Three new pieces of writing from Serbia take up and engage significant omissions in official history and public discourse – among them the homegrown democracy of the prosaic, the local and the pastoral interrupted by conflict, and death under uncompromising centralization and endless transition to nowhere.
By Norman Wacker
“Next Friday,” I say, “and for your homework, write out a conversation with your best friend in Cyrillic.” “My best friend is in Osijek,” – “Learning Cyrillic”, David Albahari.
Clearly they make now no distinction, where a life is concerned between a provincial merchant and his wife, between a village priest (which is what my great grandfather was) and a village bell ringer called Ćuk, whose name also figures in the book. The only condition – something I grasped at once, it seems to have come to me even before I could confirm it – for inclusion in the Encyclopedia of the Dead is that no one whose name is recorded here may appear in any other encyclopedia – “Encyclopedia of the Dead,” Danilo Kiš.
You can only recognize a gift by its effects, by what it leaves behind – Farewell Gift, Vladimir Tasić.
We (and this “we” I take to be universal – the club of victims and perpetrators is far from exclusive, or for that matter mutually exclusive) who have endured divorce, defeat, loss of a sibling, child or parent, suffered the earthquakes enfolded in the euphemism “regime change,” who have fouled precious goods or had them befouled, know how dogged are the intrusions of past losses and indiscretions ignored, concealed or gone otherwise unacknowledged. Formidable barricades of plausible and implausible denial, self-censorship and official silence, even seemingly vast stretches of successful forgetting, are breached during our dreams, our interludes of intoxication, and our bouts of homesickness. Our soiled pasts can be resurrected against our wishes by incidental references or lapses of vigilance, opening unsolicited floods of memory and heightening the guilty impulse to doctor, deny or erase again the loss, humiliation or guilt. Denial and forgetting defend against loss that acknowledged would unravel the fabric of who we once hoped to be and the place we hoped to secure in family, community, or the grandiose future legacies and riches, those treasured effects we would leave to posterity.
Three new releases in the Belgrade publishing house Geo Poetika’s Serbian Prose in Translation series, as varied as they are stylistically and with respect to setting, take-up a common thread, narratives of personal and collective loss that require active recall and reconstruction, which excavate the collective waste of humanity and community that accompanied the destruction of common life during the age of the Yugoslav conflict and since in its successor state, Serbia. That interruption of the families, educations, careers, places and countries of residence of those who lived in the region, serves as a kind of muted wall paper against which these narratives – whether monologue, meta-fictional collage, melodrama or cheeky documentary – narrate lives and times unravelled. Against this background, these writers construct truncated and fragmented narratives of recall and return against the grain of forgetting and erasure. They depict a kind of stasis and stagnation that holds up the mirror to life in a post-conflict society in which heady infusions of global marketing, high-end retail destinations, kafana culture escapism and bouts of ultranationalist muscle flexing, poorly conceal that the post-conflict “transformation” has proven protracted, disappointing or, with respect to its fondest and maddest hopes, gone altogether unrealized. Pensioners, unhappily expatriated mid-lifers at their teaching, sky cap and IT development posts abroad, cardiac patients and lives otherwise conducted at the very tip of the furthest branches of family trees uprooted, act as the protagonists of this post-Yugoslav archipelago, that seem to be interesting varieties of Penelope (and/or Ulysses) embattled whether in their over-run homes or while at sea. Ulysses it seems may have never survived, as rumour insisted, his conscription and deployment to battle at Vukovar, or escaped his drug-addled becalming in New York or Belgrade’s crisis era all-night party scene to realize his long entertained return. He may have only inwardly migrated to New Belgrade or crossed the seas to Manitoba, or never left home at all (like the Serbian Leopold and Molly) or long since established a new home and hearth elsewhere without a forwarding address. The suitors remain largely off-stage here, their hegemony less obstructed by the witty un-designs of Penelope or the dreamlike promiscuity of Molly than their own truly Homeric bickering, contention and squandered chances without end.
