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from the June 2017 issue

Lida, Danilo, and the Others

Biljana Jovanović's novel Psi i ostali, published in Yugoslavia in 1980, explores the life of a tragic and dysfunctional family in Belgrade in the 1970s. The matriarch of the family is the ailing, elderly grandmother, Jaglika, who is of mixed Hungarian-Montenegrin descent; the rest of the family are Serbs who have grown up in Tito’s Yugoslavia, with its increasingly urban and modern style of life. The family members include Lidija (also known as Lida) and her troubled brother, Danilo; their largely absent mother, Marina (Jaglika’s daughter); and Marina’s two brothers, Lidija’s uncles, identified only as F. and K. Milena is a family friend who becomes Lidija’s lover.

 

Marina, my mother, had two brothers; in addition to having hate-filled dreams about them, I also had real experiences with them when I was a child. In fact, those experiences form part of my “liberated” memory.

At the time, the two of them lived here; they used to come periodically to our place on Svetosavska Street, and their thousand and one pieces of junk would come with them—oh, screw it—they never brought anything; they came over and gossiped and ran off at the mouth, spitting, chomping, and, like everybody in the building on Svetosavska Street, shamelessly exploiting pathetic, beleaguered old Jaglika, my grandmother: she cooked for them, washed, cleaned, and, to top it all off, we took her pension for ourselves; she took care of all of us on Svetosavska Street, languished day and night, and declined, inevitably declined. We bustled here and there and didn't even take her on an outing, not to mention a summer vacation.

First I dreamed about my maternal uncle, F. He was the older one, taller and skinnier than Uncle K. It was approximately a year ago, and the long and short of it was this: in his room—in his house in Ljubljana (both of them live there now)—I killed him, with a listless movement of hand and knife; there wasn't terribly much blood; he was standing with his back turned to me and the patio and an important picture on the wall—everything simultaneously: picture, patio, me, and my uncle's back; I couldn't resist, and why would I? I stuck him with the short blade, planted it right in the center, between those shoulder blades of his that I thought were too close together (that's how skinny he was), noiselessly and effortlessly: Uncle K. didn't make a sound; then, somehow—I’ve always known that I was as strong as a horse, and that there are things that I could handle that not even a horse could, and not even in a dream could a horse carry such things . . . I carried him onto the terrace, where a great cauldron was already set up over a fire (like in a fairy tale); I thrust him in and cooked him, until the water (his blood) turned completely white—now that was some wondrous alchemy! Afterward his body grew stiff and shrank—the handle of the knife, however, was still jutting out, completely undisturbed, from the middle of his narrow, gaunt back, like from the center of the cosmos. I removed him from the cauldron—he had been reduced in size so much that I only needed to use one hand—as if I were picking up a big loaf of black bread, let's say—in the grocery store; I've known for ages that in actuality I'm pretty much as strong as a mouse—and I slung him up onto the railing and shoved. A hundred years after that, some people appear, let's say they represent the “dream police”—they're all sweet, sympathetic, but also pretty shrewd, something that was very much in evidence after these one hundred new years. They asked if I had any ties to the rubber doll down there in the garden; by that I mean down there in the park; what connection did I have to this figure made of some odd composite that was so irresistably reminiscent of Mr. F.? I betrayed my own secret to them, naturally enough: I said that the doll down there, of rubber, was the head of my former uncle F., of flesh and blood. Several of them smiled, and then off they went, all together. After three hundred more years, they returned; and now Marina was with them. She was the first, and this can be attributed to her innate fastidiousness, to see the great stain on the carpet in the bedroom—the room in which Uncle F. had had a knife stabbed into the middle of his back. It was, I assume, my uncle's blood, which must have been dripping, leaking out of the wound the whole time, until I transferred him, with the strength of a horse and a mouse simultaneously, from the room to the terrace and into the cauldron.

 

My dream about the other uncle took place in circumstances that were no less grim. All the relatives had gathered for a family celebration—there were so so many of them that they seemed to spill out like ants into Svetosavska Street, both the living and the dead. Uncle K., who was younger and heavier than Uncle F., I castrated with a razor blade; although I'm no longer sure whether it was a razor blade or a pair of those scissors for clipping nails; but it seems most likely that there was a dark brown penknife in my hands—in one hand, just in one hand. First we all played some dreary party game: we hid ourselves in all possible locations. A few of them came into the wardrobe; Daniel's and my clothes started falling out; in that part of the dream, a towering burst of rage came over me: I attacked people, with the intention of throwing them out of the wardrobe, or out of the house; after Marina intervened, they remained, there at Svetosavska Street, but now they were hidden; instead of being in the wardrobes and cabinets, they were under all the tables; as if it were a present, I got a dangerous look from Marina—which had to mean, and still does mean, this: “If you dare do it, I'll kill you after they leave, you little bastard, you scourge of God!”

