Sea of Macho Stupidities

Sea of Macho Stupidities

1999-01-01
Esmarh
Vladimir Jokanovic
Matica srpska (Novi Sad, Yugoslavia).
In the Hold
Vladimir Arsenijevic Trans. Celia Haksworth
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Svetozar Postic, on why his contemporaries in Serbia don’t write like Hemingway

As the gloomy winter was nearing, the future looked bleaker and bleaker. The same Remarquian pictures of TV, the same fear of the drafters who doubled their activity, the same apathy on the faces of occasional acquaintances encountered on the street. Anguish and helplessness permeated everything and everyone, except maybe the uneducated, petty criminals trying to profit from the new war-time economy. The time was like no other time, at least for the stupefied, unprepared adolescents.

In the Hold was the first novel that came out of those times. Not much noticed at its publication in 1994, it caught everyone’s attention in January of the following year when it won the annual prize of NIN, an esteemed news weekly in Zagreb. Vladimir Arsenijevic, born in Pula, now in Croatia, in 1965, thus became the youngest recipient of his country’s most prestigious literary honor. Perhaps not so much a reward for the masterful style of ingratiating storytelling, the jury’s decision was more an act of recognition of a desperate cry sincerely let out by a complete novice. The novel, with a simple plot and universal themes, got immediately translated into ten or so languages, converted into a popular play, and slated for a movie production as well. A Zagreb cook was made into a distinguished author literally overnight.

Shortly after that, with much less aplomb, came a war story by a Serbian dentistry student from Osijek, Croatia (born in 1971). Vladimir Jokanovic’s novel, Esmarh, also a debut, has an entirely different point of view, a much more informal style, a more elaborate plot, a distinct athmosphere. Yet these two novels have often been grouped together, not only because of the same period and the theme they depict, but also because of the authors’ age and, even more importantly, their desire to break the invisible barrier of silence and tacit compliance. Serbia of today has been through considerable change, but freedom of expression is still a utopia. Arsenijevic and Jokanovic tackle the problem of literary creation from the tested direction: from within. By examining themselves and their peers, they imbue the whole ordeal of a country condemned to misery with their own, personal blood.

The novel, In the Hold, is divided into three parts: “October,” “November,” and “December,” and has two appendices as well: “A Compilation of Deaths” and “A Chronicle of Escapees.” The narrator is a newly wed clerk expecting a child. He tries to reconcile his duty as the breadwinner for his family and the confusion created by the dreaded calamity. He strives to satisfy a dominant wife while attempting to remain composed: “I was resolved to spend hours, if necessary, licking my wounds, wearing the Guilty cap in the punishment corner of our marriage, just not to let Angela upset herself needlessly.” He expresses reluctance at his looming parenthood: “I imagined him [the unborn son] helpless, and faithful, loyal then indifferent, and, finally, openly rebellious, determined to evade me!”

The turning point of the story comes in “November,” when his brother-in-law, Lazar, goes to war. Lazar is a New Ager, a shaved-headed Hare Krishna who decides to join the carnage out of sheer boredom and spite, because no one expects him to. He is killed after seventeen days of combat, his bullet-ridden body brought home by a young lieutenant who can only utter, “you must be strong” to the inconsolable father. Angela is devastated, her husband afraid for their unborn child: “What were we bringing it into, what splendors could we offer it, what could we teach it, and where was that little bit of promised brightness in our existence?” Their whole existence seems irretrievably shaken.

Arsenijevic plunges into the desolation of Belgrade streets finding drug-dealers, unrealized rock musicians, and numbed couples. All of his heroes unsuccessfully try to find a way to deal with the new, ominous atmosphere no one can grasp.

An unexpected light comes from Dejan, the protagonist’s friend who came back from the front after losing an arm. Despite his handicap, Dejan is full of optimism, he wants to start a new business.

In this seething maw of the city, where so many fell by the wayside because they lacked the proper weapons for the battle against dissatisfaction, surrounded by fellow citizens who knew only how to raise their heads in pained surprise at the injustice that oppressed us, Dejan has risen up with all the Socialist Realist splendor of the Worker. Other people’s lives were falling apart under the prevailing pressure. They had appeared happy and secure, and then people they were fond of started to abandon them, they discovered that their wives were cheating on them with their best friends, husbands began beating them with signet rings for some reason, they were getting poorer by the day, but Dejan, handicapped as he was, was in the mood for big business!

Three days later, the hero finds out that Dejan has committed suicide. The only person with hope and willingness to fight could not cope anymore. Darkness begins to set in: “A kind of psycho-twilight materialized above us; a dense, doughy mass covered us, and we felt as though we were in the hold of a ship, condemned to play the role of culprit for all the world’s sufferings.”

