Renato Baretić

Renato Baretić, born 1963 in Zagreb, is a Croatian writer. He used to work as a journalist for newspapers and magazines such as Večernji list, Nedjeljna Dalmacija, Slobodna Dalmacija, Feral Tribune, Globus, Nacional, Autograf, Tportal, Otvoreno more. He also used to compile quiz questions for the TV quiz shows Kviskoteka and Tko želi biti milijunaš. He was involved in the screenwriting for the television series Nova doba and Crnobijeli svijet 2 and the 2005 comedy-drama film Što je muškarac bez brkova. He also lectured at the House for Creative Writing in Split and the Center for Creative Writing in Zagreb. From 2007 to 2016 he was creative director and program editor of the Pričigin Storytelling Festival in Split.

His poems, short stories and excerpts of novels have been translated and published in English, Slovene, German, Macedonian, Italian, Ukrainian and Polish.





Tell Me About Her


She was the last to leave the smallish courtroom, her shoulder leaning against the wall three steps away from the door. She crossed her arms and stared directly into his face. He noticed her and looked several more times, but old man Stamenković, the client for whom he had just won a non-final appeals judgement, was doing his best to grab his attention in its entirety. The old man was pumping his hand, as if he would be happiest pulling it off and taking it home to put on top of the television in place of a plastic gondola or vase.
“Mr Tomo…” Stamenković said again, his eyes filling with tears. “Mr Tomo, I don’t know how to thank you… I hoped, my wife hoped… the children are a long way away, but we couldn’t believe that this was really possible… You don’t know just how grateful we are… You must come to visit us on Čiovo, once this is all finally sorted out, you… You’ll see what a proper fish stew is!
Tomo kept nodding, smiling uneasily.
“My house is your house, you’re welcome at my table whenever you wish…” continued Stamenković euphorically, using a handkerchief to wipe away the beads of sweat that had appeared all over his brow. “You and your whole family, whoever…”
He suddenly stopped and stiffened, and Tomo’s insincere smile spread across his face.
“I’m sorry. You understand what I mean…”
“I understand”, Tomo finally replied, sending a brief, pleading look towards the young woman who had leant against the wall behind the old man and was observing them enigmatically, as if she were enjoying the spectacle. “But let’s wait for the Supreme Court, they’re certain to lodge another appeal…”
“Well they can appeal as much as they want”, Stamenković continued, clutching his hand righter, his courage renewed once again after his gaffe. “There isn’t a court that would…”
“Mr Kriste?” she finally interrupted him, peeling herself off the wall and stepping towards them with her hand outstretched. Tomo quickly retrieved his palm from Stamenković’s grasp and offered it to his newly-arrived saviour.
“Anita Čelan from the crime desk at Novo doba…” she introduced herself.
“I know”, replied Tomo. “From the newspaper and from here, from court. My favourite journalist. No, I mean it seriously, don’t laugh! If nothing else, at least you’re decent and impartial. And you’re a lot more literate than most of your colleagues. How can I help?”
“Well it’s nothing really, I wouldn’t want to bother you, you just…”
“No, no, on the contrary, I was just saying goodbye to my client… We’ll be in touch, Mr Stamenković, we’ve got a fortnight to wait now. I guarantee that they’ll file their appeal tomorrow, but we’ll beat them at the Supreme Court too. Everything will be as it should be. Goodbye! We’ll be in touch”.
The old man nodded, confused, waved and walked off down the empty corridor, turning round and smiling. 
“Anita Čelan, Novo doba… Thank you, Anita Čelan!”
“Oh come on, I didn’t really want to…”
“I don’t know whether you intended to or not, but thank you. He almost tore my hand off, the poor man. So tell me, what can I do for you?” Tomo asked, picking up his briefcase from the floor.
“Can I ask you something… you know, just by the by? I mean, it’s not for the paper, it’s more something that interests me personally…”
“I’m an Aries, married, father of a big girl of eight…”
“No, not that… I knew all that already, some of it from talk in the bars, some from the paper, and some from TV. I’m not interested in those things, but…  Well, I’ve been watching you for a whole year, every now and then, and I can’t understand how you can do it. They screwed everything for you, your house, your family, your life, and yet it’s like you’ve become a specialist in defending them. And you successfully defend each and every one, which is the worst part!”
Tomo’s look darkened.
“Do you go to church?”
Anita was confused. Had she known how he would immediately counter her with such a left-field question she probably would not have spoken to him.
“I don’t exactly go, you know… but what has this…”
Tomo cut her off sharply:
“I don’t go either, but that’s why I go every day to have my marenda1. That’s what they’ve taught me to do here. Do you want to come with me today?
*  * *
“OK, we’ll make an agreement. I’ll tell you everything, even the disasters that happened… Well, you remember that, you must have recited that over and over in school… So, everything, but first you have to tell me something that I’m now really itching to know. You have to tell me a secret.”