 

The next dream sequence, the main one, actually, was: sexual intercourse with Uncle K., and immediately afterward the castration; he didn't make a peep, just as Uncle F. didn't, when I plunged that knife into the middle of his back. Uncle K's phallus was wrapped up in a wad of rags; nicely, that is to say politely, and that means in a soft (courteous) voice, I asked Jaglika to toss it down the garbage chute when she went out. Jaglika merely nodded her head and crammed her son's phallus into her pocket. After that point, the events got less dramatic: Marina's husband showed up in a clean white shirt and a tie with dots all over it (red and blue, quite the prosaic combination) and a pipe in his mouth, to boot. In the corner of the room an unknown woman was seated; she was wearing an old-fashioned evening gown and sitting right below the portrait of a man on the wall who's also unfamiliar to me. When I caught sight of them, I went directly over (both to the man in the photo on the wall, and the woman underneath the photo); and a moment later I took down the picture, sliced it into pieces (but I carefully set aside the pane of glass) and then began making a few pictures of my own—which I then later glued to the table. Jaglika in a tuxedo, although perhaps it was Marina, I don't know. Marina was more corpulent, wider, as if she'd been inflated. She was pulling me out onto the dance floor, and ultimately I felt like we were just hopping around in front of the woman in the ball gown.

Once, a long while after that, when I told Danilo's doctor about this dream, he said to me—and good Lord I never doubted his skill, even if I did harbor suspicions about his virility; most assuredly I had no doubts about his skill—he told me that the picture on the wall and in my head was actually my father, and that cutting it up was the expression (what an expression!) of my ambivalence toward my father; and then he went on to tell me that the woman in the evening gown beneath the picture was in part my mother, and in part not, and it was even to a small degree me. Psychiatrists, not all of them, but for sure all the stupid ones, and thus all of them, come to think of it, simply pull a formula out of thin air, as casually as if they were striking a match or having a bowel movement: ambivalence and so forth, right on down the line.

