by Viktor Car
stories range back and forth between Croatia, France, Canada and the USA
as the self-exiled emigré undertakes a close and pityless examination
of his life and what he's made of it thus far. "
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Weird days in Zagreb. For the first time I saw our apartment equipped and furnished. I felt like a visitor, a stranger to my own things and supposed space. Adela was careful not to make me angry with anything. There was an air of self-imposed repression about her, a certain calmness we haven't enjoyed before.
My daughter Dina is now a reasonable little girl, full of imagination and mischievous spark. One evening I set about deconstructing fairy tales with her, and she screamed laughing, lapping it up. I would say, How stupid must that girl be not to see a difference between a wolf and her own grandmother? Would you confuse a wolf in a nightcap for your own granny? Screams of laughter, and she adds, Look how stupid her face is! I say, She must be a regular church-goer.
As I played with her I realized this is a good outlet for an imagination otherwise used for literary causes. I also realized how much I am isolated in real life, no people around me with playful, dirty, innocent, perverted . . . or any imagination at all. Which is art. Without which life is pointless. Hence art is a basic precondition of living. Playing is also art. My own daughter moti- vated to invent miniature stage plays with rubber animals as actors. Given a theme ('The little goat thinks she's cool, she wants more chocolate and the right to stay out late. Her father, this old goat, is a bit stupid. How does she play him...?'), shaping, observing intelligence, wit, humour, witnessing the very core of humanity before your eyes. Better than a million anonymous readers, I thought.
Met some friends from my old firm. The same stories. What keeps them sitting in that cage of invisible bars, I thought. How can they continue so acquiescently? Davor mentioned how great his month was on the island of Silba where he has a house for the last four decades. Any difference from the way it was last year? I asked. He nodded, understanding what I'm aiming at.
I didn't drink much in Zagreb, although I got drunk that Monday. Wine with them over lunch, spritzers later as I waited to pick up Dina and read the local newspaper. Local life, like local newspapers--absolutely grotesque. You need to be mad or drunk to treat it with laughter. A sad, impoverished, criminalized land. It also seemed very expensive to me. They want real money for low-quality, even shoddy products.
On Tuesday and Wednesday I worked from home via the Internet. My eyes kept swinging towards the deep green hills at the toe of Medvednica mountain I could see through the glass panes leading to a large terrace. So nice to stand there and observe the variety of the city. The city is best viewed like this. On closer examination it reeks of vulgarity. Wednesday I went out with Davor and another guy, Perica. We went to Medvedgrad brewery pub at the edge of the city. The beer gave me a headache, and I didn't even get drunk. The place was virtually empty. The waitor was subservient and chatty in a phony way. Bloody cage of invisible bars.
Perica took me to the airport on Friday morning at the crack of dawn through a heavy rain. Dina was sleeping, Adela tired. The airport in Zagreb is an ugly little box, a collection of Balkan subspecies. The groups of Chinese and Americans made me edgy, raging and pacing wired around the waiting hall. I bought a bottle of malt whiskey to dull the edge. Didn't get to open it. Croatian faces, incessant talk about one and the same thing--money, profit, cheating, earning.
On the plane they gave me three glasses of white wine, which is not bad for an 8:00 a.m. flight. I read the New Yorker, liked it a lot. An article about a Moscow radio station described a complex similar to that of the Croatian media: a consumption of useless information by a democratically impotent populace. Their opinion means nothing. The whole game of informing them is a pretense, a delusion, an excercise for the sake of excercise. You think, you are angered, but there is no process that can transform this into a force affecting politics. So, knowing and thinking means nothing. It is a process of gradually creating a nation of edgy lunatics, neurotic animals sitting in their cages of invisible bars, full of negative energy and pent-up frustration with no release valve. Everyday life is also mired in a maddening matrix of inefficient, outdated bureaucracy and nonsensical, impotent state apparatus. Driving may remain the last form of individual control where the common frustration is demonstrated through drunken aggressiveness.
