an online quarterly journal with some of the best new literature from Europe
is a publication of
Trafika Europe ISSN 2472-2138
MIGRATION FOCUS: Grace Nichols
Passport to Here and There (poems)___________8
The Sad Guest (excerpt)____________________22
Portraits of Absence (poems)________________40
The Fig Tree (excerpt)______________________54
Carlos Gámez Pérez
Immigration: The Contest (excerpt)__________110
Other works from across Europe: Annie Ernaux
A Girl’s Story (memoir excerpt) _____________130
Songs for 3:45 am (poems)__________________142
Taddeusz. Period (short story)______________158
Peplum (graphic novel excerpt)_____________172
Fleeing Father (excerpt)____________________226
Back Matter___________________________________250 About the Authors________________________252 Acknowledgements ______________________258
The literary mosaic of Europe continues to expand and include more voices than ever before. Enjoy just some of the bits and pieces of this mosaic with us in this issue where migrant voices mingle with stationary ones, each one combining with the others to form a bigger piece of the whole. We beginwith poet GraceNichols whose collection Passport to Here and There explores her childhood roots in Guyana in relation to her adult life in England, showing that the two cannot be fully separated. EUPL-awarded German author of Polish origins Matthias Nawrat gathers stories of the plethora of lives that make up contemporary Berlin in The Sad Guest . A conversation about this work can be enjoyed on the April 15, 2021 episode of Spotlighting the EU Prize for Literature. Fabiano Alborghetti ’s Portraits of Absence provides firsthand snapshots of migrants with whom he lived in Milan. He shares more about this astonishing experience and his writing about it on the July 12, 2020 episode of Swiss Literature Today. Additionally, Fabiano graciously provided us with the stunning images that adorn our chapter pages. The are from his project Still faces and were taken in Milan, Genoa, and Florence, Italy. Slovenian author, Goran Vojnović , explores the concept of borders as they becomeerased, crossed, andmoved inYugoslavia. The FigTree traces a complex history of movement, not only through locations but also through time, revealing how someone arrives at their current time and place. A theatre script for Disappearing by Romanian Elise Wilk follows and portrays the lives of six characters facing anxiety related to emigrating. Trafika Europe 20 – Migrant Mosaics EDITORS’ WELCOME
An excerpt from Spanish author Carlos Gámez Pérez ’s novel, Immigration: The Contest , satirizes the role of technology and social media on real events in a potentially not-so-distant future. Next is a poetry selection from Márton Simon ’s Songs from 3:45 am and Fox Wedding . A conversation between Márton and his translator Timea Sipos about his work can be found on the February 21, 2021 episode of The Middle Ground. Then, there’s an excerpt from A Girl’s Story , French author Annie Ernaux ’s latest memoir, in which she reflects upon her eighteen- year-old self ’s submission to a man’s will and what she deems is the origin of her writing. The short story, “Taddeusz. Period” by Kathrin Schmidt , speaks of the disaffection of east Germans, leading them to nationalist politics. A special treat in this issue is an excerpt of Blutch ’s graphic novel, Peplum ,accompaniedbythetranslatorEdwardGauvin’s introduction. You can also hear more about Gauvin’s work on the April 11, 2021 episode of French Forays. American author based in Vienna, Austria, Ben Sloan ’s excerpt from Birke explores familial history through the eyes of the eponymous main character. Finally, joining the theme of family, German author Carmen- Francesca Banciu in Fleeing Father takes us to the battles between a father and daughter. To hear more about her work in her own words, check out the March 7, 2021 episode of Women in Translation. We hope you enjoy this splendid European mosaic! Clayton McKee and Joe Williams, Editors
Passport to Here and There
Passport to Here and There (excerpt) Grace Nichols
If I Were to Meet
If I were to meet the ghost of my childhood running with slipping shoulder-straps and half-plaited hair beside a brown expanse of memorising water and the mellow faces of wooden houses half-hidden by a weave of coconut, mango, guenip trees. I would say this was her childscape this was where she was shaped like first words formed on slate –
A raw and lyrical landscape that witnessed her carelessness of death, her fall from tree, her near muddy-pool drowning and how nothing seemed to separate her from anything – 11
Not from the equatorial sun or sailing moon or shooting stars of black tadpoles – If I were to meet the ghost of my childhood – I would kneel beside her for a while – this slip of a brown girl gazing at fish shapes under brown sunlit water – patwa, sunfish, butterfish – mesmerized by their movement and the silent scales of their music. Then I’d straighten up leaving her in her elementary world, her bright aloneness. Oblivious of me.
Passport to Here and There
The Shilling and the Princess
Even now, I still remember the pleading bribery in my mother’s eyes as she held out the piece of silver in her palm –
A way figured out of the stress of taking me down to Georgetown
to see the England-princess in my new unfinished dress.
‘Which you prefer? To see the princess or a Whole Shilling for yourself?’ At six years old I took the silver and betrayed the reality of it all – The heaving crowds behind the barricades, the cantering white horses, school children waving little replicas of the British flag (some fainting in the heat I later heard) After she left I headed over to the cakeshop then watched the moon come up like a fairy godmother from behind the darkening trees. Moon casting her mantling spell of silver – making me most decidedly her goddaughter.
