QUIET FLOWS THE UNA
Sometimes I’m not me, I’m Gargano. He, that other, is the real me: the one from the shadow, the one from the water. Blue, frail and helpless. Don’t ask me who I am because that scares me. Ask me something else. I can tell you about my memory: about the world of solid matter steadily evaporating and memory becoming the last foundation of my personality, which had almost completely vaporized into a column of steam. When I jump into the past, I’m fully aware of what I’m doing. I want to be whole like most people on this Earth. Now I feel better, staring at the unbroken white line on the steel-blue asphalt. It soothes me. Darkness falls painlessly. I don’t look back. The dark is behind me, but it feels like it’s not there at all; not swallowing up the road, the buildings and the trees. It walks along behind me but dares not come close because it knows that then I would have to use my shield of paper with luminous words, and everything would go down the drain. And no one wants that to happen: neither Gargano, nor the dark, nor that other, meaning me – the astronaut, the adventurer and explorer of rivers and seas.
My memories are ugly and dirty. I feel disgust when I have to talk about the way things were in Yugoslavia and the start of the war. Poor boys in the piss-stinking changing room before PE lessons. The very sight of the school building made me break into a cold sweat under my jumper, which was so tight that I got attacks of claustrophobia. How could I forget? We found salvation from the school’s excessive military discipline in the toilet block, where the concentration of ammonia took your breath away. The teachers were strict and starched, the corridors polished like rifle barrels, and the blackboard was black with grey stripes from the sponge with chalky water. Cigarette butts and condoms floated in the toilet bowls: the only form of rebellion against the crusty establishment. All of us had to wear identical blue dustcoats. The air in the corridors smelt of school sandwiches made with the cheapest salami (pompously named ‘Parisian’). Given its architecture, the school could immediately be turned into a barracks in the event of war because it had a mass of small windows, from which we, little soldiers, our faces defiant and sooty, with slingshots and stone-firing wooden guns, would offer resistance to the numerically superior, insidious enemy, while singing Partisan songs during lulls in the fighting.
The rotten floorboards in the tenements dating back to Austro-Hungarian times stank of stale faeces and the diseases of their tenants; the lumpen proletariat of my home town, Bosanska Krupa. The neck of the pint bottle of beer peered out of the forest around Striborova’s mature vagina when the waitress showed customers what her organ could do. She lay on the table with her big, snow-white thighs spread wide and her ponytail of satiny black hair hanging down at the back of her head, and a vein as thick as a finger bulged on her neck. The light on the high ceiling flickered, and those with poor sight came up close to convince themselves of this voracious vulva. When she had finished her performance, she collected money, pulled on her long white drawers, let down her short skirt and went back to pouring brandy for the thirsty spectators. If those bystanders, sodden with cheap brandy and reeking of nicotine, read Latin books, they would know they’d just had the good fortune of peering into the speculum mundi, the mirror of the world.
The memories are so ugly that they neutralize themselves. Everything I remember makes me stop rewinding the story. I see horse droppings steaming on the asphalt of Tito Street. I hear the clatter of horses’ hooves – a relentless, depressive beat that unnerves me. The rain falls for days in the rhythm of the horseshoes. I know I can suppress that feeling of nausea and see everything in more beautiful colours, but then I feel I’ll betray my wish for an uncompromising view of the past.
A coffin with a glass window emerges from my memory: my art teacher is scowling at me through it with his black-rimmed glasses, and it’s as if that black frame has already downsized his face to the format of an obituary notice, decades before he would be killed. I remember never-ending Partisan funerals, the trumpets and trombones of the brass band sounding their mournful notes, and sweat trickling down my spine from the marches I watched at nine-thirty on Sunday mornings on channel two of the State television. I see the open coffin with my great-aunt’s body in a white bundle being lowered into the side of Hum Hill, from where you can look out over the green islands of the river. It was the lie we lived, and which would come back at us through thousands of shells red over the four years of the war. My disgust could take the form of a religion, but I don’t want to give in to hatred. That would be too cheap and easy for my taste.