Devoid of material plenitude or satisfaction, all that is left is imagination. Crnjanski saw “an endless, blue circle, with a star in it.” Arsenijevic finds his escape in dreams: “Perhaps we were in the hold, perhaps we would never get out of it, but that night it didn’t matter. We laughed, both of us, heartily, but I know: we were asleep.”

Esmarh is a story of a college dropout, Luka Mijatovic. A son of an Orthodox father and Protestant mother, Luka’s heart goes with the Serbs. We meet his best friend, Bili, a Slovene, a few of his other slacker friends and his high-school sweetheart, Marija, with whom he cannot get along mainly on ethnic basis. Especially annoying to him is a photograph in Marija’s room of her kissing the Pope’s hand.

Pre-war Osijek teems with young nationalists, freshly recruited police and all-encompassing psychosis: “Taking place on Starcevic square was Another Very Important Historic Gathering, one of the very important historic meetings that, since a few months ago, became part of everyday life. From all the history one was starting to feel as a tourIST in one’s own home town.”

Once, he and his buddies were the “first, biggest and best, firm nucleus of a future intelligentsia, and the world was there only for one reason: for them to change it.” Luka is driven into alcoholism by a combination of the impending war, hatred toward his own race encountered daily on the streets, and his girlfriend’s departure to Germany. All his ideals are lost; in fact, “he didn’t have any ideals, only a healthy ambition here and there. To work as little as possible, have a few drinks, eat well and that third thing. The word ‘ideal’ reminded him of cheap Czech ping-pong balls and a cleaning supply.”

The bombardment begins, and he is stuck in his apartment, listening to grenades falling on his city:

The passing seconds were turning into minutes, and every one was different and was bringing something new. One minute would create a flash of explosion, the next the sound of a machine-gun, the third someone’s tossing and turning in bed, and the forth a pounding of blood in Luka’s ears, and all those minutes mustered in long lines of hours marched across wounded curves of his brain.

Luka lets himself be persuaded by Bili to leave Osijek and go to Zagreb, farther from the frontline, to a friend’s place, where he finds Marija, just returned from abroad. But, after only a day, Bili fights with their host and gets them thrown out of the apartment. The two part ways in Budapest, Bili continuing toward Germany, and Luka toward Belgrade.

In Belgrade, Luka spends a couple of nights at an old friend’s, and then accidentally runs into an old high-school buddy, also a Serb, now in uniform. It takes only a few words to convince Luka to join him at the front. From then on, the adventures of a depressed civilian turn into a war chronicle.

One night, he follows an exceptionally young and daring friend into an offensive and destroys a machine-gun nest with a blast of a hand-grenade. When he walks into the room to check his deed, he finds that he has killed his girlfriend, Marija, who had meanwhile joined the Croatian army. “Death was spread under that field like a net, it swayed over him like a golden reel, and he was getting ready to bite and, pressing Marija’s body stronger and stronger, he stumbled toward the gate of parting.”

The novel got its name from the rubber band that stops bleeding, invented by Esmarh, a German surgeon.

The contrived ending betrays a weak dramatic sense, but the young author’s ability to scoop from the depths of his soul is at times simply stunning. People and things around Jokanovic awaken images from his consciousness. A cunning observer and a clever critic, his personifications seem to be made almost inadvertently, as in this scene from the beginning of the novel when Luka visits the zoo with his friends:

After that, they busted into the aquarium to cool off and observe snakes and other lizards which should have been let out in the sun, but the management probably didn’t want them to be too active. Reptiles, like communists, spent some time shaking the planet, and then inexplicably vanished, leaving behind them pale caricatures of past might in concrete pools and glass cages.

The moods Arsenijevic and Jokanovic project are very different. Arsenijevic has a much more matter-of-fact style, while Jokanovic uses slang even in his most insightful statements, turning his defeatism at places into an outright mockery. While Arsenijevic is angry and disappointed at the people who consent to physical and mental torture:

To be fair, gazing into the gloomy distance, they were still well-off, as long as things stayed like this. They were preparing themselves for the time when poverty really hit them, and they would stop eating altogether. They were discovering that they were capable of sinking deeper and deeper than they could have imagined, and they were interested in testing their attitude to suffering. They summoned the strength for such easy surrender from the specific satisfaction of the pragmatist under the whip, who, after the fiftieth of a hundred blows, says: Objectively, I could withstand the same again!

Jokanovic is more cynical and ironic:

The faces of known and unknown heroes were watching him from the black-bordered obituaries; some of those pictures could have been smirking as little as a few months ago from graduate panels in the windows of the main street, some of the pictures came from student IDs, driver’s licenses or some fresh military photograph, but all without exception clearly showed that no one had told them that bullets have a nasty habit of travelling in both directions.

