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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the March 2019 issue

From “Wretchedness”

In this excerpt, a group of musicians debate the glamorization of violence and drug-dealing in rap music.
 

We should go, said the guitarist after a while. I don’t know how much time had passed, but it was enough for the full realization to hit us that there was nothing we could do, nothing at all. We saw the paramedics come and deal with the body, someone else was looking after the driver, and several times I was about to open my mouth and say something about how I’d met that guy before, just a little while ago, just before you came, by the canal, by the police station, but for some reason I couldn’t manage it, didn’t know where to begin, from which end, from which sensory impression, and now the guitarist was silent, too, and the composer just said Jesus, and fucking hell, a few times, and we walked to Central Station, bought our tickets, and took the escalator down to the platforms. We drifted down and I felt like I was having to shout to make myself understood, even though the guitarist and the composer were standing right next to me, so close I could hear them breathe, hear the swishing and rustling of their clothes. This is how things are, I thought several times, more or less involuntarily, and without even knowing what that meant. This is how things are. This is my life. It has to be this clear and simple. This tyrannical. The tramp is dead and I’m the only one left. Then I thought, still on the escalator, going down and down and down, that it was idiotic, that my thoughts were idiotic, that I was an idiot. And we got on the train, in silence. The guitarist got out his phone and started tapping at it. I looked at the composer, she closed her eyes and sort of massaged them, rubbed her fingers against her eyelids, and I took the chance to lean my head back and close my eyes too, my hands resting on my lap as the train glided across the Sound. We got off at Nørreport and wandered across to the cathedral. The guitarist said something about a car accident he’d been involved in where everyone had escaped with their lives, and the composer showed us a scar she’d got when a car she’d been in drove into a motorway barrier. We reached the church, paid the entrance fee, and sat right at the front on the left-hand side, each with a program in our hands. Then Christoph Maria Moosman entered. I turned around, looked up at the organ, and could just make him out as he sat down at the manual. He began to play Pärt’s Annum per Annum and everything seemed to close in, filling with weight and levity, the room expanded and contracted as though it were breathing, and I breathed with it, and a few seconds into the first chord’s powerful vibrations I breathed out, before holding my breath for the rest of the minute the chord sounded. Then it ebbed away, and I drew breath, deeply and noisily, much too noisily in the quiet church, as though I’d been underwater and was now struggling up to the surface, up to the oxygen, just as the pause, the silence, was at its most intense, and when those first weak, light, playfully searching notes began to sound I couldn’t help once again thinking about Soot and about that last night, about what I’d done, what I was, about Kiko and Rawna, about that bus, on that roundabout, that circular motion and the centrifugal force that pushed me out towards everything with such satanic power. We were supposed to be going out and having it, as we used to say, and we’d chilled at Kiko’s, and then onward, met Dima, Becky, Argo, Saima, Fernanda, I don’t know who else, Hansson maybe, Zoltan, Vadim, and were heading up to Elsa V’s to get some shit, do a quick job for her. We dropped one there straight off, but had to wait an hour at least before she let us in, seemed there was a lot of people passing through, a lot going on. She gave us the gear and we took off in search of Slovak, the Bulgarian. A few evenings before, I’d been sitting in Arben’s crappy Mazda 323, with its driving ban, waiting for Hansson who was running around trying to sell those nine-bars from Christiania, and the radio was playing some new song by some new rapper and Arben said to Kiko, who was sitting there grooving and nodding along, that he hated those fucking gangsta fuckers, as he put it, that whole thug style, he said, what even is that, ey hey yo waddup, man’s glidin in the whip, he mocked, the screen’s all tinted, guy’s fuckin minted, let’s go, shorty’s so damn wet, with a retarded expression, suit’s got three stripes, but my cock’s so crooked, nigga speak real funny, all this coke got me cookin, and we laughed and I said cuz dem bars is on fire, but he was being serious, said damn I fucking hate them, I swear, I mean actually living that life is one thing, not saying nothing about that, but bragging about it, chatting shit that way, tricking the kids into thinking everything’s cool blingbling, it’s bullshit, man, it’s totally wack, no joke, and Kiko thought he should calm down, it’s just music, he said, but Arben said it’s more than that, it’s advertising a lifestyle, and anyone who’s seen that life at all knows it’s ninety per cent stress, he said, and I said he’d just said it was better to live that life than to rap about it, but that’s not what I mean, he said, you know yourself it’s ninety per cent chaos, but Kiko said hey, what you chatting about, per cent this per cent that as if you work in a bank or something, course it can be stressful but there are quiet times too, admit it, who gives a shit if it’s not bling, but Abbe insisted, listen man, ninety per cent panic, he said, believe me, all night long when you’re on your own and can’t sleep and your mates, your fucking brothers, could stab you in the back at any moment, for nothing, and not even for the cash, not for some tinted whip, man, for nothing, just coz they’re scared and tired too and they have to play the fucking game, honest to god, Tony Montana this and that, such fucking thug chat, I can’t even hear it, has anyone ever even seen the whole of that film, don’t they know how it ends, and I said: You think you kill me with bullets? I take your fucking bullets! and Kiko was bent double with laughter and told Arben he should become a politician, or work for Save the Children or something, don’t you realize it’s art, bro, music, and what you’re saying’s not true, loads of people tell you how bad that life is, rap about stress and suicide, even Biggie and that lot did, but you know what, they