BY MIROSLAV KIRIN
FIRST, my nameless street, you're not at all a street, you're a small, muddy "backwater" flooded in autumn by Kaniza, a wide street heavily laden with a dank odor of the Austro-
Hungarian Empire (afterwards you will become Gubec Street, and then -- well, you can't lay your bet on anything definite). Then, my lovely backwater, still nameless and unlighted, on the edge of a lost world, you were named after a Dr. Nemec. I am not sure whether your life became any easier with the name you had to share with other similar backwaters gone dry. Surely the one who benefited from this was our mailman whose life had suddenly become easier and his walks around this dead end of the city safer. One may even claim that Dr. Nemec had been brought into this world just for you -- the streets where no one lived, no one uttered a piece of discernible conversation, the streets whose muteness erased the traces of their very existence. At this point, or no point whatsoever, we don't have to bother about the purpose of Dr. Nemec's very existence, who he really was, where he came from, what were his credits and other parasite information. A lot more after an indefinite amount of time had passed the new people arrived, cutting down the plum orchard of the former homestead, building their own households, trying to locate their life on the palimpsest of past identities. The new names were given to the streets, too. After the last war (do you know which one?) there was a vast multitude of dead soldiers willing to give their names to all those unlighted corners of the country in ruins. So it is an even greater wonder that you, my charming lane, adjoining Gubec Street, you, with only two houses, two street numbers, one and four, which may as well have been a hundred and four hundred, you were aglow with happiness when you, due to someone's oversight probably, had been named after a poet -- A. G. Matos (the decision was brought on the local level).
AS usually follows, another war broke out posing the perpetual question: "How is this, at the end of the twentieth century, still possible?" On A. G. Matos Street two houses are being evacuated, a car is parked in front of the house, only bundles and nylon bags containing "those precious things" are being thrown into it ("Have I forgotten to take ... ?" "Why, soon we will be returning ..." "This can't last very long ..." "Now I'm not sure if I put it in there or not ...", says mother, her voice broken into the fragments of an on-coming madness, unlike father, seemingly composed and starting the car). When all is said and done, the car makes its way through our narrow street accompanied by the shelling in the neighborhood, the enthusiastic applause in dark houses on the outskirts, the laughter turned upside-down, the essences emptied, and by the plum orchards determined, in an advent of chaos, to grow wild again.
A WANDERING, lost fragment: all the places mirroring the presence of God were dying. Ashes had covered everything, the one containing your friend and the friends of other friends, gray shades embalmed all things, the scattered bodies of the dead lie strewn across the town. The town has vanished.
SOON a group of new dwellers arrives to A. G. Matos Street. To define them is rather easy; they are some wretched bunch, a handful of dust, the fifth wheel on the coach, or some other hackneyed metaphor, nothing but a commonplace of misery. Now the world bears witness to two parts of the same calamity while semblance of reality is common to both sides. Frankly speaking, no one is truly alive, their existence refers to its temporary condition, and this is where all consolation finds irretrievable roots. Since there is no use in starting it all over again, then why not let weed devour everything, let windows be covered with dust, let them blur the vision of peeping inmates, let clothes on people lose color, and shape, don't look for the new one, this little history will repeat itself, everyone becomes idle in an odd way, and eventually all lie naked in the darkness of the house, with doors and windows imperceptibly removed by the trick of time.