At times, the hopelessness is so strong that Luka doesn’t want to live anymore. Alone in his friend’s room in Belgrade, “he wanted to die, to evaporate, and he thought that the desire was so strong that nothing else was needed, that his inner nothingness would overturn like a sock and swallow him.”

Belgrade, obviously, isn’t Osijek, much less a small village on the frontline. There was a limited sense of security even during the darkest hours of the civil war, but seeing horrifying things on TV can make one feel claustrophobic, especially when the horror is taking place only a few dozen miles from your home. Here’s Arsenijevic:

Winding diagonally across our screen, columns of numb figures who had just dragged themselves out of their cellars after a hundred days stared blankly; gray-haired children smiled shyly at us, showing their broken teeth; the body of a man leaning his head against the wall of something that might once have been his home, an undignified heap of plaster piled on his head; a soldier burned to the bone, the black mass, still hot, smoking hideously. We saw also a young woman with a half head, refugees freezing in sports arenas, the corpses of people and animals strewn in the streets of a shattered town where some men were driving around in jeeps, their job done, and shuddered with fear that, in that madness, we might catch sight of Lazar, drunk, unruly, and unshaven, like the whole crowd of liberators.

Really, who are those people who feel so obligated to “liberate” Croatian towns? Jokanovic explains:

He was in the herd again, all rejected wretches full of concealed hopes and open wounds who were bored to death before this new twisting game with shooting and killing started. He recognized fanatics with revenge as their only ideal, materialists whose only goal was looting, and above all of them there was life, unpredictable and senseless, like a drunken brute who beats up everyone without an explanation.

Worst of all, people get used to it. Particularly in a place like the Balkans, where at least one disaster awaits every generation. Arsenijevic comments,

I ought, presumably, to have been horrified, but, like many of my fellow citizens, I endeavored to move along the spittle-covered streets, with the practiced step of a native who walks without fear along the foot of a live volcano on the island where his tribe has survived, despite the many victims claimed by the volcano, for generations.

When Luka is leaving the country on board a train, Jokanovic writes,

He tried to fall asleep in vain, when he opened his eyes, a boring, fertile scenery comprised of corn, sunflower, and electric poles awaited him; so, that was the homeland, a cracked soil plate on which idiots slaughtered each other for thousands of years over the right to freely and sovereignly bury each other in it.

Apart from the young people who joined the combat out of boredom, their violent nature, or fright, described in Esmarh, and the ones who stayed, depicted in In the Hold, there is also a third group of young intellectuals, frequently mentioned in both works. Between 1990 and 1997, an estimated 400,000 students and recent college graduates left Serbia. The agony and pain demonstrated at the Winter 96/97 student protests faded again into a bleak resentfulness. Arsenijevic had made a public speech to the students on the streets of Belgrade at the time. Jokanovic, I expect, is fed up with years of lies and deceit as well. Both of these young authors come from the generation that craves change, that yearns to join their East European neighbors who are, however awkwardly, moving toward progress and peace.

Esmarh and In the Hold came out of the period of the toughest challenges to one’s psyche, they came out as a cry for peace (maybe it isn’t a coincidence both writers are named Vladimir, meaning “the rule of peace”), as a call for their friends and fellow citizens to start using their heads and act together for the triumph of reason. Perhaps the two young authors, neither one a writer by profession, would never have plunged into the untried world of literature, had they not thought they had to. Their urge to demand justice was so strong, they decided to strip themselves in front of the whole nation, to try to expose the source of confusion and hatred that led the whole country to a mass suicide.

For, where is a place for creation in times like that? When Luka finds a book written by Hemingway in an abandoned house near the front, he has no choice but to use it to start a fire. He rips a few pages from the middle and keeps the book next to the furnace. Later, when the fire catches on, he throws it inside. “The old man and a sea of macho stupidities,” Jokanovic writes. “The man liked bullfights and Venice, what can you do with him in the Balkan pigslaughter?”

In order to start thinking about literature your stomach has to be full and your material needs satisfied; people around you have to have a visible aim in their lives. Communism was no haven for writers to begin with. As Andrei Bitov says, no equality will raise temples and palaces, paint them, decorate. From material comfort came preparedness; from preparedness, the ability to appreciate; from the ability to appreciate, the level of culture. Culture needs a base, wealth.

When there is a war raging around you, art seems truly senseless. In a country seized by fratricide, there is no real time to experiment with this narrative or that point of view; there is only a therapeutic need to check who is sane, you or everybody else. Jokanovic and Arsenijevic did exactly that, they passionately disclosed the insides of their minds, of their hearts. They had nothing to lose; they had already lost the element most precious to a normal human being.