The child, a girl, is running ahead; she has a tiny face, long, thin arms and legs—in all, she makes you think of a puppy that you know will grow into a big graceful dog. It’s hard not to notice her bright, wide-open eyes and the almost unnaturally long lashes. Those eyes make her look a bit unreal, like an elf. She’s got a skateboard under her arm, even though it’s the middle of winter and the snow has just fallen. She gets to the elevator, which luckily has stopped precisely at that floor, and she waits—her parents are saying good-bye to someone, repeating the same farewells yet again: very best wishes, love and good health, yes, especially good health.
There’s a passageway downstairs—the girl takes advantage of it to have a go on the skateboard. Just a few seconds, but it’s enough: the child’s joy is absolute, it lacks nothing.
"Put your hat on," her mother tells her before they go outside.
The hat is light blue with a big pom-pom. The girl’s little face almost disappears underneath it, only her shining elfish eyes are visible.
"So winter has come," the child says with satisfaction, as though she’d won a bet.
A fine snow is still falling; in the street light it looks like silver dust. The man bends back the wipers and sweeps off a downy layer from the rear window with the edge of his hand. The woman stands motionless for a moment. She remembers the winters of her childhood—and that same joy which her daughter is feeling now. What separates adults from happiness, she thinks, is memory, which is by definition tied up with things that used to be but are no longer.
The little girl clambers into the child-seat at the front, the mother sits in the back, the father starts the engine and, very slowly, moves off. The snow is fresh, untouched, just like the Arctic used to be, or the tops of mountains and bottom of the ocean. The trees look like intricate sculptures; the city, transformed, pretends it can’t remember a thing. The mood of the winter night stirs even the adults; the father begins to sing a carol, but he can’t remember the words so he and his daughter make up their own. The main point of their antics is to amuse the mother, which sometimes succeeds and sometimes not—this time, it does. When they’ve run out of ideas, they put on some music—they chance on Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide and try singing all together. Life may be short, but all the same these festive moments do happen such that you might almost— you’d like to think they were immortal.
They drive out of the housing development onto the main road, there isn’t much traffic about.
"It might be slippery," says the woman from the back seat.
Fortunately, they don’t have far to go. The man glances in the rearview mirror; their eyes meet for a moment. Those elfish eyes—the child gets them from him. The woman smiles and takes off her glove, perhaps she means to ruffle his hair, but at that moment, briefer than any intention, the man brakes violently and the woman hits her face against the back of his seat.
"What’s going on?"
The man doesn’t answer. He veers left to overtake the silver BMW that nearly caused an accident barely a second ago, but the BMW speeds up and, without signaling, crosses into their lane and brakes. The woman looks at the little girl and sees that her fear is as absolute as her joy was before. They turn right, someone’s honking their horn; the BMW draws up beside them and slowly begins to push into their lane, forcing them onto the verge.
"I’m calling the police," says the woman.
"Yes," says her husband and brakes again, then tries again to overtake the BMW.
The woman taps out the number. The operator answers. The BMW speeds up sharply and drives right under their wheels. This time it halts slanted across the road and there’s no way out, they have to stop. The woman is explaining to the operator where they are: by some miracle she manages to remember the name of the street. She’s shouting because a man—well, a boy, really— dressed in black has gotten out of the BMW, he lunges at the driver’s door and yanks the handle. The operator is shouting at the woman to wait, they’re sending a patrol car. The woman shouts into the handset. An automatic voice answers: "Please wait, please wait, please wait." The boy is banging his fist against the window.
"Open up, fuckers, open up," he’s yelling.
"Don’t open it," says the woman because she realizes there are more of them over there; girls, too.
"Fuck you, dickhead, you cut right in front of me!" the boy yells.
In the rearview mirror, the woman sees the face of this man, her husband, changing.
"Don’t open it," she begs.
She’s sure that the guy’s going to smash the window when suddenly, brakes screeching, they lurch backward. They hear a horn and another car passes them at full speed. The woman holds out her phone, shows the boy, and mouths "Police" through the window at him, like a fish in a tank. The boy runs to his car. "Please wait, please wait, please wait," repeats the automatic voice in the handset. The woman hangs up. They manage to overtake the BMW. They mount the pavement, land on the road right at the red light, and drive straight through; another horn sounds, but a moment later they’re alone on the road—and it’s over.
"Can you see them?" the woman asks.
"They’re back at the lights," the man answers in a colorless voice.
The child sits with wide-open eyes, motionless, clutching the skateboard.
Two more cars overtake them, neither is the Beemer. The phone rings—it’s the woman from the police switchboard.
"Is everything all right?"
"We got away," said the woman, sensing that any minute now she’ll burst into tears.
"A-ha. So everything’s all right?" the operator double-checks.
Yes, everything is fine.
"I’ll call off the patrol," declares the operator and hangs up.
They park in front of their apartment, take their things out of the trunk. The woman tries to catch the man’s eye, but he’s not going to look at anyone right now, he’s shuttered tight. The woman puts her arm around the child. And only then does the child cry. She cries like she can’t have cried since she was a baby, she’s sobbing so hard that she can’t even catch her breath at moments. Her mother comforts her, tries to turn it into a joke. They go upstairs slowly. Finally the woman manages to make the child laugh, she says how proud she is of her father and how some people only know how to shout "fuck" and "dick," probably no one has ever taught them any better. They go inside, the father still in his coat, unpack their things, the mother runs a bath for the child.
The little girl is in the bath and the woman stands under the ventilation hood in the kitchen, smoking. Outside, the snow is falling thick and heavy, the world is blurring, the city is losing its contours. Slowly, the woman blows out a great cloud of smoke. Snowflakes in every shade of white fill the window like enlarged pixels. What is it that’s devouring us? the woman wonders. And she thinks that what separates adults from happiness are things that were not there before, but now they are and demand our attention. The man, still in his coat, switches on the Christmas tree lights. A colorful multitude of little reflections appear in the windowpane.
© Julia Fiedorczuk. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Anna Zaranko. All rights reserved.
International Graphic Novels: Volume XI
The story is set in Lviv, Ukraine—formerly Soviet Lvov, and until 1946 Polish Lwów. In this chapter it is still Soviet Lvov, where the narrator lives with her grandmother (whom she calls Aba), her great-grandmother, and her opera-singer mother, Marianna—until Marianna, as a leader of the Ukrainian independence movement, is shot dead during a public rally in 1988.
Every evening Great-Granma locked the front door according to her own elaborate ritual, as if she believed she could protect us from uninvited guests, the same as the ones who had called at her home in 1937, taking her husband away with them forever. She never went back to that story, though Aba regularly reminded us of it: “That evening they rang the doorbell. Papa said it was a mistake and he’d be right back, kissed me good-bye, and left with the strangers. I never saw him again.”
It happened in Leningrad, where Aba and Great-Granma were living before the war. It’s no surprise that at an early age I developed fears of an unexpected ring at the door.
And so Great-Granma always checked first to make sure the outside door, painted in a dark color, was securely slammed shut, then she turned the key in the lock twice, hung up a solid metal chain and sealed it with another, white door, which she locked too, but with a different key. This arrangement couldn’t be opened from the outside, which used to annoy Mama, who liked to come home late, and either had to wake the entire household, or have Great-Granma stay up for hours, waiting for her return.
Each of us had her own set of keys: the long thin one sang falsetto and opened the dark door; the short one with an unusual rounded end sighed in a bass tone and dealt with the downstairs gate; the flat, modern one fitted the letter box and was plainly incapable of producing any sound at all. Only Great-Granma had a key to the white door, and nobody knew where she kept it in the daytime.
This door caused me dreadful anguish. Double-locked, chained and bolted, it aggravated my sense of insecurity, as if I were inside a besieged fortress, and if only single-locked it scattered seeds of danger, seeming to expose us to the invasion of strangers with the power to destroy our world.
The dark, outer door was lightweight. I was capable of giving it a violent slam to express my daily, quite understandable emotions—I’d be furious with Aba when she told me to dress up warmer before leaving the house. The dark door had a “Judas trap” in it—a round peephole made of plain glass, covered on the inside with a small piece of threadbare fabric. Great-Granma perceived dangers in it as well—first, as soon as the little curtain was raised, the person on the other side would notice that he was being watched, or would know there was someone at home, and second, as Great-Granma saw it, he had the chance to attack through the peephole.
“First just make a tiny chink, to be sure if it’s a strange man or one of ours,” she taught me. “A strange man might shove a metal rod through the glass and you’ll end up losing an eye!”
The stranger was always male.
If someone buzzed our intercom, we had to run out onto the balcony and look to see who was at the main front door, and if it was someone unfamiliar, we had to shout: “Who do you want?”
It was an intimidation strategy—the person down in the street didn’t immediately realize where the voice was coming from, and in bewilderment, staring like a blind man, would start looking for the questioner. Being a floor higher up gave us an advantage, enabling us to repel the attack by saying: “There’s no one here by that name!”
There were frequent mistakes, which caused Aba and Great-Granma immense distress. Suppose a man came along looking for somebody called Pavel Ivanovich Petrov. Nothing out of the ordinary, but at once you could hear the tension in their voices. They’d spend ages wondering who the stranger might be and what it all portended—nothing good, of course.
We lived right in the city center, and quite often someone would start banging on our door at night. The bell ringing unexpectedly, when we were already in bed, was as thunderous as the trumpets of angels heralding Judgment Day, and cut off the soft domestic past from the violent present like a knife—it could be them, and they had absolute power over people, free rein to do anything at all to them—kidnap them, kill or torture them. The servants of darkness were bound to be dressed in black.
The white, night-time door was doleful, imbued with melancholy. It moved heavily on its hinges, gave out a dull noise, and had no peephole, and the long key was difficult to turn in the lock. If I got up in the middle of the night and saw that the white door was shut, I was seized with a sense of despair and claustrophobia. Its uniform surface made me think of the Russian word glukhoman’, meaning “wilderness"—the white door embodied remote, boundless Siberia, long transports of convicts, an endless snowy plain, and the clank of manacles.
As I have said, between the dark door and the light one there was also a chain. During the day it served to ventilate our pitiful, windowless kitchen. Thanks to the chain a chink appeared that let through noises and air, but not people: the perfect illustration of a state of limbo, an unsettling sense of being at the same time here and there. I would seek opportunities to put an end to this uncertainty, so I’d open the door wide, ostensibly to give the kitchen a thorough airing, or I’d shut it on the excuse that it was cold. What a delight it was to open or close the door at will, what a sweet illusion of power! Whenever I opened it, the mirror hanging in the hall would reflect the stained-glass window on the stairwell, and instead of boiled carrots the kitchen would start to smell of a forest; and then when I closed it, in seconds my childish faith that here at home we were safe returned.
Great-Granma didn’t trust the chain. Whenever it was stretched between the door and the outside world, she would say we had to listen out, in case someone came up and tried to chop it in two with wire cutters.
And indeed, sometimes rapid footsteps were heard on the stairs and a figure would appear on the other side—two supple fingers would slide into the chink, turning every which way in search of the blocked end of the chain, one would go tense to grab hold of it, while I, instead of reaching out a hand and helping from the inside, would lend support passively; when further grappling ensued, as the fingers fought with the metal, I’d be dancing on the spot with emotion, until the knot was finally untied: the fingers would flick off the metal bonds, the subdued chain would strike against the wood, the door would open wide and in would burst a goddess—airy, noisy, lively Mama.
The door-locking rituals were repeated for years on end without change, but the more the Soviet Union shook in its foundations, the more heart Great-Granma put into them. Although she never said it aloud, I suspect she was no supporter of the Soviet regime, but nor was she a fan of those who wanted it overthrown. Most likely she was one of those people who only perceive the specific nature of the system in which they happen to live when it starts to peep in at the windows of their homes. The one that had appeared in 1937 had marked her for life. So the more often the people came out onto the streets of Lvov to campaign for independence, and the louder they spoke about things that had once been wreathed in silence, the more strenuously she made sure our front door was securely locked at night.
When about a year before her death Mama suddenly changed her language from Russian to Ukrainian, the rite of locking up was enriched by a new element. Once she had completed the usual ceremony, Great-Granma propped a wicker basket full of dirty laundry against the door, and from the next day she went on doing it for good. That was also when she started talking more and more about “Bandera’s men,” as she dubbed any Ukrainian patriots. Whenever we were left alone together, she’d tell me how the train carriage in which she’d been traveling to Lvov—then Polish Lwów—in 1944 had been strafed by them and that she feared them very much—almost as much as the Germans. Now she felt the same way: once again they were trying to get at her carriage, and whenever she leaned out of the window she saw her own granddaughter—my Mama—leading them. That girl, to whom she hadn’t spoken for years on end. That girl, who had defied her to become a singer, and was now defying her ideas about life by fighting for an independent Ukraine. So the dirty laundry basket became another tier in the barricade that for years they had been erecting between each other.
That was also when Great-Granma adopted the habit of intimidating me through language. She’d be waiting in the hall, barring my passage with her own body.
“Don’t go talking out loud in Russian!” she’d warn. “Before you know it, they’ll haul you into a deserted yard and torture you!”
The next time she asked if I knew the Ukrainian epic poem Testament by heart.