So what happened involving me and Marina's two brothers, the skinny, older one F., and the chubby younger one, K.? One day, F. and K. burst into (with the best of intentions in their hearts) the place on Svetosavska Street: from the moment they crossed the threshold, they were strutting around and bragging about their plans for that afternoon; it was a Sunday, and I think it was at the beginning of spring. They had come to pick up Jaglika, Danilo, and me to take us to Topčider Park. We took a taxi; or, I mean, actually, we should have gone by taxi. From Svetosavska Street all the way to the National Theater we went on foot, sometimes on the sidewalk and sometimes in the middle of the street. Danilo was ten at the time, and I was eleven. The first thing we did was go into a poslastičarnica, a bakery or pastry shop, there in the vicinity of the theater. I was looking for some cream pie, and Danilo wanted angular baklava and oblong tulumba. Uncle F. (he's the older and leaner one, with the knife in the middle of his back) said, while Jaglika stood there drinking some boza: “That's a lot, Danilo . . . You're going to get a stomachache.” Then Danilo demanded two more cream puffs. I ate two pieces of šampita, whipped cream pie, as I mentioned (earlier, at the beginning), and then I was just sitting in a corner of the nearly empty sweetshop, rocking back and forth in a chair. Now Jaglika got herself a lemonade, too (what the heck!); Uncle K. was sucking in the smoke from one of his Drinas from Sarajevo, while sitting directly below a sign stating that smoking was prohibited. Then F., the older one, said yet again: “That's too much, Danilo. You're going to get a stomachache. You'll see!” But once more Danilo asked for some cake; he wouldn't stop chewing and smacking his lips, so that I had to think that after this Sunday morning there wouldn't remain a single serving of cream puffs, or baklava, either Greek or Turkish, or Cremeschnitte, for the children who'd be coming by later. Now the pastry chef placed two pieces of chocolate cake and two mignons of fruit and candy on a plate in front of Danilo; and Danilo spotted the hair, long, black, and sturdy (as if it were from Uncle K.'s head, which was, truth be told, impossible, completely ruled out by the fact that Uncle K. was standing a good six feet away from the plate, and from Danilo, and from the pastry chef; however you chose to look at it, that is to say, however one might measure that distance, it was not possible that a hair from the head of Uncle K. could have found its way to Danilo's plate and assumed this position across those two mignons). The only link that could be established between the hair in question and Uncle K. was the marvelous similarity of the hairs on his head and the one on Danilo's plate. It certainly did not belong to the baker; his hairs were light brown, thin, and soft. I believe that Danilo would've passed over it in silence if the hair had come from the pastry chef's head; but because it could not have been thus, he was convinced that Uncle K. had deliberately placed the hair on his plate, and he couldn't restrain himself, I know it; he could not do so by any means, and what happened later was necessary; things just had to happen like that. Therefore, when Danilo caught a glimpse of the long, black, thick hair on the plate (I also saw it at the same moment, and I presume that no one aside from the two of us saw it), he cupped his hand, very calmly, over the mignons and the pieces of chocolate cake, and he simply wiped them silently from the plate. He threw them to the floor, together with that long and magnificent black hair that looked as though it was from his uncle's head, and then with his shoe he smeared the cakes onto the floor. Jaglika was beside herself with horror at this (this was her second boza, which she ordered after the lemonade: oh, good grief!), while Uncle F. jumped up and led Danilo outside, carrying him through the air by his left ear; Uncle K. (who was the cause of the entire scandal) asked the proprietor in a very proper way not to be angry “at this impudence—the kid's going to get what he deserves,” and then he paid him for the pastries we ate, and the cake on the floor, and the mess that'd been made, and then all three of us, Jaglika and he and I, went outside; ten or twelve feet away, Uncle F. was giving Danilo a thrashing. Jaglika said: “He had it coming. This is exactly what he had coming.” Unce K. lit up another Drina (from Sarajevo), turned his head the other way, and whistled nonchalantly—what a lack of feeling! Then I, angry to the point of danger, went up to Uncle F. and, with all the force I could muster, I kicked him in the shin with the pointed toe of my polished, hard-soled shoe, the left one. Uncle F. did not seem to notice, or maybe he didn't feel it, the blow I mean—and he continued beating Danilo fervently and methodically; I struck again, this time in the other leg, and then Uncle F. left Danilo alone (my goal along); but his next gesture exceeded all my expectations, or to be more precise, it shocked me: he smacked me across the face, so fast (the first slap in my life—is this happening to me, the shock you feel at something you never expected) that I burst out crying that very instant. Jaglika said: “Dear God, these children—it's like they're little demons!” and she crossed herself. Uncle F. then announced that the excursion to Topčider was off, and that we were going home. And I thought that meant all of us, but then the three of them turned the other way and disappeared. the three of them, Jaglika and her two sons, F., the older one, and K. the fatter younger one, as they disappeared down the street the other way. Through my sobs, I said to Danilo: “It's all your fault. What're we going to tell Marina?” But Danilo was happy, and quiet, as if he had not just had the stuffing knocked out of him by Uncle F., and he replied: “Let's go across the street, Lida, into that little park! I really wanna do it." We didn't get back till evening, after having gotten some stamps in the park in exchange for all the marbles we owned, which were a rarity in those days (and which Uncle K. brought us from somewhere) . . .

 

 

It was hard for me to grasp, even later; but this is how it seemed to me in my state of mind then: the same things happened to Danilo and me; we loved the same faces, all the same ones, including our own; there was, however, in everything just one itsy-bitsy difference: Danilo acted, he thought about these things, these people, but I shrewdly (cunning is a distinction of the stupid) took up the role of a nonexistent person who does not think about these things, who doesn't act, and is narrow-minded and scorns these things and these faces. I poured forth a torrent of insulting words, curses, and everything else I could onto Danilo's otherwise superior being, at his otherwise more beautiful face; and no matter how much the tide of insolence and imagination grew, I grew correspondingly crueler. More and more—for Danilo's beautiful face remained beautiful and calm . . .

Never, not for one instant, did I believe even a single one of the words with which I usually pushed back at Danilo's daydreams, at Danilo's deliberate tomfoolery; but I spoke with authority, with my mouth full, clear-eyed and with my hands loose at my side; although with my palms slightly turned out, too; like a self-assured person who is unaware that she's uttering the wickedest lies that are both as heavy as a ton of stone dropped onto someone's head and as sharp as a metal blade used to slice a thin precise line through the throat of a lamb or a human being. Whenever Danilo would say, “Lidija, I had another dream about long, narrow hallways. The way they make you dizzy with their curving and twisting." (I felt like I needed to vomit.) "And it made me want to vomit, Lidija!”—I would slip him a lie, like a piece of chocolate in a scrunched-up hand. Actually I would smear it on his confused face and rub it in. Don't be a drag, Danilo. Other people have dreams, too, and they don't make a big fuss about them. Stop thinking only about yourself. Other people . . .” And ad infinitum about those “other people.”