The phantom limbs of former lifelines – the disappearance and the presumed, but un-consecrated deaths of identical twins, hero-worshipped siblings, first-born mail children, neighbours and childhood friends, the retreat of parents into dysfunction and silence – beset our narrator’s and their protagonists. Their resulting fictions amount to a narrative reconstruction of the most immediate intimate of personal and domestic ties, their destruction. The resulting narratives evoke collateral losses of community, vocation and personal integration once enjoyed by those phantom-like approximations of former selves who have survived into the post-conflict present. Together these fictions engage the persistent legacy of two decades of ruined reputation, economic stagnation, perceived victimization and betrayal that accompanied the Yugoslav conflict. They are voiced in various ways. They include an unbroken monologue saturated with rescued texts and episodes of the narrator’s missing sibling (Vladimir Tasić’s, Farewell Gift), composed of the discontinuous and interrupted coming of age of a speaker at once under construction and simultaneously deconstructing received ideas (Mića Vujičić’s, Tackling Foul) or in a darkly inconclusive post-modern script etched on official and elite discourse of convenience (Radivoj Šajtinac’s, Victims of Biedermeier). Together these works write in obverse on the ideological constructions that distanced Serbs in the homeland from events just beyond their borders, alienated them in the abroad-to-be from their neighbours and contributed to their expulsion from the republics and entities to come and their unsettling on foreign shores in large numbers. These fictions allow virtual reconstruction at a spatial and temporal distance of the continuity of past and present lives, one no longer conceivable in actuality – though discount air fares, Skype and Cyrillic lessons in Calgary and California sustain a parallel universe in which families and communities that live on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond pick up lost threads and tend to their mending. Grandiose official memorializing of course abounds throughout the new republics, while leaving the small scale work of invention, recovery and reclamation undone. These works navigate the complex hybrid of destruction and grandiose new orders and begin to assemble a textual and reflective record from pieces that remain of everyday lives and trajectories of history interrupted – an impetus to taking them up and examining to what extent we have known them well at all.
I recently visited the graves of relations in the municipality of Bor. We formed a small party and completed a midsummer cleaning and repair, brushing away drought-browned cypress needles, removing floral arrangements from a Spring visit, as our cousin-in-law renewed the gilt lettering on the black headstone and we left are usual mementoes of travels during our absence. A simple ritual of care, remembrance and small gifts, taking up the multi-generational conversation and web of memory which connects the lives of those born into and joined by marriage into a common constellation of being human for a time on earth. Adjoining graves of several generations were in varied states of neglect and maintenance. The most recent plots awaited a monument; other monuments memorialized a small nuclear family passed in its entirety; some listed the names of family members yet to join those already among the dead. Some were buried under the sign of the Yugoslav star, more recent deaths under the sign of the Orthodox cross, a few with the Roman cross, some under the signs of their vocations or under individual expressions of cherished regard expressed in Roman or Cyrillic letters. Most contained an inordinately evocative and unassuming oval photograph – a portrait of newly-weds, a silver anniversary, a child, a teen or a solitary portrait of advanced age, evoking questions of what it means to live a time too brief or of extraordinary duration and event. In towns of the region likenesses across a surprising generational spectrum can also be seen in markets, schools and work in mourning clothes in honour of other family members recently passed, a traditional form of common observance recently revived. Like residents of Joyce’s Dublin they seem at once to live at once among and converse with the living as they pay homage in dress and likeness to the dead. This assemblage of former residents, many still receiving the care of their local relations reminded me of the large and increasingly neglected graveyard above the ruins of a once imposing Orthodox church at the foot of steep slope in Eastern Mostar, record of a once large Serbian population spanning two centuries. The graves are not mentioned in day tours of Stari Most, and perhaps it is this very slope that has been erased from the geography lessons of Western Mostar school texts. However, these graves do evoke the symbolic power and resonance for the living who possess such tangible sites for visitation, stock-taking and expression of pent-up gratitude, appreciation care and loss can fuel humanizing identifications quite different from their use as regalia of vendetta and settling scores. And how ominous in context is any neglected single grave, let alone a collection of a whole former community’s graves, remnants of a once living fabric of habitation divided even today only by a steep foot path run between the separate sites for Serb and Croat memorials.
This was a somewhat different perspective on the infamy of recent conflict, often fought in the name of ancient graves, monasteries and the lingering grievances of medieval days remote in every way from the present. How unlike the official graves and monuments of post-conflict commemoration of exclusively male greater Serbia or Homeland Warriors, a continuation of the pre-conflict rehabilitation of royalists, paramilitaries and those pressed into service along-side wartime collaborators with foreign invaders. In Mostar and in Bor graveyards remain microcosms of whole and plural communities past in which the great grandparents, grandparents and the parents of the living and the missing are preserved. Sorrowfully, patches (or whole hillsides) of graves unattended, do in fact signify familial and communal dying off, and the flight, forced migration and generational ties sundered – ill things each for the hopes of the dead and the sense of identity and legacy of the living. While links between the space of literary invention and the realities of the social present are not by any means a given, I find myself wondering if meditations on loss which abandon “official” touchstones of heritage, faith and nation in these fictions are just such an engagement, particularly of the humble and small-scale losses that seem to reverberate with such a common darkness. They are among the most inconsolable sort of loss, unaccompanied by a record of the circumstances whereby family members became missing and presumed dead or ended lives of inestimable value to the living by their own hands. These works, taken together, render intimate and effaced losses through personal voice, the prism of narrative and writerly experiment, literary media sanctioned neither by faith or nation, and as they do they may articulate an alternative to the limits and dysfunctions imposed by impersonal and largely narratives that originate in a mythic and dictatorial above.