“They catch women and children, drag them to a quiet spot and order them to recite it from memory. If you get it wrong, they’ll rape and torture you.”
I wasn’t afraid; I simply couldn’t imagine being lectured in the street about my knowledge of literature, and I didn’t believe that poetry could be combined with violence.
On the evening of that day when Mama’s body was brought home wrapped in the blue-and-yellow flag, Great-Granma neglected her ritual of securing the front door—it wasn’t even properly slammed shut. This was an expression of capitulation: Great-Granma had tried so hard, yet once again they had come and destroyed her world. Mama was laid on the table in the central room, and long candles were lit on either side of her. The melted wax left bright marks on the oak parquet. A long time after, I found out that Aba had had to buy off several decision-makers to stop them from doing an autopsy and keeping the body at the mortuary; she had managed it thanks to her connections in the medical world—she had once been an admired doctor.
Even so, she was surprised by the lack of KGB intervention. It might have seemed that now they were taking care to erase, falsify, or hush up the death of which they were guilty. That shot seemed ludicrous in every regard: not only had it missed its target, but for Lvov it had thundered like a bell bidding the remains of the undecided to come out onto the streets. Mama could have had no greater wish (though not so Aba, Great-Granma, or I). In the first days after the shot was fired everyone talked about the circumstances of her death: about the illegal demonstration around Klumba—the square also known as Lvov’s Hyde Park Corner—at which free elections were demanded; and about the sniper lurking on the roof of a nearby house, site of the grand Viennese Café before the war. People reckoned the sniper had been ordered to fire at the dissident, Chornovil, but Marianna had been moving about so energetically on the bed of the truck that she had shielded him. A pneumatic weapon was used, so nobody had heard a bang, but at the sight of the bloodstain blossoming on the singer’s beige dress some of the people had taken to their heels. Chornovil had continued the rally. He was reconciled to death—not in the sense of inner indifference to it, but indomitable courage trained into him by many years in the camps—in his case, his former fellow prisoners called his resilience “pathological." A doctor had come forward from the crowd, Chornovil had entrusted Marianna to his care and carried on with the rally. Efforts were made to shield him, or even to drag him off the truck by force. But no more shots were fired—to this day nobody knows why not. Either way, on that day Chornovil received as a gift from Mama an extra eleven years of life. I’m sure he must have remembered that in 1999, at the moment when his car was hit by a truck on the Boryspil highway.
Others remembered too, but not for long. In the first few days people talked and shouted, called and came to see us—it aggravated me so much that I felt hardened by a mixture of fury and helplessness, and for many years, whenever I saw liquid icicles of wax dripping onto the floor, that state came back to me. Contrary to the tradition that called for burial on the third day after death, arrangements were made for the funeral to be held next day, and—miraculously—nobody stood in Aba’s way when she tried to get a place in Lychakov Cemetery, Lvov’s foremost necropolis. In fact, in the 1980s there was no ban on burying the dead there yet, but you had to have a number of special permits, which Aba managed to obtain at lightning speed. True, the demonstration which the funeral became was brutally dispersed; true, they had been to see the director of the Opera to badger him with questions about Marianna; true, in the months that followed someone kept removing the thick layer of imitation flowers that coated the grave afresh each day. I was actually pleased about this last intervention—the blanket of plastic daffodils disgusted me, and seemed to separate me even further from Mama. Later on they stopped bothering with it, and the flowers were stuck to the gravestone for good. Autumn covered them with a blanket of leaves.
From the first day Aba waited for a summons to that place. Later she told me she had imagined just such a visit tens of thousands of times. She had assimilated the idea from early childhood: when she was a child of seven living in Leningrad, they had murdered her father, and when she was almost sixty and living in Lvov, they had killed her daughter. Between the first and the second incident she had never stopped hating them, and more or less openly expressing the fact as well. In 1944, when she had ended up in this city, she had decided to become a one-woman resistance movement—she made leaflets saying that Stalin was a criminal and dropped them through people’s letterboxes. I’m still at a loss to know why she never ran into repression for this act—I have no explanation apart from the special care of a guardian angel. She only paid one visit to that building on Dzierzhynsky Street, soon after Stalin’s death: she had been hounding them with official inquiries about her father’s fate. On the way there, she had removed the hatred from her face, coated it like a canvas in a new primer, and painted on a different expression—purely to extract any information at all from them. There she was received by a major with a cynical smirk. He was holding her father’s file—despite her requests it wasn’t put into her hands. Enigmatically he had announced that her father had died somewhere in the North. He had also added that from now on she needn’t carry the stigma of the daughter of an enemy of the people—the victims of Stalin’s terror had been rehabilitated. She still knew neither the date nor the place of her father’s death—they took great care to ensure that people spent years living in the shadow of their as if half-killed relatives.
It was all completely different in Mama’s case: her death was sucked into a void, it fell into a crack between eras. This time Aba wasn’t summoned anywhere—suddenly they had other things on their minds. . . .
In the first years after the shot Great-Granma stopped bothering with the ritual door-locking. We would go to bed without extra protection, which brought me a degree of relief: the worst had already happened, so we could take a break from being afraid. After some time it all began again: the dark door, the chain, the light door. Perhaps she did it for my sake. Though in fact she no longer moved the basket into place. The mouldering wicker basket for dirty clothes had so many holes by now that it couldn’t be shifted to and fro—it would have been sure to fall apart.
From The House with the Stained-Glass Window, to be published by MacLehose Press in September 2017 © Żanna Słoniowska, 2016. Translation © 2017 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Reproduced by permission of MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Books.
International Graphic Novels: Volume XI
I remember the colors. I remember the textures, patterns and shapes—somewhere in between sight and touch. One fat stripe and two thin ones, stretching into infinity. A carpet? A sofa? All a bit rough, and possibly green. The baby bath was green, too. The bathroom floor was various colors, but mostly green. The dominant color. Was it really, or just in my memory?
I’ve seen the baby bath in a dozen photographs, though only black and white ones. And yet I know it was green, so this must be a real childhood memory. All I remember is what isn’t in the photos. The reason I can still see the colors is that the photos, being black and white, haven’t robbed me of them. Everything else is lost, blanketed in white noise, blurred, distorted. Layer upon layer of paint makes it impossible to dig down to the original. Documenting kills memory. You record, and you forget. All you need to do is take a picture.
The mere attempt to bring anything back to mind creates another veil, for even if the effort comes off more or less, it forestalls any possibility of repeated success. I remember one bit and tack on the rest, drawing on guesswork, clichés, banalities, commonplaces—general knowledge. But the next time I try to recall the same thing, my most vivid memory will be the latest material—in other words the confabulated part. Whatever I’ve invented will seem the most vivid, convincing, and true. I’ll be remembering the memory, instead of the actual experience—I’ll be translating a translation, copying a copy, making a negative of a negative. But it’s not just that: I will also feel intense pleasure dwelling on the very element that isn’t true, and in the process move away from the actual memory. And even if some small part of my reconstruction is real, it’s this element that’s bound to lose the Darwinian battle against fabrication—it’s the one that’ll be forgotten first.
So when a spark suddenly bursts into flame among the ashes of oblivion, it’s wrong to shield it carefully, because that’s the way to stifle it for good and all. When some memory appears at the far end of your hippocampus, and you feel that just one moment of concentration will be enough to bring it to the surface—that’s just when you should avoid concentrating. Perhaps it’ll surface of its own accord, in one form or another— but you mustn’t work on it consciously, as the slightest mental effort will open the gate for a fog of invention.
But my baby bath was definitely green. The one I bought for him is blue. Our carpet is blue, too. Future harmonies are already coming into being, not much different from mine. A theme with subtle variations, but still in the same system of major and minor keys. And yet he might not remember any colors at all, since the photos are in color now. We have photos, we have films—which means he won’t remember a thing. Maybe certain smells? Tastes? Movement perhaps?
I remember walking along. I’m holding my mother’s hand and we’re going somewhere, but where? Is this a single memory, one specific outing, or rather countless walks blended into one Platonic expedition? We must have done a lot of walking, as there wasn’t much else in the way of entertainment back then. Walking is for free. We walk a lot now too, that’s to say he and I do. And those strolls with my mother have only started to resurface now that I’m out walking again—only this time I’m walking on top, hands reversed.
For over twenty years I had no memories of that period at all, and only now are some things starting to come back to me. I think what matters most is the repetition of a setting—a park, a zoo, a playground, even a tram or bus. Then the images come back: I used to walk like that, too; I used to travel like that. I used to walk with my mother just as he’s walking with me now.
* * *
But as for those playgrounds, I never liked them. Each of the most popular pieces of equipment has some unpleasant association for me. A swing in the teeth, a carousel in the back of the head, a fall from the slide . . . I think it was only on the climbing frame that I didn’t hurt myself. A life trajectory typical for those days. Hard design—all my friends had their faces scarred by low brick walls, edges and corners. I had no scars, not even after that swing. Somehow my mother managed to keep an eye on me—but that’s another matter.
Nowadays the playgrounds are of a very different standard. Everything’s made of wood, soft—rubber flooring. Nice, unscratched colors. But the mechanics of the playground, its philosophy, remain unchanged. In general, it’s all about repetitive motion—spinning, swinging, bouncing. The physiological purpose is to upset the labyrinth. They’re too young for the hard stuff, but they have to addle their brains somehow. They swing until they pass out, throw up, or go blank.
He’s not too keen on playgrounds, either—despite the padded surfaces and the colors that subliminally and atavistically tickle the thalamus, hypothalamus, and the limbic system. He’s not into playgrounds—he’s into dinosaurs. The only way to get him to go is to trick him, to tell him he could climb the brachiosaurus, for instance.
Dinosaurs are important. They’re a fundamental part of the psychological equipment of every child of preschool age. Dinosaurs are the skeleton key that allows them to let out all their Freudian demons, while at the same time keeping them on a lead made of strong rope. They’re scary but funny, aggressive but friendly. Dangerous, but not dangerous. Better than Hansel and Gretel and their crematorium oven.
The dinosaurs have died out. This is the way to deal with death (because death isn’t visible anywhere else; death itself is an extinct dinosaur). Learn about love through bees, and about death through dinosaurs. Grandpa died—like the dinosaurs—perhaps he was hit by a meteor, or perhaps an ice age got him. We don’t know, and that’s the best. When it comes to death, there is no knowledge, we have to make do with hypotheses.
In my day there were no dinosaurs. I wonder how people explained death to children. Probably through ovens.
* * *
“We’re all dinosaurs,” he says. “We’re a dinosaur family.”
“So who are you?” I ask.
“I’m . . . a Gallimimus.”
“And who am I?”
“A T. Rex.”
“Oh, thank you! And Mummy?”
“Mummy’s . . . a Stegosaurus.”
“Great. Listen, Tiger . . .”
“Gallimimus!” he corrects me.
“Oh yes, of course. Listen, Gallimimus, are we going to the park, to the playground?”
“I don’t want to go to the park.”
“Oh come on, how about climbing that big castle . . .”
“That’s it, the Apatosaurus. Or the Diplodocus.”
“What else can Gallimimuses climb?” he asks.
“Maybe the Brontosaurus.”
“Brontosaurus is the same as Apatosaurus.”
“And is Brachiosaurus the same, too?”
“No, that’s a different one.”
“But it’s got a long neck too?” I ask.
“Yes. Can you climb it?”
“I’m sure a Gallimimus can.”
“But T. Rexes are too big . . . ”
“Well, I’m not planning to climb it,” I say. “Come on, Gallimimus, you’re going to climb the Apatosaurus and the Diplodocus and the Brachiosaurus. And maybe we’ll see Zosia again today.”
“It’s not Zosia—it’s Triceratops."
“Cool—we’ll tell her.”
“She knows. Triceratopses know they’re Triceratopses.”
“And what about Zosia’s mom—what kind of dinosaur is she?”
“She’s not a dinosaur.”
“What is she?” I venture.
“Eeeh . . . a Pterodactyl!”
“And Pterodactyls aren’t dinosaurs?”
“ No, because dinosaurs can’t fly, and Pterodactyls can.”
“Could,” I say.
* * *
You’re not going to read Spinoza. Triceratopses know they’re triceratopses—there, that could almost be Spinoza. It must do. You’re not going to read anything, watch anything, go anywhere, you’re not going to have a conversation or take any opportunities. For a few years you’ll cease to exist. Though usually it is she who ceases to exist, not you, and only in a few rare cases (when she makes more money than you do, when she’s the one who makes any money at all) does it fall to you.
You land up on the side track. In terms of intellect, you run aground in the shallows of hygiene and toilet. Your full-time job is to supervise someone else’s digestive system—later on there’ll be other systems, too, but this one always dominates—and gradually you yourself turn into a digestive system. What will he eat, where will he do his number two, what will I eat, what will she eat. A simple transferral. It would be easier to throw the next jar of baby food straight down the toilet.
You also start to function as a thermostat. Is it too cold, is it too hot? Take off, put on, do up, undo, untie, tie up—with a spare set of clothing in your rucksack. And suddenly you, too, are always either too cold or too hot; you’re the one who doesn’t know how to dress himself, even though two or three years ago you always felt just fine.
