LITERARY FESTIVAL IN NOVI SAD, SERBIA. AUGUST, 2009
POETRY AND PUNISHMENT
In the provincial town of R., the young and pretty Vera tattooed on her belly, above the most intimate part, the name of the young man whom she madly loved, some legend from the street. Even for the conservative inhabitants of R., this unusual gesture represented somewhere deep inside, sincere and authentic proof of the girl's great love. The young beauty inscribed a love song dedicated to her beloved on the most intimate part of her body. Totally in the spirit of the poetics of Hugo Bahl (of whom she probably never even heard!), who claimed that poetry must be written on one's own skin, on the forehead.
Vera's gesture - no matter how much it was an embodiment of that worn-out stock phrase, "you love only once" - is the sharpest and the most devasting critique of poetry as an empty and unending babble, as a routine and trade-like activity. Poetry cannot be transformed into bread that you eat nor into air that you breathe; poetry will never - and never should! - fill with verses the sky above our heads nor the paths and fields beneath our feet. To poetry belongs only a small patch of our skin, on the forehead or below the bellybutton - it hardly matters which. Inscribed there, once and forever, it cannot be added to, revised, erased. It is up to the poets to deeply cnsider (or to at least have it somewhere in their subconscious) what they will inscribe on the selected patch of skin. Mistakes here cannot be corrected. Renunciations here do no count.
That mistake (if in fact it was a mistake) could not be corrected by Vera, either. The young man whom she madly loved married - for reasons not worth mentionig here - another overnight. The sleepy town, which stubbornly nurtured that most bewitching lie, that poetry is being written constantly, from the first to the dying breath, received this unexpected turn with a malicious delight. What will the beauty do now? it asked. How will she find another beau, how will she bear him sons and daughters when it is known that she wrote and dedicted her love song, inerasable, to another?
Vera did not find another beau (if she at all attempted to find one). She spent the rest of her life in bitter spinsterhood, which she bore bravely and with dignity.
She probably expected such a finale. Because writting, genuine writting, brings to the poet nothing other than punishment. We come here to the already well-known tale, that the gods mercilessly punished even their own brethren when they attempted to transmit the godly to humans, as well as their favourites when they became carried away by the idea that they could become equal to the denizens of Olympus.
Translated by M.Bates
THE GLASS WALL
The boy started to talk late. He is withdrawn, cautious; he waits. He is eleven years old. Eleven and a half, he would say, going on twelve. He lives with his mother, not far from the park on the west end of town. The rent is too high for her income. Her friends advise her to move; she answers by listing all it has in its favour. The school is not far, it takes her six minutes to walk to the metro station; the supermarket is just around the corner, the suburb has not been affected by the spreading violence; the garage, the interphone, the surrounding greenery. She rarely quotes other, more intimate, reasons. She has been there for sixteen years. A feat of perseverance. Sixteen! A whole youth. On Sundays, in the evening, in summertime, she goes out onto the balcony with a glass of wine. I'm going out into the garden, she says to her son, if her son is at home. The boy spends every second weekend and part of the summer holidays at his father's. His father is wealthier than she. A nouveau riche, the boy has heard his mother refer to him. He buys the boy gadgets, tee-shirts with funny messages, and technical gismos that become obsolete at an incomprehensible rate. It's not all about money, his mother often says. A flat, a balcony, three to four hibiscus plants, that is sufficient, could be sufficient. In this climate flowers last only for a day. They spread their petals and wither. Mother loves to imagine warmer climates. In the summertime, in the first sip of wine she sometimes detects a hint of figs, mint, and olives. The following sips are drier. Terroir, karst and sun, shapes hazy in the heat: the air trembling over the cold river. When she hears the sirens of police cars and ambulances fleeting up and down the boulevard, she goes back into the apartment, agitated.
The flat: a cube partitioned into several smaller cubes wherein human traces gather and vanish. Gone are the legions of toys, lego-towns have been torn down, the convoys of cars and trucks have departed; they have been replaced by posters, a computer, and games. A poster of The Incredibles is on the wall now. Tomorrow, who knows? Mother's things are more inert. Medicines, toiletries, cleaning products. Photographs, books, video tapes, notebooks filled with diary entries for which she no longer has the time. A box with documents, letters, and newspaper cut-outs, hidden at the bottom of the closet, behind the ironing board, and underneath the wedding gifts. The boy's father used to hide his collection of pornographic movies there: underneath the porcelain set, the tablecloths, and the bedding with a stitched monogram. She didn't take his surname; it caused a scandal. Who do you think you are, her mother yelled, Klara Zetkin? On kitchen shelves, the brightly-coloured, irregularly-shaped mugs she made during the short spell she became a member of an art therapy group. She bought the curtains on sale. She painted the flat last summer, while the boy was at his father's. On the living room walls, the boy's drawings of a sailing ship. Water colours by her sister. A still life.