Tackling Foul is set in the village in the village of Mokrin, one of a chain of hamlets and small towns that compose the “Grassroots Soccer League,” a collective from which no club can perform so dismally as to earn demotion. Mokrin is connected by local soccer matches, open-air markets, summer travel to Kotor and by conflict to Vukovar and its place in the events that swept across Serbia in the age of Milosevic. It is during the siege of Vukovar that the steps of the novel’s missing protagonist Sima, the narrator’s uncle and his father’s identical twin, disappear. The narrator morns three unresolved losses, that are of some consequence for the household whose sole male heir is our young narrator. Grandfather Duša has receded into dementia, carrying with him the secret of how to distinguish the narrator’s father from his twin Sima by appearance. Sima, conscripted to fight in the JNA actions on the Croatian front, contributes to a third loss with his disappearance, the disorientation of the father’s life- long dialogue with his fraternal twin – a loss marked each time the father announces upon returning home “it’s me!” to distinguish his arrival from the longed-for return of Sima. Biologically identical (Duša as his powers fail settles on addressing them in the plural), they have shared a common and incessant dialogue and been decorated by identical scars of their parallel passage through experience. Sima has a missing front tooth dislodged by a cavorting dolphin; father (known throughout the narrative present as the “Twin” or the “Referee”) referees soccer matches and among his many injuries inflicted by irate players and fans is the identical tooth knocked out in post-match protest. His loss of a kind of double paternity animates the narrator’s preoccupation with the body of the very different documents authored by the twins. The circle of those losses subtly expands as the documents are collected. Memories of the impulse to tackle cleanly acted out by Sima after a night of binge drinking and to referee, by the Twin who interrupts Sima’s display and call’s time, suggests the forces for abandon and art barely contained in the churning open-ended contests waged between forefathers and sons, among siblings and across the grass-roots soccer league on the Twin’s watch and now in Sima’s absence. There is also, the last effigy of a teenage neighbour who unlike our narrator is a brilliant soccer prospect. Shortly before the lad disappeared into the Vukovar inferno, the Twin video-taped a display of the boy’s mastery of footwork and ball control. The video-cassette remains locked in a suitcase, a legacy too freighted with belonging to add to the pyre of all else the conflict has destroyed, but too charged with parental loss and the Twin’s survivor’s guilt to be given to the boy’s parents who have remained alive. The family home is full of similar eccentric archives. Uncle Sima a left behind a single work of prose fiction, Tito in Mika’s Espadrilles the story of Tito’s mis-identification of a local poet and journalist for a bus driver by Marshal Tito during a formal banquet honoring municipal achievement in Novi Sad. Mika is later able to use a photo of his photo with the Marshal to cut through the red-tape required for the purchase of a car. The Referee enters each match he officiates in an archive of graph paper ledgers, authors a commentary the narrator entitles “My Father’s Rules of the Game” recounting the rules of the game perfected, analogies between soccer and the well-lived life and a Homeric catalogue of all the names, obscenities and injuries received officiating – he has been pummelled equally by irate players and fans – having like Woody Allen and Danilo Kis received beatings by a kind of United Nations of neighbours, aspiring toughs and schoolmates on the playfields of his youth. The obscenities, catalogued and taken in stride, are part of the equanimity and unprejudiced judgement the Referee extols. The numbers (particularly those on the player’s jerseys) feature in the colour blind Referee’s ability to keep order among the indistinguishable identifying colours of the two sides, an absurdly ingenious compensation for disability that lends mock-heroic scale to this and the other comic eccentricities and preoccupations of the Twin. The exact place of Sima’s last known appearance is never determined. The gap resonates as the older generation fades, fails and the younger generation seeks, through an accounting of the eccentric genre of the archive, to recover in the traumatized reticence of the present adult generation principals of continuity. A lower-case archaeology of heritage and identity results rooted in matters that straddle the public and domestic, supplemented by conjecture and invention. Examined through the apertures of privacy and eccentricity, our narrator crafts an account of shared manners of being in and imparting order to a chaotic and ephemeral common encounter with the shaping destructions of the actual world.