Too hot in the sun; cold and damp in the shade and the stench of urine, excrement and shoe polish. Those are the memories of my past life that first come to my senses. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get over my disgust for the empty phrases the former State rested on. The very mention of those words makes me feel unwell. Luckily, we still have indirect speech and words with hidden meanings. And we have the River Una.
Journalistic polymaths, those experts on everything, say it was a case of force majeure: a tectonic disturbance of history, a white hole in the nebulae of Asterion and a sub-spatial fluctuation within black matter, the collapse of the last utopia of the twentieth century, blah blah blah. The Berlin Wall came crashing down on us, so it was only fair that blood be let somewhere. Except that I wasn’t a tiny cog in the workings of some cosmic powers – as a real man with a formed personality, I had one private mission: physical survival. Why should I believe those who have never smelt the odour of gunpowder on their own skin, which no detergent can wash off, when they don’t believe me? If I needed anything, I did it myself. I took my fate into my own hands and didn’t wait for a knock on the door in the wee hours and to be taken away and shot in a ditch. People always pay for passivity with their lives, and I had some living to do. Just then, I didn’t think of my landlady from Zagreb, a giant old peasant woman, who said to me and my room-mate in 1990: ‘In Bosnia, the Serbs are gonna do you all in’. What could we have known back then, we tender-handed navvies enamoured of film and literature?
Postscriptal analysts have trouble understanding the struggle for survival because they like to bandy around convoluted metaphors and explain my fate with global processes and events of crucial significance, pseudo-events that will never be able to explain the cataclysm. The river of blood and the ruthlessness, the squeak of the tracks of a t-55 tank that makes your blood freeze even two kilometres away. I’m not going to list you all the fascinating images of horror I witnessed because that would take a book twice as thick as this, and the effect would be the same: whoever doesn’t understand can simply remain in the blissful dark of ignorance.
My biography is a string of coincidences, many of my own choosing, but some of which chose me. If I was able to explain everything to myself, I might as well dig a grave and go and lie in it because there would be no point in living. My biography is about flesh and blood, not entertainment. I am somewhere there in the middle of it all. I am one, but there are thousands of us – the unbreakable broken ones.
I have to tell you this: I’ve killed a man, and not just one but several. When you’re firing, all your worries vanish. Not every bullet finds its mark, of course, but some certainly do. When you’re shooting, you’re as light as a feather and that pleasure could make you lift off the ground and hover for a moment, but you’re in cover, lying belly-down in the churned-up soil, flattened grass and wet leaves, because that’s what your instinct tells you to do. When I shoot, I feel like Jesus Antichrist. I deliver the very opposite of compassion. There are no pangs of conscience, and no one is going to whisper in your ear that the enemy is human too. Things are different on the battle field: the enemy is the enemy. He cannot be human. The enemy has to be a slimy hymenopteran with horns and pig’s trotters, so just fire away and don’t worry about the nonsense that cowards and philosophers waste their time on. I killed several individual enemies in hand-to-hand combat, so now my fellow townspeople avoid me, and when I walk down the street everyone crosses to the other side. I can just smell their fear. It reeks of loathing, of Hegel and Kant, of the universal sense of human life and of so-called human kindness; all of which deserve my complete contempt.
I killed three men, and also an Autonomist from the ‘Republic of Western Bosnia’. Killing is like a drug that knocks you off your feet and then suddenly lifts you up with the thrust of a rocket.
When it lifts you like that you think you’re on top of the world. I turned living bodies into apparitions like moths in the night. I am a poet and a warrior, and secretly a Sufi monk in my soul. A holy man, according to Baudelaire. I killed on battle fields those with forgotten and insignificant names, in all climatic conditions: when wet snow is falling, blood is red like in the film Doctor Zhivago, and one drop of blood and a little snow are enough to be able to draw a daisy with your finger.