She has become used to this space. The patterns of mess make it hers. His. This is our place, our corner. When we came back from the maternity hospital, we opened this door, came into this room. He looked helpless, fragile, as life does at its frontiers: bare, basic, at its beginning, at its end. Life. Short-lived joys, fantasies, ebbs and ties of acrimony. Her routine gives her a feeling of security, it anchors her. She wakes at six, goes to the bathroom, showers in scalding water, inhales the steam and savours the smell of the soap. She prepares breakfast, coffee, and a snack for the boy. The morning programme presenters are jovial one moment and anxious the next. All that interests her is the weather forecast. Temperature, humidity, the chance of precipitations, wind speed, UV index. She chooses her clothes, applies make up at the dining room table, and flicks through a book she has been reading on her way back from work. She fears she has forgotten what it was about. Upon leaving the subway, the detective heroes, spies, journalists and tycoons are covered over by the patina of the everyday. Household supplies, cooking, laundry, dishes, she tries to take her son away from the television and the computer. His friendships are mediated by electronics, by bundles of signals. His friends rarely pay him a visit. When they do, they do not look at each other: they stare at the screen, move joysticks and press console keys. When they leave, the game continues on-line, with someone else perhaps, it does not seem to matter. What kind of friendships are these? Is this friendship? His father supplies him with equipment and games.
Homework causes difficulties. Maths are hard. Set readings are boring. School is boring. His father is a mathematician by trade. He completed a PhD, underwent postdoctoral specialisation, and now he is doing something else, something more profitable. Games, programmes. She did not understand the details; did not want to understand them. He gave a lecture at school, and the students were thrilled by it. Father became a hero figure. Heroes do not do laundry. Heroes do not scrub toilets. Heroes drink H.O. cognac and overpriced wines, they do not go to the supermarket and do not know how much a litre of milk costs; they get biologically correct groceries delivered from a hero shop. They live on a different level, a higher one, travelling from town A to town B, at the average speed of c. When will they arrive? If he does not succeed in doing a sum at the first attempt, the boy rings his father - rings him up using the mobile phone he got from him - and asks for help. Mother feels betrayed and is then ashamed of her feelings.
Morning is her time. Twenty or thirty minutes of silence mean a lot to her. From them she draws the energy to endure the day, although she does not understand why it is so; why one should need to make an effort to endure a day. Sometimes, when the time comes to wake the boy up, she lingers at the table for a minute or two longer. She wanted to offer him more. She expected that of herself. People like her used to build bridges, skyscrapers, and viaducts. They struggled and toiled more than she, but at the end of their working life they were able to say: Behold, we built this. What will she be able to show the boy?
She used to work at the reception of a luxury hotel downtown. Afterwards she was transferred to the booking call centre of the entire chain, in a building at the last stop of the east metro line. She was told she had been promoted. She understood. A woman in her forties at the reception desk: the image of failure, the unwanted intrusion of reality into a wonderland. She commutes for fifty minutes each way to get to work. The salary is slightly higher. She has grown to like the subway. She reads about the adventures of daring people who save the world (save it by dint of love, wisdom, or with their fists). When she grows weary of the plot and the romance, she puts the book to one side and looks at the underground city dwellers. Nannies, chambermaids, janitors, fast food restaurant managers, retail assistants, doormen, bookkeepers, administrators, employees like her. Bodies swaying, listless. Glancing around joylessly. Closer to the city centre, young men in blue suits and girls in black outfits; they laugh loudly, conspicuously, as if trying to let someone know they are there temporarily; they alight at the business district. Eastbound, the carriages empty.
