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from the June 2017 issue

Brother

This excerpt is adapted from David Albahari's novel Brother (first published in Serbian in 2008). The novel's protagonist is Filip, a writer living in Belgrade whose novel, A Loser's Life, idealizes his childhood and family. Filip receives a letter from someone he has never heard of, a man named Robert, who claims to be Filip's older brother. Robert writes that he has just arrived in Belgrade from Australia where he, too, was working as a writer, and would like to meet with Filip. The very fact of the existence of this brother he knew nothing about brings into question everything Filip thought he knew of his life.

They agree to meet at the Brioni, a restaurant named after the late President Tito's lavish Adriatic-island summer residence. The restaurant itself encapsulates Belgrade's postwar transformation: a squalid bar remodeled into a luxury watering hole for the Belgrade postwar elite who made their millions as war-profiteers and through the sleazy dealings that so typified the post-Communist economic transition.

During the dinner Robert upends all of Filip's cherished childhood memories. He produces a letter from their father that corroborates his story of how, during a dangerous political moment in the 1960s, their parents actually sold Robert, for a diamond necklace, to a couple who were unable to have children, who then moved with Robert to Argentina. Robert is obsessed with the necklace but Filip deftly evades Robert's ever more desperate demands to see it. In response, Robert's behavior grows wilder as the night progresses.

David Albahari's novels and stories often revolve around two bickering characters, in this case Filip and Robert. His narratives engage us with the implicit suggestion that the quarreling characters may be read both as distinct individuals and as a single person inside of whom the quibbling voices clash. Nowhere in Albahari's opus do these two possible readings merge, interlock, and challenge us as richly as they do in Brother.

 