Nothing but dramatic decisions all the time. Banana or yogurt? Sneakers or sandals? And at the end of each day the main question: what are you to do with this freedom, what’s the best way to invest your limited share of it? Two or three hours—and nothing but alternatives, no overlapping. Either read or watch, either go out or catch up on sleep, either exercise or eat. Or talk—but that’s never what you choose, because it would be a waste of your carefully allotted airtime to have both of you doing the same thing at the same time.
And this is the reason, this is what it’s all about, it’s not about sex at all—that you can still squeeze in somewhere now and then—but to have a good talk, especially one where you speak, where you tell her something without feeling how pathetic you are—that’s something you don’t get at home. That’s something you get by the sandpit.
That’s where your indivisible kingdom lies. Your onanistic fantasy of yore has come true: you are the only male of reproductive age who has survived a nuclear disaster. Sometimes a grandpa turns up, but never a dad. There are plenty of grandmas, but mostly it’s herds of mothers stretching as far as the eye can see. The mothers usually form little troops, but there are also the ones who sit apart, by themselves, being neither exhibitors nor clients at this pitiful stock exchange of good advice. These ones are usually a little less of a mess and a little more frustrated—they don’t seem fully in agreement with all this. You sit down nearby, you switch into “Irony and Distance” mode—so this is what we’ve come to—and the rest happens pretty much automatically. The next day she’s changed out of her tracksuit and the children have become good friends—let them practice their social skills.
And suddenly you realize that every aspect of your life is completely withered, apart from this one, which is blossoming as never before. Suddenly you’re the Casanova of the student canteen again, suddenly it turns out that thanks to a two-year-old everyone takes a spontaneous liking to you. That’s because a child does a man a service, both softening and sharpening his image at the same time. You become more manly, but also a bit more approachable. A family-friendly savage, a domesticated beast, testosterone in a stylish ampoule.
A woman, on the contrary, has nothing to gain from a child—here’s a sandbox paradox for you. Her image doesn’t just soften, but turns to mush. They’re all falling apart completely, suddenly the neediness of their entire lives comes to the surface, suddenly they’re ready to run after you for any old scrap of meat. Right now they feel highly unattractive (although in reality they’re probably just as unattractive as before pregnancy, before our era). After all, the standard is average, of course, sometimes average plus, but by now you’re perfectly happy with that, because in spite of the obvious differences in outward appearance, the mechanisms are the same—you, too, have various stretch marks to show, or rather not to show.
So from March to October you reign away on the playgrounds, after which the party continues indoors, and you meet someone called, for example, Zosia’s mom (in these circles one is always somebody’s mom or dad—personal names are only used much later, if at all) in the ladies’ toilet, since they don’t have baby changing facilities or potty seats in the men’s. You make some awkward comment (such as “ladies first,” as if addressing Zosia) and you lend her some wet wipes. Or you borrow them from her—the effect will be even better.
“We’ll synchronize their naps,” you say a few weeks later, and she agrees easily and without demur, because in the meantime, sex has become another hygiene-and-toilet activity that needs efficient organization and execution (the wet wipes come in very handy).
She agrees (and actually torments that child of hers by rescheduling its naps), even though two or three years ago she would never have agreed. She would never have agreed if she didn’t have a child and, most importantly, if you didn’t have a child, because after all you’re a random guy from a park, but now you’re also Gallimimus’s dad, so you’re probably not going to stab her with a knife, and though you might come without flowers and wine, you do bring wipes. Also, she is Zosia’s mom and, by implication, Zosia’s dad’s wife, so she’s not going to call you after 5 p.m. or want to spend Christmas with you. Or to have a baby.
It’s all based on equilibrium, meaning that if her husband dumps her you will immediately dump her, too. Please refrain from crying. Enjoy it while it lasts. And the child also benefits—at least it gets to see a man now and then before 5 p.m. It’s good to have role models.
* * *
“Stop it,” I say. “Not here.”
“Chill out. They can’t see us, they’ve got their backs toward us.”
The season is almost over. The last dregs of August. Pre-school starts in September. Zosia isn’t going for another year, maybe two. My sympathies to everyone concerned.
“What if they turn around?” I ask.
“Well, that’ll be a real tragedy. She’ll help her mom fill out the divorce papers.”
“He understands more than you’d think.”
“Even if he sees something, he won’t remember. I read that our first memories are formed at age four or five at the earliest.”
“Well then, perhaps he won’t remember twenty years from now, but in three hours he will!”
“What’s the matter with you today?”
“What did you expect?” I ask. “You want me to make you lean against the swing and stick it into you right here?”
“Well, as far as I recall, once it did nearly come to that.”
That did nearly happen, she’s right. But that was another epoch—prams and naps. Zosia still has naps. We’ve fallen out of sync.
“How did he get up there?!” I ask.
“Tyrannosaurus!” he screams. “Get me down!”
I run up to him, reach out and lift him off the climbing frame—and that’s when the memory comes back. It’s all a bit confused, I don’t know what came before and what after, I don’t know what I remember for real and what I’m just tacking on.
I’m three years old. I’m up on the same kind of climbing frame—so after all the climbing frame, too, is linked with a traumatic memory. I’m screaming something. (“Get me down?” I’m probably inserting that now.) My mother is somewhere far off. My mother is furious—right now, or only later on? A strange man comes running up to me. It’s definitely not my father—it’s man with a mustache. Yes, he has a mustache, and a wide, unnatural smile, he looks like George Harrison on the cover of Let It Be. (My mother always used to say George was the most handsome of the four.) He reaches out toward me. Does he hug me? Stroke me? Kiss me? My mother comes unglued from the background and dashes toward us. She’s clearly furious—at me or at him, I don’t know.
“My son, my baby boy,” says Harrison (almost for certain).
* * *
“Listen, Gallimimus, we don’t need to tell Stegosaurus that we saw Triceratops and Pterodactyl again, OK?”
“It’ll be our little secret,” I say (literally). “Deal?”
“How about we go to a different playground tomorrow?”
“Best we simply forget about them.”
© Maciej Milkowski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Tul'si Bhambry. All rights reserved.
International Graphic Novels: Volume XI
Grub’s throat was dry as hell. He blinked. When that didn’t help, he shook his head back and forth. Finally, he managed to overcome this strange, suffocating sleepiness. Bit by bit, he began to make out individual details of the chaos swirling around him. He heard cries, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. The room where he found himself was very cramped, so that someone was constantly bumping into him. People swarmed all around. He frowned. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember how he’d ended up here.
“Shit . . . ” he muttered, mainly out of habit. The room, or rather the hallway, flooded in the glare of fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, slowly stabilized around him.
“Mr. Marvin Grundle?” asked a well-dressed, middle-aged woman, who had appeared out of nowhere, peering at Grub with a gaze reinforced by her thick glasses. She was clutching a gray folder.
“Mr. Marvin Grundle? Is that your name?”
“Yes.” He hawked and spat. The only person who called him by his first name was his probation officer. “It’s Grub, actually.”
“Beg pardon?” She frowned. The crowd in the hallway rippled like a choppy sea of complaints and appeals. Grub might have described this woman as an oasis of calm, if he’d had those words in his vocabulary.
“Nothing,” he said curtly, irritated that he’d spoken at all.
“Please come with me.” The woman opened a door on the left-hand side of the hall that Grub hadn’t noticed before. He looked after her uncertainly and wondered what to do. The amount of wailing all around them suggested a hospital, but it could just as easily have been a government office. If it was an office, he’d probably better get the crap out of there . . . but what if it was a hospital? Grub took one uncertain step, then another. Although his head kept spinning, he still managed to walk right into the door frame. The woman slammed the door shut, cutting off the noise from the hallway as if with the edge of a knife. Grub looked around. The light from a ceiling lamp reflected off garish yellow walls. There were no windows. Posters hanging everywhere with pictures of the Grand Canyon and a completely generic jungle only heightened the whole room’s claustrophobic feel. The woman who’d led him in sat right down at a small wooden desk overflowing with papers. She swept them out of the way to clear room for the folder.
“Please take a seat,” she said, gesturing to a chair in the center of the room. Grub sat down obediently, because he was having a hard time staying on his feet. He scratched his buzz-cut head.
“What happened?” he croaked.
“I’m sure you’d like to know what happened.” She opened the folder. “In certain instances . . . Well, I understand the situation might be unclear. Best to discuss the basic issues first. You really don’t remember, Mr. Grundle? Yesterday evening . . . ” she said, before trailing off.
“I was drinking?” said Grub tentatively, straining for a few seconds to remember.
“Correct!” said the woman with a smile. “You were drinking in the apartment of your significant other, until she made an attempt to throw you out.”
“Next,” she said, her eyes scanning across the pages in the folder from behind her glasses, “you beat up her son and went out into the street with your friends.”
“It was cold.” The memories were returning to life in Grub’s mind.
“Next . . .”
“I got into a car?” Grub heard the growl of the engine. Suddenly he felt uncomfortable.
“Into the driver’s seat. With a blood alcohol level of nearly 0.30. You set off. And then . . . ?”
“I drove all the way home?” asked Grub.
“No,” the woman said tersely. “You were driving through downtown at a speed of 55 miles per hour, do you remember? After running a red light, you sped into the middle of a six-lane intersection. You took too sharp a turn, the vehicle lost traction . . .”
“It rolled . . . ” Grub could clearly hear the squealing, scraping, and screaming.
“Yes, but not until it reached the sidewalk. You made it over a hundred feet farther along and hit a group of four college students waiting for the night bus.”
Grub suddenly felt sick. So this was a government office after all? Or some kind of court?
“All have been hospitalized and two are in critical condition. The doctors don’t give them much of a chance . . . . Though of course that’s no concern of yours,” the woman said with a smile.
“But . . . ” Grub was nervous. If he’d drunkenly run someone over, that was a big deal. This could turn into a major shitshow.
“Don’t worry,” the woman added facetiously. “Justice was served. Your friends were also badly injured, and as for yourself . . . ”
There was a moment of silence.
“Well?” he choked out.
“Well,” the woman sighed, “you expired at the scene. Am I to understand you were not aware of all this?”
“Wait, what the fuck?!”
“After your death, as per the terms of our contract, you were transferred to our institution. Someone will arrive shortly to give you the details of your first assignment. If you have any questions . . . ”
“Where is this hellhole, what office am I in, what contract?!”
“Hellhole,” the woman said, smiling warmly. “You could say that. As for the contract . . . ”
She flicked efficiently through the documents collected in the folder. Then she went through a second time, more slowly. She frowned. Meanwhile, Grub felt he was losing control and being swept away by this wave of events. Suddenly being aware of his own death did not help. He tried to cross himself, but couldn’t remember which side to start from.
“I’m afraid there’s a slight . . . problem,” the woman finally declared.
“I can’t find your contract!” She saw his blank expression. “The one where you sold us your soul.”
Grub stared at her, his eyes wide.
“I sold my soul?!”
“I have the statement of the transfer of ownership, which couldn’t be here without the contract, but the contract itself . . . I do not see.” She flicked through the contents of the folder once again.
“I didn’t sign any fucking contract!” howled Grub.
“Sir, please remain calm, you must have.”
“But it’s not there!” Grub spotted a chance to save himself. The woman glared at him. After a moment’s consideration, she slid the phone on the desk toward her and picked up the receiver.
“Normally I’d pay no mind to a missing contract, the statement of transfer of ownership is entirely sufficient on its own. But you look so grim,” she smiled. “I’ll make an exception.”
With a long, manicured fingernail she pushed one of the buttons on the receiver. He could hear a muffled male voice. The woman chirped:
“Mr. Speight, would you mind coming in for just a quick moment? Thank you.” She hung up the phone. “We’ll have this all cleared up right away!”
After a few minutes of nervous silence, a tall, plump, slightly balding man entered the room, wearing an unbuttoned jacket and a collared shirt.
“Hot as hell today!” he exclaimed in a rumbling baritone. He shook Grub’s hand and went up to the desk. “What’s the problem, Miss Chrissy?”
“There’s something missing in this gentleman’s documentation!” she chirped again. “There’s no contract!”
“But the transfer . . . ” The pages rustled. “Is here? Strange.”
“We’re afraid there may have been some kind of mix-up, Mr. Speight!”
“Nonsense!” he said. “I’ll check in the archive. Maybe something got misplaced there.” He went out.
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Grundle!” said Miss Chrissy in a soothing tone. “We’ll have this sorted out in a jiffy.”
Grub stood up and started pacing the room. He was sure he hadn’t sold his soul, but he didn’t know if his memory could be trusted. After all, he hadn’t remembered he was dead until just now. Despite his best efforts, he was losing his cool.
“Please sit down . . . ” said Miss Chrissy. That was the final straw. Grub didn’t hold back. He tensed all his muscles and leapt to the attack. Now he was a foot or two from the desk, but his body, honed in the fire of hundreds of brawls, struck an invisible obstacle. He bounced off it like a ball and tumbled to the floor.
“Very impressive!” remarked Miss Chrissy enthusiastically. “Though pointless.”
“Holy shit!” coughed Grub.
“You have certain restrictions here, Mr. Grundle. But please don’t be concerned, you will soon receive instructions suitable to your capacities and then you can run wild!”
“Instructions?” asked Grub, reluctantly coming to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to beat the crap out of this chick.
