Andrej Nikolaidis (1974): MIMESIS
(Fragment from the novel)
A1: I SEE A DARKNESS - Bonnie Prince Billy
Translated by: Nikola Nikolaidis
My name is Konstantin Teofilis
If you believe in the stories of specifics, predestination, and chart lists of nations; you certainly won't fail to notice that I have a Greek surname. My good friend says that it's a fortune to be born in Greek language, a tongue in which the Being first spoke through the words of philosophers, and later, through the New Testament, our good God himself uttered his first words. About these, unfortunately, I there is nothing I can tell you: constantly running away from conquering armies, my family, on its way from Žičište to Ulcinj, lost most of its wealth. Until 1974, and this year is essential for me, until 1974 when newly-born Konstantin starts crying in the Koshevo maternity hospital, after 12 hours of labor contractions that ended with Cesarean section that will please mother Anna and father Ioannis, until 1974 family Teofilis will, by baking bread and pretzels, pulling through World War One, 1918 Serbian occupation of Montenegro, first Yugoslavia, World War Two, I repeat by baking bread and pretzels in a small bakery shop 'prosaically' named (and prosaic names are good for business) "At the Greek's", baking food for all, for Serbian gendarmerie, Italian officers, for dark Balists with long moustache, always baking until 1945, when grandfather Nikola unmistakably using his instincts - for this occasion lets call it Greek - realizes that hard times are coming for small, private, family-based enterprises, and he closes his bakery, until 1974, as I said, family Teofilis will lose the last and the most valuable thing they had, the one that grand-grandfather Naum took with him from Ziciste when he, as a hired coachman of the caravan, took his wife and his three infants and led them to Ulcinj, a new town where they live from than - they will lose the knowledge of Greek language.
Not a single Greek word was ever uttered in the house in which I grew up. Even though he refused to admit, my father was truthfully afflicted with this. His brothers, people who we would visit during the summer, when we would, from Sarajevo, where we lived, go for a vacation to Ulcinj, where, after the Great earthquake, father built a cottage on grandfather's estate, could hardly remember a Greek phrase or two. Occasionally, when the euphoria during family dinners would reach its peak, and when the easier drinking red wine would replace the domestic 'loza' shots, some of brothers would start stuttering some Greek song, something grandfather liked to sing, in the rare moments when he wasn't reading the Bible and wasn't thinking about own mortality and hell, that old Greek man who was a priest, and who at the end became baker. Certainly, you have noticed that I say 'father's brothers', not 'my uncles'. The relations in family Teofilis, especially between my father and his brothers, were static and cold - I am only carrying on the tradition. You Teofilis' are like Greek statues, my mother used to tell me. Even if they didn't desire each other's company, they weren't making things harder to each other. If you already believe that the indifference represents high level of wisdom, you will perceive these relations as rational and fair. However, you are wrong if you assume that Greek language is irrelevant in this narration.
Grand-grandfather Naum immigrates from Žičište, a town near Moskopolje, to Ulcinj. At the end of the XIXth century, grandfather Nikola boards America-bound ship leaving from Kotor. Soon after my birth, my father Ioannis moves to Sarajevo. And what about the uncles, 'father's brothers'? One of them leaves for Greece. Franco's soldiers near Kordoba execute the other one. Third one, retired ship captain, in his 90th year, feeling that death is approaching, one Sunday morning, wakes up all the people in the house and says: we are selling everything and moving to Cantavir, hoping, I guess, that death wont find him in the plains of Vojvodina. Two months later, he dies. In his testament he insists that he wants to be
buried in Cantavir, he writes: I am tired of traveling, burry my bones where I die. If you believe in family histories, and certain lessons that you can find in mythology of genealogy, all of this tells me: travel! However, I am peacefully lying in my grandmother's apartment on Grbavica.
Are you getting the impression that I am narrating this story with passion and tenderness - which surprises me - the reason for this mood is the time of the day - its early morning, and I am still lying in comfortable antique bed. The comfort of the bed is to be blamed for the fact that this morning I am seeing the past as a system of planned actions and expected feedback of existing circumstances. That is the royal luxury for someone who would under no conditions accept to re-live a single day of his youth, someone who, when he looks back at his own life, like every other man who esteems himself, can only say - I See A Darkness. Thru the half closed curtains, morning light enters the room, bringing to my story - an aura. It is true that this phrase involving morning light is cheap, but don't forget: mythology is composed of cheap tricks. When I think about Mona Lisa's smile, as a critic I am automatically disarmed and every mystifications seems - plausible.