Our narrator’s rummaging of the familial archive, describes the selective, partial and discontinuous insights to be glimpsed and the medium in which they are conveyed. Having examined the most unpromising remnants of the lost and un-memorialized, (including randomly catalogued personal libraries, personal journals, receipts inserted as book marks in the texts of others, the minutes of soccer league steering committee meetings, supplemented by oral stories, the logs full of the numeric calculations of his father, his catalogue of personal beatings at the hands of players and fans), the narrator assembles something of a world view, one equal parts noise and elegy, omission and insight:
My overview of the game, now it turned out my overview of life, well, it would be hard for me to say that it was perfect. I watched life through the slats of the window blinds. Attempted to piece together, expressed in my father’s jargon- to capture the positions of my team-mates on the pitch – I composed a mosaic, using scenes I gathered peering through the slats of the window blinds, moving from one to another; now squatting, then standing on my tiptoes, leaning against the windowpane (41).
The Referee’s archive is a particularly fitting metaphor for the resulting narrative practice. A valid command of and perspective upon events in an enterprise contested over decades, producing outcomes equal parts intimidation and art, comes into view. Its medium is a pitch that can be by turns shrouded in falling darkness, scorched by the lucidity and fire of high afternoon sun, beset by thermal mirages and trod into quagmire or hard pan and its bleachers and sidelines embroiled by the partisan loyalties of multi-generational fandom while leaving unscathed a Platonic memory of the field as the ideal green sward of one’s youth and community. Our narrator assembles from his archive an account of the deftly arbitrated and artful war for supremacy-within-continuity that is football, the role of record keepers and memorialists to assure the game is practiced consistently on this side of ruin, corruption and crippling injury. This pattern of order and craft articulated at the intersection of contending sides in matches that are organized by the league which stages them, is valorized as a kind of open-ended and critical double of the narrator’s narrative practice, preserving pattern, meaning making and accomplishment among the flows of potential disorder and contention.
Tackling Foul like a comic lost and implausibly extended entry from Kiš’s Encylopedia of the Dead depicts a humble and resourceful cottage industry of abiding ingenuity and survival with storm clouds of former conflicts and conflicts in the making looming overhead. Set during the early days of the troubles, the narrator’s family home houses his mother Mila’s anti-Milosevic pirate radio broadcasts during the height of the Yogurt Revolution that consolidated the Milosevic dictatorship. The resulting multi-media encyclopaedia of minor league competition across an archipelago of small-scale communities, the multi-generational threads of family and the incremental and decentralized maintenance of lower case culture and working accommodation grown up around them, is recovered from the obliterating shadow of Milosevic era ultra-modern violence, dictatorship and its ersatz regalia of ancient heritage, faith and the vilification of difference.
The narrator and the protagonist of Victims of Biedemeir share two never-to-converge poles that lend speculative depth-of-field and deconstructive power to fiction making, the contribution of language itself to the shaping and articulation of reality and the role of imagined action in representing meaning, character and value. Together, artful design and the unintended meanings and influences it sets in motion, map the fallibility of human life, which can never anticipate or conceptualize by iteration the omniscient perspective in the imagined eye of God to which it aspires. The imaginative writer given the self-existing nature of his medium can generate, but cannot both invent and defer to orthodoxy and realism. He occupies a void that is neither history or reality, something more like a netherworld between self-inferring patterns of words and the meaning readers come to find in them. The writer’s constructions, gratefully, are not bound by the limits of our understanding and, at the same time any instance of composition is in fact a foray beyond what we can exhaustively know or uses others make of it. A novel is a kind of range-finding via the obliqueness of word in relation to word. Its overshooting and undershooting of objects the writer wishes to render, opens up a space never to be closed between representing and knowing. Šajtinac marks just this space as the terrain of his novel. Language hovers above the muted and inchoate nature of reality prior to or independent of language. To write is by nature to (over) state, and meaningful imagined action is an equally fictive tableau, but one that can be scrutinized for all the resulting contingencies the actor cannot know at its inception. The writer evokes a character who does little more than occupy the point of composition that produces a smudge of writerly self-reference to sound, soundings or surroundings. The dawn composed of vaporous degrees of greyness solidifies as a bank of the Danube that situates both writer and character, equally and in parallel quandaries, beset by chronic pain and failing health, “Plucking at images and sentences, building embankments and the locks around them, the acceptance of the first growth along the shoreline, of being colour and sound. “ As the writer writes, the