skillful with the pliers, she pulled
gold teeth from their victims mouth
and put them in a bag she carried
around her neck. Theyd stop only
to smoke a roll of tobacco, sip some
water and take a bite of something to
eat. By the evening they were deadtired; the husband washed his hands
in a wash-basin, and the wife sat at
the table, counted the teeth, estimated their value, calculated the profits

TIONS

and made fun of her loot: this one is


worn out, that one looks like he only
gnawed bones with it, and this one
had only just put them in, he didnt
even begin to use them. She laughed
and giggled, leaning over her booty
as if shielding it from some invisible
marauder. Father Veselko listened to
all this and felt disgust. And when
that very woman brought him her
sick child for a blessing, he turned
her down. And that was held against
him. On the other side, with the Orthodox folk, his reputation grew, let
his name turn golden and may the
good Lord bless him.
One evening a couple of Ustashe
broke in the friars dining room, they
were simple men, dressed all in black
and armed to their teeth. Father Veselko didnt know them. He let them
in but he never invited them to sit
down with him. They asked for no
invitation; they dropped their tired
bodies on a bench next to the dining table. The friar didnt offer them
anything, he barely returned their
greeting, he hardly made a sound,
just mumbled something, and that
could just as easily have been a curse.
Easily turned down by unannounced
visits and distant with foreigners, and
also distrustful of the Ustashe, Father
Veselko Kulji thought they were his
avengers whod come to settle the
debt and make him pay for his disobedience. If thats whats needed,
here I am, in Gods premises, so go
ahead and take.
One of them took a tain1 out of his
knapsack and said, We dropped in
to have a bite.
And you, padre, get us that bottle of
wine youve been saving for yourself,
added the other.
Father Veselko first hesitated and
then did what they asked to avoid
trouble. He brought them a threeliter demijohn and offered them to
drink as much as they wanted.

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And what does the friar say to all


this? said one of them. The Serbs
are done for. And they had it coming. We had to make them pay once
and for all!
Here everything is settled and paid
for, said Father Veselko.
Not quite. There are some debts
in Master Spajis house. From back
when I hauled tobacco around here,
fought with border patrols, and ran
before Serbian gendarmes, mumbled the other, chewing as if there
were live coals in his mouth, as if he
was about to get burnt.
They pricked pieces of cheese and
meat with their knifes, relishing in
the food and what was to come later.
Both of them got quite drunk, they
began burping and shouting, rolling
their eyes and growling, they said
they would quench their thirst with
blood from under Master Spajis
throat. And when they ate their fill,
they got up and girded their waists,
ready to go out into the night and
head down along the path between
fences and drywalls, and up the road
that lead directly to the Spajis house
that stood away from other homes
and was thus an easy target for what
was on their minds. Father Veselko
went with them to negotiate if need
be, to bargain with them, to dissuade
them or bribe them. Spaji used to
be wealthy; so he must have saved up
some ducats for his life.
The night was dark, the stars high
up in the sky. Even though they were
large, little shine did they give. The
Ustashe were quiet and careful not
to alarm the village. Father Veselko
wondered how softly and silently
they walked, how come they were so
skillful when his feet were so heavy,
pounding against the stony ground
like hoofs, upsetting both him and
his night companions. They warned
him to walk more lightly or remove
his shoes even though he wore light
summer sandals; a pebble would jump
out from under them and head down

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

the path little did it help that Father Veselko twisted his body and
watched his step, the walk made the
Ustashe restless and filled him with
fear. It seemed that those no longer
were his feet, but real hoofs covered
in sorrel and sharp hairs.
They snuck into the yard, there was
no dog on a chain, barking came
from other sides, many sides, from
everywhere, but at the house there
was none. When they came to the
door, the Ustashe retreated into the
darkness and let Father Veselko call
the owner, but quietly and carefully
not to give them up. Father Veselko
did what they said. He didnt knock
on the door as he used to, tapping
lightly and gently not to upset the
household, but he banged the door
with his fist clenched, as if with a paw.
The banging echoed in the night, the
house went alive, an oil lamp flickered, and Master Spajis sleepy voice
called out from inside. When Father
Veselko said it was him and that he
was alone, Spaji opened the door to
let him in, a man that could be trusted. The Ustashe jumped out from
the darkness, one of them grabbed
Father Veselko by the shoulder and
told him, Stay here and keep guard;
well do this in Gods peace!
Neither long nor loud was the fighting inside because Master Spaji,
fearing for his life, told them right
away where he was hiding those few
gold coins and offered them to the assailants. But that couldnt save his life;
no treasure wouldve satisfied them.
To them Master Spaji was a bloodsucker; he made good profit on their
tobacco and they saw none of it. They
liked nothing more but to slit his
throat, his and his wifes, Destinjas;
they knew her as greedy and hard on
money. Because of the two of them
they bore a grudge against all Serbs;
they swore they would hunt each and
every one of them no matter where
they were hiding as long as the last of
their damned kin were alive.

35

Spajis eleven-year old daughter


Kruna ran out of the house, but she
was met with Father Veselkos ghastly
voice. She stopped by the doorway at
the servants entrance, crouched and
began crying and sobbing with fear.
Father Veselko jumped in and put
his hand on the childs lips. Stop
crying, be quiet, my dear child! he
whispered hoping to save her, but
the girl set herself free, caught some
breath, and said, Theyve slaughtered my parents!
Shut up, bitch! yelled Father Veselko.
His voice was coarse and shallow, unknown to him. That voice unsettled
him more than the childs crying, he
wanted to hear it, to test it and try it
out once again so he repeated what
he had just said, and the voice was
the same, just as rough, foreign and
ghastly. Then he felt strength in his
hands, like claws his fingers dug into
the girls flesh. Then he pressed his
hand on the childs lips, and with the
other, as if it were a paw, he squeezed
her skinny little neck. The girl suffocated, fighting for air, but there was
none left for her, she breathed her last
and grew heavy in his arms.
As soon as theyd finished their bloody
work, the two Ustashe came out and
saw Father Veselko over his victim.
Happily, his face glowing, one of them
asked, What have you done?
So that she doesnt cry, replied Father Veselko.
You did good. So that the curs
daughter doesnt yap!
Well done! approved the other.
In the darkness they went back to
the parish house. After they finished
what was left of that demijohn of
wine, the Ustashe fell asleep. They
slept hard, they snored. Horrible images and apparitions haunted Father
Veselko, a dream wouldnt come to
his eyes, and outside barking and
children cries echoed. Sweating and
tormenting, hed sit up in his bed
and wanted to go out into the night,

36

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

but exhaustion soon overwhelmed


him, nothing was left of that night
lightness so typical of him. He spent
the night more awake than sleeping,
and even when he managed to fall
asleep; it was more a nightmare than
a dream. Dawn found him lacking
sleep, his head heavy and his limbs
weak.
Bah, what horrible dreams, God
help me. They should be written
down, thats the only way to free
yourself from them.
He had a secret notebook; what he
wrote there, he never read again. He
kept it secret, even from himself. His
writing lacked skill; it got nowhere
near his oration, especially in the
church and before his parishioners.
His maid, a woman who attended
to his house and washed his clothes,
and sometimes cooked something
for him, met him in the dining room
with an armful of clothes; shed just
washed and starched his white linen
tunic, his belt, as well as other washing, and also ironed his habit and
patched it where needed. She had
found the dining room clean and tidy, the only thing that had roused her
suspicion was the empty demijohn;
yesterday it had been full, and she
knew that Father Veselko was moderate in his drinking, and even when
he had someone over, he was stingy
with his wine hed rather take away
the bottle than fill it up again. The
maid noticed that Father Veselko was
all swollen and drained; he excused
this with tormenting dreams. She
told him about the slaughter in the
Spajis house. Ustashe authorities
had gone to the house and started the
investigation, which was formal and
quick, theyd banned the funeral and
any kind of gathering, decided on the
hour of the burial, which would be
attended only by the closest relatives,
without a priest or a ceremony. Father
Veselko listened to the maid, shaking
his head and biting his lips into that
concerned cramp of his. Dispirited,

he accepted the bread she had baked


and the washing, dismissed her and
told her to come in two days time.
We know that St. Anthonys rosary is said on Tuesdays and at times
of misfortune, and that day it was
Tuesday and most misfortunate of
days, so Father Veselko said thirteen
Hail Marys, Our Fathers, Glory Bes
and Apostles Creeds. He opened St.
Johns Church early. The morning
sermon was done according to Father
Anelko Nuis canon, which brings
only short and concise recommendations. Later Father Veselko went
among the uneasy Serbian families;
there were not many men around,
mostly women and children, what
couldnt run away into the woods,
and a churl here or there who stayed
behind out of spite and to show he
was not afraid of the Ustashe; Master
Spaji was like that, good with everyone and close to any rule. The friar
condemned the crime and promised
he was going to see the great prefect.
He really did meet with him and
asked to protect the Serbian brotherhoods, for they would live here together for centuries to come, and the
Ustashe rule would not last for long;
whatever is based on crime is shallow
and doomed.
You talk a lot and your words are
sweet, replied the great prefect. People listen to what you say, youll dull
the edge in them and now we need
it more than ever. What were doing
does not need your blessing, but dare
not stand against your kins will!
I shall not stand up only against
Gods will, said Father Veselko and
wanted no more words with the great
prefect.
He didnt let the two Ustashe stick
their noses out during the day, he
alone attended to them more than
once, there were not many words
exchanged between them, it may be
that he held it against them for what
they did, but he did it moderately and
gently; he resented their language

TIONS

and held their thoughts sinful. What


they prided on, Father Veselko considered arrogance. He rejected any
connection to them, and when theyd
mention the previous night to him,
he always replied the same: I live at
one place only.
They were simple men who did not
understand what he had said, they
were preparing for a slaughter bloodier than the last nights. They would
have to walk for most of the night to
the place where they intended to do
their bloody work so they put on light
shoes with rubber soles and left their
heavy boots with Father Veselko; if ever the road takes them his way, theyll
take them. They bragged that they
knew every path and shortcut to that
house; they had often passed through
there selling tobacco. On parting
they decided to give Father Veselko
a gift: a kama, a curved knife.
What I did was no heroic deed,
I deserve no gift, said Father Veselko weakly, holding the kama in
his hands.
You deserve it.
Its as sharp as a razor, it fits your
fist just right, said the one handing
him the gift.
Well tell everyone about you.
They said their goodbyes to the priest
and disappeared in the night. As
soon as they left, Father Veselko said
his evening prayers, ate a piece of
bread and some cheese, and drank
his measure of red wine. He wanted to lie down and chase away his
worries, not to look back at the day
that had just passed and not to think
about what awaited him tomorrow,
but let the night take him under its
wing, award him with thoughts of
God and everything that belonged
to Him so that he did not lack words
of praise and be blessed by a dream
when it was most suitable. But thats
not the way it was. Suddenly he was
overcome with unease, and he had no
means of resisting it. In vain did he
count the beads and said the sacred

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TIONS

rites, he could not get his thoughts


together and focus on the life of Jesus and Mary; his hands began to
shake and his fingers tore the rosary
so that the beads fell off and scattered all over the floor. His lips went
dry, he licked them but his tongue
felt like a piece of ice; chills passed
him from that lick. He felt the urge
and the need for a woman; he was
surprised by that unknown and sudden impulse. Something vague called
him outside, into the night. His favorite time of day teased and fascinated him. He jumped up and put
the kama against his belt, wrapped
himself in his habit and found himself in front of the house.
A star set off above and splintered
while it fell. Crickets twittered from
everywhere and in unison. Father
Veselko hurried as if there was someone waiting for him. Perhaps he was
hasting to catch up with the rogues?
Again his step was tough and clumsy as it was last night, but he paid no
heed to this, he rushed forward and
reached the village where Orthodox
houses stood cramped together in
the dark. Only one window was still
lit, Janko Simats house, he was a
merchant and an honorable Orthodox man. He had many small children, one up to anothers shoulder, a
mother and a wife called Jaglika; all
weaklings. Simat was obsessed with
things of yore; he raised back many
institutions and brought neglected
monuments in order. He was a benefactor and gift-giver, a man loyal to
tradition and proud of Serbian history; considerate to others, pleasing
and indulgent in conversation. Simat
paid great attention to his clothes and
jewelry, went too far in it, hed dress
up without style or taste, all at the
same time his chain watch and an
amber cigarette holder fitted in silver lace, and the glasses with metal
frames, and two rings on both hands;
on his right a golden engagement and
a wide wedding ring, and on his left

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

hand a ring with a monogram and


signet-ring inherited from his father.
Truth be told, he dressed up like that
only on holidays.
Father Veselko arrived to Simats
house in a state of haze. He was met
there as a friend, and thats how he
acted. What brought him this far?
It must be something very serious
when youre paying us a visit, said
Janko Simat.
Father Veselko sighed and whined
that everything was going down the
devils road, for how could it be that
two friends had become each others
worst enemies. What was that? Two
men, almost brothers, until yesterday one throat and one soul, now
go after each other, hunt each other
down. Father Veselko went on and
on about it and then suddenly lowered his voice and addressed his hosts
with consideration and confidence:
They come after better known Serbs
and trick them, they pretend to be
discussing their position in the new
order and then they slit their throats.
Look, even Janko Simat, an honorable and respectable neighbor, has
been chosen for their bloody work.
But as long as Im in service here, Ill
do whats in my power and pleasing
to God to stop them!
Then Father Veselko told him about
his plan and the place where a boat
and a trusted man would be waiting. Its best you go across the bog,
and then up to the plum orchards,
from there on youre in safe hands.
We should go right away. Dont worry about your family; Ill look after
them. And Ill always find a way to
bring them news about you and this
ordeal. This Ustashe carnage cant last
long, soon theyll have their fill.
The old woman, like every mother,
worried and overcome with sadness,
blessed Father Veselko; she would not
let go off his hand. May the good
Lord provide you with everything
you need. May He look after you.
Youre our savior and our friend.

37

Jaglika told her husband to hurry, and Janko, scared and troubled,
didnt ask too many questions, every
suggestion seemed better than his
present position, and every road, no
matter how long or treacherous, safer
and less dangerous than what waited
for him tomorrow. He bid his goodbye to his family and followed Father
Veselko who was anxious and hurried
as if running before his prosecutors.
Janko barely managed to keep up
with him.
We have to be careful! Do keep quiet! This way, follow me! You coming?
Hurry! said Father Veselko.
They went deeper and deeper into
the mud and reeds; the water sometimes reached their armpits. At one
moment Janko stopped like an animal when it senses the danger and
stops dead in its tracks, nervous and
stubborn. No step forward would
he make. Immobile, untrusting, he
shouted, How far do you think on
going like this? Where are we coming out?
Then Father Veselko went back wading through the water and breaking
reeds. He approached Janko Simat
and hissed angrily in his ear, Youre
making me come back to you and
waste my strength! And Im doing
all this for you!
Why are you doing this, Father Veselko? I cant tell. Weve never been
God knows what kind of friends.
I too wonder why? said Father Veselko, his voice broken, mean, vile
even to himself. I dont know why I
am doing this? And why am I saving
Serbian scum.
With ease and skill he took his kama
out and, as his arms were tough and
God gave him the strength, he soon
got the better of Janko Simat.
One heathen less, he squeezed
through his teeth, while Janko Simat
wheezed in agony trying to say something, but he soon, with the gurgle
of thick and muddy water, sank to
the bottom.

38

RELA

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

His step light and liberated; chipper,


happy and spirited, almost running,
as if the devils eyes were guiding him,
Father Veselko arrived to his parish home. That very night he tidied
everything up, cleaned his muddy
shoes, washed the kama, and hid it
in his locked chest; under the light
of his lamp he found the beads from
the broken rosary, picked up each
and every last one of them and lined
them up again, and then, until dream
came over him he said the Apostles
Creed, and after every tenth prayer,
after the Glory Be, not only by moving his lips and considering it inside,
he whispered and even out loud repeated: Oh, dear Jesus, forgive us our
sins, saves us from fire of hell, take all
souls to paradise, especially those that
need your mercy the most.
The next day, after a long time, the
Orthodox Church of Our Lady was
open, and the bells called the parishioners to the morning prayers, perhaps the first one after the slaughter
of St. Vitus Day. The parishioners
knew that Father Stefan Kadijevi
had escaped to Montenegro; yet even
if he were back, he would not be allowed, on the first day and without
permission, to open the church and
call to prayer. Some out of curiosity,
some out of need, but even those
who seldom went to church now
were there. Mostly women, but also
old folk, simply crawled inside. Father Veselko Kulji was the one who
met them; he did all this on his own
initiative. He stood in front of the
iconostas, with an eparchial around
his neck and a book in his hand,
waited for everyone to go quiet, because the mouths were full of praise
for what he did and for standing up
against the Ustashe villains, and then
he held the mass in Old Church Slavonic, following all the canons of Orthodoxy, without a mistake or pause,
so well that not even their own priest
could do it. The whole ceremony, all
the way to the blessing, passed more

in admiration of Father Veselko than


listening and understanding those
dear Christian words. But the priests
final message: Vozljubim drug druga, da jedinomislijem ispovjemi (Let
us kiss each other and confess our
sins as one soul) was never met with
more enthusiasm or understood with
more sincerity. They said that Janko
Simats mother, a crushed and toothless but quick and wise old woman,
approached him, kissed his hand and
repeated several times: You are the
vladika!
And while with the Orthodox folk
Father Veselko was winning and growing, with the other side he was at a
loss. Some thought hed contracted
some nerve disease, others that he
had sold his soul to the Greek-Eastern side so after the service in the
Church of Our Lady he was summoned to the county headquarters.
There he was instantly surrounded
by the great prefect and higher officers, they attacked him with roughness and mockery and he fought back
peacefully, defending himself with
skill and reason: The people feel the
need for God, no rule can take that
from them.
You give them support they dont
deserve! an Ustashe officer said
heatedly.
Youd better look after your own
people! shouted the great prefect.
Saving souls is what occupies my
mind, replied Father Veselko calmly.
Finally they agreed to pass the matter on to the Franciscan province office in Herzegovina and let the general canons and Synaxes examine the
subject and pass their judgment, and
until this happened Father Veselko
would continue with his duties, under strict supervision of the authorities during mass and other rituals.
After this Father Veselko decided
to lie low for a while and gather his
thoughts, he was spending his days in
his parish home, either in St. Anastasias chapel or in his dining room,

TIONS

or he went about in his room; he


went to public only when needed,
he accepted gifts from both Catholic and Orthodox parishioners, he
held confessions and gave advice;
he did a lot to quiet many feuds and
to curb or put an end to hostilities.
Only at night he felt like a prisoner;
not like a servant, but like a slave.
He agonized and fought against going out, he darent even step into the
yard because the night would take
him further. He fought the urge,
but the more he tried to get rid of
it, the urge grew stronger and more
powerful. Sometimes he managed to
restrain himself and resorted to selfpunishment without even knowing
why; if it werent for that, more people would have perished. Once his
maid found him chained against the
beam. He explained that he was punishing himself for disobedience and
evil intentions. The maid reproached
him, If theres anyone who knows
his place, then thats you! Obedient
and kind.
Theres never enough obedience and
kindness. God always wants more.
His asceticism didnt last long because in the days to come there were
more murders; to list them all by
name would turn this story into a
gloomy report. Its enough to say that
fear crept into Orthodox homes, fear
of someone going to sleep, but never
waking up. After every crime Father
Veselko raised a hue with the authorities, and they reproached him,
advised him to watch his tongue and
restrain his eloquence. Whenever he
gave a fiery sermon, advocated peaceful coexistence and called upon evangelic messages saying love is an essence of law, a link to perfection that
tells us we rose from death into life,
then the night before he must have
slain someone with his own hand.
Jaglika, Janko Simats wife, came by
Father Veselkos on several occasions
to see if there was any news about her
husband. The answers were reserved

RELA

TIONS

yet cheerful; at parting he always said


the same: The day is not far.
After every visit, Jaglika went home
happy, and she passed the feeling on to
her family. If anywhere there was joy,
then that was at Janko Simats house;
they waited for his return, counted
on his bread-winning hand.
It was holy Sunday in August of
1941, for Father Veselko a day filled
with difficulty and much work; he
had a christening and several confessions on his list. A woman confessed and confided with him that
she aborted a child; he scolded her
and threatened that the earth would
open under her.
You wretch, you know what fine boy
you killed! he pressed her in the confessional and tortured her so much
that he himself felt all worn out.
He stayed in the church until the first
darkness took over the land. Drained,
he sat down and began humming
through his nose, Sunday, Sunday,
wood cutting day, cause wood is
oak, sweet Jesus cot. And then he
laughed so loud that the church resounded like there was a devil braving up to all that peace and evening
order.
For a while he sat there next to a candle trying to understand what had become of him and his nature, but his
mind betrayed him, so he sighed and
said, I got to know so many things,
but not myself.
He said the Angelus, removed his
robe and tidied up as always. Happily he remembered those three glasses
of wine waiting for him in the parish
house. He went out and locked the
church. The night was more beautiful than ever, as it can only get in
this region so close to the sea. Everything was going his way: the calm
of the evening, gentleness of the climate, peace of the parish, song of the
crickets, plenty of moonlight, Gods
presence in everything all of that
invigorated him and filled him with
2

(Tur.) a low round table.

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

heavenly peace. But instead of going to his house, he headed toward


Janko Simats home. He arrived there
without rush or goal, and found the
family sitting at the sinija2. Jaglika
and Jankos mother almost choked
on polenta when they saw Father Veselko. He sat down on a bench, and
the family anxiously waited his first
word; but the waiting grew long
and unnatural. The friar stared at
the beams and the floor, his mouth
would get ready to say something,
but the next moment it seemed to
give up, and then again it would appear about to utter something; this
went on several times, until the old
woman interrupted it all. For Gods
sakes, is he alive?
Hes alive. Theres something else.
And again Father Veselko made a
long pause. He converted to Catholicism.
Jaglika, Jankos wife, was not happy
to hear that. That pains me. But if
it were to save his life, so be it!
It wasnt to save his life, replied Father Veselko. He wanted it. I heard
that he said he was doing that for that
honest man and a good Christian,
Father Veselko.
As long as hes alive and well, said
the old woman. Here every faith
comes out of necessity, so is this one
he took on now, and maybe it was the
one he belonged to until now.
There, I brought you the news,
said Father Veselko and stood up,
no longer paying attention to Orthodox rules and honors. Now you
can hope he will come, no one can
touch him now.
As soon as Father Veselko walked out
of the house, an owl shrieked, flying
over; an omen of death. Chickens in
the coop started cackling while in
fact they were pecking and fighting
as beasts always do before going to
sleep. And there, from the swamp,
some shrieking could be heard and
persistent croaking of the frogs.

39

What else are we but vultures, cawing and flying after our thoughts,
whispered Father Veselko, and then
winced from his own whisper that
seemed suspicious and mad. More
and more often he talked to himself
about things unbecoming a man, yet
he justified it all with great worries
that had fallen onto his shoulders,
with difficult times in which a person could not carry more than he had
been loaded.
While he walked down the stony
path toward the parish home, he
looked back and saw a dark, village
mutt that followed him keeping always the same distance; if Father Veselko stopped, the cur stopped too. Its
eyes were piercing and glowing. Father Veselko remembered that never
and nowhere, and he went far out of
the way and across the fields, a dog
had barked at him.
By God, Ill even think Im becoming a dogs favorite, he whispered and then laughed heartily at
the thought.
He laughed at everything he did that
evening, one second his laughter was
loud, the next quiet and secret, but always filled with pleasure. He grinned
like the devil himself and showed
his teeth at the cur, and every time
it seemed to him it answered by lifting its snout and showing its pointy
fangs. The bitch followed him to the
door and stopped there as if waiting
for its masters command. Father
Veselko told it: Lie down and wait
here! In the morning youll get a fistful of bones!
The dog obeyed and curled at the
doorway, while Father Veselko went
to his room where he kept his eyes
peeled at the cross above his bed and
prayed to the Virgin asking her to
give him true repentance, pure confession, and appropriate penance, to
help him when his tongue gets tangled and his thought come to a stop.
Amen! Sleep came to him easily and

40

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

he woke up at dawn and hurried to


open the door and feed the cur. But
it was gone, there was no trace of it,
no paw print or dogs hair, nothing,
so Father Veselko dismissed it all as an
apparition. When he told about this
to his maid, she only said: Apparitions come and go with weariness!
Sometime in mid-September of 1941
Italian occupation authorities tightened their control over Ustashe crimes
and demanded from the officials and
army commanders to take a more forgiving stand towards the Serbs in order to turn both sides against the real
enemy the communists. Many used
this situation and came back home
from the woods and other places of
hiding, especially Serbs who very
much disliked the communists. One
of them was Father Stefan Kadijevi.
He came back from hiding with his
family and a group of Serbs and he
was instantly allowed to hold service and conduct other duties around
funerals, weddings and slavas. They
gave him a hint to restrain from
speaking ill about the Croats and
Muslims and to raise the folk against
the communists. Stefan was known
to lack tact in arguments, to favor
everything Serbian, he was waspish
when one wouldnt agree with him,
but no one could say he was ill natured or vengeful. He loved a good
drink and it showed his good side.
His wife Tijana was a lively, always
cheerful woman who had born him
the twins, two sons, like two peas
in a pod. He went along fine with
Father Veselko from day one. They
held rites together, especially when
it came to blessing folds and sheep,
they occasionally spent the night at
someones place regardless whether
he was a Catholic or an Orthodox,
ate and drank together, although Father Stefan was the one who had no
measure. Father Veselko often had
sinful thoughts about Tijana, and
she did tease him and played tricks
on him.

Eh, if I hadnt taken a vow, I wouldnt


let you slip through my hands, Father Veselko used to say. To that she
just giggled provokingly.
The second day upon his return from
hiding, Stefan Kadijevi met with
Father Veselko; he came up to him
the moment he finished his evening
duties. Father Veselko was glad to
see him, and Father Stefan thanked
him for all the good he had done for
the Orthodox folk. At first the friar
seemed a bit embarrassed, well, he
couldve done more, but how and
what means could help him against
the brute force and villains that come
out of darkness and act like devils released from their damned pens.
When you have no power or authority, how else to condemn them but
with sharp words and a curse before
God. And if I knew who sowed all
these crimes here, in this until yesterday peaceful lands, I would take his
life with my own hand even though
my faith forbids me to commit such
a sin. Sometimes I think that might
be someone I know, a man calm and
welcoming during the day, and a
dangerous beast and a bloodsucker
at night. It might be that the day is
mans good side, his light, while the
night is his evil side, his darkness. But
how to find this out?
With Gods help because only He
sees in the darkness. What we are only
guessing about, He already knows,
said Father Kadijevi.
Father Veselko accepted this explanation and invited Stefan to cut a slice
or two of mutton ham and dine it
with a glass of wine.
I have a bottle of last years left, but
only for you, said Father Veselko
and took a piece of dried mutton
ham from under his dress because
in the sacristy he was hiding what
he loved most and what some traveler or thief could easily steal from his
parish home.
Stefan accepted gladly, and the way
from the church to the parish home

TIONS

they passed in conversation and words


of praise for each other.
The sky got dark and tied itself to the
ground, it got swollen and heavy, but
it wouldnt open. There was thunder
and flashing, and when the two of
them went inside, it started pouring
from above and below, from the sky
and from the ground, with the crash
of lightning, now close, near the
house, then up above on the hill. The
rain showered the windows, in the
gutters it boomed, the cistern filled
and overflowed, it rained faster and
more that the land could take in, it
bellowed all around the house, and
farther away gullies blubbered and
the rocks tumbled.
The two priests and good friends sat
in the dining room next to a small
light. They ate and drank what Father
Veselko had brought before them.
The wine was getting to Stefan, he
felt as if his guts were on fire, and his
face licked by its flames. He was in
a good mood and very talkative, he
enjoyed the wine and the company,
and Father Veselko was an attentive
listener and a good host. He never
contradicted to whatever Stefan said,
even if it were wrong.
Most of the evening Stefan dedicated to Serbs perishing in the pits, he
gave numbers and examples, mentioned names and families, listed
the pits; according to his account,
there were forty two pits in Herzegovina where Serbs were dumped
in, and every time he mentioned the
tortured Orthodox priests, his eyes
got watery.
Will this misery of ours ever be put
on the scales of justice, in the name
of the holy God, will there ever be
history? Or are we truly to be cursed
and sacrificed? lamented Father Stefan and poured more wine.
You drink a lot! Father Veselko reproached him.
Dont hold it against me.
I dont. But its hard to understand
you. Your tongue is getting twisted.

RELA

TIONS

What youre saying is making me sick


in the stomach!
Father Veselkos face was changing,
and his tongue, pointy and red, flickered like a flame. He suddenly pulled
Stefan toward himself, as if wanting to whisper something into his
ear or kiss him, but he bit him by
his earlobe. The priest screamed and
jumped; blood gushed down his neck.
Father Veselko grinned and growled,
his voice reinvigorated and hissy.
Poor thing! Youre bleeding!
Is that you, Veselko? the priest could
not come to his senses from the shock.
It seemed to him he was dealing with
a different man, an apparition, strange
and gruesome. Have you gone mad?
Whats wrong with you?
The friar lunged at him with a kama
in his hand; everything was done
quickly, with some sudden, incredible strength, the friar hit the jugular
and knocked him down on the table.
While the priest was suffocating and
dying, Father Veselko hissed above
him, his voice mean and filled with
anger: Till one Serb walks this earth,
there will be no peace, you God awful sort!
He picked him up with ease, feeling
almost no weight, did everything
with the priest on his back: turned off
the light, unlocked and then locked
the door, found his way in the dark
as if it were a day. Outside the rain
wouldnt let up, streams thundered
all over the place, but nothing could
stop the friar to finish his night job
and put the name of Father Stefan
Kadijevi on the black list of false
brothers. He carried the body to the
main road and dumped it there and
then ran quickly back, locked the
door and shut himself in, closed the
shutters on the windows, washed the
blood from the table and the floor, hid
his wet and bloody clothes, and cut a
small cross-shaped sign on his kama
with a triangular file. His ninth.
He was pleased that everything turned
out easier than he hoped. Everything

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

was ready for rest as well, his thoughts


in place, and his will complete. It
rained the whole night. The storm
was his ally, it removed every trace
and washed out every footstep. And
even if it werent for the storm, who
would dare question or pester Father
Veselko, especially since the death of
the Orthodox priest was just another notch in the line of deaths; sometimes a call for scapegraces and ruffians to get drunk and then hoot and
boast that every evil is their doing.

Mirko Kova

Father Veselko knew this well and he


went to bed in peace. And everything
would have gone as the friar wished,
were it not for his lustful dreams and
all kinds of sins with Tijana. Dirtied
with her impurity, he stepped naked
before the Virgin, and then fornicated with both of them. Exhausted
and ashamed of such dreams, in the
morning Father Veselko punished

41

himself by whipping. He did it in St.


Anastasias chapel.
The rain finally stopped, the water
evaporated from the soil, and the nature announced yet another magical
September day. The death of Father
Stefan Kadijevi was the only dark
spot in the paradise. Even the Ustashe authorities were not pleased,
although one couldnt say they regretted what had happened. They tried
to push the act away from themselves
and accuse the communists for it because the priest spoke publicly against
them. And finally they named Miro
Noica as the culprit; they issued a
notice for his apprehension and put
a reward on his head. The funeral was
allowed with a full ceremony of the
priests burial. Even the representatives from the Italian headquarters
came, and Father Veselko, among
others, spoke over the priests coffin.
His speech was touching, his voice
shaky, and his eyes filled with tears.
Just last night the priest had stopped
by his house as a dear guest, they had
a nice conversation and together they
reproved every evil among feuding
brothers. His speech, seductive and
flattering, touched many, and the
members of the priests closer and
distant family congratulated him on
a brave and courageous speech. People retold and spread the word about
what Father Veselko had said at the
end: We should look for a brother in
a man, a Christian in a brother, good
in a Christian, truth in good, God in
truth, and peace and love in God.
Those words could have been a symbol of future unity and caring. More
people congratulated him on his
speech than expressed their condolences to the priests family. After the
funeral, his reputation among the
Orthodox folk grew even more, although the only thing they could have
done was to name him their priest.
After that sermon he challenged the
Ustashe rule even more, so they telegraphed the province office to trans-

42

RELA

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

fer the friar to a region that is purely


Croatian and Catholic; that was the
only way to put a rein on his bigmouthed temper. But, the province
office sent no reply, so Father Veselko
Kuljis stay dragged on until his sentence and the Christmas Eve.
Once they traced Miro Noica, the
ones who protected him came to an
idea to go to their proven friend Father Veselko and ask him to hide the
boy until the hunt is over. Father
Veselko did not accept this gladly,
he demurred and rejected as the boy
was already a suspect, but in the end

got to read, and when he was away


or if he went home when the school
was out, he always carried a book to
village gatherings and get-togethers.
An only child, he was his mothers
greatest worry. She was the one who
suggested Father Veselko as his protector until the boy got a chance to
escape. When he arrived to the parish
in disguise, with him he took Chekhov, the twelfth book from his Collected Works published in 1939 with
Narodna Prosveta in Belgrade. From
that book the boy most liked a story
In the Ravine, he read it many times,

Slobodana Mati, Mirko Kova and Danilo Ki

he gave in and said yes, especially


because he wanted to test the secret
chamber he had built himself. While
he was resisting, he repeated several
times: Until now I was called a Serbian friar, and from now on I will be
a red friar. Except that they wont call
me anything, theyll skin me alive the
moment they see me!
Miro Noica was a literature student, well read and infatuated with
Russian writers. He never separated
from Chekhov, used every chance he

admired Chekhovs mastery, the ease


with which he disguised everything;
isnt is true, after all, that the whole
family of that shylock from Epifan,
Grigori Petrov Tsybukin, lived in
constant disguise, each of his heroes
had two faces and three masks.
Miro Noica could talk about Chekhov for hours, but only to those likeminded literature buffs such as himself. Father Veselko was not one of
them. Friar himself did not spend
much time around the boy, in the

TIONS

secret room, they would exchange


a word or two, and the boy would
always find a way to make a joke or
tease the friar about the lean food
he was giving him, or about him being stingy with wine. Once when he
caught sight of the friars strange gaze,
he told him: If youre waiting on a
reward on my head, I can always offer you more than them!
My reward comes from only one,
and he also knows how to take, replied Father Veselko.
When he thought the time had come,
Father Veselko decided on the night
of escape; everything he suggested
seemed reasonable to the boy who
let himself to the friars hands and
listened to his instructions, and the
friar truly wove his thread with devilish skill.
Youll have to run as far as you can
during the night and when you get
to the said church and the priest,
youre already among the partisans.
Ill come with you to the Holy Familys chapel. Four roads meet there,
and there are always four devils lurking somewhere so its better I come
along until youre in the clear.
He gave the boy warm clothes and
light walking shoes. He presented
him with a military knapsack and
woven gloves. He took him to the
crossroad with no trouble. The night
was cold and the sky sprinkled with
stars; just enough light for someone
on the run. Hilltops shone with their
snow cover; thats where the cold
came from, that December northerly
that fills ones eyes with tears. Gunfire echoed from somewhere, people
fought and died. They stopped at the
Holy Familys chapel to say goodbye.
There Father Veselko spoke about
four paths leading to four sides. One
is always the path of God also meant
for a holy man as he makes haste towards the crossroad with a cross as if
a sword in his hand and chases away
the demons that gather here and
dance naked. They never feel cold

RELA

TIONS

because evil chooses no season. The


second path is that of pilgrims, they
go there, visit the chapel, leave and
come. The third one leads to the valley and is meant for those who cannot be trusted, they hide and retreat
from the lifes battle. The fourth path
climbs up, always up, it leads into the
treacherous hills; the demons have
their black get-togethers there, and
church bells chase them away.
But youre taking none of these
paths, said Father Veselko, twisting
his neck; his voice grew thin from
hissing. Now youre mine, you communist bastard, you Serb!
And thats where he stabbed him
with his kama. While the boy was
still in his arms, separating from his
soul, Father Veselko heard voices and
steps close by. He got scared and he
ran away as fast as he could. He heard
yelling and commotion, and a bullet
whizzed above his head; he jumped
around dodging every bullet and
every threat. Back at home, as he always did, he tidied the house before
going to sleep.
The night is false, nothing in it is
real, and everything one does comes
from the devil, he thought before
sleep got to him.
Christmas Eve had dawned, sunny
and cold, full of joy for the Ustashe
camp because the notorious communist Miro Noica was caught by
the Ustashe patrol and killed. Two
lieutenants took the prize money and
earned themselves a promotion, but
they could not avoid nor forget the
image of a man running away from
the chapel of the Holy Family, lightly touching the ground and jumping

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

around with skill and ease as if it were


day and not night. For them he flew
down in a straight line and was no
longer a creature of this world.
Just as he got down to the dining room
and was ready to eat his fast day breakfast, clean and tidy, in his habit, with a
small hat low on the nape of his neck,
Father Veselko got the news that Miro Noica was killed. He got upset
and started preparations to hold three
masses after the Midnight Mass and
condemn the dark forces and creatures that roam the night sowing evil
around. He was getting ready to declare that he was hiding this boy in
his parish home. But that was already
known, Ustashe agents appeared before his house and with them a captain and four armed Ustashe soldiers.
The interrogation of Father Veselko
was short and stern, he admitted to
everything and confirmed all the
points of the indictment. The only
thing he resented was that he had to
show them the passage to his secret
room where Miro Noica had been
hiding. He had nothing to say in his
defense. What happened at night was
simply separated and distant from
his daily reasoning, something covered with fog and unreal, as if from
a dream. He couldve easily provided
the evidence, had he done that, he
wouldve been celebrated, but instead
he just listened to his verdict and the
captain who said: Youve betrayed
both your Church, your God, and
your kin! You gave refuge to a bandit. A Serb and a communist. Province office agrees with our decision.
Do you have any objections?
No!

43

They took him to a place called Topola where from 26 to 28 of June 1941
the Serbian folk were massacred. He
was allowed to say his rosary, all three
mysteries, the joyful, sorrowful and
glorious. A sacred book in his hand,
he was shot by a hundred years old
poplar tree, on Christmas Eve of
1941 at eleven oclock.
A young and sickly friar took over
the parish after Father Veselko Kulji;
he didnt stay here long; he died.
Since then the parish house remained
locked, and right after the liberation
it was decided to turn it into an elementary school. I accepted to make a
list of Father Veselko legacy, of everything that was found in the house at
that moment. I did it with care, listing one little thing after another, regardless of whether it was valuable or
not, whether I knew its name or just
guessed it. Father Veselkos chest had
a double bottom, according to his
belief that always and in everything
there lays a double. In the chests secret compartment I discovered three
notebooks, without them this story
would not have happened, and there
would be no fear I felt. There was a
cross and a kama with ten notches in
the shape of a little cross pressing the
notebooks. If there is another explanation of these events or some other
way to recount them, then to that
eternal doubt a sentence from the
friars notebook can be added: The
night of life cannot be proved.
Except that he, it seems, forgot about
that one and only and always most
trusted witness God Himself!
Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

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44

TIONS

(Ill)adapted
[From the book of essays Writing or Nostalgia]
Mirko Kova

Who Are We, What Are We?

ometimes it seems to me that we


wonder more than others who
we are, what we are, where we come
from, who we belong to, who are our
kin, where we are going, although
these are eternal philosophical, and
literary questions that intrigue us
ceaselessly, because they are attractive
to answer, and the replies provoke curiosity. Each of us has his story and
each of us tells it in his own way but
nevertheless I have convinced myself
that we are not the only people who
talk about these things, wherever I
have stayed, from the north to the
south, as soon as we relaxed a little
and warmed ourselves with a glass
of something, my collocutors would
open up about their roots, my forebears come from..., my veins run
with a mixture of blood cells, one
of my great-grandmothers from...,
and so on, while the esteemed experts constantly conclude that the
crisis of identity is the only enduring crisis that can be mitigated in
one way or another and apparently
resolved, only to break out again,
because we are distrustful of what
our fathers have left us; we have to
have our own adventures, we have
to scratch around under the soil we
are standing on. Nothing has been
researched, however much we be-

lieve that it has. What is behind us


is largely the product of a mythopoeic consciousness. In his book
The Myth of Nations, Patrick Geary
writes about the fact that nations did
not come into being through Divine
Will, but through a tangle of various
circumstances, the fraternal and kinship connections of natives, conquerors, incomers and different clans and
tribes, they differentiated themselves
as sects, for the most part through religious integration, and so grew increasingly into social communities.
He draws a parallel between the African Zulus and the European peoples;
those wanderings led to mixing and
interweaving, from which it ensues
that there is no pureblooded people.
Geary says that these rivers which
make up peoples continue to flow,
but the waters of the past are not the
waters of the present.
If we have defined our own identity, whether as a way of acting as an
individual, or a fantasy, as a lack,
as something certain, unchangeable,
firm or as something that we have lost
and are no longer seeking, because
it has become remote from us if,
therefore, we have resolved at least
some of this, then we will consider
these questions of who and what we
are in a philosophical manner, variations on the theme of the meaning of
life, death, nirvana, or anything that

we have come to know, as was the experience of the poet Tin Ujevi:
We went on a journey. The journey
was long.
Belatedly we saw that it led in
a circle.
Psychologists affirm that today the
individual defines himself above all
through identity. But what if I do
not know who I am or I have left that
behind me or forgotten (I have not
brought photos of the past with me,
I have nothing to show you, I dont
know who I am, sang W. C. Williams long ago), and have built some
sort of identity from what I know,
my vision of an identity which is at
times not real, but almost a fiction.
If I have developed my own myth
about my roots in order to escape
from the already stale story of roots,
I have not done so in order to run
away from the real world, but I have
simply expressed my antagonism towards those who know exactly what
and who they are, who know all there
is to know about their forebears,
who leaf through family trees and
proudly proclaim that they belong
to someone and that they are not
alone and abandoned, and that they
feel best among their own people. I
have avoided blood ties and claims
from my earliest years; I was a misfit, a savage even.

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TIONS

A Stranger
Among His Own People
Immediately after my first literary
works and the misunderstandings
around them, I was most castigated
by those whom we call our own people, and every barely literate nonentity in my milieu met we with a
weighty moral hammer and maliciously spread before me his proof
that I had offended the honour of
my narrow and wider family, for
long ago, while I was still one of the
worst possible pupils, they realised
that I was the chaff in the wheat of
the family which had to be discarded.
But if I was anything at all, at least as
a youngster in some flock, in some
nest, then I was above all a mocker;
I knew how to ridicule each of the
heads of the family, and, as I wrote
well, I was always laughing at them
in my school essays. On one occasion
the tribal council met to discuss
the fact that I should be excluded
from the community, whose member I had never even felt I was. They
wanted to mould me, they intended
this and that for me, they wanted
me to be exactly as they were, but I
had not adopted virtually anything
of theirs, not one of my traits could
be assimilated, this was recognised
by my friend, now a retired teacher,
with whom as a boy I ran away into
the woods; he contacted me recently
from Montenegro and reminded me
that we had spent 40 days, fleeing
from our families, feeding ourselves
like Indians in the wild on everything
that was edible, and some things
that were not. The great nineteenthcentury American poet and essayist
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that
society was a conspiracy against the
human nature of each of its members,
because it demanded conformity as a
virtue, and shunned self-reliance and
individuality.
It seems to me now that even as an
elementary school pupil I demon-

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

strated antipathy towards everything


that was established and imposed as a
kind of rule. I do not think that this
is a virtue to brag about, but that
instinct undoubtedly had an effect
and drew me increasingly into the
company of the maladjusted, to the
very edge of heresy. At pre-military
service classes I was always the worst
and always at the rear. It was only
many years later that I understood
the instructors words that an inner
enemy was growing in me, when
that same formula was published in
the newspapers during the campaign
against me, my first novel, and some
of my later works.

I compiled out of newspaper cuttings


a kind of Register of Insults, a little white book that I leaf through
today with complete indifference. I
come across many names that have
been long forgotten, sunk without
trace, but also the name of a literary authority of the time, Vlatko
Pavleti, an influential ideologue,
who called me a master of scandal
in the paper Telegram, to be followed
by a certain Rali in the paper Komunist who accused me of scandalmongering and doing it consciously, and that this was no psychiatric

45

case as I had been described by the


cultured elite of Mostar (the debate
was published in the Belgrade paper
Svet), but the conscious business of
a young and maladjusted writer who
was evidently tormented by his identity. Ha, ha, ha, but what kind of
identity? Why should I be tormented
by something that did not concern
me? That ideologue thought that I
wanted to be what he was, while that
was precisely what I abhorred, the
reason for developing my defensive
isolation. In those days of accommodation, the communists called many
people who did not agree with them
chauvinists and that is how chauvinism began to be nurtured, eventually to become their main refuge,
once the whole structure had gone to
the devil. Many people whom they
called chauvinists did indeed become
that, the communists consigned us,
completely blameless, to the ranks of
the chauvinists and there we stayed,
announced one chauvinist flag-bearer, weighing up his past. There was
nowhere that the Combatants Union
could relegate me because I nurtured
my resistances, sometimes these were
small, barely noticeable gestures, but
enough for me to extricate myself
from my jockeying with them. When
the newspapers reported that I was a
chauvinist, I asked them to tell me
on whose behalf and I was prepared
to repudiate the nation.
I published a personal manifesto,
that I began with a quotation from
the Koran: I do not worship what
you worship, nor are you worshippers of what I worship, nor am I
a worshipper of what you used to
worship.... Everything from those
days that I filed in my Register, is
now entertaining, but at the time
too I enjoyed the fact that I discouraged my persecutors. It was so
simple, and I succeeded in thwarting their intentions. Adapted illadapted, and what is between those
two points.

46

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

Who Is That Man?


Just who is he? Who is that man?
Then by chance something placed
me in an unexpected position; that
crazy chance always comes along to
provoke even greater confusion. Perhaps it wanted to leap to my aid, but
even chance can sometimes serve
falsification. I already mentioned in
an earlier chapter something about
a collection (or perhaps an anthology) of young Belgrade prose writers
of Jewish origin published in Israel,
which included my name. Aha, now
we know who he is, he has been exposed, and, as my close friends include some writers of Jewish origin
(Ki, David, Lebovi and others), I
heard that very often for myself: See
how they stick together, praising one
another.
That affair with the Collection did
not make much public impact, but
it was talked about in corridors, there
were some readings, and at one literary evening someone asked my
friend Borislav Peki whether I really was a Jew and if I was not how
come I was included in that collection, because Jews dont make that
kind of mistake Peki replied: He
is a good friend of mine, but I have
no interest in hunting for his true
version, nor can I chase after him to
grasp who and what he is, I have no
patience for that kind of thing, nor
do I know his motives for complicating what is already obvious, because he knows perfectly well what
and who he is. I never did discover
how I came to be in that collection,
but I did not attribute any significance to this mistake, because there
were bigger mistakes around me, and
they meant nothing to anyone. Filip
David advised me not to deny it: its
just another variant on your elusive
identity, but Danilo Ki experienced
the editors choice as a serious gaffe,
and insisted that I deny it, we even
squabbled about it, and that was one

of barely five misunderstandings in


all the 25 years of our friendship. I
thought that this should be done by
the editor of the Collection, but Ki
insisted that I should participate in
the denial, he even helped by finding
a journalist from the Belgrade paper
Reporter who would ask me about it
in an interview and give me a chance
to explain myself. Ki made a meal
of that correction, he called me every day, but not to defend some imaginary Jewishness from me, but he
was like that as a person, he could
not bear sloppiness, mistakes, the
ill-informed, arbitrariness, inaccuracy; he would beat himself up if he
found typos in his writings these
were the perfectly noble pangs of a
crazy perfectionist.
Must I really be what my birth has
determined, is it not possible to get
out of ones skin? Must we comply,
pay homage to, kneel before the fact
that someone unknown to you has
determined your destiny? Must we
be humble servants before the identity we have been assigned, or can we
rebel, reject it, find some other refuge? What if one day it becomes a
burden? Can one remain in the same
house of identity with those who have
committed crimes in its name? Can
we calmly accept that others reduce
us to one dimension? So, my little
story leads one to the conclusion
that I cannot be a Jew, because I am
something else.
Nurtured on Milk
On 12-13 September 1992 the newspaper Borba published an interview
with me by the late lamented Slavko
uruvija, over a whisky and agreeable chat, in my rented apartment
in Rovinj. We chatted about everything, about nations, about mixtures
of nations, about all our identities.
It was not a classic interview; I had
confidence in the gifted journalist; I
was not concerned about authorisa-

TIONS

tion, in fact I was indifferent, however the conversation turned out.


And I saw it only as a photocopy
that someone sent me from Vienna. I liked the whole text, including
my answers, but, despite everything,
there was some degree of journalistic
malice in it, not so much directed at
me as generally towards the cultural
and political atmosphere in Croatia,
particularly in the descriptions of the
dismal little town of Rovinj, once a
picturesque tourist centre in Istria,
and now a sad provincial town where
a writer had buried himself. The text
emphasised my statement that I was
a Croat through my father, a Montenegrin through my mother and
that I had a Muslim wet nurse. Such
combinations meant nothing to me,
they did not bother me, but the conversation had taken a quite different
course, the emphasis had been on
issues of the same surroundings and
mentality, about the fact that I could
have been anything as a result of that
mixture of faiths and tribes, but I
insisted that I did not accept faith
as a mark of belonging, because my
sense of belonging could be changed
depending on what was happening
within its framework.
And when that journalistic story
spread, I received threats from the
malicious, and from the well-intentioned requests that I deny these
untruths. I heard that there had
been a piece made for Radio Television Serbia, some of my countrymen
were interviewed, perhaps there had
been some fraternally-minded among
them, I do not know those people, but they all called me a monster who had shamed his honourable
forebears. This reached me secondhand, and I heard that someone had
said that they had never seen a living
Catholic in that area, that Muslims
had been abhorred, so that person
had been convinced that my mother
would never have allowed me to be
nourished with Muslim milk. After

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TIONS

I had heard all of that, I liked this


virtual combination, and it particularly suited me that such an innocent thing could have provoked that
world of darkness, a world without
space or orientation, a world of cocooned ideas and hidebound lives
that did not have even a trace of curiosity about seeing a Catholic, or
the humanity to speak to a Muslim,
because that world was nurtured on
the fear of the other and the different,
completely lost in the lies of its own
myths and fabricated history. If there
were the slightest glimmer of hope in
reincarnation, I would not accept it
if it meant being put back into the
world I came from. I shall refuse
point-blank, should I be asked.
But I would like to mention that I
heard the story of the Muslim milk
from my mother; she told it a hundred times, to various people, including my wife, always with love for that
woman, her friend, who came to her
aid at a difficult time. Mr. uruvija
was not the first person I had told that
story to, I had taken it, in some of
its variants, as a stimulus whenever I
altered my statements about belonging, because I did not accept identity
as something static, but constructed
my ethnic biography several times.
I know that many will say that you
cannot easily falsify your belonging,
and that this is the only chance occurrence that is acknowledged and to
a large extent marks a persons life, it
is the most firmly rooted aspect in
our human system. That is all true,
but allow us, from our human side,
to influence those petrified forms,
and do something to ensure that this
dependence does not turn into an
illness. Bertrand Russell rightly said
that everything that was left to itself, of its own accord, by the law of
entropy, turns into mud.
Whenever I have concerned myself
with my roots and embarked on some
such adventure, each time I have
confronted different versions of my

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

own origin. More and more what are


at work are insights, scientific and
historical, that nations are myths,
and myths are the most convenient
means of conflict, for the justification of all kinds of crime. The shelter of the myth of the nation permits
cruel crimes for which no one is responsible, while nationalism is, as
Bla Hamvas puts it a deformed and
anti-human state, derangement of
a particular kind, a mass deformation in which people are proud of
being deformed.
Of course I could, but I do not have to
accept what my parents bequeathed
me, all the more since they, just a step
back in time, had some other label,
they talked about it by the fire on long
winter nights, one of our forebears
slew a Turk in Ljubuki and fled to
where we are now, or we ran away
from Kosovo with a pot of gold coins
and ended up here, and there were
similar such variations in abundance,
everyone would add something of
his own to fill out the myth. Normal and truly adult people do not
attribute excessive meaning either
to their ethnic identity, nor to any
other aspect of their class identity,
says Georges Devereux.
Who Are Your Family?
Had I not been asked repeatedly,
from an early age, what I was, who my
family were, who I was related to and
what were my roots, I would probably have approached the theme to
which I have devoted a little space in
this manuscript with less resistance.
While I was still a small boy, on my
way to school, people used to stop me
and ask who I belonged to. I dont
think that I ever gave a precise answer. Usually I would snap: no one,
dont know, myself , Ive forgotten, but I didnt do it in a surly manner, rather like a devil mocking such
questioning. I often made something
up and gave the inquisitive ignora-

47

muses the names of writers I had read


instead of those of my parents. Im
Pushkins son, I would say, putting
the curious individual in an awkward
situation. What is more, I succeeded
in drawing some other boys into that
game, and we competed in inventing the craziest roots and parents.
The fact that I was born somewhere
has nothing to do with my abilities.
It is just a detail in my biography. A
writer says: The more numerous
my allegiances, the more special my
identity proves to be. And I still like
the thought that I read a long time
ago and still remember, that ethnic
identity is a mere label.
We have no reason whatever to be
proud of our origins (while shame
is the private affair of every intelligent being), we spring from cultures
which had no influence, out of closed
worlds in which there was no seedbed of ideas, but on the other hand
all that is worst and wrong (fascism,
communism, xenophobia, chauvinism) is easily implanted and exploited
for the mutual settling of scores and
wars. Intellectuals have had influence
only if they were the preachers of the
rabble, while their opponents were
on the whole vilified, proclaimed degenerates, stabbed in the back, they
died in exile, slandered and erased
from books in their native lands and
national history. Whoever tried to
open the eyes of the blind rabble paid
a high price. Because in that upsidedown history the rule is that criminals are heroes. Folklore, nationalism, assassinations those are the
values for which it is worth fighting.
The homeland, the nation these are
vague and attractive emotional concepts, because they contain the idea
of discord. Paul Valry called such
concepts (land, people) les choses
vagues. Goethe says that the worst
countries have the best patriots. Insisting constantly on the nation or the
people, those collective categories,
means to be in conflict with normal

48

RELA

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

life and to belong to a community


of mass deformation and even to be
proud of the fact that you are deformed. We can do something of
value and good only as individuals.
In the collective we are beasts. We despise those who are out of our reach,
and insult those who are the same as
us and with whom we share soil, air,
water. We shower them with abuse so
as not to abuse ourselves, although we
do that by abusing them.
I have experienced the poverty of the
collective, the poverty of the massified individual, this was mostly during the time of Miloevis ascendancy; then I still believed that it was possible to frustrate the man who brings
death through a common clamour.
I had already published an article in
the Zagreb weekly Danas entitled
Is Our Monster Being Born? I was
seen as an oppositionist, although I
was only someone who was trying to
articulate his own fears and who resisted the culture of death, and so
I was invited to participate in a mass
protest rally in the main square, Trg
Republike, in Belgrade, organised in
connection with the first anniversary
of the brutal dispersal of demonstrations. I joined the speakers, although
I had nothing in common with many
of them; we generally stood on opposite sides, but on this occasion found
ourselves on the same one against
Miloevi. I do not remember exactly
what I talked about, but I know that
the roar of the crowd simply made
me announce: I am addressing you
as a Serbian writer! As soon as I left
the platform, my wife, my best critic,
greeted me with the comment that I
had made a fatal mistake and unnecessarily labelled myself in a national
sense, in just as banal a way as all the
others. I had probably been caught
up in the hysteria and proclaimed
myself what I had mocked so many
times and which, in the end, I was
not. Because what did I have in common with Serbian writers? Nothing. I

shrank from them, I was on the other


side, I did not share anything with
them, no philosophy of life; in fact
we could not abide one another. And
even now, when I come across that
description attached to my name, I
feel uncomfortable. In order for me
to be a Serbian writer, I would have
to promote Serbian culture all over
the place, and I do not do that, while
I emphasise the names of those Serbian writers whom I like and value
wherever I can, because they are excellent writers regardless of any associations, equally good no matter
whom they belong to.
And after my hasty announcement
from the stage, I had to put up with
being lectured to by the then editor of
Knjievne novine, the late Mile Perii, Serbian nationalist, Karadis
friend and adviser, in his magazine,
and being described ironically as a
writer who had never declared himself, of whom no one knew who he
belonged to, who had behaved as one
above nationalism, like some extraterrestrial, and now in front of the
crowd he had quite unexpectedly
cast off his mask and revealed himself. We did not know, now we do,
but time will tell whether we want
him and what use he is to us, wrote
Perii. At that time, the two of us
loathed each other (when I caught
sight of him, I would cross to the other side of the street), although we had
once been on good, cordial terms, but
after he published that article I met
him in Terazije Street, I went up to
him and said that he was absolutely
right about my declaration, that I
regretted it and would withdraw it,
so that he would have no qualms or
uncertainly about whether he wanted me or not, I would not give him
a chance to say.
And, really, Mile was right, I could
proclaim myself, for example, a Serbian writer, but that would have to
be accepted by others, some kind of
agreement would have to be reached.

TIONS

In his ethno-psychoanalyses, G. Devereux quotes various examples and


says: Rheim announced that he
was Hungarian, but, under the influence of the Nazis, many Hungarians
did not share his opinion and forced
him to leave the country. Hungarians
who had not fallen under the influence of the Nazis stated that Rheim
was a Jew. In exile, Rheim disagreed
with them to the extent that according to his wish his coffin was draped
with the Hungarian flag at his funeral
in New York. Not everyone will always accept you, just as not everyone
will reject you. So, you can be what
you want, and in the end you can
always choose which flag to have on
your coffin.
Revision of Identity
The last war in these Balkan battlefields brought, in addition to misery
and killing, many changes and revisions of identity, because one of its
key aspects was tribal and religious
labelling. Ghosts of the past surfaced,
historical conflicts were renewed
and made contemporary, completely anachronistically, but stimulated by intellectuals and leaders who
had come by power and weapons
and who imposed themselves as the
defenders of identity. Many people who had long ago investigated
the past and buried it in repositories so that people could appeal to it
only if it brought good, refused to
allow anyone to represent them in
the name of their identity, and especially to kill in that name, to ravage
whole districts and disperse millions
of people. I knew fanatical nationalists who were shocked by the role
of their fellow-countrymen in the
crimes and chaos. For example, the
Serbian writer ika Stojkovi was
a narrow-minded nationalist, but
he declared in the Belgrade weekly
NIN that he was ashamed of his nation, that million-strong mass that

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TIONS

gathered outside the National Parliament in Belgrade in 1990, yelling:


Down with pluralism! There were
other such examples even in the writers pack. Many people understood
for the first time what identity was,
when they were shamed by the actions of their fellow-countrymen.
If one of yours disgraces himself
what should you do? There are several
answers. Prevent him, if that is possible, publicly denounce him as scoundrel and disown him, seek out some
other identity for yourself, express
solidarity with the victims of that
shameful person, accept the misfortune of the victims as your own, their
suffering as your own, change your
community, milieu, state, accept exile, reject any connection with such
fellow-countrymen, forget them or
stay silent like Marlene Dietrich, who
no longer wished to utter a word of
the German language, sullied by the
filth of the Nazis. Amin Maalouf, a
Lebanese-French writer, put it well:
Identity is a false friend.
A double (or multiple) identity is a
cure that enables a person to protect
himself from himself and his own
temptations, to resist the evil attacks
of collective terror and fanaticism
in general, not to allow any kind of
justice to persuade him to do harm
to another. In Belgrade I watched,
at the beginning of the nineteennineties, when the whole length of
Francuska Street, where the building of the Serbian Writers Union is,
rang with the cry: Croats, Ustashe!
and Death to Croats, but in that
pack one could hardly find anyone
who was not in some way (marriage,
friendship, family) connected not
only to Croats but also to others, for
that was how they shared identity or
expressed solidarity with people like
themselves. A sense of contradictory
belonging restrains any enthusiasm
when it results in collective wrongdoing, and historical or other turbulence in a given community.

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

I remember a meeting where my


friend Bogdan Bogdanovi said that
each of us must have several friends
of different nations, races and skincolour in order that tolerance should
be spread. That wise, dear, enchanting man once told me that he could
not get over his astonishment that his
brother Serbs had never yet shoved
up his nose the fact that at one stage
in his life his father, the renowned
writer Milan Bogdanovi, had converted to Islam, to which I had replied: They wont attack you, because they consider that all Muslims
are Serbs in any case! Ki always said
that it would be really good if we
could all be born as frontier-dwellers,
while his clever wife Pascale Delpech
used to say: I hate the French provinces, because only French people
live there.
Theres No Way Back
If someone were now to force me
to go back to where I was born (by
chance), it would be exile to a foreign land, to an unfamiliar world,
although I create my literary fictions
out of the remnants of that world and
language, but now even the landscape
over there is no longer the same. At
one time, in my childhood, I thought
that it was the most beautiful place
in the world, that its people were
good and quick-witted, that everyone tolerated the faith and choice of
others, that they valued honesty, that
they were gifted and successful whenever they adapted to that world that
we called big, but were I, Heaven
forbid, to appear there now, I would
not find any of that, nor would I
recognise anyone, but I would certainly hear everything that I do not
want to hear, that is remote from me.
Those are no longer my words, for
me they have the significance only
of relics. Of course, for many people their native land exists, that cannot be denied, there exists nostalgia

49

for ones own place that is understandable only if the native land has
not been polluted by all kinds of evil
deeds, persecution of others, hatred,
if the native land has not placed itself on the side of everything that is
bad and immoral.
Whitman wrote in a poem that the
homeland is the place where the heart
draws us and where a man is his own
master! Whenever I travel somewhere, I can hardly wait to return
to Istria my heart draws me there,
that is where I am my own master.
Surprisingly, despite all the setbacks
and misery of my life, I had many
good moments in Belgrade, friendships, women whom I loved, unhappy loves and sufferings, nevertheless
I never adapted, I ran away, I abandoned that city and return there only
by force of circumstance, reluctantly,
always tense and anxious. I spent a
certain amount of time in other cities (Sarajevo, Split, and mostly Zagreb). Of course, that does not mean
that I have any aversion to Belgrade,
or generally to the Serbs, far from it
(although I have been accused of all
sorts), but the fact that in my novel Kristalne reetke (Crystal Bars), I
strove for descriptions of Belgrade
expressing its dark side, is the most
eloquent testimony that the city left
its imprint on my psyche.
A man whom I particularly admire
and with whom I have always had
cordial relations, over many years,
the fine artist, writer and film director Duan Makavejev, a cosmopolitan a million miles removed from
all nationalism, above all a brilliant
mind and intellectual, with whom I
have met several times in recent years
on neutral territory, once told me:
For an artist, for a writer, Belgrade
is now the most interesting city in
the world, bloody, dark, sick, contradictory, full of contrasts; that is
to say, it possesses everything that art
draws on, above all charming, witty,
an inexhaustible source in a word,

50

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

a capital city which might have been


composed by Dostoevsky.
In the course of my temporary stays
abroad, it became quite clear to me
that I would find exile hard, not only
because of the burden of years and
some ingrained habits, but probably
also psychologically, because it would
no longer be a question of an outing,
travelling, tourism, a limited stay, a
study visit, but simply a state, the
status of migr, a new occupation,

deaf to humiliation, etc. (I cannot


forget the way I was mocked and humiliated at the Yugoslav Consulate
in Frankfurt, in February 1992, over
the extension of my lapsed Yugoslav
passport: they put me in touch with
someone in Belgrade in order for
him to tease and insult me, and they
kept me in the corridor of the Consulate for several hours, on the pretext that they were waiting for a fax
from Belgrade, before I was eventu-

TIONS

exile in New York, Athens, Paris and


elsewhere did the same. In his essay
Hermit in Paris, the great Italian
writer Italo Calvino describes travelling by underground every morning
to Saint-Germain in order to buy an
Italian newspaper. The only attraction in that multitude, in that milling throng of big cities is anonymity;
I used to spend hours riding about
on the underground, simply to observe people.

