Ivan Shopov, born 1987 in Skopje, studied General and Comparative Literature at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in his hometown.
His first book, Azbukaizalutanizapisi (An Alphabet and Notes Gone Astray) – a diptychally structured cycle of 62 short stories, 4 poems and a newspaper collage – won him the Novite Award for best debut fiction in 2010. He followed this success with Meshenagodinata (Belly of the Year), a collection of neo-surrealistic prose poems described by Macedonia’s leading modernist Vlada Urošević as “remarkable” and “inaugural… of new words and sensibilities”. In 2017 he published a flash fiction booklet, 091 – antirazglednici od Skopje (091 –Anti-Postcards from Skopje), a lyrical commentary on the controversial architectural remodelling of Macedonia’s capital.
Shopov’s poems and stories have been translated into English, Serbian, Croatian, Albanian, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Czech, Romanian and German. He was a board member of the AnOther Story Festival and has moderated the Nights Without Punctuation multimedia artistic event at the Struga Poetry Evenings.
Eight narrative rounds with a Fikjo – or what I learnt about writing from a Zastava 750
From time to time, without any particular cause or reason, an orange ‘Fikjo’ with SK 121 BJ plates joins the busy traffic on the main road of my present from the side streets of my memory. It was made in 1982, five years before my birth. This orange little tin pot was owned and driven by my father and I spent my entire childhood and the beginning of my adolescence riding in it. It was a hero of many stories that I recall with joy.
Seven or eight years after my family had already parted with the Fikjo, I started writing stories myself, without any clear poetic awareness about what I was doing and what I wanted from the literature I had read and written. In the years that followed my knowledge of literature widened and deepened and the Fikjo and my memories of it kept receding somewhere far away. As if I had parked them in an old garage I had completely forgotten.
While reading various books and drafting new stories, I tried to answer the following question: ‘What is good writing?’ or ‘What kind of books I like reading?’ or ‘What kind of stories would I like to write?’’ And then, completely accidentally, I came across the old manual for Zastava 750 LE. I smiled when I remembered that the manuals for the Fikjos had undoubtedly been one of the greatest Yugoslav bestsellers. They were printed in the same number as the number of produced cars of this make, at the least, and that number is 923 487. Maybe even a bit more.
I usually don’t like the books branded as bestsellers much, but the manual for the Zastava 750 has always been dear to me. I remember it from the time when I loved reading books that I didn’t understand (while today I read books that I pretend I understand). I can see, though, that the expectations I have from a book in order to call her good do not differ much even today: it needs to be difficult to fathom, magical if possible, with an illustration or two; it is desirable that it refers to a thing that has a certain kind of existence in reality, just as the Zastava 750 model existed on the streets and car parks, and exists mainly in memories at present.
The sudden discovery of the Fikjo manual helped me understand what kind of books I like and it led to other new discoveries: that the magic tin pot called Zastava 750 can teach me a few things about writing.
I have no ambitions to enlighten, but I would gladly take the reader to eight narrative rounds with the Zastava 750, strolls through my memories and my reading and writing training. Let’s ride! – I would say if I were learning from some other car. But, this is a Fikjo and that’s why I’m saying – You have to push me to make me go.
