Ivo Andrić THE STORYTELLER One of my quiet and agreeable visitors, Ibrahim Efendi Škaro, was sitting here

until a little while ago. He is an exception among my guests. He rarely appears, and when he does drop in, he does not stay very long. From the very first moment, he sits and talks as if at any point he might get up, bid me farewell politely and — leave. And when it happens that he sits and talks for a long time, it is a true feast. He never talks about himself; he does not defend himself or make excuses, nor does he magnify of impose himself. While all the others want to get into my stories, and sometimes demand this in an inappropriate and aggressive manner, he, on the other hand, would prefer me not to mention him anywhere, and if I do make one of his humorous tales public, he does not want me to say whose it is. I see Ibrahim Efendi off, go back inside and sit again in the place where I was listening to him. It seems as if he had never left my room, as if something that belongs to him, something invisible but alive and real, had remained here and continued telling me stories, not through words but directly, through the lively manner of Ibrahim Efendi's storytelling. I can hear the silence of my room continue telling me stories and, from time to time, I nod my confirmation of what I hear. If anyone observed me, they would think I was not in my right mind. And what I am listening to is the otherwise inaudible source of all Ibrahim Efendi's tales. His father, Hamidaga Škaro, in his time, was one of the prominent people in this town. His word — a word of a just and fearless man — was accepted by authorities and the townspeople alike and often played a decisive part. He got married late, to a well-known beauty from the the Sulejmanpašić family, but their marriage lasted only half a year. This was over one hundred years ago, at the time when Jelaluddin Pasha arrived in Bosnia, summoned to Travnik the leaders of the people from all around the land and, using a devious ploy, slaughtered them all like helpless lambs. Hamidaga, who had also been summoned to Travnik but did not want to go and tried to dissuade others from taking the trip, openly expressed his opinions and condemned the Vizier's evil deeds. Frightened but desiring justice and retaliation, people listened to him as he was saying out loud what everyone thought but none dared to say. But this lasted only a few days. One Friday, before sunset, when the townspeople were returning home, four men met him in Atmejdan square, close to his house. To let him pass between them, they separated, two of them on each side. Suddenly, the one closest to him on the left drove a knife into his chest and struck him down on the spot. Shouting to deceive the people that were still in Atmejdan, the killers fled in different directions. Those braver among the passersby started approaching the killed man and calling for the guards. Then something unprecedented happened. The heavy gate of Škaro's yard made a loud noise and the young and beautiful Hamidaga's wife ran out of them, without either her cloak or veil and without any footwear over her socks, just as she had been on the balcony, awaiting Hamidaga's return. She ran, exposed like this, across half the square, pushed her way with strong movements of her arms through

the people that had gathered there and with a muffled scream threw herself over the body of the fallen man, from whose chest the last squirts of hot blood were gushing out. The people, embarrassed, turned their heads away from the improperly dressed woman. Soon after that two of Škaro's servants ran out of the yard. One of them had brought a broad, white blanket with which he covered the woman's face and body after they had pulled her away from the dead man. The blanket was immediately alight with smears from her bloodstained hands. They took her into the yard and then, assisted by the passersby, carried the dead man inside. Thus — no one doubted it — death came from Travnik to claim Hamidaga Škaro. This was a clear sign of the times. The Imperial governors in Bosnia had turned into common slayers, who came not to enforce the law and protect the citizens but to kill the leaders either in the Vizier's residence in Travnik or indirectly, by the hands of hired assassins, in all the places in the land. This was talked about throughout Bosnia in embittered whispers and, along with that, mention was made of the strange and terrifying example of the great love of a young woman who had broken all rules and prescripts by running uncovered out into the street and among the people. Some condemned her for this, while others defended her and found excuses for what she had done. None of this reached Hamidaga's widow, who had totally sunk into mute mourning after her lost husband. Three months after the horrendous event, she gave birth to a baby boy. She nurtured her son for only a year, feeding him with her own milk, which was poisoned by hatred and unceasing sorrow. She wilted and wasted away more and more and then departed this life without having found the words to describe what she was dying of. The aunts took the posthumous child in and nurtured it. The child grew up to be a young man and the young man an adult. There can still be found an old man or two who remembers what he was like when he was still alive, walking around Sarajevo and — telling stories. An odd man. From a good and affluent home background; he even went to school but never took up a business, such as is called "a serious business," nor did he ever pursue or take up an occupation. His relatives managed his share of the property. When you first saw him, you were in for a surprise. What you had heard about him being a witty tale weaver was in total contrast to his appearance. Short, with his hair turned gray early and an amiable, faun-like face, with rather few gestures, and even these being light and heavy as if he was all entangled in invisible sticky threads from which he was incessantly but unsuccessfully trying to extricate himself. Slow at everything, he even had a slow gaze. He incessantly blinked and kept fixing something, now in one eye, now in the other, now around the mouth. He protracted each movement as much as he could. The same was true of his words. He squeezed them out and hesitated as if picking out exactly those words that expressed nothing and carried no obligation whatsoever. Only after coffee, if he accepted a glass of brandy that he was offered, could it happen that he would start telling stories. I say "could," because this did not happen often, either. Then, after the second glass, he would quiver, as if shaking off all the invisible threads and ropes, and rid himself of the blinking and that nervous "fixing" of the face; he would