Against the Tradewinds
Sitting sideways on the crossbar of my father’s Raleigh bicycle – he pedaling, panting, pushing sixty against the Tradewinds – Me, in sulky pubescent silence – a crossed-legged eleven-year old
offended by the implications of his wind-snatched words: You’re getting heavy girl
Passport to Here and There
Set us loose in dis city of wood and tings hard bad
Put a heap-of-crisscross streets between us – put traffic-light, road-block, put seawall and canal.
Put iron railing put hibiscus-paling
put clothesline put coastline – Because we so high on each other Because we eyes can’t wait to make four together – Dis not unfeeling city will pull out all the stops to bring us into each other’s harbour.
In the Shade of a London Plane Tree
The kind-house provided for my face by your spirit’s shade on this summer-hot day wondering about your maple-like leaves and the rings of your age your spiked fruit-balls that display themselves like pom-poms stirred by an inaudible sway of music – a merging of Oriental plane and American sycamore – your hybrid heart at home in any condition – winter damp or heat-waving pollution – a hardy Londoner if ever there was one. Trees, how they intercede for us in their green and breathing tolerance.
Passport to Here and There
No longer perched on the snowy Christmas cards of my snowless childhood but standing like a small feathered-muse at my frosty garden door – Robin in the flesh my New-world, Old-world friend – come to warm me with the flame of his breast. Bless.
Tea with Demerara Sugar
I’ve given up trying to give you up, Demerara (not that I’ve ever tried).
Friends admonish me gently as they sip their own unsweetened brew (ironically) tucking into cakes far beyond me and you. I say I’ve paid too high a price to give you up and that just a teaspoon of you is enough to brighten the tone of my tastebuds. I know your cost in tears, brown sugar, the bloody sweat behind each crystal grain – you whose shadow still haunts the sun, our riddling water stand-up water lay down – turning me inward to my Demerara days, your canetalk whispers fermenting the night air.
Passport to Here and There
Marvel again at the market stalls singing the earth’s abundance
in the heaped-up homegrown freshness of their own vernacular favoured names. Not Aubergine but Balanjay Not Spinach but Calaloo Not Green-beans but Bora Not Chilli but Bird-pepper And not just any mango Still hiding its ambrosia in the roof of my mouth, still flowering like the bird-picked mornings on the branches of my memory. but the one crowned, Buxton Spice,
Kittitian Girl ( for Zelma)
Your depatures stir a longing for your comeback arrivals – you who left your island home to follow your heart’s nursing vocation on England’s distant shore. But you needed no lamp like Florence Nightingale to see your way to heal. No Crimea like Mary Seacole as you scalded duty’s rungs with a smile to console the snow. Kittitian girl, we marvel at the ease with which you juggle the love of your two homes – bearing generous witness. Loyal to both sides of Atlantic.
Passport to Here and There
Apple and Mango
When last home, trying to recover some of the bright light of small-girl days, my sister threw me the sudden gift of a Buxton Spice mango. I remember how I peeled and sliced that plump orb of sunshine, adding a sprinkling of salt, the way I liked it as a child. I remember how she raised her eyes when I said I’d leave back for afters , a slice – Girl, you can’t finish one mango? How could I have admitted that I had to save back space for the fruits of my other back-home – This rain and winter-driven Blighty where summer strawberry and apple and my daughters all grow.
The Sad Guest
[Learn more about Matthias Nawrat and EUPL-awarded novel, The Sad Guest , on the April 15, 2021 episode of Spotlighting the EU Prize of Literature on Trafika Europe Radio, right here.]
The Sad Guest (excerpt) Matthias Nawrat Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire
On the third Sunday in January, I took the U-Bahn from our neighbourhood to the Hasenheide area at Südstern station, on the other side of Berlin. There was a church there where the Polish community met up. I had only been inside the church once, not for Mass but to look at the stained-glass saints. Directly opposite the church was the restaurant Mały Książe, the little prince, and if you arrived at the right time you could get a table before the place filled up with families and elderly ladies and gentlemen leaving Sunday Mass. The language in the restaurant, which had its own grocery shop, was Polish, but every guest also spoke German and the two young waitresses spoke without accents; they were the daughters of the restaurant owners, I believe, and helped out on Sundays. All the tables were free when I arrived, but it began to fill up shortly after eleven. Peoplewere soon standing between the diners, staring down at their plates to judge when they’d be vacating their places, so an elderly gentleman joined me at my table. He was dressed in a grey suit with a white shirt and a golden-yellow tie and wore a golden signet ring on his little finger, its crest a shield and two crossed swords. Both of us had to pull our seats up close to the table 25
and lean in, the people behind us pressing against our backs, the room reverberating like a departure lounge.
He asked me whether I would recommend the pierogi I had just begun eating, and I said they weren’t the best I’d ever eaten in my life and perhaps not the best I’d ever eaten in the city either, but theywere still good. And so, once one of the two young waitresses hadworked herway through the crowd tous, he ordered a portion of pierogi. We spoke Polish to one another. It turned out he originated from southern Poland, from a town near Opole, the city my family came from, where I had been born and spent the first ten years of my childhood.