“Yes, it that OK?”
“I don’t know what you consider to be a secret… I’m divorced, have no children, I’m a Scorpio, no idea what my ascendant is, I’m a hypochondriac…”
“Oh no, not that, something really personal!”
Anita froze, mid-gesture, swallowed deeply and stared him in the eye, challenging him:
“OK, let’s try, why not? I’m really curious what it is about me that interests you and that you wouldn’t dare ask me at this time of day.
“Well, I find this incredible. Yes, I am from Slavonia, I’m not from here and all that, but how on earth can you order a coca-cola when you’re eating smelt? How can you do that? For me it’s an even greater mystery than, I don’t know, immaculate conception. Like a fruit yoghurt with, I guess, fiš2! Please try to explain that to me and…”
Relieved, she laughed for the first time in the last few days:
“Well yeah, it is a bit… like… OK, I’ll have some bevanda3 too.”
“Hey, Vinko, give us another clean glass! But I do mean a clean one, not like my one”, Tomo shouted over his shoulder, and then, leaning on the table, peered curiously at Anita:
“Let’s see. You wanted to know how I could defend Serbs, is that right?”
“I don’t defend Serbs. I don’t have any better opinion of them than you do. You’d be surprised by what I think.”
“No, I didn’t mean… I…”
“Take it easy. I simply defend people who are trying to hold on to what is theirs according to the law. So, yes, of course there is a possibility, and not just a theoretical one, that some relative of theirs is roasting a pig in my living room up there, over a fire made up of my parquet floor. Right? If you ask me, I could bleed him dry right now; I paid for that parquet and laid it myself, but the ones down here are in no way to blame for that. If they were to blame, they’d be up there with their relative, or literally anywhere else but not here. It’s easier for me to represent those people who are defending what’s theirs rather than those who want what belongs to someone else. And that’s the whole story.”
“So, basically, you just love your job?”
“I don’t have any special love for it; I just do it to the best of my ability. Do you love your job?”
Anita was silent for a few seconds.
“It depends on the day. If we’re being honest, I love it less every week”.
The doleful waiter brought a glass that was too warm, dried and heated up on the coffee machine, and then, dragging his feet, went back behind the counter.
“So, you see, that’s the whole story”, Tomo continued more quietly, pouring wine for her and nodding towards Vinko. “He’s a great landlord, but he’s clearly not having a good day today. Every minute makes him sick of the job he does, but he’ll be back again tomorrow. I do what fate has me doing. And it doesn’t seem to bother me that much. As I said, it’s a lot easier to defend people who are protecting what’s theirs, than people who want to take other people’s property. That’s what I tell myself when I have a moment of crisis…”
“That’s… well, yes, it sounds logical…”
“Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t…”
Tomo tossed a couple of the little fish and some bread into his mouth, then smiled at her as he chewed. Anita raised her glass and proposed a toast:
“OK, to all the good people who sometimes get sick of their jobs”.
They clinked glasses and she took a small sip, then raised her glass in the direction of the waiter who was behind the counter, blankly leafing through the paper.
“What’s up, Vinko?” Tomo called out over his shoulder. “Not busy today?”
“It’s not time yet, it will be in a few minutes…”
“There they are, they’ve started…” Anita muttered, her mood suddenly darkening.
“What’s wrong?”
“Nothing… my idiot of a boss…”
Tomo turned towards the door, through which two men had just entered. One of the men, balding and with a dark moustache, headed straight for their table.
“What’s this then? No time for a break while you’re busy with your marenda?” he asked Anita. “I could already be on the beach at Bačvice with my kids if those court reports had reached me on time…”
“Oh come on, you didn’t hear about the quake? The whole court building reduced to dust and ashes… Zvone, let me introduce you to Tomo Kriste, attorney-at-law… Zvonko Skračić, my editor…”
“Pleased to meet you… My apologies, I didn’t recognise you straightaway… you know, with the light coming from behind you…”
“How do you do”, replied Tomo, getting up. “Don’t worry, why would you recognise me…”
“Well then, you just keep on working”, Skračić turned back to Anita, “but make sure everything’s ready by one, half past one… OK then, you just carry on having fun…”
“Let’s get some coffee, but somewhere else”, Anita said quietly once Skračić was leaning on the counter.
* * *
“So, did my answers disappoint you?” he asked her when they had left the cafe and set off down the street. 
“No, they didn’t, it’s basically what I had expected. I’m sorry if I was annoying you.”
“No, you weren’t at all. You’d have been annoying if you’d wanted an official interview.”
“I really wasn’t asking that. I know that you’ve turned down Novo doba alone at least twice for an interview. I thought that was something to do with us, but then I heard and saw that you don’t give them to others either… I mean, it’s obvious that you find it hard, but then again…”