Mirko Kova, Stockholm, December 1993, the Tucholsky Award

new files or police records containing my finger-prints, a photo of an


ageing gentleman, with facts about
marital status, children, parents, illnesses, etc. Had I been obliged to go
into exile (I would certainly had taken up that cross and borne it to my
hill), I think that I would have had to
change many things in my character,
learn ways of adapting, adopt a mask,
make an effort over being charming
and leaving an impression, become

ally summoned by an official who informed me: The fax has arrived, an
extension to your passport has been
refused, unfortunately, without any
explanation.)
And whenever I stayed abroad for a
longish time, I was unable to write
a single line, I just roamed about
or took the underground to a kiosk
where I was able to buy our newspapers. My friends and acquaintances
who happened to find themselves in

At one time Knut Hamsun said that


he had nothing against solitude, or
wandering (he wrote his best books
about vagabonds), but it wears one
out, and in one place he says: There
is a lot that is unproductive in that
deafness. When that literary magician finally settled down on his property in Norway, he said that those
were the only happy moments in his
life. I could have eaten the soil with
a glass of wine of course, he joked

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to his wife, although he stressed that


his feeling of fullness was not because it was Norway and he was Norwegian, but because he had finally
found a homeland in which he understood more and could see more
deeply than God had granted him.
A homeland is discovered, acquired.
It might be a village from which one
can see everything that can be seen
in Space from the Earth (Pessoa). It
is true, there have been writers, and
there still are some, who felt good in
exile. One writer told me that it was
only as a man without a country that
he succeeded in defining many of his
contradictions, a lack of clarity in his
origins, that it was only in exile that
he felt life and joy, that he had his
circle of wonderful friends in a European capital, that there was a lot
going on there, that there were many
cultural events, that he was writing
better than ever, writing and leading
a social life, at gatherings he relished
the multitude of languages, every
party was an abundant table in
short: exile had enriched his life,
made him happy and cheerful. If he
had been able to get papers as well
(so as to ditch that revolting and always suspect passport), his happiness
would know no bounds. So, exile can
also be successful. As exile is no longer persecution but a choice, the exiled
person comes back in the summer for
a holiday at home as a man of the
world, there is none of that specific
suffering of the migr-rat Bunin
wrote about; what is more, returnees
bring cheerfulness into our drab lives.
Under a Womans Shelter
When I left Belgrade in 1991, there
were reproaches, even from people
well disposed to me, that I should
not have fled from one nationalism
to another, from one fascism to another, while Kusturica, in some of
his scribblings in NIN resolved it by
writing that I was taking refuge in

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

my wifes nationalism (he probably


meant in my wifes nation, but as he
had become a newly-minted Serb,
he maintained the stereotype that a
Croatian woman was naturally a nationalist). There was abundant arbitrary and inaccurate twaddle like
that or similar to which I did not react. Firstly, I had already decided to
move to Istria, so that it was not exile, but a move, and to a region that
had some emotional significance for
me, something of those love pangs
for an imaginary homeland that Pessoa wrote about. It was not exile, but
a return. Or a choice, perhaps easier
than staying in Belgrade. For all the
difficulties, more comfortable. And
it was not a political act, but perhaps
a moral gesture: my Croatian homeland was at that time a target, being
fired at by all kinds of weapons. Coming to Croatia, I myself became a target; I wore a T-shirt with the English
word target on it. When in 1999,
with the agreement of the United Nations, NATO bombed strategic objectives in Miloevis Serbia, many
people in Belgrade copied me, wearing T-shirts with the word target on
them. They went through what they
had done to me; I do not gloat, I am
sorry that it is the way it was.
It is quite certain that nationalism
raged in Croatia, but very soon, after I had mourned the destruction
of the Croatian cultural heritage,
my own heritage, I began to write in
opposition papers against the prevailing politics and re-awakening of
ghosts from the past. There were a
large number of people of like mind
in Croatia, consistent anti-nationalists. And they did not seek me out, I
sought them. It was enough to mention that I had written for many years
for their best political and critically
oriented newspaper, the internationally renowned, award-winning Feral
Tribune. To say that I had taken refuge in my wifes nationalism was total nonsense, although it is correct to

51

say that I shared an identity with


her (but also with many others, close
to us), or I had accepted a part of her
identity, which I consider desirable
and entirely normal, so I do not hold
it against Kusturica either, because he
chose the Serbian nation as his own
(or, if I were to use his language, his
wifes nation as his own). To share
an identity with ones neighbours is
desirable, but it is not desirable to
lose a critical edge towards the weaknesses and delusions of the identity in
which you have found yourself. And,
for example, while I criticised my
wifes nationalism, he chatted with
Miloevi, praised him, brought him
gifts, spat on the West for attacking
that mass murderer, offended other nations, calling them Viennese
lackeys, etc. The fact that he found
himself as a Serb is not contentious,
but the way he is carrying that out
is, the way, acclaiming some collective delusions and madness of his recently chosen nation, he has reached
a painful accommodation with it. He
has succeeded in getting a section of
the masses to yell Emir, our Serb at
nationalist gatherings, but there are
just as many, if not more, who despise him for such sycophancy. If he
makes a charge for his devotion, then
his choice is not sincere. If he curries
favour, then the nation that accepts
such a toady has no need of him, no
matter how famous, because his behaviour will shame them tomorrow.
Naturally, I have no interest in the
person in question, nor do I have
any intention of dealing with that
destiny, but, there we are, the story
has become drawn out, because that
example is close and within reach,
it is a part of the black chronicle
of identity and it shows us that a
change of ethnos cannot be effected
roughly and irresponsibly, nor is it
permissible to make a pact with the
devil in order to achieve something
called inner reconciliation.
Translated by Celia Hawkesworth

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TIONS

Hamsuns Star
[From the book An Elite Worse Than The Mob]
Mirko Kova

1. A Writer Whom Writers Liked

enry Miller quotes a hundred


books that influenced him; and
ten authors who influenced him not
only with one book but their entire
opus, and among those ten chosen
ones is Knut Hamsun. In those days
I have already spoken of, when I was
dissecting my favourite writers into
parts in order to discover the secret
power of their charms, I concentrated primarily on Hamsun, writers
H. Miller in his autobiographical
essay The Books In My Life. In his
Dictionnaire des litteratures (Paris,
1968) Philippe van Tieghem says of
Knut Hamsun that he is one of the
greatest writers of all time, while
Maxim Gorky called his characters in
the novel Vagabonds masters of the
world. Thomas Mann, who had a
high opinion of himself, proclaimed
his contemporary Knut Hamsun the
greatest living writer. In his autobiography Love and Exile, Isaac Bashevis
Singer says in one place: My greatest love was Knut Hamsun. Singer
translated Pan from German and
Polish into Hebrew and wrote an
introduction to an edition of Hunger. When he emigrated to America,
he carried only a few of his favourite
books in his bag, and among them
was Hamsuns Pan. That novel is a real masterpiece, wrote Singer. Ham-

suns greatness lies in the fact that he


described love as a constant conflict.
In Pan two people, Thomas Glahn
and Edwarda, battle day and night for
love, they wage a real war. The war of
love is Hamsuns main theme.

Writing about Pan, the Nobel Prizewinner Gerhart Hauptmann said


that this novel can certainly be counted among the greatest love poems
of all time. While the controversial German poet Gottfried Benn,
after reading Knut Hamsuns autobiographical piece On Overgrown
Paths, the last book the famous author wrote, in his ninetieth year, ex-

perienced that magician as an ageing


lion who looks contemptuously out
from his cage at visitors to the zoo,
and when he sniffs a lawyer or doctor
among them, spits through the bars
in that direction.
In his book The Colossus of Maroussi,
Henry Miller writes of his journey to
Greece and, at the very beginning of
the book he describes an encounter
on the boat with a Greek, a medical
student, with whom he talked about
Knut Hamsun until three or four in
the morning. Henry Miller writes:
Thats how I discovered that the
Greeks are mad about him. At first it
seemed strange to me that I was talking about this northern genius as I
sailed towards the warm seas... Thus
Henry Miller, an excellent connoisseur of the work of the great traveller
and wanderer Knut Hamsun, himself travelled safely under the sign of
Hamsuns star, not only through the
waters of the Mediterranean, but
through the waters of literature.
If it is true, and if that is still relevant,
Lenin knew whole pages of Hamsuns
novel Victoria by heart. Perhaps that
detail was later taken as an ideological pass for a writer banished for his
devotion to Hitler and Nazism, but
now, after the collapse of both ideologies, it is just a bizarre detail and
nothing else. In the Memoirs of the
Norwegian Trygve Lie, at one time

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Secretary of the United Nations, it


is written that Molotov pleaded for
Knut Hamsun, and that he once said:
A man who has created such great art
must live in peace for the remainder
of the time before him. They also
say that Stalin himself intervened to
prevent Knut Hamsun being accused
of being a quisling. By all accounts,
that could be accurate, because he
was cynical, all the more so since it
is known that Stalin persecuted the
great writers of his country, sending
them to Siberia, putting them on
show trials and shooting them.
It is true that communist satraps
used to read the occasional book so
that the rumour would spread that
they were well-read and educated.
It is possible that those stories about
Lenin and Stalin are quite accurate,
and they are consistent with Knut
Hamsuns biography, where all miracles and all extremes, good and evil,
misfortune and fame, always found
favour. In any case, Knut Hamsun
was one of the most widely read writers in Russia, and at that time a wellknown writer who concerned himself
with cruel reality and destructive
passions, Mikhail Arcibashev, who
emigrated after the October Revolution, wrote somewhat caustically and
enviously about the fact that Knut
Hamsun was raised to the level of
divinity and now altars were being
erected to him in order that he should
be celebrated as the great poet of life
and love.
2. Germanophilia
Knut Hamsun was just as widely read
and popular in Germany; that was
the first major language his works
were translated into from Norwegian. That fact was certainly important for his Germanophilia, as was
the fact that he could not tolerate
Anglo-Americans and their culture,
and both his visits to America were
at the same time very difficult exis-

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

tential experiences. And later, when


he became famous, Anglo-American
critics did not accept him and in
that world he was not all that widely
read. And a detail from the biography
of Knut Hamsun that he replaced
his youthful love of Dostoevsky for
Nietzsche could also provide additional energy for his Germanophilia
which was, unfortunately, taken to
extremes, culminating in political
blindness, for the great writer supported Hitler and his ideology of a
new European order in which, as he
said himself in his defence, the Norwegian people would have had a significant historical and cultural role.
Judging by what Knut Hamsun wrote
throughout his life, he could not
have had any religious, national, racial or any other kind of prejudices,
so he was not susceptible to fascist
ideology, but something seems to
have appealed to him, already an old
man at the time, in that will for power, in that idea of a new Europe, because he hoped that Germany would
in fact integrate Europe and save it
from destructive forces, and for
him English tyranny was the source
of all evil, and English imperial policy
a stumbling block in Europe. It is quite
true that English policy was hypocritical, it is enough to read George
Orwells brilliant writings, where he
calls that policy a moral swine, and
it could not be expected of a man
of advanced years, as Knut Hamsun
was, to be politically astute, and that
at a time when younger writers and
philosophers were losing their good
sense, although even old men must
accept responsibility for their actions.
George Orwell was attacked from
both right and left and always as an
individualist, which is in fact a compliment and the only possible political position for a writer. If we ignore
the bad propaganda texts that Knut
Hamsun wrote in praise of Germany,
then, according to all measures and
judging by all he wrote and the way

53

he wrote, he would find his place on


Orwells rank-list of individuals, but
he did not manage that. He was able
to attack English policy fiercely and
with an old mans petulance, but that
no longer had any meaning, because
the same man had praised Hitler, calling him the prophet of the gospel of
justice for all nations.
3. The Appeal of Fascism
Knut Hamsun was not alone in being fascinated by Hitler; there was
a large number of writers, but also
politicians, who were intrigued by
phenomena such as Hitler or Mussolini, even Winston Churchill wrote
of Mussolini in 1927: If I were Italian I would certainly have supported
you wholeheartedly in your triumphant battle against the savage appetites and ferocity of Leninism...
In Alastair Hamiltons study Intellectuals and Fascism, 1919-1945, we
find significant literary names that in
one way or another ensured that the
appeal of fascism as Hamilton calls
it, captured the European intellectual elite. Of course, this note about
Knut Hamsun is not the right occasion to talk generally about writers
and politics, particularly in the age
of fascism, so we will simply mention in passing some great European names which were immeasurably
more influential than Hamsun, if for
no other reason than because they belonged to the major languages. When
a Bernard Shaw praises fascism and
Mussolini, then that must have an
effect. The wonderful writer G. K.
Chesterton travelled to Rome and
later defended fascist views still more
vehemently, agreeing with that repellent sentence of G. B. Shaws that
statesmen are sometimes obliged to
kill their direct opponents. Right
up until 1934, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger was a member of the National Socialist Party,
who encouraged his students to sup-

54

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

port Hitler, because he saw in him


the power of a nation that must be
master of its own destiny. And the
well-known German writer Ernst
Jnger, a supreme stylist, wrote that
war is our father, it gave birth to us
in the red-hot womb of the trenches as a new race... Jnger sent his
books to Hitler as a gift, one copy
of his book Feur und Blut with the
dedication To the National Leader,
Adolf Hitler has been preserved. In
that sense, perhaps Knut Hamsun
turned out to be somewhat madder, when he sent his Nobel medal
as a gift to Goebbels, with the message: Please accept my apologies
for sending you my Nobel medal. It
is a useless thing for you, but I have
nothing else to send you. Your devoted Knut Hamsun.
The great poet W. B. Yeats elaborated his historical theories, placing his
hopes in war as a heroic era that
must bring a new order. Similarly,
the great Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti was initially Mussolinis comrade-in-arms and co-founder of the
radical Milan group Fasci di Combattimento. The famous playwright
Luigi Pirandello regarded himself
as a precursor of fascism, writing in
1934 that there has to exist a Caesar and an Octavian, in order for
there to be a Virgil, while the popular poet, playwright and novelist
Gabriele DAnnunzio, whom even
James Joyce compared to Flaubert,
became a national hero, and historians say that his nationalism lent
some cachet to fascism, that he instituted above all Ancient Roman
greetings, songs, slogans, uniforms,
parades and that fascism owes a great
deal to DAnnunzio and his adventures. Many years later, even Borges,
in conversation with Richard Burgin,
called Hitler a brave man. It is true
that he admitted he loathed him, but
still he stressed the fact that Hitler
believed in himself and that he was
a man of action.

The well-known writer Curzio Malaparte was viewed for a time as the
best theoretician of fascism in Italy. In France, the renowned writer
Louis-Ferdinand Cline was almost
a vulgar prophet of antisemitism,
who once wrote that Hitler, Franco
and Mussolini were pacifists and that
they were fantastically dbonnaire,
noble, enchanting, exalted and worthy of two hundred and fifty Nobel
Prizes. Even E. Jnger was appalled
at Clines antisemitism, and during
a visit to Paris he remembers a meeting with him, his alarmed expression and reproachful words that he
was astonished that we soldiers were
not shooting, hanging and eradicating the Jews.
Knut Hamsun has no such blot in
his biography, nor a single sentence
in his opus, even from the mouth of
one of his characters, that could be interpreted as antisemitic. He himself
was a kind of wandering Jew, and
it is likely that many Jewish writers
and intellectuals thought of him as
Ahasver, they admired him as a writer and were friends with him, while
the author of the cult book A Cultural History of The Modern Age, Egon
Friedell called Knut Hamsun the
Homer of our time. Hamsun was
seventy years-old when, according to
the excellent connoisseur of his work
and translator into Croatian Mirko
Rumac, replying to a questionnaire
in the Norwegian antisemitic paper Nasjonal Tidskrift, among other
things he said the following: The
Jews are a very able people. I am
not speaking here of my brave and
pleasant Jewish friends. Everywhere
and in general, the Jewish nation has
distinguished itself by its important
intellectualism and it is of very high
standing. Where else could we find
anything that could be compared
with the spirit of their prophets, their
poetry and songs? Remember how
exceptionally musical that people is;
it is without doubt the most musi-

TIONS

cal nation in the world. It would be


desirable for all the Jews to be in one
country which would be their homeland and where they would be able
to put all their abilities and qualities
in motion for the good of the whole
of humanity, but where could such
a country be found? And until it is
created, the Jews must remain where
they are, because they have no other homeland. They must therefore
in future act among foreign peoples
for their own good and the good of
those peoples.
If everything is carefully weighed
up, Hamsuns Nazism is almost irrational, even inexplicable, perhaps
vengeful towards English politics and
English culture, although his anglophobia could not have harmed anyone, least of all the English, and so
it cannot be connected in any way
with racial intolerance. Knut Hamsun was, as Thomas Mann once put
it, Nietzsches closest pupil who,
according to the words of the Swedish
writer Lars Forsell believed that human uniqueness and greatness could
be achieved only through isolation on
Nietzsches Zarathustras mountain,
and that for Hamsun the life of the
individual and not the herd was sacred. So, collective enthusiasms were
something quite alien to him, and it
is astonishing that he was able to have
any sympathy whatever for the collective German madness, or perhaps
he himself was caught up in the historical mist of which Tolstoy wrote,
saying in one place that a man lives
consciously only for himself, and unconsciously participates in pursuing
historical aims. Milan Kundera too
wrote lucidly about blindness and
historical mists, but also about fallacies that are transformed into existential wisdom. Discussing the trials of writers in this century, Kundera mentions Knut Hamsun, but
also many others, seeking caution in
judgment when it was a question of
their blindspots, and, among others,

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he took the example of Mayakovsky:


When Mayakovsky wrote his epic
poem about Lenin, he did not know
where Leninism would lead, and we
who judge him from such a great historical distance, do not see the mist
that surrounded him. Mayakovksys
blindness belongs to the eternal human destiny. Not to see the mist on
his path means to forget what a man
is, to forget what we ourselves are.
4. Ideology and Writers
The great name of Knut Hamsun
has certainly been exploited for all
kinds of ideological ends, especially
when dark, scheming and ruthless
regimes came on the scene, although
he is himself to blame for this, but
I am increasingly convinced that in
those cruel times he found himself
in historical mist and that he was
no longer able to orient himself in
such a restricted space. And the further detail that when he arrived in
Vienna, in March 1938, after spending several months in Dubrovnik
and there learned that his friend, the
writer Egon Friedell had jumped off
a building and committed suicide,
precisely on the day of the entrance
of German troops into Austria, is
testimony to the way Knut Hamsun
reacted good-naturedly even to evil
when, mourning his friend, he said,
almost naively: Why didnt he come
to me in Dubrovnik, I would have
been able to help him there.
Of all the many writers who were
supporters of fascism, only two were
put into mental institutions, and
those were the finest of them, Knut
Hamsun and Ezra Pound. A. Hamilton was right when he said: Pounds
madness lay in the fact that he supported his own utopia to the end.
The same could be said also of Knut
Hamsun. The majority of the writers well-disposed to fascism, including many of those mentioned here,
renounced their convictions, going

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

sometimes to the opposite extreme.


After his fascist phase, Curzio Malaparte supported the Chinese brand
of communism, and so he travelled
the road from a Polish Jew with the
real name of Kurt Erich Suckret, soldier, war correspondent and communist, to Malaparte, Italian writer and
fascist, then ultra-leftist and finally,
they say, on his deathbed, a Catholic convert. G. K. Chesterton, too, at
the end of all his upheavals, arrived at
the Catholic faith as his last refuge.
Benedetto Croce, the renowned Italian philosopher, who in 1924 wrote
that the heart of fascism is love of
Italy, later became a fierce critic of
Mussolini.
After 1945, many writers and philosophers were forgiven for their collusion with fascism, all the more so
when they themselves repented, so,
for example, a Pirandello, once a
member of the Fascist Party, was performed on all the international stages at a time when the name of Knut
Hamsun could not be mentioned
and when his readers swamped his
house with heaps of returned books,
demanding that this wayward, celebrated writer be condemned in order
for Nazism to be completely defeated
through him. Needless to say, I think
it is good that the great playwright
L. Pirandello should have reached
the theatres of the world immediately after the defeat of fascism, but
I would also like there to have been
a little more mercy also for Knut
Hamsun.
Knut Hamsun and Ezra Pound were
proclaimed insane. Pound was literally put into a straight jacket, while
Hamsun was treated with somewhat
more care, although he spent four
months in the Psychiatric Clinic in
Vinderen in Oslo and was there subjected to the far from pleasant methods of Dr Langfeldt who, at the end
of his examinations, concluded that
Knut Hamsuns mental faculties had
been permanently impaired.

55

Still today I carry in myself painful


memories of what my time in that
clinic destroyed in me, wrote Knut
Hamsun in his amazing memoirs
On Overgrown Paths. It cannot be
measured, there are no standards for
that. It was a process of slowly, slowly, slowly pulling out the very root.
Where does the blame lie? Nowhere
in particular, nowhere special, but in
the system. In control over a living
life, rules without intuition or heart,
in the psychology of paragraphs and
sections, in a whole science that defies science. Others are perhaps able to
endure that torment, but that has no
effect whatever on me: I am incapable
of enduring it. A psychiatrist ought to
understand that. I was a healthy being, I became a trembling jelly.
When I travelled to Stockholm towards the end of 1993, as the winner of the Tucholsky literary prize, a
Swedish friend of mine warned me
discreetly, knowing that I was a follower of Hamsun in a literary sense,
to mention that great writer as little
as possible, because the Scandinavians could not forgive him Hitler,
although Knut Hamsun was in the
canon, for when foreigners extolled
him that was experienced as though
someone was being reminded of his
shameful past.
And, truly, nearly half a century discussions and polemics have raged
over the intellectuals who, even superficially, sometimes in some unguarded statement, expressed their
support for fascism, or at least their
sympathy for that monstrous ideology, while no one bothers those who
belonged whole-heartedly to communism, let alone anathemises them
or sends them to an asylum. When
George Orwell wrote that the European left was fascinated by Stalin, and
we know that behind that monster
are also mass graves and concentration camps, and when he confronted the sinful British Stalinists with
the accusation that they wanted to

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be antifascists, without at the same


time being against totalitarianism,
he was immediately denigrated as a
devil who besmirches his homeland
and his nation and virtually banished from British society.
If somewhere some new Hamilton
writes a study of the attraction of
communism, then I hope that such
a study will pose serious questions
about the great writers who belonged
to the undisputed horror, and that
they will do so gently, and on no account with the condemnation and
savagery of the American army who
held the brilliant Ezra Pound for
months in a cage like an animal under the burning sun of Italy. I see
no difference whatsoever between
Clines statement that Hitler and
company deserve 250 Nobel Prizes and Aragons: We place Stalin
above Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Goethe, Pushkin, or the odes of Paul
Eluard, writing that only Stalin could
destroy all the misfortunes of today. No one seeks for an anathema
of those writers who placed Stalin
above Shakespeare, but it would certainly be desirable that the historical
mists should be equally compared,
or that we should speak more deeply and comprehensively about ourselves and the horrors of our century,
about our chaotic idols, about our
fall into barbarism and about acting
from anti-humane positions, about
intellectuals inclined to crime, the
diabolical outsider and the destruction of civilisation, as H. M. Enzensberger puts it. I might still somehow
be able to understand the mistakes of
great writers, their belief in political
utopias, but I have no comprehension whatever for those writers who
directly participated in the rule of any
totalitarian order.
Perhaps we have devoted too much
time to this episode of Hamsuns life
from the fascist epoch, but that is the
point where many of the contradictions of our age are to be found, so

it was worth saying something about


that and making it into a coherent
story, all the more so as far more
has probably been written about the
magnificent work of Knut Hamsun
than he wrote himself, and in the
course of his long and productive
life he discovered an entire literary
content and created, as he says himself: Several hundred characters, created them and described them from
within and outside as living beings, in
different mental states and nuances,
in their dreams and actions. And in
that multitude of characters he created also a whole menagerie of insects and spiders in human form, as
G. Benn put it.
Until his fiftieth year Hamsun had
such virtuoso control of his narrative I, spreading everywhere, in
stories and novels, autobiographical elements, but so masterfully that
it sometimes seems that the creator
himself is a freak or a devil, and that
he easily disguises himself and passes
from person to person in a thousand
and one ways. It is only after his fiftieth year that he abandons that autobiographical I and adopts the position of an objective narrator, observing the world from above, through
the lens of a prescient God who does
not miss a single trifle (I write about
trifles and I write trifles, says Knut
Hamsun), who hears every sound in
the vast expanses of his world, notices everything that stirs and lives
in that world, creates like God himself, sometimes from nothing, from
a bone, and then breathes life into it
like a magician, ennobling it in a style
that is quite idiosyncratic and particular, in which the skill of oblique
expression is developed, barely hinted; it is a claire-obscure, in which there
are no real or tangible outlines, but
everything is shaped only by the trembling of shadows and half-shadows
and the glinting of individual tiny
fragments, as Slavko Batui wrote
on the occasion of the publication

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of Vagabonds in Croatian in 1943.


That writer and Hamsuns translator
had written as early as 1931 in Savremenik, the weekly bulletin of the Society of Croatian writers, that Hamsuns novels were a game of truth and
illusion, a mixture of the tiniest quiverings out of which is built an event
containing something huge, gloomy
and full of anxiety, that conjures up
rapture, tears and laughter.
5. Life, Wanderings, Books
Knut Hamsun was born on 4th August
1859 in Gudbrandsdal near Lom, in
southern Norway, the fourth of six
children in the family of a poor tailor. When Knut was three, the family moved to the north, Hamary
near Lofoten and settled in the small
coastal town of Hamsun. Knut soon
became a clerk in his uncles office,
and after he had completed an apprenticeship as a shoemaker, he returned to his birthplace of Gudbrandsdal. Then he began to change
jobs, to wander and to write his first
stories. He was a court messenger,
road-mender, harbour worker, stoker on a steamship, bookkeeper and
other things.
In his twentieth year he went to
Cophenhagen, offering his stories
there, but without success. The famous Norwegian writer Arne Garborg did not believe in the young
Hamsuns gift, and did not think
that he would ever make a writer. In 1882, Knut Hamsun went
to America, where he did all kinds
of jobs, working as a wood-cutter,
miner, agricultural labourer, cobbler,
swineherd, builder, and then after
two years in America he returned to
Norway to die, because the doctors
had established that he had tuberculosis and that he had another two
months to live.
In Kristiania, todays Oslo, he tried
again to find his way as a writer and
was finally able to publish an essay

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about Mark Twain, which he signed


Knut Hamsund, but in a typesetting
error the final d was left off, and
so it was with a mistake, only a verbal one of course, that a great career
began. In Kristiania, the doctors refuted the findings of their American
colleagues, and that error too determined the longevity, indeed even the
immortality of Knut Hamsun. He
spent two years in Kristiania, barely
earning enough to live, often hungry, giving the occasional lecture,
and then, in 1886, he went back to
America, continuing to roam about
and change his professions. Among
other things, he worked as a reaper,
carpenter, assistant in a general store,
a cod fisherman round Newfoundland. In 1888 he returned to Europe,
lived in Copenhagen, going hungry
and that was how he wrote his first
novel Hunger that appeared in 1890,
in Denmark, was immediately translated into German and only after it
came out in Germany was it published in Norway.
Knut Hamsuns literary renown was
established with the novel Hunger, but
this vagabond simply could not settle in one place, he travelled through
Norway, giving lectures, spent increasing amounts of time in Paris,
where he felt himself a successor of
Strindberg, he lived for a while in
Munich and Berlin, then again in
Kristiania and his home town. He
wrote novels, plays and polemical
essays. He published his novel Mysteries, and then a remarkable book
appeared, a great work of world literature, his novel Pan. Four years
later the novel of love Victoria came
out, that song of songs, that history of a love as the author called it
in his subtitle.
Knut Hamsun began travelling again,
he spent a year in Finland, then crisscrossed Russia to the Caucasus, returned through Turkey, had new experiences, wrote accounts of his travels and novels, settled in a small

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

town near Copenhagen; he did not


stay long, moved back to Kristiania,
but did not settle there, because no
one left that strange town, without
being in some way marked by it,
and so, after twenty-five years, this
dreamer, the new Peer Gynt, like his
character, the sailor August, returned
to the north, to his Hamsund. But
Knut Hamsun did not stay long in
the town of his childhood, he went
back south, to Denmark, lived on
the little island of Sams, and after
his daughter Victoria was born in
1902, after a wild bohemian period
in Copenhagen, he endeavoured to
sail into a calm family harbour and
went to live in Drbak, in the Oslo
fjord, but his marriage soon fell apart
and he went back to his wanderings.
This was when his novels Under The
Autumn Star, A Wanderer Plays On
Muted Strings, The Last Joy and others came into being.
In his fiftieth year he married again,
this time a woman twenty-two years
younger than him, the actress Marie
Anderson. With Marie, who gave up
acting, he went north, bought a property in the Hamory district, near his
former home, he calmed down there
for only a year, then travelled south
again, staying in various places, writing and only occasionally visiting his
wife who looked after the estate and
bore children.
On becoming fifty, Knut Hamsun
abandoned the narrative I and
adopted the vantage point of an objective creator who wrote a series of
great novels that reveal unknown
worlds far from the noise of history,
endless expanses and original characters in constant struggle and initiative, moving over land and sea,
driven by a passion for wandering,
but also creative efforts, characters
who merge with their author, for
each carries part of his experience,
thus forging a unique novel without borders, the personal history of
each figure in this vast field of ex-

57

istence, which every true writer examines and treats to the end, as W.
Gombrowicz once said. So, after he
was fifty, Knut Hamsun created the
novels The Little Town of Segelfoss,
The Women At The Pump, The Last
Chapter, My Life Lives, Vagabonds,
The Ring is Closed and others, and
his masterpiece Growth of the Soil
(1917), for which he was awarded
the Nobel Prize in 1920.
After the great success of Growth of
the Soil, Knut Hamsun bought the
estate of Nrholm in Srlandet, some
ten kilometres from Grimstad, in the
very south of Norway. Here he settled
down, and according to the testimony of his wife and children became
increasingly eccentric and solitary, a
kind of modern hermit, inclined
to long spells of self-banishment, antagonistic towards honours and titles,
and spending the last years of his life
completely deaf. In this well cared-for
estate he erected a flagpole on which
each year, on the day of Norwegian
independence, the 17th of May, he
flew a flag. This flag would cover his
coffin at his funeral. He was buried,
in the circle of his family, quietly and
without funeral ceremonies, on 19th
March 1952.
And why should we not die? Knut
Hamsun wrote in his book On Overgrown Paths. Tacitus believes that we
Germanic peoples are very capable
of dying. And in this regard the Vikings did not disgrace us in the least.
Our somewhat more recent discoveries have given us an explanation for
the reason for death in general: we
do not die in order to be dead, for
something to be dead, we die in order that we can cross over into life,
we die in order to live, to be on some
level. The same Tacitus praises us for
not making a big thing of graves. We
just throw a little soil on ourselves.
Because of the smell.
And in one place, in the same book
he says: Alive or dead, its of no consequence.

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6. The Power of Story-Telling


For every great novelist, it is a real
pleasure to tell a story. Knut Hamsuns novels always contain a series
of stories, but they are there in the
function of the sujet, integrated into
the structure of the novel, and the
short stories he has left us and which
he wrote in between his great novels,
are so perfectly realised and precise
in their genre that they represent a
triumph of the authors art, mastery
at the very peak of world literature.
Knut Hamsun is renowned as a novelist, but, as a writer of stories, a writer
of the classic short story, he has remained a little in the shade, although
it is precisely in that genre that he
has shown all the characteristics of
his skill and achieved the level when
it can be said of a writer calmly and
without the slightest doubt that he is
a short-story writer of genius. I am
using this overworked phrase deliberately, because when the magnificent figure of Knut Hamsun is placed
next to it then everything achieves
completion and gives the effect of
authenticity, just as his stories are
authentic.
In conversation with I. B. Singer, Richard Burgin asked the great master
of the short story whether all those
stories came from his life, and Singer
replied that all the stories were connected with the life of the author,
but that did not mean anything if
they did not become unique cases! All
Knut Hamsuns stories are unique, although they all spring from his life
and could have happened only to
him. He himself says that he gave his
characters traits of his own personality, and they are all split and complex personalities, neither altogether
good, nor altogether bad, but these
two alternate subtly in their being
and their actions. And I am undoubtedly the same. When this is expressed
by Knut Hamsun himself, when he
says that many details from his own
biography, many aspects of his char-

acter are woven into his stories, then


that is a reason to admire the authors
skill even more, because it is a triumph for someone to take ones own
biography apart in order to build
from it the house of his novel.
A writer need not be an adventurer
in order to have a distinctive biography, out of which, as from his sleeve,
stories fall; he needs, above all, to be
gifted in noticing what escapes others, gifted in attracting events, like
a magnet, in having happen to him
what passes others by, or even everything that does happen to others;
and, finally, all that, whether true or
invented, must make a unique event
which must not, as Singer says, resemble any other event. Of course,
J. L. Borges came to his stories in a
different way; poor sight, and then
blindness, imposed on him a special style, which was for him the attribute of whoever tells stories. But
although he came to his stories differently, Borges, like Singer, considered that stories must be created in a
simple and unique way in order for a
modest and discreet complexity to
be achieved.
I did not wish in this short introduction to get involved in the theory of
the short story, but it seemed to me
useful to mention some of the experiences and observations of great storywriters who are in agreement with the
experience of Knut Hamsun, because
this wanderer entered his stories directly, but conveyed them through
indirect means, so that the stories
soared straight to aesthetic heights.
When Singer once said that the realistic power of prose increases its
mystical power, it seems to me that
he wrote the best definition also of
the story-telling power of the model
from his youth, Knut Hamsun.
7. The Seducer
The stories collected under the title
The Seducer And Other Stories, like all

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Knut Hamsuns other shorter prose


pieces, are only the chapters of an integral novel in which distant worlds
touch and numerous themes and
characters intersect, but at the same
time they are perfect small wholes,
the highest achievement in this genre,
and the apex of the narrators magic.
What is captivating about these stories is the fact that real events from
their authors life have crossed over
into just as exciting stories which
show us that writing, like life itself,
is an exciting adventure. That is the
god-given quality that a storyteller
has a hundred faces and that each face
can be shown in a hundred ways. He
changes his perspective every time;
on one occasion he is the narrator
himself, another time he is a narrator
listening to another narrator, then he
is only an observer, but always a participant in the events without which
these unusual stories are unimaginable. Somerset Maugham said that
the essence of story-telling is the
truth of the story, while Rudyard Kipling often spoke of the truth as the
older sister of creativity. When we
speak of Knut Hamsun, we no longer
talk about the authenticity of his stories, but say, nothing is as strange as
the truth, as the brilliant storyteller and somewhat older contemporary of Hamsuns, Ambrose Bierce,
once said. In Knut Hamsuns stories incredible characters keep cropping up, they appear like a travelling light that stays for a while and
then vanishes, as the writer himself
says in one place, for each of these
characters brings us a little piece of
his world, his personal drama, some
unique existential situation, whether
somewhere in the far north of America, in the prairie or a Chicago tram,
on the streets of Paris, in Kristiania
or a secluded dark corner of the harbour in Copenhagen. Alongside the
characters and unusual events is the
whole toolkit of the storytellers craft:
successful metaphors, witty turns of

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59

Mirko Kova

phrase, stylistic subtleties, self-irony,


humour, and everything that makes
Hamsun a distinctive and magnificent writer.
There is nothing better than a good
story, E. L. Doctorow once said. All
Knut Hamsuns stories are so good
that it is hard to decide which is best;
and in each of them we recognise details from their authors life, but integrated and renewed so that anyone
who has any contact with literature,
whether as a creator or simply a reader, must admire the skill with which
the writer translates events from his
life into perfect reality. As one reads
the brilliant story Father and Son,
it is useful to know that Knut Hamsun himself gambled away almost
all his property in a gambling hall in
Odense, but not in order to be able

to judge the story by that detail, but


so that the reader has a key in his
hand if he wishes to try to solve for
himself the riddle of the creative act
or the transformation of a fact of life
into myth.
The story On Tour also treats a
personal fact, because, as a young
writer, at that time a highway supervisor, Knut Hamsun gave a lecture in
Glven about Strindberg, at which he
had an audience of six, but this fact
in the story is just the introduction
for the ironic journey of the writer,
the main character in this masterfully
realised story that abounds in a whole
series of humorous situations, sometimes taken to absurdity, as though
they had been written by Kafka. The
Queen of Sheba, the authors masterpiece, acquires the outlines of a

metaphor about unattainable perfection, about elusive beauty and gradually evolves into a novel in small format, which is according to Kundera,
the characteristic of every good story,
because he says that there is no ontological difference between a short
story and a novel. And, truly, The
Queen of Sheba in that small format is a powerful realisation of the
great novelistic theme of searching
for lost love.
In one chapter of his last book On
Overgrown Paths, Knut Hamsun brings
to life his memories of America, his
wandering in search of work, personalities and destinies, and he called
those recollections of a time of exile
and a distant strange landscape a
sudden scintillating wit, that appears, as he himself says, only in mo-

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ments of satisfaction. For him writing


is a source of satisfaction, and scintillating wit, because every act of creation springs from a satisfaction that
is then transferred to others despite
all the harsh scenes and painful experiences undergone by the author
and masterfully transformed into renewed experiences, as W. Benjamin
calls this transposition of experience
into experience.
Knut Hamsuns four American stories, In the Prairie, A Wifes Victory, Fear and From a Wayfarers
Life, also carry the stamp of personal
experience, this time without Hamsuns mitigating irony and without
that storytellers mimicry, but now
with the concealed vehemence that
would later become characteristic of
American prose writing. Knut Hamsun had no influence on American
writers, nor was he particularly respected in the Anglo-American world
either by critics or the reading public, but his American short stories
are as modern as though they had
come into being at the time when the
American story returned once more
to the tradition of realistic narration
and concerned itself again with the
world of lost illusions. That style of
narration has been called minimalist by critics, but if that is a good and
precise term, then Knut Hamsun is
the precursor of that style, particularly in his short story Fear which is
so consummately nuanced from the
detail when the narrator states that
he did not know what real fear was
until he happened to find himself by
chance in the small town where they
had captured the most bloodthirsty
and blackest of all American gangsters, Jessie James; that was where
they finally captured him and put
him to death. And, at the end of the
story, the writer says: I repeat, never
in my life had I felt such fear as that
night in the little town of Madelia,
in the middle of the prairie, in that
refuge of Jessie James. The narrator

reaches that understanding of fear


through almost sparse means, concerning himself with apparently immaterial details in order, through secondary things, to reach a higher level
of universal human unease. The
story In the Prairie also perfectly
conforms to that idea of a novel on
one page as the American short story
is increasingly often called.
The story A Wifes Victory literally
adopts James Joyces neat thesis that
stories want a writer, and that it is
enough to go out of the house, get
onto a tram, bend down and pick up
one of them, and, once they have
been polished, then my fellow-countrymen can see themselves reflected
in them as in finely burnished mirrors, this famous and controversial
writer once said. Knut Hamsun did
not need to get on a tram, nor did he
have to bend down, because he spent
the majority of each day on them,
working as a conductor on the Chicago trams, and his biography contains
the detail that he was dismissed from
his post because he mispronounced
the names of the stops. The way in
which A Wifes Victory is polished,
certainly surpasses all its other components, including the way the writer came to it, in a tram, through his
imagination or a combination of all
his experiences.
The longer story From a Wayfarers
Life is concerned with Hamsuns
favourite world of wanderers, that
reaches its thematic and artistic peak
in the great novels Vagabonds and August, although his other works also
abound in wanderers, always shaded in fine, tender tones, even when
they are wicked and evil. Kasimir
Edschmid wrote that Knut Hamsun
raised his vagabonds to the level of
the poetic and inexpressible; they
move miraculously in the space of
mystery. And Knut Hamsun himself was an incorrigible wanderer,
who as, Karlo Naerup (Det moderne
norske litteratur 1890 1904) never

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succeeded in orienting himself in his


wanderers space. Hamsun was in
constant flight and pursuit of new
excitements, and he did not shrink
from fights and drunkenness, poker
and street girls, about all of which he
liked to write, discreetly and in moderation. Karlo Naerup also writes
about the American period of Hamsuns life and in one place he states:
His gift could not be observed in his
jobs in the fields and on the trams. In
Dakota, on a farm, he certainly did
not experience recognition. He had
plenty of energy, he was as strong as
an ox, but his work could never occupy his thoughts that flew together with him. Nor did he distinguish
himself in any way as a conductor on
a Chicago tram. He had no ability to
find himself in space, he simply had
no sense of direction, until he reached
the last stop. He caused such confusion that passengers often found
themselves where it had not occurred
to them to go. The complaints piled
up in head office...
The two stories Apparition and
The Son of the Sun stand out from
Hamsuns amazing realism, but only
to the extent that it was necessary for
the writer to cross the boundary of
the real and enter into the fantastic,
which was just an excuse to describe
things about which the writer did
not dare to speak in realistic terms,
as P. Penzoldt put it in his interpretations of fiction and the supernatural. In Apparition we also recognise
Hamsun the boy who worked as a
fifteen year-old in his uncles office.
All the elements of the story are real
apart from the apparition itself which
was created in the childs imagination ever since he found the tooth
of a corpse in a graveyard. The boys
struggle with that phenomenon and
his relationship to the ghost is transferred by the narrator into his own existential experience, with him saying
at the end that this apparition helped
him deal with all other adversities and

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dangers. Here Knut Hamsun is close


to those experiences of psychoanalysis that hold that there is nothing
arbitrary in a persons mental life.
M. Blanshot once said: Literature
is as though! The childs apparition
from the story of that name is as real
as every other literary event. The
Son of the Sun is a short treatise on
the unease of the artist, the light he
craves, fear of the snow and winter,
on the end and on dwelling places.
Writing such a short discussion in
the form of an unusual story about
all these artistic anxieties, the writer
at one moment asks: Then, which
country is the homeland of his soul?
Although the story has grown into a
metaphor, it has lost nothing of its
narrative skill, indeed it has demonstrated that Knut Hamsun is a master
of all means of expression, and this
time he concerned himself in a new
way with his own trepidations and for
a moment illuminated his own anxiety with the light of longing.
Slaves of Love and street Revolution are most frequently described
as the most successful of Hamsuns
short stories; both have been translated into numerous languages and
published in several anthologies, so
for instance Street Revolution appeared in Croatian as early as 1930,
as the twentieth volume of Wiesners
series The Thousand Finest Novellas.
Any anthology of love stories could
include, in addition to those already
mentioned Slaves of Love and
The Queen of Sheba the stories
The Seducer and Alexander and
Leonarda and even the miniature
The Ring.
Dreamers is also a love story, a love
history, as Hamsun himself liked to
call some of his fiction. There have
been disagreements about the genre
of Dreamers, with it being classified sometimes as a short novel, although it holds its own firmly also
as a long short story, and the main
character Rolandsen, that dreamer,

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

telegrapher, inventor and seducer


is among Hamsuns great characters
and the piece often gives the impression of being an episode in one of
Hamsuns novels. Dreamers was
adapted as a film, directed by Erik
Gustavson in 1992, and at the festival in Kristiansund it was proclaimed
the best Norwegian film and awarded
a whole series of prizes, including the
most successful adaptation of a work
of literature.
Hamsuns favourite narrative procedure was applied and brought to perfection in his story Scoundrel; here
the stranger speaks while the narrator
listens, for the two at the end to unite
in a heavy, almost dismal confession
that reminds one of the best pages of
Dostoevsky, realised in novellas such
as A Gentle Spirit and Notes from the
Underground.
At the very beginning, the narrator
of Scoundrel addresses the reader,
saying: That is how it began, dear
reader. He is invited to follow the
sequence of the confession, pointing
out that something began, here in a
Christian cemetery, and asked for his
cooperation to the end. Dostoevsky
sometimes exaggerated in that insistence on the respected and dear
reader, without whom not one of his
stories would have had any purpose.
Knut Hamsun is more cautious; he
calls on the reader only when he himself is afraid of the presence of evil.
Dostoevsky obliges the reader to hear
something that he has not heard until
then; Knut Hamsun asks him gently
and discreetly to share the experience
as long as the story lasts. Dostoevsky
is often inclined to say: this is a true
story, while Knut Hamsun is not so
imperious, he is content to say: I am
telling it the way it was.
Hamsuns scoundrel could also be
called a philosopher of the underground, but not one who is settling
accounts with himself, like the hero
of Notes from the Underground, but
one who destroys some established

61

prejudices, but is incapable of tearing himself away from what is dark


and hopeless in himself. He approves
the theft of flowers, which are being
spoilt and withering in the cemetery,
but then participates in chasing the
little thief Elina. He brags and philosophises about virtues and morality, but accepts debauchery with the
little girl Elina, justifying himself by
saying that someone else, perhaps
worse than him, would be with her
if he was not. But I shall go to her
again. I should nevertheless try to
do something for her, reflects Hamsuns scoundrel, never questioning his
own goodness and honesty, while the
hero of Notes from the Underground
is forever doubting and examining
himself, and at one moment says of
himself that he has not succeeded in
becoming either bad or good, neither a cad nor decent, not honest,
not a hero, not even an insect. At
the end, the villain from Scoundrel
robs the one who has been listening
to him, while, for example, the hero of Notes from the Underground, at
the end of his liaison with the prostitute Liza, feels humiliated, because
he had wanted to humiliate someone
else. He submits and loses his selfrespect, while Hamsuns scoundrel
relishes the realisation that in paying
for his dissolution he did the girl a
good deed. To be a scoundrel was
for me a special pleasure, he says.
The hero of Notes from the Underground feels that he is a disgusting
worm, while Hamsuns scoundrel
says calmly: But it must be admitted that I am not worse or more disgusting than other people.
If I dared choose my favourite story,
then I would hesitate between The
Voice of Life and The Lady from
Tivoli. The criterion by which I
would decide on one of these two is:
those are the stories that I would have
liked to have written myself. In fact,
that is the most frequent measure
where compilers of anthologies or

62

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

editors of collections are concerned


if they are themselves writers. Such a
pretentious if not unenviable measure could be applied to the entire selection in the collection The Seducer
and Other Stories, but I have highlighted these two stories, perhaps because it was in them that Knut Hamsun has shifted the events to the very
limit of the bizarre, almost to the edge
of poetic mystery and because he has
shaped, in his tried and tested style
the female characters Ellen and the
unfortunate lady from Tivoli, wrapping them in his mysterious veil, just
as he did with his great characters,
such as Edwarda in Pan or Yalajali in
Hunger. In her inner anxiety, the lady
from Tivoli, obsessed with a childs
corpse, reminds one of the character
of Ana Maria from the novel Vagabonds, who looks on with pleasure
as the boatman Skaaro sinks into
the shifting mud of a swamp. The
childs grave that preoccupies the lady
from Tivoli acquires the outlines of
a ghostly reality, as does the swamp
in Vagabonds, in which Skaaro disappears and from which for a long
time afterwards shrieks and cries for
help continue to reverberate. That
was not Karoluss ox, it was no seabird that emitted just one single cry
and then fell silent again, in other
words, it must have been a troubled
soul lamenting. Everyone thought of
Skaaro the boatman, that is how the
narrator describes that ghostly scene
from the swamp, and in one place
he himself wonders whether this is
a story or a real happening. Knut
Hamsun knows how to shift the borders of reality, but never beyond reality. He does not allow his characters
to leave the space of the actual, even
when he takes their destinies to the
very edge of the fantastic.

8. Conclusion
Reading Knut Hamsun and working on a selection of his stories, I was
overwhelmed by joy, and literature
is a form of joy, said Borges. I experienced this joy as a kind of writers
coming together, because literature is
unimaginable without this aesthetic
phenomenon of connection. And I
tried to understand Knut Hamsuns
wrong turning, in the mist of history, by thinking that the creator of
many bizarre and eccentric characters, himself became at one moment
a novelistic character, a very complex
character, himself bizarre, because it
is astonishing that the same person
contained a great writer, a moral being, a creator of worlds and a little
destructive pen-pusher who adored
and praised a nonentity and a monster. He abandoned his biography
and unconsciously offered it as the
material for a novel. But that is no
kind of justification and it is impossible to understand the great writers
action. To do so much against oneself is not permissible even for a cruel sadomasochist. To distance ones
work from the world for which it is
intended is serious self-destruction,
if not a denial of ones own work. To
drive public opinion to spend years
far more concerned with Hamsuns
worthless little pamphlets in honour
of a nonentity, than with his magnificent work, is a shared horror, ours
and his. Knut Hamsun was great only in his novels and stories, a spirit
above the world, while all the rest is
just ours, human, uncertain, contradictory, subject to impressions.
Kundera was right to say that only a
novel is in a position to express fully
that secret one of the greatest that
man knows. Montaigne asked of a
book that it help him get to know

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himself, and teach him how to live


well and die well.
Why Knut Hamsun came down from
Zarathustras mountain into the
Nazi lair, may only be guessed. Some
analysts call the mistakes of great
writers a lack of lucidity. I do not find
that convincing. Neither Hamsuns
book of memoirs On Overgrown Paths
nor Dr Langfeldts diagnosis about
his patients impaired faculties explains anything. Or perhaps every
nationalism is inclined to fascism,
and Knut Hamsun stressed on several occasions that he had only wished
to help his nation, particularly young
Norwegian men not to perish in vain
in their battle with a giant. Perhaps
that is what he sincerely thought,
only it turned out terrifying. But, despite everything, every reasonable and
intelligent person who cares about
books and views them like Montaigne, will find in Knut Hamsuns
novels a grain of truth, always something new and mysterious, brimming
with the past, pleasant and influential, something magical and divine,
exalted and spiritual, which are the
gifts only of great writers, while it will
not be altogether simple to separate
his delusions and mists entirely from
his works, however much we try and
however well-disposed we are towards the author. I personally regret
that Knut Hamsun did nothing to
erase his sins in connection with Hitler, he did not even repent, nor did
he renounce his contemptible position. Germany was already defeated,
Hitler dead and, in May 1945, in Aftenposten, he wrote an obituary calling him a great reformer who was
destined to act in an age of the most
unprecedented cruelty which finally
brought him down.
Translated by Celia Hawkesworth

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63

Memorial Service
[Extracts from the unpublished novel Receding Time]
Mirko Kova

once ran into Leonid ejka at the


New Cemetery, it was May 1959,
he was carrying a candle, while I was
returning from someones parastos.
I was writing a piece for Mladost,
and had promised that I was going
to mock feasting at cemeteries as a
backward, pagan custom, but nevertheless I could not resist the traditional sweet corn dish, the pies
and vanilla buns that I was offered
by complete strangers at the service,
and I even took a paper bag stuffed
full of goodies from the festive table
that they gave me at the end. I had
intended to catch a tram to the Law
Faculty, but changed my mind and
joined ejka, keeping him company
as he walked round the part of the
New Cemetery that he himself called
the Russian Quarter. We talked about
how easy it is to lose ones way and
how hard it is to get ones bearings
in large cemeteries, particularly when
you are looking for the individual
grave of a relative or friend.
I sometimes light a candle on a
grave, without knowing whose it is,
but whoever you light a candle for,
on whatever grave, it is a Christian
act, he said.
ejka was looking for the grave of the
architect Valery Vladimirovich Stoshevsky, a Russian migr and close
friend of his father Trofim Vasilyevich, one of the few migrs to be

Mirko Kova

employed by the High Command


of the Royal Army, as topographer.
This was an exception, because Russian migrs could not normally get
employment in the army or the police, Only if you marry a Tsintsar,
as my father did, ejka would joke.
Whichever direction we set off in, we
kept coming out at the grave of Boris
Chistogradov. It had an open book
carved from marble with the name

of Ana Smirovna Vasilyevna on it,


and in the end we decided to take a
rest there and try to work out how
we would continue to search for the
eternal resting place of Valery Stoshevsky. It was a mild May day, with
occasional rain, and increasingly rapid successions of cloud and sun; the
shadow of a rain cloud would bring
a few drops or a light shower, then
the sun would come out and disperse
the shadows, and that took place in
short intervals, making a heavenly
installation, as we both concluded,
glancing at the golden shafts breaking through the clouds.
We stopped for a while on Boris Chistogradovs grave, and, before we sat
down, ejka leaned his ear against the
marble surface, he thought that I was
going to ask him what he could hear
and whether the deceased was going
to allow us to laze about on his property, but I was cautious and reticent,
so ejka himself said that there were
people who could hear the speech of
the dead. But theres no need to lay
your ear on the gravestone, I said,
although there were many ways in
which some fragment of the past
could be summoned, it all depended
how large a morsel you could bite. We
had settled in so comfortably, that we
could have stayed until nightfall.
What do you think, can a man exist
without God? asked ejka out of the

64

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

blue, so that I was caught off guard,


and did not have any reply in mind,
so I began coughing and stammering, but he replied instead of me. I
dont believe he can, he said. If he
has no God, he starts to invent false
gods, he said. Hitler, Stalin, Tito.
They flew in to fill the empty Godless space, he said.
ejka did not captivate one only with
his knowledge and sense of humour,
but also his charm, he was particularly good at so-called idle chatter,
so I really tried not to miss a single
word, sometimes I would move right
up to him, to a dangerous limit, just
to hear better, because he altered his
tones, raised and lowered his voice,
often whispering. He would begin
softly, and then exaltedly, for example about the portrait as mirror,
about painting as a form of prayer,
and then he would lower his voice, as
though he was afraid of something,
as though someone were eavesdropping, then he would stop, and, after
a pause, he would explain his silence
with chosen words: We have to take
a rest when we talk about the great
masters of the portrait, and we rinse
out our mouths with their names
without any pain or compassion, often without piety.
Were in a cemetery, I said, not in
some profane place. Everything here
is talked about with piety. But you
sometimes speak so softly that I can
hardly hear you.
ejka suggested that we embark on
another expedition and comb the
Russian quarter of the cemetery in
search of Valery Stoshevskys grave,
so we set off between the graves,
many of them were neglected, their
wooden crosses rotten, crooked, but
there were also tidy graves, on some
of them there were still legible quotations from Russian literature, so
we kept stopping and reading aloud
verses by Pushkin, or the occasional thought of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy,
Chekhov and other famous Russians,

while on one gravestone there was a


stanza of lines by Mikhail Lermontov translated into Serbian. Here
we separated and parted for a short
time, roaming round the graves and
it seems that we were moving ever
further from the one that we were
looking for, and then a short shower drove us to the chapel, which was
locked, and we stood in front of the
door until rays of sun broke through
cracks in the clouds. There were raindrops on our hands and faces, which
now glistened like pearls. Then I read
for the first time that this chapel was
built in 1931, modelled on the Iberian Chapel in Moscow, and the designer was Valery Stoshevsky, whom
ejka remembered from his childhood, he had brought him models
and paper for drawing on; his first
pair of compasses, protractor and
ruler were given to him by the architect, who had left many buildings in
Belgrade, The Civil Servants Settlement in Vodovac, the building of the
industrialist Milan Dimi, the owner
of several brickworks in Serbia, the
Orthodox church of the Holy Trinity
on Tamajdan, while the jewel in this
series of monumental buildings was
the Iberian Chapel in the New Cemetery. Had it been open, we would
certainly have gone inside, bowed
before the icon of the Holy Mother
of Iberia and asked her to lead us to
the eternal home of the architect who
built her house. ejka said that it was
easy to recognise Valerys hand, not
only as monumental, but also fine,
soothing, weaving details, incorporating decorations, but without any
kitsch, always discreet, in controlled quantities, developing his own
heraldry.
ejka knew all about the Iberian Icon,
about its history, how it came to Russia and all the miracles that had surrounded it, it was all quite new to
me and I drank in every word as I
listened to the gentle, agreeable voice
talking exactly has he had himself

TIONS

once written: I am a weaver, an expert, a weaver-sorcerer, the one who


weaves to unweave and reweave, so
as to interweave. But nevertheless
I dont think that he believed in the
miraculous powers of the icon he
was describing, despite the fact that
he was religious, and in a superior
way, with his head in the lap of the
Russian mystics, as he put it. He was
drawn to Kierkegaards conception
of religion; in one issue of what was
then the avant-garde journal Vidici,
he published extracts from his Diary, quoting the Danish philosopher
as saying that religiosity begins with
despair. As I was listening attentively, without asking questions, he
continued to talk about the Iberian
Chapel, which stood at one of the
gates to the Kremlin until Stalin came
to the throne. The easiest way to enter history is though crime, while
the second step is the destruction of
sacred objects, said ejka, so Stalin,
who had attended a seminary and
was a fine singer of Akatist hymns,
immediately ordered that the chapel
be destroyed. Once it had been impossible to be received by the ruler
in the Kremlin, however celebrated
the guest, if he had not first prayed
before the miraculous Iberian Icon
and stayed at least long enough for
the priests and singers to pronounce
the words of the litany: Rejoice, gentle gate-keeper, who opens the gate
of heaven to the faithful.
The tsars placed God above them,
while the Kremlin godless are themselves Gods, said ejka.
We leaned our backs against the door
of the Iberian Chapel, with its crosses on either side of the double door;
these were the double crosses that
are common in Russian shrines. A
painted iron rod with a padlock at the
end additionally secured the locked
door. And as we stood there, ejka lit
a cigarette, calmly raised his head and
gazed at the treetops as he exhaled
smoke, as in some ritual of perfect

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relaxation. We breathed in the ozone


and that aroma that comes after rain,
the aroma of earth on graves, the intensive scent of those flowers which
had budded early, so as to come into
flower in May, and, when the sun
broke through the clouds, it brought
such good cheer that the two of us
greeted it like a dear guest and pronounced something literary every
time, some little ode to the sun, at
least a word or two; in fact we wished
that in that its contest with the clouds
it would capture as much clear, blue
space as possible. And so it was, some
clouds divided with dizzying speed.
We no longer talked about the grave
of Valery Stoshevsky, fourteen years
had passed since his death, remembrance of the dead does not last long,
and that was a small sign that we
could not find the grave; we must
have got caught up in something
mystical. ejka said that there were
days when Kafka himself had not
been able to orient himself for several hours at a time, and there were
periods when he wrote the wrong
dates. He knew perfectly well that a
particular day was, for instance, 26th
March, but in the evening, before he
began to write his diary, he would
write 15th March, which he would
not notice until the following day,
when he came to check what he had
written the previous evening. He
had written about it in a letter to his
friend Max Brod, complaining that
he was unable to explain that business with the dates.
There are things that should not be
figured out, said ejka.
We roamed around the cemetery for
a little while longer, we even trod
inadvertently into a fresh mound,
dragging our feet out of it with difficulty as it was waterlogged and
the runny clay stuck to our shoes.
A short distance from that grave we
heard a high, shrill, vehement womans voice, as though it was quarrelling with someone; arguments be-

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

tween women sometimes broke out


in graveyards, usually about something trivial, but as we drew closer,
we saw just one middle-aged lady, a
strikingly beautiful woman, in an elegant light-grey suit, with a black hat
and black silk stockings, with rings
on nearly every finger of each hand
and an amazing antique brooch that
glinted in a prominent place, where
her left breast formed a small hump.
The lady was smoking a long, thin
cigarette of the kind that could only
be bought abroad, in a diplomatic
outlet or duty-free shop. So, she was
not quarrelling with a neighbour who
had dropped litter on the grave or
something like that, rather she was
shouting angrily at the deceased, furious that he had gone too soon, leaving her with nothing, so that she had
to marry a cad, a womaniser and maniac drawn to young girls. We stood
and listened to the angry conversation with someone from beyond the
grave, but that did not bother the
lady, perhaps she thought that we
did not understand Russian, and she
became increasingly vehement, quietening down only when ejka interrupted, also in Russian.
Madam, you are venting your anger on your dead husband, instead
of throwing your rebukes in the face
of your living, unfaithful one, he
said.
She did not snap at us, angry that
we too had been standing beside the
grave; she even smiled beguilingly,
and since the sun suddenly blazed,
she took her dark glasses out of her
handbag, blew the dust from them
and put them on. ejka offered her
his candle to light for the soul of the
deceased, she accepted it and squatted beside the grave, pushed it into the earth, and, with an elegant
gold lighter already in her hand, she
sparked it, lit the candle and straightened up, watching the little flame
flickering, the wax slipping down the
candle, and when it crackled, that lit-

65

tle tongue of flame lengthened and


twisted.
He didnt deserve any kind of memorial, she said. Nothing other
than contempt.
Do you think that we have any influence on our own death? asked
ejka.
He was only forty-five, she said.
Thats no age to die, and then
again, in front of us, she let fly the
deceased, did you have to end up so
humiliated and pathetic?
We did not involve ourselves in her
story, nor did we wish to know what
was really tormenting her; we were
just drawn to this elegant, beautiful
woman who was castigating a grave,
and we were not interested in the
deceased, what he had died of and
how, what he had been, that was
no business of ours and who knows
where such curiosity might have led
us. We had chanced to be there and
approached the lady, perhaps it was
impolite, but we were not aware of
any impatience in her; on the contrary, she had been pleased, it even
seemed to us that she was addressing us at the same time as the dead
man. It was a unique event, and we
had participated in it discreetly. I
then gallantly took a paper package,
already greasy in several places, out
of my shopping bag, opened it and
offered them the food that I had been
given at the memorial service. That
startled ejka, he looked me up and
down in surprise and said, Ive been
smelling food in your bag the whole
time, and then he took a little piece
of cheese pie and bit into it. I talked
cheerfully and wittily about how I
had happened to walk into someones
memorial service, saying that I was
writing something about wakes and
feasts in memory of the dead. They
had accepted me as one of them, and
first I had drunk brandy for the soul
of the deceased, for the fortieth day.
The beautiful lady immediately tried
those delicacies, taking them in her

66

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

cared-for fingers, with their prominent claws of bright-red polish. ejka


ate with pleasure, praising the pie,
while I tried only the little cakes, I
was full and had eaten too much at
the service, then I had been handed a
large piece of roast suckling pig with
crisp skin and as I left I had downed
another plum brandy. I managed
to talk about the customs and various memorial services. Whatever is
made of wheat for the dead, is called
soul-food, a stout lady in black
had said. I had immediately written

a Russian grave, although I knew little about these customs, but I would
arm myself with knowledge before
I wrote my pilot-text after which I
would be taken on as a permanent
writer for the Mladost journal. I said
that I was going to mock the autumn and winter memorial services,
but ejka good-naturedly warned me
that in the mythology of all the Slavs
mockery was devils work; whoever
mocked another was possessed by
the devil, even when he was mocking someones faults and malice. The

TIONS

and agile leaps round small rain puddles and at least three or four graves.
And that is when it happened that I
came across the grave of the architect
Valery Stoshevsky, it had been within
easy reach of where we were, we had
passed it several times, you could see
the prints of our feet on the sodden
path. How had we missed it? What
kind of subterfuge was at work? I
caught up with the two of them on
the broad gravel path between an avenue of trees, but I did not tell ejka
that I had found Valerys grave; I dont

Mirko Kova

that word in my notebook, I made


myself look important, as though I
was carrying out a mission and not
concerned only with this handful of
grieving relatives at the graveside, but
also with their customs, the whole
Serbian tradition, and I asked again
whether food for the dead was really
called soul-food. Yes, yes, they
all cawed helpfully, almost in unison, and the stout lady added that
in southern Serbia a layer of dried
fruit would be laid out. And so, it
turned into a kind of soul-feast on

lady took her leave of the grave with a


scornful glance, and in order to emphasise it as something convincing
and obvious, she lowered her sunglasses onto her nose. That was her
last look at the grave, perhaps her final farewell to her husband who had
died too young, who knows?
We set off at the same time, first
the lady, then ejka, while I stayed
behind for a moment to throw the
greasy paper and string bag into the
rubbish bin. I could get to the overflowing bin if I took several swift

know why I kept it from him. On our


right, near the grave of Petar Petrovi
Pecija, actor and writer, four children, each up to the shoulder of the
next, were kneeling on the ground,
beside a fresh mound, sobbing and
kissing the yellow tin letters on a new
wooden cross. What a sad quartet,
said ejka.
We were passed by two thin little
women in black, their arms round
each other, as though they had grown
together, as though they were Siamese
twins. When we came out on the

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broad asphalted avenue, one of its


branches led uphill to the Memorial
and Mausoleum of the Defenders of
Belgrade, 1914-1918, and the other
to the cemeterys secondary chapel in
St. Nikola Street. The lady wanted
us to escort her to the exit. On either side of the narrow gateway, in
the street, right beside the cemetery
fence, there were two small flowershops, and in front of them, all over
the pavement, were pots and vases
of flowers, glass candle-holders and
other graveyard requisites, while candles of all sizes could be bought only
in a kiosk. On the other side of the
road were stone-masons workshops;
machines for cutting stone and marble whirred while white dust spread
all around, even over the tops of the
trees; only a heavy, lengthy rainfall
would be able to wash it away. At the
edge of the street stood a black limousine with diplomatic plates, clean and
waxed to a high shine, almost unreal
in that dusty environment, its sheen
reflecting, as in a mirror our caricature figures, shortened and flattened;
that is how the cemetery chapel, the
kiosk and the flower-shops looked
as well, as did everything that was
reflected in the polished, gleaming
mirror of that diplomats vehicle.
The chauffeur was standing leaning against the front wing of the car,
looking towards us and at that moment threw away his cigarette, crushing the stub under his shoe. Our lady
offered us each a hand at the same
time, I got the left one. Well say
goodbye here, she said, thanking
us for the feast, and then, looking
along both sides of the street, made
her way lightly and elegantly to the
limousine; the driver held the door
open and as soon as the lady had sat
down he closed it and leapt swiftly
into his seat. She waved to us as she
left, or rather she just leant her hand
against the window, as we watched
the limousine moving away towards
Roosevelt St.

