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from the September 2004 issue

from The Ministry of Pain

Like the desert the northern landscape makes for absolutism. Except that in the north the desert is green and full of water. And there are no temptations, no roundnesses or curves. The land is flat, which makes people extremely visible, and that in turn is visible in their behaviour. The Dutch are not much for contact; they are for confrontation. They bore their luminous eyes into those of another and weigh his soul. They have no hiding places. Not even their houses. They leave their curtains open and consider it a virtue. -Cees Noteboom

I don't remember when I first noticed it. I'd be standing at a tram stop waiting for a tram, staring at the map of the city in the glass case, at the color-coded bus and tram routes that I didn't understand and that were of little or no interest to me at the time, standing there without a thought in the world when suddenly, out of the blue, I'd be overcome by a desire to bash my head into the glass and do myself harm. And each time I came closer to it, here I go, any second now . . .

"Come now, comrade," he says in a slightly mocking tone, laying a finger on my shoulder. "You're not really going to . . . ?"

It's all my imagination, of course, but the picture it creates can be so real that I really think I'm hearing his voice and feeling his hand on my shoulder.

People say that the Dutch speak only when they have something to say. In this city, where I'm surrounded by Dutch and communicate in English, I often perceive my native language as alien. Not until I found myself abroad did I notice that my fellow countrymen communicate in a kind of half-language, half swallowing their words, so to speak, and uttering semi-sounds. I experience my native language as an attempt by a linguistic invalid to convey even the simplest thought through an abundance of gestures, grimaces and pitches. Conversations among my compatriots seem long, exhausting and devoid of content. Instead of talking, they seem to be patting each other with words, spreading a soothing, sonorous saliva over one another.

That's why I have the feeling I'm learning to speak from scratch here. And it's not easy. I'm constantly on the lookout for breathing spaces to keep from facing the fact that I can't express what I have in mind, or the question of whether a language that hasn't learned to depict reality, complex as the inner experience of that reality may be, is capable of doing anything at all-telling stories, for instance.

And I was a literature teacher.

After going to Germany, Goran and I settled in Berlin. Germany had been Goran's choice: Germany did not require visas. We'd saved up quite a bit, enough for a year. I quickly found my feet: I landed a job as a nanny for an American family. The Americans paid me more than a decent wage and were decent people. I also found a part-time job in the National Library, shelving books in the Slavonic Division one day a week. Since I knew a thing or two about libraries, spoke Russian in addition to "our language," and could make sense out of the other Slavonic tongues, the work came easily to me. I lacked the proper work permit, however, so they had to pay me under the table. As for Goran, who'd taught mathematics at the University of Zagreb, he soon found employment in a computer firm, but he resigned after a few months: a colleague of his had been hired as a lecturer at a university in Tokyo and was trying to lure Goran there, assuring him he would get a better job forthwith. Goran in turn tried to persuade me to leave, but I held out: I was a West European, I said by way of self-justification; I wanted to be close to my mother and his parents. Which was true. But there was another truth.

Goran could not make his peace with what had happened. He was a fine mathematician and much loved by his students, and even though his was a "neutral" field he'd been removed from his post from one day to the next. Much as people assured him that it was all perfectly "normal"-in times of war your average human specimen always acts like that, the same thing had happened to many people, it happened to Croatians in Serbia, to Serbs in Croatia, it happened to Muslims, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia, it happened to Jews, Albanians and Roma, it happened to everybody everywhere in that unfortunate former country of ours-they failed to make a dent in his combined bitterness and self-pity.

Had Goran really wanted to, we could have put down roots in Germany. There were thousands upon thousands like us. People would begin by taking any job they could muster, but they eventually rose to their own level and life went on and their children adapted. We had no children, which probably made our decision easier. My mother and Goran's parents lived in Zagreb. After we left, our Zagreb flat-mine and Goran's-was requisitioned by the Croatian Army and the family of a Croatian officer took it over. Goran's father had tried to move our things out, the books at least, but failed. Goran was a Serb, after all, which I suppose made me "that Serbian bitch." It was a time of fierce revenge for the general misfortune, and people took their revenge where they could find it, more often than not on the innocent.