Robert was still rocking back and forth, now more powerfully, so the chair beneath him creaked and rasped, and the heads of the other customers began again to turn toward them, and Filip finally had to reach over, grab Robert by the arm, and say, in a firm voice: "Enough, now this really is enough." Robert stopped the rocking, then he opened his eyes slowly, and for a moment he looked like someone who had wandered off and wasn't sure of where he was. Enough, he repeated, now this really is enough, and Robert looked straight at him and said: "You don't believe a word I've said." It hadn't occurred to him to doubt, but from that moment on he couldn't stop thinking about the question of believing. Why would he believe Robert? How could he know that this truly was Robert or, if he was Robert, how could he know that what Robert had been telling him really happened? Until that moment, Robert hadn't offered him any evidence, no photograph or document, except the twenty pictures in which he was always alone, and, despite trusting his heart more than the statements of a witness, still he would like to see something tangible, something that could dispel his doubt the way an evening breeze disperses the clouds that obscure a sunset. All that time Robert was eyeing him, openly showing he was hurt. Then he snorted, and with a wave of his hand he leaned over and pulled a red file from his bag. Without a word he rummaged through it. He rummaged for a long time, as if leafing through a telephone directory, and then he set down in front of him an old envelope from which someone had cut away the corner where the stamps had been. For a time the two of them stared at the envelope, and then Filip took it and pulled out a sheet of thin paper. He immediately recognized his father's handwriting, though he didn't say so to Robert. He took the sheet of paper and began to read. In short, it was a letter in which his father confirmed Robert's story, while clearly evading anything explicit. His father expressed his hope, the letter said, that the little angel was prospering, that he'd enjoyed the long journey. We all like a change, after all, no matter how old we might be, said the letter, so presumably the little one was no exception. A person so easily grows fond of angels, the letter went on to say, one need only spend a few hours or days with them and you already begin to miss them. We trust in God, said the letter in closing, that what we've done was the right thing and that we will all ultimately be sufficiently happy. He thought that he'd start to sob, but the tears didn't come so in the end he just smiled. Robert watched him closely, and then he took the letter and put it back in the envelope. He hoped now everything was in order? asked Robert, and Filip nodded in assent. His father's letter had indeed put everything in its place, dispelled all doubt, and, at the same time, partially destroyed the sense of mystery that had cloaked the whole event. He finally realized that Robert had probably heard the whole story from his new parents, and he guessed this might have happened when one of them was near the end of their life's journey and wanted to ease their heart of the burden. He could picture Robert coming attentively over to feeble father or fading mother, falling on his knees and taking up the proffered hand, which then slipped from his grasp and moved to his head. He couldn't hear what the father or mother said to Robert, but he sensed the horror of the shock that must have come over him. There was suddenly nothing left, and all that was reliable was emptiness. The world caves in at moments like that and it seems as if it will never reformulate itself. If you look in the mirror you see nothing, you aren't there, as if you never were. Of course, all of life is like that, Filip thought, and in the end you have no idea why the beginning existed in the first place, but at least you live in the conviction that everything is precisely the way it seems to be, and when they pull the rug out from under you and you start to fall it's terrifying. That is how he felt when he learned he had a brother, an elder brother no less, and that must have been how Robert felt when he learned that his parents were not his parents and that he'd been purchased for a handful of jewels. Filip deliberately avoided the phrase that he'd been bought for a lousy necklace, because he didn't want to provoke a new onslaught of Robert's rage, but such a miserable action contributed to making everything else seem equally miserable. He’d never thought that the truth about him and his family might be anything different from what he’d described in his novel A Loser’s Life; and, after all, if he’d thought of them differently he never would have written the book he wrote. Now he’d have to rewrite it, or, better yet, write a new book in which his newfound brother and he would sit at the Brioni and try to make sense of the chaos their lives had become. The book, of course, would have to mention the part about how the Brioni was no longer the dive bar it used to be; now it was a fancy restaurant with a menu in multiple languages, and this fact might serve as a handy segue to the part where he’d explain why a shared life wouldn’t be possible and why, after all that had happened, they were left only with chaos. When he entered the remodeled Brioni, it didn’t occur to him that this fact could be treated as emblematic of all the other changes going on, but now he saw that everything was intertwined and improvement to one side would bring deterioration to another. In order to add something,  something must be taken