You’ve just come from church then, too? he asked.
No, I wasn’t at church, I said.
Has something happened?
No, I just don’t go to church, I said.
He cast me a concerned glance. For amoment, I felt like a conman who had come here to profit from the church-goers’ feelings of purification and transcendence.
He asked me what I did for a living, and I said I was a writer.
What language do you write in?
The Sad Guest
And what about?
I write stories about various things, most recently about my family and people I know, I said. I’ve published three short-story collections.
I see, he said.
He told me he was a tradesman and had been living in the city for more than fifty years. He had escaped during the protests in the 60s and had met his wife here, who was from Lublin and had died seven years ago. Now he lived alone, a few streets away.
What kind of tradesman are you? I asked.
A piano tuner, he said. But his hearing was bad now, he told me, otherwise he might still be making a little on the side, at the age of 81, since many people in the richer parts of Berlin had a piano at home. He had a house in his hometown as well but he didn’t know anyone there these days. His son and daughter took their families there on holiday. His pierogi had arrived and he was occupied with eating for a while. I asked him how he liked them, and he said he’d had better but he’d had worse as well. Oh look, he said then, pointing towards the counter where people were queuing up to pay for food from the shop. There’s 27
From the restaurant’s entrance area, a lady in a red coat waved at him, with golden ear clips, a powdered face and red-painted lips. She came over to us, taking tiny steps and holding on to the backs of the chairs between the fathers, mothers and children. Hello, Mr Rosowski, she crowed directly into his ear, louder than necessary. She gave me a smile that was friendly but also distrusting, as though Imight beagrandsonnoonehadpreviously been aware of. The two other seats at our table were taken by a young couple talking quietly, their heads pulled in close. I stood up and offered Mrs Halina my chair, but she declined.
Please, go ahead, I said.
I had long since finished my meal and was exhausted by the volume in the restaurant and the people still standing around waiting for tables. I said goodbye to Mr Rosowski but he took no more notice of me. He had got to his feet to help Mrs Halina sit down and was draping her coat over the back of my chair.
I ordered a portion of pierogi, he yelled in her ear as I was still standing alongside them.
Lovely, she shouted back, and pulled her chair in closer to the table.
I paid at the cash desk at the front, thanked the young waitress I believed was called Małgorzata, and stepped out into the chilly winter air, dazzled for a moment by the bright sky arching above 28
The Sad Guest
the church and cemetery on the other side of the street and above the whole of the city. It took me an instant to remember where I was, and then I set off back towards the station. Families were out strolling around me. At the crossroads, a man on a bicycle stopped, behind him two children with helmets on smaller bikes. The whole of the city seemed to be out and about, though the air was bitterly cold. I walked past the underground station and along the shops on Urbanstrasse to the canal, letting theatmospheredrivemeon. I reallydid feel like I’d been tochurch, like as a child on my family’s housing estate on the edge of Opole, back when I’d still believed the stories about the miracles, the marriage at Cana, the kingdoms of angels and devils. • Al Hadi The next morning, I decided to go to the hairdresser. I left my building to find it had snowed, all sounds muffled, a single car inching onto the crossroads. I walked past the two young Turkish men’s Salon La Bella and past the Café Polonia and turned onto Grüntaler Strasse to Salon Al Hadi. As I entered the shop beneath a jangling bell there were two men in the room. One was very fat, obese in fact. He was wearing a grey sweatshirt and Birkenstock sandals, and sitting on one of the chairs against the wall, his belly rising like a table in front of him. The other had a delicate build and wore a grey shirt tucked into jeans. Unlike the large man, who sported a moustache, his 29
face was clean-shaven. He was sweeping up hair and gestured at one of the two seats in front of the wall-length mirror.
When I sat down, the large man, who now suddenly seemed to have been talking before, began speaking again. He spoke fast, with a raised voice. He was holding his telephone in front of his face and as I leaned back and the slim hairdresser put an apron over my shoulders, the large man used the fingers of his other hand to swipe across the screen, as if commenting on something he’d just read. He sat on the very edge of his seat. The hairdresser fastened a strip of crepe paper around my neck, turned back to him and made affirmative noises. Then we had a brief conversation in German about what kind of haircut I wanted. The hairdresser had a quiet, friendly voice. Do you want a shave as well? he asked. In the mirror, I saw the fat man behind me and above him a muted television, showing people sitting at a table being served aesthetically arranged meals and having an animated conversation. While we had been talking about my hair, the fat man had started a telephone call. He laid one calf over the opposite knee and fiddled nervously with the sandal on his foot, enclosing a grey sock. He held the telephone to his ear and went on speaking at the same volume and in the same dramatic tone, but in his face, which I saw in the mirror, I thought I could now make out uncertainty, as if he were talking about something very important and the fervour of his speech were to do with excessive No thanks, I said.