Sometimes I asked myself why? What is the sense of killing? Now I know the answer, and I couldn’t care less. I don’t have any pangs of conscience because of the men I now imagine as ghostly portraits on photographs, where the heads have been cut out with scissors. Before long, they will depart my memory for the darkness. I never saw Pope Wojtyła anywhere in the combat zone, although the lichen on the trees resembled the colour of the spots on the back of his hands. In war, everything is so simple and clear. Except when blood gets under your fingernails – it’s hard to wash off when it sets, and then you can’t get it off for days.
I killed because I wanted to survive the chaos. I didn’t know how else to do it, and my pride didn’t allow me to spend the war in the units at the rear. There are those who did it differently to me: those who prayed to God that they might get hit, that they might be killed because they were full of life and strength, and that was what oppressed them – the fear they would stay alive with so much terrible energy in them. They didn’t know what to do with it. That’s what made them charge with eyes open and a pure heart, unafraid of where they were going. They had to charge because such was the life in them: stupendous and greater than death. But I was calm and knew what I was doing. I never got drunk or stoned at the front line. I was always focused. That’s why I’m able to tell you this now. Dead mouths don’t talk, as you know. I’m not unfeeling, in case you think that, just honest. I’m a bit like a Nazi: I like to listen to Bach played with a Stihl chainsaw. Black & Decker isn’t bad either.
The forests were turquoise and the trees swayed gently from side to side like the arms of a sea anemone. That was the scene in the distance, on the edge of the horizon, as seen through the fogged-up windowpane, a rainbow filter, because I was exercising my imagination. The trees were actually bare and ash grey, covered with lichen and the occasional ball of mistletoe, whose green had no connection at all with the general dearth of chlorophyll in nature and in people’s souls. Colours were infiltrated agents of the Western world; they smacked of luxury and opulence and as such had to be banished from our lives. On this side of the windowpane I was the lord of indoor reality. Outside in the streets, other stories applied. Beneath my balcony lay a town that I still couldn’t feel was my own – I was too young for that kind of love – a soft town like warm vomit in the sun. For me back then, the State was like a distant sphere from the Atlas of Celestial Bodies. Later I became very fond of it, despite the supernatural effort being made to conceal all the differences between us with the tall tale of us all being brothers and sisters, and about everything in Yugoslavia being the best, while misery, squalor and debauchery flourished in both the East and the West. What a twangy word: debauchery. I felt like a stranger in my own town when I realized we weren’t all brothers and sisters – not because I didn’t want us to be – but because there was no good will among most of the local Serbs and Croats. Not to mention the ridiculous situation when I did my compulsory military service in the ‘Yugoslav People’s Army’ and had to state my ethnicity: since I came from a Bosniak family, the Serbs and Croats tried to persuade me to write ‘Bosnian Muslim’ because Yugoslavs didn’t really exist, they said. Yes, I lived an identity that was marginal in the very country named after it. The biggest shock for me was when I discovered that the number of people who identified themselves as Yugoslavs was statistically tiny. When I finished school and went off to do my military service, my mother advised me to declare myself a Yugoslav because she thought the other recruits would laugh at me if I said I was a Muslim. Both her suggestion and that of my comrades were beside the point because I was enamoured of the Spanish Civil War. I regretted not being able to return by time machine to Spain and die fighting for freedom. Only there, in that short period, did my nation exist.
‘Who leads our struggle?’ yelled the tired voice beneath my balcony that was heading a column of young people on their way back from a communal work project. Like when a diver brings up a dead body from the raging river on a length of cable, so the foremost voice pulled along all the others.
‘Tiii-to!’ reverberated from a hundred throats. ‘What are we part of?’ ‘The Peeeo-ple!’ ‘What guides and bonds us?’