When the big decisions are made, people in my country would recommend the act 'sleeps over the night', so that the decision is made early next morning. And the truth is just the opposite: in the morning man is dumb, he is dumb during the day, and in the evening - same thing. However, dumbness is supreme in the morning. Have you ever asked yourself why sex is best in the morning, when it comes as a first thing upon awakening? Simply because our brain - whose capacity we use only by less than 15% - functions slowest and lousiest in the morning hours. The blood that unhurriedly creeps towards the brain can be easily redirected downwards. Sleepy man under the warm blanket is like a happy bride in bridal-dress store - you can sell anything to him. In you believe in literary models; if you are inclined to accept paradigm that says literature, from the Wholly Scriptures up to the present, shapes reality at least to the extent to which reality affects literature, and if you are, on top of it, determinist, you will say: here is another one that already procrastinates in bed in the first chapter - this book will be some quasi philosophy. And if you are enculturated as to believe in all the parameters mentioned above, but your experience is drawing you to nihilism instead to determinism, you will say: these are the worst, these who seem calmly placed in their bed - this guy is some Greek Korchagin, some neurotic revolutionary, or a mass murderer - they are all the same. The warm bed in which I am feeling very comfortable is a heaven for Yugo-nostalgic people, that specific group of local people who are genuinely dedicated to reject the facts and the conclusions of their rational thinking. This bed, bought after the last tenant left my grandmother's apartment in 1991, Greek student from Hydra who studied agriculture in Sarajevo, was manufactured by "Simpo", a company in Vranje, Serbia. This pillow and linen, my aunt's New Year's gift, that my grandmother stored in the closet since mid 80's, and that this morning smells on lavender that was aimed to repel moths, this pillow and linen's brand name is "Leo", Osijek, Croatia. Finally, thanks to Sarajevo's cold May evenings, I am wearing this old ski-sweater, made by 'Rašica', a company from Slovenia.
But, what is it that I am doing this morning, gazing the past, in a bed that could easily be defined as installation, or some other form of modern art expression, that could, under the name "YU: R.I.P." or "Once there was a bed: once there was a country", be exhibited in one of the galleries in some capital city in EU, but however, it rots in my grandmother's apartment and shares the destiny of who knows how many lost works of art?
I am supposed to make the biggest decision of my life.
Only a month earlier, moments before the mailman knocked on my door and handed me two letters - one from Bosnia, and the other one from Holland, I could not have imagined that this morning I will wake up in Sarajevo, a city that I left 10 years ago, firmly believing that I am leaving it for good. I was always inclined to these pathetic-tragic endings: when you kiss, you kiss only once; when you leave, you leave for good; when you go to war, you die. In life, however, you rarely get a chance to use your refined appreciation for tragic; this idealistic, exalted principle, in most cases ends up being used for trivial things. At the end it gets reduced to the following: when you drink you drink until you get wasted, when you for get, you forget completely. Only month ago I was confident that I will never again have to do the frightening act called making important decisions. Finally, after spending few years trying to organize for myself tranquil life, with no traveling and with no any other kind of emotional transactions; a life of fine arts, writing, and everyday rituals, from the early morning coffee-drinking to the habitual afternoon strolls. Strenuously and persistently I worked to achieve that - haven't I than had a right to hope for a success? Mailman Paško is one of very few people whose arrival always delights me ? at least I though so until that day. Pasko was a person who was delivering packages; parcels very dear to me: a book or two, letters from readers and regular shipment of CD's that was mailed to me every 15 days by my 'music-dealer'. There was no reason why I should not like this man, despite, I must admit, my inherent inclination towards misanthropy. I could survive without 'fan' letters, but without books and music - hardly. My peaceful existence, about which I am elaborating to you, was projected like a flat-line on a machine that was measuring hearth rate; long, continuous, flat line of indifference, that would show signs of life only when I would read a good book, or hear a great CD. However, this period would end up soon, returning me to my customary state, one that would signify clinical death. This would last until next Paško's arrival, when the smell of recently printed book, or a digital record on a scratch protected surface of CD, would distress me like a stroke of electric current on the instrument for reanimation. Beyond doubt, you can live like this, so I thought that morning. And than, Pashko knocked on my door. I was reading Kurejshy's "Buddha from the Suburb' and listening to Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion". From time to time, I would look at Nolla, my three month old Rotweiller, just to ascertain whether my friend's Bečanović's theory about the influence of Bach's music on animals, was correct. When I told him that my dog falls asleep anytime she hears Bach's music, Bečanovic replied: Of course. Bach eliminates everything animalistic in humans. And given the fact that animalistic is the only impulse animals have, Bach exorcises animalistic from her, inevitably making her enter the state of nothingness. Indeed, Nolla was sleeping on her rug under the bookshelf. Cautiously, not to wake Nolla, I got up from my sofa and opened the front door to Paško.