The Sad Guest
I suddenly fancied he kept repeating the word Assad, the name of the tyrant from Syria, which was where he might come from himself and part of his family might still be living. But then I thought I probably only thought I was hearing that word, omnipresent as it was in the news. The fat man wasn’t speaking particularly clearly; it might just as well be Amad or Hassan. The hairdresser, by now cropping my hair at the back, didn’t seem to be listening to him any longer. He was immersed in his own thoughts, looking out of the window to where trapezoids of sunlight took shape on the pavement. Then I saw him nodding in the mirror, and I heard him directing an affirming word behind him. He turned around to the fat man, who had put his telephone down but gone on speaking with the same urgency in his voice, which sounded slightly hoarse by now. I wanted to say something. I wanted to ask the large man behind me something, address his situation in some way. But I didn’t knowwhat tosay. And so I sat there insilencewhile thehairdresser brushed the clippings off the back of my neck. Soon the hairdresser put the razor aside. My face in the mirror was strange and unfamiliar, like some other person’s. I paid eight euros, said goodbye to them both and smiled at them. They returned my goodbye and smiled back. The fat man simply went on speaking, and I was glad to be outside on the pavement. As I turned back ontoour road, I decided I was thinking toomuch 31
about the matter. Even if what I supposed were true, I couldn’t do anything about it; the war in the fat man’s country was a fact, likewise that I and the two of them lived here. And yet I still felt ashamed, as I walked past the Salon La Bella on our road, not to have asked the two of them anything. • The Architect It was early May when I met the architect. For a few weeks, the ground had been dug out on a plot at the end of our road opposite theGesundbrunnenshoppingmall, and twoyellowcranes loomed high beside it. New residential apartments and studios were to be built there, according to a large white billboard. Cement had been poured into the hole only a day after it appeared, but no next step had yet been undertaken. My wife Veronika and I had talked a few times about redesigning our flat, though we didn’t really intend to do it. At Mały Książe, I had happened to find a business card in a pile alongside various advertising leaflets on the counter. Dorota Kamszer – Architect, it said. Give me a call! My interest piqued by that injunction, I dialled her number that same afternoon. You’ll have to come here, though, the architect said on the telephone once I had explained what we wanted. I don’t leave my neighbourhood.
You only ever stay in Schöneberg? I asked.
The Sad Guest
Yes, she said. Well, I did go sailing on theWannsee once. A man I was very much in love with had invited me along, and of course I had to pass through all the neighbourhoods along the way, which I enjoyed a lot. But that was thirty years ago now; the man and I were very young. I was confused by this admission. And as the story seemed rather implausible to me, I asked her how she reconciled it with her work. People built houses in other neighbourhoods too, I said. An architect must have to inspect her buildings now and then.
I work from home, she said.
I found your business cards at Mały Książe, I said. That’s in Kreuzberg, not Schöneberg.
A friend of mine took them for me.
And the yachtsman? What became of him? Presumably, he still lives somewhere in the city to this day, she said. He has a family and a job he enjoys. Perhaps he even has grandchildren by now. The architect spoke in a low voice, choosing her words carefully. Her Polish reminded me, as it struck me once I’d hung up, of the Polish I knew from my grandma, who came from Brzeżany, a small town that had been Polish before the SecondWorldWar but was now part of Ukraine. The musical way she blended the words into one another roused an image in my mind of ancient Potocki countesses, from a long-lost past still present in the cultural gene pool of old Eastern Europe, enduring as memory. I felt drawn to 33
it. Yet I was also overcome, once I’d hung up, by a strange feeling of discomfort.
What do you mean by discomfort? asked Veronika, who was sitting opposite me on our sofa in the hallway, in the alcove below the window, when I told her about our telephone conversation. I don’t know, I said. At that moment, although it felt exaggerated, I couldn’t help thinking of the last words of the ivory dealer Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; I saw the scene on the Congo River before my mind’s eye. I saw Kurtz wasting away in his cabin, stricken by insanity, long since lost for the life of normal people, as he emerges for instants from crazed nightmares and, his gaze now focused on another sphere, repeats over and over the same words: the horror.
You’re exaggerating, Veronika said.
Presumably, I said.
The architect lived in a part of Schöneberg dominated by bourgeois residential blocks. The flats behind the windows, as I could see through some of the panes while walking past their bay fronts, had high ceilings with stucco mouldings. Here, the Arab-
The Sad Guest
run shops and bars I was accustomed to fromour neighbourhood were lone islands between cafés, wine merchants and a Greek restaurant on the corner. House number 17 was on a quiet side street with a road that narrowed every fifty metres. At these narrow spots, miniature planted peninsulas edgedwithcobbles protruded into theasphalt between rows of parked cars. I rang the doorbell. The intercom remained mute for some time but then crackled into life, and a voice that sounded higher than on the telephone said my surname and first name. Once I’d confirmed, however, nothing happened. I hesitated for half a minute – who knew what was stopping her from pressing the button to release the door. But just as I decided to ring again and had raised my finger to the bell, the lock buzzed and the heavy entrance door gave way. Sorry about that, she said in the doorway on the second floor. I had to finish writing an urgent email. She opened the door fully and took a step back to let me into a hallway that creaked beneath my feet but made not a sound under hers. In the doorway of one of the adjacent rooms, she asked me to remove my shoes and take a pair of fabric slippers from the shelf next to the front door. Standing in that hallway, I inhaled and felt a surprising expanse of space. The flat smelled of something familiar. I thought it was the scent of old books, their paper manufactured and flicked through in times long past. Behind the architect was a walk-through roomwith a desk placed 35
in front of a window. The back wall was obscured by a palm and other tall plants. Another door led out of this room, revealing a section of a refrigerator.