I recognized the faces in the first few rows. They had the look of automatons and were drooling for a big serve of army-style bean stew from the field kitchen. That was what the lofty ideal of ongoing revolution boiled down to, it seemed. The voice ascended through the centre of town towards the hospital, to be drowned out by car horns and the yelling of public drunkards. A guy called Yup stood out among these: a paunchy, lumbering man who resembled a bun, and when he had no firewater he was like a greasy, ill-tempered rodent. Not so his father, Yup Senior, with his tiny, bird-like physique, gold signet ring and hair always slicked back the old-fashioned way with brilliantine: he pickled himself calmly and with class, as befits a baron of the bottle. The guy from the League of Young Communists shouting his questions, whose answers were as irrefutable as the existence of a second horn on a unicorn, had an indigo tear tattooed on his cheek – the ‘medal’ of the infamous Zenica House of Correction.
Somewhere in this catalogue of disgust and attraction was the nasal sing-song of the blind Romany who used to stand with his creased face and matted black hair in the town marketplace every Monday of the late 1980s, amidst the masses that stank of sweat and fresh curd cheese.
‘Give me alms, good ladies, comrades, young folk… A small donation, may God giii-ve yoo-u heee-alth… May God proteee-ct your children…’
This people’s Homer stood like a statue at the side of the street chanting his prayer, which reconciled communism and Islam. Early in the mornings, his family would take him there to beg and leave him to do his work. When the market was over, they would come and take him away again like a Sony robot with rusty works. Sometime before the war, Homer left for the south with the swallows. I could have sworn that for four years after that no one saw a single swallow.
I couldn’t help feeling I was in the grips of a perverse fascination by being attracted to what disgusted me at the same time. It’s like when you look down from a balcony: you’re drawn to that drop, but you don’t take a casual step into thin air like the suicide jumper whose goal is the car park below. You’ve probably thought about your stomach while holding a long kitchen knife in your hand – well, it’s the same perverse fascination that takes hold of me whenever I think about life in former Yugoslavia and its break-up.
You don’t get dizzy from watching the river flow. If you start talking about something you’ll soon lose the thread because the water takes hold of you and you forget the words you wanted to say, and Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode plays in your ears. We enjoyed watching the Una as it flowed now fast, now sluggishly, and its restless surface spread peace all about.
We avoided our brigade’s anniversary event because we had no time for stuffy observances in the mood of the old system, which still hung over us like an undead spirit. The factory buildings on the outskirts of town were like that too, where people had already begun salvaging useable sheet metal. The carcasses of factories and Serbian houses were to be thoroughly pillaged and dismantled, down to the last brick. Who now remembers all those bizarre deaths of wretches who were crushed by the concrete ceilings of abandoned houses where they’d been chiselling bricks out of the walls? Beginning in September 1995, and continuing for some months, caravans of tractors, trucks and horse-drawn carts passed through the town loaded with plunder from villages in the Grmeč mountain range, heading for places some way away. The lust for other peoples’ property is a strange and widespread malaise.
We got together on our brigade’s anniversary to celebrate a lot of things we didn’t want to call by their names. We toasted in a cheerful Zen manner, without clicking bottles and without excessive exclamations. Our alcohol-fuelled jaunt of favourite locations inevitably took us to a caravan selling drinks in the shade of Japanese plum trees. Our legs led us there all by themselves. The shade was perfect, the booze too, and our stories left reality far behind. Later, someone suggested we go and see the freshly renovated hall of the Culture Centre because we all loved buildings untouched by fire – they were a direct physical link to our past. We could take a peek behind the heavy brocade curtains, where cinematic illusions were shown. King Kong’s sadness because of his impossible love for a woman was palpable there in the air damp, accompanied by sighs and tears. My best memory from that hall was the visit of a troupe of Italian magicians sometime in the late 1970s. They charmed cobras and skewered a midget woman with swords in a wooden cube, only for her to hop out again cheerful and unharmed, in a bathing suit, to the general enthusiasm of the gullible audience; and they performed many lesser and greater miracles, too. There were the fakir’s mass hypnoses, where a boy would climb up a rope suspended in the air, or the fakir would chop up the boy with a machete and put his parts in a basket, only to bring him out in one piece afterwards.