not drink a single drop of brandy any more and smoked very little. His profile would become sharp, his words interconnect and his voice even up; all of him would come to life as if he had wings, and no one could catch up with him or overtake him either in speed or wit or imagination. What was exceptional and unusual about these stories was his ability always to surprise his listeners with something already known. Unfortunately, his tales, like most oral accounts, were unrepeatable. Any attempt to recount them only resulted in producing a dried-up skeleton and you would be bewildered, wondering how and when in the course of retelling the story the life juices and the great charm of Ibrahim Efendi's story disappeared. Not even Ibrahim Efendi liked repeating them himself. In most cases he would forget his tales, which had burnt out like a cigarette and had no name or beginning, nor a forever fixed form. Thus, sometimes, sitting among friends who, after a long and futile wait, no longer hoped for a story, he would suddenly start talking, as if continuing a story started long before, telling it warmly and confidentially, intended for your ears only. From the very beginning, the listeners would be shaking with stifled laughter, but restraining themselves lest they should miss a single word. Nevertheless, rarely did Ibrahim Efendi manage to tell a whole story, because, as soon as the listeners were able to figure out its ending, which was always irresistibly hilarious, all their restraint would be gone and they would burst into thunderous laughter, during which nothing else could be heard. Later, when the laughter had died down, Ibrahim Efendi would have already finished his story, sitting quietly and with no movement in his face. Afterwards, he was able to sit for hours, listening to others and smiling innocently, but he might also have suddenly started telling another story, again without a true beginning and whose ending would also be lost in the general laughter of his listeners. When you listened to his tales, it seemed to you that life, a rich and varied life, was telling a story about itself, whereas Ibrahim Efendi was just interposing at crucial points from time to time, with a word or two, as if he had been a listener himself: "There you have it!" "Would you believe it!" "How about that!" There were a thousand and one things and all kinds of trouble in his tales, but there was even more laughter; there was guilt and the guilty, fools and frauds; there were good-natured people, victims of human stupidity and the need of humans to cheat others and themselves, but all this was illuminated by the special manner of storytelling, and, even though it may have saddened the listeners, it could not offend or discourage them. In any case, it made them laugh. Whatever appears and happens in life — people, events, animals and inanimate things — all had its value and its high place. And everything ended in laughter that did not hurt or embitter anyone. Sometimes the people who by their nature looked around themselves sullenly and ill-temperedly objected that everything in Ibrahim Efendi's unusual stories was softened, embellished and exaggerated, but he replied to them calmly: "I don't think that's true. I don't embellish anything. But, is it not perhaps that you see things in an ugly light?" However, this was rare. Usually, he was not concerned about the fate of his tales or how people received and interpreted them. He did not defend or explain

them. He would just smile and be silent, or go on to tell a new story. Only from time to time would he express his own wonderment: "How about that!" And people loved his stories and accepted them just as they were; many of them, having listened to them since their youth, were used to them and it seemed to them that a sizable portion of their lives, with all its favorable and unfavorable events, only got its true form and full significance in these stories; what had not found its way into them could be forgotten or changed, whereas Ibrahim Efendi's stories lived long and passed from mouth to mouth throughout Bosnia. There were occasions when some of the leaders of the people, state officials and "business people" did not approve of Ibrahim Efendi or his tales, in which they found a cause for anger and condemnation, even though they could not really say why. The tales often made them laugh, but they seemed to have been offended by the fact that they made other people laugh so much, and it seemed to them that the laughter in itself could contain something destructive and diminish a citizen's sense of order and obedience. They did not state this clearly, but they often expressed their condescension toward Ibrahim Efendi, calling him an eccentric and idler, who turned everything into a tale and made fun of it, and they sneeringly ridiculed both him and his stories and those who found them funny. None of this could make Ibrahim Efendi either not tell the stories or tell them in a different manner. Thus his life passed in telling stories, all of it like a story itself. Thus he also died, aged sixty-eight, silently like a quail in a field of grain. He had none of his father's enterprising and fighting spirit. He never got married or fathered offspring. He did not live. Instead of the so-called real life, whose blows he had felt already in his mother's womb, he built for himself a different reality made up of stories. In these stories about what might have been and never had been but was often more true and beautiful than anything that had been he seemed to have found refuge from what was "really" happening around him every day. Thus he evaded life and tricked fate. Now, for nearly fifty years, he has been lying in the Alifakovac cemetery. But sometimes and somewhere he still lives as a story. The original title: Priča Translated into English by Ivan Delač, June 2012

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