So you want to remodel your flat, the architect said.
For the moment we’re just thinking about it, I said.
Everyone wants to remodel, she said. She laughed, and it was a childish laugh in a way, but also ironic.
She led me into another walk-through room at the rear of the flat, facing the courtyard. The room was slightly brighter around the window over the yard, but the light looked like it came out of a can, like second-class daylight. It seemed stale, barely reaching more than a metre’s radius into the room. On our left, a double door opened onto a large room with a balcony and window over the street, illuminated by sunlight. Yet before I could walk into that room, the architect closed the door and guided me to the dining table in the walk-through room. She herself sat at the top end.
Having sat down, I faced onto awall of book spines behind sliding cabinet doors.
Helpyourself toapieceof cake, thearchitect said, indicating apale streusel cake with white icing. That one is from the supermarket at the U-Bahn station you must have come from. The shop has next to nothing on offer, they’ve been saying it will be renovated for years. It’s supposed to be taken over by new management as
The Sad Guest
well, but nothing has ever happened. This cake – she gestured at a second, sliced cake that looked pale and rathermeagre, its porous texture reminding me more of an omelette – I made myself, it’s my speciality. I put a piece of her home-made cake on my plate. She got up and vanished into the hallway, and I heard cupboard doors closing and water running from the front of the flat, beyond the room with the desk and the indoor jungle. I took a bite of the cake – and immediately felt like dropping it back on the plate. After only brief contact with my tongue, I had an overwhelming experience of absolute absence of taste. The bite of cake lingered in my mouth, neither emitting any flavour nor disintegrating in any way; instead, it retained its rubbery consistency as I chewed it. I was able to chew and swallow the piece, as I then established, but my mouth felt no sense of its loss.
Howdoyou like it? asked thearchitect as she returned and poured coffee into cups from a silver espresso pot.
I don’t know, to be honest, I said.
I only bake it for practical reasons, she said. But you’ll come to like it. It’s grown very popular among my acquaintances. I give a lot of it to my friends. It’s very healthy; it’s practically nothing but egg white. And I don’t use any sugar in it. For a while, she stared thoughtfully at the corner of the room and the window onto the courtyard. She was petite and delicate, her lips painted red. She had slim hands, yet as I had noticed straight away, they looked unusually thick-skinned and worn. 37
Her short grey hair seemed as light as feathers. At that moment, I had the impression of something very lively revealing itself in her features, the intelligence of generations of professors and scholars. It turned out she came from Opole, like I did.
I haven’t been back there for a long time, though, she said.
We spoke for awhile about different streets in the city. I described to her where I had lived as a child. I told her, too, that many of the old German buildings around the town hall square and on the canal had been renovated and painted pastel colours and that there were new paths along the River Oder with sports equipment installed for the town’s residents to improve public health, financed by EU grants.
That sounds like a good idea, she said.
In answer to her question of what I did for a living, I told her I was a writer and had published three short-story collections.
A writer, she said. Interesting. Then you must know a lot about architecture.
Not really, I said.
Before I left her flat, she handed me an aluminium-wrapped parcel which, when I pressed it with my thumbs, gave way in a conspicuously rubbery manner.
The Sad Guest
This is for you and yourwife, she said. Don’t keep it all for yourself!
Portraits of Absence
[Listen to Fabiano Alborghetti discuss and read from The Portrait of Absence , on the July 12, 2020 episode of Swiss Literature Today on Trafika Europe Radio, right here.]
Portraits of Absence (poems) Fabiano Alborghetti Translated from Italian by Marco Sonzogni and Ross Woods VIII Sadik, 42 years old, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina I am a hindrance, I belong to the nation but who’s to blame he asked me: I was born and raised here I’m no guest or intruder. Stripped of belongings exile illuminated the debris the back not yet pierced by bullets: at the side someone drying tears
standing with no belongings nor luggage. In front someone now takes my place and prays and is grateful for my loss. I am infamy: marching, departing
XIII Davor, 52 years old, Pristina, Serbia
Lined up. Lined up alongside destiny to the mountain tops: to move from your own land for flesh alone summed up the motive the convoy. People on foot each with no guardian butmemory, eyes looking back tobleach thegroundcovered. Each one repeating in silence:
from present loss to the drama to come, where are we?