“Souls that we’ve, shall we say, acquired, while they were alive, are used for various purposes after their deaths. Who knows, maybe you’ll be a seducer! Well, maybe not. But perhaps a flagellator!”
“I think congratulations are in order, Mr. Grundle!” bellowed Mr. Speight from the direction of the door. Under his arm, he carried yet another folder of papers, tied up with gray string. “You’ve got documentation on an impressive scale! The quantity of paperwork is precisely the problem. The older items were given their own number and left in the archive! But now we’ve got the full set!” Mr. Speight sat at the desk and untied the string. A few of the documents he’d brought looked fresh; others had visibly been sitting there for several years. The yellowing paper had been marked up with handwritten notes. There were also many smaller scraps of paper in among the full-sized sheets. Mr. Speight scrupulously spread them out over the available space.
“Some tea? Or coffee?” asked Miss Chrissy.
“No thank you, I just had lunch,” said Mr. Speight with a smile.
“I didn’t sell my soul!” Grub burst out. “For the love of God!”
“It’s a bit late for that,” said Mr. Speight, glancing at him from under his bushy eyebrows.
A stream of sweat ran down Grub’s back. He eyeballed the distance between him and the door. Maybe he could get a hold of the doorknob before they realized what was happening? Only then what? Meanwhile, Mr. Speight’s earlier cheerful expression had deserted him. He was nervously riffling through the pages.
“Well now, there’s no contract here as such,” he finally declared in an irritated tone. “But no two ways about it, Mr. Grundle, you must have sold yourself out. Let’s go through your bio,” he concluded. He lay his finger to one of the pages and started slowly sliding it downward. “Ah! Here it is, clear as day! March 7, 1986: at the age of eight you mentally expressed the desire to sell your soul so no one would find out you were robbing your classmates.”
“I was eight fucking years old, for fuck’s sake!” howled Grub.
“You displayed extraordinary maturity. However . . . ”
“And I definitely didn’t sign anything!”
“No, indeed,” said Mr. Speight with a frown. “Moving on… January 5, 1990: you verbally expressed the desire to sell your soul in exchange for the death of your mother’s significant other . . . ”
“That son of a bitch,” spat Grub, recalling the man he’d hated. One night, listening to his laughter and his mother’s hoarse groans, he might indeed have whispered a few words…
“The matter is explained,” said Mr. Speight delightedly, after seeing Grub’s expression.
“No,” Grub snarled. Over the course of his life he’d managed to get a handle on the ins and outs of investigative procedures. Time to put that skill to use. “No, dammit. I would have to have signed something to leave a paper trail. There was nothing like that.”
“No one came to see you?”
“All right then . . . ” Mr. Speight’s finger ran down the page. “July 7, 1996: you begged our institution that one Joanna Fairchild, then thirteen years of age, would not recognize your face. You and your friends raped her . . . ”
“Shit, that was just talk.”
“November 17, 2001: you were ready to give up your soul in exchange for early release from prison, where you were serving a sentence for manslaughter . . . . Though of course we know it wasn’t inadvertent . . . . And you were released.”
“Yes, on some technicality, for fuck’s sake! Without anybody’s help!”
“That’s true,” said the official with a frown. “Moving on . . . ”
The minutes ticked by. Mr. Speight paged through the files. Meanwhile, a considerable group of women was gathering around the desk. They’d come in to ask for a pen, or a document, then, realizing how unusual Grub’s situation was, stayed to see how it would pan out.
“All right,” said Mr. Speight, his voice weary. “September 4, 2009. You were ready to sell your soul so your mother would die!" Whispers of admiration could be heard all around.
“So she’d leave me her house. But she’s still alive.”
“And is that all?”
“Yes, damn it!”
“You don’t recall anything more?”
“No!” Now that they’d provided him an audience, Grub felt more confident. The office women gathered around were all smiling.
“All right,” Mr. Speight said, decisively snapping the folder shut. “I don’t know why this document is missing, or why you don’t recall concluding a verbal agreement, to say nothing of a written one . . . ”
“So I can go?” asked Grub, straining to sound polite.
“It certainly appears you are here in error, doesn’t it?”
“However . . . there is still one thing we must address,” said Mr. Speight with a frown. “To make certain, you understand. Miss Chrissy, get Legal on the phone, please, have them send someone over . . . I think we’d better bring in Repulsivich.”
Grub noticed that these last words of Mr. Speight’s provoked a very strong reaction among the women surrounding him. A tense silence gripped the room. A short moment later, the door creaked open and a pale man in a plain suit slipped inside. His delicate features showed no emotion.
“Hello, might I ask the ladies to leave the room, please, thank you,” he said in one breath. The employees gathered around meekly headed for the door. The lawyer let them past and approached the desk.
“Greetings, greetings, a pleasure to see you, my friend!” exclaimed Mr. Speight. “The difficulty is we have an extraordinarily large number of documents concerning this client, but we cannot locate his contract of sale, although the statement is here and . . . ”
“I understand, Mr. Speight,” the lawyer said coldly. “Thank you for your help. Please leave me alone with Mr. . . . Grundle.”
Without a word, Mr. Speight and Miss Chrissy left the room. Grub swallowed hard.
“Mr. Grundle,” the lawyer said from behind the desk, once they were alone. “My name is Robert Repulsivich, and I understand your irritation. I beg only a moment’s patience.” He quickly and efficiently paged through Grub’s considerable paperwork.
“Very well.” Grub once again felt unwell. He waited. The lawyer methodically examined the documents, occasionally writing something down in his notebook. He made two phone calls in a language Grub didn’t understand.
“Yes, I see,” he declared at last.
“Is the f—” Grub cleared his throat. “Is the contract there?”
“No, no contract of sale was in fact made for your soul,” said the lawyer, his voice calm. “However, given that the proof of acquisition is here, there can be no question of you still being its owner. It belongs to us. Of course, Mr. Grundle, you have every right to be surprised,” the lawyer looked condescendingly at Grub. “In a moment, I will summon Miss Chrissy, who will complete the formalities.”
“But how the fuck could this happen?” Grub’s head was now spinning.
“I can provide you with an explanation.”
“Well! Go ahead!” his throat felt dry as hell again.
“You did not, in fact, transfer your soul to us by means of a purchase and sales agreement. However, as you see, we have been collecting information on you for . . . twenty-three years. That is precisely when you, for the first time (and in full awareness of your actions), requested our help, thereby coming to our attention. We may consider the date of May 7, 1986 the point at which your soul was transferred to us, and we accepted it in good faith. Of course, given the form of the donation, it was not a binding transfer, and therefore, Mr. Grundle, you could have requested the return of its (the donation’s) subject and reclaimed it (it, in this case, being your soul) at any time in any formal or informal fashion.”
“Meaning what?” Grub’s eyes were stinging and he started rubbing them. “In church . . . ”
“At confession. For instance. Or,” the lawyer sighed, “by doing a good deed. The list of possibilities is unfortunately mercifully long. One way or the other, you did not do so, Mr. Grundle. Your activities over many years, as we scrupulously observed, did not provide any evidence to suggest you wished to regain your soul. Under these circumstances, the continuity of this institution’s good faith is not up for discussion, as will be confirmed by every appellate authority you might address. We have corpus, so to speak. The animus I need hardly mention.” He smiled drily. “Therefore, we may confirm the status of ownership. There remains only the question of the passage of time. As it happens, according to Article 845 of the Post-Civil Code, the twenty-year deadline passed on March 7, 2006.”
“Deadline?!” The world started to dissolve before Grub’s squinting eyes. He was sure the lawyer’s face was getting closer, growing, stretching in all directions. Meanwhile he himself was shrinking, and before long he was no larger than the empty coffee mug.
“Precisely, the deadline.” The voice was coming from all directions at once. “Mr. Grundle . . . we acquired ownership of your soul over three years ago . . . uncontested.”
© Jarek Westermark. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sean Gasper Bye. All rights reserved.
International Graphic Novels: Volume XI
The authors who appear in this special Polish feature, prepared in the run-up to this year’s London Book Fair, at which Poland will be the “market focus” country, illustrate the diversity and dynamism of modern Polish fiction.
Julia Fiedorczuk is perhaps the best established of these names, with five volumes of poetry and four of fiction already published. Her poetry collection Oxygen, translated by Bill Johnston, will be out with Zephyr Press very soon. Strong themes in her work include how violence can suddenly encroach on human lives, and also how people don’t always fully understand their own physical place within the natural world. The story I chose for this feature, "War," is from her last book, a collection of short stories called Close Countries, in which, according to one reviewer, “Fiedorczuk exposes the sensitivity of creatures, finding that even dangerous tarantulas are delicate and fragile, their venom not as toxic as we imagine—as if we create most of our fears ourselves.”
I came across Maciej Miłkowski’s intense, powerful writing a couple of years ago, when I was asked to find a text by a writer under thirty-five for the Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize. Maciej had just published his first collection of short stories, Whist, from which I chose The Tattoo for the competition, which was won by Tul’si Bhambry. She went on to translate more of his work, including Playground Archeology, which is from his second collection, Second Encounter. I was impressed by the precision of Maciej’s writing, and its sharp irony, which reminded me of Witold Gombrowicz—(no wonder Tul’si, who has studied Gombrowicz closely for some years, was able to hear the author’s voice so well). And by his excellent storytelling. "Playground Archeology" is a fine example of his ability to produce a seemingly innocent story that takes an alarming turn.
I’ve always mildly envied my colleagues who translate from French, Spanish, and Portuguese for being able to work on writers from countries in Africa and Latin America where those languages are spoken. So it was a pleasant surprise to come upon the work of Żanna Słoniowska, a Ukrainian who now writes in Polish; after growing up speaking Russian and Ukrainian, she fully acquired Polish as an adult, but as a native of Lviv she’s from a city that was once proudly Polish. And her Polish immediately enchanted me–it feels fresh and different, highly poetic. She’s capable of making the language perform extraordinary tricks, which enable her to bring realistic scenes more sharply into focus by gradually making them surreal, or to make various time scales overlap and blend. Her novel is about the painful relationships between the four women in a family where each is the only representative of her generation (we meet them in Doors, the extract you’ll find here), and also shows how in their part of the world lives are buffeted by historical fate. She is now close to completing her second novel, this time set in Kraków.
Jarek Westermark is a young writer and musician, whose first published work is Stories I’ve Written, the collection from which "Good Faith" is taken. I found it while browsing the Polish Book Institute’s Web site, and was intrigued by a short description that praised him for absorbing plots with a sense of humor and great powers of observation, somewhere on the border between popular and highbrow literature, but using the best elements of each. “He’s able to keep us in suspense, entertain us, and also, by breaking the conventions of various genres, prompts us to think more deeply about the world around us . . . ” I think "Good Faith" is the perfect illustration of his use of black comedy and fantasy to amuse and provoke all at once. I’m curious to know what he’ll produce next.
The feature also provides a great chance to showcase the work of three of the translators who have “graduated” from the UK and the US Emerging Mentorship Programs. Sean Bye and Tul’si Bhambry were both “mentees” of mine under the scheme run at the time by the British Centre for Literary Translation, and Anna Zaranko was mentored by Bill Johnston in the first year of ALTA’s program. To me, these programs represent the best move forward for Polish literature in translation in recent years, very quickly leading to an increased number of publications, and opportunities for new voices to be heard in English.
International Graphic Novels: Volume XI
Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the world has witnessed a surge in the production of graphic narratives. The world has witnessed this surge—not just the US, though its dominance does continue in both comics practice and comics studies, innovating and influencing in equal measure. But the form has now migrated to writers and artists from all over the globe, presenting itself as a medium of expression that is particularly oriented toward the communication of stories across borders, be they cultural, national, linguistic or otherwise. As diverse formally as they are geographically, these graphic narratives all combine drawn and sometimes painted panels (the graphics) with the written word (though not always) to tell a story (narrative). This story might communicate an experience, document an atrocity, convey an emotion, educate and raise awareness, but more often than not, the form elicits empathy in the readerships that it reaches. Indeed, that it reaches you now is evidence of this evolving trend.
If the combination of these two terms—"graphic" and "narrative"—usefully foregrounds the key ingredients of this astonishingly versatile, agile, and inherently innovative medium, my immediate choice of the label "graphic narrative," rather than "comics," also points to the extent to which the form has evolved in the last thirty years. Throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, "comics" were generally used to signify all kinds of sequential art ("sequential art" being yet another term for the form, one advocated by comics practitioner and later theorist Will Eisner). "Comics" was used to describe everything from two or three panel strips in newspapers to multi-volume collections of superhero stories. In the 1960s and ‘70s, especially in the US, the "comix" subculture developed, an explicitly radical and subversive movement that was indiscriminate in its satirical gaze and that showed how the form might offer new perspectives on all kinds of social, cultural, and political issues.
But it was in the late 1980s and early ‘90s that things really started to change, and many regard Art Spiegelman’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his comic Maus (serialized 1980–91), as a shifting moment of tectonic proportions for the form. Spiegelman’s sensitive treatment of his father’s memory of the Holocaust demonstrated the extent to which the co-mixing, to use Spiegelman’s own preferred phrase, of image and text could communicate a nuanced, deeply political and personal narrative, engaging with themes of history, memory, and trauma. Since then, comics production has proliferated, with formally experimental comics artists trying their hand at a whole range of genres set in multiple geographical contexts: consider, for example, the journalistic nonfiction of Jean-Philippe Stassen and Harvey Pekar, the travelogues of Guy Delisle and Didier Lefèvre, the autobiographies of Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel, or the crime narratives of Brian Wood and Frank Miller, to name just a very few.