Another article was even better, about a French cartoon for kids from the 1930s. A French colonialist hunter kills (for fun) a little elephant's mother, so the little elephant comes to Paris. Well put. You destroy their homelands, and they will come to you. But you don't offer them an alternative homeland. So many parallels, so many metaphors opened up. I thought about writing a story. It all came together. I too lost my homeland, somebody killed her. I suffer from negative energy and the impotence of unusable knowledge. My friends do repetitive routines endlessly, and are estranged. I am a paradox-- raising Dina to be a playful, intelligent, imaginative human--and yet I despair over this crazed zoo of a dehumanized species, over the sad state of the collective mind, a territory that resembles a cracked, dried-out landscape starved not by an absence of rain but of effective knowledge.
In seat C (aisle), row 22 I was transfixed by elements that so naturally fell into the structure of a story...when the seat in front of mine was sudenly lowered and hit my knees. I said, Hey, you can't do that. A tall Croatian smiled over his shoulder, said sorry and straightened his seat. In that moment of mysterious instant associations I remembered a flight from Houston to Toronto, a ridiculous fat creature sitting in the row ahead of me who also lowered his seat onto my knees. When I objected, he said, There is no regulation preventing me from doing so.
I also remembered a Serbian guy smoking on a plane, sitting beside me in the fourth-to-last row. He was holding his cigarette up behind him, in the aisle, in line with the third row of seats from the back. Smoking was allowed in the last three rows, so he figured he was acting as per regulations. I regretted never hitting the bastard, a Canadian, and I now regretted being so harsh to the Croatian. I thought of apologizing, inviting him to lower his seat again, but I didn't really feel like disturbing the balance of the moment.
Standing on another serpentine queue in Gatwick I tried to read another good article, this one ridiculing Sarah Palin. But the incessant Coatian babble continued all around me. Those beefy heads were everywhere, deeply and seriously immersed in matters of money and the various ways to make more of it. It was unbearable. I murmured to an elegant older woman in black in front of me, How do you phase out, how can you not hear these stupidities? She said she didn't understand the language. We continued to converse. She was returning from Makarska, a city on the Croatian coast. She had been visiting her ex-husband, a Croatian who could not attend the funeral of their only son who had commited suicide in New Zealand. She had brought him part of their son's ashes. He had been thirty-six, a drug addict, and contracted Hepatitis C. I thought, Fuck, there is no consolation for something like that. A tear glided down her pale powdered cheek. I wanted to talk some more with her, to hear how she planned to reconstruct her life. But a short, fat airport employee told her she should be on a different line, and the woman readily obeyed.
The customs clerk was chatty and polite, and I felt my Croatian edge
At home everything was as I had left it, except that the London Review of Books had arrived along with more letters from debt collectors. It was not yet noon when I stepped out for a drink: a decent pint of decent cider. Then I walked the sunny streets, withdrew some money (surprisingly, there was still some in my account), thought about eating and stepped into an Italian restaurant called the Piazza. Lunch special for 6.95. Mixed salad, a glass of Chianti. Arrabiatta penne, another glass of good Chianti. Excellent service--no false subservience, curteous, to the point, a quick nod and prompt service, as well as tasty food.
I read an article about banks, observed people passing by outside, each difficult to pigeon-hole into the common denominator of a group. A society of individuals, not parrots all singing the same song. The woman at the table beside mine poured cream over her pasta. She then ate perhaps a third of it. The waiter--a cheeky, Roman type, but likeable--asked her if she had enjoyed her meal, making direct eye contact. In the meantime I ate the top layer of my tasty arrabiatta, then asked for more parmiggiano and pepper, which were promptly supplied. I ordered my third glass of Chianti and finished the pasta but needed a little something to finish off the meal, so I asked for some Pecorino cheese. It was exactly what I wanted, very tasty. When I asked for the bill I saw they had only charged me for two glasses of wine and nothing for the chese. I left twenty pounds on the table.
The afternoon was still young and still full of sunshine. The sea was glistening, but I felt no urge to come closer to it. In Tesco I bought wine, cider, carrots, Gruyere and the Economist. Back home I read, slept, watched TV. Good programmes on BBC 4 about Catherine du Pre, a cellist who died young of multiple sclerosis. A fascinating intelligence and passion in her music. Her childhood photos reminded me of Dina, and I thought I should get her an instrument.