Portraits of Absence
XVI Nermina, 45 years old, Banja Luca, Bosnia- Herzegovina One hundred seven days and more she could use and also photos to tell a story: the name with his finger at the front of the image sweeping brushing away soil brought from home and more picked up along the way. No-one certain of their destination, only some beside her, dying of hunger together: and yet, she’d talk of the garden, of the bread baked at night …
XXVI Khalid, 19 years old, Oujda, Morocco So very long the wave but not enough for the dinghy: everywhere the risk of shallows the lookout ashore or at sea. Get off they say, get up and walk. Then the jump, the plunge into the water the challenge of fording, of surviving the shore. Hiding in the shade, I leave the sand.
Distance is direction, each breath is now a step.
Portraits of Absence
XXIX Stefan, 28 years old, Dardania, Kosovo
In whatever workplace: a lowly position was offered, small wages after trading names and the obligation to stay. Take it or leave it they told me: sooner or later the paperwork comes. So I stayed half invisibleandmore space thanperson. Theygotmy name wrong when they called me but no one cared mattering little who or what dug into the work: ready meat with a hungry mouth and a mouth useless at speaking and at the entrance a long line of replacements, the same conditions
beggars crowding for a pittance, all the time …
XXXV Salah, 36 years old, Bechar, Algeria
But now who’s listening to us? he asked. I’ve learnt your language and behave as I’m supposed to. I dress in disguise but it’s no use, he repeats to me: your rejection is too firm and you don’t admit it. When I’m next to you you’re uncomfortable. What are you afraid of
when I come close? Do I disturb you? That’s how shame happens: at not seeing. In the portrait of absence I disappear.
Just before posing.
Portraits of Absence
XXXVI Mohammed, 20 years old, Marrakech, Morocco
I’ve got twenty years of sparks he told me and am a body in waiting, doomed: I ask for little
just what’s just to survive, but it’s not enough. I don’t want words and give me anything but money.
Give me a meaning …
XXXVIII Fatim, 22 years old, Senegal
I’vegot amadman’s bodyatmonth’s endwith semenpushing in line at the top of the stairs, everyone waiting their turn for the flesh: sex is cheap
but it’s the only remedy. If I look around me, too pretty your girls for them to gaze back at me: too much sludge on my foreigner’s skin. Don’t look at me then while I take fake love
don’t feel the death rattle of someone squirting into nothing. What I think when I thrust it’s not worth saying
denying it more shameful than doing it …
Portraits of Absence
LIII Rayyan, 22 years old, Ghat, Algeria
The name was written at the start of a new line but better misunderstood than handcuffed and on the way home. I am a legal man he said explaining the paperwork, I am a named body and only written down have I value: to be called what man is, with the name of his blood even if the permission to rest
on paper or on marble is obtained, and must be enough.
LVII Apostol, 22 years old, Skopje, Macedonia I am, I am but how and who in this state? Some see what I am some distrust me because of what’s in the papers how do I defend from silence, how do I explain a different habit? The other culture is the question: it frightens and widens disparity it sees clearly, it point with a finger to the allotted corner where I resist. Guest or neglected it paints me
resident or assassin …
Portraits of Absence
The Fig Tree
The Fig Tree (excerpt) Goran Vojnović Translated from Slovenian by Olivia Hellewell
XIII Anya and I drove back in silence. I joined the motorway at Koper and itwas as if the surrounding scenerywas also choosing to hold its tongue. The monotone sound of the engine, the lines that divided lanes, the crash barriers, and Anya, who was waiting for my explanation. We had driven away so quickly after the burial, that she hadn’t been able to ask. But nor did she have to. It wasn’t her job to ask; it was my job to answer.
‘Aleksandar killed himself.’
Maybe I was just checking to see if she was listening. Maybe I wanted towake her, to call her back tome. Or maybe I just had to tell someone else about the empty little brown bottle and Mum’s visit.
‘What are you talking about? What do you mean, he killed himself?’
‘Suicide. Aleksandar committed suicide.’ 57
‘Where’s this come from?’
‘A few days before he died, Vesna told him that whilst he was away in Egypt, Jana wanted to get a divorce.’
‘And you think he’d kill himself because of that? At his age?’
‘He never forgave himself for going to Egypt when he did. He always suspected that his departure had caused Jana irreparable harm, and Vesna confirmed those suspicions. She stoked his biggest fears. Before, hecould still tell himself thatmaybe it hadn’t been so bad. But after that, he saw himself as being to blame for her illness. Death was a fairly logical choice, if you think about it; he had no source of comfort left.’ I spoke with composure, as if I were speaking about characters from a book that I’d read, and Anya, too, listened to me as if she were listening to a work of fiction. Sad, but fictional. What I was saying was too disturbing for her to believe.
‘But why did Vesna tell him?’
‘I don’t know. But she did. She wanted payback.’
‘Payback? For what?’
What did Aleksandar have to do with Safet?’
‘Aleksandar did nothing to protect him from what happened.’ 58
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‘But wouldn’t she want to get even with Dane, too, in that case?’
‘It’s the biggest disappointments that hurt us the most. And the more we expect from people, the more it hurts when they let us down.’
‘But you didn’t get even with the person who most let you down.’
‘Well, I did – on his gob. A punch in the face had been a long time coming.’