Though this history and terminology is a disputed one, I think it is important to reclaim the term "comics" for this proliferating body of work. If the pieces collected in this special issue of Words without Borders may not all be humorous—that is to say, they are not "comic" as such—they are still representative of the innovative developments in this remarkable medium. As readers, we should celebrate these developments, while not losing sight of the long tradition of co-mixing that came before them and to which they owe their existence. The small cross-section collected here demonstrates the ways in which the comics form melds different artistic and literary techniques to create new narrative modes that allow readers to view the world through a different frame of reference. Indeed, explicitly constructed through “framed” sequences, comics as a medium foregrounds its own self-referentiality, confessing the contingency of its own perspective. In so doing, comics offer a welcome antidote to what has been controversially called a “post-truth” world, where images circulate at lightning speed, are repeatedly taken out of context, and are often mobilized toward dubious political ends.
In the age of the Internet, we are trained on a daily basis to make sense of multiple images spliced with pieces of text, as we log onto Facebook feeds or scan through Twitter. Comics not only tap into this constant stream of information, exploiting our appetite for instant gratification. They also slow it down, the drawn image disrupting the photographic reality to which we have become accustomed. Meanwhile, that other fundamental component of comics, narrative, is constructed as much through what is not represented, in the gaps between panels, as it is through the drawn image. It therefore explicitly demands a participatory effort on the part of the reader. Readers are required to make sense of the images that are organized sequentially, the comics form forcing a cognitive engagement with the issues that it explores.
It is in this sense that comics might be thought of as an empathetic medium. Readers have to situate themselves in the cultural context inhabited by their authors in order to make sense of the story. The implication, then, is that comics, because they are constructed from borders and gaps of their own, are well-placed—if not unique—in their ability to communicate all kinds of stories across all kinds of linguistic, cultural, and geographical borders. Because comics are, one might say, comprised of words (and pictures) with borders, they allow readers to more easily identify those borders, before then moving beyond them in the very act of reading.
Importantly, however, the Internet has not only trained us to read comics. Given what are often the high costs of comics production and printing, the web and various other electronic drawing and reading devices have played a key role in facilitating the increased circulation and accessibility, not to mention the interactivity, of the form. Indeed, though comics are perhaps still most commonly associated with the "superhero" narrative, which were and continue to be produced by the large, wealthy corporate enterprises of Marvel and DC, these technologies have dramatically democratized the medium. This cheapening of the costs of production and circulation means that comics creators from across the globe, and often in the most unexpected places, now deftly use the form to represent, interrogate and communicate their local experiences, creating a huge and critically exciting, though still seriously under-read, body of work.
As this Words without Borders issue itself suggests, then, the ability to read comics online allows for a large body of sequential art to circulate across national, cultural, and linguistic borders, communicating local stories to a global audience or, conversely, tackling global issues for local readerships. For example, in Francisco de la Mora and Jose Luis Pescador Huerta’s self-translated comic “Joe,” a suited, politician polar bear represents the threat posed to the Arctic icecaps by climate change. The anthropomorphized polar bear’s numerous cross-cultural experiences, in which he learns of the suffering of the world’s poorest due to the effects of climate change, dramatizes the very process that the comic itself is undertaking—that is, the communication of local stories to global readerships and, perhaps more importantly, politicians. Concluding with the polar bear’s resulting condemnation of the UN’s participant nations, which fail to see the importance of fighting climate change because they lack a holistic worldview not constrained by the borders of the nation-state, the comic implicitly suggests that comics themselves have a role to play in the construction of a more globally aware social consciousness.
Monika Szydłowska’s "Heniek," translated by Sean Gasper Bye, is concerned with a different kind of border crossing. An aspiring Polish emigrant, the faceless Heniek gazes out of the window of his house at the "faraway countries" in a panel that conflates the window frame with the frame of the comic. Here, Szydłowska uses the bordered comics form to highlight the both the intervention and transgression of national borders. By juxtaposing Heniek’s dreams of working abroad with a sarcastic depiction of the realities for migrant laborers, the comic runs against the grain of mainstream anti-immigrant media discourse, especially in the US and UK.
Meanwhile, Gianluca Costantini and Elettra Stamboulis’s comic, "An Endless Green Line,” is again about national borders and identities, but as they manifest in a very specific, local, and physical border that runs through and divides the Cypriot capital city of Nicosia. This geographical division signifies much deeper cultural splits, with football teams and even types of beer segregated along political lines. As one panel testifies, just as "Nicosia is divided [. . .] our lives were divided, too." Straddling both sides of this division, however, in its later panels the comic also begins to explore the complex processes of reconciliation and the reconstruction of divided lives—perhaps here, too, we see comics using their architecture of panel and gutter to build bridges across borders.
While these comics mostly document lives shaped by national and political events beyond their protagonists’ control, Ilana Zeffren’s three shorts, translated by the author and collected here as "Urban Tails," takes readers across another border or threshold, from the public to the private sphere. Here, Zeffren’s truly "comic" pet cats repeatedly challenge and satirize their lesbian owners' exploration of sexual and gender identity, complicating the borders of normative heterosexuality.
Meanwhile, in their exploration of the private lives of South Africa’s impoverished urban communities, André and Nathan Trantraal’s "Coloureds," which they translated from Afrikaans, highlights the structural prevalence of alcohol addiction, domestic violence, and child abuse in the country’s poorer townships. By relating the experience of these issues through the innocent gaze of their child narrators, the Trantraal brothers reveal the absurdity and desperation of the township’s cyclical violence, showing how it is exacerbated and perpetuated by wider structural issues, ensnaring its youth and limiting their life opportunities.
Daniel Sixte’s comic "Men and Beasts," translated by Edward Gauvin, turns from Southern to Central Africa, but continues a similar critique of the structural and other kinds of violence that discriminate against the world’s poorest populations. Shifting between issues of local corruption and international exploitation, Sixte’s comic foregrounds ongoing corporate resource extraction in the Democratic Republic of Congo, communicating stories from a part of the world that so often falls into the blind spot of mainstream media coverage.
And finally, Naz Tansel's comic "The Minibus," translated from Turkish by Canan Marasligil, uses a richly colored, cinematic style to document one woman's tumultuous journey through Istanbul. As different characters board the bus on which she travels, arguing with one another and competing for space, a radio is heard intermittently covering political events in the background. Readers are invited to view the bus as a microcosmic allegory of contemporary Turkey's increasingly sensitive, and censored, political climate, while the comic itself sidesteps these new oppressive measures.
The production of comics, especially in their online format, is exploding. This special issue offers a small cross-section of the exciting work emerging from a variety of different geographical locations, and is in many ways just a taste of what is out there. But the collection is also indicative of, and testament to, the important role that comics are now playing in the transmission of stories across borders in the twenty-first century. In a world in which borders are becoming increasingly marked, regulated, and even violent, the comics creators collected here, as well as the hundreds of others working in various places around the world, are all contributing to an imperative project that creates a global cultural commons comprised of words and pictures without borders.
© 2017 by Dominic Davies. All rights reserved.
International Graphic Novels: Volume XI
In 1770s Haiti, a mixed-race girl named Minette is discovered on the streets of Port-au-Prince by a white music teacher. Minette’s voice is exquisite, and after several years of clandestine lessons, Minette and her mentor take a risky gamble and trick the director of Port-au-Prince’s Comedie Theater into starring her in a production, despite social laws against people of color performing on stage. Minette, only fourteen, is a sensation, and as her power grows with her popularity, she begins to challenge racial conventions and knock down the doors of white society. Her path is not easy: she is continually exploited and not paid for her performances; she is banned from the post-opera celebratory balls by the same white patrons who just gave her standing ovations. She must fight tooth and nail for everything she desires and deserves.
The backdrop of the story of Minette’s meteoric rise to opera stardom is the “volcano” of the title: the escalating tensions of the brutal racial war that is about to explode. Just before Minette makes her debut, her mother, Jasmine, reveals the lash scars on her back and the brand burnt on her breast—the hallmarks of her past slavery, which she has kept hidden from her daughters. Minette is profoundly affected to learn the truth about her mother’s abuse and rape, and her own slave origins. She has been awoken to the injustice of the system she has taken for granted. She experiences a “painful” internal “revolt against so much absurdity,” and begins to involve herself with anti-slavery cells, risking her life to help her freedom-fighting friends. “The struggle was merciless,” Minette realizes.
At some point it was necessary to ignore one’s heart and one’s honor, to seize life with two hands and squeeze one’s fingers around it, like around the neck of an enemy one has vanquished.
Every page, every plot circumstance, every character interaction seethes with righteous anger at the institution of slavery, at formalized racial hierarchies, at the injustices visited upon people of color for generations. It also depicts the widespread malaise and futility of systemic oppression, and the grim desperation of revolutionary spirit of the maroons—escaped slaves—and their allies: desperation, futility, and rage which “reduc[es] her to a mere machine in the service of destiny.” Change requires violence and sacrifice; it is a cause that must be worth dying for.
The novel was inspired by a historical anecdote about two young women of color, Minette and Lise, who crossed racial boundaries and performed at the Theatre Saint-Domingue in the years just before the Haitian revolution. In 1955, two years before Vieux-Chauvet published La Danse sur le Volcan, Haitian historian Jean Fouchard published a history of the Theatre Saint-Domingue in which he included their story; Vieux-Chauvet’s novelized version fleshes out Fouchard’s historical framework.
Dance on the Volcano, which was first published in France in 1957, was Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s second novel. The author is perhaps most famous for her 1968 novel trilogy, Love, Anger, Madness, a work whose uncompromising portrayal of Duvalier’s dictatorship led to her living under constant surveillance and made her fear for her life. In wake of its publication, she moved to New York City, where she died five years later at age 57. The revival of interest in her work is richly deserved, although the preservation of her legacy has been fraught. Archipelago Books performs a valuable service to English-language literature by publishing Kaiama L. Glover’s highly readable translation (a previous translation by Salvator Attanasio, now unavailable, was published by William Sloane in 1959).
The title is taken from the French idiom danser sur un volcan, an expression meaning to be blind to imminent danger. The novel is charged with invective against the system—a comment on the era about which it is written, pre-revolutionary Haiti, but also a product of the social and political climate of the author’s own era, on the eve of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s reign of terror. It is also a fascinating addition to the feminist literary canon, a novel about powerful, complex, and troubled female characters. It examines female sexual agency and speaks frankly of the realities of survival for women in a white patriarchy.
Most troublesome and troubling, of course, is the sexual point of contact between masters and slaves, the intrinsic and nearly universal sexual exploitation of the owned. It is slave rape that has created the mix-raced population and the entire color-based caste system of Haiti. From the book’s opening paragraphs, Vieux-Chauvet forcefully presents a culture in which sexual exploitation is a constant and ever-present fact of life, where pretenses at civilized high culture are undermined by an unfettered white patriarchy where the woman of color’s body as an object of extreme sexual desire or fixation for white men. The murky social laws surrounding slavery are another key concern of the plot. For example, Minette falls helplessly in love with a black slave-owner, despite her own political convictions. She cannot bear to see him abuse his slaves, although he insists to her it is right to do so, his manner of keeping control over the wealth she enjoys.
Dance on the Volcano is not a perfect novel, if such a thing exists; it suffers from some overwriting and its pacing is uneven, especially in the last third of the book, which races through critical moments of the burgeoning revolution. But Glover’s careful translation leaves the text feeling authentic and the mood is in keeping with the historical era that inspired it. It is a passionate, emphatic book that feels necessary and timely, despite the fact that it was written sixty years ago and depicts a historical epoch more than two centuries removed. It is worth celebrating that this important work of Haitian literature is now available for wider canonization. May this edition be a point of discovery of Vieux-Chauvet and her works for many readers.
Of the many savage theories thrown around by the characters who enliven Pola Oloixarac’s transgressive novel of revolution, desire, and academia, one of the most devastating is delivered by the narrator:
The Spanish word for mirror, espejo, shares a root with the word species; the mirror shows each species for what it is, and lays bare the shoddy reasoning that has led each to think itself unique.
The perversions of language is one of Oloixarac’s central themes, and this, along with the nuanced references to Argentina’s Dirty War and the country’s political history following Peronism, plus the characters’ tenuous interpretations of various philosophers expressed in murky academic syntax, must have made the book particularly challenging to translate. Roy Kesey succeeded in creating a text that is immersive, multilayered, sensual, and cerebral, and it captures Oloixarac’s wicked brand of humor, which often triggers bark-like laughs followed by pangs of guilt.
Throughout the book, Oloixarac presents scathing criticisms of the belief in one’s individuality, as performed or clung to in three main activities: online interaction, hooking up at parties, and psychoanalysis. As young academics and artists, her central characters vacillate between attempting to disprove the fiction of individuality and falling victim to it, due to an oversupply of both self-awareness and narcissism. These opposing drives toward self-erasure and the desire for recognition often trigger the action of the novel, and they yield a series of sexual adventures rendered with frank details that are variously thrilling and disturbing.