And yet the war settled our affairs far better than we could have done on our own. Goran, who had left Zagreb in the firm resolve "to get as far away as possible," had in fact ended up on the other side of the world, and very soon after his departure I received a letter from a friend, Ines Kadi, offering me a two-semester appointment as lecturer in Serbo-Croatian at the University of Amsterdam. Her husband, Cees Draaisma, was chair of the Department of Slavonic Languages and Literatures and needed someone to take over on the spur of the moment. I accepted the offer without hesitation.

The department found a flat for me on the Oudezijds Kolk. It was a small canal with only a few houses, one end opening onto Amsterdam's Central Station, the other, like the sections of a palm frond, branching into the Zeedijk, a street known for its Chinese population, and the Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal, canals running through the Red Light District. It was a basement flat, and small, like a room in a cheap hotel. Apartments were very hard to come by in Amsterdam, or so said the departmental secretary, and I resigned myself to it. I liked the neighborhood. In the morning I would take the Zeedijk in the direction of the Nieuwmarkt, stopping off at The Jolly Joker, Theo or Chao Phraya, the cafés overlooking the old De Waag. Sipping my morning coffee, I would observe the people stopping at stalls displaying herring, vegetables, wheels of Dutch cheese, and mounds of freshly baked pastries. It was the part of town with the greatest concentration of eccentrics, and since it was also where the Red Light District started it was a hang-out for small-time pushers, prostitutes, Chinese housewives, pimps, drug addicts, drunks, leftover hippies, shopkeepers, peddlers and delivery boys, tourists, petty criminals, and the jobless and homeless. Even when the sky (that famous Dutch sky) descended and spread its pallor over the city, I would revel in the leisurely rhythm of the various passersby. Everything looked slightly seedy, the worse for wear, as if the sound were down or the picture in slow motion, as if there were something illegit about it all, yet it all seemed to hold together in the name of a higher wisdom. The departmental office was located in Spuistraat, a ten-minute walk from my flat. Everything was in perfect proportion, at least so I thought at first. Besides, that year there was an Indian summer that lasted all the way to December, and Amsterdam, mild and slow-moving as it was, reminded me of the towns along the Adriatic during the off season.

I'd heard the story about the Bosnian woman before coming here, while I was in Berlin. Her whole family was in exile-her husband, their children, the husband's parents-and one day she heard rumors to the effect that the German authorities were going to deport all Bosnian refugees, repatriate them. Because she was afraid of going back to Bosnia, she asked a doctor to give her a false referral to a psychiatric hospital. Her two-week stay there was like a breath of fresh air, so bracing, so redolent of freedom that she decided not to return. And so she vanished, disappeared, changed her identity. Nobody knew what had happened to her, and she never went back to her family.

I'd heard dozens of similar stories. The war meant great losses for many, but it could also be a reason to slough off an old life and start from scratch. In any case, it radically altered human lives. Even mental institutions, prisons, and courtrooms became everyday elements of human existence.

I wasn't the least bit certain where I stood in all that. Maybe I was looking for an alibi. I didn't have refugee status, but like the refugees I had nowhere to go back to. At least that was how I felt. Maybe like so many others I subconsciously turned the misfortune of others into an excuse not to return. Though weren't the break-up of the country and the ensuing war my misfortune too and reason enough to leave? I don't know. All I know is that I'd set off in the distant past and hadn't yet reached anywhere. When Goran left, I felt relief combined with a more intense feeling of loss and fear: suddenly I was completely alone with a professional capital of little value and an economic capital good for no more than a few months. I had a degree in Slavonic languages and literatures; I had written a dissertation on the use of Kajkavian dialect in the works of Croatian writers; I had a few years teaching experience at the Zagreb Teachers Training College. Amsterdam was a paid breathing space. What I would do or where I would go after Amsterdam I had no idea.

From the novel Ministry of Pain, to be published in May 2005 by Saqi. US rights available.

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