The Ramayana Flying Circus from India was to perform that evening. The hypnotist was having a dress rehearsal and needed a guinea pig. And suddenly there was me: an aspiring poet and veteran of our dear war. Why the fakir chose me of the three of us remains a mystery to me. I had only just made myself comfortable, leaning back in the leather-upholstered chair in the middle of the Culture Centre’s empty hall. Apart from the scar cutting diagonally across my face, there was nothing else that made me stand out.
Before the war, the hall could take an audience of seven hundred on fold-up seats, and when King Kong, Godzilla or Bruce Lee were screened people would sit on the floor, too. I didn’t get to see the main entrance or the stage with the heavy brocade curtains. The sun and the birdsong in the poplars and the luxuriant black walnut trees remained outside. My two friends had played a trick on me by bringing me here, under the pretext of showing me the renovated hall. They had actually hoped to see circus animals, especially drunken dancing monkeys.
‘Not too long ago, I think sometime after the war, a circus came to the football stadium in Banja Luka. A guy who went to see it told me there was a magician with a young monkey on a chain – a mandrill or baboon, he couldn’t say exactly – and the magician started to swing the chain. The monkey lifted off the ground and flew around in circles above the magician’s head in front of five thousand people. And do you know what it did?’
‘No, what?’ I asked the guy.
‘It held on to the chain as tightly as it could, like a little person,’ he tittered with a smoker’s laugh.
My friends and I went in the side door, holding our bottles of beer, and ran into a fakir with a torch in his hand. It was rather disquieting to see a bearded man in a long robe standing and staring at us. He seemed to have been expecting us because he wasn’t surprised at us being there. We struck up a polite conversation about the authenticity of mass hypnosis, after which the fakir pointed his finger at me, switched off the torch and vanished into the pitch darkness. My heart started to beat like a drum. I’ve always been one for unusual challenges – the crazier the better.
The light fled at familiar speed through the narrow gap between the doors as my company vanished. When I found a chair and slumped into it, a spotlight went on up on the stage. I pushed my bottle of beer under my chair. The temporal bond between my pre-war and post-war life had been broken, and the discontinuity had to be bridged. Because I want to be whole again, if only in memory, I would have to become a time traveller and go back to the past: that would mean attempting the impossible task of over-flying the war and overcoming my own queasiness in order to find that temporal bond to join the past and the present. It seemed to be the first time in my life that there was an advantage in having a scar on my face. If it attracted demented, neurotic women and half-mad men, was I one of them too, marked with a shadow of disfigurement – a freakish, dark aureole above my head? The answer was affirmative. This kind of magnetism isn’t exactly a blessing. But the scar became my ticket to the show.
The hypnotist strode onto the stage in a turban with chilled- out, hissing little snakes, and in that instant a mist rose to my knees. Behind his back, a wind broke everything before it, blowing over barren wastes from the stacked loudspeakers. And I thought I heard the electric bellow of little plush elephants, which I remembered having heard in the streets of Sarajevo, where freeloaders sold them to bustling crowds. Our time has vanished, I thought for a moment as my gaze dropped from the ceiling of the hall to the wall above the stage, where letters had been scratched out of the slogans extolling Tito, the people and the Party, and proclaiming eternal life for all. Since I didn’t have a single pre-war photograph, how else could I think about my past other than as something non-existent. I closed my eyes and ran the excellent black and white video spot of Wonderful Life for myself on the inside of my eyelids. And I’ll attach that video as a last piece of evidence that my intimate world from the past did exist, even though I myself sometimes thought I’d invented my memories. The sounds of the wind slowly receded, muffled by the crackling of a record that hypnotically repeated one and the same sound. I was at some kind of fanciful investigation.
No need to run and hide It’s a wonderful, wonderful life...