Tomo stopped and pointed to a shop window across the road. Inside, arranged in two rows, were six television sets, all switched on showing the same channel. The six pale screens showed a list of towns which had just declared a general state of alert. The letters weren’t legible from across the street, but it was clear that they almost filled the screens.
“There you go, you’ve got at least a thousand people in each of those places for a better interview than you’d have with me. What use am I to you? What could anyone ask me? About my wife? Everyone knows everything about her, and nothing at the same time. What you don’t know, I don’t know either. Do you know what I’d tell you? I don’t know what I would answer and, believe me, you only think that you know what you’d ask. If, please God, we find her alive, then you have her and you can ask her when she comes. I’m just… I don’t know, some sort of industrial waste”
“Oh come off it!”
“Well, what else am I? I was complicit in turning her into a hero, into some sort of symbol. No one asked me if that’s what I wanted, but it doesn’t matter any more. I was complicit in it, and that’s that. I don’t know any more if she is a hero at all or if they made her one. But that’s what’s transpired, with my help. Now things are the way they are, the reality is only what they’ve made… only what you journalists helped them to make. So what do any of you have to ask me, when it is you who know best what is and what isn’t, and what will or won’t be there tomorrow?”
“Now you’re making me sound like Vava the oracle…”
“I don’t mean you personally, not you Anita Čelan, rather all of you. And you’re not… you’re not prophets or oracles at all. Most of you haven’t got a clue about what you’re actually doing.”
“Hey, hold on a sec!” Anita interrupted him. “What’s got you in a lather? I don’t work for anyone, no one pulls my strings, and I sure as hell am not complicit in anything and didn’t help anything the way you said, I didn’t do any of that…”
Tomo finally switched his gaze from the television sets across the road to look at his new acquaintance. 
“…and I’ve had more than enough of everyone slagging off journalists”, she continued, flushing redder and redder. “For fuck’s sake, isn’t that what you all wanted? Freedom of the press? Of course it is. And now that you’ve got freedom of the press, it still isn’t right for you! The way I write today is the way I’ve always written, about the city, the country, and now…”
“I’m sorry”, Tomo interrupted her. “None of this has anything to do with you, with anything. You touched a nerve and in a trice…”
“And you touched one of my nerves, Mr Kriste. The most sensitive one. What is it that you want? To antagonise everyone, to save Serbs from being evicted, to be the widower of the most famous wartime journalist, and at the same time to live in some sort of ivory tower where no one can ask you anything or tell you anything? Is that how you picture yourself?”
“Anita…” he started, his tone conciliatory.
“Oh I’m sorry… the widower thing just came out. I didn’t mean that, I was just…”
“Mirjana, look at this lady!”
Tomo pointed deliberately, arm outstretched at an elderly woman who had come to a halt a few paces from them. In each hand she had two plastic bags full of vegetables and she had been standing there, nosily, in the same place for at least half a minute, and now, faced with Tomo’s pointing finger, she started to turn, searching for a reason to be there. 
“There you see”, Tomo continued, imitating a Split accent “people stopping and listening to us, because they understand the issue. One day everyone becomes impotent. So what? Does anyone wonder why he’s impotent, why he can’t get it up? Those are things that get solved together, Mirjana, together, in private, and not on the street, not like this! Hey, missus, can your man get it up? Look at her running off, look! Look!”
The woman quickened to pass them and disappeared around the corner in the direction of the bus stop in front of the theatre. Tomo waited a couple of seconds, then ran after her and stopped on the corner:
“What’s wrong? You wanted the onions but didn’t want to pay for them, is that it? In the evening she’s off to the theatre, Turandot, Swan Lake, and in the morning she’s stealing onions. There she is, folks, take a look!
Anita stood there and waited for him to return, grinning at his very Split-like humour and extremely clumsy imitation of a Split accent. 
“Thieving whore!”, he hissed, feigning rage, and stopped in front of her.
“Mr Tomo…”
“Hold on, let me go first. Can we have another coffee, so that we can part without quarrelling?”
“I can’t, I have to write about what happened, with Stamenković and all that.”
“Just one drink? One little drink? Really little? It’s silly like this – we’ve said all sorts of things to each other, without really telling each other anything.”
Across the road, all six screens were now showing the video to the song Hrvatina.
“I can’t, you saw for yourself my idiot of an editor. I have to go, I really have to.”
“OK, no worries. I’ll see you around.”
“Of course. You’ve got Trifunović on the twenty-second, that’s next Thursday, right? So, if not before then…”
“OK, I’ll see you in court”, finished Tomo, wagging his finger at her.




Translated by James Cook