actor Vukašin Pomorišac reads the Tuesday, April 2, 1991 New York Times for any documentation direct or oblique of his son’s death a decade prior by suicide in a plunge from a prominent Manhattan high rise during rush hour. The return to the text is provoked by Vukašin finding a cryptic reference to death trips and liberation in a borrowed occult encyclopaedia found in the apartment of Ratislav’s surviving brother Slaviša, setting in motion fears that his other son is at risk of some kind of cult-like exploration of death as liberation, a possible contagion inherited from his dead brother. There is neither the hoped for direct reference by news item, nor the obituary of his son’s death by suicide in a foreign land at peace, while oblique references to the mounting “troubles” in the former Yugoslavia are mentioned in passing. The organ of imagined metropolitan and global community, the NY Times makes space on the front page for an obituary and homage to the founder of modern dance Martha Graham, the signing of pitcher Doc Gooden to a three year contract with the New York baseball Mets and an article by Chuck Sudetic depicting trouble brewing between “Serbian rebels” and quotation mark-free Croatian police next to a drawing of the Plitivice lakes, “That text is controversial, imposing, almost prophetic; it hints perhaps at war, here where he is now, or here where he came from” (12). If Ratislav’s death escaped coverage in the Times, his steps prior to his death can be reconstructed from his effects returned by the New York authorities. Photographs in Battery Park with the Statue of Liberty in the background, the “CBGB” marquee Mecca of punk rock, the Book Tower from which Ratislav will leap. However, the copious documentary evidence does not reveal elements of an impending personal crisis. In fact, we will learn that the suicide is launched during what seems to be a realization of dreams, first-hand experience of the New York music scene Ratislav admires and a desire-at-first-sight affair set against the backdrop of books, visual art and the location scenes from a vault full of admired American films. The photos suggest personal pleasure of a long anticipated kind could somehow coexist with or even incubate the choice to destroy the self. The discontinuity between pleasure and desperation evident among the denial-ridden sound-tracks of American life comes into view only when a letter (the original misrouted by chance -written communication is it seems always hit and miss) comes to Vukašin providing a behind-the-scenes narrative of Ratislav’s photo album. This structure, in which visual documentation and the expressed values, beliefs and preferences of Vukašin’s offspring do not of their own yield explanation, has its parallel as the writer-arranger of the novel launches Vukašin upon a study of the life and work of Konstantin Danil.
The master of the Biedermeier school of painting is commissioned to decorate numerous Orthodox churches with icons central to the definition of the Church as an interval of sacred space in a fallen world. In actuality they prove as ambiguous as they are iconic. They are products of lucrative commissions by wealthy bourgeois benefactors that make Danil one of the wealthiest painters of his age. They are also an attempt to express by formal and worldly means (line, shadow, light, pigment, precious metal and decoration) uncompromised figurative renderings of the spiritual, as etheric and unalloyed as prayers elevated above impulse and self-interest. The most sacred stations in the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Fathers of the Eastern church seem opulent, yet consecrated by the authority of the Holy Church whose earthly buildings thereby merge with the realm of the timeless, a heavenly continuity that overarches the practice of human faith and frailty on earth. However, the pictures are also, chalk lines laid on by Danil’s assistants, too linear approximations of the painterly line that will flow from Danil’s esthetic and temperamental impulses that impel movement of the painter’s brush. Luminous, decorative, ornate, even luxurious, they seem a reality apart from and even an imperious contrast to the pallet of the landscapes and communities in which they are installed. The patrons are bourgeois and self-aggrandizing, the painter aspires to esthetic perfection, the religious dispensation under which he labours cannot be realized on earth, but is given iconic and decorative expression on which prayers, the social status of the patrons and the esthetic ambitions of the painter ascend.
Vukashin becomes fascinated by a subset of Danil’s work, the contested, unsigned and missing works attributable to Danil and their undecideable status – can they be authenticated and their value established on the art market, in the annals of faith and of the lands whose fruitfulness provided the material wealth extracted from them? Would only these unsigned works transcend the worldly calculation of fame, profit and orthodoxy of gesture and message that informs the work signed, commissioned and lavishly rewarded? The painter ends a commission with a visit to the completed main icon of the Holy Virgin a rendering of Sofia von Deli and of the Lord Jesus Christ. He composes a prayer while kneeling at the intersection of patron, savior and examples of his mastery of earthly representations of the unrealized unity towards which religion aspires without ever necessarily arriving:
The one who dared to look in this direction from that side of the holy doors into the eyes of the Master, the edified Konstantin Daniel, the creator of beauty, can see incomparably better than the human eyes can see.
