DOGS AND OTHERS
Dogs and Others
A novel by Biljana Jovanović
Translated from the Serbian by John K. Cox
Published by Istros Books
For a longish, and rounded, amount of time (like a lie on Jaglika’s lips), I took, with the certainty of an idiot, her stories and those of Marina to be images from my own childhood; and of course I believed unshakably in my ownership of those images. I’m not sure when that all went up in smoke! All efforts up to this point have been inaudible (unsuccessful), like clacking one’s dry, untrimmed fingernails together or timidly scratching the edge of a table with a pin; there was a huge tangle in my head and I felt it whenever I tried to remember something, or with inappropriate ambition tried to recall anything at all with complete accuracy; the bit that I could get my hands on was quickly lost amid the concentric braid of other pictures, and there was no way for me to find the beginning or the end. And then everything snapped, went off like a bomb; no; like a hundred and twenty glasses tossed from the tenth floor; and nothing remained; not even anything like the rubber stub that’s left behind when a balloon pops or, you know, an inflated plastic bag explodes.
I was free! I realized that I remembered nothing, that, instead of me, Jaglika and Marina were doing the remembering; that I had never recalled anything; and that the two of them were swindling me and, sneakily, and stealthily (kisses and baby-talk), pulling me into the mutual family memory. I thought: such gratitude for emptiness! I could shove everything inside (where it’s empty, like into the biggest hole in the world); falsehoods from anybody; even the most far-fetched, random fabrications. That’s how I started off inventing my own childhood; with no malice and no vanity; with empty space inside myself, around me, all around, everywhere…
Everything that I would think up and narrate to myself, in a whisper at first; once or twice – depending on the length of the story; and then I would repeat it out loud, before going to sleep, with my eyes wide open, in the dark; and the story (an image from childhood – which only appeared not to exist) would settle into its spot in my brain.
The next day I checked: I would sneak up on Jaglika, and start up a conversation first about her glasses, then her aching joints, homeless women and cuckolded men; and then, in the middle of the conversation, I would say, as if by chance: ‘Hey, baba, do you remember that?’ Or: ‘What was that like, baba? You used to know that…’ Jaglika would ask what I was getting at, and wriggle joyously in her seat – happy that I had faith in her memory, and that’s how she fell into the trap. I told her only the basic framework of a story (the picture), devised the night before, leaving out the dates and more detailed parts; otherwise Jaglika would discover my deception. And so she could continue the stories one after another to the end.
For several days running, I carried every fabricated story (in my arms, in my mouth) to the half-deaf and half-blind Jaglika. The fact that Jaglika took part wholeheartedly in it all only showed that it was realistic to assume that all the pictures (stories), from this point on, as far as the eye could see, all of them made or invented by night, happened or were happening, or were just about to happen, at some time or other and to some person or other, or even to me!
At that point it took me a great deal of time to realize that I imagined some of these things as: freedom of fabrication, that is to say, freedom of memory; one could say that I was suffering from unknown illnesses, but I had attributed special significance to them; I thought I’d be able to disconnect from the family memory (Jaglika the creator – her memories go back the furthest; Marina the great magus; Danilo and I, the assistants; our relatives – probationary helpers) simply because I truly recalled nothing! And that the flexible hole (no limits) in my brain was the reason that I believe I became a heretic by my own volition and merit; and in fact every invention was overloaded in advance; it was only possible to concoct things according to how they happened and not in any other way. And it all looked like this: I’d think up a story; I’d try absolutely as hard as I could (dear God, it’s so taxing!) not to alter it even the tiniest bit; I’d push it (the story), just temporarily; I’d move it around exactly as much as necessary for space to open up, at least one tiny little spot in my otherwise meagrely-stocked brain, for the next image (story); and so on, one after the other; I’d find a spot for one, and when the next one arrived, I’d move it, and when the third one came in, I’d even have to squish that second one, too; but before I’d compress it I’d push it gently and politely to the back, as if we were on the bus: ‘Just a bit more, if you don’t mind, so I can set down my bag… Beg your pardon, oh little brain of mine with the images, make a little room for me!’ And then they (the ones in the bus) would say: ‘Check that out. As if her pictures, or her brain, were anything special. I mean, really!’
To tell the truth, there is one little thing pertaining to the fabrication of childhood that turns out to be an advantage when compared to a non-fabricated, so-called genuine childhood: there isn’t any subconscious or similar understory; there’s no interpretation; there is none of that clowning around with psychoanalysis; the possible objection from those quarters (from the psychoanalysts and other, different people) would call into question completely my invention of a childhood (calling it non-memory, or the equivalent thereof ) – such a thing (my thing) simply isn’t possible all by itself; that it would come down like a bolt out of the blue without reasons, up there in the blue; but since psychoanalysis still cannot discern how something started, and that is its position, at least as far as I’m concerned – at the bottom of the water with a stone on my neck, plus a rope – but for others, okay, maybe it’s not quite drowning but it is ‘That’s kind of like old news, or a little bit pregnant.’