Quite often in the 1990s – I can’t remember the exact year: I might or might not have been at school already – my father would take me with him to where he worked as a teacher at the Nikola Tesla secondary school for machinists and electro-technicians. Sometimes I’d attend his classes and other times I’d sit in the library, looked after by his colleagues or entertaining myself in various ways. Most of these conversations, games and drawings have forever disappeared from my memory, but what I remember very well is the anatomy of a Fikjo stripped down to its mechanical parts, without its shell or interior, that was used as a teaching model for the students. ‘What is this?’ I asked when I first set eyes on it. ‘A Fikjo – just like ours,’ my father replied. I didn’t believe him at first since I knew very well what a Fikjo should look like, with its distinctive ‘eyes’ at the front, its rounded badge with a bar going across with the letters ZASTAVA, the grille on the lid of the boot where the engine was, and its ‘nose’ that made it look like as if it was frowning from behind… but there was none of that on this model. When I asked why it looked nothing like our own Fikjo I was told that this was what ours looked like on the inside. It took me some time to accept the truthfulness of this answer. Nonetheless, from that moment on I became obsessed with the insides of cars – their anatomies rather than their façades – and always tried to penetrate my gaze through the exterior of cars as if I had X-ray vision. The Fikjo’s likeable exterior design no longer interested me. Instead I always tried to imagine the mechanical skeleton of every Fikjo I saw. That stripped pile of iron – that magical mechanism elevated on a pedestal in a schoolroom, letting everyone see what it was made of – attracted me much more than the cars that rolled past along the streets or stood still in the local car parks.
Sometimes the stories that allow you a peek into the way they were made – those stories that disclose their anatomy – are more exciting and powerful than those that deploy magic tricks to hide their mechanisms behind a veil.
May the 1st, some time in the 1990s. Every year the morning of May 1st began in exactly the same way: getting up early, all excited in anticipation of a short trip to one of the picnic sites near Skopje, imagining the games we’d play with our cousins and the walks we’d take in the countryside. Despite their brevity, we always experienced these trips as mini-adventures.
My mother would pack the food she’d prepared and my father would take it down to fit it somewhere inside the Fikjo together with the drinks. My sister and I always carried a ball and a toy or two. All four of us would manage to squeeze inside the Fikjo together with our little mountain of food, plastic crockery and all the other necessities for a hedonistic celebration of Labour Day.
We were all ready to go. The engine of the Fikjo started this time with no problems after only one attempt and we set off on our way. Just ten metres down the road, however, the Fikjo stalled and we could go no further. For the umpteenth time in my life I heard the words ‘It must be the coupling’, and as usual had no idea what they meant. I only knew that this required a mechanic’s intervention and that our picnic would not happen after all.
I liked those May the First picnics but I have to admit that they were all somewhat uniform. I remember certain conversations and games. I remember the taste of the soda drinks and barbecue. I even remember some arguments. But all that has been placed in a box with a ‘May the First’ sticker on it and all my memories are jumbled inside. I can’t possibly remember which part of which picnic belonged to which year.
And yet the only memory that stands out really clear and distinct is that attempt at a picnic abandoned only ten metres from the car park in front of our block of flats in Kozle.
Sometimes what we remember best are the stories that were interrupted – those stories that were never told or written to the end.
My father never installed a radio in our Fikjo. None of us ever asked him to. But there was always some music whenever we took a ride in it, even on short trips. I sang together with my sister, making my parents happy, since they enjoyed our singing more than any music they could find on the radio.
Sometimes you need to know when not to overburden a story. Only then will it transform into music.
It was summer, the middle of July, and as an elementary school pupil I enjoyed all the privileges the summer vacation had to offer. I was glad Skopje was a dusty city since it meant the car got dirty sooner and needed more frequent washing. I delighted in the ritual of making the Fikjo spick and span, shining in front of the entrance to our block. I enjoyed the cooling jet of the hosepipe, the streams of foamy water meandering to the drain. I couldn’t wait for the Fikjo to dry and make the fruits of my labour even more self-evident and indisputably clear for all to see.
But this ritual didn’t always go so smoothly. My father would turn up from time to time. He would object to the order in which I did the cleaning. He would advise me to start here and continue there, to hold the hose like this and the sponge like that, and use the rag like … but I can’t even remember like what any longer. After just five minutes of this I’d start fiercely opposing his prompting and meddling and threaten that if he didn’t leave me alone to wash the Fikjo in peace he would have to do the cleaning himself. Eventually he’d relent and disappear somewhere behind the block of flats or hide from the heat in the cool of our home. Only then could I continue happily washing the car.