Look, Lord Jesus Christ, just this moment when Your human sight only lasts a moment, a blink, how from the work it is separated and with Your Holy Church is wed, for ever and ever, Your servant, the creator and painter Konstantin Daniel, the year of our lord eighteen fifty-five, here, in Zlobica, in Serbian Banat. And forgive him, this servant of God, all his pride and free him of all his human weaknesses, Your child, and let him gain from You and believing in You, Lord faithfully serving, for ever and ever Amen. (93)
Situated between the double gaze of the worldly beauty of Sofia von Deli in Danil’s effigy of the Holy Virgin Mary and the all-seeing gaze of his representation of the penetrating vision of the human Christ at the threshold of his transfiguration from man to God, Danil dedicates the work conceived as art and executed in human frailty. In a shutter-click of discontinuous vision (gaze of neither god or man) it is merges the Church an earthly institution that transcends time and which by its authority memorializes the lives and works of its founders and saints. But, what of works of art and artists, “living beings, who rot in heaven?” Their lives are terminated like those of all other humans, while their notoriety remains in circulation long after their passing – neither it seems, truly God or solely man. The distance that opens up between work and time, a trick designed in part to evade the wages of time, seems nonetheless moribund under its own weight, ironic approximations in pigment, gaslight and mannerism of the spirituality it hoped to render and perpetuate. The ultimate disparity between the figuration on which communication of God’s timeless and omniscient rides and the humble wonders of the prosaic world outside the Holy Doors are juxtaposed – an apotheosis of separations. The ponderous display of accumulated artistic striving and worldly pride recedes and alacrity returns, the prosaic replaces solemnity and prayer, the meaning and the limits of the master’s work sketched through the eye of one of Danil’s assistants, newly alive it seems to the ironies of esthetic mastery:
And then if there was a foggy or icy veil in the air, before our eyes, crossing ourselves, we stood up and when we turned toward the other door through which we had entered the church and there we came upon the sunshine, the courtyard scattered with brightness of day, blooming fruit trees and bees busily gathering honey and not one of them trying to be the first or even the best among them.
There is a natural world – immediate, self-authoring and luminous – in which line, brush stroke, shadow, light and colour represent by figurative approximation and ornament. Similarly, the writer’s syntactical articulations both gesture toward and displace the events that flow behind and beyond the acuity rendered by verbal representations of worldly and otherworldly realities. The post-modern delineation of the double self-presences of language, the world’s self-offering and their irreconcilable distance, graphs the unarticulated, the amorphous and the activity of nearly inexhaustible form making and its invariable remoteness from the destination desired.
The theme of The Farewell Gift has a nearly apocalyptic doubleness that builds on the sibling themes of twin-ship and sibling bonds destroyed in each of these fictions. Here a brilliant sibling grown more anomic and erratic as he comes of age, establishes an acerbic and dismissive attitude towards his hero-worshipping brother and close companion as well as toward the intelligence and design of the world around him. Near-identity, overlapping intellectual interests and small increments of difference produce catastrophic and humiliating disparity for the narrator. He is left with only the unexplained disappearance and death of the elder brother and a non-descript tin of funeral ashes to identify the endpoint and significance of the elder brother’s descent into madness. What explains small differences ramifying in to disfiguring qualitative differences that dwarf and denigrate? The device of the double is used to examines the mirror-like family resemblance of two male siblings to explore the gestation of a disparity so inordinate. Closeness it seems can produce semblance, cooperation or rivalry, but not necessarily a vantage point that amounts to true knowledge or dispassionate insight:
Had I been able to observe the two of us at play, I would have realized that those subtle differences were big enough to account for one of the most pathetic Ping-Pong matches in the history of the Table Tennis Club on Anton Chekhov Street in Novi Sad. I lost fifty-six sets in a row playing my brother. Thus the expression “crushing defeat” acquired an entirely new, quantitative meaning for me.