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

I did not manage to write the text


about graveside feasts, I even told the
editor why should we stamp out old
customs and who are we to determine
what aspects of a nations traditions
are backward, and instead of mocking soul-food, instead of jeering
at the people who had treated me, I
wrote for the column which I titled
Encounters with Young Artists, a
panegyric to ejka, stressing that the
brilliant painter was tormented not
only by artistic but also philosophical doubts and insights, those who
believe in God, are God, he had
said. That was my third trial text in
order to get a permanent journalists
job; two or three days later the editors summoned me to tell me that I
had not been accepted, one of them
said that there was no literature in
journalism and you can tie those
poetic images of yours to a cats tail,
thats what he said. Three years later, the journal Mladost made my life
misery with a scandal over my first
novel The Execution Site (Gubilite),
a crazy campaign against me that
dragged on for a year through other papers as well, and the Belgrade
weekly Svet carried that dispute on its
poor quality paper, proclaiming my
work shocking, books by the mentally ill should not be published,
while one provincial newspaper carried a picture of a brain, with the
caption the author of The Execution
Site in a mad-house. I do not wish
to dwell now on former traumas, I
would not want to try to portray myself as the victim of ideological torture, everyone is that nowadays, especially those who did the oppressing,
they say that it was harder for them
than for the oppressed; I shall probably have something to say about
that later, in the chapter about Oskar Davio, the famous communistwriter who helped me to get my own
back on my persecutors in Svet, I
have not read your book, but that
is no reason for me not to defend a

67

young writer, he said. He read my


reply, neatly typed on a typewriter,
carefully, took a pencil and licked it
with the tip of his tongue, then he
crossed out some of my words and
made corrections in his own hand,
inserting new sentences between the
lines or down the side of the text, in
the margins. I still have that newspaper cutting and the original text with
Davios handwriting.
Like a Member of the Family
ejka used to go with friends to the
Zapis caf, only in the summer
months; the food and service were
nothing to write home about, the
prices were reasonable, but what attracted us was the pleasing little terrace, tucked among vegetation, full
of greenery, and the shade of the
thick trees was agreeable when it
was hot. Only the street separated
this terrace from the cemetery fence
through which mounds piled with
wreaths and flowers could be seen,
modest ancient graves with a patina
like the ornament of time, or new
lavish, kitsch marble ones, and then
there were funerals, memorial services, tears and priests chanting Eternal Rest in their deep voices. ejka
liked the cafs near the cemetery,
this one was at the end of St Nikola
Street, while there were other better
ones on the other side, near the main
gate and the Memorial grave of the
Liberators of Belgrade 1944. Zapis
was far from being my local, but I sat
with ejka several times on that terrace, including one occasion about a
month after our meeting and roaming through the cemetery. ejka said
that in this world we were after all
surrealists, everything that happened
to us was becoming incomprehensible, everything could be like this, or
it could be different, reality is running away from us, and we placed
our encounter with the mysterious
lady in the graveyard in that context

68

of illusion. The day will come when


it will not be true, said ejka.
We thought back and recalled our
first meeting, agreeing in every detail, in everything that we had uttered then, as though we were one
mind, the same memory. We had
first met in the Cvetkov Market, in
the bric-a-brac section, I had shown
ejka a collection of photographs of
former Serbian officers on sale for
next to nothing. I did all I could to
get closer to him, it took time, but
always, whenever we met, we would
stop and have a short chat. At that
time his close friends were Ilija Savi,
Dolores aa, Danilo Ki, Sinia
Vukovi, while his great love was
Olja Ivanjicki.
ejka had four artistic names, one
of which was Leon Le. I hated the
malicious people who would criticise
him in my presence or near me, and
once, in the Znak Pitanja caf, I
had roughly pushed an En Formalist painter who was attacking him,
shouting drunkenly Leon Le, carcass of the classics1 I grabbed that
painter by the throat, while ejka
simply waved his hand elegantly.
When he succeeded in extracting
himself from my claws, he thrust his
face into ejkas, shouting threateningly: Youre not going to lecture
me, in my country, about what painting is. Go back to where your daddy
came from, Jew-boy! We recalled
this as we sat in the Zapis caf,
drinking icy wine and sodas.
ejka smiled and said, Im not a Jew,
but if I were it wouldnt mean anything to me.
Then he told me about his father
Trofim Vasilyevich, a former officer in the Imperial Army. He was a
wise, reasonable man, there would
have been something to inherit from
him, had inheriting been a simple
matter. He was one of the rare refugees from Lenins terror who used to
1

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

Le means corpse. [Translators note.]

say that, had history by any chance


gone the way of the White Guards,
they would have been just as cruel.
You must always consider what you
are yourself capable of doing before
you accuse others. ejka said that
his father never let the word revolution cross his lips, if it referred to
events in Russia; it would not make
his stomach ache, but it would leave
a bitter taste in his mouth. Instead
of revolution, Trofim Vasilyevich
used the poetic coinage red storm.
Nabokov called that storm madness
or the regime of blood-letting. And
while many aristocratic families had
already ensured themselves a refuge
abroad, the officers elite fled from
the execution ground, a moment
before they were mown down, without any hope of ever returning to
their homeland, but they all, no matter what class they came from, left
with sadness, malaise and fear, each
bearing his cross; and each of them
would complain in the same way
that their God had deserted them
and they could not comprehend how
He could be on the side of those who
seized other peoples property and
destroyed everything that had been
created over the centuries with His,
Gods benevolence.
Tofim Vasilyevich came from a moderately wealthy family; his father Vasily, a forestry engineer, had been the
overseer of a vast belt of forest, and
he remained in that post even after
the Reds came to power. His mother
was a teacher, a lyrical soul, obsessed
with her son Trofim she had written him around two hundred letters
while he was a student at the Military
Academy. His mothers letters were
the young students favourite reading-matter, there are letters in which
she surpassed Turgenev, he used to
say. This talented teacher described
everything that happened in the Luganski district, she worked on every

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letter the way a chronicler worked on


the chapters of his chronicle. Along
with her fine style and descriptions
of nature, there were cruel, dark stories of crimes, adultery, deaths, miscarriages, corruption, the madness of
the epoch and the dissolute drinkingsprees that usually flourish during
great cataclysms.
Trofim Vasilyevich kept his mothers
letters in an army trunk in the dormitory, he read them often, sometimes out loud and several times
over. When a letter arrived he would
open it carefully with his paper knife,
or some of them in an almost ritual
manner with the tip of the sabre he
had received as a prize at the end of
his first year at the Academy as the
best student in his class. And beside
the postage stamps on the envelope
he would clearly write the dates that
became at the same time a kind of
ordering and pagination of this book
of his mothers written in calligraphic
handwriting, while on the back, on
the clean part of each envelope, he
would copy in his own hand a few
sentences as the essence of a particular letter, just as novelists in the old
days used to emphasise at the beginning of each chapter what the reader
should expect in that chapter. There
were a few letters onto which Trofim
had dropped tears as he read, and on
every place where the ink had run,
he had re-written the words with a
thick quill and ink, and, if that did
not succeed, he would draw an arrow
to the edge of the paper and write the
smudged word again, legibly.
As he parted from his parents, Trofim
had told his mother that wherever
in the distant world where he would
end up as a refugee her precious letters would be a clasp connecting him
with his homeland and birthplace,
his lost degraded homeland, as his
father Vasily said, bursting into tears.
And, as they saw Trofim off on his

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journey, his mother had taken every superfluous item out of her sons
rucksack: You only take a few things
on a journey like this, she said, it
is enough to have boots on your
feet and a head on your shoulders.
She was stronger than her husband
who paced up and down, beating his
hands on his forehead: Stop snivelling, she exclaimed, playing the part
of the cheerful mother getting her son
ready for a lads outing.
Light luggage is the travellers friend,
she said. Just the clothes you have
on your back. No food.
She put into a little pocket with a fastening a few gold coins, a ring with
a precious stone and a gold bracelet,
a gift from her husband on their engagement. His father Vasily added
his expensive razor with its motherof-pearl case, with gold and platinum
appliqu, and its ends worked with a
filigree of golden lace. This razor had
several meanings: it was a precious
memento, of great value at a jewellers, it could be used as a weapon, and
also as a means of suicide you slit
your veins or your throat and there
was an end to your troubles.
There was some friction and hesitation over the division of the family photographs, but this did not
disrupt the emotion of the parting.
There was no quarrelling or snatching over this family heritage, they
were not valuable papers over which
the inheritors would squabble, but
the son was sorry that he had to take
at least some of the photographs out
of the albums and deprive his parents
of that solace in the life they would
continue to live without him, their
only child, because they would have
nothing left but leafing through the
albums. Equally, his parents could
not imagine that their son and exile
should go off into the world without
reminders and without being able to
refer to his roots and origin.
All things are best illuminated by
memory, said his mother, and then

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

they began the division of the mementos, for Trofim one of the saddest
moments in his life. He often told his
son Leonid that his hands had shaken
when he had received and accepted a
photograph; each one contained far
more than its surface meaning. He
did not take a single one of those that
hung in ornate frames on the walls,
nor those smaller ones, pushed into
the frame against the glass; let what
was constantly before their eyes remain as it had been. When photographs were taken down from the
walls, when a frame was left empty,
for a long time not even the cobwebs
were dusted away, because they symbolized a gaping emptiness.
When the division was complete,
one photograph was passed several
times from hand to hand, his father
grabbed it and gazed at it for a long
time, then his mother stood beside
her husband, so that they could both
look at that idyllic image, and when
Trofim took it and held it uncertainly in his hand, his mother crept
up and stole it back, and, as she
parted from that picture forever, she
pressed it against her breast, saying
that this was exactly what a happy
family looked like, that this photograph had captured a saintly glow, as
on an icon, that their light white hats
were like halos, the seagulls in the
background alighting on the yachts
in the marina like angels; there were
more poetic words, ejka would always hear them again, whenever he
would leaf, with his father, through
the small album, that family rarity
that attracted him, drawing him to
the distant land of his forefathers. It
was the only picture of a holiday in
Gaspra, in the south of Crimea, after Trofim had finished school, while
the earlier ones, from his childhood,
when they always spent their holidays in the south of the peninsula,
everywhere between Yalta and Sebastopol, even in villages in the hinterland of the coastal towns, had long

69

since been snatched by their numerous relatives; his father Vasily had
four brothers and seven sisters, and
his mother three brothers and two
sisters. This picture had been taken
on the jetty in Gaspra, on one side of
the jetty were little sailing and rowing
boats, and on the other the open sea
shrouded in mist. His parents wore
light clothes, his mother was wearing
a white blouse, with over it, more as
decoration, a short waistcoat, with
fine patterns embroidered by the
skilful hard-working hands of Tartar women, a skirt with a floral pattern, long, reaching to her angles,
and shoes with a buckle; his father
wore a white shirt and wide trousers
too tightly belted; Trofim wore short
trousers, while his shirt was collarless,
with folk details, evidently bought in
some Tartar shop, and he had sandals
on his feet. The father and son had
similar hats, his mothers was larger,
with a drooping brim. This was the
historic photograph that ejka, as a
child, used to spend hours gazing at,
it was something like an object of
meditation, and whenever he talked
with his father, particularly at table,
this picture would lie between them,
because without it he did not know
how to ask questions. And when Belgrade was bombed on 6 April 1941,
ejkas parents house in Majka Jevrosima Street was demolished, a fire
destroyed many things, but by some
miracle, all the photographs were
found whole and undamaged, they
were in a tin that had held tea, on
the burned skeleton of the kitchen
dresser.
ejkas mother Katarina, who died in
1957, an enchanting person, an admirable woman, as Danilo Ki used
to say, sometimes praised little Leonid, who was named after her father
Leonid Zisiyadis, as different from
the other children, obsessed with often terrible questions; we older people recoil from discussions of death,
or we make jokes to hide the truth,

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

we are not tormented by the other


word, for us God is an invention, the
soul a non-existent category, Christ
a legend more or less well crafted,
we do not understand the world in
which we live, we will not concern
ourselves with who made it, who
punishes evil, why some people are
persecuted, and others are persecutors, either at dinner, before sleeping,
on an outing, on journeys, as soon as
we open our eyes in the morning, in
the bath, walking, they just keep on
springing up, springing up from this
small fragile body and tireless brain,
I might have been able to answer a
thousand questions, but not a hundred thousand, his mother used to
say. When he was ten, ejka read
Tolstoys War and Peace, but none
of his teachers wished to enter into
discussions with him about God, or
numbers, not to mention metaphysical themes. I would sometimes make
a joke, saying that, when he entered
the first class of the Russian Elementary School, ejka was already educated, and everyone had the right to
croak at me that this was not a joke,
because he really did read the Bible
at the age of eleven, and in all probability his teachers had not even leafed
through the holy book, and neither
had those in the architecture stream
of the Secondary Technical School
that he attended later. ejka was already a great painter when he graduated from the Architecture Faculty, at
the age of twenty-seven, under Professor Zlokovi, with a mark of nine
out of ten; he did that because of
his father who had constantly complained that painters were miserable
creatures, constantly penniless. But
look at architecture, Russian architects alone had bequeathed Belgrade
more than two thousand buildings.
In 1968, the finest Serbian poet Vasko
Popa wrote a poem entitled Lonja
ejka.
In his luggage, Trofim Vasilyevich
also brought a particularly impor-

tant photograph, this was not one


from the family collection, nor did it
mean anything to him, it had come
about incidentally, in Istanbul, but at
some time in the middle of the 1950s
his son Leonid made it into almost
a cult and attracted into its magic
circle many Belgrade artists, many
people from the cultural and intellectual world who were fundamentally opposed to the imposed models
of Socialist-Realist culture and rules
about what could be read and what
was banned. It would be an exaggeration to say that this photo turned the
intellectual life of Belgrade around,
but at least it became a kind of initiation, through which one entered a
different kind of literary and cultural space, despite the fact that at first
this involved just a small number of
people, later that field expanded, and
whoever came to look at the photo
and touch it like a reliquary, immediately became a member of a kind
of brotherhood, without any kind
of oath of allegiance, since this was
a spiritual, not a conspiratorial gathering. At that time I was not yet in
Belgrade, I was still catching trains
in Vojvodina, not knowing where
I was going, and after I had made
my way to the city and settled in its
streets and bars, perhaps some seven
or eight months later, I saw in ejkas
studio, in a small secessionist frame,
this cult photo, that figure whose literary fame would become planetary
by the second half of the nineteenfifties; at that time it did not mean
anything in particular to me, I had
barely heard anything about it, but it
quickly became a disgrace if anyone
of any talent had not read that genius
and admired that aristocrat; indeed
it was desirable always to emphasise
that he was an aristocrat, because
that irritates the communists, ejka
would say.
The photograph was taken in Istanbul, in the harbour, after a small, dilapidated Greek boat called the Na-

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dezhda had arrived from Sebastopol,


carrying dried fruit. Trofim had been
living for some time in a cheap little
hotel in Istanbul, and he spent most
of his time in the harbour, waiting for
and seeing off the boats, he fed himself in the harbour, in snack-bars and
food-stalls on kebabs wrapped in pita
bread, or even on boats where fresh
fish was prepared.
Russian migrs arrived in various
vessels, in convoys of a dozen boats,
large passenger or cargo ships, there
was even one warship, with a crew
of some three hundred. Trofim met
the travellers on the ramp, as they
disembarked, asking them what they
were intending to do and where they
were going next, but what he wanted
to hear from the mouths of all these
exiles, was only whether Denikins army had any prospect of success, could
the fortune of war be turned around,
or was Russia lost? And whenever he
said that he too was an officer, that
would usually provoke abuse, the
women were strident and hysterical,
particularly those who had lost loved
ones, or widows with children in
their arms, they would clamour that
it was a disgrace that a young man,
an officer, was swanning around Istanbul instead of fighting for his
homeland. He was already inured
to such insults, he behaved politely
and decently with each individual,
offering to assist them if they were
staying in Istanbul, were all in this
misfortune together, he soothed the
harsh words that were being flung in
his face.
When the boat Nadezhda came into the harbour, Trofin helped to tie
it up, although no one asked him to.
As soon as the thick rope was thrown
from the prow onto the quay, Trofim
was the first to grab hold of it and
wind it round the smooth iron mushroom on the jetty; that post for tying
boats to is called a koluna or a preza in Dalmatia. Quickly and skilfully, like a sailor or harbour worker, he

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tied up the rusting traders boat, then


he ran to help the passengers disembark, he offered his hand and spoke
some kind word to each of them. A
large family emerged onto the quay,
smart, noble; now even the wealthy
escape in some old rowboat, and you
could have bought the whole Black
Sea fleet, said Trofim holding each
child, so that it did not slip into the
grimy water. The older ones ordered
him about as though he was a servant,
they shouted where he should put
each item, and Trofim was zealous,
obedient, he wanted to make jokes,
however there was no response from
this large family; they ignored everything he said. One stout woman
shoved a nervous little dog into his
arms, it kept growling, while Trofim
stroked it, Is even this little migr
angry at the Reds? But that did not
induce anyone to talk to him, to ask
him anything, who or what he was,
how long he had been an migr,
whether from aristocratic arrogance,
refined distance, or simply caution,
because there was a lot of talk then
about suspicious types and robbers.
But, nevertheless, when he had done
all that was required, they gave him
a good tip; Trofim rubbed his chin
with the coin in satisfaction. This
large family, on its way to Greece,
would stay in Istanbul for a day or
two; the boat was in need of some
minor repairs, and they had to wait
for the cargo of dried fruit to be discharged.
While they were waiting for transport to their hotel, just one young
man from this stud, around twenty
years of age, came up to Trofim and
began to talk to him. He was handsome and elegant, he described wittily and engagingly not only who
everyone in that throng on the jetty
was, but what they were like as people
and personalities; he drew each one
in an entertaining way, like a superb
portraitist: That stout lady with the
little dog, thats Aunt Vera, she has

Dossier: Mirko Kova~

still not grasped that this is a drama


of exile, she thinks that were on an
outing and is already wailing for her
own bed, saying that she cant wait to
go home, said this sharp and witty
young man and went on sketching
his brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
their children and spouses, nothing
but the best about the head of the
household Vladimir Dmitrievich, I
depend on his expansive hand, he
said, smiling, and then he ended his
tirade, his leaping from one figure
to another, with a laudation, poetic,
even in rhyme, that lady, enchanting above any other, refined as a
saint, is Yelena Ivanovna, my mother. Trofim Vasilyevich suddenly felt
a slight trembling in his stomach,
he took a deep breath and let it escape quickly through his teeth, like a
low, soft whistle; the young man noticed that change and was silent for a
while, watching that poor upset Russian migr, pressing his clenched fist
against his belly as though to suppress
an inner trembling, the agitation that
overcomes a person when he finds
himself in the presence of greatness.
Trofim had experienced that same
trembling when he had caught sight
of the White Army generals Denikin
and Vrangel.
You mentioned the head of the family, Vladimir Dimitrievich?
Yes, hes my father, that strong fifty
year-old, the son of the Minister of
Justice Dimitri Nikolaevich and Baroness Maria von Korff.
That is Vladmir Dimitrievich Nabokov?
Thats right. And I am his eldest son
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.
When I was still a cadet I used
secretly to read his liberal journal
The Word, I remember those articles by Vladimir Dimitrievich from
the stormy trial in Kiev, when Beylis
was proclaimed innocent of the ritual
murder of a Christian boy.
That cost him dear. He earned a fine
of a hundred roubles.

71

He got off lightly. Wasnt he sentenced to prison in 1908 for his


writing?
We all loved listening to this story
of ejkas about his father and his
meeting with the young Vladmir
Nabokov, who would many years
later become a great and famous literary name. I never tired of the story,
although I had heard it a hundred
times. I loved the way ejka told it
and the way he repeated the same
event with generous details, something that only the talented achieve.
And whenever some newcomer to
ejkas studio picked up, or simply
looked at, that photograph in the
frame, on the shelf beside paints
and a glass holding paintbrushes, its
short history would follow from the
mouth of the painter, and whenever I
was present, I would be afraid lest the
narrator forgot some detail, and occasionally I would fill it in, we should
remember that the photograph came
into being on the first day of exile of
the aristocrat and his family. In its
appropriate, ornate frame from the
flea-market, the photograph showed
only the heads and part of the torso of
two young men, ejkas father Trofim
and Vladimir Nabokov, turned towards one another, almost touching;
that is the way recruits usually arrange themselves in front of a camera,
often putting their heads together to
show that they are close and that only
comradeship relieves the torment of
doing military service. On the back,
in Vladimir Nabokovs handwriting,
are the words joined by the pain of
exile, as though that phrase justifies
the fact that their heads are touching, while underneath is the signature, already familiar from pictures
from the old days that accompanied
many publications, from The Gift,
the authors favourite novel, to Lolita,
Ada and even the writers best-loved
book Transparent Things. Although I
was never a great devotee of his writing, at least not in the same way as

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Dossier: Mirko Kova~

Ki and ejka, I still remember one


fine thought from that exciting short
novel, I read it some thirty years ago
and quote it from memory: If the
future could be discerned, we would
not find the past so attractive.
So, Nabokov in a virtual form, as
ejka wrote somewhere, arrived with
his father, as a member of the family, although that photograph from
Istanbul was always less important
than the pictures from the family
trunk, and whenever someone would
pick it up, they would just glance at
it, or stop for a moment on Trofim,
wondering and who is this? so that
it yellowed before the others, and for
a full thirty-five years it was in the
shadow of time, like the fate experienced in reality by the figure from
the photograph, Vladimir Nabokov.
For many years he was a quite anonymous writer, although he published
poetry, short stories, novels and essays, for a time under the pseudonym
Sirin, so that nothing was known
about him, except in migr circles,
and his former nobility and the powerful Russian family without means
no longer had any meaning, nor, with
their invalid passports and historical
scars could they find their way among
the natives as Nabokov called the
Europeans, who looked scornfully on
all the refugees from the camps of the
Soviet state the way some religious
groups look on children born out of
wedlock. Nabokov wrote for the liberal migr daily paper Rul, founded
by his father, that the capitals of exile Paris and Berlin were overflowing with Russian bastards, although
those bastards were in many ways
superior to the natives.
I do not remember exactly how the
books of Vladimir Nabokov reached
us, that is not important now, but
whatever came into our hands was
promoted at gatherings, either in

painters studios, or in the apartments of householders who enjoyed


hosting us and would even prepare
a little feast for us, because whoever participated in these circles expressed dissatisfaction with the existing state of things, not only in
culture, but generally in the state.
Vladimir Nabokov was like an icon
of that intellectual resistance to the
proletarian aesthetic, unwittingly, of
course, because as a writer he always
stressed that he loathed politics, but
he knew how to call things precisely and wickedly exactly by their real
name; when he said that Soviet writers were artists in crawling, that was
a definition for all times and all communist regimes. At these gatherings,
Ki used to say that we had before
us an infallible writer, and many
years later, in his essay Nabokov ou
la nostalgie, published in Le Magazine Littraire, he called him a master-magician who was able to oppose
barbarism and the savage world only
with pure art. In his brilliant essay
Ki says that Nabokov overlooked
the crucial fact of the twentieth century the camps distancing it from
himself as material unworthy of his
pen, he did not do this only because
he did not wish to waste his time on
pointless polemics, but also because
he did not for a moment count on
anything other than eternity.
I would not dare place Nabokov on
a rung on the literary ladder, it is not
a tennis list, because whether someone likes or does not like a writer is
not worthy of discussion, which is
why I am very restrained and cautious when this writer is mentioned,
far more than him himself who in his
American lectures on Russian literature left Dostoevsky to wait like a bad
pupil outside the door for Professor
Nabokov to improve his mark. I do
not wish to do anything of the kind,

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nor would I like to be mistaken in


my judgment, but I do dare to say
that there is something mystical in
the way this interesting author appeared in our world and our circles,
in the way ejkas father carried him
in his sorrowful migr bag like a
piece of Russian soil or gold, it does
not matter by a particular alchemy
any material can change from one
state to another and in the way
we too discovered that little sunny
literary island in the icy age of socialism. Perhaps it is important that
some editors of magazines and newspapers already began sheepishly to
publish Nabokovs stories, although
his name was accompanied by the
words that he was an anti-communist and rotten bourgeois, above
all an migr, which meant the dregs
and social scrap, but, thanks to that,
their ideological blades were suddenly blunted and no longer had any effect, even party members sometimes
mocked the dogmatists, who insisted
on class differences. Perhaps books
changed the world, but that was
not their intention; I do not know
whether ejka and his little brotherhood should take credit for shifting
the borders of freedom, or whether
by some other laws of time and the
influence of changes that were taking
place in the world, they broadened of
their own accord. But still at sances
it happened that, as people say, despite everything, often accompanied
by the unpolished and intransigent
invectives of chameleon-journalists,
they were worse than the dogmatists,
the decadents and hirelings of the
West are not going to teach us what
art is, but that quickly wore out,
ideology weakened and itself became
a clich, a void out of which only a
hollow moan reached us.
Translated by Celia Hawkesworth

Photo by: Jakob Goldstein

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73

Mirko Kova

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Photo by: Martina Kenji

74

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75

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

erhaps some future history of


Croatian literature will tell how
2010 was the year of women in prose,
particularly novels. Among the many
published titles, at least ten are distinguished by some excellence: a topic
laden with novelty, a style revealing
zealous work, a reliable novelistic
construction ridden with experience,
with undivided passion. All those authors do not speak with gender bias
or with what was known as womens
writing several decades ago. Their
position is simple: to convey a unique
human experience recognized as universal or sensibility without biological characteristics, perhaps the spirit

of the times or the timelessness of a


moment.
The four authors we present in this
selection are very different: in literary experience, age, choice of motives, stylistic features. Nevertheless,
each one is exceptional and interesting in their own way: Sibila Petlevski
writes a necrology to Viktor Tausk, a
lawyer and a doctor, a psychoanalyst
who achieved great fame in European and Zagreb cultural circles during
the Modern period; Olja Savievi
Ivanevi tells a story of Ruzinava,
a girl who is returning to her seaside
hometown to face her mother and sister, the graves of her father and broth-

er and the dusty and claustrophobic


small town history and present, at
the beginning of her search for identity; the first novel by Ivana Simi
Bodroi is the first story of the War
in Croatia and the destiny of people from Vukovar told from a childs
perspective growing up in refugee
camps and painful revelations of the
familys fate; Marina ur Puhlovski
has added a dimension of unknown
intimate details to a lover/adulterer
relationship and entangled the situation around unison judgment of forbidden love.
Enjoy!

Jadranka Pintari

76

Photo by: Biljan Gaurina

Time of Lies
Sibila Petlevski

Pandoras Box

aralyzed, with a spinal fracture


and internal injuries, he was lying
in a tent of a field hospital. A pretty
clumsy and callow orderly, whose
round face featured a thin moustache, tried to pour lemonade down
his throat yes, a lemonade, probably the same way Sublieutenant John
Pollard nurtured Admiral Nelson after the battle with the French. Given
the serious condition of the patient,
the taste of sweetened water with a
couple of drops of half-rotten lemon
could barely reach captain Peter Meier, only touching his lips and dripping down his blood-soaked chin.
Why are heroes last wishes so trivial, so bloody typical in their shallow
poignancy? It is almost as if at the very
last moment those people were trying
to connect with lost ideals through
a seemingly marginal detail such as
Admiral Nelsons lemonade, to get
somehow the final confirmation on
what had just happened. They know
it all too well although the realization sinks in too late that every
goal they helped achieve and sealed
with their blood has the exact same
amount of glorious feeling of victory that it takes to squash the thick
armour of a cockroach that stains
the soles of their army boots with its
grey-green insides. Deep down inside somewhere in their gut, not
their hearts they feel that each goal
they helped accomplish, strangely

SIBILA PETLEVSKI (1964), a poet, novelist, playwright, theatre scholar and


literary critic, was born in Zagreb. She is the President of the Croatian
Centre of the International PEN, a member of the International PEN Board,
and a correspondent member of LAcadmie Mallarm. She teaches at the
Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb, where she is currently Head of the
Drama Department. Petlevski writes in Croatian and in English. Some of
her English sonnets appeared in Douglas Messerlis anthology of world
authors, 50: A Celebration Of Sun & Moon Classics (Sun & Moon Press, Los
Angeles, 1995). She has written a number of essays and critical papers,
as well as two books on European theatre and theory of drama. Petlevski
received the Croatian award for theoretical dramaturgy in the year 2001.
She writes poetry (Kristali, 1988; Skok s mjesta, 1989; Sto aleksandrijskih epigrama, 1993; Heavy Sleepers, 2000; Babylon, 2000) and ction
(Francuska suita, 1996; Koreograja patnje, 2002; Noni trening, 2006;
Moj Antonio Diavolo, 2007; Vreme lai, 2009). Her books have been
translated into many languages, and she has given readings and public
recitals at several international literary events. In 1993 she was awarded
the Vladimir Nazor Prize of Arts and Literature for her poetry collection
Sto aleksandrskih epigrama, and in 2010 her novel Vreme lai won the
T-Portal Prize for the best Croatian novel published in 2009.

enough, managed to lose its purpose. The eyes of doctor Viktor Tausk
started to tear up: in spite of it all, he
admired people like Peter Meier.
A faint sound of artillery fire was
coming from the outside. Still conscious, Peter asked the doctor, should
he be the luckier of the two, to go
to Plah, a nice little place by Lake
Fuschl in the Province of Styria and
deliver to his fiance an object of great
value to her. Captain Peter Meier was
practically cut in two with a knifesized shrapnel between the second
and third vertebra. In fact, the piece

of metal stuck in his spine was longer, heavier and more massive than a
regular blade of a bread-knife.
During examination of the torso, pronounced twitches in the knees. When
pinched on the inside of his thigh, the
patients leg stretched fully, accompanied by reflux urinary and bowel discharge. We regret the end of doctor
Tausks medical report said that the
circumstances did not allow investigating plantar reflux and clonus.
Among Peters possessions, the doctor had no trouble finding what he
was supposed to take to Kristina Eg-

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ger in Plah. It was a smallish metal box without ornaments, which


did not look like a jeweler box and,
at first, it was not quite clear what
it was for, only that it contained a
dear keepsake. He could not resist:
he opened the lid. There was a small
plaque inside, with a pattern of tiny
meanders, metal dashes and dots, no
bigger than a headpin. What he saw
was more precise than a watch mechanism, and yet, it most surely did not
belong to any watch.
***
Where did you come across that information? Tvrtko asked, with an
expression that carefully disguised his
interest. Both of us were fascinated by
Viktor Tausks life story and decided
to investigate it, each in his and her
own way. It started like this: I was
on a train to Vienna, and as always,
I had bought all the daily newspaper. Among the heads of politicians
and columnists, a big, round face of
a friend who had celebrated his 25th
career anniversary beamed at me. If
he werent a passionate explorer, he
would be a scientist. While reading,
I could not help but laugh out loud
he is like a love-struck youth he
leaves the spheres of boredom to university professors, but does not manage to hide his obsession. Tvrtkos
nature is passionate, he skilfully relates any issue to whichever current
preoccupation he might have on his
mind, and sometimes, he inadvertently slips the name of his new love.
In this way, he puts his cards on the
table for the journalists and the general public who have so often been
seduced by scumbags from the infamous chapters of domestic history
while forgetting its heroes. There
are some interesting topics to write
about, he muses, and there are people who remain unknown despite
the fact that, supposedly, everyone
knows about them.

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

And little is it known what they have


done for us, he said.
Why are certain deserving and exceptional ghosts despised by the quiet
stepmother, that is, the past, where
their unconventional fate only awakens a flash of interest here and there
in people such as Tvrtko and I? These
sparks of desperate recognition get
devoured by darkness in a blink of
an eye immediately after they delineate the zigzagging of a brilliant
mind as though even to recall such
a mind only confirms its absence, because another name etched in vain
on the black billboard in the sky has
disappeared for good.
Perhaps Tvrtko could explain the
reasons given the time he spent in
prison, on several occasions, when
not only did he remain keen on various manifestations of life, but he also
stretched his natural curiosity to its
limits, while his social scrutiny became as sharp as a knife and tell us
what kind of material is used for the
universal fixer-upper that, with time,
exterminates all the great figures unsuitable to small social environments,
those same great figures who lived in
foreign cities where they were highly appreciated, but their traces have
been lost in the metropolis of the
universal spirit.
This happens because they always
come from somewhere, and when
they die, there is no one left to defend the qualities that established
their greatness in the first place, the
same qualities that were worthy of attention while they were alive, which
made them the citizens of a world
much broader than a herd of sheep
from the idyllic plateau of the old
country.
On whose behalf did they act upon? Whose people are they anyway?
Where did they come from? To whom
does their work belong? And finally Does anyone really need their
work? these are the main topics
covered in their eulogies.

77

The mourning of foreigners is a


scene with a mother missing; the
bloody mother country, I say.
Of course, you know how he killed
himself; you found out exactly how
he killed himself? Tvrtko asks.
I found it out all right, and now I
keep imagining his suicide over and
over again.
A bottle of homemade brandy in the
middle of the table, cigarettes and bacon lying around. Viktor was writing
to his youngest sister: Thank you
for reminding my palate of the old
country. Then, he sealed a couple of
envelopes with a few beautifully written letters, which he wrote when certain restlessness, somewhat close to
remorse, came over him. After that,
he began listing his possessions. Inflation had rendered worthless almost
everything he owned. Maybe not the
books, he thought. They should definitely be included in the inventory of
nonsense. How many boxes to pack
and take? Twenty? Or less? The books
are staying put. In boxes, if need be.
For the future.
When he finished, he took his officers pistol from the bottom drawer, got up, opened the curtains and
looked at the street. A brief lull after a raucous night, it will be dawn
soon, shortly before waking up to a
new day at work, but for now, the
people of Vienna were asleep. The
pigeons between the beams of a loft
in the building across the street were
also asleep. A boyish smile crossed
his face for a fleeting instant before
it was ironed out with numb indifference. The weather was very agreeable that early summer morning,
around four oclock, Thursday, July
3rd 1919. The street was wet: it had
rained for a little while that night.
He made a noose from the rope of
the curtain, tied it around his neck,
climbed the window, put the pistol
to his temple and fired. The burden
of Viktors brain scattered across the
carpet, curtain and window, finally

78

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

relieved of its mind frame, leaving


behind material proof of his last,
and possibly only free decision. The
twitch of a half-blown head pulled
down the weight of the rest of his
body. In his suicide note to Doctor
Freud, Doctor Tausk said that killing
himself was the healthiest thing to
do in his wasted life.
And it could have been a day like any
other; just a hint more typical than
a typical July 3rd in the life of Viktor
Tausk, PhD! In the early afternoon,
he went to the tailors to pick up a suit
for a wedding, without even realizing
how depressed he actually was, how
he could not care less, as a matter of
fact. He thought he had to be walking like an old horse, blindly trying
to find his way back to the stable, and
noticed that his quick-paced, businesslike steps were outside of his control. Goal-oriented, self-sufficient,
smug, you could even say, Viktors
legs were ploughing on, taking him to
the tailors. Most unexpectedly, this
created space for his tired soul to wander aimlessly, somewhere near or rising above the mechanic discipline of
the body to the light-blue sky above
the Austrian capital, where the wind
whipped the tiny white clouds they
call sheep, trying to chase them into
a corner. Viktor missed his homeland, the whiff of a country that he
could call his own in moments of
weakness and scuppered sentimentality. Was it a mistake to come back
to Vienna? No, there was no other
choice: he had to come back. Was it
a mistake to leave Kosa, after a mute
fight in which he could not express
his feelings? Kosa Lazarevi knew
better than anyone what he needed,
what he wanted and what troubled
him. He was speechless. She knew
that when he left after rough sex,
which was only a desperate disguise
of exaggerated, seemingly passionate
movements designed to hide the fact
that he was fed up. He was not fed up
with Kosas body; he was fed up with

the city. He did not like Belgrade. In


fact, he could not tell what he did
or did not like anymore or when he
stopped wanting something and began wanting something else. Does he
want Hilde now? Did he leave Kosa
Lazarevi for Hilde Loewe? Or did
he still love Kosa, if he had ever really loved her? Does anyone in 1919
have the moral right to ask himself
or herself or anyone else: what is love,
really? What is it nowadays? Tausks
spiritual wanderings were abruptly
anchored when he thought about
ending a patients treatment, whose
records he kept only under a first
name and an initial, Natalija A. He
thought she was the last in a long line
of deranged patients, a thirty-year
old of Latvian origin, former philosophy student, charming and totally
deaf due to an illness she suffered as
a child, serious problems with ego
boundaries.
During the final phase of her illness,
Natalija A. was convinced that the
doctor became part of a machine that
controlled her thoughts, behaviour,
menstrual cycle, all physiological activities and libido. She claimed that
it was a forbidden machine built in
Berlin and that she was one of several guinea pigs that were being experimented on. When she found out
about Doctors suicide, her opinion
of him was less harsh, she even felt
sorry and all of a sudden everything
became clear. She rushed into the
precinct, and handed in a piece of
paper demanding to see the Chief
Inspector with regard to the death of
Viktor Tausk, her physician. A clerk
welcomed her, introduced himself
as detective inspector and offered
her a seat. She could lip-read very
well, and, in principle, she could
speak, but she did not want to, so
she communicated in writing. It was
the first time after many years that
she opened her mouth at the police
station. A baffling, painful and ugly
grimace contorted her face and out

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came a sound. It was nothing short


of a miracle. As if a chain around her
tongue had got loose and a stream of
throaty sounds gushed out:
They killed him. Its their doing. Because he refused to cooperate. It was
a mean kill, made it look like suicide.
I know everything about it. Ask me.
After all, he was a good man, she said
excitedly. The police clerk attributed
her strangely articulated speech to
the fact that Natalija, as a foreigner,
a Slavic woman it would seem, did
not speak German very well.
They had to. They had to... When
the guilt became unbearable, when
he saw where all of it was leading to,
I mean, the manipulation of people,
the death machines... she took
out a handkerchief and wiped her
tears he wanted to get out. But he
couldnt: he knew too much and they
had to do it. Yes, I can testify, they
had to do it, I know, because they
tried the same with me. First they
took my hearing, and my voice, and
my period, then they began whispering to kill myself, every night, day
in, day out, for years. They invaded
my brain directly: Natalija, now you
have to take the knife. Natalija, go to
the kitchen and take the knife. Take
knife. Take knife, take knife...
Her voice was piercing. She screamed,
Kniiife! took a paper knife from
the table and stabbed the back of her
hand as hard as she could. It took two
police officers to hold her and take
her out. Once outside, she seemed
calm, agreed for the officers to escort
her home, when suddenly she tore
off from their grip and ran away to
the market, where she got drowned
in the crowd.
The schizophrenic machine that made
Natalija run like a dog chasing its
own tail was not endemic only to her
kind of madness. It was a common
feature of the imagination among a
special class of people, marginalized
as psychos and dangerous lunatics.
What was so specific to the imaginary

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machine made doctor Tausk stop and


look for a logical explanation: the description of technology and the basic
principle on which the machine operated were similar, almost identical
from patient to patient, even with
other doctors patients, regardless of
age, educational background or gender. He took the following note:
Schizophrenic manipulation machine is a device of mystical nature.
The patient can only hint at how it
is constructed. It consists of boxes,
handles, levers, buttons, wires, batteries and similar parts. Patients try
to discover more about the machine
based on their technical knowledge,
but it seems that with the growing
number of popular scientific publications, they gain more advantage to
explain common technological principles on which the machine functions. However, all the scientific discoveries in the world cannot suffice
to describe the striking abilities of the
machine that all of the patients claim
to be haunted by.
The machine produces images similarly to a magic lantern or a cinematographer, on a single surface, as if
they were projected. Patients say that
it implements or eliminates, if necessary, thoughts and feelings from
their minds using waves or radiation of mysterious origin, which they
cannot explain, given their limited
knowledge of physics. They usually
talk about a suggestive apparatus,
whose construction is indescribable,
but each and every one of them can
clearly state the machines primary
function: transmission of thought
and feeling from one side and their
suction on the other side, where
they mention one or two sleuths
who operate the machine. The machine of their madness produces loco motor phenomena, causes erectile dysfunction with uncontrolled
ejaculation, which patients claim to
be aimed at exhausting their power, to cause weakness and fatigue.

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

Also, they mention different types


of waves that transmit the suggestions: air, electric, magnetic, radio
waves and other sorts of waves they
had read about or could not know
about because they were discovered
after the patients died. Phenomena
induced by thoughts which are, in
turn, manipulated by the machine
are unfathomable and alien even to
the patients themselves sometimes, as
if they did not belong to their bodies, and there is a mechanical stranger
who came crawling out of the cracks
at the borders of their human identity, a stranger that lay dormant for
all this time, waiting to finally take
full control.
As with all other Viktors schizophrenic patients, Natalijas identity
was unstable, osmotic to the very
limits: it could be shaped like dough,
populated by crumbs of sensation,
events and casual encounters, and
yes, this was precisely why Viktor
thought there was a slim, theoretical
chance to help her recuperate a normal human ability to separate inner
from outer reality, even if it required
lending her some of his strength,
some of his I. Freud would have
never agreed to that. Viktor felt the
urge to oppose the figure of the Great
Master, but never lost his respect for
him; Freuds fatherly authority surpassed even the bitter disappointment after Freud flatly refused to
analyse him personally and handed
him over to the inexperienced Helene
Deutsch, who had entered the sacred circle not two years before. As
if the circle of followers of the Great
Master had worn out in an incestuous series of mutual psychoanalysis,
so instead of being broadened by new
ideas, it shrunk and became devoid
of creative energy. It lost all effect in a
simple mechanism of establishing or
dismantling authority, a banal combination of professional jealousy and
personal insecurity, painful, pathological need to open people up on

79

a routine basis to see what is inside,


and to bravely offer your mind to
be dissected, like an old tin of soup
that had to be opened with a knife,
in a time before tin-openers. There
would always be a small blood red
smear on the knife; both the real knife
and the psychoanalytical one, used
to cut souls. The blood red innards
marinated through centuries in our
damned and awfully exhausted souls
do not spill over or smear the blade
which has wounded us: the technology holds the key to many things.
How terribly misguided are the people
who think that the way we perceive
ourselves is as pure as virgin snow and
completely independent from technological development. The fact that the
findings we obtain from dissecting our
own bodies, brains and feelings are
equally devastating, even hopelessly sad
does not change anything technology participates in the human need for
self-delusion, brings it to the forefront
and perfects it Tausk wrote. The ultimate recognition of the human position in the universe will be entirely synchronized with mechanisms of death.
They will make the blood invisible.
Who knows, maybe the casualties of
the last war of our future will die of a
muderless weapon, a mind-manipulating machine, his notes on Natalija
A.s case read.
***
The meticulous nature of Viktors
act the simultaneous shooting and
hanging was proof enough of absolute nihilism. It was a lot more than
disappointment or giving up on everything. The pedantics of the gruesome endeavour ceaselessly amaze
me. Reasons may vary, but one thing
is certain: the man had no doubts. He
did not leave anything to chance. It
was not a hesitant suicide. He was not
one of those who change their mind
at the last minute and want to cry for
help if only they had more time. He

80

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

did not go about it in a histrionic way


either, exposing his suffering only to
be saved in the nick of time.
Who was Viktor Tausk, really? That
is a question my friend Tvrtko and
I are trying to answer. He is interested in life.
He wants to know: What did this
man live for?
He wanted to know his motives, the
forces in motion that influenced his
actions, the twists and turns of life.
My angle is different. For a start, I
am interested in his death.
I just wonder: Why? Why like
that?!

garding medical authority; complete


resignation written all over their faces, accepting whatever fate may have
in store for them, although they have
every confidence in their doctor. The
belief in kismet, what and how fate
determines their lives, does not prevent them to pay a visit to their doctor. If you say to the patients relatives
that there is nothing more to be done,
they will respond: Oh, well, Mister,
what can I tell you? If he could have
lived a while longer, we are sure you
would have saved him!

***

Somewhere on his way from Dalmatia to Herzegovina in 1898, Freud


happened to have an utterly trivial
encounter with an ordinary, although
civilized and handsome young man
who spoke fluent German. The young
man was awe-struck by the authoritative figure of his travel companion, so much so that he could not
even turn the conversation around
and talk about what he knew better
than him, the mind set of the local
people. He knew it like the palm of
his hand, because although he was a
Jew born in Slovakia, he had lived in
Sarajevo his whole childhood. That
young man was Viktor.

Sigmund Freud was on a train to


Dubrovnik, with some stranger,
according to his own words, on his
way to a place in Herzegovina, and
while they were travelling, the coincidental passenger very young, extremely well-mannered, and, it could
be said, very highly educated and
himself were killing time and talking about Italy, about charming little Mediterranean towns that one
had to visit. He recommended to the
stranger to visit Orvieto and have a
look at the frescos. But wait? What
was the painters name? The painters
name was on top of Sigmund Freuds
head, and a lot of names popped
up, including Botticelli and Boltraffio but he could not recall the actual name. As these things usually
happen, the conversation continued,
but the thing that he could not remember was still very much on his
mind, and the more he strained his
thinking muscle, the more his flow
of thought led him further and further away from it.
Shortly before the talk about Italy,
they discussed Bosnian Muslim tradition. Freud told the stranger how
one of his colleagues, a doctor who
practiced medicine in those parts,
described the locals in comparison to
Europeans and their peculiar ways re-

***

***
You made that up. Admit it, Tvrtko
says.
***
The next piece of information is unquestionably true: that same year,
Freud published an article in Psychiatry and Neurology Monthly about
The Psychical Mechanism of Forgetfulness. A casual, superficial meeting with a young man, a complete
stranger on top of that, was documented only because the famous psychoanalyst decided to explore the reasons of frequent forgetfulness regarding names we know very well most

RELA

TIONS

of the time. What is more, the process of remembering is so convoluted


that, as a rule, we remain trapped in
the web of an even bigger confusion.
In the article, Freud explained the
complicated mechanism of partial
blocking of information where the
conscious and the unconscious cross
paths. On the basis of personal experience, he tried to analyse all the associations that led him to the names
of people and places mentioned while
incidentally conversing with a fellow
traveller. He broke down the words
such as Signorelli (for that was the
name of a forgotten fresco master)
into the Italian Signor and connected
it to the German Herr when he translated a sentence from the story about
the fatalistic Bosnian who shrugs his
shoulders when his cousin is dying
and forgives the doctor, Oh, well,
Mister, what can I tell you? Salvation
lays in the hands of our Lord the Father, or Allah, or whomever, Freud
thought anyway, agreeing with the
Bosnian from the anecdote.
Yes, another thing is that the German
Herr audibly blended with Her, the
first syllable in Herzegovina. To this
bizarre line of thought, the great psychoanalyst playfully added Bo, the
first syllable in Bosnia, which appears
as the first syllable in the names of the
artists that came to his mind while
he tried to recall Signorellis name,
to no avail. In Freuds mechanism of
forgetfulness, therefore, a secret link
was created between things that were
seemingly unrelated: Bosnia, Botticelli and Boltraffio as a magical trinity, dissected with Freuds linguistic
knife. He made another cut, severing
traffio from Bol with a pang of
guilt he remembered that on that
day in 1898, while he was getting
ready for his trip to Bosnia, he had
received the news of a patients suicide. The news got to him in a place
called Trafoi. Deep down, he wanted to suppress the bad news and the
failure to mend the patient, a man

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of violent and insoluble sexual urges,


whose therapy had a deadly outcome,
instead of offering a cure. He wrote
down: Unconsciously, I was forgetting one thing, while I consciously
tried to forget something else. While
my repulsion was aimed at the contents of an idea from a memory, my
helplessness to recollect appeared in
an entirely different context.
***
It is unlikely that Freud would recognize Tausk, a close associate, as
the young man from the train, but
Viktor would have remembered their
encounter for sure. He would have
told Freud. Reminded him.
Are you sure he wouldve reminded
him? I ask Tvrtko.
***
Finally, in the text on mechanism of
forgetfulness, Freud concluded that
although we forget names, sometimes for very simple reasons, there
are other times when we repress memories on a subconscious level.
In view of Viktor and Sigmunds relationship, a lot of it is still unclear;
something was buried in the dark
of the subconscious, and some of it
lost forever, not only from Freuds
memory, but the collective, historical memory as well. The first real
encounter between them happened
much later in autumn of 1908
almost by mistake, it could be said.
It happened in a way that would
seem strange even if it belonged to
an excerpt from a novel. Both versions of Viktor and Sigmunds first
meeting, from the ones that are possibly true to the ones that have been
documented in correspondence, feature the exact amount of chance, or
a little less, contained in the idea of
kismet just enough to illuminate
a brief and sceptical glance of a European intellectual. While mocking
the indifference with which an East-

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

erner accepts even the worst of fates,


a Westerner cannot fully hide the
fascination. Although he is not able
to accept the idea of kismet, he admires a foreign, frightening idea of
appeasement, even when it is based
on partial misunderstanding, it still
leaves an indelible trace on a Western
intellectual, especially the one such
as Viktor Tausk who had been exposed to frontal collisions of various
creeds and cultural heritage, not to
mention the monstrous concoctions
of utterly dissimilar traditions, which
culminated in atheism.
Meddling with fate, which after all,
includes suicide, becomes a necessity, a natural solution for people like
Tausk, who see it as a rational answer to not becoming a manipulatory device. Even though he had spent
most of his life fighting manipulation in its multiple forms: from sensory manipulation and imposition of
values in traditional family upbringing, through the hypocrisy of romantic relationships and friendships, exploitation of patriotic and scientific
ideas, to confronting more and more
organized political madness that fuels the masses Viktor suddenly sees
that he did not manage to be happy,
let alone free.
Lou Salom, Tausks short, but passionate affair, love of whom he shared
with Sigmund, receives Freuds letter
telling her Viktor had killed himself.
Freuds news kept coming late, even
months after Viktors funeral. He
writes with an emotional distance
that does not reveal a lot of intimacy with the deceased, perhaps only a
tinge of well-disguised male jealousy,
quenched now that Viktor, the animal of passion, is finally dead.
Poor Tausk, whose friendship, at one
point, was incredibly strong, committed
suicide in a very radical manner. He
came back tired, daunted by the horrors
of war, it must be noted that he tried
to recover in Vienna under unfavourable existential circumstances when the

81

troops returned from the battlefields.


He tried to bring a new woman into
his life, he was supposed to marry her
in eight days time... but he decided
differently. The suicide notes to his fiance, first wife and me are touching;
they prove he was completely lucid, he
does not blame anyone and they point
towards his shortcomings and a life of
frustration, shedding no light on the
suicide itself.
***
Blame it on the war or perhaps
not war, but post-war disillusion! At
least, that is what it seemed to Freud,
and possibly, it was the easiest way to
interpret Viktors tragic case in the
public eye.
Freud was right to a certain degree, although Viktor did know how to cope
with the traumas of war other peoples traumas as well as his own. As a
field doctor, he had no time to think.
His intellect was focused on helping
the injured; there was no time for
emotional outbursts. He shared the
shocks and tremors with those poor,
highly agitated fellows under gunfire
a topic open to psychoanalysis and
academic discussion a couple of years
later. If it had been different, Viktor
could have already killed himself in
August of 1915, or would have found
another way to escape the absurdity
of war. In any case his health was
weak, but he came back alive. In Belgrade, March 3rd, 1917, at the Ninth
Symposium of Medical Officers, he
finally had the opportunity to elaborate on the psychology of deserters.
He could approach the subject from
two angles, both of which he knew
well: as someone with a doctorate in
law and a doctor from the first line of
battle. He offered a classification of
war deserters with a sense of pioneer
pride. However, while he was calmly
explaining the issue of war deserting
in front of medical and military experts, inside he was hiding a feeling
of unease, a terrible feeling that he

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

was forced to participate and continues to participate in an immoral


act, that he took part and is taking
part in an absurd act of cruelty that
he could not prevent, firstly, because
he was in no position to react, secondly, because he was dangerously
alone in thinking that way, and thirdly, he lacked the necessary power of
persuasion. Viktor was knowledgeable, bright and intuitive: he was an
attractive, handsome man, he drew
attention in many respects and made
a lot of people jealous, but unlike
his famous role model Freud he had
no charisma. If Viktor had been a

prophet instead of a doctor, he would


have been Cassandra no one would
have believed him. The worst thing
about the war did not happen in the
midst of it all, but in court, when
he was a jury member that had to
reach a verdict regarding a couple of
young, scared and stupid deserters.
And it was a well known fact that
no matter how substantial the psychological, legal, medical or simply
human arguments may be those
poor men would end up in front of
a firing squad. He was outvoted, and
the worst moment was when circumstances required him to cut into the

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dead deserters brain with a scalpel.


The man whose brain he was cutting
into was his patient. Viktors scalpel
reached into absolute nonsense, as if
the transcendental in all its complexity boiled down to nothing but absurdity, hoisted up by the grotesque,
perverse and utterly pointless need to
satisfy academic curiosity. The secret
that became clear when he opened up
a deserters brain was not, of course,
measurable according to scientific
parameters. It was more like a Pandoras box.
Translated by Una Krizmani Oegovi

Photo by: Martina Kenji

82

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Photo by: Jakob Goldstein

Adios, Cowboy
Olja Savievi Ivanevi

Chapter Three

his one was very thorough. Made


sure he wouldnt make it, said
the inspector.
The body was found quickly, some
twenty meters down the vineyard,
but the left arm was discovered only
after two days, in the brook, under a
juniper bush.
Youre in luck, it was in water; protected from pests, said the coroner
after we had descended the long staircase to the morgue in the clinics cellar.
For the purpose of identification the
arm had somehow been reattached.
Blood everywhere, on the tree trunks,
on the frozen vine leaves, said those
who visited the site in the first weeks
after the accident and left plastic roses
and electric candles that flickered as
long as the battery was alive behind
the saltire.
It was a show, said my sister as we
walked towards the railway tracks.
On the day of the funeral some relatives I barely knew gave me a ride
home from Zagreb.
They crammed six adults in the car,
it drizzled, and each of us got a baloney sandwich for the road. The air
was acid, just like the baloney and
the rain.
Later that evening, as my sister and
I walked towards the railway tracks,
the smell of that air in my nostrils
was still making me sick. My sister
was determined to do it fast, so she
pulled me by my damp and limp

OLJA SAVIEVI IVANEVI was born on September 16, 1974 in Split. She
graduated from the University of Zadar where she majored in Croatian
language and literature. She published collections of poems: Bit e strano
kada ja porastem (1988), Vjena djeca (1993), ensko pismo (1999); Kuna
pravila (2007), the collection of short stories Nasmati psa (2006) and the
novel Adio, kauboju (2010). She was awarded the Prozak award for her
manuscript Nasmati psa as the best prose writer under thirty ve years
of age. The book was published in Germany under the title Augustschnee,
and in Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. A short feature lm Sedam neodgovorenih poziva was made after her story Vilma Gjerek muena strastima...
Her story Heroj won the rst Ranko Marinkovi award for the best short
story in 2007. Her book Kuna pravila was awarded the Kiklop award for the
best collection of poems in 2008. The novel Adio, kauboju was published
in Croatia and Serbia simultaneously.
Her poems and prose excerpts have been translated into some twenty
languages and published in various literary selections and anthologies.
She lives and works in Split as a free-lance writer.

hand like when we were kids, held


it in her cold, dry hand for a while,
driving her small, pointy fingernails
into my palm.
In the morgue I watched my brothers other hand, the right one; his
fingernails were now long although
he used to bite them until his fingers
bled. These grown fingernails would
have told me he was dead even in
my sleep.
Its Danijel, I said, although the
puppet with the shrunken head, lying on the metal slab, now looked
nothing like him.
He left no letters.
They generally dont leave any, I
was told.

Calm down, everybody leaves without a message, whats wrong with


that? said my sister.
What do I know about everybody,
I thought. Its not like Danijel, I
thought, to leave without a word.
Some almost familiar people kept
sobbing so I had to get out. I remember a lady in black, who used to frequent every funeral; she was sitting in
the corner under Mas old hood drier, I remember how she whimpered
and blew her nose in her kerchief and
how she looked like a grief-stricken
woman at the hairdressers.
Masochists, said my sister. They
didnt even know him. Perverse.
Once, when we were kids, we went

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A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

to a funeral in the mountains, where


they had brought a wailer who was
paid to weep loudly and inspire other
people to cry. I think she was quite
successful, because even I began to
cry, out of pure horror. And then my
sister said: They scared the little one,
those masochists.
That was the first time I heard that
word. But, later I never heard it used
in the same context as the word sadists, like my sister did.
Years flew by from the day the police rang at the door and Ma opened
it and today I remember that unknown lady in black under the hood
better than any of the three of us.
Between my brothers death and
my sisters almost casual phone call,
which brought me back home, nothing worth mentioning happened, at
least not to me.
I returned to the Old Village to get
the answer to my question, to get the
words my brother had said to somebody, not to my mother, nor my sister nor to me. This quest made me
walk, turn every stone. And, honestly, all that I found out wondering
about and turning stones was that
there were more rocks in the world
than snakes and insects underneath
them.
***
Yawn and stretch as hard as you can,
Yellow Jill told me in an old dream.
And I listen to her, because if a cat
speaks, even in a dream, you should
listen. I am waiting for my host, sitting on a bench in a deep shade of a
carob tree, yawning and stretching in
a sultry, endless, hypnotic afternoon
in the Village. Dog days, fjaka, thats
how it is called when a place hypnotizes you. Miss Mitchell and Miss
OConnor must have known everything about idle Sundays, I ponder.
And how a simple idle Sunday in the
South may last for weeks.
On the other side of the silent garden, behind the wall, violet figs are

falling to the ground. The fig tree,


left undisturbed, has grown wild just
like the beanstalk that fool wanted to
climb up to the sky.
Herr Professor emerges through the
multi-coloured plastic strips on the
door, hurrying out and setting a tray
with cups of ice tea and cookies down
on the garden table.
Rigojani, he says.
He stretches out his fleshy legs and
his white, strong calves, occasionally
rubbing his corny heels, one against
another. On the other side of the
courtyard, besides the wrecked glasshouse with two meagre lemon trees
with cropped limbs, two turtles are
coupling. A bit late this year, says
Professor. The female is still, the male
has opened its tiny mouth wide.
There are some dirty, crusted kitchen
towels hanging on the clothes dryer,
surrounded by flies and flying ants;
water is persistently dripping from
the garden pipe onto the yellowed
stone sink.
I lean over towards the creamy pastry, but Professor stops me with his
hand. Something is soundlessly rolling towards us.
Listen!
The cymbals sound and stop the air.
The feast of St. Fjoko, declared Ma
eating the breakfast of black coffee,
toast and tobacco, which she rolled
in thin cigarettes, I remember.
St. Fjoko, I say out loud and reach
for a rigojani cake.
Aha, the local saints day! Professor
slaps his thighs.
Now theyve been bought by Vrdovek. The brass orchestra.
Vrdovek, yes, yes. The one with
the stores?!
The stores and everything else in
the Village. He is the top dog now,
I say.
I observe Herr Professor: his face,
squinting eyes, his large hands, bluish-white. With time, his physical
likeness to a drowning man has be-

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come more pronounced. And those


mustaci he looks like a catfish, with
that moustache.
Whales and dolphins returned to the
sea disappointed with life on land,
but Professors species has forever
remained in-between, wedged. He
used to keep glass jars with newts in
formalin in his living room, just like
people in the Old Village keep pictures of their closest relatives. He had
two salamanders (two fire dragons,
he said), but I believe all those jars
were smashed during the incident.
At some point he kept live amphibians in the plastic barrel for fermenting cabbage, so people talked about
a veterinarian raising a crocodile in
a barrel, I remember.
With some folded newspapers he is
trying to drive away flies, which are
just as myself, honestly attracted
by the cake. While he is flapping the
newspapers and jumping around the
table, he is no less solemn and pompous than a moment ago when he was
carrying the tray, I notice.
Hes a man of manners, said Ma
once; she has always overestimated
politeness.
His whole family, especially his late
mother, were very polite. Crme de
la crme, said my mothers cousin Marijana Mateljan. And added:
God knows who this debjego, this
stray cat takes after.
After killing a few gadflies and gnats,
he settles down beside me. He laughs
like a mountain of aspic, a little triumphant, and opens a special crystal
cut bottle for the occasion. The liquid at the bottom of the glass looks
like something in which once amphibians swam on the vets cabinet,
I am unable to get rid of this image,
though I recognize the smell of rose
brandy, honeysweet and acrid.
Rose liqueur, the Great Gannet
would say. Oops! There you go!
To loosen up our fine ladies. After
two shots they start fanning their
overskirts. Pull the frock above the

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knee and there you go! Ventilate! The


whole trada reeks of cunt...
The bigger the cymbal, the lower
and longer the sound, it behaves
like a spilt mercury, it vibrates, says
Herr Professor handing me a silver
teaspoon.
The light here is very faint, perhaps
thats the reason, if not the brass orchestra or the liqueur, why I feel so
numb. In a town house, the one at
the crossroads, at the other end of
this copper tone, porcelain cups on
the lower shelves pinged, as well as
the glasses of a lady fallen asleep over
a book... I imagine this and close my
eyes. When I finally reached him, I
was postponing the meeting as if it
had been a college exam or a medical
check-up, but in this neglected garden, owned by this sad-faced knight,
the gentleman made of jelly, whom
I do not wish to touch even with an
inch of my skin or clothes, and of
whose breathing I am painfully aware
I feel I have arrived, after years of
wandering, to the water, to my resting place. I have arrived somewhere.
I feel, if nothing, that there is no need
for me to get up and walk.
Kettledrums are declaring summertime, brass music happy holidays,
even if there are only a few moments
until the rolling credits.
A bear can play the cymbals, said
my sister once.
And I like the cymbals. The marching band would be much less exciting without them.
Cymbals and trumpets, thats it,
dear Dado, by Jove, already a theatre! In the street! Ours! Our long
trada! Herr Professor says revived
and cheerful.
Hes been polishing the brass plate on
the scratched entrance door: Small
Animal Clinic, Dr. K. ain.
Karlo ain, a good name for an opera conductor or an uncle, said my
sister a long time ago.

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

Your buddys an ass lover, stupid,


she said and slapped Danijels behind
when he started visiting the vet so often as if he had had duck plague.
Guz, guz, she said and made a rude
gesture with her palm and fist. Danijel would respond with another gesture, carefree, twisting his finger on
his temple, I remember. Although
she was never strikingly beautiful,
my sister could have had many men;
one boy even head jumped to the sea
for her, from the Great Jetty onto
the rocks he reached neither the
sea, nor her attention. Gentleness
hardened in her like sugar to chip
off a tooth. My sister was always
careful when it comes to love, I recall. This hardness was the total opposite to her lips, soft like a wound,
with smooth, dark skin. Armoured,
Danijel called her when she was not
in the room with us.
Whoever met him, wanted to take
my brother home, keep him close
while he was laughing or speaking,
wanted to be Danijel, touch him on
the shoulder, pinch his cheek (which
he hated). He possessed the kind of
gentleness and intensity of a serious
young man. Well, gentleness attracts
in many ways, attracts to be crushed,
I remember, people often wanted to
beat him, some people just could not
stand it. To be at least a little different, that is always a good reason to
get smacked.
I see them: my older sister and my
younger brother, sitting and bickering, with their heads close so that
Ma would not hear them: sitting so
close together they look like a cactus
and its flower.

85

jaded, green European lizard, a regular dandy; he also had fireflies and
scarabs and two tortoises; he could
tell which one was female by her
cracked shell, I remember. They survived, there they are, in the garden,
near the opaque glass of the greenhouse, the proof this house saw better times, said my sister once. Professors courtyard, fenced off by a stone
wall with sparkling nacreous pieces,
molluscs and this crawling, banging
and grunting animal kingdom, attracted all of us kids, I remember.
We went there almost secretly, because of the stories, I remember. Except Danijel who, obviously, had no
such problems. Later on I noticed
behaviour similar to ours in people
who privately admire that which they
would publicly gladly ridicule, with
equal honesty and eagerness. It must
have been be painful, I thought. Depends for whom, I think today.
It seemed Danijel had everything
easy; he came there every day, stayed
as long as he wanted. Perhaps this is
the reason why this courtyard had
more of my younger brother than
our house.
It is still awkward, it occurs to me, that
Danijel will not suddenly appear behind the colourful plastic stripes on
Professors door. This is all that is left
of his games, those two lewd tortoises, the posters from cowboy movies,
brittle with time, which I moved to
my room, and this Herr Professor.
Of other things my brother possessed
I am sorry that we have never found
the colt that our father gave him, and
his school bag.
***

Socializing with the vet turned into a


friendship that fall when my brother
started secondary school, I remember. Danijel made a terrarium in Professors garden that year: over the grey
sand, he had hauled it from the Mala
Mora beach, crawled lizards, translucent house geckoes, and one large,

In my pocket I have a letter folded


and opened a countless number of
times. The dirty piece of paper contains a typewritten note:
Dear Danijel,
Forgive me for not writing earlier.
The circumstances are such that I

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A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

do not open my e-mail often and a


computer is not available to me here.
Actually, it was pure chance that I
read your messages. As you can see
(postal stamp), work took me to the
other end of the world. You are smart
and probably know that I will need
more time than what has passed to
accept some past events, but I blame
myself more than I blame you. This
stamp, naturally, is no accident; it is
there for you, as well as the picture
of the spotted newt I am sending. I
hope this will cheer you up. Those are
things I cannot send you by e-mail,
so I am sending them by the good
old stagecoach! Let these be my tokens of reconciliation and goodwill.
You wrote about your troubles I am
hoping you will solve these problems
and that it is not something caused
by that unfortunate event. I would
like to be able to help you, but, alas,
at the moment I can hardly help myself, since I sleep at somewhat weird
and miserable places, I eat where I
can; such are the circumstances. It
seems I also got pneumonia. At the
moment I can neither send you my
snail mail address so you could write,
nor can I promise you that I would
read your e-mails within reasonable
time, but I am hoping that I would
be able to do so soon.
I will notify you about it. Stay well.
Best,
Your Friend
In the right upper corner there is
a date, several days after Danijels
death.
***
I was not impatient; I had nowhere
to go, I was in no haste.
I left him several messages on his
answering machine I knew he was
there, a few meters away from me,
the man with the answer, behind the
walls separating his garden from the
rest of the Village; and I believed he
would come looking for me. Several

times I turned into the short alley


where his house stood, but I either
lost my nerve at the last moment, or a
funny and horrible embarrassment, a
feeling of unease, overpowered me.
The phone rang in the morning when
Ma was making coffee for herself
and her cousin Marijana Mateljan.
Tobacco smoke descended from the
kitchen and into the hall, and upstairs water was boiling in the kettle.
They were both staring at TV. Their
favourite soap was on.
ain Karlo speaking, Id like to speak to
Danijel... Well, at last, Dado, dear!
Marijana is my oldest friend, Ma
sometimes said. And my first cousin, shed always add.
For decades she drove over from the
downtown in her orange Lada on
Sundays, sometimes on Wednesdays.
Then, one of them would say something wrong and Marijana Mateljan
would disappear for a week, a month,
once even for whole two years. The
exhaust pipe from Lada would fart
a black smoke cloud and she would
dash off furiously like a clockwork
orange. The last time it happened,
we thought she would never come
back, but she appeared soon after
Danijels death.
I did not want to disturb your dear
mother... But, I would have called, had
I known that you... If Id known that
you were here. Yes, yes, I got your messages, but I was away. Out of town.
On business. Of course! Actually, it
would be important to me, and Id be
very pleased if you came. Naturally...
So we may reminiscence on the old days.
Anyway, anyway...
Tsk-tsk, damn, I thought we got
rid of her as well as the others, said
my sister when Marijana appeared
among us again, her eyes puffed up
and red.
My sister polished her grumpiness on
her to high gloss, I remembered.
Still, Marijana finally found an appropriate role in our house and, I
thought, played it bravely and reso-

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lutely. She was devoted to the desolate Ma; Mas unhappiness liberated
Marijana in this relationship. We
knew had it not been for Danijels
death, the cousin would not have
been permitted to enter this house
ever again.
Pride is such a bizarre feature, so selfdestructive, Im not at all sure why we
consider it a merit, I thought.
The first two weeks after Danijels
funeral there were up to thirty people in our house every day, drinking
brandy, smoking and talking, and
then, suddenly they disappeared and
nobody remembered when. Gradually, after a while, they stopped calling. They probably didnt know what
to talk about with us, the whole story
made them un-com-fort-able, said
my sister.
Ma was sitting and nodding with
a wax mask on her face, like those
people on neuroleptics when they
return from the mad house, so they
look like robots or dug-out totems.
My sister kept washing the glasses,
emptying the ashtrays and shooting
arrows at her soft husband, now her
ex. The tragedy rocked around the
room, hanging from the chandelier
between the guests and us.
Other peoples misery requires effort, clearly, said my sister.
Come soon, come whenever you like.
We are not far, we are neighbours, how
nice! Oh, yes. Of course. Knock harder,
my door bells still not working... Bye.
Bye, honey. Bye.
I put down the receiver.
Marijana was sitting in front of the
TV in her ready-steady position,
cracking nuts.
Its the feast of St. Fjoko, she said.
He saved us from leprosy, she added
scratching her stomach.
And died of syphilis, she rounded
out her point.
I had a hunch that one of Marijanas
vehement tirades was about to begin, and I was not about to miss it.