A DREAM, 1993: abandoned letters, senders well known, now buried in the past, almost nullified by lapse of memory. There are a few piles, sorted out by their subjects. Someone, not me, takes the box with letters, takes out one letter after another and reads it with eager interest. Essentially, there is a whole array of unidentified readers, each of them taking turns at non-colliding intervals. All readers finally blur into one condensed image. Occasionally, the image may break into meaningless pieces, tempting you to work out the identity of each. At this point "you" is an addressee likely identifiable with the narrating "I" and, to cause even more confusion, this "you" will later become a "you" probably lost for good to any traceable identity or address. It is a business worth trying but pointless in the end. Are you him, or her, you may ask. The she-reader will take pleasure in quite different matters than the he-reader. It is quite obvious, isn't it, but you nevertheless fail to guess the exact scope of her or his interest. Who will fail to resist the temptation and read other man's letters, who is more inclined to do it? The decision has been made instantaneously. Here, before this man's (or woman's?) eyes, in a series of flashes, one after another, unfold the scenes from lover's written life, the one which may not be as it appears to be. Here, dear stranger, are the letters you could have received and read to the point of your vanishing in them. Seemingly, you are reading them to fathom my intimacy but you can only fuel your dark voluptuousness by disclosing the layers of tender experience, by shedding light to the secrets you used to ponder. Oddly enough, my indelicate reader, you only tend to organize your own shattered self - no matter how meticulously you worked bent over these papers, you will not find me in them. The she you might as well have been looking for will not be there either. Here is why: you seem to lack a capability to encompass a unique vision of someone's life, those small things hidden from the distracted eye. You can handle words with enviable virtuosity, make them subject to your oddities, but when it comes to delicacies of male-female relationships you seem to withdraw from the boiling scene. And think about this: all intimacy must have vanished from these papers the moment you set your eyes on them. Do not ask why. I could figure out your identity: I was probably seeing you, perhaps we have met and talked on the town's wide square enjoying the cool summer breeze under the lime trees. In this dream the letters were read by someone very familiar. Presently, I cannot recall the face but neither can I imagine a complete stranger doing it. Yes, I am positive about it now: we shared the passion for the same girl, the one consumed in letters, mine and yours, the one locked in "incomprehensible" sentences and phrases, the one creating a world of silence in our past conversations, the one who further divides the world already divided .
SOMEONE fires several bullets into the blue iron table which reads: A. G. Matos Street. It was high time for the street to change its name (the turn had come for the dead of different rating system). And yet, this cracked and slanted table would remain there until the end of the war marking the position of the street that no longer existed, and some other street had not yet replaced it because you cannot come with the firing squad to shoot the street and then bury it at some unknown place. At one moment (the war had long ago ended) we happen to be passing there and our eyes catch the sight of the same table, this time on the ground, amidst the tall leaves of grass, in the process of decay, its letters vanishing. Someone (belonging to "we") bends down and picks it up, carefully wipes it off, takes it with him (or her), enters the courtyard and then places it next to the house wall. "Let's see what will happen with the street", says he, or she, someone definitely. There is another wave of renaming streets, remapping countries, even some people are eager to change their names, and they would do it, you bet, if it were not so complicated and time-consuming.
THE VERY same hand that had picked up the table and placed it in the courtyard now takes a piece of paper, sits at the desk (the room simply furnished, reduced to essentials of life in exile) and writes down the lines whose content will outline a delicate house of glass in the home city well specified but now utterly invisible. It is the winter of 1991, and at this point in time initial optimism begins to deteriorate, the feeling that not all has been lost and that homecoming will soon take place is gradually replaced by the feeling of utter desolation. Memories start fading, no one is sure about their possessions left back there. It would be good to write down these things, says my father to himself, if not for anything else, then to refresh the memory, do it for your own sake, prove that you knew very well the place where you had lived and, eventually, retrace your very existence. So this is what he does.
"THE SITE of 144 m2; the garage of 30 m2; a detached house of 102 m2", so begins father's strange anatomy of our household, and continues in the same vein for several pages of odd and dry writing. His list comprises only bare facts, metrical units, a large number of household items as well as objects and tools found only in technical dictionaries. There is no poetry in it unless a string of "bizarre" technical expressions may claim a poetic quality - a nutcracker, a leg vice, a grinder, a hot and cold water tap, a mirrored bathroom cabinet ... What is omitted from this list are the emotions each of these expressions may arouse in my father - the stool he has made with his brother-in-law ... the shelf he designed for his wife following her complaint that she didn't have a good place to put her pickles and stewed fruit ... the armchair from the living room where he used to sit and talk with the neighbor now living in exile in Toronto, Canada ... Virtually, it is an endless list yet limited to a definite number of objects recalled by a displaced person of a slightly nostalgic mind. Once in a time my father scoops one object of devotion from his list and claims it is his dearest. For two or more days he stays in the gentle hold of that precious object, be it his father's pocket knife, his oar he made from the fir-tree and used many times in fishing, or a "40-piece socket set". He invents all sorts of stories attached to these objects - funny stories, sad stories, thought-provoking stories, unarrestive stories - recovers truths about them he has never been aware of, laughs and cries over them, but is eventually overwhelmed with the feeling of indifference, or loss, you name it, what difference does it make anyway? All things and people are gone, he thinks while having his first morning cup of coffee and reading newspapers. His pessimism will keep on growing, and then, well, something will turn up, yes, definitely, it's the way of the world, isn't it?