One letter was from Sarajevo; the other one came all the way from Amsterdam. Knowing the identity of person writing from Amsterdam, I started being curious: who is it writing to me from Sarajevo?
I sat back on my sofa, opened the letter and started reading:
Dear Konstantin! On behalf of the Organization Committee for the commemoration of 10 years from the graduation - we are inviting you to attend the ceremony that is scheduled for May 7th at 8PM in the banquet room of Holliday Inn Hotel. All of the invited confirmed their attendance, including those coming all the way from USA and Canada. See you in Sarajevo. Alisa Matić and Iman Mehmedbašić.
These names meant nothing to me. Girls are, most likely, married and have their husband's last name. Even if that was not the case, most likely I wouldn't remember them... Because, what type of girls were those who were incessantly being activists in various Organizations and Forums, from high school councils to election campaign crews? Certainly not the type you would want to remember. Certainly not the high school beauties, 'Barbie girls' that were always dating older and wealthier guys?or you simply never had guts to ask them out, so that, even when you are dying 50 years later, you will dream, with the sense of regret and nostalgia, of their kiss, one that you could have, if you were only...
So, that is the reason for this letter, I thought. Golden Jubilee: 10 years since our graduation, our prom, which, by the way, my class never had. We all, however, bought our suits, shoes, shirts and ties; we were prepared for our prom. But, the guys from the mountains started shooting in early April. By May, my best friend was shot in the head by sniper - he was buried on Bare cemetery; and my girlfriend - she had a nervous breakdown because her pather familias made a decision that family leaves Sarajevo and goes to Bugojno: 'to be with our own people', he explained. I learned about it from a letter I received in Ulcinj, interestingly post and phone services were still functioning - I even received my high school diploma via mail. So what have I done after hearing about that? I don't really remember, but I can bet that I sat down in the same chair in which I am sitting now, I played the same music, good old Bach. Stinking fat Bach seated at the organ, as Berhnhard describes him in “The Old Masters” Stinking fat Bach, the person I utterly hate in the moments when I am sick of myself. Stinking fat Bach, whose incomprehensible genius I used so many times to evade complex dilemmas, to commit these shameful acts of cowardly retreat with the help of his music, every time thinking that I am doing the right thing, because I am immersing in God's beauty, instead of dealing with trivialities on Earth.
Finally I opened Tea's letter.
This is a ring. You will put it in your pocket and act according to the following. This is a plane ticket. The plane leaves from Sarajevo on 7th of May at 5.30 PM. When the plane arrives in Amsterdam, I will be waiting for you on the airport. You will walk to me and give me the ring I have mailed you. You will ask me: 'Do you want to marry me?' I will say yes and we will live happily until death tears us apart. This will happen on May the 7th, or never. If you are not on that plane, you will never see me again. As an excuse I could only accept the unfortunate development where plane would crush and you would die on it: everything other than that would find no understanding on my side. In the case the plane crashes I want you to know I will always love you. I repeat: I will see you in Amsterdam on May the 7th, or you will never again hear about me.