A story cannot have two masters. That always causes problems.
The law did not prescribe that particular piece of winter equipment, but every driver of a Fikjo knew that it was necessary regardless: a chamois (well any old rag would do) and someone in the passenger’s seat were a must – and perhaps a passenger or two in the back – all tasked with wiping the fogged-up windows. The Fikjo was well known for its overheating engine, but no heat could ever reach the interior. There were openings aimed at the windscreen, but the anticipated warm air never reached the glass to demist it. My father would wipe the window of the driver’s door, while whoever occupied the passenger seat was in charge of the other window. The windows in the back were wiped by any passengers in the backseat. My father obviously did not enjoy driving with fogged up or even half-fogged up windows, yet they were always misty because they fogged up almost immediately after every wipe. And behind this new layer of ‘mist’ the smudged traces of the previous attempts at wiping remained visible, further annoying the driver. For me as a passenger, though, these misty windows were lenses that offered a different and uniquely distorted image of the world – my neighbourhood transformed into a distant planet or an unknown city; a space that I had yet to explore, or perhaps even a colony in the midst of the clouds.
Since then, stories that simply reflect reality have never satisfied me. I strive to make my writing a quest for just such a lens that fogs up and distorts the vision while offering a glimpse of more exciting and – paradoxically – truer worlds.
On the streets of Skopje one could often see Fikjos adorned with the emblems of Mercedes and BMW or even Volkswagen instead of the Zastava emblem. Their owners indulged – in the spirit of Rimbaud, however modestly – in identity games, turning their Fikjos into something else. Those who couldn’t afford a more comfortable, safer, faster or more powerful and expensive car, which at the same time would have been more prestigious, could at least afford the emblem –a symbol that strongly reflected their yearning for a better car.
Despite being otherwise just the same as other models of Zastava 750, I never found those Fikjos with false emblems that tried to be something else as likeable as the ones with their true badges. Their stories seemed phony to me.
The Zastava 750 was only a license-produced version of a Fiat 600. Everyone knew that. But when a Fikjo was passed off as a Mercedes it became repellent and grotesque to me.
A story should not hide its sources and must remain authentic.
‘The coupling’s gone’ … ‘The coupling’s broken’ … ‘It’s that coupling again’ … ‘I changed the coupling’ … ‘The coupling is dead’… These sentences recurred throughout my childhood until the day my father decided to get rid of the Fikjo. It had gradually started lost its usefulness, fading away before its replacement –Renault 5. The old Fikjo came to resemble some ridiculous ikebana, covered with pine needles shed by the yew tree under which it was parked. Before it was sold, this former favourite was all ‘sorted out’: its famously problematic couplings were replaced with CV joints from a Zastava 101; the shell was knocked into a decent state; the brake belts were replaced… It seemed we parted with it when it was at its best.
Stories should be liberated and the writer should set them free when they are at their peak, even though the writer might be sorry somewhat for letting them go at that moment.
Summer 2017. I was taking a walk with my three-year-old son through the settlement of Zhelezara. While walking home, he glanced at the row of parked cars in the car park near the tower blocks on Kotse Metalets Street. He noticed a Fikjo that in his eyes must have looked like a toy in comparison to the other vehicles. He pranced about excitedly, smiled and approached it to kiss one of its front sides.
He had never seen such a car before, nor had we ever talked about it. This ‘recognition’ made me happy – my child’s fascination with the Fikjo – though I couldn’t fathom where it came from.
Every good story must contain a small dose of mystery. Or at least an indicative coincidence.
These narrative rounds with the Zastava 750 helped me learn something about writing, which does not at all to imply that I know how to apply this knowledge when writing myself. Writing is like driving a Fikjo: you know where you start and where you want to arrive and at what time, but this does not actually mean that you will eventually get there or that you will follow the route planned in advance and arrive there at the expected time. And yet you push the key inside, turn it and…
13. 01. 2019
Translated by Marija Jones