away elsewhere, that’s one of those calculations doable without knowing any math. All this, thought Filip, could be handled easily enough, though the same couldn’t be said for the dilemma that had now become his obsession: the question of how to write about what his parents had done. In A Loser’s Life, they were portrayed in an ideal light as unerring, self-sacrificing parents who never hesitated to do everything they could possibly do for the welfare of their children. The story of the necklace and the sale of their child did not fit into that narrative, but if he didn’t include these new facts he was lying to his readers and to himself. And to Robert, who was sitting across from him, eyes half-shut, reminding him, for a moment, of a cat eyeing its prey. When he weighed everything in this light, Filip thought it might be wisest to give up now, but he couldn’t because the wheel had already begun turning and the pendulum swinging. Fate has a logic all its own, and nothing can be done, especially when it goes berserk and shoots off on a trajectory no one expects. Meanwhile, Robert was amazingly quiet, as if he’d settled something with himself and had found peace, or had decided that what was happening was of no concern to him. It’s incredible how we mount our own barriers, first you’d die for something to happen, then you die wishing nothing were happening. No matter which way you go, you aren’t satisfied, you drop things, your memory melts like ice in the sun, no matter where you go nothing changes, as if you’re marking time. Then he asked Robert whether he had ever felt as if he were marching in place, and Robert, without hesitation, answered in the affirmative. There were moments, said Robert, when he even felt that the ground under his feet had been packed stone-hard by the power with which he’d pounded it down with his shoes while marching in place. Then the waiter who was removing dishes from the table started whistling the “River Kwai March” and both of them burst out laughing. The waiter glanced over at them, shrugged, and went on whistling, and Robert stood up and began marching in place. He marched with growing zeal, swinging his arms briskly and lifting his knees high, thumping the floor with all his might, he pushed his chair away with his heel and it skittered over to the next table, and then Robert bumped into their table which didn’t tip over only thanks to a hasty intervention by Filip, and then he began emitting full-throated bloodcurdling shrieks. The shrieks were truly terrifying; when he'd read the adventure stories by Karl May as a child Filip imagined Indians shrieking like that when they went after the scalps of pale-faced invaders. He felt absolutely certain that they’d been described that way and he was also certain that the horror stirred by Robert’s shrieks was genuine. The whole café stared at them again, including the cook, who peered out of the serving hatch. Robert uttered his final shriek, though it was more a whimper, and dropped into the chair next to Filip’s. His own chair was still lying on its side next to the neighboring table and nobody showed any inclination to right it. He could see the waiters conferring in whispers and at a corner table a vehement dispute appeared to be underway; a man kept leaping to his feet, the others dragged him back and made him sit, and all of them kept turning to face Robert and Filip, somebody even shook a fist at them. Robert dropped his head, resting first his forehead and then his left cheek on the table. He was panting, his mouth agape, and Filip could see Robert’s tongue and teeth quite distinctly and a string of spit dribbling from his mouth. His eyes were closed and, if he hadn’t known Robert was alive, he’d have written him off for dead. In a sense Robert was, indeed, dead, at least in Filip’s heart. At first, his heart had been overjoyed at the prospect of having a brother, it had beat inside his chest as if prancing in a hip-hop dance, and then it gradually slowed, cooled, and in the end informed Filip he could no longer rely on it, just as he could no longer rely on Robert. Oh Robert, Robert, Filip repeated to himself, why have you forsaken me, but Robert was silent. His eyes were still shut, and only a gentle shiver along the rim of his right nostril suggested he was breathing. Filip reached over and laid his hand on Robert’s head. He smoothed his hair, feeling the beads of sweat on his fingertips, seeing how the locks of hair rippled back. Robert sighed. His was such a long and ponderous sigh that it sent Filip back to thoughts of death. Not his own, of course, but Robert’s. He wasn't picturing Robert himself, he summoned no images. It was the sentence “Robert is dead” that he thought of and this is what he saw. He saw a sentence that was more final than an image could ever be, because after it, after the sentence, there was nothing left. The sentence notwithstanding, Robert was alive. First he shut his mouth, then he opened his eyes, then he lifted his head slowly and looked around. “Damned parents,” he said in a soft voice, “look what they’ve made of me.” Filip wondered whether Robert might be about to sob, and he was already bracing himself for new unpleasantness and the intrusive stares of the other guests, but Robert grinned and announced that everything was fine, especially now that, after so many years of searching, he’d finally found his brother. The only thing that he regretted, said Robert, was that he hadn’t come here sooner, where his life with his brother would have been so much nicer than his life had been in Australia or Argentina. Filip said nothing, not