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I would visit him in the afternoon,


anyway, anyway.
I had no idea why our Fjoko died.
They were carrying his relic in a silver case behind a cross up and down
the only street in the village of normal length, Duga trada, leading
from the harbour toward the exit on
the highway.
On St. Fjokos day the orchestra of
brass musicians, sweaty in their blue
uniforms, plays all day, in the morning and the afternoon. In the evening
men from the Brotherhood put on
their hoods and start the procession
with lit candles; behind them nuns
and women from the Church Choir
of St. Lisa, singing monotonously.
At the tail of this centipede, twice as
long as this Long Street, the drowsy
population creeps behind. They walk
slowly, because Duga trada is not
particularly long and sometimes the
procession meets its own tail.
Dunkve, well, Marijana goes on,
licking the honey from the bread slice
on which she arranged some nuts,
not even the uncomfortable disease
of the soon-to-be saint did prevent
him from courtin and doin his lady
friends. Juto, exactly, his body was
crumpling, his bones putrefying, but
his spirit was alive. Thats why the
almighty and gracious God left our
martyr, though he was ifilitiko, intact, especially that part of him that
was and still is a holy relic to all of his
mistresses as well as the whole village
this here, see!
She stretched out and up her fat middle finger with two gold rings and a
long, polished fingernail.
Youre lying!? I screamed. She was
sometimes making up things. As any
born storyteller scarifying the truth
on the altar of the story, I thought.
Everybody knows that Fjoko had a
blessed finger whose touch healed
from leprosy. What is now the fantasy
part truth or lie?! I thought.
Marijanas body, full of tinkling jewellery, in a wide, bright-coloured tu-

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

nic, retreated towards the couch, but


only to spread her feathers. She said:
Well, yes and no. You may lie to
tell the truth. Inoma dela oma, in
the end, its well known that the box
of St. Fjoko keeps the bone from his
middle finger, and you, my dear, just
think about it.
She clicked her tongue and patted
the sleepy Jill lying among the cushions, fleetingly, with her gold and
silver rings.
Marijanas head was egg-shaped, elongated, fine for a horse, you could not
say a horse was not beautiful, but her
body was huge, she seethed when she
was resting, raised tides around herself when she moved.
Ma was smiling, distracted, she put
out the cigarette. The ashtray was
full of flattened butts and walnut
shells. Then she went on, rolled and
lit another one and turned up the
volume.
Aaron held Minerva in a passionate
embrace.
Marijana wiped off the invisible tear
with her thumb.
Beside her, Ma looked like a wax candle next to a radiant Chinese lamp, I
noticed. My cousin was waving her
arms, pushing the heat and stench
out of the room. She had sunken
deeply into the couch, occupying all
possible comfort. It seemed to me
as if Marijana had been aspirating
comfort from around her through
her pores. Along with comfort, she
sucked in kitchen odours and dust
and the smell of the tiger balm from
my mothers skin. She was swallowing the air made up of all those particles like a multi-coloured hole in
space, her laughter was swelling and
exiting through the windows, and
bacon was billowing out under her
wide clothes.
Once she will come into the kitchen,
said my sister once, and our kitchen is
small, and she will not come out.
When their soap finished on the TV,
we had bitter Turkish coffee, listening

87

in silence to the ticking of the clock in


the hallway as if it had been in a parallel time panty, stuffed with several
years of winter stores, where time had
forgotten to get out of and pass.
They might have been thinking about
the poor Aaron, the mulatto dying of
jealousy on a daily basis. People who
occasionally passed by our windows,
carrying benches and large pots for
a bouillabaisse to the Long Street,
must have been thinking about the
celebration, the holiday. I was thinking about the afternoon and the guy
who had the answer to my question,
about Herr Professor Karlo ain,
whose house next to ours suddenly
seemed at the end of a forest.
***
Under the window there was a young
man with a harmonica, only without the harmonica the handsome
man I had seen on that night when I
came to the village, in the Last Chance
Inn. I recognized him through the
thin curtain, I recognized his silhouette. He was waiting, obviously, for
someone at the corner of the former
Community House, right opposite
the bakers house. Without his blue
tuxedo he looked like a normal boy
being bored.
Still, he was really attractive, I thought.
Comely, as the books would say. One
of those you might spend hours just
watching, and still find him interesting. Tanned legs in white socks and
dirty, white sports shoes. His shoulders, posture was it indifference
his eyes squeezed between his eyelashes. He was pushing a squashed
plastic bottle over the gravel, unaware
of being watched.
Anelo, that was how a tall, hurried passer-by called him, as well as
the street cleaner in his istoa overalls who had just passed by, pushing
his card with brooms and a plastic,
black hamper; that was the name the
skinny girl whispered to the other, the

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Photo by: Martina Kenji

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spindly one, laughing as they slid beside him on their roller skates.
Soon a woman in a large car picked
him up, she was around thirty, dressed
smart and business casual: a vanilla
skirt, a lilac shirt, thin and lightcoloured, and vanilla sandals with a
small heel. She was holding a summer
jacket over her arm; there were visible
wet stains underneath her armpits, her
limbs were thin but firm, the tanned
skin smooth and shiny, the long hair
raised and pinned down in a bun.
Like on TV, Ma would say.
As he walked towards her small sports
car, the young man glanced up, to
where I stood leaning over. But, I
believe he did not see me, because of
the light. The sun in the west shone
from behind the house.
Beside Anelo, on the sunny side,
there crept his short shadow, suddenly narrowed forwards, touching the
womans feet, then covering them,
caressing.
***
Lukewarm, salty air, immovable images without a perspective, a world of
backdrops and vertical planes, encircled by a cat or in a few steps by a kid
with a bloody knee, pushing a scooter. That was part of day when birds
go insane over factory chimneys, the
ripe August afternoon when the Village was baking in a Dutch oven, and
the sea was evaporating.
Hot spell, hard and heavy, the Great
Gannet would say.
I never considered scorched landscape
ugly, rather boring. Or desperate, if
I myself felt desperate. Not in a few
hundred years would there ever be a
blossoming paradise garden here. No
way, I thought. The sky was similar to
an apocalyptic postcard all day.
Divine Providence! as the Great
Gannet would call such dramatic
scene designs. Because cumulus clouds
had began gathering in the west and
the heat, as the evening closed, would
soon be so great that wallpapers in

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

the rooms would sweat, and poisonous oleanders in the courtyard would
hang their moisture-scalded branches down to the ground.
People would walk around with greasy,
soaked faces, tapping on the barometers in disbelief, because they were
foreseeing a storm and low blood
pressure, sometimes even fainting.
A dog day, in any case, and that was
not sloth, but an acute disease of the
will, as my sister put it well.
***
The guy with the harmonica and his
escort (or, more probable, he was
the escort) had left the scene, so the
street was empty and forsaken for a
moment.
Ruzinavas back, yelled the girl on
the roller skates to her friend, entering the scene. I waved back at them.
I took my hat and waved harder.
Hey, Ruzinava! The girls were waving back.
Exiting the house, I had to jump over
the shoes which Ma had forgotten
and which were still frying on the
stairs, some fresh seagull dung on
some of them.
Along the Duga trada the suburbia
smelled of the air before rain and of
frankincense before the procession,
some people were carrying out the
tables for the evening feast. Like an
apparition, that old blacksmith was
riding along the street on his horse,
talking with somebody on his mobile
phone, hands free.
***
As the sun would start setting, I said
I would go look for work and then
I wandered. Actually I was wandering from dawn till dusk. Monday
and Friday mornings, Ma and me,
we took the standard route over the
graveyard and to the beach.
When Im there, Im with them,
said Ma, serious as an Amen, her
voice high-pitched.

89

Go with her, shell fall under a truck


being so drowsy from this sun, called
my sister. So I escorted her. We were
turning into those mother-daughter pairs, inseparable even after the
daughter had gotten old. Only, with
them it usually turned out that the
daughter, not the mother, had lost
her marbles.
Such pairs might be seen more often in better neighbourhoods, in
educated and well-off families, also
in families without sons, I noticed.
Therefore, we did not meet any requirements.
Those mothers and daughters were
often physically very alike, they dressed
alike, and sometimes mother was
pretty and young, and daughter ugly
or fat. In the morning they took their
Renault Clio or Renault Twingo to a
shopping mall or a cafe.
Your younger sister?! acquaintances would courteously tell mother in
passing.
And mother and daughter smiled politely or the insane daughter walked
on without stopping, so mother was
embarrassed and she had to stop
chatting.
The novelty was that last Monday
Super Marios clones in red caps and
red overalls had come to the village
to demolish and rebuild Ilirija in
several days.
We were passing Ilirija almost every
day so that we were able to follow this
miracle as in the fast forward mode.
As if they had mixed some luxurious
substance in the cement, like yeast,
and the house was getting younger.
This reminded me of the nature show
Ma watched regularly the opening
scene showed some garish flowers
which burst, grew and blossomed
from simple seeds in five seconds,
and then, in the new scene, in an
unfathomable transformation of an
embryo turned into a man, with the
face of an urban redneck, but surely
of a romantic nature, because in the
end he picked that flower.

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A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

This introductory scene made me


doubt the natural persistence of vision. One gust of wind cooled the
air for a short while, but also stranded all kinds of garbage to the Mala
Mora the attraction was the carcass
of a young shark so I mostly kept
in the shade with my beach towel
spread among the cigarette buts and
bare peach pits, following the boats
around the small island outside the
bay, in the middle of the channel.
Ma would lie on the beach and count
the rosary of small shells and sea
slugs, smaller and more delicate than
a childs fingernail. A flake, a filigree,
a name on a grain of rice, she was
more fascinated by such things than
by the Eiffel tower or the Sahara. Or,
whatever, the Great Wall of China
interested her less than Chinese calligraphy. She had bought the special
paints and drew miniature drawings
on empty eggshells. But that was before her narcophilic phase, while she
had still had some ambition.
The sea in the bay was thick in colour and placid like the primordial soup. Later, around noon, boys
would come and jump in the shallow water, but early in the morning
it was quiet, not counting the noise
from the construction of Ilirija.
I liked Mala Mora more than any
other beach in the Village because
of the five old umbrella pines whose
crowns were so high that you had
to turn your head and eyes to the
sky to see them, which always made
me nauseous; and the beach was not
open to the south, so there was always
less tar than on other beaches from
where we had always returned with
black spots on swimming trunks,
I remembered. The beach was surrounded by laurel and cheesewood,
planted by a Czech doctor who used
to live above Mala Mora. His house
was the most beautiful house in the
Old Village, much nicer than Karlo
ains, said Ma. Cheesewood shrubs
were decorated by ice cream and con-

dom packaging, but at least they


havent yet gravelled Mala Mora flat,
said my sister.
This piece of coast was deteriorating anyway, with the dignity of an
old drunk who remembered better
times, just as Ma remembered the
Split Music Festivals, with Vice Vukov and Claudio Villa.
No doubt some ruins might be beautiful even if they stank, and as for Ilirija, it had always been ugly, like any
building from the fifties.
Uglier still when it was new, said
Ma.
The fact that it was a hotel did not
help much. I was inside many times
and have never found anything justifying the idea of the hotel: a swimming pool with turquoise tiles or
the afternoon silence at the reception, not even were the towels white
and harsh and embroidered with
the name of the hotel, but variegated, common, thinned out in washing. Still, the most important thing
was there: the smell of chlorine on
starched sheets, the smell of Indian
tea and pt, the stench of someone
elses vacation.
***
People from the Village and tourists
gathered in front of Ilirija every day,
watching Super Marios clones and
heckling.
What is it?
Whas that?
Ma a ovo ononde?!
Vrdovek bought Ilirija.
Wha is this?
Che cosa questo?
Das is eine Baustelle.
Nein, das ist ein Freudenhaus!
Cest l htel.
Wrdovjack?! Was is Wrdovjack?
Vtejte na me zahrade!
tooo?!
dvzlm! dvzlm! Bolje vas
nali!
Harum-farum-larum hedervarum.

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The next day, behind the Table of


Lies, on the wall next to former Ilirija, somebody wrote: WHAS THAT
IN OUR BACKYARD?

***
Marijana Mateljan said, but also the
newspapers di, as well as all of the web
portals, screaming how Ned Montgomery was coming to Croatia. It
was his, as they say, second time. The
first time Ned was in Yugoslavia he
was still young and unknown, and,
they said, he died in one of the first
scenes of Winnetou. The new generations knew him better as one of the
first 3D heroes of computer games,
they said.
It was a game with many dead cowboys in which the good guys, the
player & Ned, if they drew fast and
got lucky, won shiny sheriff stars. The
goal was always the same: not to let
the sons of bitches beat you.
Ned Montgomery is not the type to
lie about on his yacht in the harbour
of Hvar, he does not drink cappuccino on Dubrovniks Stradun with
bodyguards behind his ass, and he
does not wave from his transparent
capsule to us mortals, Balkanjeros,
as those other, quasi, stars, said my
sister thereby blessing the famous actor. Ned Montgomery was not very
talkative, he responded to interview
questions with: Yes. No. Of course.
Thank you.
Puts on no airs, as the people in Old
Village would say.
Once a TV-journalist told him:
Well, fine, Ned, I thought you were
a stud.
!?
But how can it be true if youve spent
the last twenty years with the same
woman?!
Well, Im a cowboy, explained Montgomery and lit himself a cigarette in the
studio like it was nobodys business.
Everybody somehow knew that stud
was small fry compared to a cowboy,
said Danijel.

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That same woman was the wonderful


Chiara Buffa, a TV host and a singer
on RAI, who had a tragic accident
and had been introduced to him by
Sergio Leone once on a movie set,
the newspaper said. Once the two
of them got the whole centrefold for
themselves.
And Danijel said he did not find it
unbelievable that someone could be
aroused by Chiara Buffa for twenty
years.
Marijana Mateljan brought the newspapers and showed me the article.
Here, look! By god, that cowboy
from your rooms here! she said and
shoved the newspaper in my face.
The producer was the famous Ned
Montgomery it said in the Spectacles section. The popular actor and
spaghetti western director, who had
embodied many Wild West legends
that what it said. Some scenes from
this new film, apparently also a kind
of a western, would be filmed at our
locations.
Ned Montgomery, whose mothers
father was Croatian, was a star already
in the sixties and the seventies, and
his best roles he played in movies like
Gold Dust, More Gold Dust in the Eyes,
The Return of Virgil C. and Virgil C.s
Last Bullet, blah, blah.
Danijel would be glad, I pondered
cheerfully. It would be news for him,
although years had passed.
Good morning, cowboy! my brother would tell himself when he was in
especially good mood, I remember.
Good night, cowboys and Indians!
Ala, kifeli! my father would say and
send us to bed.
I am not a cowboy, my sister would
say.
Nor an Indian, shed add.
This really drives me crazy, terribly,
she would say.
She move Montgomery Neds poster to her room on the day my sister
and mother decided to rent Dani-

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

jels room with a separate entrance to


workers and tourists. That legendary
Ned from the poster was everything:
a gunman, a poker player, a lone rider, Yuma county sheriff, protector of
women, a fan of bandanas and hats, a
faithful and honest friend to men and
dogs, quick at the draw and fast as a
whip... He was backed by the front
line fighters on one part of the wall:
Eastwood, Wayne and Django.
I knew it would be OK for Danijel.
And it looked quite cool, the TV people would say. This cowboy with six
golden colts, but not the stud, cannot
be just crumpled and thrown away,
my sister said.
The only Montgomerys role that I
remembered well, actually very well,
was the role in Virgil C. Last Bullet,
when he got killed by Lee Van Cleef
in the final showdown. It was not
often that the leading hero died in a
western. That film was rerun numerous times on Sundays at five and we
watched it every time. That Virgil,
Montgomerys character, returned
to his home town Quentin, which
he had left when he was eighteen,
just as I did, I remembered, but upon his return he found there none
of his tears.
In the Old Village that was all I
found.
***
One of my favourite pastimes while I
wandered the streets was discovering
old graffiti over and under the flaky
building fronts.
On the southern wall of the post office, where semi-dead tails of small
alleys separate, because our streets
began but did not end, somebody
wrote: CAPITULATION CORNER.
That wall was warm in winter and
cool in summer, so widows rested
their backs, their narrow and shrunken shoulders and their still luscious
behinds under black clothes against
the graffiti.

91

In my early childhood our greatgrandmother used to watch that corner. The Great Gannet, Oblapornica,
the oldest woman in the world. She
was ancient all our lives and old almost the half of hers. On the day
she capitulated, granny ate a full
plate of small bitter fish and sweet
white cabbage, I remember; fish was
bitter because of the intestines and
cabbage was sweet because of the
salt in the earth or the sun. Then
trying to control the shaking of her
chin with several curly, white hairs
she dragged her tripod to the end
of the street, where widows sat under the yellow neon of the new post
office, chewing their tongues with
dry mouths. Some of them spent
the last forty years there, some only
forty days, but, in the end, sooner
or later, everyone came there, those
with black scarves and those with red
beads. They sat on the benches the
whole afternoon, mostly being quiet
in their wonderful dialect.
Cul-de-sac, Herr Professor would
say. A dead end.
Old men did not stop at that corner
they just waved quickly and went
on they gathered at the other end
of the Village, behind Ilirija and the
slipway. The public social life of pensioners was strictly divided into male
and female, like in a boarding school.
Men played chess or treeta card game
on a long fir table or just sat there and
talked aloud. On the concrete slabs
of the table somebody wrote a long
time ago: TABLE OF LIES.
Scorned, ridiculed, then praised and
applauded the next day, those knights
of the Table of Lies, senile amateur
politicians with heart attacks waiting
in their chests, their arthritic chests,
they moved the pieces, knights and
bishops, they lost rooks, pawns and
changed the oral history of wars, fishery and tourist sex.
Showing, proving that history lingered on, everything that had once
already happened, happened simul-

92

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

taneously in some finite past tense


and that there was really only the imperfect that perfect tense and age.
And that thin membrane of shiny
conditionals: whatever would have
been, had it been, the membrane
stretched to infinity between the past
perfect and future-in-the-past. Or so
I thought.
The boys from the Old Village, when
they were leaving for the army, wrote
their names, the year of their birth,
and LEVA, military service, on the
walls. And some famous lyrics. On
the bus station someone wrote: WAIT
FOR ME, SELENA, after a song.
All those writings became toponyms.
People were saying: Meet me at five
at Leva 65 or I saw him this morning at the Table of Lies or Wait for
me at Selena. Although, the letters
were mostly washed out by rain and
dried by the sun people forgot why
the house with galena shutters, at the
bus stop, was ever named Selena.
The most famous of all graffiti in the
Old Village was written along the
whole parapet on the Great Pier. It
was a vista of our childhood greasy
black letters on the long white embankment: STRANGER, NO LAWS
PROTECT YOU HERE. And up on
the mast, on the prow of the embankment, there was Martin the seagull
standing on one foot, not a vulture,
not a scavenger. Martin is our name
for all domesticated seagulls.
The story said this graffiti was made
by Brothers Iroquois, which was impossible I believed those letters on
the pier to be much older than the
oldest of the brothers.
In any case, when they were renovating the pier some ten years ago, they
demolished the embankment, stone
by stone. Then they put back all
those great, old stone blocks and rearranged a new embankment so that
only a few traces of those letters were
visible and the graffiti STRANGER,
NO LAWS PROTECT YOU HERE

was no longer legible. But, it was still

there, preserved in a way. Of course,


not salvaged, I thought.
The immortal legacy was also left by
that unknown hero who wrote all over
the Village and down in the centre,
even at hardly accessible places, with
a garish blue paint: NEDA, I LOVE
YOU. AND SO MUCH MORE.

Several more visible places he marked


with: NEDA, ARE YOU READING
THE BLUE GRAFFITI?

And there was no Neda in the Village,


only three Nadas. I wondered if he
meant one of them, and which one.
And then, nothing new on the wall
for a while. Not counting when somebody spilled some black paint on the
plate with partisans names on the
Community House and drew a swastika underneath, and the next night
all partisan monuments in front of
kindergartens and the school lost
their heads. Everybody was talking
about the Brothers Iroquois again,
but I believed the job with brass
bronze heads was done by some new
guys, from the unfinished three-storey houses above the railway tracks.
Neotrackers, my sister called them.
But, perhaps it was not them, maybe
I was wrong. Except in this: Brothers
Iroquois were pests, even when they
grew up, but they were too smart to
demolish monuments.
There was no war, no shooting in the
Village; Yugoslav Navys ships were
shelling the western part of the town
for two weeks and then stopped. Occasionally, an air raid alarm would go
off. We were cut off like on an air
mattress surrounded by sharks, said
Herr Professor.
My sister said that she had felt the
stench. Fear reeks. Especially inside
shelters. Some young men from the
Old Village, several years older than
us, died in the war. We all cried.
Some other people were taken away
and disappeared in the dark. We all
kept quiet. Some of our friends and
their parents left the Village overnight and never returned.

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We kids shouted at each other: You


Serb, you homo! Even the Serbs shouted this, those who did not leave.
Everybody talked of snipers and so
did Marijana Mateljan, who had her
own private demon in her head, aiming straight at her. Once she drove
from the centre sweating with effort
of pushing the gas pedal in her orange
Lada and shouted from the door:
sugar and water over here! What
kind of a shitty life is this?! So many
puddles in these paths! I remember.
But I also forgot a lot.
At that time, speaking about graffiti, a stylized letter U, for Ustashe,
appeared in the centre along all other popular wallpaper patterns. Some
thought it was funny, some believed
in it; for some it was a rite of passage,
and everybody was bored.
Regarding the monuments, industrious villagers erected new totems and
idols instead of the old ones; it was a
generational shift of heroes.
For several days the case of the new
name for the pier in the Old Village was all over newspapers: should
the Jere Botui Promenade (WWII
fighter, born in 1921, died by a cassette bomb in 1943) be renamed to
Jere Botui Promenade (Croatian
defender, born in 1969, died by a grenade in 1993). In the end they posted
a new plate on the pier: Jere Botui
Promenade. And the days went by
peacefully, the walls did not speak,
just like the heads of old monuments,
sunken in the grainy sea bottom, just
like the new monuments, suspecting
that the doom of their heads was just
a matter of time.
Of other interesting graffiti there was
one uphill, beside the railway tracks,
on the small building that once had
been a bus stations waiting room, but
then was a latrine an illegal public
toilet. It was a drawing of a young
and smiling, speckled cowboy, riding an old Ziko, an automatic motorcycle of fifty cubic centimetres, into
the sunset. Under the drawing there

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were words: DANIJEL R.I.P. WHERE


COWBOYS GO.

***
Ive learned something about simultaneity: memory is the present
of all remembered events. The tape
moves forward and back. Fw-stoprew-stop-rec-play-stop, stops at important places, some images flicker, opaquely frozen in a permanent
pause, unclear. But, memory is also
a saboteur editor in the backroom,
the one who cuts and pastes and edits until the very end or at least until
the Alzheimers.
The past is never a finite, finished
thing, says Herr Professor, taking
a VHS tape from his ancient video
player. The Old Village is the last
place on earth where people still use
videotapes, I ponder. The past is not
what it used to be, I say.
Is this all that is left of my brother,
his games, this wretched Herr Karlo?, I ponder. He has placed his large,
lumpish arms on the garden table
among the porcelain dishes. Like on
my brothers lean shoulders.
Gingerbread, that is how he calls
him on the tape.
We were taped on the Krka waterfalls,
during the excursion I have completely erased from my memory. There goes
my gingerbread. Says the vet in the
film we have just seen together.
Ginger-boy and a large hand on the
back of his head, fingers wrapped in
reddish flames.
Shit, perhaps he really did do it with
Danijel, I wonder.
I imagine him falling to the ground
(as in that song, I think) in front of
Danijel, onto the cold floor tiled with
Chinese mosaic, sprayed with cat and
dog blood, taking Danijels proud and
indifferent dong out of his jeans.
Lizards fretting in the terrarium,
newts floating in formalin, the crocodile beating with his tail in the cabbage barrel.

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

Herr Karlo is shaking as if stricken


by a cymbal.
Behind the next strike (it is sunny
and a holiday, but a nimbus, grey
as a dog, has floated from the west),
together with the sluggish horns and
the shrill trumpet, there are now also
other sounds: a mobile phone ring
tone, the church, harsh mewing from
the street, the crying and calling of
a grasshopper which Ma is beating
with a tamarisk twig and cussing it
loudly. I always return to reality with
effort, as if from afar, I contemplate.
Even when people call me at eleven
in the morning or six in the afternoon, they ask me: Did I wake you?
Am I awake? Do I sound awake? Of
course, I am awake. I was not even
asleep, I believe.
The reality is this almost surreal letter
in my pocket, of that I am sure.
Mister Karlo, I say in a voice unknown to me.
Here, in the courtyard surrounded
by tall stonewalls, where the light is
mild, transparent, where for a moment I felt (wrongly) that I finally
sat down beside the water after many
years. He does not hear me. The bell
tower is louder for St. Fjoko over
the carob treetops, pregnant with
black fruit, I can see how the turquoise struggles through the thick
evening indigo.
I have to ask you something!
Dado, dear?
Did Danijel ever contact you, after
you had left, send you a message, letter, an e-mail, did he ever write?
The catfish twitches, almost unnoticeable.
And says, as if to himself, Why do
you torture yourself with this?! He is
gone, you should be thinking of the
living, of yourself, of your mother.
Some things are better left unknown, Ma used to say, but look
what has become of her and her wish
for ignorance. I am thinking, I do
not speak.

93

He takes out a dirty handkerchief


with a blue borderline, blowing his
nose loudly.
How could he have found me, I
changed several addresses, from Brela
to Rotterdam and over... Well, I went
everywhere. Until I lost all of my
money. I even got mugged, yes.
And e-mail? Theres e-mail.
I dont know, he shrugs and turns
away. I rarely use it, only if I have to.
Im a bit behind the times, he says
and smiles somewhat sourly.
Turtles have separated and now they
are on opposite sides of the garden.
They can hardly move. What are the
chances they will never find each other again?! I wonder.
I would never harm him. Perhaps it
may seem odd to you now, because
Dani was almost a child, and I was
then, obviously, already an old man,
but he was my best friend.
While he speaks, this large man is
trembling, closing and opening his
small eyes, swallowing air: That he
got involved with some boys, a band,
perhaps you know that...
...I warned him, bad company...
...He never returned here, they
mostly...
...Dont like condescending...
...Perhaps I could have done more...
...Ive always wondered...
...Done more...
...More than that, I dont know, I
dont know...
...Anyway, you know what had happened to me before I left, they beat
me up, real bad.
As he talks, he is squeezing his large
hands like a sick person suffering
from some serious physical discomfort. The colic, I think.
Several sudden raindrops ping on the
dishes and drive the magic scarab beetle out from this hideaway under the
saucer. It stops and is now lying on
the white table like a lost amulet.
Dung beetle, the vet mumbles
dryly.
Yeah, I respond shortly.

94

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

My throat is tight as if in it he has


pushed those dirty, crusted rags from
the clothes dryer, which are already
dripping in front of us.
It must be hard for the rain to stop
once it starts. It would be hard for
me, at least. As if you were a kid and
peed in your sleep, neither guilt, nor
stopping, says Karlo ain.
We are protected by the tree and the
marquee, and it is pouring down
from the sky.
For a moment I think how Ma has
probably not moved the shoes from
the stairs, so now they are soaking.
I fiddle with that piece of paper in my
pocket, the envelope with a stamp;
an image of Laika and the stamp of
Perm where is this and how did it
get there? typewritten, the letter
that was late and that arrived after
Danijels death. If I took it out now,
would Karlo ain say it was not his?
He would, I think and shove the envelope under the tray on the table.
Let him find it.
If there is an answer, there surely
must be a letter preceding it. I have
waited four years for Herr Professor
and this Daniels letter, e-mail, anything, a word from him. And Karlo
ain says there is none, that there is
no letter from Danijel. He is looking
me in the eyes and lying. And babbling about the rain.
Professor sain says there is no letter :-(,
Im texting my sister.
Reply: I told you so! Let him be. Who
knows who wrote that letter.
For a while I am watching the screen
blindly, pissed in the rain.
The hell he didnt. He is the one.
What other lunatic would typewrite
the letter.
***
One of the hottest and longest summers of our lives the one before the
war. The sea bloomed and during
the day the heat from the land produced a nasty stench of carcass and

sulphur, so we swam only at night,


in the sparkling phosphorus, during
that unbearable period.
Father died at the beginning of August. Generally, it was the summer
when our time stopped and forever
unglued into before and after. This
shattered, dispersed time was not to
be put together ever again, not even
its parts could be connected, something I kept trying to do. It might be
compared perhaps only to life in two
completely different areas, of which
one disappeared and the other you
might reach only by accident, as if
in a never-ending dream.
In those days the song of a billion
locusts and crickets turned into one,
flat, hypnotizing tone, during the
noons that were loudly boiling and
the foaming nights. Father used to
say that, if you woke up early enough
and went to the sea, you could hear
the agaves bark cracking and see
the sticky juice, like honey, dripping
from the wounds.
They use it to sweeten the tea and
spicy food in Mexico, he said.
Everything he knew of the world outside the Village, he had learned from
the movies.
They had sent him home from the
hospital three weeks before to die
in his large double bed, in the welllighted and well-aired room upstairs.
If I woke up in the night, I could hear
his alveoli wheeze, his lungs burst and
the poisonous, sticky juice, like honey, drip from the caverns.
My fathers window, so full of sky, was
the only window opening to the Long
Street. It was the feast of St. Fjoko,
there were pieces of dirty cotton and
a bowl of figs with dew drops on the
night cupboard.
This was the holiday when trombones, faggots and cymbals played,
tables and chairs were taken out to the
square and in front of the houses.
In the evening, the brothers, Fjokoans, dressed up in specially decorated

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uniforms of their Brotherhood with


hoods and embroidered golden and
scarlet symbol on their chest, and
they walked one after the other behind the cross bearer and the cross,
behind two candlesticks, behind the
silver box on the brocade cushion.
After them, nuns and the women
from the Choir of St. Lisa, singing
about the Christ on a beach and
similar, pious songs. Freshly shaven
men carried large, swinging candles,
so they looked like lighted masts of
foreign sailboats down at Mala Mora. The smells of frankincense and
Pitralon aftershave.
The largest candle, torac, was to be
carried by our father, but it was impossible because of his illness and
imminent death. Death sat at his
bedside like a monkey, hypocritically, I saw it. Danijel was going to the
Brothers regularly, almost every day,
asking them to carry the candle, but
the Fjokoans said he was weak and
that he should come back definitely
in a few years, I remember. In the
end they let him do it.
The procession took seven circles, up
and down, down and up along the
Duga trada. When I could carry it
no more, one large man would take
over the candle, that was what the
men from the brotherhood agreed,
said Danijel.
Ill manage six circles, said Danijel seriously. Ma was angry, she was
definitely against it.
Perhaps even all seven! he then said
to our sister and me.
These were the hot days of blooming
algae, when the world we had known
rifted from our future like the Red
Sea on the poster for the Ten Commandments on the wall of Braco &
Co., and for a short while we stayed
in-between, on dry land, confused,
but careless and merry and stupid.
On that day, St. Fjokos feast, I cut
my hair.
Flame by flame, the bread basket
was full of them when Jill fell asleep

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in it, and I saw how our hair was the


same, our fur similar in colour and
softness.
It was not a ritual, but acting the
moment, Danijel would say and I
think it did not have a direct connection to what would happen later. But,
it gave me the idea, I remember.
At that time I was still a boy, my
breasts grew only in the next year.
(The rest of the summer girls from
the Red Cross holiday resort whistled
behind me in the street and sometimes I liked it, and sometimes not,
I remember.)
For a long time I was standing in
front of the mirror in Danijels room
in the festive uniform of the Fjokoans, with a hood over my eyes: I was
taller than my brother, but not much,
just enough and we were very much
alike if I relaxed my shoulders and
arms. And my hips, I noticed.
You cant be the captain, said Dani
the day before as we were sitting on a
sea rock. He held a palm tree oar and
I had a plastic oar from the dinghy.
Captainess! I screamed.
You dont get it, it doesnt exist. Captain, cowboy or a woman monk, they
dont exist, he shrugged. What can
I do, he said and smiled and I remembered that one of his teeth was
missing.
What about Calamity Jane?! I
screamed furiously.
He pondered for a while. She later
becomes a normal lady.
I loved that scene when Calamity
Jane appeared on top of the stairs in
a dress and Wild Bill Hickok fell in
love, I could rewind and watch it for
hours. He knew that, he was mocking me. I pushed him with my oar so
he fell in the water and swam back
to the shore.

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

I sneaked into his room on the same


afternoon: Indian patchouli incense
sticks were burning to cover the cigarette smoke. I smoked in front of the
mirror, under James Coburn and Kris
Kristofferson from the stupid and
boring male story, that was what I
said to Danijel. I rummaged through
his things and then took out the neatly folded Fjokoan uniform and put it
on, paraded around a little.
And then, in front of the mirror, it
suddenly dawned on me. Why not?
Something nice and warm rolled up
to my feet and spilt all over the room.
Why not?!
Ku-urboooo! Danijel called me a
whore a bit later, shouting from downstairs in my room, locked in.
Ill kill you! I swear on my mothers...!
All in vain, the room was in the basement, deep in the rock, in the houses
subconscious. I was sorry for my
brother and I felt the ban, but no fear.
The fearless rusty-hair, Ruzinava.
The joy that carried me was the
strongest. It was excitement, a warm
and golden sphere in my belly and
deeper, outside me. Like eternal awakening. I would carry the candle all
seven circles. It would be remembered. O, yes.
Bravo, respect, I thought the eyes
in the procession were saying.
Bravo, Danijel, big boy, well done,
those Fjokoan twits would be saying later.
My body hurt, everything hurt, every
muscle and every nerve, but the joy
carrying me was much stronger. Behind the cross-bearer with the cross,
behind two candlesticks, behind the
silver box on a brocade cushion...
When we were passing by my fathers
window for the fourth time, I found

95

the strength to lift my head and look


up: I wanted him to see me and recognize me. He would be surprised, I
imagined, but then he would laugh.
That was the plan. But, the window
was empty the draft had lifted the
curtain and then let it fall.
Bells sounded again, and the greasy,
wax torac slid through my wet hands,
hit the ground with a dull sound.
On top of the stairs, at the front door,
my sister was waiting for me with her
eyes red, she hit me suddenly with her
open hand, on the cheek: You cut
your hair like a goat!
A thin peep from my mothers throat
escaped from the room to the hall
and that monkey hopped through
the door, unseen, except for me and
Yellow Jill.
I ripped myself free and started running after it, downhill to the Lower
Street, towards the katelet, the stone
tower, through the streets and dark
alleys to the slipway.
In the dusk, the procession was still
agitated like ants when you step into their anthill. They glued the torac
with duct tape, I noticed hidden behind the corner. The monkey crawled
to safety, amidst people and disappeared in the crown under the wide
dress of one of the nuns, I saw.
I managed to pass unseen through
the long, empty rows of benches and
white plastic chairs set on the square.
Down on the embankment I would
find Danijel who had forgiven me.
Sorry, I would say, I thought. And
that would be all.
There he was, my brother: he was
gathering seagull feathers for an Indian crown and we could hardly
hear the sound of the ambulance
leaving.
Translated by Tatjana Jambriak

Photo by: Martina Kenji

96

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Photo by: Vladimira Spindle

Hotel Zagorje
Ivana Simi Bodroi

dont remember anything, how it


started. Just some flashes. Open
windows of the apartment, a thick
summer afternoon, crazed frogs from
the Vuka River. I squeeze myself
through two armchairs singing
Dont you dare say, dont you dare lie
that Serbia is small.1 Dad closes the
newspapers and turns towards me, I
can feel his tension. Whats that
youre singing? he asks. Nothing,
I heard it from Boro and Danijel.
I dont want to hear it ever again, is
that clear? Alright, ale2. Its dad,
not ale, goddamn it!
Were packing for the seaside. Its the
first time ever that brother and I are
going on our own. Hes sixteen, Im
nine. Our neighbor eljka is also
coming, shes one year younger than
him. I want to be like her and Im
so excited because her mom and my
mom told her to keep an eye on me.
All night I cant sleep. My brothers
passport and mine lay on the little
table between our beds. The light in
the room is off and I ask him if I can
come to his bed. Why do we need
passports if were only going to the
seaside? I whisper. Dad said if
trouble blows up wed go to our uncles in Germany he replies. I cant
figure out what this trouble could be
but I sense its something to do with
politics because everyone keeps talk1
2
3

IVANA SIMI BODROI was born in 1982 in Vukovar, Croatia. She is about
to graduate from Zagreb Faculty of Philosophy with degrees in Philosophy
and Croatian Language and Literature. Her poetry collection Prvi korak u
tamu (The First Step into the Darkness) earned her Goran Prize for young
poets (2005) as well as Kvirin Prize for the best book of poetry by an author
under the age of 35. Her poetry has been published in various Croatian
and international literary magazines, collections and anthologies of contemporary Croatian poetry. Hotel Zagorje is her rst novel, published in
2010 to a wide acclaim of both critics and the literary public. So far the
rights are sold to Hanser (Germany); Mondran (Slovenia); Rende (Serbia);
Magor (Macedonia).

ing about it all the time. And I have a


toy monkey called Meso, just like our
president3, because they look alike
a little. We daydream about what
its like at our uncles in Germany.
Brother says everyone there is very
rich and the kind of a home we have
here Gypsies have over there. I love
my uncle very much. He visits us in
the summer, comes with his young
German wife, everyone listens to
him when he talks and he smells real
good. This summer his wife brought
along her poodle Gina and grandma
and grandpa wouldnt let the dog into the house, said it should sleep in
the basement. A big fight broke out,
grandma said shed poison the cur
and dad had to calm them down.
Gina stayed in the house. Uncle al-

ways brings us presents and marzipan. This year I got a leather handball
ball that couldnt be inflated. Brother
got a soccer ball, but he never used to
play soccer. Soon brother sent me off
to my bed and for a long time I kept
daydreaming about all those things.
Vukovar bus station stinks, its early
in the morning, Im so sleepy and Id
much rather stay in bed. Dad carries
me; although Im big he carries me
all the way. Hes wearing white trousers and a blue t-shirt. As we part we
kiss on the lips, first we make a face
and then fake a kiss. Its our special
thing. There are lots of children at
the station and were divided into
four buses. Parents wave to us for a
long time, we wave to them, I cant
see my family anymore, but I wave

A Serbian patriotic song, particularly popular during the 1990s.


Serbian slang word for father.
Stjepan Mesi, the last president of SFR Yugoslavia (later president of Croatia from 2000-2010).

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A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

to others whom I dont know, and


they wave to me. They smile and yell
to take care, some moms are crying,
too. Some parents run after the bus
all the way to the crossroads.
***
Ive never been to an island before.
I cant wait to get there, the trip is
so long that Ive already thrown up
twice, and Im not the only one. We
even saw the sea from the bus a few
times, but it would always disappear
behind some mountain. Im sad because we wont get to bathe today, and
Im also a little scared because I cant
swim. Back home wed often bathe
in the river, but its shallow there till
you get tired of walking so I never really needed to swim. To the Danube
I only ever went with granny who
said she swam like an axe and while
I watched other children with swim
rings shed only let me wet my legs
and face. When we finally arrived I
got a big room which I was to share
with twelve other girls my age that
I didnt know. Id already chosen a
bed when eljka came in with the
group leader and said we shouldnt
be separated. Thats how I ended
up in the room with the older girls.
I was happy and scared. Some had
a problem with me being there because they were sure Id spy on them
and tell the group leader everything,
but we really became friends very
quickly. I didnt talk too much or
annoy them, and I was polite to everybody. They called me kid, and I
was enchanted with their straps, deodorants, eyeliners and tights. Each
night on the terrace of the resort we
called Villa Draught there was disco.
And there was always this boy who
followed me; I didnt know him but
everyone told me I should dance with
him because he was a son of some famous actress.
During the day we played Ludo and
bathed in the sea. One afternoon
my brother asked me to take a stroll

with him down the waterfront, and


when we came to the edge he pushed
me into the sea. I started thrashing
about and screaming, my mouth filling with seawater, and he just stood
there at the dock yelling: Come on,
swim! I dont know how, but soon
I found myself on the beach. I started crying, my clothes were soaking
wet, and I had only one white patent
shoe on. My brother said: And you
thought you couldnt.
Thats how I learned to swim.
***
Weve been at the seaside for two
weeks longer than we were supposed
to. A few days ago we were on the bus,
on the way to the harbor, but then
they turned us back. Now were unpacking again. My brother is standing over the sink washing our drawers and undershirts because we have
no clean clothes left. Theres fried
fish for dinner almost every day and
were getting more and more homesick. We often go to the shop to get
baloney sandwiches with vegetables
and yoghurt. Now I regret I hadnt
brought along the newest, real Barbie doll, with rubber legs that bend.
Fearing someone would steal it, I
brought only the plastic ones.
One morning I came out into the
courtyard and there was mom. Id
never been so happy. She treated us
to four balls of ice-cream and took
me to the hairdressers for an Italian
haircut. eljkas mom and mine were
placed in a separate room in the attic
and that night I slept with mom in
her bed. I heard them talk about some
passage through the cornfield, about
the nine months pregnant Mira riding a bicycle and the train in which
all curtains had to be drawn but
in that bed it was plain nice. I know
she and dad had a quarrel, brother told me so, because he wouldnt
drive them, not even to Vinkovci,
he didnt want people to think hes
running away and didnt want (these

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same people I guess) to point a finger


at us later. Thats why I dont ask her
about dad, I dont want to make her
sad, although Id like to know when
hell be coming, too.
Its been a month since weve arrived
to the seaside, a new school year is
about to start and we need to be enrolled in a school somewhere so we
dont lose the first semester before we
return home.
My other uncle met us at the Zagreb
main station. We drove through the
city that glistened in the autumn sun.
Uncles house was far away from the
center and it seemed like we were
not Zagreb anymore, but then they
told me its all Zagreb. It was that
big. They lived in a small, two-room
basement apartment, and they gave
us the upper floor which was vacant.
Id often spend the night downstairs
in the room with my cousins, except when we fought. At first it was
really nice. They pampered brother
and me and at the new school we almost didnt have to study at all, yet
I had straight As. One afternoon as
my cousin and I were coming home
from school, climbing the gravel path
to the house, the siren went off. It was
an air raid siren and I started screaming and crying. In a panic we ran into some neighbors house. Nothing
happened, but some kind of a new
era began. The house was becoming
crowded. Once I wanted to use the
bathroom and the older cousin stood
at the door and said: Its my house,
Ill go first. Another morning, as we
were having breakfast, her little sister said to my mom: Youre eating
all of our bread. At first they used
to bake cakes all the time, but later,
as there was less of everything, there
were also fewer cakes, too, and we
never opened the fridge on our own.
Sometimes as we lay in bed we could
hear their voices from the kitchen.
Dad would usually call every three
days, but then eight days went by
without us hearing from anyone over

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there. On Saturday mornings wed


meet eljka and her mom at the main
Square. Wed be hugging and kissing
as if we hadnt seen one another for
years. The two of them also lived with
some relatives, while eljkas dad and
mine had stayed back in Vukovar.
Wed talk about how itd be when
we return. Then wed have a burek
or some ice cream. On the way back
home we usually didnt talk.
At first people from Zagreb were simply better people. They dressed better, they walked wide streets and big
squares, they rode trams as if its nothing to be excited about. They had
toasters and dish washers, and cobwebs in the corners of their rooms.
Thats how we saw them. Soon we
were riding trams, too, for free with
yellow cards4, and we learned to handle a few tram lines. Id ride trams all
day long surviving on salted Slanac
rolls only, as we always had to go to
some city councils, Red Cross and
Caritas to get groceries, I liked that
a lot. Once at a Caritas center we got
a bag full of sweets and had to drag it
all the way to rnomerec5 in a tram
full of people. A well groomed lady
in our car said to her colleague its the
refugees who are crowding the trams,
riding on them to and fro all day long. I
glanced up at her and smiled because
I knew we were displaced persons,
and the refugees were those that had
come from Bosnia.
After a couple of months of living in
Zagreb some things became habitual.
Autumn arrived and rains started. It
was becoming less fun. By then we
had, I guess, spent all of the three
hundred Deutschmarks that mom
had taken with her. Fewer and fewer
people left Vukovar bringing news
about our folks. Then one day we
got news that the oldies were killed.
Thats what we called my dads parents. Slaughtered. This word I heard
4
5

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

well. I hid behind the electric heater


that stood between the hall and the
kitchen. I think the grown ups knew
I was there, but they pretended not to
see me, and I pretended not to have
heard them. Suddenly everyone became nice to each other again, and
I forgot about this. More and more
often mom would go to the bathroom and come out with her eyes
swollen. We hadnt heard from dad
for some time. At that time my little
cousin and I used to pray to God all
the time. We would kneel in front
of the couch and pray at the top of
our lungs, for everyone to hear, for
everything we could think of. For
peace, for the Croatian Guards, for
Petrinja, for Caesar and Cleopatra
and then when we were out of everyones sight we would mess about
and chuckle. This praying earned
us grown ups praise and I kept telling everyone Id become a nun. We
went so far with it that wed pretend
to be holding a mass and during one
of our sances the postman came to
the door. Hed brought a letter from
dad. It said that he was alright and
that hes not wounded, that he misses us very much and that he would
see us soon. Grown-ups took this as
a good sing and if anyone would save
us from this hell it would surely be
children like us. We felt proud. A few
days later I spotted Luka and he was
my first crush, although he was in a
higher grade. Thats when I gave up
the idea of becoming a nun, but still
I kept praying to God fervently for
a long time.
***
I came home from school. Mom was
sitting in the darkness, curled up on
the kitchen chair. They didnt say anything on the evening news, but after the weather forecast they played
the song Croatian Rose by Prljavo

Yellow cards were IDs given to the internally displaced persons during the war in Croatia.
Last tram stop on the tram line that goes down the longest street in Zagreb, the Ilica Street.

99

Kazalite. She knew that was it; even


the Slovenes published it on teletext
that day, but our news were silent,
perhaps they didnt know what to
tell people. For us its all over; those
who had a chance to get out Vukovar
have already done it, but God only
knows what would happen with the
others. Auntie comes over and embraces mom, tells her its not true,
Slovenes are as bad as the Serbs. Vukovar has fallen and this bugs me because Im not sure what it means exactly, and now is not a good time to
ask. Mom sends me off to bed, and
they stay up for a long time. Early
in the morning we are awoken by
the ringing of the phone. Im alive
and well, Ill see you soon was all
he said. Not mentioning where he
was, where hes calling from, only
this. We jump all over the bed, we
hug and kiss. That day brother and
I skipped school. We got ready and
went to town with mom. With the
money we had left we bought some
meat and several kinds of cakes at the
cake shop. Mom and auntie spent the
whole afternoon cleaning the house
and in the evening we began to wait.
I told their fortune from several coffee cups and ran to the window every time I heard a car draw up. It was
past midnight and no one had made
us go to bed. We speculated that he
was in Vinkovci, that it must be a
chaos and a jam there and perhaps
theyd have to be checked, sorted into
groups, catch a ride, something like
that. Soon three of us finally went
upstairs, and mom put a candle in
the window and stayed up. The next
day we had to go to school. There was
a girl in my class, Lidija, whose dad
had returned two days earlier having
managed to break out of the city. She
said mine must have been taken prisoner, and I asked the teacher to let
me sit elsewhere.

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A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

***
Under the Christmas tree I found a
pair of jeans with knee patches, and
thats what I wanted the most. My
brother got Croatian flag notepads
and a canvas backpack for school. It
was very trendy and I think it made
him happy because up till then he
used to carry his books in an old
briefcase of our uncles. I wanted to
get mom something, but I had no
money. I decided to steal a pack of
cigarettes from a carton she had and
wrap it in colorful paper together
with a chocolate bar.
My cousins got a Barbie van and
generally we were all pleased with
our presents. That winter was very
snowy and we spent a lot of time
outside sledding. Pretty soon second
semester started and I was still at the
same school, although Id been sure
Id complete that school year in Vukovar. One evening when he came in
from work uncle told mom about a
vacant apartment in the New Zagreb
area. Wed just have to break in. He
had a cousin whod take care of that.
Then they would leave, and mom
would have to wait for the police.
No one would kick a woman with
two kids out of a vacant apartment,
and if they did, at least theyd find
us some kind of housing. And thats
all he could do for us for the moment. eljka and her mom had also
left their relatives and moved into
some army barracks in Pula. Once
we talked to them on the phone and
they both cried.
***
Id never been on the fifteenth floor
before. The night before we moved
into the apartment I spent at my
grandmas brothers house in Samobor. Grandma managed to save herself, she escaped through Novi Sad
and Hungary, and theyd only slaughtered grandpa. For a while she lived in
the basement with Marica, the neigh-

bor whom Serbs had raped and also


shot her eye out. No one had done anything to Grandma. The two of them
lived on raw eggs and plum brandy.
Then Grandma escaped somehow,
and so did Marica after a while. She
kept on repeating this same story
and telling everyone her son must be
dead. No one wanted to listen to that.
In their house, on the cabinet by the
phone was a picture of my dad, my
brother, my uncle and grandpa, and
when they invaded their home, one
of the Serbs took the picture and said
hed find them all. Grandma took
me from Samobor to the new apartment and moved in with us the same
day. Mom greeted us at the main entrance of the building. She was worn
out and smiling. It was a two-room
apartment, the owner didnt live in
it and the last occupant was a Serbian woman from Derventa. Shed
lived there as a tenant, but we hadnt
known about her because the apartment had been rented illegally. She
was also gone, but she scared the
life out of my mom because shed
left an egg in the fridge, and when
mom came to the apartment first
thing she did was open the fridge.
Her heart nearly stopped because
she thought wed been misinformed
and someone did live there after all.
The owner was given the apartment
by the company he worked for but
he had a fear of heights so he never
did live in it. Yet he filed an eviction
lawsuit against us. There it said that
he and his family had gone away for
Christmas holidays and when theyd
returned they found housebreakers
in the apartment. He stated there
was a great danger of their personal
belongings being appropriated and
furniture damaged. A famous female
lawyer represented us in court, for
free, and a newspaper even published
an article about us, the title was Law
written in tears. I read it countless
times and knew it by heart.

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***
My grandpa used to drink a lot. Long
ago, back when he was young, he fell
off a motorbike and banged his head.
Something in him went out of joint
then, and he started drinking. That
was the official version. He kept on
his feet, more or less steadily, and
would get home on his own. Those
who stayed in town told us stories of
how he rode his motorcycle drunk
and took shrapnel in the ass. Theyd
retell the story and laugh. Only once
I also heard that some Chetniks let
him drink brandy and that he made
friends with them. But even if he
had some intention behind his actions, it made no difference, because
in the end he also signed the house
over to them. Sometimes I pretended
not to know him. When I saw him
come towards me, Id swerve toward
the fire escape and run off. There
was always a flock of kids running
after him because his pockets were
full of bonbons that he would share.
He liked to mess with them, and
they could be quite cruel to him. It
went on until one day when Draens
dad said that hed kill him if he saw
him again near the kid- him, an old
drunken mule. From then on I avoided him even more in the hallways, but
some afternoons Id go to their room.
Most of the time Grandpa slept, and
when he saw me there hed melt and
hand me some toy made of wire and
screws. Hed give me a little money
to get him a beer from the bar and
then to keep the change. It seemed
as if it would be best for everyone if
hed just close his eyes.
Once as I was hanging around the
reception area, I met Ivan and Zoki.
They said they were going to follow
Grandpa when he went behind the
Political School, like every day at
the same time before dinner. They
wanted to know what he was doing;
maybe he was hiding some dough. I
didnt know what I should do. If he

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was doing something really horrible,


Id better not be there, but then again
I had this impulse not to leave him
on his own. We started after him. We
were some fifteen meters behind, but
Grandpa never turned around. We
passed the big field behind the building and came to the part where theres
a slight upward slope. A big bare rock
jutted out of the grass and Grandpa
knelt in front of it. We couldnt see
what he was doing, and since no one
was really afraid of him, Zoki went to
him and said, Grandpa, where did
ya hide the treasure? A few moments
later Zoki turned around and came
back. He said Grandpa was crazy.
He was kneeling in front of a rock
that someone had chalked a cross
on. But I was relieved. He was just
crazy, nothing worse, and we silently
returned to the building.
***
Zoki was my age. He was one of those
kids who always picked fights, spat at
other children and usually when you
saw him you knew he was up to no
good. His cousin told me that when
he was a baby his dad threw him stark
naked out on the front lawn into the
snow, because he wouldnt stop crying. His twin sister Zorica was in my
class at school. On the last day of
school, on the road back to the Political School, Marina, Zorica and I
found a little scabby kitten. It was really exciting. He was so tiny that he
fit into our two palms put together.
His hair was patchy, but he moved
and meowed softly. We decided to
save him. I took out the pouch that
I carried my school slippers in and
put him in it. We took him to the hill
behind the Political School. We got
a box and some clothes from Caritas
and wrapped him in it. We agreed
wed steal a syringe from the doctors office to feed him with. We took
turns bringing him breakfast since we
had to get up before seven. When it
was Zoricas turn, she overslept. We

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

didnt tell her, but soon we moved


him to another location and started
avoiding her. One day on our way to
the hill we noticed her following us,
so we turned around and went back.
Zorica came to me and said, I hope
to God your father never returns. I
spat at her but she dodged it and ran
off. I told everyone what shed said
and virtually nobody hung out with
her anymore. A few days later the
kitten disappeared from the box. We
searched the hill up and down, but
we never saw him again. The summer went by and Zorica and I still
hadnt made up. She mostly hung
around on her own or with her cousin
Nataa whom everyone called Clank
and who was a borderline case for the
special school. One afternoon I met
Nataa and asked her to tell Zorica
that I wanted to make up. A few minutes later Zorica came running up to
me, from the distance I could see her
smile. She offered me her hand and
said she hadnt really meant it. I didnt
offer her mine, but I said the whole
thing about making up had been a
joke. I turned around and left.
***
Nataa had several nicknames. Clank,
Saddo and Beatles, because of her
wiry hair and the hairstyle that her
mom used to do for her because you
couldnt do anything else with it. She
pronounced it beet-loos, which
made her even more pathetic. Her
older sister Kristina had beautiful
waist-long, dark hair. She was about
to graduate from the high school of
economics and was engaged to a guy
from Zagorje. Their room was clinically clean, but filled with all sorts of
trinkets. I know it because sometimes
Id go to Nataas place when there
was absolutely no one else to hang
around the hotel with. Every day
shed call me and she often followed
me just because I was sometimes nice
to her. When I came to her place, shed
show me everything that was there,

101

especially what she wasnt supposed


to, like her sisters stuff. Once she
took out Kristinas sanitary pads, pretending she knew what they were for
and said shed give me one if I promised to come the next day. Her mom
and dad lived in the next room. Her
mom was a quiet, little woman who
did nothing but clean and tidy up all
the time, and her dad was a real ladykiller, at least he thought so. Everyone knew he had a thing going on
with the woman from Zagorje who
worked at the reception desk.
At this time Id created a dance group
and was picking the girls whod be
in it. I composed the dances and decided which songs wed dance to and
what wed be wearing. They even gave
us the room number four to practice
in the one used for kindergarten
in the mornings. When wed perfected our dance routine, wed put
up notices around the reception area and invite people to come see us
in the gym. It was mostly old people and small children whod flock
to the stands, and we had the impression that everyone wanted to be
like us. All this time Clank followed
us, wanting to be in the group. We
agreed she had no chance. Wed perfected a dance routine to the song
Its Only 12 Oclock, and I thought
we could use a boy whod rap along
as we danced, but there was no such
boy around. The day before the show
a great commotion broke out on the
first floor, women were shouting and
there was sighing and sobbing. Clank
stood on the fire escape, all red in the
face. I asked her what was going on.
He ran off with that whore from
Zagorje. I think everybodys biggest
problem was the fact she was from
Zagorje. I told Nataa if she wanted
to, she could dress in black, put on
a baseball cap and come to the gym
the next day. She could stand beside
us and pretend to be a boy. She said
shed come, but the next day her mom
wouldnt let her.

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A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

***
Room number seven was the most
popular spot in the whole Political School. The management let the
young people use it to celebrate New
Years, play Ludo, cards, and just to
spend time there. Everyone between
the ages of thirteen and seventeen
hung around there. I was a bit younger, but I knew what Seven was like
because Id sneak out on the nearby
fire escape and peep in every time the
door was left ajar. All of us who were
soon to be initiated into Seven did
it, and whenever one of the people
inside noticed, theyd slam the door
on us, leaving us in a cloud of smoke.
There were several armchairs in the
room, a couch with its insides spilling out because it had been stabbed
with a knife, and several low tables.
The middle of the room was taken
by a ping-pong table. And that was
all. The walls were decorated with
colorful post-its with quotations uttered by the less popular members of
the company. Most of them were by
Clank, but she visited so rarely that
she couldnt even get mad because of
it. My first visit to Seven was when
the good Doctor from Vukovar came
to see us in our temporary home for
the displaced and gave everyone at
the hotel a carton of Marlboro reds
and by this I dont mean only grown
ups, but literally every living and
walking creature. Two men unloaded
the cigarettes from a truck parked in
front of the hotel and then stood by
the truck holding a list of rooms and
numbers of the occupants. I waited in
line to get our cartons. Half an hour
later and with three cartons, I headed back to the hotel. I decided to tell
mom theyd given me only two, for
her and brother. I knocked on Sevens
door. There was no sound from inside, so I sat on the wooden bench,
hiding the cartons behind my legs in
case someone I knew passed by. Soon,
from the darkness of the room, Miro

popped out and said, Whats up?


Whadya want? I brought you cigarettes, I said softly. He took the carton out of my hands and slammed the
door behind himself. Suddenly, Dragan was behind me. He opened the
door again and, standing at it, said,
Whatcha doin here? I brought
you cigarettes, I repeated. He started
to laugh and baring his yellow teeth
said, Wanna come in? Dya know
what theyre doin? he grinned. I
peeked over his shoulder, but it was
almost completely dark, and I could
only see some shadows on the couch.
I heard the voices of Miro and some
girl. What are you doing? I asked.
Playing dare games in the dark! Miro called out. Now scram, and come
back on New Years Eve, Dragan
said, and shut the door. I shouldnt
have given them the cigarettes, I kept
telling myself as I climbed the stairs.
I came into the room and gave mom
two cartons. Thats all they gave
me, I said. Im not surprised that
theyd stint us in this too. At least Ill
smoke less, she sighed. I was relieved
she hadnt caught on so I sat on her lap
and hugged her. From then on Miro
always said hi to me in the hallway.
My girlfriends kept asking what the
deal was with him saying hello, and I
pretended not to have a clue. By New
Years I was wearing a softcup bra, and
I managed to get Marina and Jelena
into the party.
Room number one was used as the
doctors office. The nurse Ruica and
doctor Piggy worked there. The nurse
sometimes gave us plastic syringes,
bandages and empty pill boxes to play
with. We often hung around outside One. There was an improvised
waiting room there which was actually a big hallway between the stairway and the ground floor. Against
the wall, opposite the door, stood
about a dozen chairs which were always filled during the office hours,
up to the last one. In fact, the waiting room was always filled with old

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people. And left of this crowd, near


the end of the hallway, wed be skipping rubber bands. There were loads
of places in the hotel, more spacious
and vacant, where no one would have
been in our way, but here something
was always going on, much like everywhere else in the world where people were lamenting, nagging others
and arguing, which made it interesting to us. We were very aware that we
were getting on peoples nerves, but
this didnt bother us at all. We figured
out who were the regular patients and
which ones couldnt stand children
at all, to them we were particularly
cruel. Daily, they played an inevitable
part in our twisted games. Grandma
Punara lived alone, she had no one,
not even distant relatives, and she
visited the doctors office every day.
Her only friend was Grandma Milica, who was diabetic and a little crazy
and, every time she passed by us shed
halt, lean on her elbow and sing, See
the Slavonian lass a-goin, look at her
pussy a-showin, Grandpa says cover
it up, Grandma says fuck her now,
shed then burst out laughing and
go on her way. She was a loony, but
she didnt hate us. One of Grandma
Punaras legs was thick and lumpy,
and the other one was normal. She
had quite a limp, but when she ran
after us, shed catch up with us at an
incredible speed. When she caught
someone, shed squeeze them between her huge tits which were hanging down to her waist. It reeked so
much between them that it made you
dizzy. Wed stretch out the rubber
band right in front of her, or tie it to
the chair next to hers, and then start
skipping it like elephants, as wildly
and as rowdily as we could. A few moments later Grandma Punara would
get up and try to rip the rubber band
up, yelling agitatedly, Get lost, you
little vermin! Once she managed to
grab little Ivana by her pony tail and
pulled out a strand of her hair. Thats
when we decided that we were going

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to have our revenge on her. We followed her and found out which room
she lived in. You just had to add up
the room numbers to a hundred and
youd get her telephone number. We
hoped she had a telephone. We went
to Marinas room since she was alone
there with her sister, and we dialed
the number. Hello? a voice croaked
on the other side. We were silent.
Hello? Whos there? asked the voice
again. I took the receiver from Marina and started blowing into it. Id
seen this in a movie. You motherfuckin fuckers, you bastards! Piss off,
you pests! the voice thundered from
the receiver so that those far from
it could hear. We grew solemn. No
one said anything and then Marina
hung up, picked up the receiver again
and redialed the number. We sat in
silence, looking at each other. Hello? the same voice answered. Jelena
blew into the receiver. O, you vermin, you cursed demons! May worms
feast on your innards, and crabs drag
you down the street, and your mothers poison you! You rotten vermin...,
this time I hung up. We were all silent. We were stunned by the curses
wed just heard and we didnt want to
hear any more of Grandma Punaras
horrendous swearing, yet at the same
time it was very exciting. That afternoon we didnt call her anymore,
but we gave her number to Zoki,
Ivan and the other boys. They liked
it even more and thought it was really funny, so they called her all the
time, sometimes even at night. From
then on, whenever we met Grandma
Punara, wed greet her loudly and
keep smiling. We didnt skip rubber
bands in front of her anymore. Only
sometimes, very rarely, when there
was no other way to kill boredom,
wed dial her up, put the receiver
face down next to the phone, wait
a minute or two, and then hang up.
A few years later Grandma Punara
got cancer and died. She didnt live
to return home for she was buried

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

there, on a small mound, and she


had no one of her own to transport
her home later.
About a hundred of us started elementary school in the village. Most
of us were from the Political School,
and there were some Hillies, people
from Vukovar who lived in the hotel on the hill, thus the name. They
were placed there some time before
us theirs was a real hotel which was
one part underground and once used
for tourists and various conferences.
We joined forces in the war against
the Piggies, which was our favorite
nickname for the people from Zagorje and the war broke out immediately. It was cruel and long, with
rare truces and few real friendships.
We were all more or less the same
age, almost equally poor, but we
came from a town, a real one, with
a town square, Baroque buildings, a
Town Caf and a Nobel prize winner.
Whereas they had only a crappy cake
shop and a lousy Communist President whod cooked this whole thing
up. Our arguments were irrefutable.
Not to mention the less important
ones like that they reeked of pigs, had
mud up to their knees, or that there
were drunken pupils in the higher
grades and an occasional pregnant
girl. A smaller number of Piggies were
from a village that had a school and
street lighting, while the others came
from the scattered hamlets too small
to have a name of their own so they
had a single name: the Village of Zagorje. We couldnt understand a word
of what those Piggies were saying; to
us it sounded like a mixture of Shiptar
and Slovenian. We called them social
cases, although we were all on the
state pay roll, only they were on it of
their own choosing or simply because
they were stupid and lazy, while we
were on it because of the Serbs. We
hated them as much as they did us;
we fought them individually or in
groups. To them we were intruders
and a threat, displaced persons with

103

hefty pensions and video recorders,


living in the hotel, where everything
was served up to us. Theyd give a cow
to live like that for a week. On the
other hand, we didnt know whether or not a cow had horns, so they
made fun of us. They couldnt understand that this didnt hurt us at
all. Clank, Vesna from Vukovar a
Hillie who would later become a very
good friend of mine and Ivan, who
stopped going to school after a year,
were in my class, so only three of us
displaced were left in the class in the
end. At first we sneered at most of
the classmates, while we kept diplomatic relations with the cleaner ones
and those with better grades. Perhaps because we could understand
what they were saying, we could copy
their work during exams, or simply
because we didnt want to be lonely.
As years went by, some of these relationships became almost friendships,
but somehow we always remained us,
and they something different. But
such people were rare. The majority
were typical offspring of the Zagorje
villages. The brothers Ivek and Marijan walked five kilometers to the bus
stop where the bus picked them up
at six and took them back at four in
the afternoon, following a long tour
of the surrounding hills.
Marijan was a C student, quiet and
shy, and was missing a front tooth.
Ivek was mildly retarded, but far
more than our Clank, and he knew
the calendar of saints by heart. It
was in fact the only thing he knew.
He sat with Zdenko, who was horribly fat and plain stupid, and once,
after a Croatian exam, two identical tests came up with Zdenkos first
and last name written on them. The
other one was Iveks. Both managed
to make it to the eighth grade. Yellow
sat in the last, losers row; he was small
and mean. He often came to school
drunk because he ate bread and wine
for breakfast. He lived with his granny who told him that little Jesus al-

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so ate this stuff, and he told us the


same thing. He also made it through
elementary school. In front of me
sat Veronika, who always reeked of
pigs, had greasy hair and bulging
blue eyes. Everybodys last name was
Antoli, upani or Broz. I didnt
talk to Veronika for a long time, but
then my Grandpa became friends
with her dad, who also liked to drink
and gave him the Caritas stuff that
none of us wanted, like UN shampoos and tooth paste that Veronika
said smelt real good and foamed, so
she became very nice to me. Still, we
didnt have much to talk about since
she was convinced that there was an
American city called Chickago, but
she kept badgering us and inviting us
over to look at the little bunny rabbits
that had just been born. One spring
afternoon we did go over. She lived
in a miniature house on the hill with
innumerable brothers and sisters who
were all small and dirty. They had
only two rooms; one was for cooking
and eating, and they slept in the other one. We had only one room, but
we figured they were poorer than us.
The bunnies were behind the house
in a wooden barn. As soon as we got
in, an acid smell washed over us and
it took a few minutes for our eyes to
get adjusted to the darkness. On the
ground was a cardboard box with
furry balls in it. Heres the bunnies,
said Veronika excitedly. Theyre so
small! Theyre so cute! Marina and I
exclaimed. Id never seen such small
rabbits. I was thrilled out of my mind
and decided that climbing up the hill
in that heat had been worth it after
all. Can I hold one? I asked. My
mom wont let me, but you can hold
one, just be careful, she said. They
were all so beautiful, most of them
were sleeping, and even in their sleep
they moved their little muzzles. I
chose the white one. Once I saw my
grandpa carry a rabbit by the ears. I
grabbed him by the ears firmly and
lifted him up. Something cracked.

Not by the ears! Not by the ears!