So what I told Jaglika went like this: there were dark hallways all around me; on the walls hung small black and white pictures of various animals, like those little drawings in the chocolate bars that came in the blue wrappers; these extremely tall people kept showing up; more and more of them; I think it was always at noon (how did I know that, if there wasn’t any window!); they measured my forehead; they wrote on some pieces of paper; shook their heads as they were leaving, every one of them did it and they all did it the same way (as if they were duplicates, or rather doubles, of each other) and always, I mean really every time, they said the same thing: ‘Her face is narrow and ill-humoured; see you tomorrow, goodbye!’
And Jaglika told it to me like this: ‘The dark corridors are the basement where we used to live; it was always dark; you were sick with scarlet fever; that’s when Dr Vlada used to come by, every single day… Do you remember Vlada?… He checked in on you… You weren’t good for anything, and we all thought you were going to die…’
Thus, according to Jaglika, the little pictures on the walls were flypaper strips, and the pieces of paper were prescriptions; since it was dark, the fact that it seemed like midday to me was the result of a large high-wattage lamp, which Dr Vlada would turn on above my head, and so forth.
Fantastic! Jaglika thought it all up; indeed Jaglika did think it all up, as did I, incidentally! Never, and I knew this for sure, never did we live in a basement; we never had sticky fly-paper tape on our walls; and especially never any lamp with a big bright bulb; I never had scarlet fever, and so on… After several similar attempts (a tale told to Jaglika; with her just fabricating it differently) I was no longer capable of differentiating what was Jaglika’s from what was mine from what was a third party’s, that Jaglika, as demiurge, truly remembered (the right of the creator is untouchable even when she is lying). It seemed to me that I was again getting tangled in a snare (what a stupid animal!) of other people’s memories, no matter whether real or fabricated, and that the imagined freedom of emptiness has the shape and the sizzle of a lie, a lie from Jaglika’s cracked lips. I gave up on talking to anyone, save to myself, in the evening, in the dark, eyes wide open; along with all the others, I received a new power of imagination: I believed that every story was irrevocably true.
But Jaglika did not leave off; she enjoyed talking and watching my face full of trust (a creator also needs flattery); she extracted from her head piece after piece of outright lying (truly one never knows!), carefully, as if she were brushing lock after lock of her hair, which by the way did not exist; I did not have many opportunities, more precisely, I had just one possibility: ‘Baba, how about if I read the newspaper out loud. Eh, granny? Put those stories of yours away for now!’ Jaglika, however, would shake her head unhappily, bring her morning cup (full of dust – it was already noon) of tea (the orator was taking refreshment) to her lips and go on babbling; she just pushed those little extracts right into my ears, along with her lies, which were no worse than mine but for exactly that reason created unbearable confusion in my head. ‘Baba, stop it… That’s not important anymore, it’s the past,’ I said repeatedly; and then I would cover her in loud headlines from her favourite newspapers: woman is the pillar of the family, woman factory owner kills her child so her lover will marry her, directions for large and small needlepoint projects, freshen up your surroundings; and in this way, not stopping until I was dead certain that Jaglika had forgotten what she’d been recalling; and until she stopped grumbling: ‘OK, OK, but I’ve got a good one for you.’ Normally this took half an hour, sometimes less, and then Jaglika’s face would light up; then I would wander around the room looking for her glasses – she never knew where she’d left them just a moment before, but they were always either on the window sill or under her pillow.
BILJANA JOVANOVIĆ (1953-1996) was a Serbian intellectual who wrote in almost all major genres; she published poetry, three novels, four plays, and a number of nonfiction pieces, mostly connected to her time in the anti-Milošević opposition of the 1990s. After studying philosophy at the University of Belgrade, Jovanović was an early and active member of a number of important human rights groups in Yugoslavia, beginning in 1982. She was also an organiser and participant in a number of major anti-war campaigns and demonstrations in 1991 and 1992, and she helped found a “flying” (underground) workshop/university in 1992. Jovanović died in Ljubljana at the frighteningly young age of 43. Widely known among intellectuals and activists for her feminist and anti-war work, she was also a talented and courageous writer of fiction and drama.
About the Translator:
JOHN K. COX is a professor of East European History at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He earned his PhD from Indiana University-Bloomington in 1995 and specializes in modern Balkan and Central European intellectual history. His translations include works by Danilo Kiš, Miklós Radnóti, Muharem Bazdulj, Ivan Cankar, Radomir Konstantinović, Stefan Heym, Goran Petrović, Ismail Kadare, Ajla Terzić, and Vesna Perić. He is currently translating other works by Biljana Jovanović as well as novels by Dragana Kršenković Brković and Erzsébet Galgóczi.
Read more work by Biljana Jovanović:
Novel excerpt in Europe Now
Novel excerpt in Words Without Borders
Translator’s essay on Biljana Jovanović in Words Without Borders