There is a nightclub bathroom scene with Kamtchowsky, involving a ketamine-induced paralysis and two men she names Beanie and Curls, of whom Kamtchowsky thinks, "They are like bears, and I am the honey.” There is an impromptu roadside tryst between a man named Andy and a transexual woman, during which Andy’s companion, Kamtchowsky’s boyfriend Pabst, unhappily masturbates while the other two have sex. Kamtchowsky and Pabst also share many orgies with Andy and his girlfriend Mara, a photographer whose work transforms the landscape of Buenos Aires, where they live, into a vision of post-apocalyptic destruction. Mara’s themes later come into play in a collaborative project conceived by Kamtchowsky, a filmmaker who explores the intersections between autobiography and her country’s revolutions while living a somewhat wilder life than the narrator, Rosa—an academic who spends much of her time at home with her pet fish Yorick and her cat Montaigne.
Savage Theories compels with its energetic, spleen-filled characters, and the seamless blend of desire and theorizing is contagious on both fronts, but the book is a difficult read. There are many digressions and red herrings. It takes time to get one’s bearings and identify the themes and action that are at work under the surface and eventually tie everything together. The effect is destabilizing, and prevents the reader from sharing a knowing smirk with Rosa when she lands a sharp linguistic barb. We are implicated along with everyone else, which I believe is Oloixarac’s intention, and the effect deepens the experience of her novel.
The book opens with a synopsis of an Orokavian rite of passage called the Cult of the Wolf, in which children are traumatized in order to confront their deepest fears. This is juxtaposed with a brief introduction of Kamtchowsky, followed by the life stories of her parents. The narrator emphasizes the role of psychology in Kamtchowsky's upbringing. When her parents met, her mother was studying the subject and psychoanalysis had entered the culture as "a sort of linguistic vanguard [that] had managed to insert [itself] into the moist cavities of the middle class." The reasons for presenting aboriginal initiation rituals and the history of modern psychoanalysis in Argentina are unclear until we understand the book's premise. At this point, we have no choice but to surrender to the next character introduction, a man of Kamtchowsky's parents' age named Augusto García Roxler, whose interest in pursuing a Theory of Egoic Transmissions is cause for another jump.
Roxler's theory originates with a Bolaño-esque anthropologist named Johan van Vliet, who performed a series of experiments on people in remote West Africa. Van Vliet’s disciples are reminiscent of the cult of Archimboldi from the first part of 2666, in terms of their devotion to an author who has disappeared from the world, although in this case we find them attempting to publish his work rather than uncover his hiding place. As the quest of the disciples mirrors the narrator’s own efforts to improve on García Roxler’s theory for her own glory and recognition, we begin to understand the significance of the backstory, as well as the anthropological passages.
Rosa is obsessed with García Roxler, and has become one of those people who take a professor’s class over and over and over again, though her crush is based on more than infatuation. She needs one of her university’s old, washed-up “pictures of Dorian Gray” to acknowledge her existence, and she believes she has something to contribute. We are fifty pages into the book before we first see her, arriving at an embassy reception to confront the professor. She is pulsing with purpose and “emotion has given a rosy tint to her cheeks.” The scene is rendered in a tone of satire, which Rosa overplays in order to contain her spiking self-consciousness, going so far as to liken herself to “a débutante from imperial Russia, [blinking] delicately at the…world her glaucous feet do not yet dare to enter.”
The secret action of Savage Theories, hidden behind the antics of Rosa’s alter-ego Kamtchowsky, is her re-writing of García Roxler’s work, but the book is most engaging when Oloixarac crosses the line from Rosa's formal language of critical theory to the third-person dramatization of theorizing. Amidst the rich emotional interplay and battle scars racked up between lovers Kamtchowsky, Pabst, Mara, and Andy, theorizing is practiced to explore desire as well as to construct lines of defense. Near the end of the book, their collaboration culminates in a subversive plot that involves a video game modeled after the Dirty War and a cyber attack on Google Earth that appears in the form of political theatre and functions as art. Kamtchowsky’s story ends triumphantly, and her fearless rebellion seems to strengthen Rosa’s conviction in the importance of her own work. Kamtchowsky’s example is equally empowering to the reader, in a time when rebellion and personal freedom have become coopted to promote hate and apathy.
In this issue of WWB we present five pieces of prose by authors from Macedonia, a landlocked country in southeastern Europe bordered by Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and Kosovo. Macedonia is a successor-state of socialist Yugoslavia and has been independent since 1991. It is slightly larger than Vermont.
The country has a population of just over two million. The majority (about 60%) are ethnic Macedonians, who speak a Slavic language closely related to Bulgarian and Serbian. There is a sizeable Albanian community (about 30%), which constitutes a majority in a number of municipalities, as well as Turks, Romani (Gypsies), Serbs, and others. There is a significant diaspora of ethnic Macedonians in North America, Australia, and western Europe as a result of decades of economic migration.
Macedonia bears many traits of a multicultural society, and a spirit of tolerance is widespread, but the country has been in economic, social, and political crisis for almost as long as anyone can remember. Macedonia was hailed as a regional haven of peace during the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–95) and Kosovo/Yugoslavia (1999), but problems came to a head in 2001 with a spate of ethnic-Albanian insurgency. The internationally brokered Ohrid Agreement of the same year aimed to improve the rights of ethnic Albanians. Although the Agreement brought nominal peace and stability, it has cemented the divisions within the country. Ethnic Albanians are still discriminated against in many ways; on the other hand, many ethnic Macedonians feel it would be beneath their dignity to learn Albanian. It is still a long way to a real, engaging form of multiculturalism. The capital city Skopje is divided into a mostly Macedonian half and a largely Albanian half—the division can be seen and felt, north and south of the Vardar River.
Macedonia was one of the least developed regions of the former Yugoslavia, and many of the country’s industries (mining and metallurgy, textiles, agriculture) have not adjusted well to global economic trends. There is significant foreign investment and some new production facilities, but working conditions here are often abysmal. Unemployment is high and the ongoing brain-drain of the younger generation is a big issue. An ongoing dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia has seen Greece veto Macedonia’s accession to the European Union, adding to the feeling of frustration in many sectors of society.
Large protests erupted in late 2014 after it was revealed that the right-wing nationalist government of President Nikola Gruevski (in office since 2006) had been wire-tapping citizens in a big way. A “colorful revolution” saw a number of public buildings and monuments copiously pelted and squirted with paint. The wire-tapping scandal was only the straw that broke the camel’s back: widespread corruption remains a problem, and there are various other grievances such as the government’s diverting of resources from the infrastructure budget to fund oversized monuments and neo-Classical buildings in the capital, e.g. a column topped by a huge sculpture of Alexander the Great in the city’s central square. (The Ancient Macedonians of Alexander’s time were not Greeks, as the nationalists never tire to proclaim, but neither are today’s Balkan-Slavic Macedonians related to the Ancient Macedonians in any meaningful way—the government’s strange approach to identity building has incensed many people both at home and abroad.) Parliamentary elections were held on December 11, 2016, resulting in a close finish between the governing party and the opposition bloc lead by the Social-Democrats. Forming a new government is expected to be difficult.
Macedonian literature has a long tradition going back to common Slavic times. The first Slavic texts (mainly translations from the Bible) were produced by the monastic brothers Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century based on the Slavic idiom spoken in the hinterland of Thessaloniki. There has been a long tradition of folk poetry, but Macedonian in its relatively unified contemporary form is very much a product of the codification carried out in 1944–45. This process laid down which of the words and forms from the various Macedonian dialects would constitute the new standard language, and it helped distinguish Macedonian from the closely related Bulgarian. Even today, Macedonian and Bulgarian are mutually comprehensible.
Given the small size of the Macedonian market and the country’s poverty compared to most of Europe, government funding is crucial for most literary projects and the publishing sector in general, although it functions rigidly and without a clear strategy. No authors are able to make a living from writing fiction or poetry. Almost all of them work at least part-time as journalists, teachers/lecturers, publishers, etc. This is perhaps a blessing in disguise because many authors feel relatively free to write as they see fit, both in terms of style and content. There is little pressure to conform to “market expectations” because market mechanisms do not function in the same way as in large Western economies.
A lot more literature is translated into Macedonian than is translated out of it. Given the richness of Macedonian writing, it would be lovely if Western publishers were a little bolder.
Our feature opens with “Nectar” by Rumena Bužarovska (1981), a story from her third and latest collection of short stories, My Husband (Mojot maž), published in 2014. Bužarovska, who works as a lecturer in American literature at the university in Skopje, is increasingly gaining international attention. She was one of the ten authors chosen for “New Voices from Europe” presented by Literature Across Frontiers at the London Book Fair 2016.
The narrator of “Nectar” is a woman who has married her gynecologist, a charming but arrogant man sixteen years her senior, who paints in his spare time. The story looks at gender roles in a conventional heterosexual family, shows how the husband exploits his professional position in relation to the wives of friends, and takes us on interesting excursions about male and female creativity. At the end we find out that the narrator actually writes poetry—the husband’s egocentrism and his wife’s conformity have pushed this under the carpet—and she avenges herself for his hubris with a subtle revelation.
There are quite a number of female prose writers and particularly poets in Macedonia, but they receive little recognition from the mainstream. In this and many other ways, Macedonia is a very patriarchal society.
We then present “Fog” and “Fire” by Nenad Joldeski (1986), one of the winners of the 2016 European Union Prize for Literature. Joldeski’s first degree was in economics, after which he studied comparative literature. He currently works in the IT sector. These two pieces, written in dense and intense, almost poetic language, are taken from his second book of short stories, Everyone Has Their Own Lake (Sekoj so svoeto ezero), 2012. The texts in this book revolve around existential themes and “imperiled urban scenes,” as Joldeski says in an interview—perhaps a reference to the government’s megalomania and monuments disfiguring inner Skopje. “Fog” is dreamlike and disturbing, while “Fire” examines the instability of identity and the need to share narratives about belonging. Both pieces have more than a hint of Kafka.
Next we have an extract from the novel The Lighter (Zapalka) by Natali Spasova (1989). Spasova is a relative newcomer and one of the few female voices in Macedonia’s male-dominated literary scene. This fresh and lively novel published in 2014 is structured as a series of separate tales by different narrators/protagonists, whose dissimilar lives are connected by one small object: a Zippo cigarette lighter. An entertaining book full of surprising developments, and perhaps a reflection of Macedonia’s turbulent past—and present.
We round off this feature with the tale “The Bird on the Balcony” by Petre Dimovski (1946) from his latest book of short stories entitled Dawn in the Painting (Zora vo slikata), 2015. Dimovski, who recently retired, worked primarily as a teacher and journalist, but has also published fourteen novels, eleven collections of short stories, and won most of Macedonia’s literary prizes. He organizes an annual literary festival in Bitola, Macedonia’s second-largest city.
At a simplistic level, “The Bird on the Balcony” is a boy-meets-girl story couched in rather passionate, flowery language. But there is an interesting historical twist: one of the two protagonists of this story set in the early twentieth century is a young Turkish cadet at the Ottoman military academy in Bitola (now part of Macedonia): Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This gives an interesting dash of spice, and the story provides a good thematic and stylistic counterpoint to the three pieces above by younger writers. It alludes to the changing fortunes in this part of the world. Until the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Bitola was a regional capital of greater significance than Skopje. As well as being a commercial hub, it was also known as “the city of consuls,” since many European countries had consulates there. But when the borders were redrawn in the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913 and Bitola ended up at the southernmost tip of Serbia, its decline to a provincial town was essentially sealed.
Together, the five pieces in this feature give a diverse taste of contemporary Macedonian prose, which is vibrant both domestically and in the diaspora. There is much to be discovered. Publishers in the English-speaking world would do well to shrug off their reticence and present readers a real south-Balkan smorgasbord.
© 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
Petre Dimovski looks back at a turning point in a leader's youth
The young man walked with his usual calm over the cobblestones of the Shirok Sokak promenade in Bitola, the city famous throughout the Ottoman Empire. He came from Salonika and felt he was ever closer to his goal of obtaining an education, now that he had been accepted as a cadet at the Military Academy here. At the same moment, the beautiful Bitola girl Eleni Karinte came out onto the balcony, aflutter and in the flower of her youth, with a gentle restlessness in her soul, which created the sense of being high in the air and having a view distinctive of a bird, not of an earth-bound human. But the young man who walked over the cobbles had the sky in his eye. He sought there for the star that would guide his way into the future.
The beautiful bird looked down. Its destiny is to forever conceal the sky in the span of its wings, and yet to have its eye on life on earth.
There was absolutely no telling what would happen next, although the moment that had just entered the present was so close.
Nothing would have happened if the young woman had let herself be carried away on the little white clouds, which she now banished to the corner of her eye and let their shadows fly on. Or if the man who paced the cobbles had walked with his gaze on the ground to maintain a steady step. But just now the young man raised his head. He lifted his gaze in search of the star that was already wandering through his mind. The young woman felt a breath of air, which created the illusion that she really was a bird flying in the sky, and she lowered her eyes to the ground.
Destiny took its course when their gazes met. Heaven and earth lost their connecting border. Their thoughts then also conjoined, a quality of those who attempt to tame their restiveness and—as a result—electrify the surroundings with their elemental drive.