because he had nothing to say but because all of this was starting to bore him. Inside, his loser blood was stirring, and instead of the sentence “Robert is dead,” which had, he confessed, soothed him immeasurably, he now saw the sentence “Robert has betrayed me,” which left him unmoved. When he thought of all the joy and dread with which he’d anticipated this meeting, he couldn’t fathom his own absence of emotion and empathy. He wanted to go, walk straight out of the Brioni, and forget everything, though he had to ask himself whether one could ever forget a newfound brother. The heart never lies. First it rejoiced and then it retreated, crawled into itself like a snail into its shell, and announced fair and square that this brother, Robert, genuine or otherwise, was no longer interesting. Apparently, nobody was interested in this brother anymore, but then he heard a ruckus and turned to see that the man who’d been quarreling with the others seated at his table had finally pulled free of them and was lurching toward him and Robert. As he staggered, the man veered into chairs and tables, though it was unclear whether he was drunk or merely agitated. Filip did his best to ignore the man. The man, however, came right to their table, swaying a little, and leaned on the armrest of the unoccupied chair. That was the third chair, empty, while the fourth chair was still toppled by the adjacent table. Listen, you fags, said the man, time to go. Vamoose. He had come to have a nice time at this café and not to be subjected to such offensive rubbish. If they didn’t quiet down he would personally boot them out, so wise up. He was barely able to stand, and as he turned he began to stumble and Filip leaped up to steady him. The man refused the offer of help, shoved Filip’s hands away, and said he would have nothing to do with homos. Don’t you touch me, said the man, because he didn’t want to contract some vile fag disease. He swerved back to the table where his company was seated and no longer turned around. He didn’t even turn when Robert suddenly howled, in English, “Hey, mate! Fuck you, mate!” Robert alarmed Filip more than the man who’d threatened them, who probably knew no English, though it was hard to believe a person could not know that most familiar of English vulgarities. He tried to explain to Robert that it’s risky engaging a person like that man in conversation, especially when he’s drunk, but Robert was already counting this as a victory and wouldn't listen. At that point Filip still didn’t know how the elements of future events had already fallen into place, how pathways, coincidences, departures, and encounters had been predetermined and how there could no longer be any reversal or change of direction. Once, long ago, Filip had dipped into the I Ching, but when he saw it only gave him as much wiggle room as he needed to serve heaven and earth with patience he dropped it. Sure, on the surface everything confirmed that you’re a master of your fate and you could change and adapt it to your needs, but that was an illusion. All of fate is an illusion, though he would rather believe in at least a modicum of control over fate. Up to a point, we choose for ourselves; from that point on someone else chooses for us. The art is in recognizing the point and helping to determine it. This was what he meant to explain to Robert, but, as before, Robert wouldn’t listen. He had no interest in fate, shot back Robert, and with creeps like that asshole there’s only one way to communicate. He took a deep breath but before Robert uttered a word Filip clapped a hand over Robert’s mouth. Robert’s eyes rolled for a moment over Filip’s hand and then they went still, and not only his eyes, his whole body slumped, it shrank and sank into the chair. In seconds, the brazen flinger of curses had become a defeated manikin, and this worried Filip even more. He warily pulled his hand away from Robert’s mouth, still fearing a furious outburst. Nothing. Crumpled on the chair, Robert looked like an advertisement for despair, the only part missing being the caption about anti-depressants that lift the spirits. Then, while gazing at Robert, possessed by presentiments he couldn’t explain that upset him even more and heightened his sense of dread, Aristotle popped into his mind. The brother he had just seen for the first time in his life started to fade before his eyes as he groped for an answer among Aristotle’s musings. Something was very wrong here, and he should have chided himself more seriously, but too late, he was already awash in passages from the Poetics and soon he saw Robert and himself as exemplars of what Aristotle described as tragedy. He could not, of course, recall all of Aristotle’s statements, his acquaintance with the classics had been piecemeal at best, he said, but he was sure that the customers and waiters at the Brioni could be deemed the chorus, the Brioni—the stage, and the participants—the audience. They were a performance, he said, watching itself perform. He tried to explain this to Robert, to draw his attention away from his self-obsession, but Robert didn’t understand or chose not to listen. Impossible that he knew nothing of Aristotle. Someone who has written about Borges would have to know of Aristotle and another thousand or so creative figures from ancient China to our times. And he had to know the essential premises of the Poetics, because they were huge in shaping the genesis and development of all literature. Then, as Filip was talking about Aristotle, Robert sat right up, looked around, rose to his feet, picked the chair up that had toppled over, and brought