I kept drinking Italian red until I got the shakes, as happens to drunks for no good reason. I liked a program about English folk music and especially that a Jamaican played in one of those bands along with an American. The news presenters were articulate, their speech clean and melodic. I remembered newscats I had watched in Croatia--the president smirking and joking that Yes, there are lots of beatings on streets of Zagreb lately... and the PM Sanader stating after returning from the United Nations in New York that his 'encounter with president Bush was brief but 'warm as usual,' and he, the Croatian PM, invitied president Bush and his lovely wife to visit Croatia, 'as privite citizens of course, friendship is stronger than politics you know.' In an alcoholic stupor I tuned on the BBC News channel and watched the same news over and over, nodding approvingly.
On Saturday I talked to my mother. I tried to tell her about the woman who brought part of her son's ashes to her ex-husband in Croatia. My mother responded instantly, 'God knows whose ashes those were. I saw a program on television about crematoriums.'
'Okay, I said, 'now I don't feel like finishing the story.'
'Why not, she said. 'Finish it, I would like to hear it.'
'Well, the ex-husband asked his ex-wife how can he be sure the ashes are really his son's.'
'See, I told you.'
'He probably watched the same TV program.'
I then spoke to Adela. Told her that our lifestyles since I had moved from Croatia indicate convergence, not divergence. But I still think about her and Dina all the time. I don't go out much. In my mindset I haven't gotten any farther from them, and they should join me in the UK.
She said something ambiguous, and when the conversation was over I badly wanted a drink. It was still early when I walked out onto the main street. For a while I stood unable to decide which direction to take. Wicks Inn was open, so I had a pint of cider there. I sat outside and wrote in my notebook. I didn't bother much with being coherent--it was good just to feel the sun in my face and the cider in my throat, the heavy fountain pen (Adela's gift) in my hand. My thoughts were fragmented--how long I had this moleskin notebook, years now, and I still haven't filled it up. So, I dutifully scribbled some one- liners: start going to the gym; learn again, be active, less thoughtful, do, simply do; energy of people, cancel services, confirm flat, move in, creditors, aim for April 2009; buy some cider, email if you can't write; cello for Dina, Steve is right, do not constantly write about yourself. Lunch? Grains, caserolle? Cool people passing by. Eccentric people. Beautiful women. Write. Get Pieta (my novel) out of the way. Just sit down and write, you will feel better. Playsam collection? Swedish design. Legs, walks, asses, penises in vaginas, red cube bus, bad back, quick pint on the way, said one guy to two others before they entered the pub; do the new story, about ashes, about mixed-up ashes; about no difference between burnt wood, humans or chicken, about no identity, about no homeland; same shit again, stop writing about yourself, Steve was right.
Just as I was writing "chicken" a girl in a baseball cap, a bloody lip and rotten teeth sat down at the table beside mine and said, 'I need fifty p because I would like to drink some Stella Artois.' She pronounced Artois with the french r, very clearly and properly.
'Stella has a good last name,' I said.
'Yeah,' she said. 'Artois.'
She took off her baseball hat and revealed short, badly cut thin light-brown hair and a scarred scalp. I offered to buy her a Stella, but she told me she was banned from Wicks Inn.
'Where will you get your Artois?' I asked.
'Are you going to give me a pound or not?'
'Probably not,' I said.
'I spent all this time chatting you up and now you won't give me a pound? 50 p?'
'No. Nothing. Wrong answers.'
'Yeah, I know,' she said. 'I was wrong to say that. As if I was selling chatting up. I fucked up. I always do.'
She lit a cigarette butt she had picked up from the sidewalk, closed her eyes, inhaled deeply and whispered, 'Artois.'
(A native of Croatia, Viktor Car now lives in Brighton, UK. He is "not sure if I am currently married or not, not sure if I wrote a novel or a worthless pile of paper." He has, nevertheless, published short stories and essays in Canadian and US magazines, among them Gowanus and Queens Quarterly. His collection Four Centuries from Zagreb appeared in 2006. A novel, Pieta in Flames, is under construction. )