The young man was completely captivated by the beauty of the young woman. She left the sky and gently descended to earth.
“I feel my life is changing,” Kemal admitted sincerely to the beautiful Eleni, inebriated by the first drop of amorous wine. She only gave a heart-warming smile. But the shine in her eyes rounded out that dialogue of love. They were gazing at each other, that was plain, and they realized they could not stop. They already knew each other well enough to be the most intimate beings on earth. Elegant and well-mannered, the young woman received him at the piano in her drawing room and played him one of the pieces that the French governesses in Bitola had taught her. She chose the song “Frère Jacques,” the first for which her teachers had praised her. The strains of the piano followed the words with infatuation:
Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
And Kemal applauded long and loud. Eleni had noticed that he simply melted to the sounds of the piano. The young cadet bore his musicality in his ear but had no skill with his fingers, so he said he could only offer his love. Eleni’s enchanting laughter resounded and was conveyed by the ebony and ivory with a melodic richness. The keys struck straight at their hearts; the melody rang through their veins and made its way out into the world around.
It seems the keys recognized their two hearts as being of the same note, and in that instant their union occurred, their fusion into one whole, with the same sound and the same melody that could no longer be separated.
After that encounter, the happy young couple realized that the love flaring up in their hearts could conquer the world in a single day. And they immediately set out on their campaign.
Eleni knew the hard stance of the successful Bitola merchant Eftim Karinte, her father. She knew how he would react when he heard of their love: a young woman from a respectable Christian home and a cadet from a poor Mohammedan family . . . Their love therefore inspired them to flee.
“I will take you to meet my mother in Salonika,” the young cadet declared. “It is not hard to choose between the Academy and this beautiful young woman.”
“I will go with you wherever you take me, even to the ends of the earth,” the beautiful Eleni averred.
Soon afterward the long train roared and whistled as it raced across the land toward Salonika, bearing their great love. Kemal and Eleni spent the whole of the journey in each other’s arms. Naturally they were afraid to let go of their love, which could be seized and shut away in a prison with high stone walls.
The young man took his joy to meet his mother. But she sent the young couple straight back to Bitola so that her son would continue the chosen schooling, and so he could ask the young woman’s parents for her hand in marriage. Eftim Karinte was very strict on matters of class and religion. The young couple had no choice other than to go into hiding in Bitola in order to save their great love. But the forces of separation were more powerful than their bond, and that great love was thrown into the dungeon of a stone fortress. Then they were forcibly separated: the boy was sent away to Istanbul and the beautiful girl to Florina so that they would never see each other again. Eleni withdrew into the prison of her soul.
But such a love could not be wrenched from their hearts. Nothing could remove it from there. It filled them completely, leaving no room for any other. So it was that their great love prompted Kemal to perform great deeds. Beautiful Eleni, in turn, waited for an opening in time, when their captive love would be set free and the two separated hearts could beat together once more. She waited like this until her eightieth year, when all the times had changed and life and death had merged fully into one. And on her last journey she took with her one single token.
"Ptica na balkonot," from Zora vo slikata. © Petre Dimovski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
A resourceful child learns the limited life of a good-luck charm in Natali Spasova's tale
“When is Daddy coming?” The bare little feet came shuffling into the room, but the child’s sleepy voice received no answer. It was a small room, modestly furnished, with dark curtains on the windows that did not let in enough light.
The frail body of a woman slumped in an armchair, her old throne. The little girl made her way through the bottles of alcohol and gently loosened the strap on her mother’s left arm. She leaned up to her lips and, holding her breath, pressed her ear to them. She’s still breathing, it’s OK, she thought with relief.
“I’m hungry.” Warily, fearfully, she nudged her so she would wake up, but still there was no reaction. She picked up the blanket from the floor and threw it over her with great effort.
“I’ll make food myself. You sleep. Have a good rest. You’ll get better and we can go to the park tomorrow. We don’t have to go today.”
She headed for the kitchen. She wasn’t allowed to turn on the stove at all, and she remembered that she had once played with the knobs and was given a hard slap by her mother. If she woke up and found that the girl had turned it on once more, who knows what would happen. The fridge was empty. There was just a carton with some stale cereal. Yesterday she drank the last of the milk, although it had a strange taste. It made her tummy hurt and she had to vomit. She didn’t tell her mother because she didn’t want to wake her. Her mother was very ill and had to sleep.
Quietly she moved down the hall and went outside. She was also not allowed to cross the street, but this time she had no choice. She knew the neighbors opposite, and they were kind to her. They had a granddaughter she used to play with before she left for America. She knocked on the neighbors’ door and asked for a glass of milk.
“Mama is sick. She can’t go to the store,” she explained.
The lady looked at her in confusion, then filled the glass and walked her back home. She stood at the open front door for several seconds, horrified, and then turned and ran back to her house.
Her mother was still sleeping. Once again she held her ear close to make sure she was alive, then she shook the cereal into the glass and sat down on the floor to eat. The table was covered with a jumble of things, which she didn’t want to move because otherwise her mother would yell at her when she woke up; she was often in a bad mood when she got up and annoyed by all sorts of little things.
Someone rang at the door. She was too small to look through the peephole to see who it was, so she opened the door a bit. Two grim-looking men dressed in blue.
“Hello there. Could we come in, please?”
“No,” she replied curtly. “Mama’s sleeping. I’m not allowed to wake her. And I’m not to let anyone into the house.”
The two men glanced at each other. In front of them stood a barefooted girl, five or six years old, in a nightie that was clearly a few sizes too big for her. With a snotty little nose and milk-smeared cheeks, but with the piercing blue eyes of an adult.
One of the men pulled out his police badge, but the girl did not waver—she stood firmly by her decision. The other man took out a kind of radio and moved aside, far enough so that the girl would not be able to hear what he spoke into it.
They tried to explain to her once more that they were good people, the sort everyone lets into their homes, and that the rules didn’t apply to them, but the girl knew she would be in big trouble if she didn’t obey her mother’s rules. There were no exceptions to those rules.
In the end, the policemen’s patience wore thin. They roughly pushed her away from the door and entered, covering their noses.
Terrified, the girl ran up to her room, hid under the bed, and started to rummage through the box there. Her whole body shook and she started to cry, but she quickly gave herself a jolt when she remembered that wasn’t allowed either. No crying! Finally, among all the worthless things at the bottom of the box she found what she was looking for.
But no ordinary lighter.
She pressed it to her body and her fear suddenly vanished.
* * *
She woke up in her dark room paralyzed with fear, and she didn’t dare to make a sound. Exactly one year earlier, she had had the same nightmare: a man without a head was following her and she had nowhere to run. The first time, she told her mother about the nightmare and was given a sound beating—she had unwittingly given away that she had been watching films she wasn’t allowed to. She knew she had to keep quiet about it this time. But her room was very scary, so she snuck into the living room on her tiptoes.
Her father was still awake. What a relief! She ran and nestled up to him in front of the television. She didn’t admit anything until he gave her a firm promise she wouldn’t get into trouble, and then she told him about the film with the man without a head, whom no gun could kill.
“And now he’s following me. No one can see him because he hides in my wardrobe.”
They went and checked the wardrobes together, but to no avail—the man could make himself invisible.
Then her father fumbled around in his pocket and produced the magic lighter.
“This is the most precious thing anyone can ever own. It was given to me by a great wizard and is the most powerful weapon in the world . . . I’ll put it under your bed and no monsters will ever be able to come near you,” her father told her.
“Can it make me invisible?” her eyes lit up.
“Ha, of course. I told you it was magic. You just have to hold it tight enough and wish really, really hard for something, and it will make that wish come true.”
She slept peacefully that night. The man without a head never appeared in her dreams again. But neither did her father appear again in her life.
* * *
She heard the men come into her room. She listened to their steps and their voices. They asked themselves where she was, and she just smiled. She was invisible; they wouldn’t find her, so they would give up and leave.
She could tell from the steps that there were several people in the room now, not just the two men. Suddenly, one of them leaned under the bed and fixed his terrible dark eyes on her. She was startled for a moment, but then it occurred to her that she was actually invisible. She pressed the lighter to herself and smiled contentedly.
“What are you holding there, girl?”
She said nothing. This was impossible. She was invisible. If she kept silent, they would all go away.
“May I see?” the voice sounded friendly, but still she didn’t move. Perhaps she wasn’t squeezing the lighter hard enough? Or not wishing properly? She shut her eyes and wished again as hard as she could that she was invisible! Her arms hurt, but she didn’t give up.
All of a sudden she felt someone lift her into the air. She didn’t resist but just gripped the lighter hard with both hands and repeated to herself: “I want to be invisible! I want to be invisible!”
They carried her out of the house and sat her down beside a woman with a pleasant voice who also tried to talk with her. She opened her eyes for a moment, long enough to see her pleasant face, and then she returned to the lighter. It had to work—her father had said it would. And her father never, ever lied!
The woman gave up her attempts and just stayed sitting next to her in silence. As she expected, after half an hour’s exertion the girl finally fell asleep.
The poor thing, she thought as she carried the little urchin to the waiting taxi. She didn’t notice the lighter that fell from the girl’s limp hands onto the back seat. When they got out, the taxi driver called to her:
“Lady, you’ve forgotten your lighter!”
“I don’t smoke,” she replied over her shoulder and walked into the city orphanage.
The next morning, the newspaper headlines blared:
FIVE-YEAR-OLD LEFT ALONE FOR A WEEK WITH CORPSE OF HEROIN-OVERDOSED MOTHER
Everyone felt sorry for the girl, who just one year earlier had lost her father in a road accident.
From Zapalka. © Natali Spasova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
Nenad Joldeski offers two atmospheric tales
Skopje. Corrected discourse.
Fine rain is falling outside. One half of the city is under water, the other floats wounded on the city lake. A bird flies into the half-open roller blind. The third today. Beside me lies the borrowed book on Brueghel. I remember Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. It’s strange that I can’t think of Brueghel without his name triggering an association with Williams.
“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring.”
I look for the painting inside. It’s not there. Instead, I gaze at The Hunters in the Snow. This must be the tenth time I’ve seen it as if by chance. Several times with Olivia, and several by myself. I’m starting to believe it portends something apocalyptic. The winter, perhaps. Whatever . . .
The drizzle stops. I go outside. The city, dark clouds and fog hanging over it, walks its phantasms along the mute, foggy avenues. It smells of winter. An icy north wind deflects off the buildings. Ice quickly forms at the edges of the sidewalks.
I take the street that leads steeply down into the heart of the city. I’m not really sure where this route will take me. Through the heavy drapes оf smog and fog I sense a pack of tired and ravenous dogs following me. I tremble with fear and stop short. The dogs don’t notice me in the mist and pass by. I notice three hunters following them, with rifles. Ravens fly past overhead. The men take aim and fire several shots. One of the bullets pierces glass. Nothing falls to the ground. Fortunately they don’t notice me. I decide to continue on through the thick fog in search of somewhere to hide. I find the nearest store and slip inside. Through the shopwindow I watch the hunters and the ravenous hounds melt into the mist. The storekeeper lies dead. I hurry home as fast as I can.
A raven, certainly lost in the thick fog, crashes into the window and breaks the glass, and then flies half dead into the room. A whiteness starts to fill the interior. I notice a message on the raven’s leg.
Don’t go outside, I’m dreaming of the hunters, they’re relieving their hunger, venting their defeat.—Olivia
I lock the door. The Brueghel book still lies on the table. Ravens are colonizing the room. I make tea and settle comfortably in the armchair. Glad to be alive. I wait for her to wake up.
To my father
and all who will believe
The summer that came after the death of my grandfather gave birth to a fiery well inside my father. The red chasm that he claimed was melting his soul and heating it to incandescence came out through his eyes and spewed flames at anyone who looked at him. He found no way to quench that fire. Something was happening inside my father—one sun was going down and another, even hotter and more dangerous, was rising—and although medicine claimed the opposite and skeptically poured water and ash onto the embers of his soul, the fire continued to smolder inside. He thought back to his youth, he dressed up my mother in clothes that had long ceased to fit her, and she, not wanting to contradict his mania, obeyed like a small child. We all knew that the torrid abyss forming within him, powerful and apocalyptic, would not last long, but none of us were bold enough to anticipate the scars it would leave.
My father started going out less and less, and when he did, he hid in the shadows of the houses and passed like a ghost along the margins without being seen. I watched him flit beneath the eaves and levitate about the roofs with my grandfather’s old parasol trailing behind. Sometimes he would dive into the black river and was gone for hours, only to emerge from it in the end dry and dejected. In the nights he looked at the moon and confused it with his enemy, the eye of the universe, which slowly and furtively crept up through his conversations, leaving ash on the floor—traces he returned to at dawn. In his mornings awash with sweat we coldly watched his anxiety; we all hoped the summer would soon end and the elemental forces of fall would bring him back to the circle of existence.
But when fall came, my father continued to loiter around the house and only occasionally stopped down in the stone basements until, cold and somber, they reminded him of my grandfather. Then he also started to complain about his heels. When he trod, he left traces of black on the floor and claimed that everything in him was turning to coals and ash. My mother measured his steps, fanned his neck, and served him cold beer, but nothing helped. One day, probably considering us and his hopeless situation, he disappeared.