IS the history (re)written by women any different? Here is one of possible comparisons (any randomly chosen comparison will hit the nail on the head, none will miss, because any option should be given a mouth to speak for it, if not for anything else then for a terribly long history of silence). These (hi)stories, women's and men's, are those of continual (dis)harmony. What He fails to mention (it is a matter of no importance in his daily routine), She assiduously writes down in her notebooks. Her omissions could be symptomatic, a subject to various interpretations having a bittersweet outcome. She will record all the items she has brought along (saved), He will take an interest in the things presumably lost (destroyed). Subtraction and addition. Here is what She, my mother, a schoolteacher writes in a subsequent reconstruction of past events produced upon my kind request to write her personal account of the first days of war (an autonomous chapter). The beauty her writing exudes stems from a longtime work with young children and their first attempts to express themselves literary; as if her simple, over used phrases suggest that the point of all writing about war and its aftermath will always be hard to pin, and that beauty itself is hidden in the very failures of writing.
THE SUMMER of 1991, 3rd September. I am packing the indispensable things we are taking with us from the attacked town of Petrinja.
1. My gold (a gold bracelet, a New Year's gift from my husband ; a necklace - a gold chain and a locket I bought on the tenth anniversary of my job, the pendants I got from my pupils, two gold rings.
2. For each of us I took some summer wear, winter wear - autumn is coming, and at this point we may only speculate about our going back. I took my leather jacket I bought in Tarvisi, Italy, and my gray two-piece made by a friend of mine, a tailor from Novo Seliste.
3. I took the following footwear: shoes for autumn and boots for winter. I left the town wearing sandals -- black, leather ladies' sandals. I wore them during the war, they were my favorite footwear, I have mended them several times, and after all these years I am still wearing them.
4. I took my discharge from the Hospital where I got my cancer removed in 1989. Besides, enclosed were my blood tests and other documents about my health condition. I did not take any documents about my spine condition and rheumatoid arthritis. In Petrinja I was cured by Dr. Cvjeticanin.
5. A separate nylon bag was stuffed with underwear -- panties, vests, lace slips -- I needed them most.
6. I also took several family snapshots: I took the snapshot of our family house, believing that I would be able to prove that this is our house when we come back; the snapshot with my Mom, late nephew Marijan, his wife Ana, little Robert and me; the snapshot of me with my children Miroslav and Mladen when they were very young, and when we were living in the school in the village of Slana.
7. All albums are gone. I thought: we're going to return soon, no one needs these pictures, we'll find them. But when we came back we found nothing. The snapshots were very precious and rare; in my life I did not take many. Among those left there was the snapshot taken on the first trip to the seaside with my dear brother Ivo, and there was also my first communion snapshot - sweet memories of my childhood. They either tore or burned them.
8. THE SEASIDE SNAPSHOT: I'm in the sea. A short hairdo, my legs made smaller in the water. I was 8 years old.
9. MY WEDDING PICTURE: The bride in a simple white pleated dress, a white coronet on top of her head and a small bouquet in her hands.
10. THE SNAPSHOT WITH PRANKISH MLADEN: Mladen amidst hens, trying to catch them.
THE MEMORY of the lost equals the memory of the saved. My mother fails to mention the writer of these lines while describing the snapshot with her, her mother Neza, her nephew Marijan, his wife Ana and their son Robert. During exile she had been holding it in her hands for hundreds of times, describing and interpreting it, crying over it. Perhaps by meticulously describing things they begin to vanish; we are convinced that they have been stored in our memory for ages so we needn't worry that they might disappear. As usual, we are not right. No one's memory is safe from intruders, particularly if our belief that we are in control of our past gives birth to that intruder. We are in control of our past only to the extent that we do not think about it, which can't be done. And who knows who or what is the punctum of that snapshot, what pricks I get by watching it.