Veronika yelled. Swiftly I put him
down, but the muzzle wasnt moving anymore. Mom will kill me,
whatve you done? I didnt do anything, I barely lifted him, I was defending myself. Cant you see hes
croaked, you retard! she yelled at
me. But you dont mind our shampoos, stinky! said Marina, because
shed also given her a few bottles.
Lets go, I said to Marina and went
to the door. We were blinded by the
sun and surprised by Veronikas dad
at the entrance to the barn. Hey ho,
town girls! Howdya like them bunnies? he bared his rotten teeth. We
didnt answer; we just hurried toward
the gate. When we got out we started running downhill. Tomorrow at
school Veronika didnt say hello to
me, neither did I to her. She didnt
talk to anybody. She just kept pulling a strand of greasy hair across her
left eye.
***
The last class on Friday was catechism. If we could have, we would
all have taken a double math class instead, but there was no way to avoid
it, and at the time we didnt know
how to play hooky. At the time we
all had to take the class because if
you loved Croatia, you loved God;
and only Aida from the neighboring
class went home earlier. Reverend
Jurani came to class before the bell
went off, and as soon as it did, hed
start praying not just Our Lord,
like other religious teachers would,
but also Hail Mary, all of the Creeds,
and sometimes if he was inspired
a round of the Rosary. Hed glare
at us, one by one, hed circle around
the class, lean over to hear, and if he
caught someone mumbling, hed silence everyone else and the pupil
would have to continue on his own.
If he didnt know the prayer, the pupil
would usually get an F and a slap on
the back of the head. Reverend would

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then return to his desk and thered be


silence. Hed sit there and from his
black bag hed take out a juice box
with a straw and a couple of chocolate bars, Mars, Snickers or something of the sort. We watched him eat
and drink, and we drooled down to
the floor. If he heard someone talk in
the back, hed throw a piece of chalk
at them, or something else that was
around. He called us dimwits, idiots,
slobs. It seemed that the hardest mission in life was to collect the stamps
for confirmation. None of us thought
wed fail catechism, but the fear and
the uncertainty which Jurani spread
around him with the help of God
was so great that some literally trembled before him. Sometimes hed take
groups of pupils on the pilgrimage
to Marija Bistrica and then, in unusually good spirits, hed place one of
the girls with waist-long braids onto
his lap. Her cheeks would flush and
throughout the trip she wouldnt say
a word, shed just stare at the floor.
We felt that he hated Vukovar people, although he treated us no differently, but wed already gotten used to
enemies, so we were constantly looking for the signs. He was as equally
disdainful to us as he was to others;
he just had a different set of questions: So, Vukovarians... Do you
know how to clean the stables? and
then hed provide the answer himself:
Youre too classy for it, but these little
peasants are closer to God because Jesus slept in the stables, not in a hotel,
he chortled. Once he asked Dragan,
an eighth-grader, something about
the Holy Trinity, and when Dragan
replied, Ive got no idea, the reverend gave him an F. Then Dragan
asked him: Dya know what the
Pope says when he goes to the john?
The reverends face boiled and he
grabbed the gradebook to throw it
at him, but Dragan got up from his
desk and threw himself at the reverend shouting: Holy shit! Holy shit!
The reverend roared and Dragan ran

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out of the classroom. He ended up at


the pedagogues office but nothing serious happened to him. The reverend
grew more morose, but he stopped
throwing things at us.
As Christmas neared, for catechism
homework we had to write a composition entitled My Christmas. The
best ones would be read at the school
celebration. I fervently believed in
God and composition writing was
my favorite of all school assignments.
I wasnt facing a very tough competition in the class, except for one Piggy, eljka, who was good at grammar and whose sentences were filled
with epithets. I put all of my effort
into write the best composition I
could because I was dying to read
at the school celebration, I knew it
would get mom out of the room,
and perhaps for this occasion shed
wear something dark blue. The reverend and the Croatian teacher selected eljka and me. I was out of
my mind with happiness because
before the reading Id also perform a
dance number with my friend Ivana
to the choreography that I made up
to the song Paloma nera. I hadnt
let mom read the composition because I wanted to surprise her, I
was hoping that way shed get more
than shed expected. She knew I was
good at writing, but I thought this
time Id outdone myself. I got on
stage the second time that evening.
I changed from a navy pattern shirt
and ripped hot pants into a white
shirt and a checkered pleated skirt.
I was serious and stood upright as I
waited for everyone to quiet down for

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

my composition so that it would get


the silence that it deserved. I started
reading. I invested all the air from
my lungs into each sentence so very
soon my breath went shallow and I
was left without air. I hoped no one
would notice if I read louder, so soon
I was shouting out words and the
parts of sentences which I believed
were the most important. Mainly, it
was about a sad twig hanging from a
Christmas tree, a missing dad, moms
black garments, a brother who has
no money to buy a soda, and just
one wish, to go home... When I finished reading, people started clapping, some clapped hard, some not
so much. Some women from the Political School were dabbing their eyes
with handkerchiefs. eljka climbed
on stage immediately, she stood next
to me and started reading. I thought
people must have wanted to clap
some more, but they couldnt because
she was reading and they wouldnt
hear her. Confused, I kept standing
next to her. I felt a little dizzy, my
head was ringing with words: turkey with mlinci, a midnight Mass,
fresh air that tickles the nostrils, little Jesus, sleighs... When she finished
reading she bowed to the audience so
deep that her long hair fell over her
flushed cheeks. She was very beautiful. People stood up and clapped like
crazy. It was in fact the closing of the
ceremony and the applause was for
all of us. The music started playing;
it was time for dance. Pupils and
parents scattered across the hall and
the stage and I couldnt see my mom
anywhere. I pushed hard through the

105

crowd of faces lit up with happiness,


small and big, presuming shed already left. When I finally reached the
door, I saw her through the glass pane
standing in front of the school, smoking. She had on a black coat with
white shoulders, and her locks were
covered with large snowflakes. I nearly knocked her down as I ran to hug
her around her waist, yelling: How
was I, huh? How was I?! Wheres
your jacket? Do you want to catch
cold? she said, hugging me. Its in
the changing room... Come on, tell
me! I persisted. Her chin trembled,
like a childs whos about to cry and
I felt sorry. I realized I should have
written about something else. I was
stupid not to see this would make her
sad. Just like when I gave a birthday
card two weeks before with an engraving of a king and a queen, and
her eyes filled with tears because she
must have remembered dad. From
then on I was going to write for the
grade only. I swung my arms around
her neck and said, Dont cry, mom.
You know that our dear God whips
the most those he loves best. She let
out a strange sigh and wiping her face
she said, And you got a bag full of
sweets from Uncle Grgo. I was happy. I left the dance floor behind and
returned with my mom to our warm
room. It was a nice Christmas Eve,
we lay holding each other, watching
good movies about Jesus, with the
bag next to the bed. The only bad
thing was that I threw up and my
stomach hurt a little the next day.
Translated by Mima Simi

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Photo by: Martina Kenji

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Photo by: Martina Kenji

Love
Marina ur Puhlovski

ofijas sex life began relatively late,


when she was twenty-one. Until
then she waited for the right one,
she said as she was making fun of
herself later on. The right one happened to be her first husband with
whom the first time felt like rape.
She bled a lot, felt only pain. They
did it on a couch in his living room,
while his parents were away.
Seven years later, as she was divorcing that man, Sofia claimed she had
never felt anything with him. Some
people remember some of her quite
different statements, made probably
in an attempt to protect her marriage. Actually, not the marriage it
barely existed but love. The love she
could not remember later, too. She
knew it existed but she forgot about
the emotions and wondered sincerely
what kind of love that was after all?
The young man was sick and ended
up in a mental institution. The seven
years of marriage Sofija spent around
hospitals, waiting for him to get better so that she could leave him. The
second time she married, she did not
know why, probably because I was
asked, she said jovially.
The second marriage also failed, as
did those rare, incidental affairs.
In the summer of 1991, as she was
taking off for the seaside with Irena,
she expected no summer flings, no
dates.
Im too old for that, she said, not
thinking about anything in particular.

MARINA UR PUHLOVSKI was born in Zagreb where she graduated in


comparative literature and philosophy from the Faculty of Philosophy in
Zagreb. For a while she worked as a journalist and wrote literary reviews.
She writes novels, short stories, journal prose, travelogues, essays. She
published the novels Trojanska kobila, Nitara, Nesanica; collections of
short stories Zec na tavanu, Tajni ivot, Pripovest o bivoj pjevaici...,
Ispod stola, Seabream; a collection of prose poems Zatoeno znanje;
travelogues Zapisi s koljena, Novi zapisi s koljena; a collection of miniature
essays Antipojmovnik and journal prose Izvandnevni zapisi and Dnevnik
izdrljivosti.
Marina ur Puhlovski was awarded several times for her short stories
(Veernji list, Knjievni krug Karlovac). She is a member of the Association
of Croatian Writers (DHK, the Croatian Writers Society (HDP) and Association of Croatian Artists (ZUH).

***
On the night of one of the soirees she
organized in her apartment in Zagreb
for her and her husbands friends
several years before she would meet
Josip Sofija was waiting for her
guests, watching a French film on
TV, a love story that impressed her a
lot. It was about a young mans love
for an older woman who could accept his affections only after she had
been diagnosed with cancer: before
that she had been confined by prejudice. She spent a wonderful year
with this young man and then left
him to die: the pain drove the young
man crazy...
When the film ended, Sofija sank in
her thoughts: she realized that she
had never experienced love, not real
love, occasionally only semi-love. She

wanted the love she saw in that film.


She also knew she was capable of such
love. The whole evening she spent
thinking about the film, and the next
day and the next... completely disregarding its unhappy ending. She was
interested only in the happiness, the
fullness of such love in that moment,
so the ending was unimportant to
her. Everything had to end, the fullness and the emptiness alike, and unhappiness was the end of something
that had never been realized. Unhappiness was to die without experiencing love, not to die in the heart of it.
Realized love was happiness, whatever might happen afterwards.
It would be the same even if the heroine had survived, got old and was
left by her young lover, she explained
to Josip, reminiscing the movie.

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As I was watching, I realized it that


I was born for such love, that it must
happen to me and I do not even have
to search for it. It will find me.
She remembered that film on the
morning when Josip invited her to
his boat, a small boat, like the boat
from an old evergreen song, full of
holes, just like the later events once
he had taken the boat to the rock...
she admitted, laughingly.
Although the ending was quite different.
***
When did you first fall in love with
me? asked Sofija Josip on their first
summer vacation together on the
island.
Josip had arrived in winter, driven
out of Serbia by war.
His wife and children stayed there.
The summer was hot, they were sitting in the living room.
You fell in love the first time you
saw me, she offered.
Josip said nothing.
Not on the rock, you didnt! she
laughed.
***
She remembered that trip well, it
went badly. Josip took her in his boat
to some off-coast rock, smooth and
hidden from view.
They had fun during the ride but got
serious on the rock.
Josip took a lot of time securing the
boat with ropes and then he hesitated
to take his clothes off.
When he finally did it, he lost his
nerve.
She watched him as he was hastily
putting on his swimming trunks,
excusing himself with his island
upbringing.
She did not mind that he did not
have his way with her immediately,
but still, she resented it... Doesnt he
like me? she wondered.
When they reached the islands shore,
she turned her back at him...

See you in the evening, he shouted


from behind her.
By the evening she pulled herself
together, wanted to see him again.
As he was not coming, she got impatient... He did come, a bit tipsy,
late, when she had already given up
on the idea.
Her daughter was already asleep.
They sat on the terrace if front of her
room, drinking wine and smoking.
Silent on the rock, now he talked
and talked...
While they spoke, Sofija stretched
out her legs and placed them into
his lap.
She did not know that Josip was sensitive to feet, that feet were the first
thing he checked on a woman. If the
feet were ugly, too big or too bony, especially if the bone under the big toe
was protruding, that woman would
repel him, regardless of the beauty of
her face or body. He would forgive
all faults except those of the feet.
But, he had already noticed her feet
in the boat, small, regular, no protruding bones or rough skin, almost
child-like.
And then he said that he did not fall
in love with her then, not even afterwards, when they sneaked into her
room, tiptoed around as not to wake
up her daughter, with no lights on.
So, not even there, said Sofija with
reproach, although she had known
that all along.
***
Sofija discovered sex very early, when
she was five or six, on the balcony of a
cousin who her mother and she went
to visit. On the balcony she found a
gilded twig, took her pants off and
gave her bottom some beating.
Perhaps Sofija discovered sex even
earlier, but she could not remember
when. All she recalled was that revelation on the balcony, of what the
body really was an instrument of
pleasure, at least in part: a thing similar to a musical instrument. When

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pressed at a certain place, with a certain rhythm, there came the melody.
It was true, however, that pain came
from the same source; pleasure and
pain flocked together. That experience would grow into a basic idea
that she, Sofija, was not her body: the
body was not her, the body was not
me. The body took pleasure, bled,
took the beating. The body was warm
or cold. Sofija was outside that body.
When her tooth was pulled out, she
watched it in amazement: the tooth
had been hers, but she was not the
tooth. She was astonished even when
she took pleasure from the body, but
less so: she liked it.
Ever since that time she lived by observing her body, never quite one
with it.
When her body surrendered, Sofija
was removed from this. When the
body was satisfied, she remained unhappy. She had managed, however,
to share pleasure with the body, but
failed to be the body; and the body
failed to be her.
All this changed during that first
night with Josip, who knows why...
***
It was nice to chat with him on the
terrace, Sofija remembers, just to
converse about nothing in particular,
he was simply nice. She was in love,
but he was also comfortable, with
him she felt calm. While they were
taking their clothes off, they were
laughing, as old acquaintances do,
everything was easy. Nothing revolted her, neither his body mass, nor his
odor, the expression on his face, but
when he lay on top of her, suddenly
she became limp, she surrendered to
him almost with apathy. She drew
no pleasure, but still he satiated her,
she enjoyed her acquiescence, only
that, joy without pleasure, the same
as he did, as he admitted to her afterwards. When they separated, she
was not empty, but happy, rightfully
joyous.

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***
The next day Sofija woke up happy,
although I also had certain objections, she admitted later to Josip.
She objected that he got up immediately after making love, excusing
himself with his worry for his son.
Without me, he said, he would
not fall asleep. He is used to us sleeping together.
He should have fallen asleep by now,
thought Sofija. It was a young man,
not a baby. Her daughter slept in the
next room, and this man in front of
her was talking about his son. How
come he had never worried about
him before, she wondered. She also
objected that he was leaving and they
did not arrange for a meeting the next
day. She did not expect this, she panicked... She was aware he was leaving the island in two days, that there
was little time. Besides, her husband,
Maks, was coming to the seaside
the next day. Sofija wanted her husband to delay his arrival, but he had
a hunch, there was no way he would
postpone his trip. And Josip did not
suggest anything, he was cunningly
silent. Well, if he was not going to
ask me, I would ask him, she decided and asked.
When shall we meet? she asked, sure
of herself and him, strong enough for
the both of them.
Isnt your husband coming? Josip
hesitated.
We shall still meet, said Sofija, I
will find a way.
They arranged to meet on a hill in
front of a little church at five in the
afternoon.
***
Sofija was late for that meeting, because she had trouble ditching the
husband. He arrived late, she prepared lunch for him. As soon as lunch
was over, she said she had to go.
Where to? he asked. After all, he
had just arrived... What kind of obligation could Sofija have at the seaside

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on the day of his arrival? Obviously,


none, but she did and told him so.
I have to meet with someone, she
repeated, I promised.
Who? he insisted.
Irena, she answered.
Youve just spent a month with her,
said her husband.
I just have to, and thats it, Sofija
said. You can sleep, swim, do whatever you want, spend some time with
Una. I wont be long, but I have to
go, she said and left.
She was uncomfortable because he
understood what was happening; still
he remained sitting at the table, defeated.
What I want from you is just to be
left alone, her husband had been
saying for years. But he wanted the
freedom for himself, not for her, as
it had then turned out.
Sofija was ready to stand up to anything.
I had two and a half days to say
goodbye to you and I decided to do
so, regardless of my husband, later
on she admitted to Josip.
That was her will, the will of her love.
Before such will appears, the world
always seems much stronger with
horrible rules, horrible life norms
people are powerless before it. And
then comes will and turns the world
into a pebble in your shoe, so easy to
eliminate. You just take off the shoe
and the pebble is out!
Had the husband not let her go, she
would have requested her freedom,
immediately and in full.
She felt strong going to meet with
Josip, strong and free.
***
Lying on the bench Josip waited for
her in front of the little church, with
his hand over the eyes. As he heard
her coming, he jumped off the bench,
came towards her, hugged her and
led her to the woods opposite the
church, pine woods, deep green, fragrant, with many strolling paths. He

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led her to a hidden stone bench and


placed her on his lap.
To avoid attention Sofija dressed casually, she wore black, wide-legged
cotton pants with a black and green
striped bat-sleeve shirt, also cotton:
it was an ensemble. The shirt had
buttons in front, it was easy to unbutton it. One sleeve slipped off her
shoulder, exposing her chest. They
embraced, he caressed her breasts.
Nobody spoke, they lived outside
words. Words had always been Sofijas battleground, but at that moment she found them superfluous.
Their emotions required silence for
the exchange. They streamed between them, only slightly nudged
by touch, but emotions would also
stream without any touch. At least
for Sofija. They sat there for an unusually long time, almost motionless,
listening to birds...
***
Somewhere a woodpecker was tapping a tree, looking for a worm. Here
and there a bird would cry out loud,
cry out in fear. All these sounds were
bringing Sofija closer to Josip, making him even more intimate.
Never before had she felt such closeness to anybody, such total merge,
she thought. Josip held not only his
arms around her, but his whole being. The embrace lasted almost an
eternity, and then it was over. Once
again they were two, each on their
own, discrepant.
Sofija spoke out first. Shall we ever
meet again? she asked herself, almost gloomily.
He saw no particular reason for worry; he was unaware of the war, just
like Sofija. He traveled when everybody else stayed at home. Then he
promised to visit her in Zagreb.
In autumn before school starts
he said. If not then, I will see you
for winter holidays. I will borrow a
cabin boat and well take off for a
few days...

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A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

This idea of a sea trip in the middle


of winter was pure fiction, but Sofija liked it and took if for granted...
See you in the fall, she rejoiced. And
then for winter holidays!
All those promises and Josip had
not even fallen in love with her, she
thought disappointed, many months
later...
She waited to find out when Josip
had fallen in love with her and then
she...

Like an electric shock, he said. I


knew I was in love. Later I spent a
long time touching that spot on my
cheek, reliving your kiss over and
over again.
Sofija kissed him on the spot he was
pointing at with his finger, once and
then again.
Never, she said, was I ever that
happy.
This happiness made her dizzy.

***

All I want for you is to be happy,


her mother said to Sofija.
What do you mean, happy? Sofija asked.
Just happy! said her mother. Everybody knows what happiness is! she
claimed, saying actually how deeply
unhappy she was herself.
She was unhappy as a girl, unhappy
in her marriage.
Sofijas father was a drunk and an
idler, sick already when he was fortysix. He stopped drinking only just before his death, twelve years later.
Sofijas mother mourned her husband, but actually she was relieved.
Poor thing, she said, did not know
how to be happy. And her face turned
inward to contemplation, her lips
held tight.

It happened the day after theyd met


on the hill, when they accidentally
run into each other on the street, just
for a moment. Sofija went to Irenas
to tell her what had happened on the
date with Josip, what her husband did
afterwards...
Irena had already heard stories of
Maks and his drunken run by the
sea while shouting he was a cuckold. Although, he shouted it in Italian, as if he were an actor in Amarcord: everything was but a show to
him. He did not ask Sofija anything,
he said nothing, he just stared at her
with that betrayed look of his, on
his suddenly wrecked face. That face
was what Sofija thought about when
she met Josip, but later she did not
think, she just enjoyed herself... Like
the Sun, she said to him much later
in the living room. She knew about
poetical similes, about the banality
of them, and this one was the most
unoriginal of all, but Sofija said it because it was true. And because to her
he was just that the Sun of her life
Sofija kissed him. Shortly, lightly,
on the cheek, in the street. She had
to lift herself up on her toes. Her
daughter, his son, all the neighbors,
left and right, up and below, anybody
could have seen it, but they could
care less; at that moment, without
any doubt.
He showed her the spot on his cheek
where she kissed him, touched him
with her fingers.

***

***
Sofija didnt know what happiness
was, except occasionally. Waiting to
go to the cinema naturally, when she
was young would make her happy.
And a sunny day, fresh, full of spring
fragrances. And when she fell in love,
she would feel happy, at least in the
beginning... Then happiness would
wear out... She could even suddenly
get happy and without reason: a wave
of happiness would flood her inside,
force her to jump, twirl around...
This ability to feel happy subsided
with years, although not quite to zero. It would return occasionally.
But, for her mother, that was no happiness. Thats elation, she claimed.

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She herself never felt elation, or at


least she did not show it to Sofija.
Happiness was something more permanent and peaceful. And socially accepted. For her mother there
was no happiness unless within the
boundary of social acceptance, although she never judged anyone for
anything, not even when judgment
would seem quite natural... The very
possibility of judgment destroyed
happiness for her mother. She never
exposed herself to it, but that failed
to make her happy. She drew her
feeling of happiness from sacrifice.
In her case it was difficult to speak
of happiness.
Unlike her mother, Sofija did not
care to sacrifice herself, and she found
happiness only after she had exposed
herself to judgment of others. Happiness as the elation over her own freedom something her mother judged
as selfishness.
Mother was not made happy by her
sacrifice, but had she not sacrificed
herself, it would have made her even
more unhappy, said Sofija to Josip.
Her mother could never understand
Sofijas happiness in enjoying her
freedom and her words of how she
just wanted her to be happy turned
out not to be true.
Mother wanted for Sofija her own
kind of happiness, not Sofijas own,
something that would later become the
source of their irreparable conflict.
Mother thinks of happiness as Tolstoy did when he threw Ana Karenina, the unfaithful wife, under the
train, and made the colorless wannabe-bride Kitty happy, she joked
when she spoke about it to Josip.
Although he actually did think better of Ana than of Kitty, I think he
despised Kitty, she added.
Secretly she wanted Ana Kareninas
destiny for herself, although perhaps
not so drastic; certainly some kind
of punishment: lifes rules were still
unquestionable. And thus her happiness lived in fear, which waited for

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her every night in bed. Fear would


fall asleep only late in the night, maliciously sneaking into her dream in
the meantime... But, this also meant
she would wake up free in the morning, especially when woken up by the
cock-a-doodling from outside, as it
happened in the country, at Josips
house.
You only have this day, the cock
was informing her, or that is how she
interpreted it at least. Get up! Live!
Morning has broken!
...Sofija would get up, soaked in pure
happiness, just as it had been in her
childhood, a long time ago...
***
When she was a child, Sofija did not
need anyone but her mother.
Why dont you have a friend? her
mother used to ask.
I dont need one, because I have
you! Sofija would reply.
For several years they lived alone, because mother worked at the seaside.
And took Sofija with her.
Father was still healthy, he got sick
after they had returned.
When the weather was nice, in the
evening, Sofija was saying to Josip,
her mother and she would sit on the
hotels terrace and listen to the movement of the sea.
They would never again have such a
terrace, neither the mother, nor the
daughter.
In their first apartment, where Sofija
grew up, they had a balcony overlooking the yard with an apricot tree.
The next two apartments, where they
moved separately, because Sofija married for the second time, didnt have
a balcony, just large French windows;
from mothers window you could see
the city; Sofijas window had a garden view.
In the third apartment, where they
lived together again, with Sofijas husband and daughter, they had a big
loggia, but no view: there was a twostorey building in the yard.

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

Sitting on the loggia in warm weather, Sofija would observe her neighbors kitchen a family with two children whose life reminded her of a
small community of hamsters.
***
I had a happy childhood, bragged
Josip to Sofija, and then he went on,
telling the worst things about his
childhood...
He was constantly falling, breaking
his bones, a donkey kicked him... He
still had a scar on his forehead, a millimeter deep. The broken collarbone
healed bumpily. He was beaten at
school, he was beaten by his mother.
For any little thing, he said.
His father did not beat him, because, as he said, nobody ever saw
him. And he was timid, afraid of
himself.
Time spent in the house on the island, with his grandfather and his
aunt Ida, was best, but he also spent a
part of his childhood with his mothers family, on their farm by the coast.
His other grandparents, two brothers
and an aunt lived there.
His mothers father was a salesman,
just like his fathers.
So fathers arranged the marriage between their children, who were not
young anymore.
Mother was over thirty, already considered to be an old maid: Ustashe
killed her fianc in prison during
the war.
Father was refused by all the girls on
the island, he was closing forty and
expected to remain a bachelor.
Josips mother, Lea, fled the island for
the first time when his father brought
her to meet her fianc.
Sofija saw a photograph of Josips
father from those times and she had
to laugh: he was lean, big-nosed and
had glasses instead of eyes. The hair
on his head stood upright, like the
plumage of some jungle bird.
He put some sugar paste on it, explained Josip.

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But, the groom fell in love and that


was that.
During the five years they had three
children, but children could not hold
that marriage together, it was doomed
in advance.
Josips mother wanted only to escape
from the marriage, so she had been
fleeing to her parents farm with the
children for years. There Josip had
to do hard labor, plant potatoes and
chard, gouge the vineyard, pick olives
and sour cherries.
My hands were red with juice, he
complained.
He carried sacks of grain on his back to
the mill, returned home with flour.
The two younger children had problems with their sight, just like their
father, so mother was sparing them at
the expense of the oldest son.
You will be all right, she told Josip
and harassed him constantly. She was
going to disinherit him, but failed because she died.
After her death she moved into her
sons dreams, especially after he had
moved back to the island. She was
coercing him to return to his family
in Belgrade.
I dont like to dream about her,
Josip told Sofija. She only comes to
torture me.
Aunt Ida died before Josips mother,
having slipped on the stairway on her
way to the water tank.
After she had died, the house was left
empty, because Josips parents went
to live on the mainland.
The house would come alive only
in summer, when everybody came
back, Josip told Sofija. The rest of
the time it was forsaken.
***
That year Sofija came to visit Josip
in May for the first time. She had already visited him during all months
but May, and that was exactly when
Karmela had to die.
The lodgers shared a brick walled hall
portik where the old woman sat

112

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

on the bench, right in the middle, between the kitchen and the rooms, because the apartment was split; rooms
on one side, kitchen on the other.
This arrangement was logical at the
time when the whole house belonged
to one family, but quite implausible
later on. Sitting in the portik, the old
woman saw everybody, that was why
she sat there.
When Sofija met her, the woman was
eighty-seven and completely sane
and lucid. She was lucid when she
died at hundred, that May.
She was all skin and bones, pale,
toothless, her eyes set deep, and with
a black scab which made her nose
ugly, but despite the ruined features,
she was not at all repulsive, almost
beautiful, Josip agreed with Sofija.
The woman was bright, she understood everything, Sofija loved her.
Still, she avoided talking with her,
because conversations were always
the same, the eternal complaining;
old age drove Sofija crazy.
A week before she had found the old
woman holding the doorway, tiny, in
her black attire, with a black scarf on
her head slightly tilted; she was unable to move. She only swayed, as if
she would fall... Life was abandoning her in front of Sofijas eyes, as if
life wanted to step out of that body,
out of its prison. So she stood by the
doorway, being slowly abandoned by
her life, not knowing what to do.
Take me to my chair, she managed to ask Sofija, and Sofija did it;
the woman was limp like a rag-doll,
unusually heavy, though she did not
weigh much, lacking the life support
except for the last breath that she exhaled when she sat down.
I can still see her sitting in the portik, Sofija told Josip, who saw her
there, too.
Karmela is eternal.
***
In front of the kitchen window, where
there used to be a sink outside, but

then got bricked up, there was a


ledge where Josip had found a pigeon dormitory that spring. They
were smooth, clean, their plumage
healthy, partially iridescent like peacocks feathers.
Instead of the sink, there was a plastic basin where Sofija put the washed
dishes. When she leaned over to put
them aside, sometimes she met a pigeons stare; the pigeon was craning
its long, lean neck towards her.
A black, hard eye observed her without fear.
It will shit all over everything, said
Josip about the pigeons. I will have
to drive them away from there.
Sofija knew that he would not, that
he was just saying so.
These are not like your city pigeons, he said. They are beautiful
and healthy.
Sofija had to agree.
***
The day of Our Lady of Karavaj is
celebrated in May. Preparations begin as early as at six oclock, when
traveling salesmen come to the village to display their goods for sale:
everything usually found at such
markets: clothes, shoes, household
things, toys, pictures of saints and
decorations, trinkets nobody really
needs...
Restaurants put lambs and piglets on
spits, fish is grilled, potatoes, rivers
of beer start to flow.
Two beggars take place in front of
Josips house a woman and a man
opposite each other. Josip is willing to give some money to the man,
but never to the woman beggar, who
knows why, as he said to Sofija. Perhaps because the woman all dressed
in black, fat like a huge badger, with a
permanently stretched out hand over
the alms bowl, placed on the ground,
the woman is loud and ostentatious
she appears more predatory than the
male beggar, who is spare, hunched
and quiet, somehow removed from

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his begging, as Sofija sees through


the window...
The woman is already shouting her
pleas, requesting protection for those
who would give her something and a
wordless punishment for those who
would not, which Sofija finds repulsive, just like Josip does.
The beggar does not speak at all, he
just stands over the worn-out hat,
waiting for the destinys goodwill,
that which was denied to him a long
time ago, Sofija thinks.
Josip was still sleeping when she returned to bed, because he did not
have to go to school that day.
He found a job at a school after he
had left the police, where he worked
during the war.
There was something really sad about
his returning to his old job, but Sofija
was pleased.
Better then seafaring, she thought.
She cannot sleep anymore, but lies
awake, gathering the remains of her
dreams on the pillow... She likes to
hold on to this crossroads of worlds,
where reality becomes dreamy, and
dreams gain reality. She has been
enjoying this for a long time, since
she was a girl and during her stays
in Josips house on the island. In her
apartment in the city she has to get
up as soon as she opens her eyes; especially over the last few years since
her mother died: there are morning
chores waiting for her and, when she
has finished, the writing.
Her daughter still lives with her, finishing her studies...
Her husband has been changing lovers like socks, but never left her and
neither has she tried to make him do
so. They do not live together, but next
to each other, helping each other.
Kings used to live like this, Sofija
sometimes jokes when somebody fails
to understand such relationships.
She really believes that life should not
be repeated.
She was still in bed when Josip got
up and went to the market to fetch

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vegetables and fish from local farmers


and fishermen. This shopping would
last about an hour, because he would
stop for a coffee with the neighbors.
The second coffee he would have
with Sofija when he returned, in the
kitchen during the warm days, the
living room in winter.
***
When Josip returned, Sofija was
drinking coffee and reading cards.
Lets see what the day will bring,
she always said in the morning and
laughed.
He was content because he managed
to get fish, despite the crowd in the

A Year of Excellent Womens Novels

market. Bringing home fish was always a festive moment whether he


bought or caught them himself, sardines, mackerels, shrimp, octopus,
calamari... Immediately he showed
her what he had bought spreading
the loot on the long table in the hall,
covered by a plastic tablecloth, where
he would skin and gut the fish.
On the table there was an assortment
of fish for a bouillabaisse: a weever,
an aligote, a painted comber, a black
scorpion fish, even one shellfish, a
pilgrims scallop, which was a gift:
Sofija loved them.
The fish were still shiny and colorful,
golden, as if still alive. Poor things,

113

thought Sofija when she looked at


them, although she would eat them
up with pleasure.
She kissed Josip between his eye and
the temple where he had kept his
eighteen-year-old youth. His hair
was grey, his face wrinkled.
You havent shaved, she said with
no rebuke.
The sky was blue, the sea even more
so...
Through the window daylight was
flooding the kitchen.

Translated by Tatjana Jambriak

Photo by: Martina Kenji

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114

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

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SREKO HORVAT (born in 1983 in Osek, Croatia) is a theoretician, columnist

and translator belonging to a younger generation of Croatian intellectuals.


So far he has published six books: Protiv politike korektnosti. Od Kramera
do Laibacha, i natrag (Belgrade, 2007), Znakovi postmodernog grada.
Prilog semiologi urbanizma (Zagreb, 2007), Diskurs terorizma (Zagreb,
2008), Totalitarizam danas (Zagreb, 2008), Budunost je ovdje (Zagreb,
2008) and Ljubav za poetnike (Zagreb, 2009), a book Slavoj iek called
as necessary as fresh bread. With the Croatian writer Igor tiks he coauthored the book Pravo na pobunu. Uvod u anatomu graanskog otpora
(Zagreb 2010), which was an analysis of the students movement against
the privatization of education and neo-liberal reform in 2009 in Croatia.
He is a regular columnist in Veernji list, a Croatian daily newspaper. He
is a contributing editor of several magazines for theory and culture, such
as Zarez, Europski glasnik, Up & Underground, and Tvra. He translated
several books from German and English into Croatian, among which are
the works of Slavoj iek, Norbert Elias, Frank Furedi, Peter Sloterdk, and
others. He won the prize for the best debutante lm critic in Croatia in 2007 and the best lm critic in 2008. He is
Art Director of Subversive Film Festival which hosted some of the world renowned intellectuals in Zagreb, such as
Slavoj iek, Tariq Ali, Gianni Vattimo, Chantal Moue, Ernesto Laclau, Michail Ryklin, Samir Amin, etc.

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115

The Paradoxes of Suicide *


Sreko Horvat

he Golden Gate is one of the


best-known bridges in the world.
It is also a location where the greatest
number of suicides is committed per
year in the world. So far, some 1,300
people have jumped off the bridge,
and on average, one person jumps off
every two weeks. Only 26 have survived. When this phenomenon was
captured in a documentary entitled
The Bridge (Eric Steel, 2006), which
recorded, among other things, 19
suicides committed in 2004, it was
soon banned from many film festivals. This controversy was fueled by
the fact that Eric Steel fooled the
authorities and, under the pretence
of filming the relation between architecture and nature, actually was
filming the suicides, as well as by the
fact that he didnt tell the families
and friends of the victims, whom he
also filmed later on to get their comments, that he had the recordings of
the suicides. The director said in his
defense that he had done so to protect
the people involved, since a certain
number of people if the shooting
were public would have come
there to commit suicide just because
of the shooting, and as for the relatives and friends of the victims, allegedly nobody felt hurt after the
opening night, but were actually all
pleased with what they had seen. Although Steel said that his crew had

saved 6 people from jumping off the


bridge, for they called 911 as soon
somebody would clime up the fence,
his film The Bridge nevertheless poses
a whole series of questions, ranging
from the obvious voyeurism to the
meaning and significance of suicide
in Western culture. In the United
States there are almost twice as many
suicides than homicides each year,
and still the homicides get regularly
covered in the media, whereas the suicides are only rarely mentioned. The
peak of this censorship occurred on
9/11; while most of the world broadcast companies were showing people
jumping off the towers (according to
some estimates more than 200 people did it), in the American news no
such pictures were ever shown. Although this fact speaks first and foremost about the stigmatization of suicide, somewhat reasonable argument
might be the accusation that was also
associated with Steels Bridge, namely
that it is actually a snuff movie. Snuff
designates mostly a pornographic
movie in which a real homicide of a
person is filmed for the sake of making a profit. The best-known example
of investigating this topic is probably
the movie made by Joel Schummacher, 8mm (1999), in which the leading
actor Nicolas Cage is following a trail
of people producing pornographic
snuff movies made for pleasuring a

rich and perverse clientele. The criticism of The Bridge on this basis is
a long shot, not only because of the
confirmation of the director that they
did report and tried to prevent each
and every suicide attempt in spite of
the all-year-round shooting, but also
because of the fact that those suicides
do happen regardless of whether they
get recorded or not. At this level, it
really was documenting and is a documentary film. The snuff argument
misses the point when we remember
some of the recent events from the
history of the world. Namely, via the
Internet server Youtube various radical and extremist groups increasingly
present their threats and their execution of hostages, while the videos of
the killings of Saddam Husein, Paul
Johnson and Daniel Pearl had unprecedented visits and viewers ratings. In the era of the Internet, voyeurism is no longer a privilege of the
chosen elite. Moreover, such a mode
of spreading of until quite recently
almost unthinkable contents is not
characteristic only of the relatively
unknown extremist groups, but also
of the official authorities. For example, the Vietnamese government itself distributes the recordings of executions for educational purposes: this is its way of preventing new
crimes of the same type for which
those people were executed.

* A chapter from the book Protiv politike korektnosti (Against Political Correctness), Belgrade: Biblioteka XX. vek, 2007. The author won the
prize for the best debutante film critic in Croatia in 2007 for this text.

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The Paradoxes of Prohibition


and Voyeurism
The duty to society, paradoxically
enough, is best revealed in an apparently perverse example. Namely,
several cases have been reported, and
the best-known in the Federal State of
Texas, when a few convicts sentenced
to death tried to kill themselves. The
role of the prison guards was to prevent them in doing it, so one prisoner, after having swallowed a bunch
of pills, was saved and his stomach
pumped. Only one day after the incident he was executed. As it is obvious in this example, death itself is not
a problem; the most important issue
is the penalty. The policy of the death
penalty that prevents suicide is the
following: you cannot die until you
have paid your debt to society. In this
case, it is the death penalty; and in the
case of general suicide prevention, it
is the debt to family, school, college,
job, friends, etc. Another incident occurred at the beginning of this year in
Mexico City that clearly points to the
paradoxical nature of suicide prohibition. A certain Ramirez Santos who
tried to commit suicide by throwing
himself under a train was later on
beaten to death by the police who
saved him and brought him to the
police station. In these cases we do
not only detect Platos logic claiming
that suicide is a cowardly and antisocial act, but also recognize suicide
prohibition, which was brought into
theological and philosophical discussion by Tomas Aquinas with his three
fundamental arguments: 1) suicide
contradicts the natural self-love aiming at self-preservation, 2) suicide is
a menace to society of which the individual is part, 3) suicide breaches
our duty to God because God gave
as life as a gift, so by taking our own
life we breach His right to determine
our earthly existence. This doctrine
was later on codified in such a way
that people were reduced to beings
whose bodies are limited to usus (use),

whereas God has dominum (dominion). The medieval practice of mutilating the body of a person who
committed suicide, confiscating his
property and prohibiting his burial
in a Christian graveyard was not only
the implementation of this philosophy, but also the direct transference
of Gods powers to the Church. The
described incidents speak of a new
political constellation in which power over the body is no longer the privilege of the Church, but of the State.
Furthermore, in the same way the
persons who committed suicide were
demonized in the past, the todays so-

ciety the so called normal majority stigmatizes and sort of taboos


all those who decide to commit this
desperate act. The well-known joke
saying that suicide is saying to God,
You cant fire me, I quit, should in
this sense be reshaped and the State
should be stated as the addressee. In
Croatian Criminal Law, as is the case
in most countries in the world, there
is no article sanctioning suicide, but
Croatian Disabilities Act clearly prescribes a forced institutionalization of
a person when he or she is recognized
as a menace to her or his own life or
to the lives of others. So, it is obvious

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that potentially suicidal persons are


invariably categorized as mentally ill.
Although suicide is not a crime, this
very strategy leads to almost identical
consequences. If suicide were a crime,
then an attempted suicide would be
a criminal act and the State would
start a criminal procedure against the
person who attempted suicide and
survived. Although such incrimination sounds rather preposterous at
the very mention of it, it is happening by replacing the criminal procedure with forced hospitalization
according to the articles of the Disabilities Act.
Eric Steels documentary clearly confirms that Croatia is no exception,
except in the cases of the death penalty and the brutally killed Mexican.
We can see in it many scenes showing how people who were prevented
from killing themselves ended up in
hospitals or mental asylums. The basic problem of the snuff movie is that
by merely watching it we all become
sort of accomplices in the crime and
homicide. Namely, if it werent for
us, there wouldnt be such movies at
all because there would be no market
for them, so those people wouldnt be
killed. In the case of the bridge, however, we cant say it is about economy
and market expansion, but there is in
it, nonetheless, some sort of complicity. In spite of the fact that the viewer
can lie back and say, I certainly am
not as guilty as the director (who
witnessed all of it in real time and had
the opportunity to prevent deaths),
a certain voyeurism is nevertheless
present while watching the film. As
we know, voyeurism is defined as
perversion, and every perversion involves pleasure. The Bridge is a radical
film, for it brings us to the verge of
imagination, and that is perversion.
Although we can think that suicide
is bad or simply sympathize with
every humans death, a documentary about suicides functions as an
exciting thriller. And not just as any

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thriller, but as a Hitchcockian thriller


par excellence. Although at all times
we are sympathizing with the protagonists, we have already taken the
side of evil. Just as in Hitchcocks
movies, the structure of The Bridge is
based on suspense; the postponing
of the moment that we are expecting all the time and that is actually
unavoidable. In Hitchcocks movies
we know that some of the characters
will experience something bad (for
example, that Norman Bates will kill
the detective coming into the house
of his dead mother), but in spite of
all that, we hope things will turn out
fine in the end. When the bad thing
does happen, then we see that our
hope was a false one. At that moment we experience an ambivalent
feeling: on the one hand, we are sad
since our hero is gone; on the other
hand, we are sort of happy since we
guessed things would turn out exactly that way. The Bridge functions in
a similar way. As if there was a certain voyeuristic pleasure in it: we are
viewing the movie, we are watching
the people crossing the bridge and we
are thinking for ourselves something
like this one is going to jump. The
perversion reaches its climax with a
heavy metal youth, wearing a black
leather jacket and a long hair. Around
the middle of the film we start following his footsteps made near the fence
and a certain tension keeps building
up incessantly: is he going to do it
or not? By throwing in other scenes,
a postponing effect is created, and
the moment we forget about him,
here he comes again. At one point he
even leaves the bridge and we get to
think the youth must have changed
his mind. However, near the very end
of the film we see him again. This
time he is somewhat more confident,
he sits onto the fence, with his back
turned toward the water and here is
the moment we have been waiting
all the time. We witness the most
spectacular jump we have ever seen:

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the youth falls back and even does a


somersault while falling down into
the water. While I was leaving the
movie theatre, one friend of mine
mentioned that the makers of the
film could have formed a judging
panel and might have given marks
from 1 to 10 for each jump, just as
it is done at the Olympics with the
professional high diving. What is
behind this black humor joke? Exactly the fact that all the viewers, consciously or unconsciously, already are
in that perverse position. We are all
voyeurs who find pleasure in watching who is going to do it and then
judge the performance. If that sounds
a little too harsh, it is enough to be
aware of the thought that occurs to
us when somebody jumps off the
bridge, and the film camera, since
it is supposed to capture somebody
who is falling down for 4 seconds at
120 km/h, doesnt succeed in capturing the whole fall and every movement. We will all, just like any real
voyeurs, follow the film camera with
excitement and try to spot the person
committing suicide at each moment
and position of his act. The black
jacket youth has performed, not only in terms of cinematography, but
also in terms of aesthetics, the most
stunning jump. This brings us to the
elementary question concerning the
ethics of filming. Although the director and the cameramen allegedly
called the police patrol each time they
spotted a suspect or a potentially suicidal person, which can even be verified in some of the scenes, the suicide
of that young man was followed step
by step. We can almost feel his having second thoughts, his very last
thoughts... Still, the film-makers did
nothing. The crucial point in this
context is the power of the picture.
Namely, not only does the object become more distant and less real when
seen through the camera lenses, but
the picture itself is what fascinates us
and prevents us from interfering. It

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functions simultaneously as Medusa,


for we will get blind if we look at it
and so wont be able to act, and as in
the myth of Orpheus, we know we
must not turn/look back, but we will
nevertheless do it, and so lose what
is at stake.
The Power of the Picture
This power of the picture is best illustrated by the example of a young
man on the bridge photographing
a girl who was trying to kill herself.
Just as in some perverse reality-show
(turning us into voyeurs again), we
do not see the connection between
these two acts right away. First, we
see some guy making photographs
on the bridge, and then we see a girl
tottering a bit depressed along the
bridge, then there is the photographer again, even a few slides of his
photos, and then again we see her...
Slowly it all turns into a consistent
whole: at one point the young man
and the girl come quite close together, the girl crosses the fence, the
young man notices that and takes
pictures of her; she is already standing at the very edge and is ready to
jump off, and he is still taking photos
of her... The whole scene is covered
by the cameraman and watched by
us in the movie theatre. Right at the
moment when we think its all over
for the girl and that she will jump
off, the young photographer drops
his camera and grabs her by the hood
pulling her back toward the fence.
The girl was saved, but why did it
take him so long to react? Explaining
the power of the picture, the young
man later said he simply got glued to
the camera and was stunned by the
sight. He felt as if he was simultaneously a witness to something totally
surreal and a National Geographic
photographer (sic). The fascination
with the picture in this sense is simultaneously a feeling of dreaminess,
unreality and timelessness, and a feeling of invulnerability, disengagement

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and irresponsibility. Until the Mitchells question, what do pictures actually want from us, comes into play,
there is no interference.1 This example clearly shows it: after a few shots
of the young photographer and the
girl standing at the edge, suddenly
a few of his photos appear on the
screen showing the girls steps toward the edge and her preparations
for the jump. The young mans interference, therefore, is not the answer
to the question of what she wants,
but his reaction to the question of
what the picture wants: he was
looking through the lens and taking photos until he realized the picture wanted to jump off. As viewers,
we are in the same position. Dont
we ask ourselves, whenever we see
the whole bridge from some distant
angle of shooting, what the picture
actually wants? By means of some
strange cause-effect connection and
some sort of Pavlovian reflexology we
become aware that his picture exists
for the purpose of showing us some
tiny little drop falling into the water.
The whole scene is strongly reminiscent of the old black and white romantic movies depicting angels falling down from heavens, and we are
instantly charmed, entangled into
the logic of the picture and caught
inescapably in it due to our perverse
fascination with it. Just as the young
photographer was unable to get out
of his lenses to the very last moment,
so we too cannot stop being voyeurs.
We simply watch the picture and until everything is over, and sometimes
even when this particular picture
vanishes completely or turns into
another one, do we slowly assume
a meta-linguistic distance and allow
ourselves reflection (What, somebody committed suicide?).
This perverse logic is additionally illustrated with one due to its stu1

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pidity an unconsciously stated truth


about the fascination with the picture simply ingenious comment.
Since the film is full of the attempts
at answering the question of why
and abounds with the comments
given by the relatives and friends of
those who killed themselves, at one
point we see a girl expressing her
anger for the death of her friend in
this way: he wont be able to enjoy
the romantic quality of the bridge
any more. The Golden Gate, as any
other great architectural creation, instigates a certain romantic sentiment
and fascination. Each great architectural achievement has a tendency of
turning into a picture: from the great
pyramids and amphitheatres to the
Jewish Museum in Berlin and the
skyscrapers in New York, all these are
the buildings that are also the most
photographed objects in the world.
The tourists first photograph themselves near these objects, and only
then see them and learn something
about them, stripping off in this way
the architectures third dimension
and turning it into a picture. Its no
wonder that the Golden Gate is one
of the most favorite pictures from San
Francisco to the tourists, as well as
the most photographed bridge in the
history of the motion picture. From
Vertigo to Superman, from The Rock
to James Bond, from An Interview
with the Vampire to The Ex-Man, the
great red bridge is not only an attractive background, but also the very
site of some spectacular action. The
very documentary about it, except for
the recordings of the suicides, is also
a homage to the bridge itself. Its aestheticism of the picture is evidently
romantic: in beautiful shots we see
the Golden Gate covered with mist,
shrouded in the dark, a flock of birds
flying under it, the wavy ocean raving beneath it, etc. The architecture

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again becomes larger than itself ,


some sort of a transcendental and supernatural entity. The director Steel
said he had thought he could decipher its secret code, understand its fatal beauty by looking at it for a long
time. In this sense it would be good
to turn the principle of gefirophobia
(the fear of crossing a bridge) upside
down and speak about gefirophilia, a
kind of love of and fascination with
the bridge. Vertigo should, in accordance with it, be transformed into the
love of heights, and the fear of flying
into the joy of flying. Havent you at
least once sat on the edge of some
high-rise building or rock and looked
into the abyss with the ambivalent
feeling of fear and pleasure? Havent
you caught yourself thinking at least
once while flying in an airplane that
something should happen due to the
dreaminess and unreality of the hyper
three-dimensional relieves and flaky
clouds, that it wouldnt be so bad if
the plane fell down a bit or fell all the
way down to the ground? Perhaps
those of us taught by Freud might
speak here about the urge to die.
The airplane leads us to something
else, too. Can we nowadays even sit
in a plane and not think about the
Twins and the possibility of a terrorist
attack? Somewhere behind all this, as
if in some Freudian radicalized urge
to die, lies an unconscious desire to
experience a catastrophe, of which
September 11, as shown by Baudrillard, iek and Virilio, is some sort
of a real and phantasmagoric materialization. When speaking of the
main protagonists of terrorist attacks,
again we run into the bridge. Namely, they are persons committing suicide. The only difference between
them and the bridge jumpers is their
determination, but the main goal is
still death. The people committing
suicide, regardless of who they are,

See J. T. Mitchell, What do pictures want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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the Islamic hijackers, car bombers or


simply depressed teenagers and desperate bridge jumpers, do not conform to the standards of the West and
the culture of rationalism. They are
the Others. The subjects and objects
that are different from us, whom we
dont understand, who frighten us,
and who, although putting themselves to death, represent a threat to
us, exactly because we are so powerless when it comes to probing into
their reasons. If we now go back to the
documentary film, we will see that all
the explanations revolve around that
one single question: Why has someone killed himself? All the comments,
ranging from desperation to pulp
psychologization, are trying to probe
into the psyche of the person who
committed suicide. When we exclude politically motivated suicides,
that is, religious fanatics who believe
in heavens with 72 virgins or kamikaze who love their country above
everything else, the other reasons
range from the argument that some
person was dissatisfied with his or her
job to, of course, the most common
and most prevalent explanation that
it was a case of an unhappy love. In
some perverse and black humored
way this got reflected in the persons
committing suicide. The explanatory letter in most cases is nothing else
but a rationalized statement about the
reasons why I have killed myself. Its
not only that the main part of each
explanatory letter is written as an explanation to the question of why,
but all this performance is supposed
to be some sort of an excuse and Debt
to those who remain after us, to the
loved ones, to the family and society.
In this sense, by committing such a
final and desperate act we somehow
cheat our own feelings. Although we
are sure that we are sure about our
decision, when we write an explanatory letter (which is almost always
soaked with tears, if not because of
others, then out of self-pity) as an

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act of explaining our own decision


about committing suicide, we take
away a certain credibility of this suicide. As if we are trying to convince
ourselves, by writing out and listing
reasons for the very last time, that it is
really the right choice. Human emotions are changeable, and so is this.
The excellent example is a young man
from the documentary named Kevin
Hines who jumped off the bridge in
the year 2000, but he survived. In his
testimony he says that while he was
falling down he changed his mind
about dying, so he also changed the
position in which he was falling and
was supposed to hit the surface of the
water. Instead of hitting it with the
head or with the whole length of the
body, he landed onto his feet and so
softened the fall.
However, he suffered severe injuries,
but somehow managed to survive.
And when we hear his statements,
it is quite clear to what extent suicide is still tabooed today. After he
recovered, the boy was sentenced
to all kinds of psychiatrists and psychologists, was made to swallow all
kinds of pills every morning and every evening, and was under a constant
surveillance of his parents. At one
point he says hes had enough of it
already and all that he wants is somebody coming to him saying whats
up, instead of being stigmatized all
his life and sentenced to have people frowning at him, gossiping about
him and judging him. Paradoxically
enough, the same society that is trying to cure him from the deadly illness may actually implant into him
a death wish again. Since the cases
of people surviving the jump off the
bridge are really rare, the cases of
people trying to do it for the second
time are even rarer than that. The only example so far recorded is a young
woman from California, Sarah Rutlege Birnbaum, who survived her first
jump in 1988, but died after the second try made the same year.

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From Groundhog Day


to Foucaults Transgression
The repetitive suicide attempts perhaps point to some personal pathology, but they also disclose a social
pathology. One well-known motion
picture can illustrate this most vividly. Its of course Groundhog Day
(Harold Ramis, 1993) in which the
main protagonist Phil Conors (Bill
Murray) an egocentric journalist
who comes to a small town to report about the so called Groundhog
Day finds himself trapped in the
same day that keeps repeating itself.
Since he cannot endure this perpetual repetition, Phil tries to kill himself
a few times in a row. First, he steals
a truck and starts a police chase followed by his journalist colleges Rita
and Larry in their reporting van.
Eventually, the police blocks the way
for Phil, and he steps onto the gas saying its show time, and ends up falling with his truck into a deep gorge.
The next scene is Phils hotel clock,
that we keep seeing in the movie over
and over again, its the same time in
the morning and he is again waken
up with a song by Sonny and Cher.
So, he never really died, and then a
whole series of suicide attempts ensues. The same morning he asked
for a toaster at the reception desk,
got it and brought it into his room.
He plugs it in, enters a bath-tub full
of water and causes a short circuit in
the whole hotel... In the next scene
we see Phil waiting for a truck (whose
arrival, since everything keeps repeating itself, he calculated perfectly), the
screen goes black and we hear the hit
by the truck. Phil again is not dead
and the day starts all over again. Then
he meets Rita in a caf bar and says to
her that although he tried everything,
he cannot die so he must be God,
which she interprets as egoism, but
Phil by listing six other failed suicide attempts we didnt see also says
that he was stabbed, shot, poisoned,
frozen to death, hanged, electrocuted

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and burnt. As much as it is pointing to the absurdity of the spiritual


climate in the times of Bill Murray,
Groundhog Day is an example of the
archetypal agenda against suicide. It
promotes simultaneously the principles of humane type of capitalism
and some of the arch-Christian sermons. On the one hand, Groundhog
Day is based on the thesis that only
a smiling face can create a nice working environment and a successful life
bringing prosperity to all people; on
the other hand, an endless series of
suicide attempts keeps repeating itself as long as Bill Murray doesnt opt
for altruism and service to others. He
undergoes a transformation from a
guy who, after finding out that by
constant repetition of the same day
can perfect each act, used every opportunity to seduce a member of the
opposite sex or enjoy the ephemeral
material values, into a guy who managed to developed a liking for music
and art, love of children and the elderly. So, he transforms into a person
who will do anything, in spite of the
possibility that the new day might become yet another groundhog day,
to make that day (morally) the best
day. Bill Murry shows us what the
basic objection to suicide actually is.
Just as he is no longer sentenced to a
perpetual repetition of the same day
some sort of a bad Nietzschean
perpetual recurrence when he
stops behaving like an egotistic maniac he was at the beginning, so suicide is deemed bad exactly because it
is egotistic. The capitalist argument
states that the individual is necessary for the development of society
and that, which is already the family
argument, the individual is indebted
to society for all that society provided for him (schooling, housing, etc.)
until this stupid and sick idea of
suicide occurred.
This second, family argument also
brings us to the key Christian argument. According to this argument,

life is Gods gift to man, and so we


must not throw it away. However,
what is problematic with this interpretation, of which Thomas Aquinas was one of the first proponents,
is that God would be nothing but a
regular tyrant if understood like this.
I am the only one deciding about
your life. This is, of course, the old
story about the absolute power and
monopoly of God, but the Christian
argument on life as an invaluable gift
is false at the semantic level already.
Namely, how can something that
is a gift be the object of the will of
somebody else? The meaning of the
gift is exactly the opposite, no matter whether we like it or not (our
birth, our life or simply a birthday
present), from its very definition
since it changes hands at one point
from the giver to the receiver follows that we can do with it as we
please. The Christian discourse about
life as a gift is therefore nothing but
a euphemism. The same stretching
of the Scriptures, as it is evident in
every theology, can also be detected
in the second most important argument against suicide. Since there is no
explicit prohibition of suicide in the
Bible, it was derived from the sixth
commandment of God. Thou shall
not kill was transposed to the killing
of oneself too, although again there
is an elementary problem with it on
both the lexical and semantic levels.
The meaning of the word killing
always implies the killing of Another, whereas the correct term for the
killing of oneself would be putting
oneself to death. The inherent paradox in defending the prohibition of
suicide by resorting to the sixth commandment, whose main proponent
together with Thomas Aquinas was
St. Augustin, was best disclosed by
Schopenhauer in his work on suicide.
Namely, he detects that suicide, in all
major monotheistic religions, and especially in Christianity, is understood
as a crime, so he poses the following

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question: if the criminal law forbids


suicide, it cannot be a valid argument
for the church and besides that, this
prohibition is ridiculous, for what is
the punishment that would frighten
a man who is not afraid of death itself? Schopenhauer also says that the
Christian resistance to suicide can be
disclosed in the Christian symbol
the cross. Namely, the cross is a sign
which represents Christianity as a religion of suffering which is the very
attribute of life. The person who tries
to take his or her life is in this sense
turned against Christ himself and
Gods injunction according to which
we are supposed to suffer on Earth so
that we could enjoy Heaven. In accordance with his philosophy of the
world as the will and representation,
Schopenhauer anticipates Foucault
and says that suicide should also be
understood as an experiment as a
question put by man to Nature in
order to force her into answering
him. The question is the following:
Which change will death cause in
my existence and my insight into the
nature of things? This experiment is
very risky because it involves the destruction of the very consciousness it
questions and the consciousness that
expects the answer.
Michel Foucault, the enfant terrible
of the French post-war intellectual
life and one of the most fervent proponents of transgression in the second half of the 20th century, was also
one of the advocates of suicide. He
believed that suicide as some kind
of a borderline experience is the
greatest personal victory, and he tried
to kill himself for the first time back
in 1948. Foucaults death of AIDS
brings us to his seminal work for the
understanding of suicide. Namely,
during the 1980s Foucault regularly
visited, as an active homosexual, the
public baths in San Francisco and, according to some sources, he already
knew at that time about the dangers
of the AIDS infection and so got in-

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fected on purpose. Although these


and similar statements were fiercely attacked by the members of the
academic community and militant
Foucaults followers, an insight into
his work entitled The Simplest of
Pleasures only confirms these statements. However, more than anything
else, this Foucaults exposition about
the meaning of suicide represents an
original criticism of the todays tabooing and stigmatizing of the people attempting suicide whose origin
can be traced back to Christianity.
Foucaults text starts with the quotation stating that homosexuals often
commit suicide. When he took this
statement out of some psychiatric
study, Foucault says he was fascinated
with the word often: namely, this
word implies that homosexuals are
tall, tender, pale creatures that cannot
cross the threshold of the opposite
sex, and so instead of getting married to the members of the opposite
sex, they get married to death. The
opposite sex is identified as the other
side, says Foucault. In this first paragraph Foucault notices, although in
the example of one specific group of
people, that those committing suicide are construed as beings belonging to the other side, as the people
who are totally different and who
experience problems in dealing with
themselves. In order to say something
on behalf of the people committing
suicide, in the same frame of mind
as is evident in his History of Madness
where he spoke on behalf of the mad
people, Foucault doesnt speak about
the necessity of legalizing suicide, but
instead gives a short overview of the
clichs built around suicide. In opposition to the standard understanding of suicide, Foucault, the man
who himself had tried a few differ2

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ent methods in attempting suicide,


says that suicide should be carefully
considered instead of hurried: You
should have the chance to discuss at
length the various qualities of each
weapon and its potential. It would
be nice if the salesperson were experienced in these things, with a big
smile, encouraging but a little bit reserved (not too chatty), and sophisticated enough to understand that
they are dealing with a person whos
basically good-hearted, but somewhat clumsy, never having had the
idea before of employing a machine
that shoots people. It would also be
convenient if the salespersons enthusiasm didnt stop them from advising
you about the existence of alternative
ways, ways that were more chic, more
your style. This kind of business-like
discussion is worth a thousand times
more than the chatter that goes on
around the corpse among the employees of the funeral parlor.2 By
deconstructing the pernicious logic
of the family and social argument on Debt, Foucault then goes on
saying the following: Some people
that we didnt even know, and who
didnt know us either, arranged it
so that one day we started existing.
They pretended to believe, no doubt
sincerely, that they were waiting for
us. In any case they prepared for our
entry into the world with great care
(and often with a sort of second-hand
seriousness). Its quite inconceivable
that we not be given the chance to
prepare ourselves with all the passion, intensity and detail that we
wish, including the little extras that
weve been dreaming about for such
a long time, since childhood perhaps
or just some warm summer evening.
Life it seems is quite fragile in the human species and death quite certain.

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Why must we make of this certainty a mere happenstance?3 Foucault


does not make use of this only to defy
the classical argument on Debt, but
also the philosophies that teach us
what we should be thinking about
death, which, as he says, bore him
to tears. Instead of caring about the
preparedness for death in the philosophical and moral sense, Foucault
understands the preparedness for
in the literal sense of the word and
says that death should be decorated, the preparations made detail by
detail, the ingredients found, envisioned, searched out, the consultations made, etc.
Why As the Wrong Question
Those remaining as witnesses to the
suicide of a close person, says Foucault,
as if he watched The Bridge, perceive
suicide as a sign of loneliness, weakness or desperation. These people
cant stop asking why?, the only
question about death that should not
be asked. Why? Because I wanted
to. Its true that suicide often leaves
discouraging traces. But whos to
blame? Do you think its pleasant to
have to hang yourself in the kitchen
with your tongue hanging out all
bluish? Or to close yourself in the garage and turn on the gas? Or to leave
a tiny bit of your brain lying on the
sidewalk for dogs to come and sniff
at? I believe that were witnessing in
these times a suicidal spiral because
many people are so depressed at the
thought of all these nasty things that
are forced on someone whos aspiring to suicide (things including the
police, the ambulance, the elevator
man, the autopsy and what not), that
many prefer to commit suicide rather than to continue to think about
it all.4 Foucault, and this brings us

M. Foucault, The Simplest of Pleasures. In: Sylvre Lotringer (ed.) (1996) Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984 SEMIOTEXT(E).
New York, pp. 295-297, cit. from: http://thefoucauldian.co.uk
Ibid.
Ibid.

122

back to the discussion pertaining to


his own death, talks about two suicidal methods: suicidal festivals and
orgies. If we take into account the
recent statistics about the Golden
Gate Bridge, where more than 1,000
people committed suicide, with one
person jumping off in every 15 days,
then we can say that Foucaults dream
is not far from coming true. The director of the documentary himself
said the following: What makes the
Golden Gate suicides so extraordinary is that they happen in daylight,
in front of many people watching
whereas most other suicides are committed in distinctly private places, in
closed quarters, classrooms, garages,
caf bars, toilets, motel bathrooms.
The well-known Japanese active volcano Mihara on the island of Izu
Oshima is an even better example.
Namely, starting in 1920, every week
a few people would jump into the
lava, and in 1936 as much as 600
people killed themselves by throwing
themselves into the volcano.5 In order
to prevent it, the Japanese authorities
built a protective fence, but one piece
of information from the popular culture connected with this volcano tells
us that suicide is some sort of a collective trauma of not only Japanese, but
of every Western society, too. Namely, not only is the volcano a regular
personification of the unconscious,
with its pent-up and enormous energy which (like Freuds anecdote about
the ice-berg) is boiling under the surface, just waiting to erupt and burn
everything that exists, but the volcano Mihara also trapped one of the
best-known worlds monsters in the
movie The Return of Godzilla (Koji
Hashimoto, 1984). Six years later in
the movie Godzilla vs. Biollante (Kazui Omori, 1989) the volcano again
plays a major role; it is activated by
bombs and Godzilla is freed. Godzilla in this sense can be understood as
5

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a symbol of suicide. Just as it was


trapped in the volcano at the end
of the first movie, the same way the
people who committed suicide there,
so in the second movie it is liberated,
the same way the name of a person
who has committed suicide is never
really forgotten. This second thing is
the main concern of the authorities:
just as a protective fence was built
around the Mihara volcano preventing new attempts, so the authorities
of San Francisco have been discussing and thinking about putting on
some protection on the Golden Gate
Bridge. It brings us to the new problem already anticipated in the Christian prohibition of suicide. Since a
prohibition by itself is not an absolute guarantee that some act will not
be committed, there are also certain
safety measures that are supposed to
prevent suicide. According to the data of Richard Seiden, a psychologist
at Berkeley, between 1937 and 1971
more than 500 suicide attempts were
prevented on the Golden Gate. In
this contest, it is useful to remember
Plato and Aristotle who particularly
emphasized social responsibility as
one of the main arguments against
suicide. The protective measures in
San Francisco, just as the protective
fences on the Eiffel Tower or the
Empire State Building are nothing
but Platonic logic saying that, alongside with the ideas, the State and its
Laws are above everything else. To
what perversion it can lead us, can
be plainly seen in The Bridge itself
when a policeman arrests a woman
who was simply walking across the
bridge. The examples given by Ted
Friend in his article Jumpers, published in New Yorker in 2003, which
was the immediate inspiration for
the making of the film, is even more
suggestive of the Orwellian thought
police. Friend mentions some police lieutenant whose job, besides

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patrolling, securing and checking


the bridge, is also preventing suicides, that is he mentions his way
of starting a conversation with potential jumpers. How are you feeling today? is the first question, and
then he asks: What are your plans
for tomorrow? If a person doesnt
have a plan, then he or she is a priori suspicious. Obviously, the main
priorities are determined according
to the rationalistic and post-Fordian
logic implying that every part of a
persons life must be carefully though
out and the feelings must always be
good. The science-fiction movie
Minority Report (Steven Spielberg,
2002) made on the basis of a story
written by Philip K. Dick, in which
Tom Cruise, playing a police detective John Anderton, prevents crimes
even before they are committed, is not
only a good illustration of this perpetual Agembenian state of alert, but also
a necessary consequence of the idea
that everybody walking alone across
the bridge and looks pensively at the
distance or the water is a potential
suicide attempter.
Following in the footsteps of Foucault regarding suicidal festivals and
orgies, iek in the documentary
iek! (Astra Taylor, 2005) comes up
with an interesting proposition. The
Slovenian philosopher enters some
building in Ljubljana and shows us
a spiral, as he says Hitchcockian
staircase similar to the one in Vertigo. Then he points upstairs and says
how nice it would be to jump from
above, for it would be a kind of polite, ethical suicide. It wouldnt be a
spectacle involving other people, and
he himself says he had plans to organize suicides under a headline: If you
want to kill yourself, we will make
sure no small children are around.
As opposed to ieks suggestion, it
is good to think of the opposite example. What if people wanted exactly

Tad Friend, Jumpers, The New Yorker, October 13th, 2003, at: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/031013fa_fact?031013fa_fact

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the opposite, that is, instead of a quiet


place, jump off some bridge and be
remembered? No matter how absurd
it may sound, a friend of a person
who committed suicide says in The
Bridge that her friend jumped off primarily because he wanted to become
famous. The Golden Gate in this
sense definitely causes some sort of
Werther-Fieber (Werthers fever), and
just as there was a massive increase in
suicides after Gethes Sufferings of
the Youthful Werther, so the bridge
causes a series of the so-called copycat
suicides. If we take into account the
statement given by the mother of one
of the persons who killed themselves,
who being aware she cannot possibly stop him from committing suicide asked her son to put her phone
number into a plastic bag so that his
body could be identified and she
could be called up when that happens, then the idea of filming the act
itself doesnt seem to be utterly meaningless. Moreover, the well-known
video artist, Bill Viola, testifies to
the fact it can have a liberating effect: When my mother died, I felt
completely unprotected, as if from
that moment onward there was nothing between me and the end of my
life. The image of my mother at her
deathbed and her slow disappearance
was the picture I thought was so unbearable and horrible as nothing else
before that. The last three months of
her life she spent in a coma in hospital and we couldnt talk to her any
more. At one moment of deep desperation, I finally grabbed my video
camera, the only object giving me the
feeling I was in control, and I decid-

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

ed to record the moment I couldnt


bear to watch. And so I was filming,
out of a strictly personal, inner conviction, a few days before she died,
the last images of her life.6 Later on,
Viola also filmed the birth of his son,
interpreting death and birth as two
inseparable aspects of one and the
same process. The filming of death
in this sense, as witnessing, represents
not only some sort of liberation,
but also a new birth. Similarly, The
Bridge, although recording death,
also records birth in some way, for
it creates remembrances of the people who would otherwise remain totally forgotten. Eric Steel says in one
of his interviews the strange thing
about the bridge itself is that when
someone dies theres this big splash
and within minutes its like nothing
ever happened. All the ripples go
away and the traffic keeps moving
and the pedestrians are walking and
the water is going under the bridge.
But for families, that ripple keeps going forever. At the official web site of
the documentary he commented that
the jumping off the bridge reminded
him of the painting Landscape with
the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel.
Namely, at one edge of the painting
a pair of legs disappearing in a splash
are so small that can hardly be noticed
by the other people in the painting,
but they can easily be seen by the
people in the museum. I had a lot
of time to contemplate when I was
sitting behind the camera, in every
kind of weather imaginable, within
a few hundred yards of one of the
worlds greatest sites of Nature and
Mans majesty side by side. I thought

123

if I stared at the Golden Gate Bridge


long enough, I might crack its code,
understand its fatal beauty. It is often
undeniably stunning, awe inspiring
but the Bridges most striking power
is its ability to seemingly erase time.
Within moments of a death, its like
it never happened. Things return to
normal, just like in Brueghels painting. This painting shows human
indifference to suffering by showing
simple human acts happening in the
front, while at the same time, in the
right corner of the painting, none
other than the great mythical figure
of Icarus is drowning. In Greek mythology Icarus, the son of Daedalus,
got drowned because he flew to close
to the sun, which thawed the wax
that kept his wings together. When
we are watching The Bridge and the
small drops getting drowned in the
water, we cannot but see the person
committing suicide as Breughels Icarus who flew too high because of
unrequited love, unreachable goals,
missed opportunities and then fell
too low, into oblivion... One life and
one universe less in the world, but
still everything keeps on happening
as if that man had never even existed.
On the other hand, this mythical figure can be understood in the lines of
Batailles interpretation of the myth
of Icarus, that is as criticism of Cartesian rationalism and enlightenment.
Suicide in this sense still remains a
politically incorrect act, a social taboo and a transgression.