The days that followed, chill and gray, cast his remains into our house, leaving us less and less space for living. The foundations started to give way, the walls lost their colors, the warmth vanished, and only past memories, smells, and smiles of that great miracle worker collected in the corners. My brother and I searched for him everywhere and paced wild-eyed through the pale light of the waning days, hoping to find a trace of him sometime. And just when it seemed everything would fall apart and our paltry lives would topple into the void of his absence and vanish forever in the ruins, warmth miraculously returned to our home. For days we sat despondently at the windows and watched ice take hold of the streets, filling the asphalt chasms of the city, and we hoped it was a herald of his coming.
My father returned together with the first snow in late January, on the day of his fifty-eighth birthday: smaller, tiny, and chilled to the bone. The fiery well had been covered with snow, he claimed, and that layer of white now concealed everything that could make a semblance of his previous life. He tried to create a reminiscence of the past months, to melt the snow by throwing salt on it, but all his efforts collapsed into the pit of oblivion, lost their ground, and slid away. And he simply could not recall what had happened to him all the time he was gone.
For days, my father dug through the labyrinths of his memories, cleared away the snow and broke the ice on the frozen flagstones, beneath which all the warmth and the smells of his onetime memories now faintly shimmered. He found the cat and stole its spot, woke it from its slumber and conquered its territory, laying down his own laws and jurisdiction, only to ultimately meditate on warmth, in the belief that cats always choose the warmest place in a house. He would say with soft elation that he was going out for a walk, but instead, when he thought no one was watching, he shrank and broke into the family albums. And only then, wallowing about in the photos, could he daydream of my grandfather’s garden, the old trees that once flowed with honey, my mother in youthful rapture hiding her face with a pillow in the small student room in Skopje . . . Hundreds of split-seconds broken down into tiny decimals, the right to one more day, the balance of his life set against other laws. Only during those brief visits did his rickety worlds gain stability, take on color, levitate weightlessly, and lift him into the air like a soap bubble in an innocent childhood fantasy. But the balloons soon sagged from the weight of the memories, the photographs faded, and everything fell apart into a million trivial details, which returned my father to the living room, back to his cold labyrinths. Covered all over with cobwebs of the past and the sticky illusions of reminiscences, he pottered sadly about the room. He nervously wiped those sticky threads of yore from his face and passed us by as if we didn’t exist, taking us for apparitions—value-added tax on the price of his life.
One day he decided to stop mortifying himself with those painful wanderings through the albums. He shut himself away in his old office and finally found peace among the files and folders. In that little room he made cults of the inventory and saw the statements of condition and success as a parity between number and letter, sign and new designation. He looked through the old bookkeeping accounts and claimed that the figures reflected opportune expenditure on the story, secret codes that could be deciphered into sentences. He composed new statements and new narrative reports—these were the straw he clutched at, his last link with the past. It was a sham: he multiplied pale memories by the free associations of the reports, and then secretly injected that concoction of fiction and rickety memories, that new lie of his life, into his hearth, which lay extinguished and blanketed in white in the cellar of his soul. He wrote, and as the stories about him grew, he diminished, withered, and melted into the notes.
My mother, brother, and I observed the office for days and definitely saw his shadow through the window. We watched it go down at dawn and rise again at night, and we saw it shrink more and more every day until all that remained of him was a faint spot on the window—the last sign of my father’s existence, his signature, a trace of the quenched embers of his last hot summer.
"Magla" and "Ogan," from Sekoj so svoeto ezero. © Nenad Joldeski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
Rumena Bužarovska observes a woman give her pretentious doctor husband a taste of his own medicine
Although he’s a gynecologist, my husband likes to pretend he’s an artist, and that’s just one of the things about him that annoy me. Actually, I don’t remember exactly when most of the things he does and says started to bug me, but I can distinguish this one as one of my main peeves. For example, when we have people over he tells them that he “dabbles in art” but isn’t an “artist” in the true sense of the word, which gives a false impression of modesty. And we have people over regularly. I really wish we didn’t, because it involves cooking and cleaning both before and after their visits. My husband insists on the food being plentiful as a way of showing we are a supposedly functional family. During those abundant dinners, which take place in our living room at the low table between the settee, the couch, and the armchair, where we can seat four others as well as us, I’m the one who has to serve the guests and am mostly stationed in the kitchen, so when I come out to join them and chat for a minute I have to sit on a stool. I always lie and say it’s quite comfortable. Meanwhile, he talks with the guests and mainly tells them about himself. Since it’s considered improper to speak about pussies, which are the basis of all his knowledge, he talks to them about his “art,” meaning the oil paintings that he does in one of the rooms of our apartment, his “atelier.” As a result, our two children, who are constantly at each other’s throats, have to share a room. His paintings are extremely amateurish. The colors are murky, subdued, and depressing. Every time he makes a wrong stroke, he plasters over it with a new layer of paint. His canvases therefore resemble large pats of vomit—each is like a copious, undigested, masticated meal that has come up to say hello. He considers his paintings “abstract” and thinks they “express emotional states of alarm and elation,” but in fact they represent what he knows best: vaginas, from the inside and out. I presume other people realize that, at least those with a bit more nous.
The second topic at these dinners, not surprisingly, are his patients and their health issues. My husband, it should be said, has shed all of his former friends who are outside his line of work. All his friends are also physicians he met at medical school, and their wives are his patients. Together they have “fraternity.” I find the idea of fraternity among men rather ridiculous from today’s perspective. When I was young and my husband and I first met, I liked the idea of him having a faithful circle of friends like that. But I didn’t realize back then what they talk about together. I didn’t realize that they talk about us, their wives. And I think my husband is the worst among them, mainly because of being a gynecologist and enjoying the status of knowing all the intimate details of the wives. Unfortunately I have a terrible, sneaking suspicion that I’m afraid to voice, namely that his friends deliberately take their wives to see my husband because that gives them control over them. If one of his friends has a sexually transmitted disease, my husband can help keep it secret. And if that disease is “the woman’s fault,” he can tell the men before their wife does—if she does at all. This is just my theory, which I’m far from certain about, seeing as this band of men claims their fraternity is “above all else” and that they’d literally do anything for each other. Sometimes I like to think they’re gay and that if we weren’t there, and if there wasn’t such social pressure on them, they’d all get in line, one behind the other, and have a good bang together. That’s how I imagine them at times when they annoy me: stuck together like sardines, like wagons of a train, and doing the lo-co-mo-tion. Except that the first in line has nothing to do with his cock and just holds it in his hand, at a loss. But afterward they alternate so that none in their fraternity misses out. In my fantasies, we women sit at the side and watch them. We do in reality, too. They talk and we look on, or every now and then we whisper recipes to each other when we get tired of their blah. Sometimes the wives also manage to secretly exchange a word or two with my husband in the hall—an extra little consultation regarding their health. “Take a dose of Betadine,” I’d hear, or “Maybe it’s my diet, I don’t know why it keeps coming back.” “Don’t start dieting.” “But I eat healthily. I don’t even smoke anymore.”
He and I met at the gynecological table, when I went to see him for a checkup. He was exceptionally kind and gentle, and his approach fascinated me. I was very, very young—that should be taken into account—and the other gynecologists I’d been to were rough, rude, and generally unpleasant. Not that I had any kind of problem—on the contrary. To begin with, he sat me down in his office and put me at ease with a friendly chat. He was charming. Soothing classical music was playing in the background, and he offered me some herbal tea he’d already made. After I’d relaxed a little, he showed me to a delightful little changing room with beautiful plush white slippers on the floor, a new clothes stand with several rungs, and a lovely white gown I could put on before getting up into the table. And when I climbed up, he said, “Move down, sweetie, move down a bit,” and tenderly took me by the thighs to pull me a little lower. Then he began talking about inserting the speculum, telling me how uncomfortable it was, but he’d be gentle, and he even tried to warm it up so it wouldn’t be unpleasant for me when he put it in. The way he spread my labia before inserting the speculum made a wave of warmth run through me. Then he looked inside, and I followed his face. I found him handsome, the handsomest. His blue eyes looked inside me with an expression as if they were gazing at a sunset over a peaceful lake. I could tell he was moved. “Oh, everything’s perfect. You have such beautiful anatomy,” he said, and repeated it when he was scanning my ovaries. “What a lovely uterus,” he sighed several times. But before we got to the scan, he did something that I now know he also does to other women—perhaps that’s why he’s so popular, in addition to the plush slippers, the beautiful clothes stand, the nice cup of tea, and the amicable manner. His long, delicate fingers probed inside me to check if anything was sore. He apologized many times before doing that, of course, and he explained exactly what he was going to do. But as he poked in his index finger and turned it this way and that, his other fingers tenderly stroked my clitoris. It was lovely. I went back six months later and lied that I had an itch inside. “Everything’s fine, just wonderful,” he said. “I’ve never seen such pure and beautiful anatomy,” he repeated, gazing almost amorously inside me. And so it was every six months, for three years, until one day we met in a bar in town, and he told me in a drunken state that I was the most beautiful patient with the most beautiful “how should I put it . . . it begins with C” he had ever seen. Then he told me I couldn’t be his patient anymore after him saying that, but I could be his girlfriend. A few months later he told me I could be his wife, and I accepted. I was twenty-two, he was thirty-eight. I’m still his patient today.
His paintings are the main catalyst for our arguments, but not the actual reason for them. The reason is more complex, and here’s another example: once my husband and I were talking about art. He sees himself as a kind of Chekhov, of course, someone who was a doctor but later became famous for actually being a great artist. We spoke about our favorite writers, painters, musicians, and I started to talk about how much I like the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Suddenly, it seemed something occurred to him.
“Have you ever noticed that all great artists are men?” he said.
That had struck me before, and I felt it was a sore point. Disappointed, I replied affirmatively.
“And why do you think that’s so?”
I started to ruminate. I couldn’t immediately come up the line I’d blast him with today: women never had the conditions to be creative. They were simply not allowed to, when they had to stay at home all day and wipe the crap off children’s butts, as I did too, while he went gallivanting off to conferences in China, Africa, and the rest of Europe, gaining inspiration.
“Um, er—” I stammered, which I now greatly regret.
“It’s because men are the spirit, and women the body. Men are creative, women are practical. Men look to the stars, women forage for their families. Women cannot be artists—it’s not in their nature.”
I got very offended but didn’t know how to reply to him. I was twenty-something, if that can serve as my defense today.
“Come on. Name just one great female writer. With the standing of Dostoyevsky, Chekov, or Hemingway, for example,” he said.
“Well, Marguerite Yourcenar,” I proffered, for she was the only one who occurred to me just then.
“She doesn’t count. She was a lesbian,” he replied and went off to the toilet, where he stayed for fifteen minutes to shit. I had to go and pick up our son from kindergarten and we never continued the conversation, in which I’d have mentioned hundreds of male artists who were gay, like his favorite composer Tchaikovsky, for example.
His ideas about the greatness of the artist and his own desire to become one emerged long ago, but he only started painting much later, after he “became aware,” as he put it. He actually started to paint intensively after the birth of our second child—eight years ago, in other words. By then I’d become a bit more thick-skinned and stopped fearing him so much. When he first started painting, I was conditioned to sing his praises. I told him his paintings were very beautiful and that he truly had talent. He blushed with happiness whenever I said things like that and, as if he had a lump in his throat or was about to burst out crying, he gazed at the finished canvas with tears in his eyes. “I’ve always wanted to be a painter!” he’d exclaim. “I vacillated between medicine and art. But my father made me follow in his footsteps. And now—destiny,” he repeated exultantly. I was amazed he said things like that to me, his wife; he didn’t need to put on a show with me.
Later I started to ignore his paintings, and several years ago I finally began to tell him I didn’t like them at all. The last time we quarreled, I told him in a moment of anger that they looked like ugly, blotchy twats, and when they weren’t like that they looked like omelets or pats of vomit. He got offended like never before.
“At least it’s a form of expression,” he said. “And what do you do?”
“Expression? Sure—you squeeze the tube and it comes pooping out,” I told him.
He almost flew into a rage. You could just see him flush red, but he’s able to control his temper, as if he just swallows it down, and within ten seconds his face had returned to normal.
“How witty we are today,” he sneered, not knowing what else to say. “It’s a shame you’re not a writer,” he went on, knowing I’d always wanted to write. He could see I was upset and continued to torment me.
“Oh, I was forgetting that you write poetry. Why don’t you read me one of your ditties so I can get to be the critic?” he flung at me caustically and laughed triumphantly, because he’d never read any of my poems. I’d never given him them for one simple reason, which now I no longer wanted to hide from him. I went to the bedroom and, from under the bed, took out the sheets of paper with the poetry I secretly wrote while he was at work. I gave him the last poem and told him to read it aloud.
He lies beside me
but I dream of you
your nightly flower
opens up for me
you moan like the winds
o my dearest rose
your nectar hive hints
of pleasures no one knows
My husband’s jaw set and looked a bit dislocated to the right when he finished reading. His eyes were wide open and he looked at me fixedly, pale in the face.
“The rhyme’s a bit forced,” I said to him cynically. “Sorry to disappoint you."
“No, I’m not disappointed,” he replied. “I was expecting it to be shit.”
"Нектар" © Rumena Bužarovska. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.