The brother’s memory of arcane and technical matter is photographic, though not invariably tied to appreciation or engagement with the material mastered. His powers of retention like his command of esoteric knowledge across a broad range of disciplines is wide-ranging, yet utterly transient, abandoned whenever knowing comes to seem indistinguishable from social one-ups-man ship, feeding a sense of domination and superiority. His mastery of chess, table tennis, verbal put-down, the technique of classical painters, comparative mythology are each jettisoned in turn, in a kind of ruthless pursuit of knowledge to deflate, denigrate and discredit, a caustic epistemology that borders on descent into mania or schizophrenia on the eve of his exit from the sibling’s and parents’ lives forever and without notification. The disappearance of the elder brother is shadowed in short order by the expatriation of the younger to Manitoba for work and to evade conscription. The digression that follows juxtaposes two narrative modes, an open-ended catalogue of the madness merged with genius of the brother’s pursuits, and the digressive, discontinuous monologue of his virtual double in which these elements are floated. The two narratives threaten to merge and destroy, though the monologue recalls, circles back, perhaps presenting in narrative time, perspective unavailable in real time. Memory it seems is knowing; forgetting feeds pathology and blindness. The narrator indeed seems to have found a kind of haven and vantage-point in exile from which to view the housing estate and university bad-boy act of his charismatic other. Domesticity and rebellion, the colloquial and the elite, the prosaic and the arcane filter the other. The nearly merged perspectives together form a kaleidoscopic and fragmenting hybrid of bookishness, artistic pretensions, fringe hooliganism and contempt for poseurs, snobs and any form of celebrity. A carnival of intelligence, punkish attitude and dissolution in the name of authenticity makes an oddly nostalgic, yet acerbic period piece, brightness become inexplicable, a vaunted independent streak melting down as the inferno breaks out in Yugoslavia. The narrator’s unbroken digression upon the single subject of his brother’s exploits threatens to disappear into the compulsions that may have destroyed him. However, digression, evasion and denial, build layer upon incongruous layer of hard-fired recall of a brilliance that flamed-out before reaching its coming-of-age. The narrator produces an oddly unhappy and candid memorial. He clearly mourns deeply, but the portrait is far short of endearing; the brilliance depicted proves more incendiary than illuminating.
If the reader would prefer progressives and populists, draft-evasion and emigration belonging and dispossession sharply distinguished, or a chronological analysis of where promising lives and times went wrong, the Farewell Gift withholds just this kind of conclusive summation. The action begins with a pronouncement “My brother is dead. One could say a box of ashes is all that is left of him, but even the box is empty now.” It ends with an equally bleak instance on apparent if non-discursive closure, the inadvertent firing of the ashes into the glaze of the equivalent of funeral urn by the narrator’s wife in her pottery studio. The insistence with which the narrative has expanded upon, without ever leaving behind, the pronouncement in which the digression is anchored, becomes lapidary, glaze-like, without concealing a single flaw or anomaly of its subject. “Brother” and “dead” become terms equally fixed, inalterable, profound and fatal. The stoneware jar glazed by, but void of the consumed ashes, is a highly-finished conundrum. The hold of kinship and fraternity upon us, the ridiculousness of the evasions of the ultimate at the centre of familial legacies are equally on display. Around them, obliquely referenced, a sobering recent episode of European history in which the demons and drives that subvert self-consistency and mutual ties were given learned as well as primal impetus to destruction. Much of the memory of the mid-century events it mimicked had actually faded and fed North Atlantic by-standing. The fraying of ties to create personal or national independence, did little to replace brutal pursuit of self-interest and self-display with concerted reform and affirmation, or to install common over self-interests and the will to power. Centrifugal forces, without centripetal order, strong impulses without equally enduring ties. The narrator depicts attachments frayed in an anomic, technically and intellectually accomplished multi-cultural New City on the edge of the conflagration-to-come. The fictive funeral vessel produced by the rapid succession of biographical non-sequiturs and the sustaining pressure of the narrator’s pre-occupation with its digressive reiteration, suggest what can and can’t be made of the loss of the nucleus of common life in a troubled time. The flow of loss may ultimately evade the discursive, preoccupation. Perhaps the digressive impulse makes only a memorial object that grows in compactness and finish without edification, hard, Zen-like in its reserve and imperviousness to interrogation or forgetting. Loss can be hermetically sealed, opaque, pregnant yet inarticulate with the suppressed force for order and distortion. The funeral vessel seems at once frozen, furiously self-constrained, stranded far from the borders of its origins, yet saturated with the effigy of the heart and humanity it conceals. Our narrator seems to both engage and articulate a place outside the forces that produced the implosion of his brother’s life, and renders them as the still centre of disconcerting mayhem and loss. He also may complete the narrative miracle of re-entering the madness without imposing on it a false order, or using the material as a self-elevating settling of scores. There is a sense that “enough” is made of the long monologue. An end that will simply abide has been crafted; a thing of permanence memorializes a life and its brush with the forces that made of all bright things detritus.