Translated by Domagoj Orli

Bill Viola, Images in Me. Video Art Manifests the World of the Unknown, Europski glasnik, ann. X, no. 10, Zagreb 2005, p. 515, translated from German into Croatian by Sreko Horvat.

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TIONS

How Common People Become Monsters? *


Goli Otok or Sadistic Masochism in Its Purest Form
Sreko Horvat

hether it is a massacre at Jozefow or Srebrenica, a torture in


Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, it is
always the same pattern of a normal
person, who in normal circumstances
represents an average individual in no
way different from the rest of society,
suddenly turning into a totally different personality into a torturer,
executioner or mass murderer. Although a comparison of the Stanford
Prison Experiment to Abu Ghraib
recently made by Philip Zimbardo
may be problematic, it is even more
problematic to criticize Zimbardo
in the way Erich Fromm did in his
Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
Fromms main objection is that the
conductors of the study did not examine the real situation in actual prisons. Are the majority of prisoners in
the worst American prisons slave-like
victims, and the majority of guards
brutal sadists? is Fromms question
supported by his statement that the
SS guards in the Nazi concentration
camps often were not sadists. Fromm
says that in real life an individual
knows his behavior will have consequences. A person may fantasize
about murdering someone, but only
rarely this fantasy turns into reality.

Many people live out this fantasy in


dreams, for when we are asleep the
fantasy is not followed by any kind
of consequences whatsoever. The experiments in which subjects lack the
sense of reality can cause reactions
that represent the unconscious tendencies rather than the ways the subject might behave in reality.1 However, this is where Fromm is mistaken. The point is exactly that both in
experiments and in real life situations
in prisons and camps, real life does
not seem real and no consequences are envisioned. Guantanamo and
Abu Ghraib prove that clearly. Although it was nothing like the university experiments, and there were
no volunteers checking in for the
experiments in a strictly controlled
environment, the American soldiers
actually did live out their fantasies
and unconscious tendencies.
The fact that real situations do have
an experimental status, and thus the
status of a situation where anything is
allowed to happen, and that the subjects have the feeling as if all of that
was not happening, as if all of that
was not real, which further implies
that there are not going to be either
consequences or the need to take up

responsibility, is perhaps best illustrated in the example of Goli otok,


the notorious concentration camp in
the Adriatic archipelago. As shown by
a former prisoner, Mihovil Horvat,
the process of bringing the prisoners
in was similar to the one in Guantanamo. Horvat first served one part
of his sentence in Slavonia, and then,
without knowing where he was being
taken, since he was thrown in a closed
cage, he was transported somewhere
for the whole day and suddenly realized
he was on a boat. The boat abruptly
stopped, the bodies came aboard and
Horvat stepped onto the well-known
bloody path, still not knowing he
was on Goli otok. I am in a bunch
of bodies. This mass moves here and
there, up and down, like an upset
sea. Each and every one of us convicts tries to win a little air and space.
Those who have healthy arms or legs
manage to break through making it
easier for the rest of us to move. Now
we are unloaded. The noise and yelling doesnt stop. On the contrary, the
shouting is deadening and all I can see
are the open mouths of raging brutes
standing in two rows, while the convicts run through and receiving heavy
blows, spit and curses.2 In a similar

* An excerpt from the book Totalitarizam danas (Totalitarianism Today), Zagreb: Antibarbarus, 2008.
1
Erich Fromm, Anatomija ljudske destruktivnosti (The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness), vol. I, Zagreb: Naprijed, 1986, p. 82.
2
Mihovil Horvat, Goli otok stratie duha (Goli Otok The Scaffold of Spirit), Zagreb: Orion Stella, 1996, pp. 101-102.

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way, the Iraqi prisoners were transported to Guantanamo in Cuba and


their situation was even worse since
they did not know the language. Just
like prisoners who were brought to
Goli otok, they too spent countless
hours traveling, from a truck into an
airplane, then by airplane across the
ocean to Cuba, not knowing where
exactly they were going. Without the
knowledge of the language, we can
assume, they had no way of knowing
were they were for weeks, months or
even years.
However, there is an essential difference between Goli otok and Abu
Ghraib, which is in fact the difference that sets Goli otok apart from
all other camps, even when compared
to Hitlers and Stalins. Namely, Goli
otok introduced a novelty, which is
probably unique in the conception
of camps. In contrast to other prison
systems and camps, where the function of controlling, monitoring and
torturing the prisoners and convicts
is performed chiefly and exclusively
by the guards or wardens, and there
is some sort of solidarity among the
convicts since they are all sharing the
same lot, this usual pattern of relationships in Goli otok was totally perverted. The convicts themselves took
the role of the guards and to the very
last detail applied the microphysics
of power, as Foucault would put it.
This can be best understood by following the story of Mihovil Horvat
and his progression in the Croatian
Siberia, as Goli otok was then named.
During Second World War, after the
inception of the Independent State
of Croatia, Mihovil Horvat got in
conflict with the quisling authorities
and got imprisoned. After he got out
3

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

of the prison, he joined the partisans


and stayed with them until the end
of the war. Right after the war he
became a high-positioned manager,
but was soon demoded in 1947 and
forcibly sent to an agricultural farm
Krndija near the town of akovo due
to his severe criticism of the Communist authorities. During the political
cleansing that ensued in 1948, after
the notorious Cominform Resolution, although he himself had no
connections with the Cominform
whatsoever, he spent eight months in

prison under investigation, and then


was moved to Goli otok, where he did
his time for the next two and a half
years, until the end of 1952. Horvats
testimony is invaluable, among other
things, because it describes Goli otok
in the so-called first period, from
1949 to 1954, when that little island

125

positioned just opposite the Velebit,


between the islands of Rab, Sveti
Grgur and Prvi, only 4.7 square kilometers in size, was populated by the
first wave of the Cominform prisoners and when the methods of control
and torture were significantly different from the methods existing in the
second and third period of Goli otok,
when mainly regular criminals and
juvenile delinquents were sent there.3
All in all, between 20,000 and 30,000
people were imprisoned at Goli otok,
some 2,000 died there, and around
1,000 disappeared without a trace.
When the first prisoners came, there
was nothing, not one tree, just bare
stones, after which the island got its
name (goli otok bare or naked
island). The convicts were forced to
hard labor in the stone quarry, regardless of the weather conditions (during winter wind reaches the speed
of 150 km/h, and in summer the
temperature rises up to 38 C in the
shade), and the so-called bloody
path originates from that period, the
same one Mihovil Horvat was forced
to pass through, but it slowly disappeared in Goli otoks second stage.
When new prisoners came onto the
island, the old ones would form two
rows. The newcomer was forced to
pass through the rows and was badly beaten up. Those who refused to
beat the newcomer or did not beat
him or her hard enough were also
forced to pass through the bloody
path. This welcoming committee
into the camp was in some way the
symbol of the entire prison system
that was established at Goli otok. In
contrast to regular prisons or Hitlers
and Bushs camps where prisoners
wore a number as their new identity,

A book by Josip Zoreti also testifies to the fact that it is indeed plausible to talk about a few different periods in the existence of Goli otok.
The author was imprisoned at Goli otok from 1962 to 1969, and there is clear difference between his sufferings and the sufferings of the
previous convicts. Zoreti, for example, never mentions either the bloody path or the practice of the boycott. Also, there is no mention of the mutual control and punishment among the convicts, and the best proof of this is Zoretis description of the common sabotages in the production sector of Goli otok. Anything like that would simply be unthinkable in the period between 1949 and 1954, for
anybody who would even think of sabotage would immediately be denounced by other prisoners, and then punished and boycotted. See
Josip Zoreti, Goli otok A Hell in the Adriatic, Virtualbookworm, 2007.

126

in Goli otok the convicts were simply


called the mob.
Mihovil Horvat realized that there
is an entirely different mechanism
established in the island prison, a
mechanism entirely different from
the ones he encountered in regular
prisons, when he met an old friend
who, as he found out later, was boycotted. Namely, Horvat addressed
him, but received no answer. Then
the medical assistant explained it to
him: No one is allowed to say one
word to him, no one is allowed to
approach him, and no one is allowed
to help him in any way. He does not
exist to you. And, if he tries to do
anything at all, you are supposed to
report it immediately. Otherwise,
you are in for the same thing.4 After asking why he was boycotted in
the first place, Horvat got the following answer: He voiced his political
opinion. His collective in the prison
shack judged him as not being sincere
enough and that is why he was boycotted.5 Horvat, still unaware that
he is not supposed to ask too many
questions or show too much interest
in the methods of Goli otok, since
that might imply doubting those very
methods, asked the medical assistant about the reason on the basis of
which the collective concluded that
the man was not sincere enough, and
got this answer: You are asking too
many questions. Youre just one of
the mob. Your turn will come, rest
assured, and then you will see how
the collective comes to conclusions.
The procedure was the following: a
new convict or an old one who had
already been boycotted would be
brought in front of the collective and
asked to express his thoughts. Everybody would sit onto the wooden
bunks, and the convict would stand
4
5
6
7

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Mihovil Horvat, ibid, p. 111.


Ibid, p. 112.
Ibid, p. 113-114.
Ibid, pp. 161-162.

in the middle of the aisle close to the


window; naturally, he would be facing the collective. On one side, also
close to the window, there was a table and a chair with the shack master conducting the political meeting. There were no guards; they were
on the other side of the wire fence.
On this side of the wire fence there
were only convicts. Then the convict
starts: Who were you, what did you
do, and so on. It is important to give
a detailed account of your subversive work from the very start to the
moment you were arrested.6 There
are two important characteristics of
the very procedure of the boycott.
The first one is, as already hinted at
by the fact the guards stood on the
other side of the wire fence, that the
process of isolating some of the objectionable convicts was conducted
by a group of convicts themselves,
not by some outsiders, as it is usually the case in regular prisons and
camps, where, say, sending someone
to a solitary confinement is entirely
up to the guards or wardens. The second characteristic is reminiscent of a
Kafkian world. Namely, there are actually no methods by which it could
be possible to defend oneself in front
of the collective and avoid being boycotted. It is all totally arbitrary. Horvat testifies to a dialogue in front of
the collective that perfectly illustrates
the absurdity of each sentence being
a potential subversion.
I reject Stalin and the USSR, says
a convict brought in front of the
collective. The others ask him, In
other words, you even deny you are
an Inform Bureau agent? Yes. I am
not an Inform Bureau agent. Have
you heard him, comrades? He is not
an agent. He was falsely accused and
unjustly convicted. An innocent lit-

TIONS

tle lamb is standing here in front


of you. Of course, the convict was
boycotted. Namely, it is impossible
to beat the logic by which each and
every answer may be interpreted as
incorrect. If you say you are an Inform Bureau agent, then you deserve
to be boycotted due to this very fact,
since you are an enemy to the system;
and if you say you are not, then you
deserve to be boycotted because you
must be a liar, for no innocent person
could possibly be sent to Goli otok.
So, it is no wonder our witness was
also boycotted soon after arriving to
Goli otok. At that moment everybody jumped off the wooden bunks,
everybody spat at me and hit me, or
at least were trying to do that, everybody yelled at me with their muzzles yawning, everybody in Goli otok
came to the conclusion that I, Mihovil Horvat, am the arch-enemy of
the party, the state, socialism, communism, the leadership, the people,
the working-class, the enemy of who
knows what, and yes, I am also the enemy of democracy, freedom, revolution, Marxism, progress, and... alas...
the traitor to all of that. As such, I was
thrown among the boycotted, for I
couldnt walk at that moment. I was
labeled as the multiple enemy to the
present. The collective, also a former
enemy to the present, was relieved.
Another enemy was denounced to
the core. And an enemy deserves only one thing: death. In the sense of
Goli otok, this death is not an ordinary death. You hit somebody on the
head and its finished. No, it would
be a wonderful death. The death in
Goli otok can be anything but that.7
He is now boycotted, which means
he cannot talk, he cannot approach
anybody, he cannot bother anybody
in any way. He cannot do anything,

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but must do everything. For starters, before dinner, together with the
others who were boycotted, he has
to go through the machine, as the
bloody path was called by the insiders. So, the convicts line up in front
of the prison shack in two rows facing each other, and each victim goes
through this corridor formed by the
human bodies one by one. I am
standing in a group of the boycotted at the entrance of the corridor
and am waiting for my turn. A wild
howling is heard all over Goli otok,
for the evening ritual, as everything
else for that matter, is the same for
each prison shack. The quiet of the
evening sunset is here turned into
a hell in which everything is mixed
with everything else: the distorted
faces of the convicts, the lowered
heads of the boycotted our heads
must always be lowered as a visual
sign of our damnation the screams,
the curses, the paroles that are being shouted at us by the convicts in
the rows, the spitting and the blows
and the kicks Through all that and
through four hundred of hands and
legs I must go.8 As we can see, the
bloody path which all new convicts
had to pass through definitely is not
just a fiery baptism but also the
paradigm of Goli otok. It is the best
expression of the terror that the convicts themselves, without the involvement of the guards, inflicted on each
other on a daily basis. The function of
the bloody path or the machine,
however, was not only to live out or
to take out the pent-up frustrations
of the convicts (for they could not express their fury at the guards, so they
at least had to do it among themselves). No, the role of this violent
and excruciating procedure was primarily in that it was a role exchange,
where everybody can at any moment
8
9
10

Ibid, p. 163.
Ibid, p. 217.
Ibid.

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

become an enemy and stop being an


enemy, become the one that punishes
and the one that receives the beatings.
It can be best seen when Horvat gets
off the boycott.
The Exchangeability
of Roles As the Germ of Terror
On the whole, there were a few phases
in Goli otok. The first is the very arrival at the island; the second is the
convicts confession about his subversive work, after which the boycott
would ensue. The third phase is the
moment when the boycott was removed and he himself inaugurated
into the position of deciding about
the boycott with the rest of the collective, and finally hit the others just as
he was hit by them. It is probably one
of the reasons why even today, sixty
years after Goli otok was established
as a camp, there are not many testimonies about the first period of its
existence. Many of the former convicts say they cannot talk about their
experiences because they had to hit
their friends, and so cannot talk due
to shame. The strategy of the system
in Goli otok was in this sense ingenious: it created a totally Stalinist system of terror among those who were
accused of Stalinism. Anybody can
at any time become an enemy, and
to denounce the enemy is not only
preferable, it is obligatory.
The transformation from the one who
is boycotted into the one who is not
boycotted any more is described by
Horvat in the following way: During the first few days after my boycott
was removed I felt strange. If only
yesterday by any chance I came into
their way, all those people around
me would torture me, hit me, spit at
me, kick me, force me to work harder
and sneer at me. So, how should I approach them? After a short period of

127

re-assimilation the convict becomes


one of them. During the boycott
I was stigmatized, totally isolated
and so partially protected from the
onslaughts of the fighters against the
enemy, serving only as an object of
expressing their hatred and fighting
fervor. However, now I have become
one of them and as such I was very attractive. They swarmed at me as flies
do at honey. They would use every
opportunity to do it, and as soon as
one had enough of me, another one
would stick to me.9 Although this
might sound consoling (the convict
becomes part of the whole), it is also
misleading. There were no friendships at Goli otok, or if there were,
they were scarce. The reason is that
every contact with another prisoner
was a potential denunciation or espionage. And the other way round,
every silence or avoidance of contact
with other convicts might have been
interpreted as subversive behavior.
Fighting against the enemy is a constant category in such a way that everything else in Goli otok is subsumed
under it. One form of this fighting is
disclosing the enemy. And since the
enemy is camouflaged, it takes perseverance and dexterity to disclose him.
That is why immediate close contacts
and vigil observance are the two most
important factors in the disclosing.10
So, Horvat himself learnt, that is he
had to learn the way of terrorizing
others by means of the boycott, for
otherwise he wouldnt have survived.
However, he used this means mainly
against those who spied on him in order to accuse him of subversive activity and candidate him for the boycott.
I hadnt spent all that time in Goli
otok for nothing. I learnt a thing or
two myself. First of all, I learnt that
people are cowards by and large, including, of course, myself. Second,

128

that one man is ceaselessly fighting


against another, regardless of the extent to which some individuals came
out as philanthropists. And third, the
slyer, the more cunning, the more
crooked and the less honest ones win
this fight, never the others. Here in
Goli otok this fight reached its perfection, and in this relentless fighting
to the death, always the slyer and
the more cunning ones would turn
out as winners. For, all of us, without
exception, are bastards, the mob, and
this is the sign that we brought with
us onto this island. And since this is
so, so be it, lets be the bastards, lets
compete in maliciousness, and may
the best man win. We are all after the
same wolf sneaking around among
us in the form of the enemy, and so
come what may...11
One example of this chase and constant vigil over ones own and over the
opinions of others reveals that Horvat
managed to work out an ingenious
strategy of using the very fear of being
boycotted as a means not to be boycotted again. Some convict wanted
to accuse him of something, and Mihovil came up with his defense saying
he had seen him watch an airplane
the day before. The man then asked
him arrogantly: Yes, so what? And
Horvat said to him: Nothing, I just
observed you watching it with a certain yearning in your eyes as long as
it didnt disappear in the sky.
Who, me?
Yes, you.
So, what?
Nothing. Youve had enough of Goli
otok, huh?
Who, me? Not at all. This is a
university that everyone should go
through.
I know. You keep pointing it out in
our discussions. And yet, you almost
burst into tears yesterday when you
11
12
13

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Ibid, p. 219.
Ibid, p. 222.
Ibid, p. 226.

were watching the airplane. You must


have thought, I am sure, that it was a
Soviet one and that it would get you
out of here.
Its not true. I watched it in the way
an airplane is usually watched. Others watched it too.
What others?
Well... everybody.
See, this is where you are also wrong.
You should have observed, just like
me, and ascertain precisely who else
was watching the plane and how. And
you, instead of doing so, stared into
the plane and almost called those
sitting in it to come down and get
you out of this place. I must say you
are a weak fighter against the enemy, Hoe.
I admit I wasnt vigil enough. But,
you know, an airplane flies rarely near
here, so I got carried away by it, God
damn it. And I didnt even think of
the Russians, I swear.
You will explain this to the interrogator. And you say an airplane flies
rarely near here?
You know yourself that it is a rarity here.
You see, Hoe, you are being subversive again. What you want to say
is that even planes avoid Goli otok.
Eh, Hoe, Hoe, I nodded my head
faking deep concern while moving
away from him.
In the end the convict nicknamed
Hoe was not boycotted, since Horvat used his strategy only as a means
of self-preservation and a way of getting himself out of a possible accusation of subversive activity. Since the
boycott has been removed, I am more
and more turning into something I
do not want to be. My behavior is
getting more and more similar to the
behavior of the rest of the convicts,
and so I, like an exhausted man car-

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ried by a flood, give myself up to the


stream, unable to resist it.12 Horvat
realized that he had to behave according to the rules of Goli otok. In other
words, that he could not behave like
a human being. After he had gone
through the first three phases of his
convict career, Horvat finally, no
matter how disgusting it must have
been to him, became one of them.
After that, even I started to throw
my fist and distort my mouth like
Bugger. He would from time to time
elbow me in the ribs, reminding me
that for us things were going well.
And so, we fiercely let those miserable people go through the machine,
without touching them, only distorting our mouths, commending the
present and asking for the death of
all kinds of enemy, without uttering
a sound. In this way I also became
a fighter against the enemy and a
staunch supporter of everything that
constitutes the present.13
The case of Mihovil Horvat is especially interesting because he virtually
went through all the possible roles.
First, he was a regular convict, who
later went through the boycott and
after the boycott became like the rest
of the convicts, and then he got boycotted once again in the solitary, and
then, after he was released from the
solitary, he ended up working in the
garden, which was a position all convicts yearned for since there were no
beatings and there was some peace
there. Later on, he became the cultural informant in his shack and finally even became the shack master,
that is a person who had the greatest
authority in the shack and a person
who often played a major role in deciding which convict was going to be
boycotted next. Horvat commented
his promotion into a cultural informant in the following way: So

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far I have been chased by the others,


and now I am chasing myself. I am
ashamed when at lunch the shack
master, his deputy and I stand first
in the row, and the server is trying to
fill our plates with the best parts in
the cauldron, always being successful
at it, of course. I am ashamed that I
was given a clean prisoners suit without a patch on it and the shoes of the
same quality. I am ashamed that I am
set apart, privileged and appointed as
one of the heads of the long queue of
two hundred convicts. I am ashamed
that all of these convicts are now being humble, are openly sucking up to
me, whereas only yesterday they spat
at me, kicked me, hit me, forced me
to work harder, and in every move,
act and look of mine saw subversive
manifestations, and tried to use my
suffering to earn a bit of mercy for
themselves. I am ashamed that I am
not what I am, because I detest it
all, and I will never support, as long
as I live, any kind of fucking ideology, doctrine, faith and all kinds of
other mumbo-jumbo used by politicians and their kind to delude the
masses.14 So, the basis of the convicts treatment at Goli otok was
the exchangeability of the roles (first
you get beaten, then you beat, than
you get boycotted, then you boycott
other people, and then you become
a cultural informant, shack master,
etc.) and the production of constant
paranoia and schizophrenia... Horvat
emphasizes at many different places
that the convicts became two-faced.
In this respect, Ugo Vlaisavljevi is
wrong when he compares Goli otok
with the idea of exile expressed in the
French legislation, which was founded on the thesis that there is a basic
group of criminals who are absolutely
incorrigible and so must in one way
or the other be removed from the rest
14
15

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

of society, and still be useful in some


way.15 The educational system of
Goli otok, at least in the first period
of its existence (from 1949 to 1954),
consisted mainly of educating the
convicts systematically in the art of
espionage and denunciation, in the
art of constant fighting against the
ubiquitous Enemy.

Goli otok truly was an educational


facility. It was supposed to re-educate those who were sent there and
transform them from the enemies of
the regime into those who will voluntarily denounce, disclose and punish the new enemy. An ideal convict
released from Goli otok would very
much resemble the main character
in the movie Balkanski pijun (The
Balkan Spy), a famous Serbian comedy from 1984. Ilija vorovi, who
spent a few years in Goli otok convicted for being an agent for Inform
Bureau, was asked by the police to
give some information about his tenant, Petar Jakovljevi, who worked in
Paris, that is, in the capitalist France,

129

for 20 years and was now planning


to open a tailors shop in Yugoslavia.
Although he didnt find out any concrete evidence at the police station,
Ilija decided to investigate the case
himself: he bought a tape recorder,
a camera, an overhead projector and
binoculars, and then started spying
on Petar and his friends. His twin
brother ure joined him in his investigation of the imperialist spies
and their main motto became: The
spies are among us, we only need to
recognize them. As the time passes,
their political paranoia rapidly increases, and they follow Petar and
his friends every day, from their visit
to a spa resort to their walk in the
woods. Each and every sign, a benign
conversation or an innocent gesture
was interpreted as subversive activity.
Everything is the opposite of what it
looks like, said Ilija, suggesting that
after he was externally brainwashed,
he was also internally indoctrinated.
Namely, he had already experienced
that what had been was not necessarily the case: he had been a partisan and communist, but everybody
else thought he wasnt, and so he had
to spend two years at Goli otok. In
practice, this philosophy of negative
semiology is best illustrated when
Ilija makes a big sacrifice and even
visits a theatre performance in order
to spy on the enemy: They thought
that whoever was spying on them
would give up and not follow them
to the opera, so then afterwards they
could go to a caf. However, they
didnt count on the fact that there
were people ready to do anything
for the cause. After returning from
the theater, his wife Danica asks him,
So, you really went to the theater?
Ilija confirms, and his brother says,
Eh, what you must go through because of those bandits. And then his

Ibid, p. 320.
Ugo Vlaisavljevi, Goli otok i nerazvijena tehnologija moi/znanja (Goli otok and the Underdeveloped Technology of Power/Knowledge),
Odjek revija za umjetnost, nauku i drutvena pitanja, spring 2003, at: http://www.odjek.ba/index.php?broj=02&id=03

130

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wife asks him naively, What did you


watch? Ilija says, Them! The opera
was not my priority. Of course that
Petar and his company went to the
theater for the reasons most people
go to the theater, but Ilija is capable
of interpreting that as exactly the opposite and, naturally, attributing to
the theater a negative connotation.
I wondered why they were going to
the theater. But, when the performance began, it was all crystal clear
to me. They could get on with their
fishy business because those on the
stage were screaming non-stop. They
stayed in the theater to the very end
of the performance not to look suspicious. They thought: if someone is
following them, he will give up; who
can listen to the opera. They didnt
know that there are people ready to
do anything for the cause. This political paranoia about the peoples enemy reaches it peak when Ilija and his
brother seize their tenant. An interrogation and investigation ensues and
the brothers investigating methods are no different from the ones
they were subjected to at Goli otok.
They play to him a recording of his
conversation with a lady professor
about the economic situation in the
country and the causes of low production, and Ilija wants him to admit to all his crimes, to admit he was

misled, just as he himself was misled


directly after the war when Tito broke
up his friendship with Stalin. In a
moment of great tension, Ilija has a
seizure and collapses to the ground.
Petar goes looking for the medication, but cannot find it because Ilija
did not buy any (The pharmacies
dont have it.). Although he is tied
up to a chair, Petar manages to reach
the telephone, calls an ambulance
and then still tied up to the chair
runs away from the house with an
intention of catching a plane for New
York. Although in pain, Ilija manages

TIONS

to get to the phone and call ure asking him to go to the airport and stop
all the flights. Then, in the grotesque
last scene, Ilija runs after Petar on all
fours, crawling down the street followed by his dog. The irony is that
Ilija, in this life-threatening situation, is fully aware that the system
he is defending is, after all, not good,
as he cant even buy the medication
he needs, yet he still keeps fighting
against the enemy.
Here again the same pattern we noticed in the supporters of Hitler repeats itself. Namely, they believed
that Germany, even after the fall of
the Third Reich, would somehow
triumph (because Fhrer promised
so). The basic argument is Too bad
for the facts: the fact that the medication cannot be found within the
system does not mean that the system we believe in is not good, even
if the lack of the medication means
death. The key element in The Balkan Spy is that the brothers are Stalinists. When in a dirty cellar, while
looking for some hidden weapons,
they come across an old portrait of
Stalin, the one they had to hide away
decades ago, it becomes clear that Ilija and ure think Yugoslavia can be
saved only by Stalin.
Translated by Domagoj Orli

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Photo by: Martina Kenji

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131

132

The Future Is Here. The World


of He Dystopian Film *
Sreko Horvat

What Inside of Me Is More Than Myself


The Thing From Another World by Christian Nyby, 1951
The Thing by John Carpenter, 1982

onfirming once again that reality can be more horrific than


the most horrible horror movie, in
London in 2005 they discovered an
abominable creature that devours the
tongue of a fish and replaces it with
its own body. The parasite known
as cymothoa exigua was discovered
on the tongue of a fish originating
from the tropical belt of the American coast. The creature first enters the
body through the gills, and then attaches itself to the tongue of the fish
and feeds on the blood from the artery. After a while, less and less blood
comes into the fishs tongue and it
eventually disappears, and when the
parasite gets big enough (in the case
of the London fish it was already 3.5
centimeters big), it completely replaces the tongue and so manipulates
the food that enters the fish. The fascinating thing in this bizarre forced
symbiosis is the fact that the fish can

use this parasite as its own, normal


tongue. It seems like the parasite is
not harming the fish in any way, that
it might not even be aware that it has
lost its tongue and that it was replaced
by the parasite. So far, cymothoa exigua is the only known parasite that
can fully replace an organ of some
organism and function instead of it.
Although the scientists console the
public that this parasite represents
no threat to humankind, it is difficult not to envision some dystopian
future in which this apparently benign parasite will also attack people
(perhaps thorough its evolution, or
its reproduction; probably due to the
global warming causing the appearance of some new species).
This parasitic way of life, which
through imitation eliminates an organ from an organism and replaces
it with an identical copy of an organ that even the host itself is not

aware of was already anticipated in


the old Hollywood classic The Thing
from Another World from 1951. A
scientific crew led by Doctor Carrington, located in a remote base on
the North Pole, notices an unidentified object that fell down in close
vicinity. In order to determine the
nature of the incident, they call the
army for help, under the command of
Captain Patrick Hendry, and among
them there is also a journalist named
Scotty. It turns out the unidentified
flying object indeed is of alien origin
and that it has a form of a perfect circle, but when the army tries to thaw
the ice that caught the spaceship by
using some explosives, it gets destroyed. However, using the Geiger
detector they discover a frozen body
close and then bring it to the base in
a big ice-cube. A conflict (first verbal, and then an armed one) ensues
between the army and the scientists,
since they cannot come to an agreement as to what to do with this newly
discovered body. While guarding the
ice-cube containing the body, one
soldier, torn by a bad feeling and upset by an awful sight, puts on it an
(electric) blanket, and without him

* Two excerpts from the book Budunost je ovdje. Svijet distopijskog filma (The Future Is Here. The World of the Dystopian Film), Zagreb:
Hrvatski filmski savez, 2008. The book consists of 25 chapters, and among the movies reviewed in it are: The Thing from Another World,
The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, La jete, Twelve Monkeys, Dr. Strangelove, I Am Legend, Fahrenheit 451, El angel exterminador, Planet of the Apes, THX 1138, Silent Running, Soylent Green, Logans Run, Brazil, They Live, Gattaca,
Fight Club, Matrix, Minority Report, Children of Men, The Happening, WALL-E...

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knowing it, it starts to melt down and


the body gets free. After that, we follow a whole series of at first unsuccessful and finally successful attempts
to stop the Thing...
As it is obvious, the beginning of The
Thing from Another World reminds us
a lot of another classic dealing with a
similar topic, The Day the Earth Stood
Still, which, incidentally or not, was
also made in 1951. In both movies
the main topic is an alien coming to
the Earth, but each movie has its own
specific position toward it. Besides
the fact that the alien in the first movie is bad and in the other one good,
this position can be best observed in
the relationship between the army
and the science. While in The Thing
from Another World, in spite of the
scientist trying to save the Thing at
all costs, the army has the right to
destroy the alien since it, being excessively violent, actually represents
a threat to the survival of the Planet,
in The Day the Earth Stood Still science is in the right, since the alien
there indeed is a creature of higher
intelligence, even a pacifist. Furthermore, these two films also differ
in their understanding of the distinction between human and nonhuman. In The Day the Earth Stood
Still the non-human still represents
some value, whereas in The Thing
from Another World the non-human
is simply something worthless, endangering our very survival, and so
worthy only of destruction.
However, this relationship is not that
unequivocal (or symmetric) as it
might seem at first sight. We must
not forget that in The Thing from Another World there is an interest on the
part of science to investigate the unknown and uninvestigated alien creature, although this interest is entirely
of a different nature than the scientific interest in the alien in The Day the
Earth Stood Still. It is best illustrated
in the scene when the Thing runs
away from the base and comes into

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

a direct confrontation with the dogs


in the open. One of them bites off its
arm, and later on it ends up on Doctor Carringtons autopsy table. After
a short investigation, he soon realizes that the alien is actually a plant,
and so concludes that its reproductive system is asexual: The neat and
unconfused reproductive technique
of vegetation. No pain or pleasure as
we know it. No emotions. No heart.
Our superior. Our superior in every
way. Gentlemen, do you realize what
weve found? A being from another
world as different from us as one pole

from the other. If we can only communicate with it, we can learn secrets
that have been hidden from mankind
since the beginning.
So, we see that to a scientist, Carrington, the alien is ideal with regards to the system of techno-scientific rationalism. Just as Georg
Lukcs in his renowned chapter on
The Reification and Consciousness
of the Proletariat in his book History
and Class Consciousness claimed that
in the production process within the
capitalistic system the personal qualities of the individual worker were

133

of no importance, but exclusively


the quantity (efficacy) of his work,
so it is not particularly important
to the techno-scientific rationalism
whether the object of investigation
(in this case: the Thing) has good or
bad qualities (whether it is violent or
not), but the quantity of knowledge
(all the secrets that the Thing can
reveal to us). Carrington is fascinated with the Thing exactly because it
lacks all the individual traits. The alien is simply a replica of itself, and its
way of reproducing itself is not only
more efficient (harmonious and balanced), but it clearly points to the
standardization of the mass production that was actually born together
with Fordism, and then got its full
momentum exactly at the time the
original novel was written on the basis of which The Thing from Another
World was filmed.
As we have just shown, we come here
to the turning point within the standard interpretation according to which
the alien invasion represents an obvious metaphor for the invasion of
the Reds. What if, on the contrary,
the Thing is actually a subtle metaphor for capitalism itself? Let us remind ourselves that Marx himself,
as one of the main characteristics
of capital, emphasized its unlimited
(asexual, that is, completely rational) self-reproduction, self-circulation
of Capital with the only purpose of
perpetuating itself. Also, the Thing,
in spite of its terrible appearance, is
a perfectly rational machine whose
only purpose is a violent self-perpetuating self-reproduction. An equally significant fact about the Thing is
that it needs human blood for further
reproduction Marx often evoked
the image of capitalism as a vampire
sucking out the blood of the workers; as he says in the first part of The
Capital: Capitalism is dead labor
that like a vampire lives on sucking
out live labor, and the more it sucks
out, the more it lives.

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A component part of this (capitalistic) power of sucking out life that


is the place where it is plainly seen
is exactly the imitation, which is also
characteristic of the Thing itself. Just
as the Thing, by means of imitation,
can multiply endlessly, so can capitalism imitate/use even some of its
biggest opposites/threats. The peak
moment of capitalistic power is the
moment when the biggest subversions can be incorporated into its operational system. The best example is
given in the documentary by Adam
Curtis The Century of the Self (2002).
As a founder of PR (public relations),
and also a relative of Sigmund Freud,
Edward Bernays was hired by the
American tobacco industry to spread
its market onto the female population, which was then mainly nonsmoking. Freuds relative, knowing
perfectly the principles of mass psychology and media, gathered up a
group of young (beautiful) women
and sent them off to a then very popular street parade in New York City,
and he also notified the reporters that
a group of feminist women would
light up a torch of freedom. On his
signal, all the women lit up Lucky
Strike in front of a bunch of reporters, the news went around the world
and the cigarette market doubled up.
Therefore, what is even today regarded as a feminist act of avant la lettre, is
actually nothing but a great PR. What
we perceive from the perspective of a
historical distance a shift that apparently makes possible an objective approach as emancipation is
nothing but a supreme simulation of
capitalism, just another step toward
accruing more Capital. Apart from
this kind of imitation of emancipation, that is a direct arousal of the
Thing itself (the feminist movement)
out of the very core of capitalism,
there is another kind of imitation,
something that might be called a byproduct. This is, for example, what
happened after 1968. Although this

still unprecedented event in the history of the 20th century took place
exactly to stamp out capitalism, the
result of 1968, apart from the factual
improvements in the areas of (labor,
student, sexual) liberation, is the appearance of life-styles: revolution
is today just another product on the
assembly line.
So, we see that The Thing from Another World does not have to be the
object of boring and predicable interpretations according to which the
Thing is actually communism (the
inhuman), and we (capitalism) are
what still is human as opposed to
that. In this context, it is important
to emphasize that, generally speaking, most of the SF movies about alien invasion did not originate from
the Cold War period, but from the
SF literature written in the 1930s
and 1940s, and so in this sense these
movies represent a new/additional
meaning of the invasion, that is
nowadays mostly associated with the
Communists and Soviets as the biggest threat to a normal life, although,
originally, in the novels that served
as the basis for the movies, this was
not the case. The same is true of The
Thing from Another World, a movie
that was made on the basis of the literary work by John W. Campbell entitled Who Goes There? Namely, the
original story appeared in 1938, in
other words, much earlier than the
beginning of the Cold War. When
we compare the first motion picture
adaptation, the one done by Nyby,
and the second one done by Carpenter, then we see that the second
one is much closer to the original
idea and the primary meaning of the
Thing. Unlike the monster from the
first black and white movie, Campbells Thing is much more similar to
Carpenters, a well as to the London
parasite that perfectly imitates the
tongue of a fish.
Apart from this possible socio-critical
nuance of the Thing, John Carpenter

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brings us back to a much deeper, almost metaphysical significance of


the Thing. Although the beginning
of Carpenters movie imitates exactly
the original movie by Christian Nyby
(the title The Thing which slowly
fades into flames, and later on we
come across an almost identical icecube as a hommage to the first movie), everything else is much different. The action is not located on the
North Pole, but on the South Pole,
and what makes Carpenters movie
so different from its earlier version
is the Thing itself. This is how the
movie begins: while flying above the
wide spaces of the South Pole, two
men in a helicopter are following a
dog running in front of them. The
dog knows somebody is following
it and gives the peaceful appearance
(it is even playful), as if it didnt care
and as if it was completely safe. All
of a sudden, one of the men starts
shooting at it, but fails to hit it in
spite of the repeated shots. The dog
finally manages to enter an American
exploration base operated by about
ten men who are totally flabbergasted by the scene they are witnessing:
the helicopter lands, out of it comes
a man with a gun shooting aimlessly
in front of himself and so wounding
one of the team members while trying to shoot the dog. They eventually
manage to stop him by killing him,
and the helicopter explodes. The dog
is saved. However, as any horror fan
might have guessed, the dog itself is
the Thing. It turns out that the two
men are members of the team from
a Norwegian base, which found the
spaceship and the Thing, and that
they, being aware the Thing might
destroy all life on Earth, started this
unsuccessful chase after the dog into
which the Thing turned itself. When
the American team realizes that, it is
already too late. The Thing is already
among them. But, in distinction to
the first, Nybys movie, the Thing is
not so easily recognizable; it can take

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any form. And that is what makes it


so horrible.
The Thing is again an asexual entity
reproducing itself (it is interesting to
notice that there is not one female
character in the entire movie!), and
its self-reproduction has no other
purpose but mere survival. The interesting thing is that we dont see
the Thing throughout the movie,
namely its pure form, since it in
order to survive simply imitates/
copies things around itself. And this
is exactly were Carpenter is true to the
original not to the first movie, but
to Campbells story. The Thing can
be anything at all. Moreover, in the
novel it is even more radicalized when
one of the team members, Blair, realizes something that no other character could realize both in the first and
in the second movie: I wonder if we
ever saw its natural form. It may have
been imitating the beings that built
that ship but I dont think it was.
I think that was its true form. Those
of us who were up near the bend saw
the thing in action; the thing on the
table is the result. When it got loose,
apparently, it started looking around.
Antarctica still frozen as it was ages
ago when the creatures first saw it
and froze.
Although in this statement there is an
inherent contradiction (if the Thing
really was able to imitate the Antarctica, and so froze, then it is equally
plausible that it imitated the entities
who had built the space ship, which
means it is not really an alien, but
something transcending the alien),
it points to the key characteristic of
the Thing: it is eternal. Or as another
member of the team from the literary version puts it: Nothing would
kill it. It has no natural enemies, because it becomes whatever it wants
to. If a killer whale attacked, it would
become a killer whale. If it were an
albatross, and an eagle attacked it,
it would become an eagle. Lord, it
might become a female eagle. Go
back build a nest and lay eggs! In

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

this sense, the Thing is a dystopian


version of Zelig, a fictional character
from the Woody Allen movie bearing the same title. Leonard Zelig is a
perfect human chameleon, who has
the ability to assume the personality
of any person in his vicinity. At an
exclusive gangster party he assumes
the identity of a gangster; after that,
he turns into one of the black musicians playing there. When he is interviewed by the psychiatrists in a
hospital, he turns into one of them.
Zelig is, therefore, the Thing, only
in a human shape he is not the
Thing thirsting for human blood,
but a Thing in need of acceptance.
But the thing that necessarily connects them is the need to survive.
Their imitation is the means to perpetuate oneself.
Although Allens film was made in
1983 and was presented as a (fake)
documentary about Leonard Zelig,
some Italian psychologists in February in 2007 (as it can be read in the
article published in the journal Neurocase from February 13, 2007) discovered a real Zelig, the anonymous
A.D., a 65-year-old whose identity
is determined by the surroundings
he finds himself in. This real Zelig
has become the Thing (even the real
Thing, since he hasnt got his own
identity) due to a heart attack that
caused the damage in the frontal and
temporal parts of the brain: those
parts of the brain lost their blood
supply so the cells in them died, and
that led to an anterograde (regressive) amnesia, that is the inability to
transfer information from the shortterm into the long-term memory. In
the same way as Zelig, when he was
surrounded by doctors, A.D. would
take the role of a doctor; when he
was around psychologists, he would
present himself as a psychologist; and
when he was with layers, he would
become a lawyer. What is interesting
about this is that A.D. would not just
claim to be a doctor, psychologist or
lawyer he would really play these

135

roles (successfully). In order to investigate this unusual case, Giovannina


Conchiglia and her colleges (after
whom, by the way, in one of the episodes from the fourth season of the
TV show Doctor House Mirror,
Mirror this illness was named Giovanninas syndrome, although the
scientist herself appropriately called
it Zeligs syndrome) hired actors
and thought out various scenarios.
For example: in a caf an actor orders a cocktail from A.D., which immediately makes him to take up the
role of a waiter, claiming he is on a
two-week trial and hoping to get a
permanent job. When brought into
a hospital kitchen, A.D. soon adopted the job of the chef, claiming that
he must make special dishes for the
patients with diabetes. So, he plays
a role as long as the situation doesnt
change.
There are two things that this Italian
case confirms. The first one is that the
social roles really depend to a large
extent on the consensus, on filling out an empty spot in the social
structure. We have been shown this
by Frank Abagnale Jr. in his story, on
the basis of which the movie Catch
Me if You Can (Steven Spielberg in
2002) was made. Namely, he behaved
almost exactly as the anonymous
65-year-old A.D. while he was still
in high school, only he had no brain
damage, so he did it consciously: after
running away from New York with
only twenty-five dollars in his pocket, Abagnale was a pilot, doctor and
lawyer (so, almost the same professions A.D. was dealing with), and
was not disclosed even by his closest associates and other experts. The
fact that Abagnale managed to do his
stunts due to the uniforms plainly
speaks about the signified characteristic of the social roles: he was
aware that if one wears a pilots uniform or doctors overcoat, no one (at
least not then, in the 1960s) would
suspect the fact that one might not
be a real pilot or doctor. (This was

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best illustrated by a background


detail, a cut-off scene left out from
the Spielberg movie; namely, Frank
Abagnale was dressed as a guard who
stood in front of the night deposit
box of a bank so that people would
give money to him instead of putting
it into the deposit box. During the
shooting of the movie, in spite of film
cameras all around the place, people
were coming to Leonardo DiCaprio,
not knowing it was him, and were
trying to give him money behaving
exactly according to the pattern used
in Abagnales deception).
The second thing that the Italian
Zelig proves is that imitation, mimesis, is the necessary means of survival;
furthermore, it is even an undying
urge with a large number of people.
Frank Abagnale in one of the scenes
says: Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly
gave up and drowned. The second
mouse wouldnt quit. He struggled
so hard that eventually he churned
that cream into butter and crawled
out. Gentlemen, as of this moment,
I am that second mouse. In his inspiring book Camouflage Neil Leach
even claims that the very imitation/
camouflage represents some sort of
a wish to belong; moreover, there is
something of Leonard Zelig in each
and every one of us: The compulsion to conform underpins all human
behavior. We human beings are governed by trends. We follow fashion
in our clothing, our hairstyles, and
even in our mannerisms and personal
behavior; we subscribe to dominant
ideologies of taste in all aspects of
our lifestyle. For to follow fashion
although supposedly an act of individual expression might be in fact
an act of collective behavior. We are
often content to erase almost all of
our individuality through subscribing to cultures of conformity, most
especially in religious communities,
military groupings, sports teams, and
corporate identities. Leonard Zelig
the prefect human chameleon is

not unique. The Zelig syndrome is


a common phenomenon. We human beings are largely conformist
creatures driven by a chameleon-like
urge to adapt to the behavior of those
around us.
And this brings us directly to Carpenters Thing. Although it is clear in the
movie that the Thing is not a nice and
lovely creature that only wishes to be
loved and accepted, and so camouflages itself and imitates everything,
it is useful to remind ourselves of
the original Campbells story. While
both motion picture versions express
overtly negative attitude toward the
Thing, in the original (literary) version there are two interesting chapters. First, a scientist poses an intriguing question: And just because
it looks unlike men, you dont have
to accuse it of being evil, or vicious
or something. Maybe that expression
on its face is its equivalent to a resignation to fate. White is the color
of mourning to the Chinese. If men
can have different customs, why cant
a so-different race have different understandings of facial expressions?
And Blair gives an equally interesting something that looks overtly
multicultural interpretation of
the Thing: That is just a different
development of Nature, another example of Natures wonderful adaptability. Growing on another, perhaps
harsher world, it has different form
and features. But it is just as much
a legitimate child of Nature as you
are. You are displaying the childish
human weakness of hating the different. Finally Blair reaches the key
conclusion: Just because its nature
is different you havent any right to
say its necessarily evil.
And here, eventually, we reach a real
dead-end. Although the Thing is a
real example of an organic excess of
the organic, and although it is the
best example of the still mysterious
Lacans myth on the lamella, that undead and indestructible, monstrous
Thing, a bizarre organ of a life that

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needs no organ, Campbells/Carpenters Thing is not necessarily evil


(it just wants to live like the rest of
us). And if we think it through a little it is exactly that which frightens
us so much. Isnt the London parasite, which eats a tongue and pretends
like some cruel version of Zelig to be
that very tongue, a perfect example
of a life that needs no organ, an organ without a body or a body without an organ (whichever way we put
it, cymothoa exigua is both, simultaneously)? In other words, how can
a fish know whether its tongue is a
parasite or simply a tongue? And to
bring this matter to its most radical
point: Why is that of any importance
at all? Namely, as the scientists are trying to convince us, there arent any
long-term consequences for the fish
due to the lack of the real tongue,
the parasite functions perfectly well
as a replacement it actually is not a
replacement, it is the real tongue.
This brings us to the seminal question about the Thing, which again is
more explicitly expressed in the original story, and less so in the movie: if
something is a perfect imitation of
something else, how can we know
it is an imitation? Namely, once the
Thing enters somebody, even the
people in whom it presently resides
may not know that the Thing is inside of them. It is the ultimate paradox: the Thing, through some bizarre process of tautology, becomes
the entity that I am, and so I cannot know any longer whether I am
a perfect imitation o myself or I am
the real Me. The Thing, a an idea,
and as a creation (the one made by
Carpenter, since the first movie indeed fails in this respect), makes one
step further than The Invasion of the
Body Snatchers, in which it is more
than obvious when an alien occupies
someones body. The Thing is more
like this indestructible substance of
life, this paradoxical organ called lamella, something in me that is more
than myself.

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And finally, let us remind ourselves


how Jacques Lacan in his Four Fundamental Notions of Psychoanalysis describes a lamella: A lamella is something entirely flat, moving like an
ameba. It is only a bit more complicated. But, it moves through everything. And since it is something I
will tell you right away that has
to do with what a sexual being loses
with sexuality, it is, as an ameba is in
relation to a sexual being, immortal.
Because it outlives every division,

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

because it survives every fragmentation. Just imagine what would happen if that covered your face while
you are asleep... You would have to
fight with such an entity. But this
would not be a comfortable battle.
This lamella, this organ, whose characteristic is that it is non-existent, but
which is no less an organ because of
it I could expound more about its
zoological position it is libido. It is
libido as a pure urge to be alive, that
is to be immortal, to be indestruct-

My Husband Is Not My Husband


The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Don Siegel, 1956
The Invasion by Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2007

y paraphrasing the famous Adornos statement, who does not


want to talk about capitalism should
also remain silent about fascism, we
could say that the one who does not
want to talk about the first adaptation
of the novel The Invasion of the Body
Snatchers by Jack Finney should also
remain silent about the newest film
adaptation of the same story. Namely, exactly by comparing these two
stories we can easily detect not only
which one of them is of better quality, but also that we should remain
silent about politics if we intend to
remain silent about love.
So, the story of the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don
Siegel, 1956) seems to be banal at
first sight: in a small Californian
town Doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin
McCarthy) suddenly starts receiving patients complaining that they
cant recognize their fellow men
moreover, they seem to be intruders. Bennells former girlfriend Becky
Driscoll (Dana Wynter) has similar
experiences and so is asking help for

her relative. Although the town psychiatrist is trying to convince them it


is nothing but an epidemic of mass
hysteria, Bennell and his companion
soon discover that the citizens have
really changed, or that they do have
some intruders residing inside them
who have actually killed off their
souls and possessed their bodies.
It turns out they were possessed by
aliens, the so called Pod People who are
identical to normal people, and are
different from them only in one trait
in a similar way as the humanoid
robots in Blade Runner by Philip K.
Dick seem to lack the ability to empathize with people, so these aliens
lack any ability to express themselves
emotionally. The aliens are actually
working on possessing all people. The
only way for people to resist that is
not to fall asleep, since the aliens can
completely steal the body only in the
state of sleep. That is the reason why
the main characters are constantly trying, apart from permanently
doubting that this or that fellow
citizen might be an alien, not to fall

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ible, to be alive without needing an


organ, to be alive in a simplified and
indestructible way.
We can see that this description perfectly fits to that what the Thing is.
Interpreted in this way, the Thing
in its desire to be assimilated and to
camouflage itself, just as Zelig did
it in a more innocent way, actually
represents the pure urge to live, or
as Lacan would put it: to be indestructible. And that is what makes
it so frightening.

asleep. The climax of the movie happens when Becky, while hiding from
the aliens, at one point falls asleep.
Bennell notices that and being beside
himself starts running toward a motorway screaming at the passing cars
that the town was taken over by the
aliens, and then in one scene which
can also be regarded as one of the first
climbing of the fourth wall, a practice
that in the modern film-making was
perfected by, say, Woody Allen he
is yelling into the camera: They are
already here! You are next!
What distinguishes The Invasion of
the Body Snatchers from most other
SF movies filmed until the 1950s
is one small, but important detail.
While in all other movies aliens were
mostly depicted as mutants, giants or
monsters, in this movie they look just
like us. The first, and today prevailing interpretation of the movie says
that The Invasion actually represents
the paranoia that developed during
the notorious McCarthy era. Just as
our fellow men and neighbors got
possessed by an alien in the movie,
so did thousands of Americans turn
communists during the 1940s and
1950s. As we know, a whole bunch
of ordinary as well as prominent people (including half of the Hollywood
people) were under suspicion of having thoughts and attitudes that are

138

parallel to the communist legacy and


so just as the aliens are trying to do
it in the movie want to replace the
decent American citizens who believe
in liberal democracy with new people
who will believe in the communist
ideals. However, this very interpretation doesnt give us the explanation
why we feel uncomfortable with the
idea that people in our immediate
surroundings got possessed by aliens
or communism for that matter.
In search of a background that might
best to explain the overriding fear and
paranoia present in both the fictional
Hollywood product such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the
factual historical period of the McCarthy era, we might turn to Freud and
his influential study entitled Das Unheimliche (1919). It is about the concept of Doppelgnger. Freud in this
work, which was directly inspired by
the study of Otto Ranks entitled Der
Doppelgnger (1914), at first sight
and quite unexpectedly seems to be
claiming that the uncomfortable
(Das Unheimliche) is not an emotional reaction to what is unknown
to us (which would be the literary
translation of the adjective unheimlich, derived from the noun Heim,
meaning the house, and so heimlich designates something known,
comfortable), but quite the opposite that the Uncomfortable always
turns us back to something known to
us, to something already familiar to
us from before. Namely, Freud is contending that the linguistic difference
heimlich/unheimlich gives us the impression that principally the Uncomfortable has something to do with
what is unknown to us, and then,
in order to prove the thesis that it is
actually something connected with
the known, he is referring to Schelling who under unheimlich subsumed
everything that possesses some secret.
And this is where Doppelgnger, or
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the double, comes into play. Unlike the previous belief according to
which the double is a guarantee that
Ego will not disappear (since this
Other One will survive), Freud is
contending that Doppelgnger is in
fact the suppressed part of the Ego.
Therefore, to meet ones double is
frightening: on the one hand, because we might end up disappointed, and on the other hand, because
he, that is, we ourselves, might get
in our way. Doppelgnger is therefore
a figure of the loss. In other words,
the figure of death. Even Otto Rank
himself emphasized that: Originally
understood as a guardian angel, securing the eternal existence of selfhood,
the double actually figures as the very
opposite, as the reminder of the mortality of the individual, that is as the
harbinger of death itself.1 The very
concept of the double was the topic of numerous literary works, from
Dostoevsky and Poe to Kafka and
Calvin, whereas in the filmmaking art
it is present in the works such as The
Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert
Wiene, 1920), The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) or in the recent Fight
Club (David Fincher, 1999). One of
the best literary examples is definitely
Oscar Wilds The Picture of Dorian
Gray, in which the main character is
the same man, actually the same man
all the time, since he is not getting
any older, but he has no soul, just as
the citizens from the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
And this, of course, brings us to
Jung. In distinction to Freud and the
dominant discourse that perceives
the double as something eerie, Jung
recognizes the dark side of the excessively rational Western civilization
in the double. Although, of course,
this implies his controversial theory
of archetypes, in which the so-called
dark double (dunkle Doppelgnger)
is introduced as a term for the shad-

Otto Rank, Beyond Psychology, Dover: New York, 1958, p. 74.

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ow that should be attributed to the


sphere of the Ego and that represents
the suppressed, that is the unconscious, such a Doppelgnger is actually subversive, and it is so, as Jung
says while interpreting dreams in
which the unconscious side of our
personality often follows the hero of
our dreams (that is ourselves) like a
shadow because it is the suppressed
part of our personality that must be
reintegrated into that very personality. In this sense, Doppelgnger, no
matter how unheimlich it may be,
can actually represent as it clearly
comes across in all the doubled characters in contemporary literature and
film the element which undermines
the image of a stable ego, that is of
a stable personality as a pillar of the
capitalistic system. Jung himself did
not define the double either as good
or bad, but merely as a replica of
somebodys unknown personality.
The double, in this sense, is a personification of desire, the desire that
actually tends to compensate for the
loss (Jung is here close to Freud, even
to Lacan), which results from the
shackles of culture. The double from
contemporary literature and film is
therefore the hero who transgresses
the defined limitations, someone or
something (if we bring to mind the
characters such as Frankenstein or
Kafkas bug) who deconstructs the
very limitations of the human.
Jungs theory of the double brings us
directly to The Invasion of the Body
Snatchers. Isnt it, if the phrase a
replica of somebodys unknown personality is taken seriously, a perfect
illustration of what happens when
love ends? Lets take a relationship
that for some time is functioning
perfectly: a young man immensely
loves a girl, and she immensely loves
him back. However, at one point
(there is always this need to rewind
the tape and spot THAT moment

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when everything went wrong) the


young man simply cannot recognize
his girlfriend any more. She remains
the same on the outside (her body
is the same, as are her habits and her
gestures), but something on the inside is wrong: as if somebody else has
entered her body. So, the young man
can rightfully ask: You have loved
me so far, but how come everything
is different now?
But, while there is the right answer
to that question in the movie (the aliens simply entered her, Becky, and
so she really isnt herself any more),
in Love it is different. The girl would
probably answer: It is not all different now; things have been changing all
the time. In other words, you cannot find THAT moment in which
everything went wrong, for the moments and reasons (for the break-up)
were simply piling up, and so some
kind of hypertrophy came out of it
as a result. The first and most common reaction to that argument is the
common sense counterargument:
So, you have never really loved me.
And in this sense, the young man (or
the girl, whichever way you want it)
really sees Another in the other an
alien or a dark double: it is not the
same person any more, the person
he could share all his secrets with,
the person who would perceive each
and every childish gesture of his as
sweet and funny, etc. Simply put, it
is just a person like any other person: the person from whom we hide
what we think, the person we treat
in a mature and cold way while
we are returning to the symbolic order of the Norm and politically correct behavior.
However, the argument that there
was no (real) love in the first place
should be taken seriously for a moment. What if we are aliens all the
time, and the very Symbolic order
actually is that which is natural?
Or to put it differently, what if the
other who is not the Other doesnt
really exist? That is, if we properly

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

think it through, the ultimate message of the movie The Invasion of the
Body Snatchers. If an alien could have
entered a person whom we love (and
so she/he suddenly stops loving us),
why couldnt we say then that this
person started to love us exactly at
the moment when an alien entered
her/him? And that is actually the real
excess of Love, that a person hit by
the so-called Cupids arrow suddenly stops being what she has been
up to that point. Our friends phone
calls become completely irrelevant
(to turn off the cell phone becomes
conditio sine qua non), family obligations and habits (attending dinners,
having conversations, etc.) become a
waste of time, and business or professional plans disappear in every embrace. In this sense, the right answer
to the question at which moment
love ended would be before it even
began. This doesnt mean it never really existed, only that the very act of
ending love (or at least love infatuation) might actually be some sort
of a defense mechanism of the very
organism. The defense against this
totally meaningless, devoted and
unconditional wastage.
On the other hand, the person who
keeps up loving someone in spite of
everything seems to bring this very
wastage to absurdity. Lets remember that the only way in The Invasion
of the Body Snatchers not to be possessed by an alien is not to fall asleep,
to be continuously awake. And isnt
this the best possible description of
a person loving another person who
doesnt love him back? Refusing to
admit that love has disappeared
even the gesture then there was no
love in the first place is still caught in
the loop of love and proves the subject is still in love means nothing
but refusing to go to sleep. If the
other has become Another, an alien,
it doesnt mean I have to do it too: I
can still keep within myself a dosage
of our Love (or in the movie: humanity) that will eventually and

139

again we encounter this last hope


save You too.
This is exactly the context within
which the newest adaptation of The
Invasion of the Body Snatchers should
be interpreted. As always, by finding
out the differences between the original and the adaptation, it is possible
to discover what the general intention of the new movie really is. In
accordance with the feminist era, the
main character of the new movie is
now Nicole Kidman. In distinction
to the original, she is now Doctor
Bennell, whereas her partner, Daniel
Craig, is Ben Driscoll. Why the sexes were changed, and the surnames
stayed the same will become clearer
later on. The story unfolds like this:
Nicole Kidman plays a young psychiatrist who, while doing her job,
notices some strange changes in the
behavior of her patients. All this
happened after an American spaceship fell to pieces while entering the
orbit and some mysterious epidemic spread and changed the behavior of living things. Predictably, one
of the first victims of the epidemic
is Tucker (Jeremy Northam), none
other than the ex-husband of Carol
Bennell. And how does she discover
this world conspiracy? Well, in the
same way it happened in the first,
original movie one patient comes
to see her and says: My husband is
not my husband. An experienced
psychiatrist would probably not pay
much attention to a statement like
that, but when other patients start
coming to her sharing similar experiences, and when she, after browsing it on the Google, realizes that
sons, daughters, wives, etc. are also
not themselves any more, then the
situation becomes alarming. Bennell now must do everything to protect her son, who will eventually, of
course, prove to be the key element
in stopping the escalating invasion.
And this is the point at which we realize the meaning and the failure of
the sex change of the main character.

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Namely, if The Invasion were really a


feminist movie, then a male would
still be the main character: exactly
because the main character is now a
woman we are again cajoled by the
classical myth of the loving mother
claiming that only a mother can be
capable of unconditional love toward
her child. The evil one is of course the
male, regardless of whether it is an exhusband or a potential new partner
who will himself, toward the end of
the movie, become an alien.
Although The Invasion is a movie in
which Oliver Hirschbiegel, a German director known for his solid
work Downfall (2004) and even better The Experiment (2001), has unsuccessfully merged the SF genre
with the elements of a psychological
thriller (throughout the movie one
can feel the inability on the part of
the director to produce the necessary
atmosphere present, for example, in
the movies 28 Weeks Later and I Am
Legend), one detail in it deserves to
be recognized. In accordance to the
dominant interpretation of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, according to which the movie is about
screening the red threat, we can say
The Invasion actually represents the
screening of the threat coming from
the Middle East that is the one of
terrorism. However, instead of clearly
implying that there is a new Enemy
(a terrorist instead of a communist)
camouflaged in the shape of a Man,
Hirschbiegel decided to put emphasis on the love aspect that was missing in the first version of the movie.
That The Invasion, instead of offering
boring political analyses (in which,
according to the times we find ourselves in, we can designate the aliens
as terrorists, communists, etc.), really has something to say about love is
perhaps most noticeable in its main
difference from the original. Whereas
in the original movie there was nothing about immunity, here the son
of the main protagonist is the one
who is immune. In one conversa-

tion Carol says to her son: I thought


you fell asleep, and he responds, I
did fall asleep. I did. Last night and
this morning. Does that mean something bad? However, in distinction
to other people who fall asleep, her
son remained the same; he still loves
his mother because he is immune.
Although Hirschbiegel could be criticized because his version is the only
one among the four existing ones
that has an optimistic ending, and
that the original version from 1956
is more faithful to the factual state of
affairs where love often, once it is lost,
is lost forever, this short dialogue is
nevertheless instructive. Isnt the best
proof of love that even after we fall
asleep, after a relationship ends and
the other person continues to live her
life as if we had never existed, we still
love her? The best definition of love
or pathology, or whatever would
therefore be the following: if you still
love after falling asleep, then it means
you are immune (to a break-up, deception, etc., etc.). In this sense, the
ex-husband of the main protagonist
can say, like anybody else who is no
longer in love: When you wake up,
you will feel exactly the same way
I do. The right measure of love,
metaphorically expressed, is therefore the quantity of awakening and
sleeping.
Of course, it would be wrong to say
that the newest Invasion doesnt have
political elements. They come clearly to the front in a scene at a formal
dinner in a dialogue between Carol
and the Russian Ambassador Yorish. Namely, he manages to provoke
Carol with a pseudo-Freudian statement: I say that civilization is an illusion, a game of pretend. What is
real is the fact that we are still animals, driven by primal instincts. As
a psychiatrist, you must know this to
be true. Carol, in a poststructuralist
style gives him the following answer:
To be honest, ambassador, when
someone starts talking to me about
truth, I hear what they tell me about

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themselves more than what they say


about the world. And this is where
a political turn is taken, as one may
expect to come from a Russian Ambassador: Perhaps you are right. Perhaps being a Russian in this country
is a kind of pathology. So, what do
you think? Can you help me? Can
you give me a pill? To make me see
the world the way you Americans see
the world? Can a pill help me understand Iraq, Darfur, or even New
Orleans? Of course, this question
regarding the pill reminds us irresistibly of the third pill from Matrix, so
Yorish continues: All I am saying is
that civilization crumbles whenever
we need it most. In the right situation we are all capable of the most
terrible crimes. To imagine a world
where this was not so, where every
crisis did not result in new atrocities,
where every newspaper is not full of
war and violence, well, this is to imagine a world where human beings
cease to be human.
The moral of The Invasion, no matter
how much it failed at the performance level (especially when it comes
to the script and the dialogues), is actually far-reaching. When the aliens
have conquered almost the whole
world, conflicts and wars have disappeared everywhere. However, when
eventually a cure that turned people into people again spread around,
the newspapers were once again full
of standard news (tragedies, humanitarian crises, wars). The moral is
the following: if we want to preserve
love, perhaps it is necessary to have
violence too. For, in a world without violence, love itself would have
no meaning whatsoever. In other
words, love and hatred are two sides
of the same coin. And (alien) indifference, as Renata Salecl has brilliantly
shown in her book Against Indifference, is exactly the sign that love has
disappeared.