Only then did I register the blood encrusted on my knuckles, and the grizzly nature of the scene that Anya had been witness to. That they’d all been witness to. Only then did I register the fright on Špela and Maya’s faces, and Mum and Anya’s horror. And Dane’s resignation; how he surrendered tome. As if he knew that I would come for him. It even seemed like he was relieved when what had to happen, had eventually happened.
‘But Vesna couldn’t have known that Aleksandar would kill himself, could she?’
‘No. But she thinks he did it, too. Which is why his death has hit her so hard. She feels guilty.’
‘But didn’t you say that Vesna got over Safet a long time ago?’
‘I used to think so. Now I think it’s impossible to get over the people you love.’
‘Have you spoken to her? About getting even, I mean. Or have 59
you come up with this yourself?’
‘Not directly. And she wouldn’t admit it, anyway. But she was there, at his house, and she told him about the divorce. That much I know. And I know that Aleksandar killed himself.’
‘Grandma’s blood pressure tablets.’
‘I found the empty bottle under the bed.’
‘But you didn’t…’
‘No. It’s nobody else’s business.’
‘But would she really still want to get even, after all these years? I find that hard to believe.’
‘Wanting to get even came from a place of love. I’m sure of it. There’s no other–there can’t be any other–explanation. Her love couldn’t keepquiet any longer. It had been silent for too long. And Aleksandar’s suicide came from a place of love. He couldn’t bear the thought of having hurt the person he cared about the most to such an extent that she’d wanted to leave. He loved Grandma too much to be able to live with that realisation.’
‘Love was at the heart of it all, in that case.’
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‘Love’s always at the heart of everything. Everything except for love itself.’
XIV Vesna arrived unannounced. After not having visited them for almost two years, she got in the car after work and drove to Momjan.
You’re on the other side of the border, you two, were her first words as she came through the door.
It’s like someone’s drawn a border through me. They’ve drawn borders through us, through all of us. They’ve drawn borders between me, my mother and my father. It’s now up to someone else to decide if I can see my parents. Jana and Aleksandar listened to her, as if she were a teenager again, talking to them about punk, about Children of Socialism and Via Ofenziva, about a world which they’d been too old to understand for many years now. They couldn’t imagine a border crossing there, where there had never been one before; their minds couldn’t conjure the image of Slovene and Croatian border guards, each stopping cars on their own bank of the Dragonja river. Vesna was talking like a person scared of silence, and it was impossible to establish at which point her story of the border crossing turned into the story of her missing husband. She 61
was talking about Safet, but too rapidly and incoherently for Aleksandar and Jana to follow. She was tossing out words; and names, places and times flew chaotically around the room. And so as she went on, Aleksandar and Jana were not so much listening to her as watching her, convinced that this was one of those stories that could only be understood if you managed to let the words wash over you. At some point Jana got up, went over to Vesna and took hold of her hand. It was then that Vesna’s story stopped short. Tears ran down her cheeks. You’re never too old to be a child, and ever since Safet had left, Vesna had wanted, just for one short moment, to be vulnerable; to cling on to someone, seeking comfort. But when Vesna looked at Jana, there, from up close, it was another, equally vulnerable girl that she saw. She turned to Aleksandarwith two hazel question marks for eyes, wide open, hoping that her father would explain who this small child was, this child in her mother’s body. But he didn’t hear the question. Vesna couldn’t bear to be near the stranger who she ought to have called Mum. As she stepped out of the door, she just wanted to walk, to get away as quickly as possible, all she wanted was to carry on walking, but she was stopped by the thought of the border guards who would be waiting for her not far from here. They stopped her in the middle of the garden of the house in Momjan, and sat her down on the nearest bench. Beneath the fig tree.
The Fig Tree
She placed her palm on the thick trunk and let her fingers glide over the indentsand ridges, as if tocheck that theworldaroundher was still real. She felt grateful to this sprawling tree for preserving its appearance and its scent, and for resisting the madness which in a matter of years had changed everything, from the landscape to the people. Especially the people. As Aleksandar sat down beside her, the questions vanished from her face. Times had taught Vesna that life demanded acceptance. But her words told a different story. Aleksandar didn’t respond. He knew his daughter and could have uttered those words on her behalf, before she even arrived. But nevertheless, they wounded him like a long, sharp thorn, which invisibly pierced through his chest and out through his back. He looked up at his fig tree and counted the emerging buds between the branches, shielding himself there, from the pain. He knew his daughter and he knew that her resentments didn’t die, that they were likely to outlive him, perhaps even outlive her and live on in Jadran, just as Ester Aljehin’s resentments had lived, and still lived, in him. He knew his daughter, which is why he remained silent, conscious of the futility of words. Down below, oblivious to the pair of them, the Gulf of Piran glistened in the setting sun. It too, was divided by an invisible and uncertain line, a line which had split mountains, valleys, rivers and seas; a line which had cut through lovers and friends, sliced through families and was even frequently capable of splitting an 63 I’ll never forgive you.
entire person in two. Forcibly cut off from a part of their lives, Vesna and Aleksandar now sat together beneath the fig tree, and both thought about Safet, erased from their picture.