To all appearances, my fabrications regarding “other people” seemed rather innocent. When he asked, the way all children do, “Lidija, are you sure, really really sure, that there's nothing for me to be scared of?” I would also tell him a story about the other people who aren't afraid, while I myself wondered, really, what does he have to be afraid of.

Danilo and I both had incidents on buses. Danilo's had occurred in a crowd, in the throngs of people, other people; he had never been afraid of the extreme proximity of human bodies, or of lousy human smells, menstrual, ammoniac, fecal, urinary . . . as a result, it was perfectly natural for the thing between him and the woman driver to take place right there in the presence of “other people.” In situations like that, all I have are the instincts of a frightened dog; I had always been afraid of these sweaty, anonymous packs of flesh who jostle me from behind and press against my back, against my pelvis my stomach my head. Although other people are just a deftly prepared illusion, I did truly fear that they would gouge out my eye, like on a slaughtered lamb, that they would spit in my mouth, down my throat, like in a public urinal, spilling their stinky syphilitic semen down my leg, the way a dog pisses against a tree . . .

Because of all that, I only rode buses that were almost empty; that time, when my thing happened, there were barely even ten of them, other people, in the bus. Next to the entrance door, a girl was standing with her back to me; I could not see her face; in fact, I couldn't see anything save her tall, elongated figure and the small, round, perfectly round butt in her pants; the eyes of the other passengers like mine, were glued to the fabric of her pants, but I alone reached out for it, with my hand—I think I wanted to verify one very simple thing: that the curve of that perfect ass differed beneath my fingertips from the same lines of the same ass that just moments before was the object of eyes—mine and those of the others—of all the people around her. And as soon as I touched it, everyone on the bus—all of a sudden there were a thousand of them—began to croak, maliciously: “Shame on you” and “Throw her off the bus” and “Pervert” and “Yuck, a lesbian,” but I don't think the young woman even felt my touch. Ultimately, that rear end, round and petite, had no connection of any kind to the girl's body, and not to mine, either.

When I told Milena about this, she waved it off, laughed at me, and said: “Oh, get real, Lida! We both know that satiny little ass is just meat. Tender or chewy, it's all the same!”

 

 

Our friend Milena only came over so she wouldn’t have to be alone when she talked to herself. Later I realized that this wasn't self-absorption, or anything else along those lines; I can even affirm, although it doesn't do anybody much good now, that it was Danilo who first sensed the seriousness of Milena's isolation. Milena's ardent penchant for humiliation (never once did I try to hit her; several times I pinched her, left blue streaks behind; I told her everything that a person can say to herself, to another person, to no one, everything that can be thought up, imagined, and then forgotten) proved to be a grave matter. After all, only out of a sense of seriousness is it possible to permit the things that Milena permitted.

           

The one person who felt guilty was me, always me; Milena was constantly somber; Danilo worried, and sometimes he cried.

I fantasized that it would be possible to spend the rest of life without moving: Milena and I, as a double static figure in Svetosavska Street; Milena with her legs hooked, thighs around my neck, and her head between my legs—never-ending wetness—and all around, the moving world: Danilo and that bug-eyed friend of his, whispering, prodding each other, and walking on tiptoes, going, coming, the both of them peering through all the keyholes; Jaglika and her homecare aide sending postcards with their regards, walking around the big park at Košutnjak, Čeda sticking right by Jaglika's side; my boss issuing various orders, going out to the movies with his wife, never failing to reflect on the fate of the world in front of the shop window featuring fancy leather goods, and yawning in the library; and Milena and I like stalactites.

Of course, I was not able to avoid ensnaring myself in Milena's serenity; no matter what I did, no matter what I said to her, Milena would always just curl up the corners of her lips, grinning, sneering at me with those gleaming front teeth of hers that were so large, and the big, retracted lower jaw, which she would then pull back even more, always but always repeating: “Oh for God's sake, Lida!”

And when I slapped her one time, Milena said: “Oh for God's sake, Lida!”—and she left with a smile on her face. From the balcony I shouted down; I asked her to come back; and she turned around once and grinned again, as if she were waving, but said again: “For God's sake, Lida!” Creep! I ran to Jaglika; I squeezed onto her lap and cried and kissed the backs of her wizened, gnarled hands, slobbering and whispering into her lap (my head was moored to the bottom of her stomach—and her lap was right there on that itsy-bitsy spot way down low): “Baba, may God help us, you and me,” and Jaglika would say, bewildered, “Get off me, child . . . Why me? I didn't do anything to anyone. Go on, move. Move when I tell you to!”

 

From Biljana Jovanović, Psi í ostali (Beograd: Prosveta, 1980). By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2017 by John K. Cox. All rights reserved.

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