Translated by Domagoj Orli

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Photo by: Martina Kenji

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Why We Can Love


Only by Means of Signs? *
Sreko Horvat

hat children we all are! How


greedy for one look we are!
What children we are! are the words
uttered in amorous rapture by the unforgettable Werther while thinking
about his Lotte. A look is sometimes
everything. Lets say I am out at some
place, the cigarette smoke is already
arching above us, the noise is deadening, just as is the damp in the air, but
I, I am nevertheless only looking for
your look. I am talking to somebody:
the words can all of a sudden no
longer be recognized from music,
different frequencies and new tones
are simply merging with one another, and I am trying to keep looking
at my interlocutor and fake political correctness (by pretending I am
listening to him). However, my look
is shifting. Wherever I look I have
only one goal, one and only urge: to
find your look using mine; to catch it.
And then, often, the same old game
keeps repeating itself...
Sometimes the look seems to be elusive. And thus one of the fundamental principles of love gets expressed
in the pithy formula you can never
have enough of it. Simultaneously,

all that amounts to one question: Is


the other look looking for me too?
It is the classical Lacanian formula:
How do you value my desire?
which is the perennial question posed
in the dialogue between lovers. In
other words, does your look desire
me as my look desires you? And when
the looks meet for one second the
feeling of triumph ensues Thats
it! But, nonetheless, the duration
of it is too short. What we prefer to
do is to play the childrens game who
can keep looking the longest without
looking aside just as two cowboys
must maintain their concentration
during a gunfight: it is imperative to
endure as long as possible, but also
know when enough is enough. For
example: you are dancing and I am
watching you. I know you know, and
you know I know you know. Its all
about the unwritten rules stipulated
during this very game, which we keep
repeating. And everything is a matter
of interpretation...
In seduction, wooing, falling in love
and finally, in love too it is always about playing with signs (I am
looking at you, but nevertheless I am

shifting my look, for if I am looking at you too much, the readings


of meaning stop...). Roland Barthes
demonstrates this plainly by taking
the example of giving a new phone
number. Imagine a situation in which
somebody, accidentally or casually,
gives me the phone number of a place
where I can find her at a certain time.
It is probably quite a harmless gesture, But for me, an amorous subject, everything which is new, everything which disturbs, is received not
as a fact but in the aspect of a sign
which must be interpreted. From the
lovers point of view, the fact becomes
consequential because it is immediately transformed into a sign: it is
the sign, not the fact, which is consequential (by its aura). If the other has
given me this new telephone number,
what was that the sign of? Was it an
invitation to telephone right away,
for the pleasure of the call, or only
should the occasion arise, out of necessity? My answer itself will be a sign,
which the other will inevitably interpret, thereby releasing, between us, a
tumultuous maneuvering of images.
Everything signifies.1 We could give

* The Foreword from the book Ljubav za poetnike (Love for Beginners), Zagreb: Ljevak, 2009. Commenting on the book, Slavoj iek wrote:
This is the proof that, while having sex, the partners are never alone, even if they lock themselves up in some tiny room, for there is no
sex without talking about sex! Horvat is doing for psychoanalysis what the old introductions to Marxism did for dialectical and historical materialism: he brings Lacan to the wide masses of workers, peasants and honest intelligentsia. This book is needed as much as fresh
bread!
1
Roland Bartes, A Lovers Discourse, Hill and Wang, New York, 1979., p. 63.

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a countless number of similar examples, and the more experiences and


impressions of falling in love or feeling of love there are, the more examples there are... and it is inherent in
each one that this game already includes signs and meaning.
Isnt the thesis that we can love only by means of signs which is the
subtitle of this book a bit exaggerated nevertheless? Does this mean
that one of the most intense human
emotions can be reduced to a mere
semiological (sign-generating) process? Exactly the opposite is the case.
The sign-generating processes are
nothing second hand, or less valuable, but make possible even the understanding of the process of understanding. Take the example of two
people who are in love, but still do
not want to reveal that to each other
probably because of their fear of rejection, but, unconsciously, also because it is always pleasurable to keep
the desire on the thin line that causes
us to quiver, and yet gives us pleasure. So, let us imagine that the two
people are watching a movie, sitting
on a couch in her home. Suddenly, through some spontaneous and
random gesture, their hands touch
each other. While one of the hands
will withdraw, perhaps out of fear
that a too long duration of that act
might send out too much meaning,
the other hand will try to stay in that
position as long as possible, so that it
could suck out all the pleasure from
this opportune moment. Or as Werther describes it beautifully again:
Ah, how all my veins quiver when
my finger accidentally touches hers,
when under the table our feet touch
one another! I withdraw as if facing a
fire, and again some unknown force
pushes me on and all my senses go
numb!2
2

3
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This example clearly shows that the


process of falling in love is simultaneously a process of cognition and the
cognition is reached exactly by means
of signs (Feet touching under the table and the questions born out of
it: Did she touch me on purpose?,
Is she as excited as I am?, etc.). Werther is, as expressed by Barthes while
commenting on this very example, in
a fervor of meaning: he is creating
meaning, all the time, everywhere,
out of nothing, and that meaning
makes him quiver. Every touch, to a
person falling in love, poses the ques-

tion of response: A squeeze of the


hand enormous documentation a
tiny gesture within the palm, a knee
which doesnt move away, an arm
extended, as if quite naturally, along
the back of a sofa and against which
the others head gradually comes to
rest this is the paradisiac realm of
subtle and clandestine signs: a kind
of festival not of the senses but of
meaning.3
Every falling in love and love itself
are like this celebration of meaning.

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From beginning to end, and even


after the end. Everything is teeming
with meaning. Barthes even goes as
far as interpreting the act of crying,
when confirming the thesis that we
can love (and then necessarily get sad)
only by means of signs, as a semiological phenomenon. When crying,
according to Barthes, we assume the
role of I am the one that will cry and
this role, as if in our own theatre, we
play out in front of us as audience,
and that is what makes us cry. And
by watching myself crying, I start
crying even harder; and if the tears
run dry, I repeat silently the whipping word that will cause them to run
again. Though Barthes doesnt give
any examples, we can easily imagine
them and list them: the whipping
word is she is spending the summer with him, I havent heard from
her for 10 days already,___, she
doesnt love me, I didnt deserve
this, she didnt deserve this, ___,
___, I will never find anybody like
her, she will never find anybody
like me,___, ___, etc. By weeping, I want to impress someone, to
bring pressure to bear upon someone
(Look what you have done to me).
It can be as is commonly the case
the other whom one thus constrains
to assume his commiseration or his
insensibility quite openly; but it can
also be oneself: I make myself cry, in
order to prove to myself that my grief
is not an illusion: tears are signs, not
expressions.4
Or take another well-known love
episode: waiting. When I am waiting for you, I always spin out a thousand theories about why I am waiting for you. I am always waiting
by writing out meaning, by creating my own labyrinth of signs that
may sometimes completely contradict
each other. Kafka, who similarly to

J. W. Gethe, Patnje mladoga Werthera (The Sorrows of the Youthful Werther), Zagreb: Zora, 1971, translated into Croatian by Ivan Lali,
p. 45.
Roland Barthes, ibid, p. 67.
Ibid, p. 182.

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Kierkegaard, nurtured love through


writing letters, in one of them written
to Milena gives a possible variant of
the answer to waiting: In the end I
asked you: So, should I wait for you
the whole day? Wait, you said,
and went back to your company that
was ready to go, waiting for You. The
meaning of Your answer was that You
were not coming at all and that the
only concession that You could make
for me was to let me wait for You. I
wont wait, I muttered silently, and
since it seemed to me that You hadnt
heard me, and that being my last resort, I cried it out once more behind
You. But it was all the same to You,
You didnt care any more.5 Barthes,
just as Kafka, had a similar scenery of
waiting: Waiting is an enchantment:
I have received orders not to move.
Waiting for a telephone call is thereby woven out of tiny unavowable interdictions to infinity: I forbid myself
to leave the room, to go to the toilet,
even to telephone (to keep the line
from being busy); I suffer torments if
someone else telephones me (for the
same reason); I madden myself by the
thought that at a certain (imminent)
hour I shall have to leave, thereby
running the risk of missing the healing call, the return of the Mother. All
these diversion which solicit me are
so many wasted moments for waiting, so many impurities of anxiety.
For the anxiety of waiting, in its pure
state, requires that I be sitting in a
chair within reach of the telephone,
without doing anything.6
Today, however, thanks to technological advancement, we dont have
to wait for the call, for it is easy
enough to take the phone with us.
But the semiology of love doesnt
5
6
7

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end. When, for example, I am sending a text message to a person I love,


I will think it through a few times before I send it, even after I send it, and
I will go to the folder sent messages
and read it once more. And when I
receive a message, only then am I in
a real fervor of meaning: each and
every sentence is open to interpretation. By the way, it has been confirmed recently when one dot in an
text message caused bloodshed. The
lives of the 20-year-old Emina and
her 24-year-old husband Ramazan
were very much like the lives of couples going through the process of divorce. After they had decided to have
a divorce, they had a fierce argument
over the cell phone, sending each
other text messages, until one day
Ramazan wrote: You are changing
the subject every time you run out of
arguments. However, that day one
mere dot was missing over one letter
and that led to a series of events ending in bloodshed. The surreal mistake happened because Eminas cell
phone didnt have a specific diacritical sign characteristic of the Turkish
alphabet: the letter or closed i. Using this letter/sign resulted in a text
message with a completely distorted
meaning: instead of reading sksnca,
Emina read sikisinca, which turned
Ramazans message You are changing the subject every time you run out
of arguments into You are changing the subject every time you get
fucked. Emina then showed the
message to her father, who called
up Ramazan accusing him of calling
his daughter a prostitute. Ramazan
went to their place to apologize, but
Emina ambushed him and stabbed
him in the chest. He somehow man-

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aged to get the knife out of his chest


and stabbed her back, and then ran
away, but was soon caught by the
police. Emina bled to death while
waiting for an ambulance that had
to break through the dense traffic of
Ankara. Confused with the whole
thing, Ramazan later on killed himself in prison.7 Therefore, if one dot
literally one sign can cause such
a series of events, then it is clear that
there is something about the semiology of love.
Lets take another not that tragic
example from virtual reality. Although it was conceived as fun, the
popular Second Life often becomes
for its users something more than a
game. In virtual reality there are public protests, rape trials, business deals,
and of late there are virtual adulterers in it too. Namely, the story of the
53-year-old Rico Hoogestraat, as told
in The Wall Street Journal, also poses
the question of unfaithfulness. This
gentleman, or more precisely his avatar, is in love with and married to
a woman/avatar whom he has never seen in his real life. And his first
wife, the one from the real life, is not
thrilled with it in the least.8 Even before Second Life was invented, this
possibility of cyberspace was beautifully depicted in the romantic comedy Youve Got Mail (Nina Ephron,
1998), in which two business rivals
who hate each other in real life fall
in love with each other over the Internet. Kathleen Kelly (Mag Ryan),
the owner of a small, but well-known
bookstore specialized in childrens
books starts a love affair. Although
she is in a love relationship with an
eminent journalist, she I cheating
on him by secretly and anonymous-

Franz Kafka, Pisma Mileni (Letters to Milena), Zagreb: Moderna vremena, 1998, translated into Croatian by Zlatko Crnkovi, p. 67.
Roland Barthes, ibid, p. 38.
Jesus Diaz, A Cellphones Missing Dot Kills Two People, Puts Three More In Jail, Gizmodo, April 21st, 2008: http://gizmodo.com/382026/
a-cellphones-missing-dot-kills-two-people-puts-three-more-in-jail
Alexandra Alter, Is This Man Cheating His Wife?, The Wall Street Journal, August 1st, 2007: http://online.wsj.com/public/article/
SB118670164592393622.html?mod=blog

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ly sending e-mail messages to a man


she met on the chat. Suddenly, her
business is threatened by the opening of a large bookstore belonging to
the Fox Books chain stores right next
door. Kathleen meets Joe Fox (Tom
Hanks), the owners son, whom she
promptly labels arrogant due to his
business plans. Soon afterwards, he
finds out that she is the anonymous
lady from the chat, but she doesnt
know that yet...
And if we put some more thought
into it, arent all social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, FriendsFeed,
Last.Fm, MySpace, ___, ___, ___,
etc.) the best proof to the thesis that
we love by means of signs? In the virtual era we present ourselves to others, describe and embellish ourselves
exactly by means of signs: although
the person from the other side of the
screen may have not seen me in person, I am giving her the signs of the
music I listen to, the movies I like,
the books I read, the links I visit; I
am uploading photos, files, drawings,
___, ___, etc. Perhaps these are all, as
stated by the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, the fitness indicators. He goes as far as to say that
the distinctive aspects of our minds
(like the music we choose, the restaurant we frequent, etc.) are developed
solely for the purpose of sexual selection in choosing our partners.
Miller, for example, shows that the
human mind and the peacocks tail
might have the same biological purpose. As we all know, the peacocks
tail got developed because the female peacocks liked longer and more
colorful tails better. The male peacocks would of course survive a lot
easier with a shorter, lighter and less
conspicuous tail, but the sexual selection of the females made them
grow all that big and flashy feathers,
9
10
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even if that meant spending a lot of


their energy. It is not easy to grow it
and maintain it, and besides that, it
makes it more difficult for them to
run away from their predators. The
peacocks tail is a classical example of
sexual selection in choosing a partner, and its biological function is to
attract female peacocks. The radial
arrangement of its yard-long feathers, with their iridescent blue and
bronze eye-spots and their rattling
movement, can be explained scientifically only if one understands that
function.9 The peacocks tail is therefore a sign. And to the female peacock it has a very specific meaning:
the longer and more beautiful the tail
is, the more attractive it is. For the
very fact that a peacock has a beautiful tail (a sign) implies the consequence (a meaning) that this particular peacock is an adequate partner
for procreation. Although this costly
and complicated trait in no way contributes to the chances of survival of
that animal, this very sign signifies
that the peacock, in spite of its big
and beautiful tail, managed to survive and so is in this sense an ideal
catch for the female.
In the natural world the courting
signs sometimes become so expensive that they jeopardize the survival
of too many organisms, so that an
entire species can simply die out (no
matter how surprisingly that might
sound, exactly because of the over-expensive signs). Darwin therefore came
up with a conclusion that the ancient
Irish reindeer might have died out
because of its sexual traits its more
than 180 centimeters wide horns
turned out to be too big a load to
carry around. However, in spite of
these isolated cases, in the theory of
sexual selection the handicap principle applies nevertheless: although

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the peacocks tail demands a lot of


energy to grow, to keep it clean and
carry it around, a peacock which is
not healthy and fit cannot afford to
have a big, flashy tail. In the context
of human seduction, Geoffrey Miller claims that the same function is
played out by the symbols of social
status: This effect can be observed
from any street corner in the world: if
a vehicle approaches from which very
loud music is pouring, chances are it
is being driven by a young male, using
the music as a sexual display.10
Millers term for these traits that got
developed with the sole purpose of
advertising fitness of some animal
is a fitness indicator. And though
Miller is first and foremost an evolutionary psychologist, this thesis is
identical with the semiological definition of a sign: Charles Sanders
Pierce long ago defined a sign as
something representing something
else, with a certain meaning for someone. And even Miller emphasizes the
semiological nature of sexual selection: Fitness indicators serve a sort
of meta-function. They sit on top
of other adaptations, proclaiming
their virtues. Fitness indicators are
to ordinary adaptations what literary
agents are to authors, or what advertisements are to products. Of course,
they are adaptations in their own
right, just as literary agents are people too, and just as advertisements
are also products the products of
advertising firms. But fitness indicators work differently. They take
long vacations. They are social and
sales-oriented. They five in the semiotic space of symbolism and strategic
deal-making, not in the gritty world
of factory production.11
In the world of humans the signs or
the fitness indicators have a similar function as they do in the animal

Geoffrey Miller, Mating Mind. How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, Anchor, 2001., p. 3.
Ibid, p. 83.
Ibid, p. 105.

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world. It is always about advertising


(remember Twitter again where we
advertise our impressions, experiences and events; Flicker where we
advertise our photographs; Last.
Fm where we advertise our taste in
music, ___, ___, etc.). In this context, evolutionary psychology and
the well-known theory about conspicuous consumption proposed by
Thorstein Veblen go hand in hand.
It has been worked out in his book
The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen
shows that in modern urban societies and he published his book in
1899, envisioning perfectly the development of humanity in the 20th
century strangers came and go, and
people increasingly advertise their
fortunes by embellishing themselves
using luxurious items. In a society in
which nobody knows anybodys real
fortune, the only reliable sign of fortune is conspicuous consumption.
Miller goes one step farther by showing what this really means when it
is applied to seduction: We take
our dates to restaurants where we
pay professional chefs to cook them
great food, or to dance clubs where
professional musicians excite their
auditory systems, or to films where
professional actors entertain them
with vicarious adventures. The chefs,
musicians, and actors do not actually get to have sex with our dates.
They just get paid. We get the sex
if the date goes well. Of course, we
still have to talk in modern courtship,
and we still have to look reasonably
well. But the market economy shifts
much of the courtship effort from
us to professionals. To pay the professionals, we have to make money,
which means getting a job. The better our education, the better our job,
the more money we can make, and
the better the vicarious courtship we
can afford. Consumerism turns the
tables on ancestral patterns of hu12

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Ibid, p. 188.

man courtship. It makes courtship a


commodity that can be bought and
sold.12 So, the principle of interpassivity functions now better than ever
before: it is about the transference of
courting to somebody else. Just as
the contained laughter in humoristic shows serves the purpose of having
other people laugh instead of us, so
it is now enough to relax and somebody else (a cook, a waiter, ___, ___,
a professional) will do the courting
instead of us.
Even a more important conclusion
drawn from this inverted world
is that seduction happens exactly by
means of signs: my choice of the restaurants I frequent visit or the cigarettes I smoke may influence the selection of my partner. Consequently,
some people might not be with somebody if he or she is a right-winger or
a left-winger (and quite often rightfully so...). Some vegetarians couldnt
be with somebody who is not a vegetarian too. And so on. In short, the
selection of a partner depends on
signs and meaning that they produce.
And as we have just seen above, even
when we have chosen our partner,
a semiological fireworks only gets
started, in which apparently a mere
touch, waiting for a phone call or a
misspelled SMS message cause a fervor of meaning...
Even tears are signs. If there is a fundamental thesis in this book, then it
gets its expression in this insight of
Barthes. The author is, of course,
aware that Barthes masterpiece on
love is difficult or impossible to
surpass. However, a hope still remains that it is perhaps possible
to complement it. For, what characterizes Barthes Fragments of the Love
Discourse is its incompleteness. And
the same goes for this book. Each
book on love is necessarily incomplete. If you find a book on love
that claims completeness, then it is

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the same as if you had found a book


claiming that it knows the truth
about love and in that case, be sure
of it, you have fond nothing but a
lie. As there are many different experiences of love, as there are many
different love relationships, so there
are as many love episodes. This is
the reason why each book on love is
necessarily unfinished it is being
written our whole life. The chapters
that comprise this book are therefore
arbitrary in the true sense of the word
some completely different chapters
might have been put into the book,
just as the order of the chapters might
have been completely different (incidentally, Barthes was again the one
who had noticed that when he ordered his chapters alphabetically suggesting that the order of the chapters
should not make us think it had any
significance at all).
Furthermore, every discourse on love
can never be devoid of the actual experience of it, so in this sense the analyzed or illustrative material already
implies and represents a subjective
choice, and consequently determines
such an approach (*hence the love
episodes). It plainly abandons the
idea that love can be investigated
in a scientific or objective way, that
it is possible to analyze it in semantic structures, biological principles,
chemical processes and all other approaches believing they possess the
truth about love. This book is written from quite a different perspective: not only can we find out that
in love there is and at the same time
there is not truth, but also that each
discourse on love cannot be expressed
and valued from the truths point of
view. In this sense, it is a subjective
phenomenological study which, following in the footsteps of Barthes and
the semiological postulate of Charles
Sanders Pierce saying that we cant
think without using signs, tries to

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show that we can also love only by


means of signs.
The signs of love in this context
are not psychological, biological or
chemical traits that can help us recognize a subject in love. Quite to the
contrary, the signs of love are particular semiological phenomena showing us how the language of love is
actually structured. Love is an emotion characterized with a hypertrophy of semiotization, since almost
everything is possible to interpret as
a sign of something else and, due to
this paranoid trait of love, virtually
anything can make its way into the
language of love. In this book, in the
form of rather short chapters, ordered
retroactively, from a break-up and
a wish to forget to a continuity and
a beginning of a love attachment and
love relationship, the author discusses some of the seminal signs disclosing the breadth and complexity of the
notion of being in love or falling
in love. The book is not written in
a linear way and so doesnt expect
from the reader to read it in a linear way. Each chapter is independ-

Sre}ko Horvat: Essays

ent and at the same time interwoven


with all other chapters, but the order
of reading them depends exclusively
on the reader.
* * *
What is a love episode? The very term
was borrowed from the masterpiece Anatol
by Arthur Schnitzler, the author of a much
better known Dream Story screened by
Kubrick in his motion picture The Eyes Wide
Shut. Anatols best friend Max takes a box
with his memorabilia and, among other
things, nds in it a piece of paper with the
word Episode written on it, and nothing
in it but some dust. Surprised by it, he
asks Anatol what it is all about, and Anatol
answers that there was once a ower he
had put into the paper. And whats the
meaning of the episode? Nothing, it
was some random thought. It was just an
episode, a two-hour novel... nothing!...
Yes, only dust! The fact that so much
sweetness is reduced to this is actually
sad. Right? When asked by Max about
the nature of the episode, that is about the
meaning of the ower, Anatol oers him

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only this answer: I cant tell you anything


about it. Why? Because it is a story
as plain as possible... It is... nothing. You
wouldnt be able to recognize the beauty in
it. The secret of it all is that it was me who
experienced it.
And this is what it is all about when it
comes to love episodes: some seemingly ordinary movement, a conversation
(or an exchange of a few words), a recipe,
a walk, a letter, a gesture or a look to
us who have experienced it, all that can
get indelibly imprinted into our memory,
whereas to others, who are just witnesses
to our memories (or to what we have told
them about our memories), it may mean
nothing at all. The love episodes that in
this book make up some sort of overtures
to their appropriate chapters may also
be quite insignicant: some have been
drawn from the authors personal experience, some from the movies, some from
music and what they all have in common
is that they represent some recognizable
moment of love, not necessarily a period
or a phase in its development, merely an
episode.

Translated by Domagoj Orli

Photo by: Martina Kenji

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Jadranka Pintari}: Prose

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JADRANKA PINTARI writes essays and literary criticism, works as a book


editor, and sometimes undertakes translations. She took a degree from
the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. From 1986 to 2000 she worked as
a journalist and editor at the culture section of Croatian Radio First Programme. Subsequently she was an editor at Mozaik knjiga Publishing and
then editor-in-chief at the publishing arm of Matica hrvatska (1996-2000).
Until 2008 she was a member of the Croatian Union of Independent Artists, in the literary criticism category. Along writing reviews for dierent
papers and periodicals, she conceives projects for sets of books and edits
individual publications for a number of publishers. From 1993 to 2008
she regularly contributed to culture and arts programmes broadcasted at
Croatian Radio-Television.

She has published reviews, art criticism, essays and other writings since
1987, rst of all on radio and television, and then in Vjesnik, Venac, Zarez,
Republika, Knjievna republika, Rei, Svjetlo, and Dubrovnik as well as
other newspapers and periodicals.
She has published a book of selected literary criticism, In The Direction The Meridian: Literary Criticism (2003), and
a collection of prose texts, Interest On Amatory Sighs; Essays On Oversensitivity (2008).

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149

Magic of First Meeting


Jadranka Pintari

nce long ago when innocent


kiddies were still being taught
that philosophers ought not only to
explain but also to change the world
I fell for it, and believed that I would
take part in this change myself, as
long as I could master the required
knowledge. I assiduously read the
required booklist and went to lectures. Still, to tell the truth it was
always only from the viewpoint of a
passive observer, never far from taking stock. To make things worse, the
area started to interest me only after
I had, on my own accord, written a
seminar paper about the concept of
ahimsa the concept of non-violence from the ancient Indian tradition with which Ghandi acquainted
the West. At that time I also came by
some books by a local philosopher
who was at the time on a somewhat
downward path from enthronement
as dissident and victim of the system.
But his story was still going round,
he had a certain charisma, his books
went from hand to hand. Since I believe that there are books that come
into my life at a precisely determined
moment so that I might have explained to me what has been, to tell
me or prepare me for what will come,
that is probably what happened with
the books of the philosopher who
loved to quote prose writers and poets. At that time no one wrote like
that openly poetical discourse in
philosophy was looked at by the official academic (Party) brotherhood

not only with contempt and disgust


but even avenged with expulsion from
the academic community. Wanting to
stay loyal to the original idea of universal brotherhood, thinking himself
a direct inheritor of all previous free
worshippers of wisdom, the Professor
determined to assume the role of Victim. Still, when occasion called, and
then not fatally. Since he lost his job
in the principal, the neighbouring
republic of allegedly wider horizons
and more advanced viewpoints and
so on took him to itself. (By the bye,
one cant resist the impression that it
was all stage-managed somewhere.)
I was charmed by this weaving adroitly knotted from heavy calibre theory
warp threads and mellifluous wefts
of literature, which was my lifes favourite. Professors books rested at
my headboard. I personally became
acquainted with him two to three
years later at some obscure symposium or whatever it might have been
at the time, which I arrived at by
sheer chance (it follows from premises 1 and 2 that the conclusion is not
that for the sake of Socrates all people are mortal but that there is no
chance let Aristotle say what he
may). I do not recall exactly, but I
think that I didnt anyway stare at
him like a lovesick teenage girl, the
only image that is clear to me is how
a handful of us accompanied him to
the modest provincial railway station
the evening before the official ending of the symposium. While we were

pushing through the throng of walkers, all at once he said: It is not right
for young hips to brush against my
old ones. A moment before my hip
had for less than the blinking of an
eye involuntarily brushed against his
getting out of the way of some clumsy passer-by. My excitement with this
image, this idea at once created in the
deeper layers of the imagination, had
a more powerful erotic charge than
the scene from the hayloft from The
Witness when Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis, worthwhile mentioning
because some string is always strumming, dance to the Sam Cooke song
Wonderful World:
Dont know much about history
Dont know much biology
Dont know much about a science book
Dont know much about the French
I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be
Dont know much about geography
Dont know much trigonometry
Dont know much about algebra
Dont know what a slide rule is for.
But I do know that one and one is two,
And if this one could be with you,
What a wonderful world this would be.
Now I dont claim to be an A student,
But Im trying to be.
So maybe by being an A student baby
I can win your love for me... and so on.

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Jadranka Pintari}: Prose

Then, that film did not even exist.


Nor did I know of the song. Nor did
he. Still less about safety in the certain, the formula the unavoidable
in life. However, the world became
magic because I knew he knew that
our hips had brushed, involuntarily,
but with fateful inevitability. Nothing was said. It wouldnt have been
proper. He was a professor with charisma of ripe years, I was a last year
student, of unripe years. We did not
even look at each other. It was not
necessary. There was no urgency.
What had to be would be. You sense
this kind of certainty...
The second time we met, it must
have been more than a half a year
later, at a joint friends. At the end
the gathered company again accompanied him he always enjoyed special attention, perhaps not quite exactly that which we pay, politically
correctly speaking, to persons with
special needs or casualties of the war,
but something similar for in some
things he was not similar to us he
had the status of Victim. We felt it
like that, and he enjoyed the status
of the privileged, in any respect. At
least in that respect. Probably this
kind of dissident needs all eyes bent
on them and mindful consideration.
It started raining and we took cover
under a gazebo in someones garden
full of flowers and roses. We waited
for the rain to end, and quite suddenly, without any pretext, actually,
in the context fairly sugary (not to say
too much) the Professor said to me:
But how does your mother differentiate all these flowers? to which I
shot out, in a way entirely untypical
of me, By the thorn, Professor, by
the thorn. The others looked on bemused. As was right.
This was our secret sign. Why and
how to this day I have no idea,
and more than one life has passed.
I dont even recall how at last we
found ourselves alone together, how
we eventually did that destined act

that makes the relation of woman


and man a source of eternal mysteries and strains, inspirations and frictions, happiness and trouble. I dont
recall because in fact it is not important. The magic dust of defamiliarisation had been sprinkled over us. The
meeting had happened. The next
thing I recall is the poster for a longsince-given lecture of his in some
federal backwater, pasted on the inner side of the front door of his flat,
on which in heavy bold letters it was
written Life is an encounter. The
lecture was about the philosophy of
dialectics, but what happened to us
was an undialectical encounter. In life
and not in philosophy. The eternal,
meaning the still living, schoolgirl
in me was bewitched, spellbound,
exalted. Our love was both physical
and metaphysical. We loved as if we
were the first XX and XY chromosomes upon Earth without a single
selfish gene. Without any crossed fingers. We loved as if it were the first
and last time. At that time perhaps
(putting it mildly) scandalous difference in years did not stop us fusing
body and soul, sharing experience,
fervent devotion to the encounter
that had happened. A lifes encounter. An encounter for life. In the little flat of the poor, gloomy socialist
new building, on the door of which
in bold letters a poster wrote Life is
an encounter a very much personal
and non-epochal love happened to
us, a meeting of two beings. I devoted
myself to him with the devotion of
my genetic ancestress from southern
Somalia, he took me with the dedication of the ancient shamans of Siberia. We would become alchemically ethereal. The very idea would
get the juices going, a look would
set the skin on fire, a breathy touch
bring ecstasy about... And so on ad
infinitum. Apparently. Only after
many hours of exhaustion would we
take some water and a few pieces of
chocolate, that old fashioned tutti-

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frutti chocolate (the substitute of the


times for the ambrosia of the gods
and other immortals). After that, in
that very same bed that was steeped
in our acts, we would read the classics
of philosophy and explain the ideas.
Or read aloud the classical poets as a
debt to pleasure.
We would dispute and clarify the ideas of Kierkegaards Diary of a Seducer
not with the desire of finding any
correlation with our own story there,
but on the contrary the universality
of categories into which we might fit:
There is a deep irony in this situation. For another has the appearance
of being the dominant party: the man
sues for her, the woman chooses. In
terms of her concept a woman is the
vanished one; in terms of the mans
he is the victor; and yet this victor
bows before the vanquished. Still,
thats quite natural and it is only
boorishness, stupidity and lack of
erotic sensibility to ignore what is
immediately presented in this way.
There is also a deeper reason. For the
woman is substance, the man is reflection. So she doesnt choose, then,
without further ado. The man sues,
she chooses. But the suing is a question and her choice is just an answer
to a question. In one sense the man
is more than the woman, in another
is infinitely less.
Wonderful, I would say, and deny it
to the very last breath and amorous
sigh. These are those wonderful, innocent moments of Encounter with
another when we want to be, and
sometimes are, better than ourselves;
when in this other being, as Marina
Tsvetaeva would say, we do not see
a person the way his parents created
him or her, but the way God imagined them and so we ourselves endeavour to become what we think
about ourselves that we should have
been (created), that we could have
only if someone had loved us so, if
we loved someone, if we had fused.
We bail out without a parachute from

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16,000 feet, knowing that sure hands


are waiting for us down there. We
shudder from panic and great satisfaction at the same time. We do our
best, give ourselves, we are extremely
careful and attentive we listen to
this other being and endeavour to
please it, rub it the right way, anticipate its wishes and thoughts, if we
are more fortunate. All aquiver, we
await the reaction, we would cross
the seven mountains, jump into fire,
into water, into the swollen river, as
one might call the campaign when we
dont care about the consequences.
But to go back to the Professor and
the Prentice Girl. We didnt ostentatiously show off in public in social circles close to us, but nor did we hide.
There was no reason for that. His
marriage had long ago been finally
and formally finished, geographically
distantly, and I had no encumbrances. And in fact there was absolutely
no chance for display; we didnt go
anywhere as it was. Just to some occasional lecture on philosophy, to buy
new books. And in a blink, from being passionate lovers, we had pretty
well become an ordinary couple. A
couple was seldom visited by other
couples for philosophers are loners and a couple seldom goes to
visit other couples for time should
surely be spent more usefully than
on vapid chatter. Philosophers are
also inclined to asceticism and to a
particular selfishness they need a
lot of time to deal only with themselves, their thoughts, person, subjects. So we lived extremely modestly
for there was no reason to submit
to cheap consumer urges, to the disgusting manipulation of advertisings
messages, the futility of the world
outside. And so, much too fast, it all
in fact turned into a routine. And
still, it did last for it long fed off
the mythology/the magic of the first
meeting.
Oh, that mythology of the first encounter. There that is what is excep-

Jadranka Pintari}: Prose

151

tionally important in every deep, refined and lasting human relationship


cherishing of the mythology of the
first encounter. Always and again,
whenever circumstances required,
we would vividly stage, pick over
and minutely describe every little detail of every hundredth of a second
of the initial meetings, break down
with micron-precision the situation
in which hips brushed, gazes glinted
and then dropped, intuition flared,
refined nuances in the experiencing
and interpreting of these moments,

humus on which love grows the


more it has, the deeper its plants
will be, the stronger, tougher, more
lasting the tender plant will be; the
more nourishing, the stronger the little plant flourishes and will not lose
the deep colour of the leaves in any
kind of changes. Sometimes a love
that has long since been dead or had
better have been put to sleep for it
had taken on malignant forms can
be kept artificially alive on the myth
of the first encounter. This is a previous common initial mirage of two

each drop of rain in the fortuitous


garden with roses that had thorns,
the shades in the gestures and all the
registers of the voice. Whenever we
had an intimation of a threat that our
love might shrivel away we would water it copiously with the elixir of the
first encounter and it would perk
up right away.
It is no secret: in every love, the mythology/magic of the first encounter
is important, sometimes even crucial for the development and survival of the relationship. This is the

souls from which a vast capital can


be created or can be gambled away
together, wasted on triviality, watered
down into nothingness of endless ordinariness. The mythology of the first
encounter, that alchemical philosophers stone of every love (which also
means friendly, for friendship is not a
bit less valuable but is just a different
kind of love) relationship that lovers
too lightly overlook for with it they
can, just as in the fairy story abracadabra can do wonders strike dead
and bring to life that intangible but

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Jadranka Pintari}: Prose

real or imaginary being of togetherness. Who knows why thats how it is


and whether someone wiser than us
has so determined it, but the magic
of the first encounter is always special, less often lifetime.
If it happens that someone or something fascinates you for a short time
for perhaps even for a great part of
your life, only exceptionally for the
whole of your life, that you are a slave
to this feeling of defamiliarisation for
a shorter time, that it overwhelms
you frantically like a fiend. The magic of the first encounter takes on the
most various of shapes: the cousin of
a friend of mine was thrown a box of
matches with a telephone number
through the door of a tram that was
just closing; an urban legend is going around about a Prince who appeared when a woman went down in
a housecoat in front of the building to
throw rubbish in a container (it isnt
known whether she had curlers in or
not); apparently you can meet Mr
Big if in a crowded street you absentmindedly crash into the most attractive person in the world. For example, I met the current love of my life
diagonally across the intersection of
some provincial backwater on which
the buses with participants at literary conference were parked; my girl
friend had gone to the travel agents
with friends to pay for the trip and
thought there was something in the
figure of a man who was sitting to
one side and seemingly looking with
gloomy indifference around him;
some male relative of mine at the
wedding of his niece asked a friend
of the brides friend for a dance and
got hooked for good; life is full of
such tales usually thought too much,
despised by elite literature and much
used and abused by romances. Its
that old black magic when two such
looks meet. The fluid flows, chemistry at work, sparks fly. Youre sure at
the time thats it and yet sometimes its worth waiting to see how

it will happen. And that is not unimportant. If things get a little extra
involved, if the dramaturgy takes on
elements of fatal dimensions, if accidents come together that call into
question the principle of causality
and the usual psychological givens
of everyday life then you get the
beginning of your own private oneof-a-kind novelistic fabula that sends
shivers down your spin, makes your
palms sweat, cheeks burn, brings out
the juices of arousal and... The realisation is then just a mater of time,
of the skill and courage of the participants, perhaps patience or wisdom, sometimes also bluffness or
adventurousness. Whatever ultimately it will be fed with the yolk of
the mythology of first encounter. I
read somewhere, and remembered:
a perfect love is truly rare... the loving couple must always have the refinement of sages, the adaptability
of children, sensitivity of artists, understanding of philosophers, calm of
saints, toleration of scholars and the
strength of the self-confident. Oh,
most of that we do have at the beginning: we are playful like children,
sensitive, generous, secure. Then, to
survive, perfect love only much later
needs understanding, wisdom and
calm not merely bookish or theoretical but experiential and from living in its origins.
Truly what is life but an encounter?
Encounter with beings that we fall in
love with at first sight and with beings we hate to the last; with beings
who are akin but not by blood and
beings who are our mortal enemies;
beings who are always hiding behind
some masks and beings who painfully expose themselves to scorching
gazes; beings that bring us the light
of some new spheres and beings that
shove us into the darkness of impenetrable depths of hell. A medium register seems not to count it doesnt
get into the personal historical balance sheet or at least stays in the

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background, in the rear echelon. For


this very reason life is an encounter
by-the-byes are not set down. Encounters change your life, and those
you have just brushed against forget them.
The catch is that the magic of the first
encounter cannot last forever, that
the inventory of the magic elixir of
eternal rapture can be used up. Some
use it up too fast, for only a few does
it last a lifetime. It is possible to become dependent on the hormones of
initial excitement then comes the
fate of Don Juan constantly and
ever again only by conquest to raise
the adrenaline and pheromone level,
never staying and never persevering.
But for such persons life is not an
encounter but a number of crashes.
For when the poetics of the mythology of the first encounter gets worn
out or shabby, when the stories of it
no longer excite the imagination or
conjure up the particular togetherness of two beings, henceforth prose
is written.
And so neither Professor nor I got
lucky. When I, in line with my age of
hardly a quarter of a century, wanted
something more than ascetic philosophical simplicity seemingly trite
things like a television, going to the
cinema, to concerts, buying some in
clothes, trips not on business then
life with the philosopher became impossible. There was no compromise.
When the whole thing became painful, in line with the unbearable lightness of my years, I said, its enough,
I want to live a real reality and not a
post-Hegelian heritage. My Professor
was emotional at parting, swore by
several categories of eternity (which
my youth could not only not conceive but couldnt take seriously).
Tears trickled from his eye (which
for my arrogant youth was repulsively too much). Unluckily, we were not
able to start writing any mythology
(not even with my youthful fondness for idealisations). They were too

TIONS

colourless and evaporable. Notwithstanding my knowing that philosopher Voltaire had written somewhere
that tears are the inchoate speech of
regret.
For when the magic and myth of
first encounter have gone, there is
no real or symbolic speech of regret
that can bring it to live. The sensitive
plant called Encounter withers and
slowly (but there are cases in which
it suddenly) fades. Then the prince
turns into a croaky toad; Mr Big becomes a Molireish churl or a jealous
Venetian killer; the Real Thing is just
a concealed Casanova that collects
victims for his tally stick; the Eternal Only One becomes a mere tissue for a runny nose. (Genderwise,
it all works the other way round too,
its worth mentioning for the unenlightened and the stubborn.) And so
instead of the sweet poison of Cupids dart, we are struck by perilous
drowning in the dangerous turbid
waters of non-love or get stranded

Jadranka Pintari}: Prose

in the shallows of triviality. We see


in some once loved being what we
have previously been blind too. And
all at once petty drawbacks become
unforgivable vices, charming features
turn into fatal traits of character, picturesque particularities become pathological perversities. The worlds palette goes quiet, pale, sometimes grey.
And so it gets damped, to the next
Encounter.
But the wise or those born under a
lucky star are able to preserve in a little phial the intoxicating and magical
elixir of the first encounter. To save it
from addictive violent consumption,
carefully to scatter every little drop
in the right and never the futile moment, to extend its shelf life to infinity. Are they the ones of whom the
poets or philosophers like Plato and
Kierkegaard speak, its not a matter
of learning but of some factor that
so far philosophers and theologians
and natural scientists and psycholo-

153

gists and all kinds of conjurors have


failed to find out. Better that way,
for if all these unknowable things
started being for sale on the shelves
of the malls at the edge of town the
world would be as banal as acquisitive
shopping without point or purpose.
As it is we always hope that some
fire that flared in just one crossed gaze
has more point than the biological
givens of our being, that the two hips
brushed because the universe wanted it like that for its own purposes,
that one dance was for the eternity of
the starry vault. And when you meet
the sister of your heart in translation,
and when Castor finds Pollux virtually, and when some other Abelard
and Heloise give up on worldliness;
and when you recognise the same in
that verse of Cesari you learned at
school: Come upon a hand warm
and ready / To trembling give back
my squeeze.
Translated by Graham McMaster

Photo by: Martina Kenji

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TIONS

The Mistress Parting


Jadranka Pintari

know, you have left me already, although you didnt say a word, (not)
my dear sir. I dont hold it against you,
you didnt want to, you had to. For
some time, depending on how much
you can admit it to yourself and how
much the Peter Pan in you has used
up the golden dust, youll be sorry,
very, very sorry. Youll be out, and Ill
be at zero again. First of all you will,
in some awkward inchoate way, be
afraid of me and avoid me, then will
come the phase of shame and embarrassment about me, then anger
at yourself for what you missed out
on, then awkward attempts at a re-sit
and finally resigned regret.
I shall look upon this from a decent
distance mental and emotional,
but you will see in my eyes that I
understand even when we are talking of last weeks newspaper stories.
I am not disappointed, I am used to
it, and I dont expect anything different. But just, in a simply human
way, Im sorry. Now youll probably
ask me what on earth I could have
expected from a man in his maturity
with an obligation. Who into the
bargain neither offered nor promised anything. It is all right, but, dear
sir, I could have expected at least a
fair attitude and sincerity from your
about those vibrations of the air between our looks. Some things simply
dont need saying out loud, we dont
even have to understand them, but
we have to allow them, in ourselves,
their existence.

Men are not afraid of self-sufficient


women because they are free and independent, strong and indomitable,
but they are afraid of their own selfinsufficiency, which turns transparent in front of such women. I dont
have to seduce you you are seduced
by your own powerlessness in its
clash with my self-confidence. And
so youre afraid and go off, your tail
between your legs all told.
But at first its all very challenging to
you, you wanted to ferret out the soft
point of this solid construction, test
out how real it is, wanting this homogeneous whole to be just a hologram.
Just a mere illusion (like your own)
that you would unmask with a great
deal of pleasure and then generously
offer a broad male shoulder to cry on.
Yes, every building has some hidden
sensitive place, but only the creator
knows of this point, dont they? And
the more complex, the bigger and
stronger the edifice is, the better and
less accessible the Achilles heel. After
all, what would you do with a woman whose basic weakness you dont
know? Oh, she is not even a woman,
she is a being who saw through you
at an instant, and you thought that
that would be impossible without
years of laborious tussling with your
complex, impenetrable and unique
(in the universe) individuality. If even
then. What would you with a woman who with a word well sharpened
like a knife cuts through the mushy
tropical fruit of your fancies, illu-

sions and fakes? Whatever garb you


put on, in front of her, youre naked,
and yet you cant allow yourself that,
your self-confidence has already occupied its (defensive) combat position. What would you with a woman who doesnt need your strength,
but your weakness? Not your virtues,
but your vices? Though she doesnt
attack you at all, you automatically
defend yourself because she has simply puffed away all your defensive
walls, dried out the ditches with the
crocodiles and blunted the spikes
on the fence. Nothing was hidden
from that penetrating, astute gaze.
What would you with a woman who
through that open door walked into
the atrium and from the corner of her
eye saw clearly all those loads of rubbish and swill you are hiding so carefully. Grand reception rooms didnt
interest her at all. Ultimately embarrassed, you would like, hurriedly
and clumsily, to hide it all, sweep it
away, throw it into a dark corner, as
if it were really about an untidy flat.
But, my dear sir, dwelling places of
the soul are always untidy while the
soul is live and perky. What would
you with a woman who didnt blink
at all that and unwaveringly stayed
with you at the same table ordering
the next round of drinks? I know,
now youll defend yourself (though
I am not, I repeat, attacking you)
telling me I am embittered, disappointed and the like. I send it back
to you for it isnt mine.

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I wont go behind your Maginot Line


anymore, but I shall still drink coffee
with you and share a look at the passers-by, only there wont be whipped
cream any more. Perhaps the witch
in me, hankering for the confirmation of intuition, will sometimes look
stealthily in your black grounds and
the palm open in the heat of discussion, but dont take it amiss a witchs
curiosity is more harmless than the
full moon of Midsummer Eve. The
wise woman in me will give the imp a
rap on the knuckles, and I shall laugh
at you so much as if a tropical heat
wave had come down on you.
If you ever go far away and for ever,
I shall not come to wave to you from
the platform as long as the familiar
arm can be distinguished from the
train from the others. And when
you leave me completely, I shall not
say Good-bye to you. I dont cast a
last glance at the room from which I
depart, nor do I part when I firmly
grip the offered hand. I am still there
even when the laws of physics do not
permit it, I am still with you, and
with them, even when the conventions forbid it.
I will only go when the weather rains
wash the colours from the place or
meeting, and this will sometimes be
long, very long. For some places and
people are painted in our memories

Jadranka Pintari}: Prose

with thick oil on canvas, and others


just with watercolour that fades fast.
How many charcoal sketches there
are that in a moment we smear over
attempting to see more than a sketch
and so ruin them.
I cannot leave a space or a person that
engrosses me, nicely or nastily, until I
have lived them through in myself to
the end. When the image of memory is in the making, when it vibrates
with life, when the crucial details are
being put in and the colours shaded,
I cannot say goodbye. In such days
I walk in one world, but I am in another. I pick up my thoughts from
the dusty path (which I have taken by
mistake, I shall think in a moment)
and clean them. I dont part until I
have finished the internal dialogue
in which there are no set stage directions. Like an obsessed child I jiggle those feelings and marbles in my
pockets until I have got them in the
right holes of memory.
Apparently, thats why its easy for me
to go, because I agonise afterwards
and so I let them leave me. I take the
parting like luggage and then, when I
unpack it, it sticks out at me a venomous red forked tongue and stabs me
with the devilish horns. When I come
back from a journey and theres no
parting in the case, it means I was
indifferent. If I go away from you,
and dont go on with the dialogue in

155

myself, it means I shall forget you as


I put on my slippers.
I part long and thoroughly, preparing the feelings, words, scents, tastes,
touches, sounds, colours, rains, winds,
shudders, facades and features. It
hurts in the untouched pulsing
quick flesh of memory I engrave the
ultimate image. But when I have arranged it and it once toughens, my
peace from that event or person is
lasting. I can summon up the image
painlessly: if I have loved you and you
dont hurt me any more, you will stay
with me forever.
And so I bear my partings like a gallery in which I get inspiration, seek
answers, experience or simply enjoy.
All the tears that I have shed over
some picture in that gallery come
back to me with the clarity of knowledge for while I weep my thoughts
(and my feelings) are bleary of the
filth of the not wanted, jetsam that
needs to be settled. A finished picture
of parting also means: I have forgiven
you everything.
Unexpiated loves last, says Tsvetaeva
(I would add hatreds too) and so
you cannot leave me when you want
to. I shall leave you when I have finished the picture.

Translated by Graham McMaster

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TIONS

Fingers Crossed Behind the Back


Jadranka Pintari

have never crossed my fingers behind my back and recently, in


some awkward circumstances and
trouble, at a certain watershed of
my life, probably like many others
who the whole of their lives have
been bothered by the same ontological questions about the meaning
of life, I wondered: I gave my life to
become what I am, weeeeeell, was it
worth the effort?
Since the time many years ago I read
Peter Matthiessens Snow Leopard I
have often recalled a scene from the
book. In that powerful and by now
cult book Matthiessen describes his
journey to Dolpo, the Nepalese part
of the Himalayas, which then in the
1970s was the last oasis of authentic Tibetan culture. On this journey of great hardship he settled accounts with himself, but was open
to everything that he met: from the
individual fates of people whom he
depended on and with whom he
shared the scanty meals, to all forms
of surroundings and environments
people, customs, faiths, natures, climates, flora and fauna. His longed
for objective was to see a snow leopard, the almost mythical beast of
these grim mountains, but during
the way he realised that sometimes
it was better not to see something.
After his little expedition had made
camp at the final point of the journey,
Peter had an encounter that changed
his idea of the purpose of the ascent
to Tibet and gave me something to

think of every time I face some insoluble problem. He met the lama of
the Crystal Monastery. The Lama of
the Crystal Monastery appears to be
a very happy man, and yet I wonder
how he feels about his isolation in the
silences of Tsakang, which he has not
left in eight years now and, because of
his legs, may never leave again. Since
Jang-bu seems uncomfortable with
the Lama or with himself or perhaps
with us, I tell him not to inquire on
this point if it seems to him impertinent, but after a moment Jang-bu
does so. And this holy man of great
directness and simplicity, big white
teeth shining, laughs out loud in an
infectious way at Jang-bus question.
Indicating his twisted legs without a
trace of self-pity or bitterness, as if
they belonged to all of us, he casts his
arms wide to the sky and the snow
mountains, the high sun and dancing sheep, and cries, Of course I am
happy here! Its wonderful! Especially
when I have no choice!
In its whole-hearted acceptance of
what is, these words are just like those
that Soen Roshi (he authors Zen
master) would probably speak. I have
a feeling that it gave me a blow in the
chest. I thank him, bow and gradually go down the mountain. Under
my windcheater gleams my folded
prayer flag. Tea with butter and pictures in the wind, Crystal Mountain
and playful blue sheep in the snow
I need nothing else.
Did you see a snow leopard?

No I did not. Isnt it wonderful?


That I am happy, especially when
I have no choice takes me aback
every time I think I have no choice:
for, what an awful trouble, I live in
a world in which there is always a
choice. Too many choices. A confusing amount of choices. Can we stand
so many choices? Never mind whether it is about a hundred shampoos,
tens of television channels or political options. Apart from having every
day to select a detergent, a school,
car, bank, firm, neighbourhood, we
also ought to take the responsibility
for every choice. If fingers sprout out
in your armpits, you have chosen the
wrong deodorant; if your child gets
into bad company right in elementary school, you have picked the wrong
school, the wrong neighbourhood; if
you cant live off your pension, you
clearly chose the wrong firm to work
for. Thats what theyll say to you. For
from childhood they teach us that the
ability to choose is a blessing of civilisation. Is it really? Why then dont
they teach us how to choose with as
few consequences and risks as possible? Were people less happy when
they had one kind of soap, one coat,
one pair of shoes? The lama stopped
from walking by his arthritis, meditates looking at the tips of the snow
mountains, lives off tea with butter
and a little rice or lentil, reconciled
to his fate. He does not want or seek
any other, he is not frustrated or depressed because he will spend his

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TIONS

life in some Tibetan dump without


all the mighty blessings of civilisation and progress. He doesnt look
to have cake and eat it, as our old
people said once. Perhaps from our
aspect he got zilch, but he is happy,
and we stand nonplussed in front of
the bread counter: so many kinds just
for one simple need: to satisfy hunger. You always have to choose. Or
you dont exist.
Once I lived through an incredibly
stressed four weeks at work, where I
was still new; I had a) my baptism
under fire in unknown territory, b)
an accelerated course about the infinity of forms of (to me) inconceivable
human aggression, malice, meanness, arrogance, unscrupulous battle
for power, spinelessness and hypocrisy, lies and deceit. I wasnt, it was
true, born yesterday, and I know that
it all existed in the human race and
had encountered it all, but still I was
knocked by that vast concentration
of malignant and negative energy. Before these various unpleasant events,
I had naively believed that people
could be managed by giving them a
carte blanche of trust, freedom and
ability to prove themselves. What a
fallacy. Some, lets be honest, simply
need a firm hand and a whip to
function at all. It is not only dictatorships, tyrannies and juntas that rest
on this, but every hierarchical organisation. And how many organisations
are there that are not hierarchical?
I soon learned a thing or two about
myself and others, unwanted things,
it is true. Realising this was not for
my nature or worldview, I decided to leave. At any cost: well even,
practically on the threshold of my
fifth decade of life, of ending up at
the labour exchange. I had the backing, put in the language of politics,
of more than a majority of responsible and conscientious employees,
but a minority of maliciously ambitious (with no backup, the way it

Jadranka Pintari}: Prose

goes) and serious idlers (every excuse


is the right one for a slouch) created
the problems. The tension could be
cut with a knife. And then, a change
of boss was expected. One the eve
of the dramatic change of rule, at a
party of people in another branch of
the culture business, to the despairing
answer that I couldnt talk about it,
the situation at work was that complicated, a girl friend said to me: I
work in a firm thats always been difficult about interpersonal relationships. Hardly had I come but I got
disappointed, young and optimistic
as I was, and then an older co-worker, just as I had had it up to here and
decided to leave, said: If you have a
single friend here, its enough reason
to stay. I did stay, because I did have a
friend. At the moment she said this,
a newly acquired woman friend from
this inimical working environment
was standing beside me; she didnt
have fingers crossed behind her back
when she resolved to stick up for me
at any cost. I admit, I was ashamed
of my weakness to go because I was
disgusted at having to dirty my hands
with human slime, with sluts and
tarts, with puppies and bits and pieces. Yuk. Yuk. Yuk.
Somewhat after midnight, after the
much-touted D-day in the battle for
power in our working milieu, there I
was at the counter of the parking garage where everyday I regularly pay
a monthly parking ticket (in a city
in which, in accord with the average pay of (employed!) citizens, the
price of an hour of parking is utterly
crazy). Since my parking is for the
day only, during the evening I have
to pay a top-up. So, as always in the
evening, I hand my ticket to the employee of Zagreb Parking behind the
grimy counter window and wait for
the verdict on the top-up. And then,
that middle-aged man whom I had
just interrupted in his viewing of
some soap on the TV, said:

157

Lady, you didnt come in.


What dyou mean I didnt come in?
You didnt come in to the parking
garage.
I came in this morning. I have a
monthly ticket.
I can see that, lady, that you have a
monthly ticket. And I remember you
from before, but look here (he turns
his monitor in the cabin towards
me), the computer didnt register
you coming in (though without my
glasses I couldnt see it, except that at
that late hour it was entirely all the
same what was on the monitor). I
cant let you out.
Hmm. What? But this is my ticket
here. What shall I do now?
I dont know nothing. It says here
you didnt come in.
Hmm. I came in with this ticket
this morning. I didnt break down
the barrier, it lifted up. Someone
would have probably told you. My
cars up there.
I believe all that. But my computer
says you didnt come in. What can
I do? No entry. See, look, yesterday
you left at 8.30, thats all I know. No
entry. Perhaps you took an ordinary
day ticket?
I didnt take a day ticket when I have
a monthly. Why would I do that?
I dunno. Maybe you got confused.
I didnt get confused. I came in with
this ticket. Like every morning.
Computer tells me you didnt come
in.
Look, mister (completely in disbelief, and at the same time frazzled by
the days stresses, not to mention the
whole of the stressed month), my car
is on the first floor of the garage where
I left it this morning around eight.
You know, sometimes computers go
wrong. The technology is not always
utterly reliable. For me to come in,
the barrier had to be raised, for we
can see that it is not broken, and so,
whatever it says on the monitor, logically, my car must have been in the
garage since morning.

158

Jadranka Pintari}: Prose

Lady, I have worked here since the


garage opened. I look what my computer tells me. Its not recorded you
came in this morning.
I took out at a guesstimate the amount
of banknotes I thought this supplement for the evening the car spent
in the garage would cost me and put
them on the plastic tray in front of
the counter window.
Lady, you can put your money away.
I cant charge you anything because
you didnt come in, and so theres
no way of knowing how much you
should pay extra.
What shall I do now? I appealed in
utter desperation and disbelief, and
asked what was clearly a rhetorical
question. Stay here till morning?
I dont know, lady. You didnt come
in, you cant go out.
But will you please just lift the barrier for me? Pretend that its all OK.
I cant lady. You did not come in.
What if I show you my car in the
garage?
I believe your cars in the garage,
but it tells me in my computer that
there was no entry. No entry, no exist. Those are the rules.
So I stand there at that late hour at
the entry into the parking place. I feel
like a figure in a Beckett play. Damn
it but I want to get out. Really I do.
I want to slide under that barrier and
not to look back. I wonder how I fell
for that hoax that I have the possibil-

ity of choice, since when did I fool


myself that about something really
crucial I am deciding myself, that my
own free will is guiding me through
life? And in fact, without knowing
when, I just entered under some
barrier, remained parked on some
floor. Like, after all, the vast majority. In time I began to kid myself
that I was deciding about something
because I was choosing the particular
loaf or bar of soap on the shelves of
the super, my reading or belonging
to some circle of people. Or whatever else equivalent to this kind of selfdeceiving choice. However, in fact I
was a captive to all these choices and
tickets that I had to shove into various machines and that every full and
unalloyed happiness in such a world
is illusory. For, like choice, it is only
partial, particular and provisional.
Now I understand that the lama of
the Crystal Monastery is really happy not because he has no choice,
but because he is completely free of
all choices. For him there is no barrier that someone else has to raise
for him to get out. If we go along
on the same level, he probably never even went in. I am somehow sure
that the phrase crossing fingers behind my back is foreign to him. He
didnt give his life to become what
he is, but he is what his life is. In the
stony isolation of the high and merciless mountains you cant fake it, you

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cant pretend to be what you arent.


(Not for long at least.)
If the barrier wont rise for us, its not
accurate to say that life is absurd.
What is absurd is everything we consent to. Irrespective of the reasons:
ignorance, naivety, lack of enlightenment, blindness, truckling, insatiability, meanness. And we can stay
captives with the excuse that someone was recalcitrant about lifting the
barrier, that we remained because of
the right friend, that it wasnt worth
the effort of getting off the dungheap, that anyway nothing would
have changed by us actually having
seen the snow leopard.
To cut the story short, at length the
good man of the counter of the public parking garage and I, who according to the computer log that morning had not parked the car at any one
level of that closed parking lot, agreed
that he was going to lift the barrier
by hand for me and let me out. Driving out into the empty city streets, in
the wee small, from a building that
the lama of the Crystal Monastery of
only nineteen-hundred-and seventysomething would have found absurd,
I was grateful to providence for the
grace that a barrier in one part of my
mind had lifted.
Translated by Graham McMaster

TIONS

Photo by: Martina Kenji

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159

160

Thanks for Kazakhstan


Zoran Tomi

tie should be okay, a voice was


telling me from inside, but I
didnt feel okay, inside. I looked at
the gang, they didnt give a fuck, like
we were up three-zip. I didnt feel
like partying. I cant loosen up just
like that. I always think five moves
ahead, I think strategically. Im not
the group leader for nothing.
Hey, Joe, come over here, Gula
called from the fountain in the park
where most of the gang were.
Comin in a sec, I said, but I didnt
plan on moving.
I took out my cell. I thought of Dean,
the big city boy. They didnt do well
in Zadar, I was gonna give him a
hard time.
It was ringing and rattling and buzzing and whizzing, he didnt hear. But
he did. He picked up.
Hey, man, ya know whos calling?
I laughed cold.
Nope, but I know its a redneck, pussy
boy answered readily.
You redneck big city motherfucker!
Its Joe, did ya already forget me?
Hey, Joe, whats up? Sorry, I didnt realize its you. I dont like when I dont
know the number, especially 098. Its
the enemy line, Dean laughed, what
else could he do?
Right, 091 is my enemy line. But
Im calling you as a friend, sort of.
Yeah, Billy Boy, whats the problem?
Nothing really. I just wanted to hear
you and ask how you did in Zadar, I
snickered to myself, like I didnt know
what was up.

ZORAN TOMI was born in 1967. He has a degree in English and Italian

philology from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb,


where he also attended a postgraduate course in American studies. He
grew up in Split and its surroundings. His rst job was in the Split shipyard
as a labourer. During his studies he worked as a salesman, and then for
the International Committee of the Red Cross. Since 1996 he has been with
the American Embassy in Zagreb. His rst novel Nebo su prekrili galebovi
came out in 2007. His collection of short stories Priine i drugi umiljaji
was published in 2010. He has translated Charles Bukowskis Tales of
Ordinary Madness into Croatian.

Dont even make me think about Zadar. Were still here, going back soon.
Where are you?
What do you mean where am I? In
Rijeka, for fucks sake!
A tie, right?
Yeah. Listen, I just wanted to thank
you for Kazahstan last Wednesday. I
had a blast. Youre a true host, without doubt!
Its alright, man, its the least I could
do. Did you say youre in Rijeka?
Yea.
How many of you?
I dont know. A shitload! Why?
Great! Listen, said Dean like he had
something real important to say.
I realized how important it was, and
I didnt want to improvise. So I interrupted him, strategically. Hey,
Deany, why dont you call me! Im
outta credit.
Okay. Ill give you a buzz right
back.
What a stupid fuck!