When everything down there has settled, and Safet comes back… Aleksandar began, but Vesna interrupted him.
For better and for worse, we vowed to one another. For better and for worse. Only he decided to head into the worse without me. And he knows full well that I won’t forgive him for that. He knows me just as well as you do. Aleksandar went back into the house. Through the cracks in the shutters he heard the ignition of Vesna’s car engine, and the sound of spinning wheels crunching the gravel beneath them. The next evening he returned to the fig tree. He sat beneath it and waited for Vesna to call and tell him about Safet’s disappearance, to ask him if she could speak to her mum. He held the receiver in his hand and explained to her that her mumwasn’t well, and that he knew this news would crush her. He was looking at Jana and was looking at Vesna, too; he could see both of them now, and he saw Safet, too, eavesdropping on this conversation from some muddy bunker. He was the only one that lived with her, he told them. He was the only one who had witnessed her departure; the only one who had been by her sideas herwords ceased tocome togetheras thoughts, when words lost their meaning; the only one who flushed the toilet after her three times a day; the only one who chased after her into the garden to put a coat on her, when she left the house 64
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barefoot in the middle of winter; he was the only one who had to tell her, every morning, that it was Aleksandar, her husband; the only one who had to understand that she didn’t like to share a bed with a stranger; the only one who helped her find the toilet in the middle of the night; the only one to be the stranger in the night who caused her to back away in fear; the only one who had to convince her that he’d seen her naked body before, and that there was no one else to call except him. The only one. Evening after evening he would return beneath the fig tree and retell his story. He sat down under the tree, leaned against it like a tired, hounded animal that eventually gives in and surrenders to its prey. He let all of their resentments ensnare him, let them feast on him like bloodthirsty animals, gnawing at his old bones. From beneath the tree he would sometimes see the splendour of the landscape. He looked out towards the sea and wondered how much of the gulf was still his. As he looked beyond the house, northward, he sensed a presence in the distance halting his gaze and explaining that he could look no further; that he was only permitted to look as far as the larch trees at the top of the hill. He had to secretly smuggle glances, and his yearning, across newly drawn borders; borders which he himself would never cross. He sat beneath the fig tree and saw her trembling, veiny hands cautiously feeling at the door handle as if they’d never opened it before; he saw her eyes, wide open, scanning the wall in search of a towel; he saw her tilt her head back and stare up at the spotted pattern on the ceiling, as if it hadn’t already been there for years, drawn by the damp; he saw her studying him, surprised, scouring his face for a clue that might reveal him to her.
He pretended not to hear her call of Hey, you! He was sitting beside her, and waited for her to use his name. But he was ‘Hey You’. He got up, picked up the tray with their coffee cups and carried it into the kitchen. He tilted it over the sink and let the cups and plates slide into it. Hey You didn’t care if anything got broken. He turned on the tap, letting the water cascade over it all, causing the coffee dregs to splatter all over the walls. He watched as they dried, and saw how the tiny dirty flecks would stay there, forever. Hey You let the dirt build up everywhere; he let oil splatter out of frying pans that were still wet. He carelessly shovelled vegetables into a pan, not peeled nor scrubbed; he left the simmering liquid to spill over the sides and flow into the crevices, spoiling thewood and steel. She was frightened by the cockroaches that crept around her, but they no longer signalled to her that her house needed cleaning. Those disgusting little things never seemed to repulse Hey You, much like the moths, maggots and spiders and their other cohabitants that quietly crawled around the house. There’s room for everyone, Hey You would say. The back garden was so overgrown that it was no longer possible to fight your way through. Tending to all those stalks and stems that no longer served any purpose became senseless–HeyYouwas ambivalent about how they looked; it all came out of the ground and it was all living, and who was he to restrict and interfere with nature. Hey You didn’t care if others would pick his raspberries over the garden fence.
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Hey You cooked whatever he liked. Everything was cooked in water until it was soft, and everything was fried in oil until it was brown, or even better, black. And everything went with everything, because it all ended up together in the stomach and there was no point in complicating things for the sake of a couple of pensioners with tired old taste buds. She made her way along the hallway slowly, as she couldn’t find the light switch and couldn’t see where she was putting her feet. Hey You watched her, illuminated by the dim light of the gas flames, flickering in blue beneath the pot, and causing her to stop there, in the doorway. She was looking at the stove, she thought it strange that something was cooking in the dark, in an empty house. There was nobody around and she didn’t want anything cooking. She didn’t see Hey You, as he drew nearer, and stopped right behind her, touching her gently. She leapt into the air. Shewanted to scream but couldn’t summon her voice. The air was expelled from her lungs and she took desperate gasps of breath as if choking. She backed away from him and almost tumbled to the ground. She wanted to run away, she didn’t understand his laughter; she was trembling and was holding on to thewalls with both hands. She still couldn’t scream. She was choking and she opened her mouth, but she couldn’t breathe. Boo!
Jana! It’s me, Jana! I’m sorry! It’s Aleksandar! Your husband!
It was too late. She was in flight, but rooted to the spot. Her feet 67