have to be hard and real at the same time, you know, they have to have respect from the streets, and Arben opened the window and spat. Real, go fuck your mother, he said, this is real, and then he pulled up his shirt and showed us the scars under his arm, but I don’t go round acting like some fucking monkey, and Kiko grinned and said yeah yeah, bro, you’re hard, but you’re no gangster, you’re a fucking small-time thief, man, a bike thief, and you’re getting old, fifteen-year-old kids rob you, so don’t take this the wrong way, bro, but who’s gonna rap about that, about being stressed out and poor, unemployed poly-addict, failure among failures, you get me, brother, I mean, just look at your car, man, not exactly an ad for your lifestyle, and Abbe looked pissed and said we could get out if it was so shit, and just when I thought they were gonna start fighting for real, Hansson turned up and said the guy didn’t want to pay and also we were probably being watched now coz that fucking idiot didn’t warn us. And surprise, surprise, we got stopped by the pigs three minutes later. They lined us up by the nursery school, right in front of the kids and staff, all staring, frisked us and searched the Mazda. They impounded the car but none of us were carrying anything, so they had to let us go. Then we rang Dima, who came after half an hour and drove us home, he dropped me off last and that’s when I found out why Arben had been so pissed. His dad had got his sentence and was going down for eighteen months. I thought I’m gonna cheer him up, so I rang and said mate, I’ve got a bottle of Bacardi, want to pick up some Coke and come over and have a few, estilo cubano? He laughed at me and said stop being a dick. I said what? He said he couldn’t be bothered, he was going to drop a few benzos and watch a film or something. Estilo cubano, he said. You’re totally thick in the head, man. Two hours later Hansson rang. He’d sold the nine-bars. Time to get paid, bro. Are you in for the next round? And I didn’t really want to anymore, but I thought about the first time we’d gone over to Christiania to buy up the stuff and everyone was there apart from Marko who chickened out, we’ll get banged up, he said, and if we don’t get banged up we’ll get taxed by one of the big guns. We said your loss, man, more green for us then, and then everything went fine, no problem at all, and we made a bit, not that much but still, you know, a bit extra, while he had all these different jobs: official, unofficial, legal; but he was still poor and trying to get his grades and all that and in the end he went to some club to chill out, but this psycho-bouncer started hassling him until Marko flipped out and then he got five or six months for aggravated assault. I went in to see him the first week he was there and he said he regretted fighting back, said it was pointless, you always get it wrong, regardless. Then I’m suddenly standing there in front of Elsa again with the team behind me. What’s up? She looks me in the eye, then at the faces surrounding me. You’ve brought your friends, she says. New faces. As long as they’re halal. Dima giggles with nerves. I give Elsa the money. She’s got her tiger face on. She casts a glance at the notes, folds them once, and stuffs them in her pocket. I reach out my hand. The others giggle too. Thanks, I say, a little too quickly, before she’s given me anything. Same to you, she says, taking my hand in hers. Enjoy responsibly. I put the bags away and the wraps the kids had folded for her. Then she gets out the big packet and a dark blue rucksack, she passes both over. Give this to Slovak and he’ll give you the money. Be careful. You can go out that way in a minute, the others have just gone, she says and points to the door in the back. Thanks, I say. Yep, you already said that. Relax, it’s cool. She grins and turns around. She has a big scar on her upper arm. It says DOOM on her top. We go out, and then into the club again via a door guarded by this absolutely enormous guy with an Ivan Drago hairdo, black polo shirt, and a fat gold chain over his shirt. Want something to drink? Becca says to me. Nah, it’s cool, I say. Then she tells me about this guy who’d tried to play the hero. He’d come by a little money, she says, said he wanted to take me out to dinner. We went to some place, kind of like a falafel joint but a bit nicer, with Persian food. We ate this beautiful rice he liked, then he said he was going to take care of me. He promised, you know, all formal. I’m going to protect you, he said. He told me with him I’d never come to any harm. And to be honest I felt grossed out. I looked at him. Then I picked up the fork and stabbed it into my arm. It made four holes and they were pretty deep. We just sat there a while. It was bleeding and he looked hurt. Almost desperate. It felt lonely. For both of us, I’m guessing. He tried to eat the rest of his food, but I just drank a bit and held a napkin against my arm. Then I said I should go home and disinfect the wound. Can I come along, he asked. And I felt like sticking the fork in his eye. But instead I just said: of course. We laugh at the guy. I get up. I’m going for a piss, wait for me. I hate this UV light. Weird that she thought we were cops. She can’t seriously have thought that, for fuck’s sake. How you doing, Cody? I’m fine, I’m fine. You’ve got blood on your knuckle. On your knuckles. It’s dripping. Shit. I didn’t notice. Sorry. What happened? Nothing. Did you get any on you? Here, tissue. How’s it going? It’s fine, it’s cool. Stop asking the whole time, I’m getting spooked with you asking me that the whole damn time. How are you doing yourself? Cool. A bit glazed-over, dunno. Sorry. How are we going to find the Slovak anyway? He’s not a Slovak. He’s just called Slovak, he’s like Hungarian, or Bulgarian or something, I dunno, a filthy pimp in any case. Is everyone here? We’re here. Did you get the bags? Yeah. And the nine-bars? Yeah, I got everything. What are they up to in there? Come on, let’s go. We have to test it. We go to the pub, some wack place with darts and a slot machine and football on the TV and we order beer and cider and Dima goes into the toilet to test it. Comes out and you can see straight away it’s a good high. Makes a ker-ching sign with his arm and then my turn and everything is suddenly dazzling, you know, the way it gets.
 

From Wretchedness.Translation © 2019 by Nichola Smalley. Forthcoming 2019 from And Other Stories. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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