MY mother is describing her wedding picture, she meticulously outlines the figure of the bride in white, her outfit, and what she wore in her hair. That may well be but something is definitely wrong - where has the groom disappeared, probably not less elegant than the bride, wearing his dark suit, and probably smiling?! It is barely possible, we say. Originally, our assumption says, the groom was in the snapshot, but now it is not clear where he has moved, I mean, he must have been somewhere during these years of marriage? If not in the snapshot, then in the consuming routine of reality. Have they gradually become strangers to each other? Can it be that the groom, from the state of being "absentminded" during the solemn procedure of taking wedding photographs, collapsed into the state of being "physically absent"? Mother may have forgotten to mention him simply because she had focused all her attention on her indescribable self whereas father did not necessary have to be there to confirm her presence. It was a color print, or originally black & white and then retouched, which was quite customary at the time. The married life of young couples would begin on false premises, they would enter it in full but fake glory, bearing in mind the notion of perfection (the spotless skin, an obligatory smile, perfect, snow-white teeth, a fine, nicely done hairdo), and then this perfection would be slightly ruined by an addition of a prefix to the frail body of any word describing their life together - there is a rather limited family of convenient prefixes prone to occasional intrusion into the perfection of things: a-, dis-, ill-, im-, in-, mal-, mis-, non-, un-. In addition to them, seemingly innocuous petals in the body of a budding word, there is an uncountable family of "independent" words or self-contained expressions, representing an inherent threat to the shaky order of things: abandonment, acquaintance, adultery, ambition, anguish, argument, balance, boredom, chasm, confrontation, constraint, derision, desolation, disgust, dispute, debauchery, doubt, equilibrium, exhaustion, failure, fallacy, fatigue, fault, forgetfulness, fury, garrulity, gesticulation, glumness, habitude, harassment, insult, isolation, iteration, jabber, jitters, kindred, languor, lassitude, lie, lure, lust, masquerade, masturbation, meanness, miff, narcissism, nefariousness, nuisance, obligation, obstinacy, promiscuity, perversity, pretense, pusillanimity, remorse, repulsion, resignation, stagnation, stupor, suffocation, suspicion, tension, thought, torment, urge, verisimilitude, vacuity, vociferation, wink, yawn. Each of them launches its own story, deliberately intriguing and appalling at the same time, but none being able enough to hit the "right" story. Now, why has my mother, trying to recapture the details of her wedding picture, omitted the groom, i.e. her husband?
THE STREET is still nameless, no one has yet remembered to place a new table bearing the old name, and only one out of two houses in the street is doing its best to live its "former" life. The other one, belonging to our neighbor Ljerka, is empty most of the time, she is afraid to spend a night in it, she is alone, poor widow, filled with fear, surrounded by shabby furniture brought there from all corners of the wrecked world by undestined wartime lodgers. Now she comes once a week to dust the house, air the rooms and ask your mother to turn on the lights in her house to make the impression as if "someone lived in there". She hopes to sell the house as soon as possible because she cannot even imagine to live there the way she had lived before. Everything has changed, the old neighbors are gone, probably for good, there are some newcomers, though no one gets to know them, their faces are hidden, they simply enter their houses and do not leave them, they are squatting engrossed in an anguish of the house where someone else had lived, they listen attentively to the voices that had abandoned the bodies of former residents, but remained in there to work out some little night horrors upon the newcomers. Then, when no one sees them, at some no time probably, the neighbors go out to trim birch trees and weeping willows in their gardens. Ljerka does not think she is ready for all this, she cannot afford to meet the new people; it is easier to give it up, live in-between, between the cities, people, hide somewhere else, breathe not a word.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS: A., a well known writer, or someone else - less marked by his or her writing excellency but irretrievably obsessed with watching, remembering, collecting his or her own prints-in-the-world, seized by a desire to soothe his or her unsteady identity - one of them, at this point, or at any, it will never be clear, nevertheless, someone eventually says: closeness with relatives grows stronger if we observe photographs; memory is restored to life, and we are given an evidence of something "that has been". Now what about a loss - is the loss of memory encouraged by the loss of photographs, or, quite contrary, is it true that only then does the memory, or remembrance grow stronger, burns like an old flame? Out of impenetrable darkness rush forth the people from our life assuming the position even more real than those they had assumed in their real lives. Besides, their story soon devours a fragile body of our print in the present.
Miroslav Kirin lives in Zagreb, Croatia, where he's translating Paul Auster, because Paul Auster is nice to translate in Croatia, especially as it starts to get cold over there.
Read three of his poems.