The building she works in is located on a square with a fountain. In the morning, the surrounding streets are almost lifeless. Here and there a pigeon or dog. Abandoned stores with broken window displays, boarded up entrances with "For sale" signs. She spends her lunch break at the cafe on the ground floor of the building. Through the window she sees employees drinking coffee from polyester cups and smoking at the designated spot, three meters from the entrance. She quit a long time ago, for the boy's sake, out of embarrassment, because of the price of cigarettes. Skaters gather by the fountain. Say, a girl walks up to a pigeon and spits at it. Laughs. Or. A boy walks up to a group of employees and asks for a cigarette. When he gets it, he walks away without a word. Words are an exchange, a receipt. I do not owe you anything. Not even a word. Perhaps this is freedom. Not owing. Mother does not feel comfortable walking beside them. There are more of them in the evening.
The booking centre is open 24/7. The hectic activity, the noise of air conditioners and air recycling systems, and the kryptonite lamps that are never turned out make her think of an Embassy on the eve of war. At night on the square, when the few functioning streetlights begin to quiver, the business building shines with spectral wanness. A glow without warmth, moonlight from a different planet. The square turns into a stage. The silhouettes by the fountain become child warriors, feral acrobats, a tribe of young harlequins. She dreads their insults, their jumping, their faces hidden in hoods; she dreads the scorn of irate offspring. She has won her right not to work the night shift. In her bag she carries a pack of cigarettes. Just in case: it gets dark early in the winter.
Figures. Nine to five, six times a week, fourteen days of annual leave. Business school graduates, her juniors by twenty years, record her conversations. Once a month they invite her to their office, listen over a few calls together, point out a few mistakes and advise her how to improve her performance. Say the customer's name three times. An ideal call lasts three minutes forty seconds. Longer than that is a sign of unproductiveness; shorter than that leaves the impression of impolite haste. The time can be filled up with offers. A concert, an excursion, a visit to the footwear museum, a Rolf method massage, a bouquet and a bottle of Champagne in the room, dinner at a famous restaurant. When she switches on the headphones and microphone, a machine records the exact time; when she turns them off, it records time spent off-line. One lunch break, two for physiological needs. The sterile light of noble gases. Eight hours of: yes sir, thank you ma'am, have a nice day, how may we help you. Precise as millimetre paper, a matrix of desks divided by partitions. Above the door, a commandment: LEAVE THE IMPRESSION YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. Leave the impression you know.
She knows what such thoughts lead to. They disperse across history and geography, and condense into a slap that makes her head spin. At such times she says to herself that it is not important what she thinks, what she feels: she is not the centre of the world. She enters the boy's room, caresses his hair, calls his name, takes his hand as if trying to lead him, tenderly, from children's dreams - which she imagines as a safe and beautiful place - into reality.
She may be overdoing it with affection. She may be the one in greater need of touch. He used to seek her hand during their walk. The tiny hand would slip into hers: take me, protect me, do not leave me. Soon he will not allow her to hug him. His act will toughen up, and mother will only be able to watch him drift away, setting the boundaries of his own world.
May he raise a rampart, raise it high. Oh yes.
The boy wakes with a start - he often does - opens his eyes wide, as if astonished he is back there. His expression soon grows softer, calmer. "The eyes of a poet, the look of an old soul". Who said that? The voice of her sister, inside her. She has never seen him, the boy, yet it was her voice: that is what she would have said. She experienced human cruelty, but was fond of lyricism, of romantic reveries. Eyes of a poet. What does that mean exactly? Melancholy, compassion? Or cold observation, merciless documentation?
He was born too early, in times she would rather forget. The names, that faraway, unknown, exotic land about which he harbours vague notions, mean nothing to him. It is better that way. He has been there a few times. The food is fatty, the people yell each other down and smoke. Mother is different when she is there. She becomes restless. Her words are echoed in the murmur of other voices, in an endless babble of contradictory statements, accusations, and justifications. The boy does not wish to speak his mother tongue. He understands it, reads it (in Latin script), but refuses to speak. Hello, goodbye, thank you. That is all. Friends hold it against her. Her family hold it against her. You'll become a foreigner to your own child. A foreigner to one's own child. Does it not always turn out like that, in the end? Being here only makes it more visible. Language lies between them, transparent and impervious, like the glass wall of a mime. It seems to her that the boy is ashamed of it. 'You don't poor coffee, Mom, you pour it.' He corrects her and she is grateful to him, but has not failed to observe that the shadow of his father's expression occasionally flits across his face; appears and disappears. Who knows what his father has been telling him about her.