I recently sent e-mail to my son after a silence and separation of some duration, motivated by my unremarkable recognition that my love for this thirty-something as child and adult, busy lives on opposite sides of the ocean notwithstanding, endures. The expression took two odd forms: a rant against the sources of the torrid crop-destroying weather of the Western Balkans and a nostalgic revisiting of our affection for American baseball, a small ember of regard for our shared home team fanned by ace pitcher King Felix Hernandez, who has authored a winning streak (one perfect game, four one-run victories) for the baseball ages during August. Added to my weather “update” (a three month stay untouched by rain), I ranted about the interest groups, the media empires and the carnal house capitalism that has obstructed and dithered as climate change smouldered and grew in its capacity to savage our globe as we have known and been sustained by it. My son would have to find buried in the odd preoccupations and excesses of my e-mail, evidence of a father’s desire to protect, nurture and share in references to childish things (sport) and a Jeremiad about tabloid culture and environmental Armageddon. How I love this child, and how unlikely he might know it from the medium I employed to express it. Happily he responded, recovering in the opacity of words his own need to connect and reciprocate.
What we write seems to both displace and yet become what we see, the medium of what we can know and the shape we can impart to it. It shapes whether and how we connect, sometimes in ways that serve and sometimes subvert what we intended. Never transparent, never neutral, but much more complicated than the truism that saying more or less makes it so. This space where our acts of writing make of our worlds what they will, is to a great extent at odds with the interaction between writing and memory that organizes Victims of Bierdemeier, Tackling Foul and The Farewell Gift and a vein of Serbian post-modern writing that makes visible a floating world of unexamined and unarticulated loss. These works are contributions to an at once fictive, yet encyclopaedic examination of the still-born lives of survivors and their lasting contribution to opportunities and burdens of life in Serbia during our time.
A dear relation recently mentioned for the first time the context of her divorce during the troubles that accompanied the end of Yugoslavia, the epical rhetoric and incendiary agents that promised momentous goods to be mined and historic evils to be rectified amid atrocity and destruction. All would hope the precipitous change and the grandiose narratives of mission and redressed historical wrongs would produce change for the better, and many incongruities and much degrading of personal and public conduct seemed understandable, a feature of the turbulence of transition. Only in retrospect, has she come to see that the hope widely invested in a change she had not wished for was used to install the abuses of transition as “new normal” one that has proven repressive, dysfunctional, yet formidably resilient. Two post-conflict decades of impasse, ubiquitous corruption and missed opportunity, carry the weight of belated and unacknowledged grief and dis-figuration. The past epoch, which harboured the common life whether in hamlets, cities or towns, whether destroyed by design, intervention or the collateral damage inflicted by both, have consigned no small numbers among the living and the lost to limbo. The young have inherited a sense of place truncated and embattled, a landscape where heritage edifices mushroom among shuttered factories to mark the new borders.
History moves on, but the missing loom above and around, inhabiting the ruins of a half-century of accomplishment effaced. Cultural, political and personal wrong-turns go un-examined as well. This drama has been so contested by force and obscured by ersatz traditionalism as to assure it will make likely be obscured indefinitely in public forums and official culture. Waves of democratic revolution in the face of dictatorship and repression, localized resistance to the ideologies of partition are consigned to forgotten micro-histories of the 90’s troubles and the post-conflict present. These three works – and I would argue much of the Serbian Prose in Translation catalogue – take up and engage significant omissions in official history and public discourse – among them the home-grown democracy of the prosaic, the local and the pastoral interrupted by conflict, and death under uncompromising centralization and endless transition to nowhere. As a species we have relied according to Aleksander Hemon in the wrenching account of the death of his daughter Isabel, on narrative when destruction threatens obliteration and extinction, “We processed the world by telling stories, produced human knowledge through our engagement of imagined selves.” I would insist only on the addition of “remembered” selves, selves memorialized in writing and telling. It is not hard to imagine readers upon engaging the imagined selves of these three novels will be provoked to archive the remnants of their own uprooted selves, relations and offspring. It won’t be easy – I know, but it is equally hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be a restorative and humanizing experience of great value.
‘More new writing from Serbia – post-modern excavations of the common life’ is featured as part of TransConflict’s initiative, TransCulture, which aims to showcase efforts to explore and transcend inter-ethnic divisions through a variety of cultural means.