Its 10: 30 AM. Its May the 7th 2002: my birthday, as well as Marshal Tito's birthday, even though, and it is impossible not to see conspiracy against him, as well as against me, his birthday was consistently celebrated on May 25th, with an excuse that it's a "Youth Day". If you believe that you can explain the essence of the world in numbers, if you believe, and are a follower of numerology, my arrival to Sarajevo, on my, and Tito's birthday, on the celebration of 10 years from graduation, on the 10 years from the start of the war - all of this will certainly tell you a lot. Last time I slept over my in grandmother's apartment, I almost lost one of my great friends: Amar Bičakčić. It was in 1991, after the Greek student left my grand- mother's apartment; I organized a party with some pot and a lot of white Hungarian wine. Around 3 AM people started leaving and Amar realized, we were, let me quote him, hungry like wolves. If we consistently use this 'animal' terminology, than I would have to say that I was as drunk as a pig. Since there was nothing to eat in the apartment, Amar decided to go to Martin Dvor, to buy some burgers in a fast food joint that was open 24 hours. I am inclined to blame Hugarian wine for what happened that night, but the truth is that lousy weed made me paranoid, so soon after Amar departed, firmly believing that FBI agents were about to arrest me, I locked the door.
After that I crawled to the kitchen where I blacked out. Then I saw a Darkness. In the morning I was awakened by the smell of my hair that was slowly smoldering, because when I fell, I 'placed' my head very close to the radiator. Carefully, I glazed around the messy apartment and realized that Amar was not inside and that the doors were locked from the inside: that was a mystery meriting Poe's capacity. How the heck could he get out? And when? My first neighbor enlightened me; when I was leaving she saw me through spying glass, and momentarily, like a Tasmanian devil, she ran out of her apartment and breathlessly told me the story about the young man who was banging at my door at 4 AM.
The story goes like this: with burgers in his hands, Amar returns from Marin Dvor and finds the doors locked. He rings. After few minutes, when he realizes I am not responding, he looses his nerves and starts banging and kicking the door, cursing me with all available means. Those who are acquainted with the wealth of Bosnian bad words, will know how rich and elaborate this vocabulary is, and they will know how infinite the combinations of these cuss words are. From my neighbors explanation I learned that, at the end, he managed to awake all tenants of the building, and some of them called the police. When the officers arrived, they found him enthusiastically kicking at the my grandmother's apartment door. He tried to explain to them that there was a party inside, and that he left to buy burgers - here, look, they are still warm - and that now, for the reason unknown to him, I am not opening the door. However, vox populi interfered and all tenants claimed that Amar was lying, because some student from Greece was living there, but he moved few weeks ago and there was no party in that apartment; you should better take that young lad to the station and see what is wrong with him, maybe he is one of those - junkies. Cops looked at the apartment door, and really, they saw a Greek surname on it. They rang, and since no one was answering, they concluded no one is inside. They took Amar to the police station, from where he was escorted in the early morning - by his father.
In everything that happened there was but a few things that were making difficult situation for Amar. First, he recently completed a drug-rehab program, and he was finally clean from heroin addiction, but his parents were still suspicious and skeptical about his conduct. Later, it turned out that it was only a first of quite a few rehab-therapies, and later, the poor people 'learned to live with' their son's habits. The entire story becomes surreal on the third day of war, when his father drives him at 2AM, under sniper fire, from Breka to the nearest hospital because Amar came to the conclusion that commencement of war was perfect time for overdose. At that point his activities were very limited and supervised by his parents; for few weeks he could not go out in the evenings. He could leave the house only to go to school, and from there, he had to be back home right on time. Every day, his father's friend, taxi driver, would wait for him in front of the house; he would give him a ride to school, and after the classes were over, he would pick him up and drive him straight home where his mother would wait for him. They allowed him to come to my party because they associated me with decency, proper companionship and absence of opiates. At least they thought so. Parents gave him permission to attend my party, under the condition that he sleeps over at my place, and that in the morning he comes back home with me, where they would await for us, with an inspirational and pastoral detail; as a reward - they will make us good breakfast. So, he knew, when he realized that there was no chance I was going to open a door at 4 AM, what kind of punishment was following if he comes home in the early morning hours, all alone. I guess that the incident in the early morning hours was the result of his desperation, more than anger. Because he knew his verdict ? but he kept asking himself: what have I done? What is my guilt? The guilt was, as we all know, snoring on the floor of my grandmother's apartment. What can I tell you, it's all a result of cheap wine, I told him when I saw him the next day. Anyway, there are worse things that can happen than your father cutting your finances and forbidding you to go out for another 6 months, because your drunken friend locked the door and blacked out. While I was crossing the Bosnian-Montenegrin border I was thinking about the possibility of seeing Amar again.