What they have told him about themselves, about their history, is too simple. The arithmetic of divorce. Three minus one equals two. When he mentions mother's friends, he sees a cynical smile on his father's face. When her friends pay a visit and think he is asleep, the boy leans a glass against the wall and through the din of dishes and music (the music of her youth), he hears his mother's voice, notes the tone in which she pronounces his father's name. He is sure they are hiding something from him. Perhaps they want to tell it to him, but they are trapped by the rules of their own game; a game of delay, denial, and deception.
The boy is patient.
Translated by Alison and Vladimir Kapor
From Sophie, Don't Die!
Yesterday, during dinner here at the hotel, the governor general of the Bosnian duchy, Oskar Potiorek, had been present. He, too, was a supporter of armed confrontation with the conspiratorial Serbian monarchy in the east. Franz had given a speech at dinner and had stated that in the last number of years, the Austrian authorities had diligently made an effort, indeed had done much, to have the inhabitants of Bosnia feel satisfied with the developments, and to have them feel that they were better served in being inside the realm rather than outside. In the 36 years since the duchy had been linked to Vienna, roads, bridges and harbors had been constructed. Trains were whistling more often along the railroad tracks and arriving at larger and newer stations. In the cities, factory whistles summoned people to work. Miners were extracting the riches of the land from the mountains. In the villages and the cities, new schools were rising, and more people were gradually learning to read and write. New newspapers were published. Theaters and operas filled up as never before. The duchy was beginning to look like a modern European country.
Franz had mentioned all of this, and as many times before, Sophie had beamed with joy over her husband's felicitous formulations.
And after dinner, the governor general said to her that as usual Franz had been brilliant, but that he probably underestimated the Serbians who, in contrast to the progressive Bosnians, continued to raise hogs and produce their dynamite plum liquor. In Serbia, time stood still. Modern Europe was at a far remove, beyond the mountains, said Potiorek, and that was a bad omen, wasn't it? Not until recently had people in Belgrade acquired windowpanes of glass and started to put away their Turkish clothes.
But then Franz stepped up to her, something he often did when she received attention from a handsome general after dinner. Picking up on a remark, he smiled and told Potiorek not to worry too much about Serbia.
For what hadn't been accomplished in the service of peace here in Bosnia? The four religious communities in the duchy lived in peaceful coexistence with one another. The Catholic Archbishop, The Orthodox Metropolitan, the Jewish Chief Rabbi, and the Muslim Rei-ul-ulema negotiated common issues, and every congregation and every religious community could to a high degree tend to its own business without interference from the Emperor's representatives. Yes, Bosnia had even obtained its own democratically elected assembly, its own parties and its own parliamentary body, which he, on his part, considered at safety valve that could ease the sharpest of differences. There had to be conflicting views. The world simple did not make headway without debate and disagreements, but hatred among brothers and suppression of the rights of others must not be the outcome of such differences.
Well yes, responded Potiorek, all of this is certainly so, but isn't His Royal Highness a bit on the optimistic side? In the last few years, the conflict between Muslims and Christians has again intensified. There have just been a major strike and demonstrations in the rural areas. Ever-present poverty is always a source of discontent.
But you must remember the land reform, exclaimed Franz. The land reform, which now has been implemented, has generated more freeholders among the farmers, and has improved conditions for the most abject among the poor. And we can mollify the strong nationalistic sentiments among Serbian-speaking inhabitants by expanding their self-governance and by giving the Serbs in our realm greater prospects for living out their national culture, unfolding their uniqueness within the parameters of our duchy.
Perhaps so, said Potiorek, all of a sudden quite pensively. I do not agree with Your Royal Highness, but you do have a point. Bosnia is a miniature of the empire. You are right about that, and the long-term goal is, to be sure, to give each and every person within the borders of our realm the opportunity to unfold his individual freedom, to learn and to use his language, cultivate his religion, and develop solidarity with his origin while simultaneously being a world citizen of the empire.
Perhaps the governor general had had a bit too much of the wine, thought Sophie, for now he also told Franz that even if he disagreed with His Royal Highness on most points, he had to admit to being impressed with the vision he set forth. It was, of course, totally impossible to implement, but expressive and inspiring nonetheless.
But you do disagree, said Sophie.
Yes, of course, he replied. And I am not the only one, also the Emperor, the chief of the general staff, the officer corps, the minister of foreign affairs-everyone.
He gave Franz a sidelong glance.
But His Royal Highness makes an impression. Believe me, he does make an impression.
English translation by Rune Engebretsen