Each time the hypnotist spoke a number; I would arrange tsunamis of thoughts into meaningful wholes and turn them into confessional statements. I already had faithful listeners, whom I could tell anything to for hours, but this was a different experience. Now I was like a switch on a device for decoding people’s lives and just needed to be flicked. I was an optical instrument – an eyepiece, lens tube and magnifying glass – crossed with a long-necked orchid, and I would blazon forth stories through its trumpet.
The choice of music was unusual because normally a relaxing soundtrack is used to induce hypnosis. The white-bearded fakir stood in the bright circle of the spotlight on the stage, as straight as a candle. His eyes were grey and cold, his mien as clear as mud.
When he had finished the countdown induction, he told me in broken Bosnian:
‘Now you returning to your own past, your childhood… Your head is clear and cold. How old are you?’
‘Thirteen,’ I told him. ‘You are sure?’ ‘Yes, I’m thirteen and I’ve just left the house to go fishing. I’m wearing gumboots, and I have a fishing rod and an angler’s ruck- sack. The bullrushes smell of fish mucous. There are so many fish that you never tire of watching them. It’s like the feeling of a miser fondling his gold – he can’t get enough of it. I check the bubble float, which has to be half full of water, and I grease the artificial flies so they will stay on the surface. I cast all the way to the opposite bank and the bubble float lands on the soft, sandy shore covered with waterweed. It looks as if I’ve laid the float on a green pillow. Now I gently pull the line and the bubble float into the water because a prize trout is waiting just a metre or two downstream. It’s a good 30 cm long, 24 cm being average. I have a hunch that this is going to be a long fight. I use the tip of the rod to unfurl the fishing line with the flies tied to it, and I give the last one a tweak so it goes right over the mouth of the big fish. I watch the fly breathlessly; the fish shoots up towards the surface, misses the fly and makes a big bubble in the water. The handhold of the rod is at my right hip and I immediately jerk it back like a gunslinger, and the float with the flies travels all the way back into the grass at my feet. It happened so quickly that I only saw the trout’s white underside as its mouth snapped at the fly. I have to calm down, cast towards the green pillow again, and do everything from scratch once more. I’m so excited that I don’t notice the people higher up on the bank kibitzing me and the fish…’
The artificial mist swallowed me at ant speed. I fell through time as though through pliant peat. As I sank through sparkling blackness and the pink light of silt, I caught a glimpse of houses growing out of the ground beneath my feet, and then spirals snaked up from their chimneys – a signal that life would put down roots by the River Una. The trees in the town’s park were slim at the waist, and the town itself was brand new. I don’t know who grew closer to whom, I to the town or it to me, but wherever I looked the town was there, within my grasp. I could change the years and decades, as I liked. I saw Grandmother Emina’s house and knew I had to stop. The journey begins here and will be rounded off here, too, because this journey never ends. The mist enveloped me from feet to neck, stopping at the height of my polo neck. I’ll tell everything – even what the fakir doesn’t ask me.
FARUK ŠEHIĆ was born in 1970 in Bihac, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Until the outbreak of war in 1992, he studied veterinary medicine in Zagreb. However, the then 22-yearold voluntarily joined the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which he led a unit of 130 men. After the war he studied literature and has gone on to create his own literary works. The collection of short stories ‘Under Pressure’ (Pod pritiskom, 2004) was awarded the Zoro Verlag Prize. His debut novel ‘Quiet Flows the Una’ (Knjiga o Uni, 2011) received the Meša Selimović prize for the best novel published in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia in 2011. His most recent book is a collection of poetry entitled ‘My Rivers’ (Moje rijeke, 2014). Šehić lives in Sarajevo and is a member of the Writers’ Association and the PEN Centre of Bosnia & Herzegovina. He works as a columnist and journalist.
Quiet Flows the Una is being published by Istros Books in an English translation by Will Firth on March 31, 2016.
About the Translator:
WILL FIRTH was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat. His website is www.willfirth.de.