When you enter Bosnia from Montenegro, you come across the street that was built by Milorad Dodik who was, at one time, boss in Republika Srpska. He built this road before the elections; he needed to persuade voters that he is trying to maintain relationship with other Serb countries - and the road to Montenegro was persuasive enough... Dodik won the elections.
Today, that road is in the worse condition that any macadam road you can find. The pieces of asphalt are lined along the muddy surface that once was a road. The narrow trail is supposed to take you to the country that has bled for years. This is probably the worst road in the universe, I was thinking while driving through the abandoned apple orchard on the way to Brod on Drina. Only truck-drivers from Nikšić and their colleagues from Podgorica's 'Radoje Dakić’, in their rusty trucks, would speed on this narrow path, disregarding those coming from the opposite direction. From time to time, you would share the road with one of many white jeeps belonging to some humanitarian organization cruising the Balkans; these were the people who firmly believe they are civilized and humanists, people who need us more than we need them. Because: would they be civilized if we, the barbarians, would not exist?
You pass through the border. Year ago, the border was controlled by police and customs officials from Republika Srpska. Today, Bosnian officials, along with their colleagues from Republic Srpska, monitor the border. Tomorrow, there will only be Bosnian authorities. If you believe in justice that always comes at the end, you will conclude how the process of Bosnian integration is very slow, but a person, neutral observant, a traveler, notices these changes. mosques - their industriousness becomes almost admirable - today I would be driving on a road that would be as perfect as ones you find in Germany. Destroy, demolish, tear apart, separate - those were the things that interested warriors in this land, people who for 4 years served as protectors of this gigantic concentration camp for Bosnians. Republika Srpska is a memorial to this concentration camp: there is nothing else that could compare with ruthless, pervert existence of this entity, created by mixing elements of epic, barbarian violence with sophisticated, virtual European foreign policy. It is as if you would unite Nazi concentration camps in one state and give them the autonomy: all concentration camps in one state.
Imagine a man who, for the past 10 years, systematically refuses to travel. A man who perceives even the shortest ride from Ulcinj to Podgorica as - a path to Golgotha. For him, it is not 100 km's of asphalt, it is a track covered with nails, a track along which he has to walk barefoot, while people throw stones at him down the road. Finally, that man decides to drive all the way to Sarajevo, because old friend's remembered him, and because the woman he loves decided to bother him with her despicable ultimatums. All of a sudden his home becomes the epicenter of hurricane. The danger emerges and it radically changes the interior of his house - his cozy room all of a sudden is no longer peaceful place of fine arts, now it is damp, gloomy dungeon where he has to make an important decision that will determine all the things that really don't interest him; the problems that he painfully resolved: primarily emotions and plans for the future. That is why he decides to - escape. He decides to face the music, he goes danger-bound, to Sarajevo, where the resolution is - because where lies the danger - there grows the salvation.
And so: here I am in my grandmother's apartment, lying on the bed and listening to Oldham's 'I See A Darkness' on my walkman. What am I doing here, what is expected of me? I have to decide whether I should go and meet my friends at 8PM in Holyday Inn, and again see all survived friends and lost girls; or go to the Butmir airport and at 5.30 PM board Amsterdam-bound plane, a flight that will take me straight to the future - to the marriage with the biggest love of my life. Please indulge me to bring the rhetoric to a higher level and put things in this way: what will I choose ? future or past - Even if I choose past, it will not be because I want to avoid the future at all costs. Or is the unfinished, interrupted past chasing me like a ghost, and turns my life into a haunted house; one that can be released, and spells dropped only when I face all the secrets and solve all the unfinished issues from my past? Or let me be specific and brutal, and put things like this ? will I have balls to move my ass and go to Amsterdam?
If you believe in happy endings; if you believe in human rationality; if you believe that every one of us has a hidden stock of good in themselves, good that will, like old family jewelry that is withdrawn from the secret box in the times of hardship, if you believe that this good will emerge with a background music in a decisive moment - than you believe that in the evening, I will board the plane for Amsterdam and few hours later I will embrace Tea, in the moments when she runs through the airport and passes through the line of customs officials only to fall into my arms. I say: only if you believe in all of this.
Because, I don't.