it back to the table. Some numbskull, said Robert, knocked over the chair and didn’t put it back. He set the chair in its place, stepped back, and looked at it the way one usually looks at a picture just hung on the wall. He was not entirely satisfied, so he went back, adjusted it a little, first to the left, then to the right, and then he sat back in his seat and said: Aristotle is interesting, but he had it all wrong, the genesis of poetry, the role of rhythm, the significance of mimesis, and the necessity of a unity of time, place, and action; what he offered was the most ordinary form of cultural dictatorship, the kind that insists that a good work be written in such and such a way and no other, this being the worst advice to give to a person who would like to write something good. There is only one way to write something good: by destroying everything that would, following Aristotelian logic, be considered a hallmark of what is good. He had said all of this in one breath without looking in any particular direction. Then he focused a long, pleading gaze on Filip and asked him whether he’d say now where the necklace was. Filip hesitated before he answered, fearful of Robert’s reaction. He finally mustered the strength and a little primly, enunciating every word, said the necklace was in a safe place and that Robert had nothing to worry about. Damned parents, muttered Robert. He covered his face with his hands as if ashamed and said that Aristotle wrote the best text about parents, but this one, like most of his texts, had been lost. In it, Robert went on, Aristotle describes parents as parasites who only have children so that the children will take care of them, though they accuse the children of exploitation. Robert even believed that Aristotle’s texts had been destroyed, at least in their original form, only because parents had been determined to destroy his words on parenting so they destroyed everything they could grab. For this very reason, said Robert, since Aristotle’s works are not originals but imitations, the literature written under their influence is not original but a pale imitation. Only a few writers, Borges among them, succeeded in shrugging off the deadly influence of Aristotle’s ironclad, dictatorial Poetics to create works that were original from their first word to their last. All that, said Robert, could be read in his senior thesis on Borges and in the articles he’d written for assorted magazines, collected in his book of essays. He hadn’t brought the book with him because of the weight restrictions on airplane luggage. And, besides, when traveling all the way from Australia one carries more than usual and every ounce is precious. Robert was of the opinion that Australia, for many people, was more exotic than Africa. Africa, he said, had appeal for the descendants of white colonizers because they were torn between being colonizers and identifying with the colonized. Every outcast, he said, could relate to what he was talking about, as could any émigré. It’s always the same story, though he couldn’t say why he was bringing it up at all: he was no émigré, nor was he an outcast, and he didn’t want to stick his nose into other people’s business, but sometimes a conversation takes a turn we don't expect and at that point walking it back is difficult. And so Aristotle stayed with him despite Robert’s remonstrances and occasionally reminded him of their similarity to ancient Greek drama, the way a parent prods a child to eat the rest of its cereal and finish its breakfast. Then he remembered that he hadn’t asked Robert what they’d called him, Robi or Bobi. Earlier that had seemed so critical, though now he was no longer sure: Robi, Bobi, Bobi, Robi, there wasn’t much difference, perhaps because he'd already gotten used to calling him by his full name, but still he asked him what his best friends called him, Robi or Bobi? Robert shot him a surprised glance, as if no one had ever asked him such a question, and then he burst out laughing. He laughed with a wheeze, with halts and gasps, and soon all the guests and the waiters at the Brioni were staring at them again. Then Robert began thumping his hands on the table and his feet on the floor, and Filip saw out of the corner of his eye how the man was pulling free again of his associates and Filip laid a hand on Robert’s arm and asked him to quiet down. Robert stopped immediately with his awful, forced guffaws, but in response he tenderly took Filip’s hand in his, turned it, brought it to his lips and planted a moist kiss on Filip’s palm. Filip jerked his hand back, not daring to glance anymore in the direction of the table where the man was sitting. Robert looked him straight in the eye a while longer and then he said, “It wasn’t Bobi, or Robi. They called me Alisa.” Filip grinned, but when he saw Robert watching him solemnly his smile froze. He tried to interpret his gaze, keeping an ear out for any sounds coming from behind his back, but he failed. Before him there was only emptiness and the more he tried to focus on Robert’s response and his gestures, the emptier the empty space became, until it finally filled him completely, though perhaps it would be more precise to say that it emptied him completely, he became his own absence and all he felt, the only thing he felt, was fear that he wouldn't succeed in returning to his old form, that he would always remain brimming with emptiness, hollow, unreal, and mute.

 

© 2015 David Albahari. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ellen Elias-Bursać. All rights reserved.

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