We were about the same distance


from Brinje, Id say, but it was important that we come first, for psychological and strategic reasons. Something like home-field advantage.
Theres a ton of us, a fucking ton of us...
Gula, Kevo and Krika were partying
in the back seat as we entered Brinje.
I mean the gas station, not the town.
We were about fifty cars. We drove
as one all the way from Rijeka, like
an overnight express. We parked, we
claimed our space. The other team
wasnt even out yet. In the spirit of
fair play we parked close to one another, to make room for them when
they come. We closed ranks. I tried
to call that little faggot Dean, to give
him a hard time because wed come
first, but pussy boy didnt answer.
Youll answer to me, pal, youll report to me when the time comes, I
thought to myself. You were thinking you were closer, you had better
cars, youd make it to Brinje first. But

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you dont know who you are dealing


with. Forget Kazakhstan, forget the
truce! Youre in for Afghanistan!
We waited by our cars, baseball bats
on the seats. As the group leader I had
a telescopic baton. It is big responsibility. The deal was no bats, but you
never know. They had them, too, that
was sure. The only thing I could say
for sure was no firearms. You could
find those at the regional level, but
not domestically. That was the ethics code and it hadnt been broken
since independence. Gula and Kevo
were directing tourists to the other
side of the parking lot; this side was
reserved for the guests from Zagreb,
they explained. Organization was
top-notch. Lighting was perfect. I
looked at my boys. They stood with
their arms crossed, like bouncers,
legionaries. Like generals. No one
would say it was the same disbanded
army from the park in Rijeka, by the
fountain, an hour and a half before. I
shivered with pride, with the sense of
duty, responsibility. Its a big job.
I didnt know why they were late: they
had been in Zadar, they should have
come already. Who knows what those
pussies were up to? Or did they just
run away and would they then try to
blame it on the police or who knows
what big city bullshit?
The weather was perfect, not muggy
at all. It was Lika, after all.
Here they are, someone shouted.
A line of ZG plates drove into the
parking lot, solemnly, as if they were
coming to church for a wedding. Gula and Kevo directed them, helped
them deploy, leaving enough room
for action in the middle, between
our cars and theirs. I watched the
Zagreb pussy boys behind the wheel
nod just a bit, as a sign of appreciation for good preparation. Dean
came out first: sunglasses on his face
(at midnight, no less), spitfire jacket
turned inside out, acting cool, calculating. He approached me, rolling
up with superiority, Napoleon-style

Short Stories and Essays

but just a bit shorter, and fatter. He


greeted me with a quick nod of his
bald head: All set?
I looked around. My boys were still
at attention but now their hands were
down, at the balls. Hand over fist.
Did you doubt? I cocked my head
and looked at him, my nostrils trembling, Bruce Lee-style.
Well, the game can start then, said
Dean, turning to his team that had
meanwhile taken their positions.
And before I could weigh out the
teams, Dean suddenly turned and
punched me in the stomach with all
his might. I doubled over in pain, the
wind knocked out of me. It flashed
in front of my eyes as if that air he
had forced out of me exploded. And
before I could even catch a breath, a
knee landed right on my nose and upper jaw. The pain was instantaneous,
sharp, sword-like, unbearable, but
short-lived. Soon enough a warmth,
a heat came over me, it hit me right
in the brain, like a sword but soft. I
fell on my back and then lost track
of things. For a while at least. I dont
know how long it lasted, but when I
came to, I could only move my eyes.
And even that was slow, every move
hurt me to the marrow. My body
wasnt mine. I didnt feel bones in my
arms and legs but some kind of mush
from a blender. All around and above
were lights and shadows. Dull blows
were dealt, uncontrolled, like in the
last rounds of a boxing match. I didnt
recognize any of them: either because
of the fucking lights that were pecking my brain, or because the rest of
my guys were knocked out just like
me and were now looking for me like
I was looking for them. I couldnt see
Dean either; only the lights and the
moving shadows and the dark roof
of the gas station blending into an
even darker sky. Thats all I had in
the frame.
And then, all of a sudden, as if someone turned up the volume, there
was a bunch of voices. First like thin

161

croaking of frogs, but then thicker,


deeper, ball-shaped. Shadows turned
into faces, faces of women, faces of
children, old faces, wrinkled. Faces
were coming to me, looking at me
with horror and disgust like they
would at a run-over cat. I didnt know
a single face. The noise was cut by the
sound of a siren, two sirens, a regular one and one that sounded like
a pinball table. Through the sirens
came cries and moans in total discord with everything. Sirens always
make me feel uneasy and so they did
now, but the moans made me laugh.
But I couldnt laugh because I would
have cried with pain in no time. The
next face that entered the frame had
the hat and uniform of a cop, it kept
rocking left and right, slow and serious. Then other uniforms came in,
white uniforms, serious as the cops
but quicker, cat-quick. Cut!
Its been a long time since I heard a
bird sing. Like you hear a goldfinch
in a cage on the balcony next door, or
a sparrow on your own balcony. And
then you sit down or lie down, lie low
and listen to it twitter and pick some
notes of its own. I dont think its the
twitter that woke me up. I think its
the emptiness, forgetting how sweet
it is when bird chirping seeps down
your ear, like warm tea down the
throat: tweet, sweet, tweet, sweet...
I could swear I understood every single word of it, even though I couldnt
find words to translate them. Itd happened to me before, when Id let music play, some soft guitar. Id turn off
the light and go to bed. Sleep would
come down on me like cobwebs, and
then a louder note would wake me
up and I was sure Id understood every word of the guitar, but I wouldnt
remember what exactly it had said
when I woke up.
Or was I awakened by this light
that pierces my eyeballs like needles,
through my closed eyelids? I tried
to open my eyes but no movement

162

Short Stories and Essays

again. A battery gone dead. I tried to


turn my head so the lights wouldnt
kill me. Its great when you forget
you cant do it, even for a second.
But then you remember you cant
do it and you hit your head against
a ton of lead, luckily only in your
mind, because you havent moved a
millimeter. Then you do it on purpose, you move in your mind, turn
on the side, bend your knees, stretch
a little. Then you stretch your arms,
work your head, move your ass, in
your mind, of course, and you feel
a little better.
If only it wasnt so hot! The nurse
doesnt know when you are hot and
when you are cold: she covers you,
straightens the blanket and turns the
sheet over the edge, like in the army.
Its nice when she does it, when she
tucks you in, you feel nice and safe.
But then she goes, and shes gone...
and shes gone. Thats why its important to hear this bird, hear it
sing to me, hear it trill (is that the
right word?)... Its nice when a bird
sings, when you understand it, when
its words squeeze out their words,
the big-city death-bed old-fart words
stinking of shit and fear like they do,
the grandpas and their shitty diapers,
they smell of death and death is all
they talk about: th-teh-ree, three of
the-hem died...
Diapers! Of course! Its time for diapers! How could I forget? The nurse
should come any minute and change
my diapers and then she will uncover
me, free me from this agony. Here,
I can hear her steps, I can hear them
right through the whispers of the
shitty old farts from the other beds,
their whi-hi-spers... th-teh-ree, th-

teh-ree... They whisper through the


birdie twitter thats getting faster,
sparkling, nervous, less clear. But
the nurse is coming. I can hear the
steps, she will uncover me now, turn
me over, change my diapers. Change,
thats all that matters.
Joe?
I laughed (in my mind, of course) at
the mention of my name.
Joe, the voice went on softly, as if
through laughter, I know you can
hear me.
Dean! I screamed, in my mind.
Youre alive! I didnt know what happened. No one would tell me, neither
the doctors, nor my folks when they
came to visit. Only these Methuselahs
whispering: th-teh-ree, th-teh-ree.
Im sick of them! Why dont you fix me
another room, without those vultures,
those corpses. Please, in the name of
Kazakhstan!
Listen, Joe, I dont have much time,
Dean said, after waiting, I guess, for
me to finish my silent prayer.
I dont know if they told you, he
went on, but the game in Brinje
finished 2:1, for your team.
My heart was beating, I was trembling, inside. Dean went on.
Thats why Im here now, in extra
time. And I have a penalty shot,
said Dean.
I said nothing. I kept silent and
watched him through my closed lids.
He had caught me by surprise. He
was a good talker too. A true little
cocky Napoleon. Then the bird started to screech at the top of the lungs,
like the sound of an alarm. Thats
what it shouted: alarm, alarm! This
time I found the words to translate.
I smiled and just as I opened my

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TIONS

mouth (in my mind), something


soft and spongy sat upon it, like a
pillow. A pillow! Dean put a pillow
on my face! The pillow was cold and
it felt good at first. He even rubbed
me a little, wiped the sweat off, and
I was almost grateful for it. But then
he pressed with all his might, I felt
every one of his finger pads, the smell
of tobacco coming through the thin
spongy pillow. I started to kick and
struggle within, with my legs, with
my arms, I got hold of his hand and
tried to push it away, but in vain.
A-ha-larm, a-ha-larm! the old folks
gargled.
I struggled and wriggled, but it was
all in vain.
Then a bell started to ring, a siren
began to howl, like that time at the
gas station in Brinje.
Alarm, alarm! screamed the nurse.
Dean pushed a little more, I could
hear my upper jaw crackle. And then
he suddenly let go of the pillow,
rocked the bed full power, unloaded
me like I was in a wheel-barrow, and
left the scene of crime.
I smashed against the floor two times,
first with my feet and then my head.
I remained lying face down. Blood
started running down my nose, like
warm tea, I felt the salty taste on the
tip of my flabby tongue and then, after long, I felt myself again.
I laughed from the bottom of my
heart. I laughed in my mind, at the
top of my lungs. I laughed at Dean
and his flushed Napoleonic face, rejoicing over our final victory, the
total ruin on the other side. What
shitheads! Missed a penalty in extra time!
Translated by the author

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TIONS

Photo by: Martina Kenji

Whales Ass
Maja Hrgovi

e picked them up around noon,


on a road so hot the asphalt
glistened like spilled oil. All three of
them rolled up their sleeves and legs
of their trousers and squinted into
the blasting sun from which we came
droning, in a Skoda. I couldnt tell by
their uniforms which of the three armies they belonged to, but the driver
and his wife must have known both
of them were older than me and they
looked sensible enough not to give a
lift to a wrong person.
The soldiers didnt show too much
enthusiasm when we pulled up in
front of them. The drivers wife briskly rolled down the window.
Where to? she yelled to overcome
the engines clatter.
They mentioned the capital and then
one by one picked up their huge tuber-like backpacks that were lying in
the dust. I moved to the backseats far
end to make room for them.
They were about the same height
and they wore the same uniforms.
The only thing separating them was
the shade of their camouflage colors.
The one with the darkest uniform sat
next to me, the other two squeezed in
next to him. The drivers wife rolled
the window half way up to stop the
wind from blowing into her face. We
moved on.
It was hot in the car, and the soldiers,
aware that they stink, talked about
having no showers in the place they
had come from. They had peasant
accents. The drivers wife wanted to

MAJA HRGOVI was born in Split in 1980. She studied theatrology and

women studies. Since 2003 she has worked as a journalist in the culture
section of the Novi List Daily, and from 2005 to 2008 she was a member
of the editorial board at Zarez, a Journal of Cultural and Social Aairs,
where she publishes literary reviews. In 2009 she was awarded rst prize
for journalistic excellence organized by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). Her work has also been published in magazines and
news portals such as Nulaetvorka, Cunterview, Kulturpunkt, Op.a, Grazia,
and Libela. She regularly writes for the portal ZaMirZINE, concentrating on
women rights and their treatment in the media. Her rst collection of short
stories Pobjeuje onaj kojem je manje stalo was published in 2010.

know how long they were in the field,


which made the two of them on the
other end of the seat start babbling.
Only the guy next to me kept quiet.
Here and there hed add something
to what his comrades had said. His
voice had a nice tone to it. I glanced
at him from the side: he was handsome. Even the bags under his eyes
fitted him nicely: a suffering male,
so suitable to become a hero of ones
sexual fantasy. Our hands were sticky,
lying in our laps: when I moved, on
my forearm there was a long wet stain
of our common sweat.
The four of us in the backseat were
squeezed together like dates in a shallow Styrofoam box.
And where are you going? one of
the soldiers asked.
Again I listened as the couple answered the same question I had asked
a little while ago. The driver and his
wife were travelling to the capital

to see the drivers mother whose leg


was being eaten by gangrene all the
way to her tight. Something bit her
and following some medicine mans
wrong advice she treated the swelling
with an ointment made of chopped
garlic, nettles and honey. And all she
needed was a Band Aid.
Theyre going to amputate her leg,
the driver said and, as the news began
on the radio, changed the station.
You have enough room? We dont
want you to fall out, my soldier said
in a thick accent and I smiled. He
took this as a sign to go ahead and
push his arm behind my back and
hug me around the waist. Slowly he
wiggled his shivering hand against
my naked ribs under the shirt all the
way up to my breast on which he, hesitating for only a moment, placed his
palm gently as if it were a pudding
with a bean of coffee on top. I didnt
have time to say no, I didnt even want

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Short Stories and Essays

to the pleasure his hand caused


almost shocked me. I observed my
fellow passenger, with a questioning eye, but he just looked straight
ahead, across the drivers shoulder, at
the road meandering through a canyon. He seemed as if that thing with
his hand and my breast was none of
his business.
The other two described the life in
the field to the drivers wife, talked
about the night watch in the mountains, the bears and deer in the forest,
while I looked through the window,
at the tree tops wild with summer, at
the pastures as green as the uniform
of this man who hugged me. I adjusted myself in his embrace and let
the smile quiver in the corners of my
mouth. My nipple was hard, pressing against the palm that covered it.
Then the driver turned up the volume, some dance cover of a traditional folk song was playing on the
radio; he knew the words by heart.
He sang and happily avoided shellholes in the road.
We came across a small town, really
small: from the distance it looked like
a handful of crushed paper scattered
all over a lawn. As we came closer,
we saw half-demolished buildings.
On one of them, just by the road,
there was a sign evapi. Thats
where we stopped to rest. The driver parked the Skoda on a piece of
dusty ground. The soldier pulled his
hand from under my shirt and left a
warm, moist seal of his palm on my
skin. We got out and stretched as we
walked toward the porch on which
a parasol bearing the logo of a beer
factory that had run out of business
before the war hung over a couple
of white plastic tables. We sat at one
of them.
On the other side of the road there
was a one-storey house with its side
knocked off; there was nothing to
block the view of its interior, of what
remained of it: a sink in one corner,
a burned down couch in another,

and piles of plaster and brick all over


the place.
Theyre not going to rebuild this
one. Its gonna be turned into a war
memorial, said the waitress emerging from the dark womb of the dive
with a kitchen towel in her hand.
She leaned over the table and started wiping it roughly. Her fat upper
arms shook. She was huge. Then she
stood up and wiped her forehead,
as if cleaning the table had worn
her out.
Whatll it be? evapi for all? she
sighed and after all of us said yes and
then ordered our drinks, she nodded
and wobbled back toward the door.
What a whales ass, the drivers
wife whispered provoking malicious
grins on the soldiers faces. Like
Titanic.
Earlier, when we were driving, our
communication was broken and filled
with long periods of silence; no one
managed to keep the topic alive for
long. The soldiers, out of gratitude
because they saved them from hitchhikers hell on the hot road, tried the
most. Now, with this fat woman,
they finally got it going; her excessive blubber now inspired jokes on
account of obesity, and they were really good at telling them, with their
thick, hick accents. The drivers wife
kept wiping the tears that her shrieking laughter brought to her eyes.
You could show movies on that ass,
its as big as a movie screen, said the
young soldier with thick, black bangs
that looked as if someone had glued
a fake moustache on his forehead,
while the rest of his head was completely shaved.
When she goes to the zoo, elephants
throw peanuts at her, the first one
kept on going.
The drivers wife held her stomach
and the soldiers kept on tickling her
with their words.
And when she shows up in front of
the school in a yellow raincoat, the
kids think shes a school bus!

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My soldier laughed too. When the


driver got up to go to the restroom,
he moved closer to me so that the
driver could walk out, and after that
he didnt go back to his old place. He
pressed his leg against mine.
On the other side of the table, the
young soldier with bangs on his forehead enjoyed the jokes he was telling.
Shes so fat she wears one watch on
each of her arms...
Suddenly he stopped, as if he couldnt
think of the rest of the sentence.
The drivers wife had already widened her mouth into a smile, but
the soldier froze in his chair and, his
lips closed tight, stared at something
above our heads. He looked truly terrified, shocked.
We all looked at the door.
...she wears a watch on each of her
arms because what? Finish the sentence! a man with a rifle in his hands
said with horrifying calm. He stood
there in the doorframe, aiming at the
soldier who looked as if a tarantula
was climbing up his leg.
Cmon, cmon, let us hear the rest of
the joke... There was no sign of compromise in this mans movements, no
sign of indecision in his eyes.
The soldier opened his mouth, but
nothing came out of it. Sweat ran
down his limp bangs and continued
down his forehead. The barrel we all
looked at sucked the whole world
in, all of the sounds and colors. All
that remained was the heat. With his
mouth open the soldier looked idiotically dull. The fat waitress husband
and most likely the owner of the place
walked toward us in slow, firm steps.
You hear me! Why does my wife
need to have a watch on each of her
arms? Cmon, tell your friends, he
boomed in a voice from which patience was slowly disappearing.
Okay, muttered the soldier. His
Adams apple went up, then down.
She needs to wear a watch on both
of her arms because she stretches over
two time zones.

TIONS

The man with the rifle stared at the


root of the parasol from which thick
wires branched out stretching the
canvas above our heads. The drivers
wife started squealing quietly. The
rest of us were scared and silent.
The thought that the six of us could
continue our journey in the rattling
Skoda of a married couple who liked
hitchhikers all but disappeared. I remembered my mother.
The man with the rifle just stood
there.
I took the soldier next to me by the
hand; his palm was cold and moist.
I intertwined my fingers with his
and pressed them gently. The gesture
was inappropriate, even somewhat
shameful, at this moment that could
be our last. From the armed mans
dark gaze, from the way he caressed
the trigger, it seemed he would really
going to shoot.
Down on the road a truck rattled
and slowed down before the restaurant. The man lowered his gun. He
shielded his face from the sun and
squinted at the wreck that spat black
smoke out of its exhaust. The wrecks
driver, a giant with thick hair slicked

Short Stories and Essays

down to the back of his head turned


off the engine and got out of the cab
lightly holding a cigarette between
his teeth. He raised his arm high in
greeting, revealing a large circle of
sweat on a stretched out undershirt
and the headed toward the half-demolished house across the way.
For a while the owner watched him
and then just headed to the door. I
let the soldiers hand go.
No evapi for you, he said, not
looking at us.
He walked into the dive and closed
the door behind him.
***
Later, in the Skoda, no one said anything for a long time. Most likely
life-or-death situations have such effect on people; the closeness of death
makes you feel all alone. I thought
about it and watched soft curves of
the hills and rare cars that passed by
us. My soldier kept his eyes peeled
forward.
When we passed a huge roundabout
at the entrance into the city, I asked
the driver to stop. That was where
our ways parted.

165

Well, thank you for giving me a


lift. Good luck with your mother, I
said, pulling my backpack from the
trunk. The driver looked at me in
confusion so I added, I hope shell
recover quickly.
Ah, that, he remembered the amputation.
Take care, kiddo, said my soldier
leaning through the window.
He seemed somehow sad and shy. Or
I just wanted him to be so.
I walked to the first intersection, feeling more and more hungry with every step I made. I bought a burek in a
pastry shop and ate it immediately.
Then I crossed the street, stopped at
the pull-off and stuck my thumb out
again, thinking all the while about
that half-demolished house, those
piles of plaster and bricks, and my
soldier. I thought about the moment
when under that parasol he lifted
his sleeve high and I saw a sharp line
separating pale part of his arm from
the tanned one, almost burned from
the sun.

Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

Photo by: Martina Kenji

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166

Photo by: Martina Kenji

When I Was Nana Pila,


Dead, But in My Prime
Zoran Malko

demining squad was just leaving


the village, when I entered. I, the
tsar, the king, the victor, the door-todoor salesman for Boban Books who
left no illiterate, no blind nor unemployed persons house without making at least a thousand kunas profit.
When they listened to my presentation on a health book, they thought
not that they were buying a book,
but an elixir of health and youth and
they stood in wonder thinking how
they had managed to survive without
it until now. The nostrils of the customers who bought my cookbooks
filled with seductive aromas and their
mouths watered so much they impatiently ripped the book out of my
hands and ran in the kitchen as if a
lush dinner was about to jump out
of the book.
I was hungry for challenge and I
cruised war-devastated villages, infested with mine fields and overgrown with bushes, scum and weeds.
That day I found myself in a village
in the heart of the Pranik rainforest.
Out of twenty or so houses, ten were
still more or less whole, or at least
partially renewed. But in the most
of them no one lived; I sold a copy
of How to Succeed in Life to some
grandpa for a couple hundred kunas,
but that was it. One presentation
was not concluded with a sale, and
in other houses that were still whole
I found no one. Some might say that
even one sold book in such a god-for-

ZORAN MALKO was born in 1967 in Nova Gradika. He graduated form


high school in Slavonski Brod and then went on to study at the Faculty of
Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb. His novel Kad proguta brdo
balona was published in 2004. His stories have been published in Venac
and Veernji list as well as in the anthology Ekran prie 02. The story Kad
sam bio bako Pila... was awarded the 2009 Ranko Marinkovi Short Story
Award. Groblje manjih careva is his rst short story collection.

saken place is a success, but luckily


Im not one of them. On my way out
of the village, I noticed smoke coming out of a chimney of a sorry little
house, a miniature hut split in half
by a grenade, which when I passed
by it the first time, I hadnt considered worthy of my visit. The smoke
was the only sign of life in it.
I passed through a narrow stretch of
the yard, kicking black snakes with
whitish bellies that sunbathed on the
path. I knocked the door. A weak voice
answered and invited me inside.
There was a skinny old man sitting
at the table, leaning against a checkered plastic tablecloth. Although it
was warm, the worms cracked in the
dry wood, faintly exploding in the
stove next to which there was a bed
in which someone was sleeping.
Ah, its you, Doctor, finally! Mara
reached you on the phone, huh?
said the old man.
Yes, grandpa, yes, I answered. It
wasnt the first time that people in the
villages called me a doctor because I

sold health books. And whats the


problem? Youre not feeling well?
Im fine, my dear Doctor, but my
Pilas not feeling well. She went to
sleep yesterday and still hasnt gotten
up, so I told our Mara to call you,
shes the only one in the village with
the telephone.
I placed the books on the table and
approached the bed. Nana Pila was
lying there frozen like a soldier, strict,
dignified, as if in a review formation.
Stiff. Dead. No less dead than Tutankhamen.
Doctor, how about a shot of brandy? offered the old man.
Sure, grandpa, sure. Let me just take
care of your Pila here.
The old man went to get the brandy
and I sat at the edge of the bed pretending to be checking the patient.
Her body was white and rigid; she
must have died yesterday. But her
eyes were still full of life and the
longer I watched them the more it
seemed those eyes wanted something
from me. Soon the gaze became un-

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TIONS

bearable; I turned the old woman


on her side, her face against the wall,
and now it looked as if she was really sleeping.
How bad is it? asked the old man
when he returned with the bottle.
Dont you worry, grandpa, shell
even dance with you tonight. But if
I hadnt come... I answered without
thinking.
Uh, my dear Doctor! If only you
were right! Back in the day she used to
twirl around like a fairy, and, by God,
she knew how to turn me around,
but our dancing days are over. Now
were just waiting for Him to call on
us. Here you are, cheers!
Cheers, grandpa! And youre not
having any?
I mustnt. Ah, but I love it, he said
longingly.
Eh, whos the doctor here, have a
glass, it wont hurt, I said because
before my eyes suddenly there was an
image of the old man when he finally
realized hed been left alone, without
his Nana Pila, in the middle of this
mine-infested jungle.
The old man drank one glass, then
another. Perhaps he shouldnt have,
but he surely could, so soon we stroke
a good rhythm, the brandy ran down
smoothly, we knocked our glasses,
downed our drinks, knocked our
glasses again. The bottle was gone
in a second; the old man went to get
another. And then, just for the sake
of it, I sold him a health book. When
he asked me how much he owed me
for the visit, I told him nothing; but
this handbook, meant for the people
without easy access to medical institutions, unfortunately, was not as free
as my services, and if I could, I would
never sell it to him, but the rules of
my trade forced me to do it and the
book was so useful to a man in need
to help either himself or someone
else. I filled out the bill, he gave me
a hundred kunas, and I explained to
him that the remaining four payment
slips would arrive by mail. Actually he

Short Stories and Essays

wanted to pay the full price immediately, but he told me that the money
was in Pilas apron, and neither he nor
I wanted to wake Pila up.
My job was done and, as far as that
was concerned, I could leave. But
I didnt feel like it. Both the old
man and I were pretty drunk by
that point; for the last hour he was
mostly nodding off and on, occasionally mumbling something important that wasnt meant for me.
Obviously he thought he was talking
to Pila. I left him sleep in peace and
went to the next room. It was a bedroom dominated by a huge wooden
wardrobe with a large mirror and two
old-fashioned beds, loaded like river
barges ready to set sail. On the first
bed there were large down pillows,
quilts and blankets, piled up almost
to the ceiling. I wasnt particularly
interested in that one. I approached
the bed with the clothes on it. I took
my time, choose slowly, first a dark
blue skirt sprinkled with barely visible stars, then a black blouse with
red flowers, a dark red vest and a
green headscarf woven with threads
of gold and silver. Nana was tall and
the clothes fitted me perfectly, and
the colors were arranged in such a
way that I literally glowed. Then I
realized I needed to take a piss. I ran
out of the house, picked up the front
part of the skirt and with manly mercilessness watered the dusty dirt below me. I barely managed to shake it
off, when some woman greeted me
from the road: God bless you, nana!
You feel any better?
God bless you, my child! You can
see it yourself, never better! I replied
in a voice that wasnt mine and that
had to be Pilas. Then I went back
to the house, covered the deceased,
and then found the right music on
the radio. A moment later I moved
magically through the small kitchen and teased the sleeping old man
every time I passed by him. It didnt
take long and the old man woke up,

167

rubbed his eyes and started giggling


with his toothless mouth: And I
didnt trust the doctor when he told
me you were going to dance tonight.
And there you are spinning around
like a girl in her prime!
You just come here, grandpa! I said,
took him by the hand and lead him
into my magic circle. He kept on
laughing like crazy.
How long has it been since we span
like this, huh Pila?
Ah, I dont know, but I know that
now were going to spin all the time,
till we die, and even later, in the other world.
Arent we happy together, huh Pila?
We are, we truly are, I confirmed
and planted a kiss onto the old mans
lips. He started losing his breath.
I wasnt letting him go. I held him
tightly and span him around, faster
and faster, until I realized he was no
longer standing on his feet but I actually carried him in my arms all limp
and strangely light. Then I put the
old man down on the bed, turned Pila
toward him, and threw his arm over
her hip. And it seemed just right.
I returned Pilas clothes back to their
place and then sat down at the table
where the two of us not long ago
had sat and drunk, poured myself
another glass of brandy and drank it
slowly watching the old lovers lucky
enough to die together only a couple
of hours apart and neither of them
knew about the other one passing.
Even Pilas face seemed somehow
less strict. Then I corrected the bill,
crossed over installments and added
that the full amount was paid in cash,
which with fifteen per cent discount
came to 481.00 kunas. I took the exact amount from Pilas apron and left
the house. Right at the gate a black
fat snake stopped in my way, but I
kicked it into the bushes and came
out onto the sunny road. I, the tsar,
I, the king, I, the champion.
Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

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168

TIONS

elentanos Bestiary
Zoran Malko

ack then I was still friends with


elentano. He wasnt sending
his boys after me. Nor was he threatening me. But theres no doubt that
even then he was completely crazy.
He claimed he was a scumbag, and
his opinion about the rest of the species was even worse. On top of that,
he had money and he liked to spend
it on proving his claim right. But for
some reason he loved drinking with
me. That day he called me up on the
phone just after noon. I stared at the
cell phone thinking whether to pick
it up when my indecision was broken by his SUV stopping in front of
my bookstore.
Where are you?
Working.
Ah! Working your ass off, huh?! Listen, you remember that idea I had
about a cage?
I remember.
Well, the things on the roll. I got
myself the first beast.
A tiger?
Well, not exactly a tiger. Its more like
a bear type. But good! Tough! Hey teddy, let my partner hear that mean roar
of yours! yelled eletano, and then
I heard a deep mumble, not exactly
the way a bear sounds. You heard it?
Good, huh? A real grizzly! You should
see it take charge of the bars! Listen,
get your ass over here, well have ourselves a couple of drinks and play with
our teddy, what do you say?
I dont know. Im working. And I
dont have...

What? A ride? Isnt orka there yet?


Cmon, dont fuck with me! Adriano!
I put on an Out of Office! sign on
the door, closed the store and entered the SUV. As usual orka said
nothing, he just turned the engine on
and off we went. Driving with him
was an experience of horrible silence.
You looked straight in front of you
and saw nothing; all you could hear
was relentless silence and you had to
ask yourself: Why doesnt this goddamn piece of shit want to talk to
me? And when you knew hed killed
someone, twice, and not in the war,
the question kept on popping up in
your mind and soon it was the only
thing you thought about.
Before he started working for elentano, orka had tried working as a
taxi driver for a couple of years, but
the only thing he managed to do was
to become the worst taxi driver ever because no one on Earth wanted
to get in his car. No one except for
elentano. And he hated driving
anything but his beloved Mustang.
And that thing didnt run on roads.
Mustang was, just so you know, his
flying car. And thats where I found
elentano when orka finally freed
me of his silence.
Mountainsides around us echoed
with the thunder of Mustangs engine. That was called nature, peace
and quite elentanos way. Among
all those meadows and forests, on
a steel pole three meters tall, Mus-

tang was mounted, everything running, powerful, its wheels in the air.
elentano waved his bottle of whiskey at me from above.
Wanna go for a ride? he yelled.
Id rather not. This thing with orka was just enough.
Nothing beats driving and chatting
with orka, huh? Money cant buy
that. Ill tell you once why the grim
face keeps silent, but now we have
better things to do. Lets go see our
teddy. Got your swimming shorts?
No? Take mine, he said and threw
them directly at my head. A moment
later he was standing next to me, naked, then he ran into the house and
came back in a blink of an eye, in a
different pair of shorts, then went
back in again, came out again with
a thirty-two pack in his hands and a
third pair of swimming shorts, boxers, gave me the pack, climbed up
to his flying car, took his flip-flops,
which he, however, didnt put on
his feet, but once he came down,
threw back up in the car. That was
elentano. A little man fifty or so
years of age and livelier than the liveliest kid.
There! Lets go! We have a couple
of floats waiting for us in the pond,
so well swim a little, have ourselves
a drink or two, and watch our teddy. He has full six more hours to go
before the end of his shift. Hes been
working since noon, which means
hes here until eight. Did you know
hes a philosopher? Has a degree in

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philosophy and everything! Imagine, a graduated bear-philosopher!


he said and, holding his nose with
his thumb and index finger, jumped
in the pond. Cmon, what are you
waiting for?
After orkas stern silence, elentanos hyperactivity and constant chatter seemed as if someone was hitting
me over the face with wet newspapers. I jumped in the water, went
down to the bottom and lay there
on my stomach assuming the position of an old catfish. I didnt feel
like coming back to the surface. I
went up only after I ran out of air.
Above surface, nothing had changed.
elentano kept on babbling.
And hes not only a philosopher.
Hes also a librarian. Senior librarian, to be more precise. Married,
one child, a son, already in college,
elentano spoke as if reading from
a file. In his marriage he plays the
role of a wife, shes the one whos got
the balls. During the war he left his
family and ran away to live with his
parents in Istria, where he also had a
lover. And then, taking a side road,
several to be exact, he started his slow
return to the town hed escaped from.
For a while he worked in Zagreb.
Then in Poega. And then, finally,
with the help of some connections
of his wifes, he got himself a job in
the library. But hes not satisfied. He
thinks he deserves more. Wants to
release the bear inside, thats what
he told me. He hopes this experience
will make that happen. At work, hes
surrounded by women, they are the
ones holding him back the most, they
keep on whispering, which is, truth
be told, expected in a library, but that
whisper is dangerous and poisoned
with political games and schemes.
Of course, the whole story about his
bear-like nature is a bunch of bull,
hes here because of the dough. Listen, four hundred for eight hours, a
librarian cant make that much a day
no matter how senior he is.

Short Stories and Essays

Half way through elentanos speech


I knew whom he was talking about.
True, I couldnt see him because he
retreated to the darkest corner of the
cage that hung over the pond and
the only part of him I could see was
his fat ass and the balls sticking out
between his buttocks. But I had no
doubt that the hairless ass belonged
to Paroi.
Hey, teddy! Bear! No time for sleeping, hey, you gotta earn your days pay!
Cmon, show my partner how dangerous you are! Wheres that bears nature
of yours! Cmon! yelled elentano,
but the bear didnt move.
Let him be, cmon, theres time. Or,
even better, send him home. Its not
funny, I said sullenly.
Eh! said elentano surprised. Am
I keeping him here? The cages not
locked, he can leave if he wants to.
But if he intends to stay, then I want
to see the bears nature! Understood!
I want to see a wild bear!
Having heard this, the bear got up
and on all fours ran towards us. But
he did it clumsily so he slipped and
knocked his forehead against the
bars. His body burned, skin hanging
from it in rags, his face red from sun
and strain, now he lay down again
and watched us as if he was about to
cry. Shaking his head in disappointment, elentano threw a beer cap at
his forehead. That seemed unnecessarily rough to me, but my partner
obviously knew his way around bears
because now the bear got really angry.
He stood up, roared from the top of
his lungs, slapped his chest, and then
threatened to take a swing at us; he
shook his head pretending to be biting, wildly snapping his yaws as if ripping pieces of raw flesh. elentano
winked at me importantly and said:
Good! Good! This made the bear
jump at the bars his belly first and
make completely unbearable noise.
But he doesnt have to keep howling! Not even the real ones do it all
the time.

169

Well, Im not saying he has to do it


all the time. But sometimes he has to.
Right, he overdid it now, but how can
you tell a bear to stop? How about we
throw him a fish or too, they eat fish,
right? Maybe thatll calm him down
a bit. Gimme that fishing net! he
shouted at orka who was just collecting cigarette buds and beer caps
wed been throwing in the pond with
the said fishing net. elentano soon
caught a huge, lazy carp, but when
he tried to take it out, he ended up in
water together with it. He came out
without the fish, with a broken cigarette in his mouth, beer in his hand
and a new suggestion. How about
a ride? he said, and at that moment
the noise of Mustangs engine seemed
more attractive than anything. But
that wasnt much help either. While
elentano, who otherwise never slept,
dozed on the passengers seat and
shook because I was squeezing the
soul out of his Mustang, I could
still hear the damn bear. elentano
proved to me that this wasnt just a
hallucination: without opening his
eyes, he mumbled Good! Good!
from time to time.
When we got down, Paroi was
waiting for us, dressed in a light suit
and a blue t-shirt with crocodiles
sign on the chest. elentano glanced
at his watch, a huge Franck Muller,
which looked as if it weighed at least a
pound, and then with unattainable
smile of self-satisfaction pulled his
hand in his pants, fondled his balls,
and took out a heavy, wet bundle of
money. Indifferently, he unglued a
couple of bills and shoved them into
Parois paw.
You did good, my philosopher! See
you tomorrow? he asked and Paroi only nodded in confusion, then
mumbled something and got lost in
the bushes.
Listen, I gonna go too. Ive seen the
bear and Im tired.
Ah, no, you cant go! My wifes coming.

Short Stories and Essays

What do I have to do with it?


Well, whos gonna fuck her? You
dont expect me to do it? Ill pay you
four hundred, the same I paid the
bear, and for what! Whats that, an
hours work, even less? Youll do it and
thats that. You didnt think I called
you here just to watch the bear? he
said almost angrily. And it was difficult to tell when he was being serious
or when he was just teasing, especially
when there was orka standing on
the side, watching me like I was guilty
of every crap that had ever happened
in his life.
Fuck you, partner. Thats out of the
question.
Well, then... he said and winked
at orka. Youll have to go with
our grim face again. Fuck it, partner, I have to do everything myself!
Adriano!
orka dropped me off in front of
the bookstore. I didnt even bother
getting in, but I immediately went to
Liputins bar to wash off the bad taste

of elentanos beer. The man-bear


jumped at me from the alley.
Listen, I know were not close or
anything, but I beg you, dont tell
this to anyone! I beg you! Im in really deep shit, loans and all, if I keep
this for a month or two, Ill get in
the clear, you understand! Just dont
tell anyone!
Paroi, I wont tell anyone, theres no
one to tell. But I may write about it!
Write? he said in horror.
Write, Paroi, write! But not yet.
And you just hang in. Good luck!
But Paroi didnt last long. Already
the next day elentano got himself
a tiger. The tiger beat the shit out
of the bear and earned the right to
stay in the cage, and Paroi begged
elentano not to sack him and find
him a different position for a smaller
pay so for the next couple of day he
worked as the tigers prey. But the tiger didnt last long either. Every day
new, meaner and meaner beasts appeared, and as elentano didnt want

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to increase the number of cages the


candidates had to fight for their place
in this one cage. Not even a week
had passed since our little get-together with the bear when he called
me up again.
Listen to this! You wouldnt believe
it! Theyre gonna kill each other!
What a bestiary, Ive got everything
you could possibly imagine: tigers
of all kinds, lions, hyenas, caimans,
anacondas, pitons, scorpions, black
widows, praying mantises, even a Rex
is here. Hey, partner, can you believe
it! And theyre going at each other, a
real bloodbath! he was yelling and
then his voice got lost in the deafening roar of hundreds of beasts. I hung
up the phone and went down to Liputins. For a while I sat there on the
deserted terrace waiting for a waiter.
Somehow I had a feeling he wouldnt
show up. Most likely he too was up
there at elentanos.
Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

Photo by: Martina Kenji

170

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171

How Little Sleepy Death Dumped Me


Zoran Malko

met her after Id gotten out of


the army, it was the worst winter
I remember: packs of hungry dogs
coming down from destroyed villages nearby, cruising deserted streets
at night, attacking anything they
could get their teeth into. But those
damned animals were not much different from us. We cruised the dives
and bars, without a dime in our pockets, and sold our asses to all those UNPROFOR and EUMM soldiers and
officers (we called them Ice Creamers because of their white SUVs and
tanks) and all other sophisticated marauders whod hurried down to Slavonija to get their piece of a corpse.
I myself handled about a dozen of
them. The last one was called Bill,
a colonel from Ireland. Perfumed,
cultivated and round, a faggot like
all the ones before him: the French,
the Nepalese, the Hungarians, the
Argentineans.
Having just come out of the bloody
slaughterhouse, we couldnt get it
into our heads that those people
were some kind of soldiers. For us,
they were just kids, even those Pakistanis who ate live chickens in front
of cameras. But we let them fuck us
anyhow. They shoved their fine penises, educated at all kinds of military
and police academies from Karachi
to Dublin, up our asses. We didnt
care much. We were beautiful, we
were wild, and we were mean; at least
three times worse then they thought
we were.

Half an hour after wed met, after


three bottles of Staro eko beer, I
told Bill: Listen, Bill, Im your guide
for the night! Thatll cost you a hundred bucks. The package includes a
good time and a tour of all legal and
illegal bars and similar sites as well as
a warranty that youll get out of this
alive. How does that sound?
And do you play a tamburica? he
asked.
Not even if you give me a billion
dollars. Why?
Id like to learn how.
If thats the thing, then theres no
problem. Thatll raise the price of
the package for a measly fifty bucks.
Bill, lets get going.
We went to The Mill whose wheel
drove on despair that spilled over
from the dive and where tamburica
almost never stopped playing because
whenever the musicians wanted to
get off the stage, the guests took
out their guns and shot above their
heads. They let no one interrupt their
dreams even though those dreams,
in the best-case scenario, were barely
tolerable nightmares. I took Bill right
to the stage.
Look here, Bill, this is Praxo, the
Pills brother, the best tamburica player in the universe, I said introducing
him to the only guy among the musicians whom you didnt have to shoot
at to get him to play. He was never
getting of the stage anyhow. I left
the Irishman at his tamburica school
and went to the bar to drink up his

dollars. And then I saw her. She was


dancing on a large oak table, bending
like grass in the wind, which, according to the laws of physics, shouldve
broken in half a long time ago. Tiny, little, skinny and bony, her eyes
closed, her face drawn into a smile
and a painful grimace that revealed
a serious lack of front teeth. Nevertheless, I thought that she was pretty,
that she was gorgeous, enchanting.
I had never seen her before, but her
name jumped on my lips on its own:
Little Sleepy Death.
I stationed myself next to the table
where several more drunks were sitting at together with two war widows
just like herself and four sleazebags
who helped them spend their late
husbands retirement money and patiently waited for the gravity to take
effect. When she started falling, I
caught her in my arms and carried
her between the tables. She couldnt
have had more than thirty-five kilos.
I wetted her lips with brandy, she
opened her eyes for a second, offered
me a spasm of a smile, and then engulfed me in the black abyss of her
jaws. We danced and drank from a
bottle that never left my hand. Suddenly she started talking, addressed
me with sir, claimed Id been her sons
teacher, and said that I had stood up
for him on one occasion.
Teacher of what, my beautiful poor
friend, interpreter of what cosmic
wisdom? And even if it were so, I
dont remember it, by God, I dont

172

Short Stories and Essays

know when this couldve been. And


maybe youve mixed something up,
maybe thats yet about to happen!
I told her with a strange feeling that
that moment of present was swelling and puffing, like some carcinogen seed whose cells grow at galloping speeds, unraveling into the past
and the future at the same time.
Then I felt someones hand on my
shoulder.
Tamburica Bill.
Why are you waking me, you poor
Patrick? Youre done with your lessons? I screamed, and he, in his
sweet, lustful voice that tickled the
ear, begged me to let him have the
widow, promised me piles of money if I set her up for him tonight.
The damn Irish bloodhound, he had
sniffed her out in a second!
And I thought you were a faggot,
Bill! Or such beautiful, destroyed ruins really turn you on, huh, you fine
colonel? Listen, if I set you up with
her, youll have to pay me big bucks.
After all, shes a toothless pussy of a
fallen Croatian hero, with wrinkles
on her face like furrows on the Moon,
both feet in the grave. And the grave
is where she fucks best, did you know
that, Bill? This woman has seen more
troops and destruction than Lipik,
Pakrac, karbnja, Vukovar and all
other Croatian towns and villages
together! Im not sure, my dear Bill,
you have that kind of money... But
until you get it, gimme everything
youve got on you, quick, quick, before I change my mind...
We walked out into the snow-covered eerie town. The snow was as
hard as concrete; you couldnt break
it with a pickaxe. She and I pressed
into each other, trying to hide from
the cold and the wind that slammed
into us and through us, while the fat
UNPROFOR colonel looked as if this
cold of ours did not get to him, he
just happily hopped licking his lips
with his dark red tongue. He pressed
the button on his remote, opened

the door and let us into his huge


SUV. Despite his protests, I took to
passengers seat, having before that
placed her on the back seat where
she looked even tinier and lonelier,
so much like a beautiful, old doll forgotten on an attic.
We were just entering her part of the
town and I was still thinking how
to screw Bill over, when a dog ran
out right in front of us. Bill hit the
brakes, but couldnt avoid the dog
and the SUV skidded and slid from
the icy road. I didnt hesitate. Taking
advantage of his confusion, I picked
Little Sleepy Death up and with her
on my shoulder ran toward the buildings. Laughing like crazy, she gave
me directions. A pack of some thirty
dogs galloped toward us. They surrounded us in a second. This might
seem like a tricky situation to someone, but it wasnt anything that an
inspired drunk couldnt solve with
a short, inspired speech. I admit it,
Im the one of those who have killed
your owners and kicked them on the
other side of the Sava, but that was
not my fault. That was their own doing, and someone elses. There he is,
look, I yelled into the frozen night
and pointed at Bill, Thats the real
culprit! Get him!
Understanding me perfectly, the pack
ran toward the SUV, and the two of
us finally reached her apartment. The
moment I let go of her, she dropped
to the ground and, turning into a ball,
rolled on into her bedroom, prosecuted by a harsh northern gale that
blew through the open door. I closed
the door and went after her, following
the bloody trail because as she rolled
she bumped a couple of times against
the walls and the furniture.
When I entered the room, she was
already lying wide open on the bed.
Right above her head there was a
square niche in the wall and in it
there was a photo of her late husband in a camouflage uniform and
a rosary around his neck. The mem-

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ber of the 3rd Brigade looked at me


austerely, with a frozen smile in the
corner of his mouth. In front of the
photo, a bunch of burned-out candles. And below it, her head against
the wall, her legs wide open, there was
she: naked, skinny, with some kind
of a ball growing out of her stomach, swollen from alcohol. She resembled those stuffed plush animals
with long, slender limbs growing out
of a roundish body. She had a candle
ready and she took it, long and fat,
and with both hands placed it between her sagging breasts. It looked
as if she was praying.
Let me first fuck him, she how handsome he is, look, she said and stuck
the candle between her legs. She
stabbed herself angrily, moaning and
mumbling, as if fighting with someone. But soon she doubled up and
screamed; then she lit the candle and
put it in front of the photo.
Come on, its your turn now, give it
to me, stick it into me, the whore, kill
me, the miserable animal...
Gently rejecting her invitation, I got
in the bed and lay next to her. I told
her I would look after her and that
she should go to sleep, I caressed her
brow and greasy hair; my voice was
so tired and monotonous that I managed to put myself to sleep; in my
dream I heard a piercing sound of her
or me snoring: a moment of sublime
peace for the two of us, two exhausted animals. But in the morning the
winter sun set the apartment on fire:
every detail of our ugliness was now
visible and exaggerated, not a trace
of the beauty Id seen last night; next
to me there was a stinky, rolled up
spider, its skinny, hairy legs sticking
out from under the blanket; above
my head a candle was slowly burning
its last and I could feel a disgusting
smell of wax; all this made me jump
out of the dirty bed and ran away as
fast as I could.
After that it was some time before I
went out again, and the first time I

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did it was at Jadrankas bar Bills


frowning face was the first thing I
saw.
Why such a sullen face, Bill? Problems at school? I asked him meaning no harm.
No, school if fine. Im already playing like I was born with it, on Saturday I play with the guys down at
The Mill.
Well done, Bill.
But you owe me something. I gave
you the money. A deal is a deal, so...
Youre right, a deal is a deal, and Ill
get you what I owe you. But I cant
do it sober. Get me drunk first, Bill,
and then well talk business.
As we drank, I told him about my
adventure with Little Sleepy Death.
I thought that would cool him off,
but my story had a completely opposite effect; the colonel got even
hornier. He kept pressing me to go
get her. After five or six rounds of
drinks, the idea no longer seemed
bad to me either.
While Bill was waiting in the car, I
pressed on her doorbell. She didnt
answer, but after a while I noticed
that the door was slightly ajar; I
pushed it open with my foot and
entered. She was sitting on a couch,
drinking brandy. She didnt even notice Id walked in. I sat next to her
and started touching her. She didnt
respond to that either. She opened
her eyes only after I put my hand in
her pants. She looked at me in surprise and then started wiggling and
getting away from me.

Short Stories and Essays

Dont, dont, Im with someone now.


I have someone! As she said this, a
guy staggered into the room. I barely recognized him. It was Cactus, a
fellow I used to play soccer with in
the schools team; he looked as if he
were sixty and was completely blind
from the hooch.
Is that him? Is that your man? I
asked.
Yes, thats him. Thats my man! she
said and leaned against him. A moment later both of them dropped
on the couch in front of me. They
sat like that for a while, immobile,
in each others arms. Then she took
a glass from that niche in the wall
there was no photo or candles in it
anymore dipped her finger in the
brandy and ran it across his lips.
Without opening his eyes, he started
kissing her fingers while she ran her
other hand through his hair and on
the forehead.
I watched them, shocked, touched,
ashamed. I couldnt remember when
was the last time I witnessed a scene of
such honest gentleness, which those
living dead, those heavenly drunks,
had for each other. Even if they were
standing on the very line separating
the two worlds, the two of them were
there for each other. I got up, covered
them with thick covers and blankets,
tucked them in like babies, and left
the apartment.
A long and winding path led to the
parking lot through the park and
thats where suddenly horrible things
started happening. Of course I was

173

drunk and in a state of shock, but


the fact is that women started falling from the trees. Beautiful women,
my women, all the women I had ever
had. Even the future ones, the ones
I somehow felt were to become my
future women. And, to my horror, all
of them were dying a terrible death. I
walked over them, heavy, indescribably heavy, I squashed their pretty
faces and arms, turning them into
a pile of crushed meat, bones, veins
and tendons.
I walked out of the park in tears, not
wanting to look back and make sure
I was just hallucinating. The sight
of Bills enormous SUV, reliable and
rational, its antennas communicating with the dark side of the Moon,
offered me relief. After all, Bill was a
lesser evil from what had happened
in the park. And even his question,
which he threw at me like an axe,
didnt hurt too much.
Wheres the widow?
Drive, Bill. Shes no longer a widow.
You know you owe me a widow, he
kept insisting.
Bill, how about a widower instead
of a widow? Its all the same to you.
And you know what kind of a widower I am, huh, Bill? Im a serial widower! All of my women have died tonight; theyve died a horrible death!
Drive, poor Patrick, when I tell you.
Drive!
And then Bill started driving.

Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

174

EXCLUSIVE:
Photo by: Martina Kenji

Croatian Emigrant
Lynched by an Angry Mob
of U.S. Nationalis
Marin Dukich (64), a successful businessman of Croatian descent, became an
unfortunate victim of U.S. nationalists rampage provoked by 9/11 terrorist attacks
Mario Kova

IAMI On the night of Sep-

tember 12, in a small US town


of Homestead a real drama with a
tragic ending took place. It all began when, in a nearby port, a group
of fifty strong, armed with shotguns,
torches and American flags used gasoline to set a small boat on fire. When
the boats owner, Marin Dukich (64)
tried to stop them, a bunch of people
knocked him to the ground and savagely beat him to death. According
to an anonymous source, the torture
of the helpless old man lasted a couple of minutes. Despite local emergency units prompt reaction, Martin
passed away in an ambulance on the
way to the hospital.
Marin Dukich was born in Split from
which he emigrated to the U.S. at the
beginning of the 1970s and started a
fishing business. Just after his arrival,
the handsome Croat fell in love with
a local girl, got married and soon became an American citizen. Thanks to
his hard work and experience gained
on the Adriatic Sea, his operation
prospered allowing Dukich to get
rich and expand his business. In the

MARIO KOVA lives in the middle of a forest, on the top of a hill, as if in a

fairytale. Although the number of his roommates often varies, currently


the only roommates are his girlfriend and three dogs. He has published
a collection of short stories Barunasto podzemlje, a collection of poems
Jesmo li se za to borili? and a collection of essays Sto dana ispred ekrana.
He has been publishing short stories, poetry, essays, academic papers,
articles and various crap for a decade and a half all around Europe. Since
his rst love is theatre, he could not resist the call to unite performing
arts with his modest writing skills and so he (co)organized a hundred or
so regular or slam poetry mornings, days or evenings, as well as public
performances of various literary forms. He is also known as a DJ of questionable reputation, a bit actor and a walk-on of unquestionable reputation
and a civil-disobedience activist on call. He considers himself a youth
culture acionado.

1990s he had his two sons take over


the business while he became actively
engaged in helping Croatia by collecting humanitarian aid and money donations during Croatian War of Independence. One of the rare pleasures
in his life was sailing in the boat the
angry mob set on fire that night.
On that as well as following nights,
all over the U.S. many similar incidents took place in which groups of

revolted people, shocked by the terrorist attacks on WTC and the Pentagon, attacked many Muslim objects
including mosques, restaurants, shelters and humanitarian organization.
It is assumed that it was the name of
Dukichs boat that led the attackers to
think the boats owner was a Muslim.
Dukichs boat, which he often took
to the Atlantic when he went fishing,
was named Osama, which means soli-

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tude in his native tongue and which


most likely reminded the attackers of
the notorious terrorist leader.
Croatian government expressed their
sincere sympathies to Dukichs family and at the same time strongly

Short Stories and Essays

protested with the American government. American authorities apologized to our government and committed to finding the perpetrators of this
heinous crime. Also, they expressed
hope that this unfortunate death will

175

bring two peoples closer together and


encourage our government to join
the Anti-Terrorist Coalition.
(HINA Croatian News Agency)

Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

How and Why to Kill Your Ex-Girlfriend?


Mario Kova

ll right, why is redundant here.


You know (just as all of your
friends know) that she
(chose one or more options):
a) cheated on you with whoever
she got a chance
b) cheated on you only once,
but even that hurts
c) never really loved you
d) never really understood you
e) turned you against
all of your friends
f ) ruined the best years of your life
g) always made scenes in public
h) stole from you
i) left you for someone richer
or more handsome or younger
or older...
j) purposely forgot to feed your
pet which then died of hunger
k) stole the sun from your heart
l) cheated on you with whoever
she got a chance
Oops, weve had that one already.
Never mind, you get the picture.
Anyhow, the bitch got what she deserved.

My experience tells me that the best


way to kill your ex-girlfriend is to invite her over for a cup of coffee (or to
exchange things that you left at each
others place or to talk it over once
again, this time maturely, seriously,
and with a calm head). Insist that
she comes alone and absolutely dont
take NO for an answer. If need be, use
those corny old lines, such as: If you
ever truly loved me... and avoid sentences such as: You bitch, get your
ass here right now or Ill beat the living hell out of you! This would only
be counterproductive.
Before she arrives, make sure that
youve carefully marked the poisoned
cup, that your chainsaw is well oiled
and that the barrel with sulfuric acid
is large enough to fit your ex-sweethearts chopped-up body.
After youve followed the procedure
(for those who are a bit slow in the
head: first comes the poisoned coffee, then chopping the body up with
the chainsaw, and finally ditching
the body in the barrel. CAUTION!!!
Under no circumstances should you

change the procedures order at will),


seal the barrel and let it sit for a couple of hours. Then, preferably under
the cover of darkness, take the barrel
to the nearest dump yard and youre
done. From there on, everything is
in the hands of destiny.
Admit to the police (theyll come see
you, dont you worry about that) that
she was at your place that day, but
that she left after some half an hour
and that you havent heard from her
since. If the worst does happen and
you do end up in court, use your right
to silence as defense. In the worst,
worst case scenario, you can get sentenced to twenty years in prison (uh,
I absolutely love Croatian Criminal
Law), but youll still be better off that
the damned whore, right? Hehehe!
Oh, yes! I almost forgot! If youre still
living with your parents or have nervous neighbors, instead of the chainsaw, use a regular handsaw, but then
you should count on an extra couple
of hours of physical work.
Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

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TIONS

Breathing and Blinking


Mario Kova

ic action. You attempt to keep your


eyes open as long as you can (perhaps a scene from A Clockwork Orange crosses your mind?) or you try to
close your eyes as hard as you can and
or you try to count how many times
you blink a minute but you simply
cant do it because you no longer do it
automatically but you actively think
about the blinking process.
And now try not to think about
blinking. Again you cant do it, right?
Again you are thinking about both of

your eyelids, wondering how come


you dont think about that more often and how come your body know
the right blinking measure just as it
knows the right measure about everything it does independently from
your will.
And are you aware of how many hungry people there are in the world?

Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

Photo by: Martina Kenji

re you aware that you are breathing? This really insignificant action, our life depends on, we all perform completely automatically and
most often we are not aware of it.
Sometimes it crosses our mind and
we start thinking about it and then
we cannot stop thinking about it.
Then we hold our breaths as long as
we can, or we try to take deep breaths,
inhale our lungs completely, and not
choppily and nervously as we usually breathe. Only when we become
aware of the permanence of this action we dedicate it attention it deserves but even then something important crosses our mind and diverts
our thoughts from breathing.
And now try not to think about
breathing. You cant do it, right? Just
as it often happens in life, when we
try not to think about something,
then we think about it the most. And
now even if you give it your best,
you will not be able to stop thinking
about that sweet, sweet air we keep
inhaling and exhaling every moment
of our lives trying to satisfy our atavistic hunger.
And are you aware that you are blinking? Are you aware of that action you
repeat several dozen thousands times
a day? Thats also not something people often think about, yet it is always
there. Only when someone draws
your attention to blinking (or you
remember it by accident, while passing), you begin to feel your eyelids
and you try to analyze this automat-

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Photo by: Martina Kenji

The Crap Master


Neven Vuli

wo dogs followed one other on


a spacious meadow between two
lanes of a road. The one behind stuck
its nose into the ass of the one in front
and pushed it. They trotted like that
for a while. And then I couldnt see
them any more; I was too far.
The bus was taking me to an unknown place. I didnt feel like getting a job, but some things needed
to be bought.
***
Getting off at the station, I saw a
building with a big black sign. On
the paper I held in my hand it said:
go to the basement and wait.
The man I talked to over the phone
approached me. His voice sounded
as if he were two meters tall, from his
tone it seemed he worked here parttime, that is, when he wasnt acting
in superhero movies. In reality he
was shorter than me, he weighed at
least twice as much, he smelled and
looked like a pig. He told me to follow him, introduced me to my new
boss and told me: Slap those texts
down as fast as you can.
I worked as a translator. He told me
that productivity was all he cared
about, and then went to threaten
someone to get them fired.
My new boss was very busy and he
told me to pretend to be doing something. He said that the guy whod
brought me here was his boss and
the main man in the basement. My
bosss boss had a huge desk only he

NEVEN VULI was born in 1983 in Zagreb. He is soon to graduate in French

Language and Literature and Linguistics at the Faculty of Humanities and


Social Sciences in Zagreb. His short stories have been published in anthologies and journals such as Zbornik eventualizma, Knjigomat, Zarez,
etc. His debut novel Povest bolesti was published by Sysprint. Once he
imagined he could make a living only from writing.

was allowed to use, a huge leather


armchair and a huge screen at the
very end of the room, right next to
the toilet. There he slapped his own
job done.
On that first day I didnt meet anyone, I didnt look back to find someone to ask something, I didnt even
try to talk to anyone. I only slapped
down texts like fat, sweaty pigs. I
worked for eight hours straight, but
later they told me that I had to take
a half an hour, unpaid break. In the
evening I went home. It rained, but
there was no wind to blow it into
my face.
***
Every day I loyally went back to my
stinky chair, which an ass after ass had
farted upon. At that time at work we
ate fast food ordered from nearby restaurants. Grease and cheep meat were
very popular, just as bad breath.
I stayed working with my boss until the evening. I moved next to him
behind the shelf thus hiding from
my bosss bosss view. I made him
company, and he told me he didnt

understand the people who drank.


His alcohol was his job. After work
he often drove me back to the city,
otherwise I would have to take a bus
and then a tram. I watched the cars
from the inside they looked like
wild beasts and women hiding their
faces with umbrellas.
One time I came home late in the
evening and went to the woods. I
stayed there for two hours, which
meant I had only five hours for sleeping. It was the third day in a row. I
told myself: Ill rest, Ill rest... I barely managed not to start laughing.
***
In the beginning I worked full eight
hours, kept my mouth shut and my
eyes pealed on my screen, which radiated and the picture shook. After a week, in my mouth I tasted
blood, and my veins wanted to break
through my skin, they jerked and
twitched like a wild animal.
Strange things started happening.
On my way home I started seeing
things. Faces peeked out from behind fences, around corners, and

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Short Stories and Essays

then disappeared. Before going to


sleep I thought about my job. I didnt
want to think about my job before
going to sleep.
With time I couldnt see anything
anymore, just shadows. The words I
translated pressed into my eyes like
live coals. I kept spending between
ten and twelve hours a day in front
of the screen in that basement. My
face turned white. I lost weight. Then
suddenly gained a lot of weight.
***
I woke up, but couldnt force myself
to get out of the bed. It took me fifteen
minutes to open my eyes. I knew I was
going to the place where instead of exit it said entrance. I couldnt run away.
To tell the truth, I didnt want to.
I found myself in a tram taking me
to work. At the last second an old
man stepped in. The door closed
and the tram started, and the man
was still on the steps. He tried to get
to a seat. As he went, he kept saying:
Oh my, oh my.
The tram slowed down suddenly,
he wasnt holding on to the handrail, and he just kept saying: Oh
my, oh my.
The tram suddenly picked up speed,
and he only managed to utter, Oh
my, oh my, because he still hadnt
reached his seat and he started to lose
balance. He went down, yelling, Oh
my, oh my, as he was falling on some
womans leg. She moaned with pain.
He said, Oh my, oh my, and fell to
the ground.
A woman dusting her apartment windows showed no interest in what happened in the tram. She was shuffling
dust and sand in her desert.
When I arrived at work I already felt
a bit better. I wanted to tell the world,
the people, to stop scratching their
asses, because crap gets stuck under
your nails. I remembered how we
used to beat up some boy just because
someone said he stuck his hands in
his ass after he took a dump. At that

time it seemed like a good decision.


My bosss boss was talking to a customer. The phone wire hung over the
desk, just above the floor, stretching
all the way to the receiver in his hand,
like a carcass whose tendons had rotten a long time ago.
My bosss boss was yelling at someone. This one was leaving, and my
bosss boss followed him and yelled
in his manly, caring voice: Wait a
minute! Wait a minute!
The guy picked up his pace. Everyone
laughed at this loss of authority.
I realized that recently I could taste
blood whenever I ate meat. I would
take a bite and there it was. It wasnt
like blood sausage I used to eat a long
time ago, that sweetness and nectar,
but a taste of anemia, pain and calcium deficiency.
***
For an hour and a half I was trying to
get out of the bed. My head was so
dizzy and spinning that I remained
sitting on the bed with my feet down
on the cold floor. I started shaking.
That helped me wake up. Five minutes later I managed to get up and go
to the bathroom.
It rained outside and the rain made its
way into shoes. Shop-windows passed
by, pads with remnants of moonlight
between their thighs; legless dogs wallowed over the wet ground. Women
who sell themselves were still asleep.
It was early; the noon was far.
I caught a tram, some old people got
in at the next station. A girl got up for
one of them to have a seat and shut
up. I took out my book and started
reading, she stood right next to me.
Looking at all those words, I hoped
she was watching me, secretly reading what I was reading. Let her think
I was smart. Let her think I was the
one. Such youth are the future, one
of those trams, nuns and retired people could be proud of.
At moments like this my mind dances can-can. In my brain a huge erec-

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tion takes place on which ladies in


azure dresses dance, kicking their legs
up high to the sky.
I put the book in my bag; hawked
through the spit in my throat and
swallowed it. People passed by.
I got off at the station, reached into
my bag and took out a piece of paper
and a pen. I wrote down that I needed to write something about a girl
staring at my neck, something about
reading a book, something about
shop-windows, something about fashion. Then I walked on, then turned
right into another street. As the train
passed, the guard looked in my direction, his thumbs tucked under his
belt.
I imagined it was summer, sat under
the first tree and sunbathed in the
snow. I ignored each and every dog
shit, and the butterflies convinced me
that every day was completely different from the day before.
***
One day I was singing: I am great,
just me, Ive got feelings, I love pudding, I am the best... and decided to
try out the restroom in the basement
of the building I worked in for the
first time. The urinals were placed
in such a way that dwarfs needed to
get high heels in order to take a piss.
The lighting in the toilet worked
like a strobe light. Behind the urinals
there was a room of about one square
meter in size with a toilet bowl. On
the wall there was a sign: Gentlemen,
please leave the door open after you
are done; the room is not ventilated.
Thank you.
I glanced down in the toilet bowl. It
wasnt dirty but I could tell the traffic
had been heavy: a little bit of brown
was visible at the shoulder, where the
crap gets stuck, and down at the bottom, where it breaks against the sides.
I laid some toilet paper on the seat,
took off my pants and lowered myself
pressing hard against the walls. Later
I left the door closed.

TIONS

One day someone told me it was


Lent. I dont believe in myself let
alone anything else, but I did decide
to give up masturbating. One the
first day I did okay, I didnt think of
women more often than every two

Short Stories and Essays

minutes. And then she marked my


entrance into a bus. She looked as if
she had just got out of a commercial:
half naked yet dressed completely,
beautiful. She wore her sunglasses as
graciously as Grace Kelly, although the

179

sky was gray and it rained. I couldnt


muster the courage to approach her
and ask her to marry me. Later I got
home and became a true heretic.
Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanovi

Photo by: Martina Kenji

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180

Desert
Dinko Telean

1.
I did not spend forty days in the
desert but only fourteen and only
on the verge of it. I did not fast and
neither did the devil, as it seems,
tempt me.
I traveled through Rajasthan and
stopped in a small town in the middle of a large plain with only one hill,
surrounded by, one might say, nothingness. In the desert, at that time of
year the emptiness is speckled only by
sparse, dry bushes. During the monsoon this area grows thick, low greenery for a short time. But I got there
in March, when the sand dominates
the landscape. My inn happened to
be on the border between the town
and the desert, the name and the
namelessness, the present and infinity. If at all, it is possible to speak of
the desert only in the present tense. It
awakens the deeply buried memories
of the times when all things were not
reminiscent of each other.
In the morning, as early as possible,
I step onto the soft sand, still not
scorching, but comfortably warm between my toes. Countless snake trails
everywhere; they move about before
dawn, as if somebody had thrown
down a huge bundle of rope during
the night and then lifted it from the
ground. An occasional snowy white
bone, a camel blended into the landscape in its slow, placid, steady gait,
perhaps a piece of garbage halfway
drowned in the sand where people

DINKO TELEAN, born in 1974 in Zagreb, graduated in philosophy and

English language and literature from the University of Zagreb. During


the last decade and a half he has been writing poetry and essays as well
as translating from English and Spanish as a free-lance author. Telean
has translated over 40 books (novels, poetry, scholarly writing, books
of essays and lectures, including authors as various as J. G. Frazer, J. L.
Borges, Kahlil Gibran, Richard Flanagan, Ernesto Sabato, Slavoj Zizek, H.
D. Thoreau, and Julio Cortzar), and also edited a number of them. So far
he has published three books of poems (Kreeva, 1997, Vrtovi & Crvena
mena, 2003, Iza, 2005), a metaphysical study titled Sloboda i vreme
(2003), and a travel book under the title Lotos, prah i mak (2008) written
in India and Pakistan. A selection from his poetry was translated into
German, Hungarian and Catalan. In 2009 he published a book of essays
called Pustinja i drugi ne-vremeni ogledi. Telean won various awards for
his translations and essays. Since 2004 he is a member of the Board of
Croatian Literary Translators Association and a member of Croatian Writers Society since 2009.

still walk. When the wind blows,


sand grains find their way into every
pore, as if intruding even the brain,
tempting the traveler to blend into the environment. The sound of
all grains makes up a thick silence,
disturbed only by a rustle or two
around the settlement. The air, the
only living being, quivers, visibly.
Everything is in its rightful place.
The purity of the origin of all things
opens to the view. To add anything
else would be blasphemy, and still
nothing may be taken away. At the
beginning of the stroll the thoughts
while still present inevitably follow the Tibetan saying: Home is
but a camp in the desert. The camp

to be abandoned at dawn. And the


desert is, certainly, the home of religions. Because here the invisible vertical becomes tangible and breathing
turns into a wordless prayer. Nothing presses, neither from above, nor
from below, because the upper and
the lower open up together in a continuous vision. Nothing happens.
Illusions do not tempt, do not draw
away attention.
Belles-lettres will not be created here,
possibly only music. History also not,
because the history of the world is no
doubt senseless, as it is finally quite
clear. Not only senseless, it is nonexistent. All that was, if it ever was,
fades, as well as the fact that sand was

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created by crushing of the rocks or


that I have come from a place where
trees, buildings and desires grow.
The white heat parches everything
but the naked, unspeakable essence.
The rest is shown not as relative, but
as non-existent. And, finally, here is
the opportunity to disappear while
your body is still moving, to disintegrate and watch the last elements
from different angles, being so light,
winged, omnipresent. Should the
world look like this after it ends,
that is fine. Still, all signs suggest the
world was this way in its beginning,
with an oval oasis in the middle and
a solitary tree in the center, with an
eternal sweet spring babbling thereunder. Somebody or something cried
then, broke the silence, separated
heaven from earth, plugged up the
spring and created those noisy, painful delusions, our shrew mistresses,
and some quite upturned comfort
and false bounty. Everything multiplied, tore, scattered, clashed. Why?
Because the origin contained everything necessary, but the hunger of
the blinded life wanted more than it
was necessary, more and more, and
got less or nothing, and this story repeats itself everywhere since the dawn
of time, and this hunger gets stronger,
and even less things satisfy it as the
torn life gets more greedy and further away from the source. Since then
such thoughts subside in all who are
quiet and lonesome for a long time,
perhaps even retreat completely, even
if they were not fortunate enough to
step into an earthly desert, they always return to this source, as to a forgotten dream. Thus having paused,
just to set off again.
2.
The non-believer believes he will
starve to death here. And he will.
Drop dead on the spot. I know, because it almost happened to me. The
non-believer is burdened by earthly
worries, for him the desert is hell.

Short Stories and Essays

Bread and circuses are for those who


did not awake, and here there is neither. Or still? Our forefathers ate the
manna in the desert; as it is written:
He gave them bread from heaven to
eat. Just no desire. All will come,
all that is necessary. Just no fears, no
worries. I experience this here for the
first time: the lack of life worries, no
fearful despair which has somehow
revealed life itself. Connected life
with heaven. Quite concrete, obvious, tangible. Because the bread
from heaven is not a metaphor. It is
the same as the earthly bread, only
in its imperishable aspect. He that
cometh to me shall not hunger. The
bread which satiates eternally, which
falls from heaven. So certainly that no
words are necessary.
The colors of the desert are yellow,
white and light blue: the sand, the
sky, rare clouds, bones, mirages. A
spot of red in the distance, perhaps
even some light green. Scarce are the
gray and black spots. There is nothing to be painted or described: just
to watch, walking very, very slowly.
If I look up, I will not trip over. If I
look down, I will not miss anything.
The blueness up above hides some
yellow, a few yellow grains down below reflect the blue and the white of
the clouds: the immaculate complementarity to which no painting will
ever come close and which some harmonies may only forebode.
When I say harmony, I suddenly realize. I do miss something: the song of
birds. This has always been a sound
expression of purity and bliss. The
bird song. I do not need much else,
but this song I still do. It is not about
sticking to an idyllic stereotype with
an insurmountable rest of implanted
imagery. As it seems, the trouble is
that I did not adjust my inner hearing for the ur-song which here I rather intuitively feel than actually hear,
for the compressed sound point, the
source of all bird songs and then all
music that ever was or ever will be.

181

It takes more than fourteen days for


such an adjustment. More attention, more listening experience. Until then, I rely on my sight and learn
from what I see in the emptiness.
Thus, I understand how the miracle
of this wasteland satiates me more
than some metropolitan street, the
opulence of some cultivated area or
cultural benefit, whether these be
colonial gardens, marble wells surrounded by comfortable benches,
panoramic elevators taking us to the
level where one observes the monuments while tasting exquisite delicacies, or air-conditioned halls with
thickly upholstered seats and a wide
selection of stimuli and spectacle.
A shiny, sunny morning in the desert
restores my balance, lifts my mood,
places me at the center of existence.
Almost the same as a stroll beside
the sea, which is just another kind
of desert, brought to mind just now
by the wavy folds in the sand, similar
to a shallow seabed burrowed by the
southern winds, the folds which are
here the only source of shade. The
firm, stable cleanliness. No history,
therefore no meaning or meaninglessness; thoughts on the past and
future disintegrate, flow into each
other; in the end this one thing also disappears, and there is only the
shiny ray of sight which includes the
sky and the Earth, the transparent,
light, elementary simplicity of being.
Nothing is superfluous, nothing is
missing. No, not even the bird song,
because that original hum, so similar
to the tampura sound, is already foreshadowed in the yellow light. And
everything is in its place. The inner
and the outer are reconciled, becoming one. There is no hunger caused
by lacking, no upset greed, because
life returns to its source, the superlife
with no hunger, because it is whole,
simple, unified. Light wind and some
water are blessings and so is the bush
on the hill, marking the original tree
shading the spring; no finesse, no

Short Stories and Essays

life embellishments. Nothing redundant, nothing absent. Little or just


one is necessary. The monotonous,
easy, tranquil rhythm of the origin.
A hill in the distance, an animal in
the distance, signs that somewhere far
away there are colors, vivacity, dissipation, just to remember. Material
for an afterthought. But, here it is
nonessential; the monolithical fullness with no adornments, everything
in its rightful place. Bitterness? No.
Harshness? No. But the bliss, yes, the
rapture of infinite simplicity in the
limitless shine. The fullness, but not
as a set, not as a composition, but of
just one piece. Of the piece of which
is Everything.
Such insights are given by privileged
moments. Actually, the reaching of
that one moment which is now,
when time and eternity meet, the existence in this moment without duration, therefore, not even an existence, but a state. On the other side
not only of the thought, but of the
meditation as well, of the rapture,
ecstasy; perhaps this state may be
called awareness, but I prefer to call
it serenity. The serenity which reveals

everything, just like when northern


winds cleanse the air or a sand storm
subsides. The state of omnipresence,
which surpasses all rifts: sky-earth,
male-female, spirit-mater, eternitytime, desert-oasis. They do not disappear, are not forgotten, but are
surpassed. This is achieved on roads
more numerous than the snake trails
in this sand.
3.
The principal characteristic of the
sand is, presumably, dryness. Such
dryness as when something is purified by fire: a metal or a soul, which
is the same in alchemy. It may be
the fire of an illness or passion or a
retort, but definitely not the fire of
material weapons, because the aware
presence, surpassing the rifts, forces
the force to surpass itself and end
the need for itself. Whatever may be
the case, the dryness from the center
of the last atom dries up the water,
the element from which everything
began, the source of life which must
evaporate in order for life to surpass
itself, to literally burn out, to transform into the existence of the pure su-

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perlife in its absolute presence. This


is the purity of ash. Ash is the purest
matter on Earth. As such it is a living image, the symbol of this superlife. That is why Hinduism and the
like draw the cult significance of vibhuti, the sacred ash remaining from
the sacrificial fire. But, ash is a sideeffect, therefore not elemental.